A Modest Proposal — Part 3

This is a continuation of my modest proposal for making India 100 percent literate within three years, Part 1, and Part 2.

I am a firm believer in the use of technology for development, including information and communications technologies (ICT). There is an urgent need for economic growth and development and unless we use the best possible tools available anywhere in the world, we are unlikely to solve the problems which confront us.

But I am dismayed at the lack of understanding which accompanies the “ICT for Development” bandwagon. In the past I have waged a solitary war against the myths, misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misapprehensions rampant among those who mindlessly advocate the use of computers for every conceivable problem. These people loudly bemoan the so-called digital divide which in my considered opinion is a bunch of hooey.

It is not the digital divide that is preventing the poor from benefiting from ICT. It is the fact that they are poor that is preventing them from benefitting from ICT. Not just benefitting from the use of ICT, the poor also are not benefitting from the advances in medical technology, in cosmetic surgery, in plasma tv technology, ad nauseum. It is not the digital divide, stupid, it is an income divide, it is a wealth divide, it is an opportunity divide.

If the poor had money, they would not be poor, and like all non-poor, would be able to buy all sorts of stuff — including, but not limited to — digital gizmos. They would buy education, clothes, food, houses, cell phones, cd players, dvd players, plasma tvs, and computers. There would not be a digital divide. It bears repeating: the digital divide is not the cause of poverty nor is it the cause of the persistence of poverty. The digital divide is a result — an effect, a consequence — of poverty.

The point is that everybody loves a digital divide because there is money to be made. You don’t see newpapers carrying articles in breathless prose decrying the literacy divide. You don’t get invited to scores of conferences on the primary education divide. No, siree. There is no money in there.

I cannot resist a personal aside here. Similar to about few billion other literate people in the history of the universe , I was on the other side of the digital divide. Digital to me, when I was growing up, meant things to do with fingers. Being an Indian, I had digital food — I ate with my fingers. Despite that astonishing handicap, I did manage to become somewhat literate. I did not know of the exitence of digital devices till I went to graduate school. End of aside.

It is my position that to develop, we have to use ICT domestically instead of merely building ICT tools for developed countries to use. I keep repeating the word tool because that is what it is. ICT is a means, not an end. Which means that we need to first figure out what we want to get done and only then seek the tools required for the job. If you go and first purchase an expensive hammer, you are out of luck if what you really need done is make a cup of tea.

I believe that we have a goal: stop being a backward overpopulated pathetically poor country. That goal requires we solve a whole bunch of inter-related problems, which ranges from the problem of mindless corrupt bureaucracy to immoral politicians to brainless communists to unemployment to illiteracy … ad nauseum. The problem of 350 million illiterate people is one which has complex backward and forward linkages. So solving that is crucial and needs to be done without any more waste of time. But it does not appear to be on anyone’s radar screen.

With that preamble, I am now ready to continue with where I left off the last time on my modest proposal to make India 100 percent literate.

So here’s the basic outline of my argument today. We have 350 million or so illiterate people who need to be made literate in as short a time as possible. That is a very very large number. If I had a dollar for every illiterate person in India, I would be fabulously rich. Heck, I would not mind having just a penny for every illiterate person in India — I would have $3.5 million to my name. See what I mean: the number of illiterates in India boggles the mind.

Given that, now I propose that we spend around $200 per capita, a modest amount, to make them literate. Defining what exactly I mean by “literacy” I will defer for now. For now, a quick definition would be someone who has had the equivalent of a primary school education. The government has to be the source of the funding but it must not be the agency to deliver the education considering that after about an estimated $100 billion, it has not delivered basic education to hundreds of millions of Indians. The private sector will undertake the task if the political will exists to provide funds for the job.

Education Regulatory Authority of India

Pardon me if I repeat myself, but this is too important a job to be left to the public sector bureaucrats. The private sector, given the right incentives, will deliver because firms driven by the profit motive do astonishing things. Of course, oversight and regulation is essential for socially-optimal outcomes in market places. Around the world countless examples exist of institutions that oversee and regulate the private sector. In our case, the appropriate regulatory body needs to be constituted. We could have something like an Education Regulatory Authority of India — (ERAI).

As I proposed, allow $100 per as tuition fees that any private firm can get from government for every student they graduate. ERAI conducts standardized tests that certify whether the job has been done or not. Recall that for about 300 million, the total tuition revenues to private sector firms is about $30 billion. Let’s keep in mind that that is a truck-load of money on the aggregate but only $100 per student. So the profit-driven private sector firms will have to use it judiciously. Only those firms which can deliver the goods at the lowest costs will be able to survive. So what will they do?

My contention is that the private sector will find the most innovative method to do the job. What that means, in this day and age, is simply the use of ICT in some way, shape, or form. I do not know what it will be but I will bet my bottom dollar that ICT tools will be used to solve the problem. The firms will scour the world and figure out how to educate the masses at the least cost.

Remember a very large proportion of illiterates are in rural India. Given that ICT will have to be used, the private sector will bring ICT into the rural areas to make it easier for themselves. This is the punchline of this part of the argument: once you have defined the task, the means will be found to do the task. I argue that the means in this case is ICT, and so ICT will reach the rural areas. This is the “horse before the cart” strategy instead of the “cart before the horse” strategy that the government follows. The government follows the latter strategy with sickening regularity. First, they go and buy a few thousand PCs and put them in villages with no infrastructure — not even power. And then they wonder why after spending all that money, nothing appears to change.

Now we can talk about the side-effects or externalities that I had hinted at earlier. The funding of primary education at the appropriate level will induce the private sector to use ICT. In turn, this will induce a demand for more domestic use of ICT and therefore to more employment in the domestic ICT sector. This will grow the sector and it is a well-established fact that a large domestic market leads to efficiency gains that translate into comparative advantage. For India to truly become an IT superpower, we need to use IT intensively in areas where IT is appropriate. I submit that educating India’s 350 million illiterates is the most pressing task and that IT tools will make it possible.

{Continued in Part 4.}

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal — Part 3”

  1. Looks great! The suggestions if implemented could turn our country as literate as any other developed ones! but our babus and laloo must listen na! who will vote them again if people are literate and developed? people will vote for goondas and thugs only if they don’t have any rationale to think and vote. so i bet, no politician (atleast “a typical indian” politician) would never take any step that would axe him but be developmental for the country. will any INDIAN politican put country’s issues b4 his own welfare??? NEVER! sorry for making such a pathetic remark but am appalled at our condition. whom to blame??


  2. A small typo – “no politician would ever take any step that would axe him but be developmental for the country”
    – Venkat


  3. Interesting stuff Atanu. Couple of thoughts:

    1. What is the goal — literacy, or awareness? The two are very different. Somewhere it is linked to my earlier question of correlating education (even primary) to economic growth, especially when the means of awareness and communication are shifting to audiovisual from written. Defining what is literacy and scoping it is important. I doubt if $100 of tution fee can cover upto primary education level.

    2. Accepting the overall framework, all we need to add is a control mechanism. Otherwise, $100 out of $200 per person may land up in a bribe fund where certificates are issued to still illiterate people (note that it will be in everybody’s interest — the individual will get money, the private institute will get higher profits, and the government as a sponsor will get to show huge implementation in short period of time). Direct financial incentives are very strong — so strong that they can corrupt.

    I do not have a ready solution to the above. However, some mechanism where the benefit of education is brought forth, rather than benefit of proving that i am educated, might be better…



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