Sunday, 9 November 2008

Economics of Education

Professor King of East London University turned Halloween 2008 into a “Death of Capitalism” party but he is probably celebrating a little prematurely. Like the immortal Bollywood hero, capitalism has suffered incomprehensible battering, is severely injured and is hooked to enormous life support systems. However, with all global experts aiding resuscitation efforts, recovery is now visible; albeit sluggish. Just like the Bolllywood film, which, without the miraculous recovery of the hero would be a big box office flop; normal life in most of the world today will deflate without the existence of capitalism.

Capitalism has permeated our lives to an extent where most of our actions depend on their economic consequences. This includes even the most basic of human necessities such as access to education. In India for example we permit child labour with the excuse that in some cases it is the only means to help families survive. There is never a thought given to the fact that in addition to employing the tiny hands, the mouldable brains could be simultaneously nourished at the work place. But in the guise of practicality (i.e. economic gain), idealism is in hiding; setting lower benchmarks for the society. And we are thrilled at achievement of the mere stretch of our hands needed to touch these low ceilings.

Thus it is heartening and inspiring to know that the Indian parliament has finally (after six long years) passed the Right to Education bill. Now the state is not only guaranteeing free education to all children between the ages of six and fourteen, but also taking accountability such that a legal action is possible in case a child is wrongfully denied access to schooling. Without diluting the original draft, the bill also requires doing away with donation, capitation and interviewing the child or parents as part of a screening procedure. On the face of it, this seems to be a very fair enactment of a fundamental birthright of children.

There is also a requirement for private schools to reserve 25% of the class capacity at entry levels for the disadvantaged children from the neighbourhood. Now this makes complete sense as opposed to the caste based reservation that exists at the under and post graduate levels in India. The Right to Education bill seems to be aiming at creating a level playing field by providing an equal opportunity to all children and hopefully the government will supplement this in the coming years with financial aid for the meritorious but financially challenged pupils. The current “quota system” on the other hand is a blatant exploitation of the prevalent illiteracy to gain electoral votes.

Coming back to the basis of today’s society, the effective enactment of this bill can have far reaching economic benefits for the country. The theory of economics has for long been a proponent of increase in productivity as a means to economic prosperity. The first step in increasing productivity is increasing education levels. This is proven in examples of both Tamil Nadu and Kerela in India[1]. Literacy rate in Kerela is close to a 100%. The availability of skilled workforce in Kerela has earned it the number 5 position in the country in terms of investment attractiveness and infrastructure penetration. This in turn makes the state the third most affluent state in India.

In the 1980s, Tamil Nadu government decided to introduce the mid-day meals in schools. While it is debatable that the introduction of the scheme was more to gain electoral ballots than to promote education, the non-bureaucratic implementation of the scheme resulted in each child in the state spending an average of seven years at school. This is amongst the highest figures in the country and has contributed to the average 6% - 7% growth of the state economy over the last decade and a half (more than the national average in some years).

These two examples give a small preview of what is achievable if the nation with the world’s second largest population can effectively implement the Right to Education bill. Add to this that the average age of the country is c. 25 years and the impact seems to be even more far reaching.

No economic growth is possible without political stability and education can go a long way in making the Indian population more aware of the realistic situation. India is a land of myriad sensitivities. Varied cultures, languages, religions and castes complicate the comprehension of the simplest of view points. Add to this the extensive illiteracy prevalent and today a potent brew is available for the country’s power hungry politicians. Creating communal tensions and using cultural biases to skew perception of the masses away from the truth is what Indian politicians are most adept at.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) chief[2] has recently used cultural origins to create a so called “social welfare” agenda to fight the upcoming general elections. This is because probably he has no other action point on which he can sway the votes of the people in his favour. Instigating the indigenous population of Maharashtra (against immigrants from other Indian states) seems to be a low hanging fruit from which a violent and visible battle can be started. What the leadership has forgotten to highlight is that while immigration into Mumbai exists, the employment opportunities are also almost on an equal footing. Emigrating to other states in search of better livelihoods is an equal option to the people of Maharashtra. There is no law which is pro-immigrants in the state. And finally the same politicians who are crying foul against north Indians have fought previous general elections with predominantly north Indian parties to win a piece of action in the centre. But why has the common man not thought about these arguments, because his mind has not been trained to think beyond what he hears!

In a recent address Justice Shri S.Rajendra Babu, stated “It [education] emancipates the human beings and leads to liberation from ignorance.”[3] With one step having been taken in the right direction one can only hope that with increasing literacy levels, awareness permeates our social framework, such that we are no longer slaves to someone else’s ideas but we can use our own intelligence to make rationale decisions, understand our rights and acknowledge our duties. Hopefully India’s investment into education will be fair and lead us to more prosperity and stability.

[1] Source: India Brand Equity Forum
[2] Followed by the leadership of the Nationalist Congress Party
[3] Inaugural address by Justice Shri S.Rajendra Babu, Chairperson, NHRC at National Level Seminar on “Right to Education ” held on 11th and 12th September 2008 in New Delhi

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