Word has it that there are two schools of thought among Indian development economists — one advocating growth and the other redistribution. This perception is quite misleading. For one thing, growth and redistribution are not the only means of making the world a better place. To illustrate, civil liberties have much to contribute to the quality of life, but they have little to do with growth or redistribution. For another, the alleged dilemma between growth and redistribution overlooks the fact that some economic policies promote both. Universal elementary education is a prime example: it helps to achieve economic progress as well as to reduce social inequality. Quality education also contributes to human wellbeing in other ways — for instance, by helping us to look after our health and that of others. It is a kind of win-win-win policy. Indeed, countries that have focused on mass education at an early stage of development have reaped ample rewards for it across the world, as has Kerala in India.
Education policy of the past
All this is fairly obvious today, but it was far from clear 74 years ago, when India achieved independence. Elementary education was not particularly prominent in the initial Five-Year Plans, focused as they were on physical capital. The first Five-Year Plan said that “the tendency to open new primary schools should not be encouraged” [sic], as opposed to “remodeling of existing primary schools on basic lines” (a reference to the “basic education” project inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s pedagogical ideas). When Milton Friedman, the champion of free markets, visited India in 1955, he was astonished by the government’s neglect of “human capital”.
Quite likely, education policy in those days was influenced by the traditional upper-caste view that education is not important or even appropriate for the lower orders. To this day, it is not uncommon to hear from upper-caste personalities or even teachers in rural India that it is pointless or thankless to teach working-class children. Sometimes, they are more explicit and whisper things like “if poor children get educated, who will work in our fields and houses?”
Of course, education levels have improved since independence. India’s female literacy rate, for instance, rose from just 9% in 1951 to 65% in 2011 (for women above the age of five years and seven years, respectively). From a historical perspective, this is quite a leap forward. From a comparative perspective, however, it is not particularly impressive, even by South Asia’s modest standards. According to the latest Demographic and Health Surveys, female literacy rates in the age group of 15-24 years were almost identical in India, Bangladesh and Nepal around 2016 – around 85% in each case. Bangladesh and Nepal used to be way behind India in this field, but they have caught up, despite India’s higher GDP per capita and faster rate of economic growth. Comparisons with East Asia, of course, would be devastating for India.
Further, average literacy rates do not convey India’s unique problem of educational inequalities. Schooling opportunities for different groups range from world-class to abysmal. Even within relatively small areas, the disparities are astonishing. Thirty years ago, in a small village of western U.P. called Palanpur, we found that literacy rates varied from 0% among Dalit girls to 100% among Kayashta boys. Within classrooms, too, differences in learning levels are often stark, with some children being able to read fluently while others still struggle to learn the alphabet.
We are so used to these disparities that we often lose sight of their pathological nature. In 2012, according to UNESCO, the proportion of children studying in private schools at the primary level was just 12% or so in the world as a whole (excluding India), and even lower (below 10%) in “developed countries”. In India, by contrast, the corresponding proportion is around 40% and growing. Further, there are multiple layers within the private and government streams. In other words, the norm around the world is for most children to study in a shared schooling system of reasonably even quality, but in India the quality of schooling is contingent on class, caste, gender and ability to pay. This defeats the purpose of school education as a leveller of social inequalities, something India needs more than perhaps any other country.
A casual look at school textbooks quickly conveys that India’s schooling system is designed as a kind of obstacle course, titled in favour of privileged children. In Jharkhand, Class 5 children are expected to read a thick English textbook with sentences that even teachers are likely to find it hard to understand (like “gravity speeds up communication means, it also explains why Pisa leans” [sic]). Advanced textbooks are a good deal for children who enjoy a fine working environment at home; for others, they are a nightmare.
The stratified nature of India’s schooling system was on full display during the last few months. Soon after the COVID-19 crisis struck, schools were closed without batting an eyelid and most of them are still closed today. Privileged children continued to study online in their cosy homes even as the schooling system dropped “offline children” like hot potatoes. The fig leaf of online education has masked the elephant of school exclusion for a full 16 months without anyone taking serious notice outside specialised circles. This is a dramatic manifestation of the indifference of privileged classes towards the educational aspirations of the poor.
The enormity of the situation hit us earlier this month during a house-to-house survey of four Dalit and Adivasi hamlets in Latehar, Jharkhand. There was no trace of online education, most children were unable to read a single word, and all parents were desperate to see the schools reopen. That this injustice remained virtually unquestioned for 16 months is a telling indictment of India’s exclusive democracy.
As India enters its 75th year of independence, it is important to reflect on the blunders of the past and how to repair them. Failing that, the situation will be much the same when the country celebrates its first centenary.
Jean Drèze is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University