The Indian Express, November 02, 2004

Education, for itself

Historically speaking in India, education and knowledge were owned by a very small section of the population. Little wonder, then, that an important part of the freedom struggle consisted of the demand for universal elementary education, which was later incorporated in the constitution. What was the raison d’etre for expanding education? There seem to be two arguments for this. The first can be called the "instrumentalist argument" which says that education should provide trained manpower so that lack of skills do not become an impediment in economic progress. The second can be called the "liberating force argument", which says that education for all is necessary for social and economic equality and improves the quality of life.

In the first two decades after Independence, it was deeply felt that if the economy needed a certain amount of steel and cement, it also needed a certain number of engineers and bureaucrats. This led to the government going in for the massive expansion of technical and higher education and the quality of this education was also very good. Since the eighties, the private sector has also entered this sphere. From a macro perspective, the lack of educated people has been considered a constraint to growth.

However, too much emphasis on the "instrumentalist" approach has meant that the "liberating force" argument has progressively lost its sheen. This argument means that the people who were not allowed to have education earlier must now have access to education. This access would begin, quite obviously, from the primary school. Primary education is to be given by the states. And it is here that the phenomenon of unequal education has become rampant.

What do we mean by unequal education? We mean that the quantity of education may be equal, but the quality is not. The performance of Indian states with respect to education has been highly varied. However, even in the states which have expanded the number of schools and increased literacy, all children do not get similar or equal education. The children of the rich go to expensive, private schools while the children from poor families go to government schools. There is a large difference between the education given by these two sets of schools. It is now a commonly known fact that children from government schools are not able to read and write even after many years of schooling. How will this kind of substandard education act as a liberating force? How will it fetch jobs to the underprivileged? How will it enable them to read the Vedas and the Koran and interpret them?

Thus while the government has been very efficient with respect to education which is the consequence of the "instrumentalist approach" (the IITs), it has neglected the education which is necessitated by the "liberating force" approach (the primary schools). As a result, if children from certain families are not able to even read or write after a few years of education, then where is the question of their going to the IITs?

This results in a kind of informal reservation policy which is highly unjust. Moreover, as Amartya Sen has shown us, even the lack of primary education can and does become a constraint on growth and development. Thus the education of all the small farmers, all the home-makers, all the people in the unorganised sector is important. Equal education for all is a value in itself. It is essential for the development of an individual and of the nation.

But the problem continues to be that the elite believe in better education only for themselves. This kind of a system is not only morally wrong, it also leads to massive misallocation of resources. By depriving a large section of population, any education, de facto or de jure, the Indian education system leads to students achieving much less than what they are capable of. Interestingly, in all advanced, capitalist economies, most of the children go to government schools and only a very small percentage goes to private schools. After fifty years of Independence, our objective should be to give equal, similar and quality education to all the children.
There is no point in the handwringing over how Indian airports are shabby as compared to airports in the advanced countries. As long as even a single primary school in a remote area is going to be shabby, the airports will also be shabby. After all, in an economy everything is linked.

The writer is head, Department of Economics, University of Pune

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