Opinion

Why India is educational disaster?

April 22, 2018 05:22 AM

Kanti Bajpai*

While our security analysts ponder the China “reset” and India’s new “leadership” role in the Commonwealth, let’s consider something far more real and strategic about our society. No, not our internal day-to-day politics, which are shambolic and sinister and all too real. The pretence that India can lay claim to civic decency and democracy has now effectively ended: we are a rape republic, literally and metaphorically. Unfortunately, there is little to be done about it.

India is richer than ever, going by the size of the economy; and our indefatigable governments launch new educational schemes by the day. No country can match India for the number of rules, regulations and school policies it has on the books. Yet it is an educational disaster. Why?

Let’s focus instead on an area of Indian life that may still be actionable and remediable: the abysmal education levels of our children. In 2012, the international group PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranked a sample of Indian students as second last out of a group of students from 74 countries. The Indian government picked two of India’s leading education states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, for testing. In reading and mathematics, India scored almost at the bottom. Shockingly, PISA estimated that an 8th standard Indian child was educationally roughly at the level of a 3rdstandard Korean.

When the results were publicised, the usual excuses were trotted out: apparently, the test was unfair only to Indian students! Fortunately, for some years, Pratham, the India NGO, has also been testing Indian students. Their homegrown findings, unfortunately, bear out the depressing PISA picture.

Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in 2017 tells us that among rural youth aged 14 to 18, more than 25% cannot read in their own language. About half cannot do simple division problems in mathematics. In addition, most cannot tell time in terms of hours and minutes. Worse, the proportion of children in the 8th standard who can read a 2nd standard text is declining, from nearly 87% in 2007-8 to about 75% in 2014-15. The proportion who can do simple division sums has reduced from nearly 72% to 44% in the same period.

What is going on here? India is richer than ever, going by the size of the economy; and our indefatigable governments launch new educational schemes by the day. No country can match India for the number of rules, regulations and school policies it has on the books. Yet it is an educational disaster. Why?

Government spending on education, the number and location of schools, the facilities at schools including toilets (especially for girls), the quality and quantity of teachers, the incompetence of school leadership and management, the absurd number of days teachers spend doing government duty, the awful state of textbooks, all these are among the reasons that are paraded before us.

It is time, however, to face up to another, almost structural problem, at least for the next many years: malnutrition and stunting. Estimates are that only 1 in 10 Indian children is properly nourished in the first two years of life – the crucial years for brain development. The malnutrition rates in India are worse than in most of South Asia and Africa – 44% of Indian children under the age of 5 are under-weight; the figure for Africa is about half that. Malnutrition causes stunting. In 2016, 26% of children in the world were stunted, compared to 38% in India. Roughly 47 million Indian children are stunted.

Stunting is not just being short physically. More tellingly, it affects brain development and cognitive abilities. This results in poor school performance. Stunting is caused by malnutrition, which in turn is caused by poor dietary habits and lack of sanitation. One of the key reasons for bad sanitation is open defecation. And open defecation has its roots in culture, social practices, and government apathy. These are changing, but in the meantime, we have another generation of young Indians who will be mentally disadvantaged to the end of their days and who will be brutally challenged in an increasingly competitive global economy.

*The writer is professor and Wilmar Chair in Asian Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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