We must ensure our demographic dividend does not turn into a disaster
At a time when India is predicted to become the youngest nation over the next decade, with a higher demographic dividend expected than China’s, the Annual Status of Education Report for rural India sends really troubling signals and portents that this dividend could in fact become a depreciatory slag. What is most worrisome is that the report, compiled by a credible NGO which has been focusing on the need for course correction since 2000, for the first time covered the young adult category and found teens lacking in even foundational parameters, leave aside spedalized or acquired skills. The really scary part is that 86 per cent of them were enrolled in a formal education system.
One-fourth of the country’s youngsters in the 14-18 age group cannot read their own language fluently, while 57 per cent of them struggle to solve simple sums. Shown a map of India, 14 per cent couldn’t identify it, 36 per cent couldn’t name the country’s capital and 21 per cent could not point out the State they live in. About one- fourth of the youth couldn’t count correctly, add weights or check time. The skewed priorities among youth were particularly reflected by the data that though internet use was low – 64 per cent had not used it – mobile phone usage was widespread in the 14-18 age group. About 73 percent of the young people had used a mobile phone within the testing week. Which means that while their basic educational skills were low, their consumptive absorption of multi-media platforms such as Whatsapp, not necessarily knowledge-driven,was high.So, while we may be gung-ho about digital India, it’s true success will be if we can ensure digital classrooms proliferate.Meanwhile,primary education in India’s vast rural hinterland should focus on quality rather than quantity,on application-based knowledge modules that add worth to young lives rather than just making them barely functionally Litterate if that.The dropout rates continue to be alarming and the gender gap even more so, albeit with fractional improvements here and there.
Primary education is the worst victim of dis balanced implementation strategies in a country where the budgetary allocation for education has still not crossed four per cent of GOP. Our policies do not need an overhaul, perhaps, but their execution certainly does. The absence of infrastructure, trained teachers and interesting and interactive tools of engagement is more demotivating than inspiring for students. There has to be an ecosystem based not on formula but on assessment of ground realities particular to rural India and a teaching system that address- es the lacuna like poor reading, mathematical or associative logic skills. Experts suggest that if 80 per cent of our children can read and write well in any language by the time they are nine, then most of our problems would be taken care of. This can even be stretched to the digital platform but before anything a culture of learning must be developed. We need to think about balancing the test- based assessment system with one based on understanding and application that will scythe through the traditional benchmark of achieving excellence by rote and develop analytical and adaptive abilities. Last but not the least, there should be compulsory attendance and a monitoring mechanism under a single authority to standardize quality benchmarks across rural India. Without this, we may well end up squashing all benefits of human resource productivity that are accruing to us at a crucial time for India’s next leap forward.