No achhe din for education or health in Mr Modi's Make in India

Our country may become a low-value assembly of the world without urgent overhaul in the two fields.

 |  9-minute read |   14-12-2015
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Late President APJ Abdul Kalam was deeply concerned that while chasing the Make in India dream, our country might become a low-value assembly of the world and make India's growth extremely painful. He clearly saw that if, in a knowledge-driven economy, the manufacturing strategy was not designed carefully, it would surely create a chasm in the society.

Commenting on the trends of today's knowledge economy, Nobel laureate, Robert Solow of MIT voiced a similar concern. He wrote that technological changes and shifting demand were eliminating mid-level jobs. The labour market was getting "polarised between the highly educated and skilled at the top and the mass of poorly educated and unskilled at the bottom."

As knowledge-intensive technologies began to play an increasingly important role in the production processes since the advent of the ICT revolution, many developing countries started to derive huge benefits from labour market polarisation. The wage differentials were too huge to ignore for the large corporations. Wages of many unskilled workers in developed countries were much higher than their skilled counterparts from the developing world.

Massive migration from the West was a logical outcome in this environment. The process roughly started in the late 1970s and picked up speed in the 1990s with the opening up of trade with China, India and Eastern Europe.

The outsourcing boom eventually converted China into the factory of the world.

Multi-national companies never had it so good. Corporate profits soared. Wealth accumulation at the top reached record level. In the global context, the polarisation of the labour market could be seen as a manifestation of a much bigger problem. In the history of human civilisation the world has never experienced such mind-boggling concentration of wealth in a few hands. President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, recently mentioned that the wealth of only 85 people was now more than the combined wealth of half of the world's population!

It is not surprising that the majority of individuals in this list of 85 are from the USA, world's largest free-market economy. However, some free-market evangelists in India can still feel upbeat; acouple of Indians are also in that list. Though, it is worth remembering that in terms of number of impoverished people India occupies the number one position. In other words, concentration of wealth relative to the population is a much bigger problem for India than anywhere else. Mukesh Ambani's residence in Mumbai - one of the costliest buildings in the world - amidst the megacity's sprawling slums probably provides much better visual representation of the Indian reality than any dry statistics.

Quality education: A crying need

As the global economy enters the post-outsourcing phase characterised by exponential growth of technology (artificial intelligence, big data and other disruptive innovations), all nations - particularly, the developing world - are now facing a much deadlier problem than anything that they had to encounter so far. Machines are replacing on an exponential rate unskilled as well as manysemi-skilled workers, including low-and-medium-level knowledge workers. The developing countries are rapidly losing their advantage of cheap labour. The possibility of growing employment through outsourcing is steadily disappearing.

The reverse migration of jobs from developing countries to the machines located in the developed world has already begun.

In such a situation, India has no other alternative but to urgently embark on an ambitious public education reform programme to face the challenge effectively. Werequire a highly educated workforce to successfully compete in the knowledge economy. A workforce that is capable of constantly asking questions, challenging commonly accepted assumptions and applying knowledge creatively for finding innovative solutions, both for known as well as unknown problems.

To ensure such transformation of our future workforce, all educational and training institutions, from primary to tertiary, must introduce disruptivechanges in their operating models. The system has to be reformed in such a way so that educators are encouraged to conduct radical experimentation with pedagogy, curriculum, accreditation and so on.

Most importantly, the government has to realise that time is not on its side. It has to transform with lightening speed a huge section of India's population, which is either poorly educated or totally uneducated. Fortunately, this is doable today, thanks to rapid development of educational technology and its plummeting costs. But, if we fail to accomplish such a transformation, then nothing can save us from an imminent disaster with all its spine-chilling consequences.

Link between a school teacher and prosperity

Due to rapid progress in data capturing and processing technology, many research studies are now available that show how in the current environment education at all levels is correlated to future prosperity. Professor Raj Chetty and his team, whose expert advice is oftensought by both the Democratic and Republican leaderships in the US, havebeen conducting some path-breaking research to showhow upward mobility of people are linked to early education and to various other indicators of good governance, like public healthcare and good neighbourhood.

Professor Chetty's research results demonstrate that GDP growth by itself, without sound commitment to public welfare, automatically doesn't create equal opportunity for everyone to increaseindividual prosperity. For example, the probability of an American child, born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution (who obviously is less likely to access high quality school, healthcare and neighbourhood), making it to the top 20 per cent is much lower if compared to a similar child born in more welfare-oriented Scandinavian country, like say, Denmark. His findings only confirm what Nobel Prize winner economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in his book, The Price of Inequality: "There is little income mobility - the notion of America as a land of opportunity is a myth."

Interestingly, in one of their research studies, Chetty and his team have shown that even by replacing one low-performing secondary school teacher with an average teacher, it is possible to increase the likelihood of students attending better colleges later, earning higher salaries, living in better neighbourhood and saving more for retirement.

HRD ministry's Bollywood-style approach

In this all-encompassing digital economy, the Modi government has to now demonstrate its firm commitment to make high-quality education available for everyone. Particularly, the quality of school education both at the primary and secondary levels, has to be given topmost priority. The government must realise that only by providing quality education to every child, India can create scope for upward mobility for all its citizens. Otherwise, the probability of another chaiwala, or one of his brethren from similar income category, moving to the top echelon of the society (including the possibility of becoming a future PM) will always remain almost zero.

It is quite disturbing to see how the Modi government is currently trying to deal with the problems of our education sector. The government is demonstrating a total lack of commitment to improve the public education system. Instead of adopting a scientific approach to understand the issues confronting the sector and formulating policies, the government has adopted a Bollywood-style approach: ask the janta and deliver as per their wish.

The HRD ministry, as part of its Draft National Education Policy preparation mission is currently conducting country-wide grassroot consultation. Stakeholders are asked to tell what, according to them, needs to be done to improve children's performance in the schools. The stakeholders are obviously mentioning everything that they feel is related to performance. There is also no clarity how the ministry is dealing with different perceptions of performance and its measurement.

Already thousands of consultation meetings have been conducted all over India. The HRD ministry on its website has been diligently updating the number of all such meetings on a real-time basis. Such a democratic process can certainly make our HRD minister quite popular. But, how much that is going to improve the quality of our school education is anybody's guess.

The consultations have already generated some fantastic insight into what is ailing our elementary school education. It has been reported in the press that the education ministry of Gujarat in a report submitted to the HRD ministry, after holding grass-root level consultations, has identified about 70 factors that are affecting the performance of the children in school.

Teachers' maternity leave, lack of motivation, low literacy of parents were identified as some of the factors (a few additional factors may emerge if some latest research findings on parenting are now made available to the participants of the consultation process). The schools may soon receive from the HRD ministry some sound guidelines for formulating a good maternity leave policy, delivering effective pep-talks on motivation and improving parents' behaviour in order to improve students' performance. Probably, Amartya Sen need not worry anymore. India will soon become a global player with a highly-educated workforce.

Education and healthcare must go together

While discussing public education it is important to keep in mind the obvious connection between public education and healthcare. A healthy population can maximise the return on investment in higher education. Research findings suggest that higher public expenditure on healthcare together with a better public education system can lead to a much better life for the citizenry.

Take for example healthcare in two contrasting neighbours, USA and Cuba. As per the World Bank ranking on per capita GDP, the US is in the ninth position and Cuba, in the 60th. But, the two countries share the same place on life expectancy ranking of WHO. Cuba's remarkable success in achieving high longevity despite much lower GDP than the US (American blockade is no less responsible for Cuba's low GDP) can be explained by the Cuban government's commitment to provide high quality public healthcare and quality good education at a very low cost to the whole population.

It is really shameful that the Modi government has slashed India's healthcare budget, which is already among the lowest in the world, by 20 per cent during 2014-15. It is also quite worrisome that there was no public outcry against this attitude towards public healthcare.

Looking at public education and healthcare together, achhe din now sounds like a cruel joke.

Writer

Abhijit Bhattacharya Abhijit Bhattacharya @b_abhijit

Trying to create entrepreneurs capable of solving unknown problems of tomorrow using technologies that are yet to be invented.

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