It is an unfortunate fact that despite India’s rapid economic ascent and her emergence on the global stage, millions of Indian citizens are still left out of the sun.
Without assured access to quality educational instruction, millions of children from low-income urban communities are often left illiterate, unable to break the cycle of poverty, find employment and participate in the opportunities that are shaping India’s tomorrow. Thanks to the twists of the Ovarian Lottery, India’s economically backward classes drop out of the race before they can even start.
Education in India has a history stretching back to the ancient urban centres of learning at Taxila and Nalanda. With the establishment of the British Raj, western education became ingrained into Indian society. Now in the modern Republic of India, education falls under the control of both the central government and the states, with various articles of the Indian constitution providing for education as a fundamental right of every citizen.
Yet although the noble ideal of 'education for all' is safeguarded by the Constitution and more Indians than ever before now have access to educational resources, the educational inequity that young people in India face today is at its harshest.
Sixty years on, groups of disadvantaged children --orphans, child-labourers, street children and victims of riots and natural disasters -- still do not have immediate access to schools. And when they do manage to attend school, they are channelled into the country’s bottom rung low-income private or municipal schools. This inequity is apparent in the numbers, and calls for grave reflection:
- The average literacy rate hovers around 60% in India (for women, the number is much lower)
- World Bank statistics show that fewer than 40% of adolescents in India attend secondary school.
- According to a recent study, 15 out of every 100 Indian kids will never go to school. And among the 85 kids who do, 50% of them will drop out before the 5th grade.
The educational crisis is exacerbated by severe gender and caste disparities, along with high drop-out rates, an emphasis on rote memorization over real learning, inadequate school infrastructure, high levels of teacher absenteeism and inadequate funds.
For a country like India, where almost 40% of the population is under 15 years of age, these trends are troubling, and can prove disastrous over the long-term if they are left unchecked.
It is true that successive Indian governments have realized the importance of education, and have stressed its importance in tackling poverty. And yet despite the best efforts of the government’s educational policies and its focus on the inclusion of the country’s most disadvantaged sections, not much has changed. No, the government cannot, and certainly does not, have all the answers.
It is in this context that national initiatives like the recently launched Teach for India (TFI) can make a monumental difference. Modelled on the successful Teach for America program, TFI places the country’s most outstanding college graduates and young professionals as teachers in India’s low-income schools for two years. The aim is to narrow the educational gap and expand the educational opportunities available to thousands of underprivileged children.
This month, a hundred idealistic TFI fellows have formed the inaugural corps of teachers -- many of them, like myself, leaving behind lucrative careers and moving cities, countries and continents. They have graduated from the best universities in India and the United States and been employed by some of the world’s biggest corporations.
As a Teach for India fellow, my own commitment and enthusiasm stems from a firm belief in the empowering and redistributive impact of education. My personal mission is to re-assert the Nehruvian ideal of secondary education in India -- focusing on access, quality and secularism. And I hope to address, in my own way, the shortage of quality teachers in Mumbai’s municipal schools and the country’s educational woes.
Imagine the impact that we can make in the region, and the world, if every educated Indian would give a couple of years of their lives towards a national cause. Because it is now for individual Indian citizens to capture and decipher the multifaceted complexity of the ambitious country that India has become: one where there is much more to look forward to -- but also much to be frustrated by -- than ever before.
Literacy and education are essential tools for self-defence and economic empowerment in tomorrow’s India. Imagine the socio-economic revolution possible if the under-resourced youth are better equipped to compete for secure employment, to defend themselves in court, to enforce their rights, to take advantage of technology and to take part intelligently in political activity.
It promises to herald a better economic and social tomorrow for the country, and greater peace and co-operation in greater South Asia. The first step is to do something, to try. And that’s exactly what Teach for India’s Fellows are aiming to do. So that hopefully, with our coordinated efforts, we can together be at the forefront of confronting and managing the delicate balance between excellence and equity.
Rakesh Mani is a 2009 Teach for India fellow, working with low-income schools in Mumbai. He is also a frequent writer and commentator to various publications.