Destroying the Country from Within

This is a rant. Displaying equanimity in the face of adversity is an admirable quality. I am afraid that there are times when one has to give vent to one’s true feelings and come out openly and call a steaming pile of excrement a steaming pile of excrement without mincing words. I am refering to the recent Supreme Court decision to support the reduction of fees for the IIMs from Rs 1.5 lakhs to Rs 30,000.

Today’s Times of India editorial calls it a senseless subsidy. {In the original draft, I had expressed my opinion of the Supreme Court in blunt language. A friend called up to say that in India one is liable to be thrown in jail for doing so since it a non-bailable offense. It seems that one cannot freely express one’s opinion of the President of India and the judges of the Supreme Court. I don’t know for sure but this must be the legacy of the British — royalty being above criticism. Be that as it may, I am removing the honest criticism from here and publishing it elsewhere where one can freely express one’s opinion.}

India is poor by choice. The policy of subsidizing higher education and neglecting primary education is one such policy choice that has condemned India to being a poor third-world irrelevant nation which has the highest number of impoverished illiterates in the universe.

We are poor by choice. We don’t need adverse external shocks to keep us illiterate and poor; India’s leaders and its courts will do the job of keeping India a chronically ailing over-populated collective of starving illiterates without any help from abroad.

The importance of primary education cannot be overstated — ever. No amount of India Shining campaigns can paper over the fact that India is doomed unless it focuses on primary education. I have been writing about the shocking neglect of primary education and the regressive subsidy of higher education for years. (See Who Paid for my Education? for instance.) It is not rocket science. A moment’s reflection is all that it takes for one to realize the importance of primary education. Allow me to quote from Venkatesh Hariharan in a recent exchange at the India-gii mailing list:

… How can India be shining when we have [an education] minister who doesn’t care a damn for the pathetic lack of a primary education? The man is, instead, taking a sledgehammer and applying it diligently to what are the crown jewels of India–the IITs and IIMs. Our current success is IT is just a “flash in the pan,” whatever NASSCOM may say. We happened to be in the right place at the right time when the IT and BPO booms happened but to sustain it we need more than luck. In the knowledge economy, our lack of a primary education system is a serious handicap.

Many years ago, I met with MIT’s noted economist, Lester Thurow and he said that India’s lack of a primary education system was one of its biggest handicaps. I recently met him again for an extended interview that appeared in MIT’s Technology Review. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

  1. In the knowledge economy, Thurow says, countries that wish to stay ahead must pay great attention to education. “Ask yourselves this question–30 or 50 years from now what job will an illiterate do? By that time you will have robots to do what an illiterate does now.”
  2. “When we talk about the knowledge economy, we are not talking about just information technology or programming,” says Thurow. “Every job will have a big knowledge component. For example, in a modern steel mill, a worker is more likely to sit behind a computer screen than lift anything physically. When we are talking about knowledge workers, we are talking about any job that has a knowledge component.” Fewer and fewer jobs fall outside of that description, he says. Countries that aim to progress in the global economy therefore have to ensure that everybody becomes literate as fast as possible.
  3. According to Thurow, the lack of widespread, basic education is one of the reasons that India has problems competing with China. “The worst educated province in China is better than the best educated province in India. Indian universities are better than Chinese universities but more people are in Chinese grade schools than are in Indian grade schools. This will hurt India and you cannot allow this to continue in the long-run. You have a top-down strategy versus the bottom-up strategy that China has. You better have a strategy that gets everybody educated,” he says.He praised China’s approach of getting everybody educated up to the third grade, then to the sixth grade, tenth grade, twelfth grade and so on. Globalization strategies have to carry the masses with it or they would not succeed. A knowledge based economy is not one where only the elite get educated, he says.

Our education system, our national IT strategies are all deeply elitist. As a country, we need to broadbase our education system and leverage IT for the dispersion of knowledge. Instead, what we have are crumbling schools, absent (and often underpaid) teachers, and students who will emerge completely unprepared for the kowledge economy. And what we have is a thin elite layer that is happily using IT as a milch cow that showers dollars and pays scant attention to how it can be deployed for our country’s benefit. India shining? Not unless you are smoking pot!

When one ponders the factors that account for India’s backwardness, one is struck by how significant is the role of luck. It is sheer bad luck that India got saddled with mostly self-serving ignorant power-hungry narrow-minded short-sighted bunch of leaders and policy makers. How long it will be before the billion plus people of India find within them enlightened leaders is hard to tell. If ever there was a time for good leadership to emerge, now it is.

[I have written earlier on Pricing Management Education in this blog which looks at the arithmetic of subsidizing IIM education.]

Author: Atanu Dey


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