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Indian education “is in a state of emergency” says Nobel laureate Prof. Amartya Sen. The biggest problems are those of poor reach and quality. Although Indians do well on jobs that require high skills, such as IT, Prof. Sen has noted that the standards are very poor in the middle skill segment. In fact, many Asian countries have taken the lead in providing good quality education to their people, leaving India behind.

There is now clear unanimity in the country that sweeping changes are required to overhaul the educational system effectively, if India is to leverage the demographic advantage of a young workforce.

While leading philanthropist Azim Premji has pledged a huge sum to help improve the access and quality of education for the poor,Prof. P.V. Indiresan, former Director, IIT, Madras, has suggested that the government should involve people with resources to transform education in India. His essay on the subject was carried by The Hindu Business Line under the Vision 2020 series.

I dream of poverty alleviation only because poverty can never be eradicated – whatever one may do, half the population will always be poorer than the other half. At the same time, the poor can be given hope of a better future, at least for their children.

Recently, Prema Jayakumar, a daughter of an autorickshaw driver, stood first in the CA examinations. Her success negates three prejudices — intelligence is confined to the upper castes, to the well-to-do and to the male sex. At the same time, could she have succeeded as well as she has done if her father had been employed in a village or her parents had been less supportive?

President A.P.J Abdul Kalam was also not rich, his family was no better than the lower middle class. Though he resided in a remote part of the country, he was privileged to be taught by an inspiring teacher, Shivasubramania Iyer. He had the support of his family too — his father was interested in comparative religion, his sister sold her jewels to pay for his entrance fees. Would President Kalam have risen the way he has if he had not got a start with an inspiring teacher and an intellectually and financially supportive family?

Social Capital

Everybody cannot rise the way President Kalam has done, everybody cannot come first in a difficult examination, but everyone, however poor and however disadvantaged, can make their children better than they are themselves. However, the child must have social capital – that is access to good schools and good teachers. Financial capital is less important – the child of a zamindar with no access to good teachers, to good schools and disinterested parents rarely has a chance to do better than the parents.

The state is responsible for providing public goods and social goods. Since Independence, our governments have done tolerably well but not as well as China, or Singapore or South Korea. Firstly, India’s leaders are suffering from what Professor Parkinson called Ingelititis – a sense of inferiority: we are not as good as the others, we are not that ambitious but are doing quite well.

How do we cure ourselves of Ingelititis? That requires a change in mindset. I dream of poverty alleviation by the government agreeing to work with people who have (growing) financial capital and with families who have ambitions for their children.

Why do we need growing financial capital? That is because rich people are constrained by Parkinson’s Second Law – expenditure rises to reach income.

Few of them are like Azim Premji or Shiv Nadar; they have no spare money nor are they interested in educating poor but intelligent children. However, when a person has an increase in income, that person may be – I say only may be – persuaded to postpone its enjoyment for a year or two. That will offer a new source of income which may be put to better use than what the government is able to do at present.

Managing Schools

How do we persuade people with an increase in income compared with the previous year contribute to improve education? The best way to do so is by offering them a voice to which school their money may go and even be offered a voice in the management of that school.

Then, the government should do four things. One, impose a new kind of tax, not on incomes but on increase in incomes. That should not be an expropriation, but a withholding tax for a year or two. Then, as a second rule, the individuals are asked to deposit the increase in their incomes in a government’s infrastructure project of their choice – roads, sanitation, power and the like.

Third, the interest will not go to the individual taxpayer but to a school – government or private, but chosen by the taxpayer. The amount deposited will be returned at the end of a year or two. (Incidentally, that return must not be counted as increase in income.) Fourth, taxpayers may also be given votes to select the management of the school in proportion to their contribution.

If rupees ten or even a hundred thousand is treated as the minimum to be deposited, the burden will fall on the relatively rich people. The double contribution they make – loan and surrender of interest – will offer useful capital for infrastructure projects as well as additional substantial income to the schools.

The contributors may even be allowed a say in the selection of teachers. They may also suggest how the children may be fed, what kind of toilets they may have and what kind of co-curricular activities should be encouraged with the funds they provide.

The contributors may even be allowed a say in the selection of teachers. They may also suggest how the children may be fed, what kind of toilets they may have and what kind of co-curricular activities should be encouraged with the funds they provide.

Incidentally, Gurpreet Singh, past chairman of the CII, runs a school in Chandigarh for really poor children and provides them with the best facilities, including meals. He told me that the selected child’s parents stopped feeding him or her because he had already a sumptuous meal. Hence, in passing, I suggest that the children be provided not one but three meals a day.

The proposal requires that the government and existing school managements surrender their absolute control of the schools. That appears to be absolutely necessary particularly in the matter of selecting teachers.

Healthy meals, good sanitation, a mix of co-curricular activities and above all excellent teachers are the essence of social capital that that particularly poor children require. At present, the government is unable to provide them.

Can we dream that those that are growing richer can help by merely postponing the use of any increase in their incomes for a short period of a year or two? Incidentally, as I explained in an earlier article, withholding increase in income will help fight inflation better than mere increase in the tax rate.



The author, a former director of IIT-Madras and a recipient of the Padma Bhushan died just after a fortnight after his article appeared in The Hindu - Business Line. He was 85.


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