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The Beetle & The Elephant

The government is not good at running schools, private management will help. It should get help of competent NGOs, large corporate houses, and also learn from charter school systems in the US and elsewhere

To take all of India in to the 21st century will take two bold moves in education - unchaining the capability that exists and launching a revolutionary Amul-like education project.

Recently, Nobel laureate, Venkatraman Ramakrishanan, urged Indians to focus more on quality of education in the country than squabble over meat eating. He cautioned against the dream of becoming a manufacturing power. Only an urgent and massive investment in education would reverse the losing race against China and others. In another headline Sushma Swaraj brandished India's visionary feats in education at the UN. She spoke of the iconic IITs and IIMs and India's reputation as a major knowledge power in software and information technology.

Which of these narratives is true? Both. What's lost in most India stories is perspective on relative scale and justice to the complexity. Dr Ramakrishnan is describing the sick elephant in the room, while Ms Swaraj is celebrating the sprightly beetle atop it. The scale and nature of the two are incomparable. India's gargantuan 900 million adults of working age (15-65 years) cannot be painted with a single brush. Lets use the beetle-elephant metaphor to go deeper.

The Beetle & The Elephant

The Beetle is very small. Only 30 million (3%) Indian adults have a proper, secure, formal organized sector skilled job. An even smaller number, 10 million (1%) mostly higher skilled workers, are in the private sector. Further, people who went to "good" colleges (IITs/IIMs/regional institutes) of any sort are barely a million (0.1%). It is important to recognize the minuteness of this number - its NOT "15-20%" as most drawing room conversations would have you believe.

The Elephant is large and has three distinct parts - trunk, torso, and legs - even though beetle folks mangle them all in to one.

Trunk: The functioning trunk of the elephant is the all-important but low-skill jobs that make India tick. About a 100 million people (11%) comprise the unorganized sector- including micro-entrepreneurs and the self-employed. Found in every middle town, this India works hard, has made peace with its livelihood and yet has great aspirations for their children to become beetles someday.

Torso: The emaciated torso of the elephant is the under-skilled and under-employed India. Comprising over 300 million people (35%) these are agricultural workers, unskilled casual labour and also the 30% of India's youth categorized as NEETs (15-29 year olds not in education, employment, or training). What unifies this group is the massive disguised underemployment they signify.

Legs: The forgotten legs of the elephant nobody talks about. Out of the 450 million workforce in India, an entire 50% of adult Indians, mostly women, are out of the workforce, invisible. Indian female workforce participation rates are lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa and regress as the economic condition of the household improve This is a deep-seated cultural disability of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture.

Net, just a sixth of its people are pulling India's growth. The rest are unable to meaningfully contribute and for no fault of theirs, are a drain on it.

The Cruel Irony

The cruel irony is that people who are looking to hire cannot find the talent, and those who are looking for jobs can't find one. Forget white collared folks, it's hard to find good carpenters, plumbers, welders in most Indian towns. India misses millions of skilled teachers, nurses, and technicians. On the higher end, India is short by tens of thousands in data science, cyber-security, logistics, finance, and solution-sales.

Why? Over 90% of India's stock of 70 million graduates are unemployable. Having a qualification is not the same as having a skill. Most entry-level jobs now require problem solving abilities, creativity and analytical capabilities. A weak elementary education system means basic ability and confidence to read, write, follow instructions and procedure, seek help and overcome obstacles - are all missing! Children brought up in a rote classroom and authoritarian home cannot suddenly sprout these abilities. Further, a regressive culture means people wont do jobs they see as menial or socially unacceptable. There are jobs, but not the ones people can and will do.

Let's make more Beetles

It seems like a long dark tunnel, but history suggests a couple of lights of  hope. India must do more of what it knows how to do.  

First, India knows how to make beetles. It is the combination of private schools and public colleges ("IIT+IIM" and similar) that gave India its beetle class. Several things need to be done here:

  • Private schools must be left free to do their job, as despite their limitations, children do better, teachers show up to work and are more cost efficient. 
  • Private examination boards must be permitted, allow private citizens to teach, encourage education entrepreneurs with loans & grants to set up schools. The increased supply of teaching and management talent and resulting competition will significantly up the quality.
  • To regulate the above private efforts, we need a light, modern, and enlightened regulation under a single apex body doing away with multiple education control bodies    
  • The government is not good at running schools, private management will help. It should get help of competent NGOs, large corporate houses, and also learn from charter school systems in the US and elsewhere.
  • The government is better at higher education. Over the next decade it should step up the number from dozens of IITs, IIMs, NITs, IIITs, and AIIMS to hundreds.

A scaled 21st century version of India's beetle juggernaut will multiply organized sector employment and expand the class of haves. However, it will not do much for the majority of our underemployed and defunct workforce. That will need another remedy.

Talking about a revolution

Nothing short of a revolutionary education project will take the remaining 85% of Indians in to the 21st century. These are people who have missed the bus of good education in their childhood, and are near asphyxiated by social, cultural, and economic exclusion.

But India does know how to orchestrate productive revolutions. We have seen several since independence. Be it the Operation Flood milk revolution, ITES revolution, Mobile revolution, Adhaar biometric revolution - all examples of scaled transformation, which included millions in to a process they were previously shut out from.

A massive one-year economic rehabilitation program for every adult citizen of India by building huge institutional capability at every district level. Some critical aspects would be:

  • Assembling a master training cadre
  • Building a curriculum and accreditation system based on global learnings
  • Deploying learning-teaching technology
  • Ensuring genuine practical internships
  • Including a cultural and mindset re-education program
  • Rolling out a top-class placement program

This institution and network must be built from scratch and cannot be foisted on existing dysfunctional ones. It will need a Verghese Kurien or Nandan Nilekani like leadership on a decade long mission or more, with a free hand, an adequate budget, and rocklike political support to keep interference out. Then the results will come.

Just maybe then Mrs Swaraj's claims will apply to all of India and Tagore's poetic wish will finally turn prophetic: "Into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake".

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Ashish Rajpal

Ashish Rajpal, Founder & CEO, XSEED Education.

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