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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Education: India’s Achilles Heel

Caught between Elitism and Crassness

On a recent flight from Goa to Delhi, I was seated across the aisle from three loutish young men. Clearly newly rich, they bristled with flashy phones and watches. They did not turn off their cell phones even after the stewardess made an announcement; instead, they went right ahead playing with their toys. I asked them to switch the phones off. They stared at me insolently and went into a huddle from which emerged crude sounds that I finally understood to be mocking laughter.

This is the newly emergent middle class that an open India has thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. It is the polar opposite of the privileged classes that presided over closed India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. While I have been a champion of the emergent middle class, I guess my view was colored by my utter disdain for the privilegentsia of Fabian socialist India. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the Vulgarians.

The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: right connections, right schools, Oxford and Cambridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. On the other hand, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, members of the privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The emergent class of vulgarians makes no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.

During the privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites, who dominated state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided no public goods in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, no water, no public transport, no roads, no airports, no telephones, no jobs, no primary education, no housing, no public health care and no sanitation.

The minuscule middle class was virtually targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate saw conditions decline rapidly: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation in 1975 and finally total bankruptcy, which the forced the government to fly out its gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.

Forced to open up the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and various other controls. In the process, it unleashed animal forces that transformed India. We went from being pitied as a “basket case” to being admired as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With GDP growth of nine percent and more for over the past five years, millions were lifted from poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and became one of the world’s sought after market segments. Global business rushed in to cater to their needs and desires; local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive services.

Sadly, the flawed education system inhibited the transformation; it achieved less than what it should have. Under the privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them.” Thus, the ordained ones went on to Oxford and Cambridge to return to appointed positions in the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or stayed behind in an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble for political parties.

On the other hand, with the establishment of the IITs and IIMs, it produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift “Ambassador Car” economy. As such these subsidized elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business that are trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.

With the rise of the vulgarians, education has become a commodity; something you must have to get a job. All manner of dubious institutions have sprung up to cater to these needs. With the unprecedented growth of the economy, the need for talent has become so acute that just anyone with a degree or even a modicum of education can get a job. The three louts sitting across the aisle from on that flight from Goa to Delhi were clearly among those. They probably had some education and were snapped up by some company and enrolled in an internal training program. They were like trained circus performers.

We have three types of “education.” The first was the classic Oxbridge type where it didn’t matter because you came back to an appointed place in the elite establishment. The other was a technical sort of training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations or universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs.

Whatever happened to liberal values and civil norms as crucial objectives of education? Their lack is India’s Achilles heel.

copyright rajiv desai 2008