Engaging with India after this gap of three years is therefore sobering. It is about going to a different country altogether, with hope giving way to rhetoric, intentions sounding hollow and the march of India seemed to be leading to nowhere. Just to take one example very close to my heart, the number of Indian colleges and universities literally trebled in the last few years, but Indian education seemed to have failed to lift itself from the morass, producing unemployable graduates and creating a class without future or hope. This manifests itself in the declining number of people going to business schools and engineering colleges, a strange anomaly in a country where the number of young people are swelling. In fact, it is the drop out numbers that are swelling alone, at various levels of school education and from school to college, and despite the stated intentions of paternalistic state, the numbers in vocational education remained stubbornly stagnant.
In a post on this blog in April 2011, I echoed the sentiments of The Economist, which called India Education's Wild West. The label is still appropriate, but the implications are changing. This may no longer be about gold rush and chasing dreams, but the simplistic sense that The Economist used the expression with - a lawless territory. Indian education, with its mix of extremely tight regulation and completely lax implementation, remained a den of corrupt practises and misplaced intentions, a business of money laundering and parking unsaleable real estate. The conversations about education practises and models remained rare. Despite the rapid expansion of educational institutions, teacher training or any research on teaching practises did not happen: In fact, any commentator would wonder how so many colleges sprouted up without any significant expansion of the training and practise of adult learning or education. But this is typical of progress in India - what commentators may eventually call Jugaad Education - though despite the pride in getting on with nothing, one must bemoan the lost opportunity and essentially destructive nature of incomplete education, the kind that gives you the pretence without substance, and therefore inflicts damages through the years and generations.
This visit is my facetime with this wild west, and I am garnering up courage for the encounter. The boring, grey, unimaginative but diminutive education of my own student days is now firmly a thing of the past: What we have is the art of salesmen, cleverly camouflaged as a mixture of arrogance and disregard for patience and processes, clearly a new thing in a country which defined education as the path to humility. Knowing, in this lexicon of middle class pride, is clearly commoditised and apparently finite, a thing rather than a process, and a vast majority of schools would proudly advertise being diploma mills if they could. I fear my feeble attempts to discuss education may be met with sheer disconnect, and my optimism about India's future and youth may actually be misplaced in the cynical context of easy money to be made with cheap diplomas and something that could pass of as education.
But, then, as I pack my bags, (boots and horses) I know change is coming to India. The students voting with their feet is a good sign: The number of colleges closing down and selling off their assets is a good sign. The days of easy money coming to an end: The real experiments in Indian education is about to begin. The besieged government in Delhi may be unable to do anything, but that may not be a bad thing: They may be totally incompetent to initiate a change, but so are they in stopping one. The groundswell of aspiration in India is ever so real, and the hunger for good education is so basic for a household which can take nothing else for granted. It is as if I can see again now, after being blindsided by the short-cuts and street smarts; the space is clearing out and real opportunities are only arising out of debris of lumpen-capitalism. As they say, India always wins, and I have only been baffled by my lack of habit, and lost sight of the country's ability to reinvent itself again and again.
As I set off for India, my favourite quote will be one I picked up from 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel': "It will be alright in the end; if it's not alright, it is not the end".