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India’s illusion of numbers

India’s illusion of numbers
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First Published: Mon, Jan 17 2011. 07 47 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Jan 17 2011. 07 47 PM IST
The year is 2020. India has seen one of the most massive injections into its working-age population. In the past 10 years, it has added 12 million people to the workforce every year. A large number are employed in low-paying jobs. Most aspire for better paid jobs but are unable to get them. It’s clear that India’s dream of “demographic dividend” has worked only partially.
That future is dimly discernable even now. Last week, Pratham, a network of non-governmental organizations involved in the education sector, released its Annual State of Education Report (ASER) for 2010. It does not make for a happy reading.
First, however, the good news. Enrolment numbers are going up steadily and the right to education, it seems, may pay off in the years to come. This basic problem now seems manageable. The other issue, that of quality, requires serious rethinking on strategy and policy.
The rest, however, makes for grim reading. Here is a sampling. Only half (53.4%) of the children in class V can read a class II level text. Effectively, this means that half the children who have spent five years in school can barely manage to read what they should have learnt after two years in school. When it comes to basic number skills, there is a countrywide decline. The percentage of kids in class I who can recognize numbers from 1-9 has fallen from 69.3% to 65.8% in 2010. In class V, the percentage of pupils who can do simple division has fallen from 38% to 35.9% in 2010. The decline continues in middle school, where a large number of students find it difficult to do routine calculations expected of their age.
The chances that after a poor initial start, this cohort of weak learners can master more advanced reading and calculating skills are dim. This also makes their employability even in low-end clerical jobs, leave alone the high-skill, high-paying jobs, a tough proposition. It is obvious that they will, at some point in their lives, if not most, require help from the government to survive. This may come in the form of guaranteed employment or generous subsidies across the board (food, fuel and health, among other domains). The net result is that they are unlikely to be productive members of the economy. Such huge numbers of persons who are subsidized are certain to drag economic growth and not turn it into a powerhouse that many have dreamt of in recent years.
It is difficult to see what the solution will be to a problem of such proportions. Instilling accountability in the government- run primary education system is a non-starter. A better option, even at this late hour, is to give a fillip to private education and not create roadblocks for it.
Is India’s demographic dividend turning into a curse? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jan 17 2011. 07 47 PM IST