He is only 17, but Mohammad Shaquib Ansari, who is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has already been on a transformative journey. Born to a helper-grade worker in the Railways’ Chittaranjan Locomotive Works, the youngest of six children, Shaquib, studied at the Hindi-medium government school in Chittaranjan till class X before moving to Patna.

Chittaranjan is the country’s first planned township after independence, and like most railway colonies, it is a self-contained world. There are a couple of cinemas, a clutch of markets, a few CBSE-syllabus schools, and one college recognized by the University of Burdwan—for Shaquib, whose brilliance in mathematics was noted by his family and teachers early on, it wasn’t exactly teeming with opportunities.

In 2008, Maulana Muhammad Wali Rahmani, general secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, in collaboration with Bihar’s former director general of police Abhayanand, started Rahmani30, a coaching institute aimed at preparing Muslim boys from economically weak backgrounds for the tough competitive exams for entrance to various engineering colleges. Abhayanand teaches physics and mathematics, and like most instructors there, doesn’t take any remuneration. After a rigorous screening process, which includes an interview and an entrance test, the private coaching institute admits a total of 120 senior schoolboys every year to its four centres—two in Patna and one each in Mumbai and Hyderabad. In 2014, Shaquib enrolled himself at a state-board high school and joined the institute—with free boarding, lodging and tuition. Two years later, he cracked the IIT-JEE in his first attempt.

Shaquib, like many of his generation, is attracted to the world of start-ups, but for him IIT, Bombay is more than just a college degree. “I hope my stay in IIT will help in my all-round personality development, starting from improving communication skills to honing my leadership abilities." In the couple of weeks he has been here, Shaquib has already enrolled in three societies—design club, literary arts and debate team. He is excited about the technology and entrepreneurship festivals that are held routinely at the IIT.

“I understand that many students come to the institute with some plan in mind, but often end up doing something completely different at the end of four years. This institute opens up new opportunities which someone might not have anticipated to begin with; therefore, I am not thinking much about where exactly I will land up in four years and instead want to make the most of this opportunity".

What makes Shaquib’s story special is that he is one of the few who seem poised to break free of inherited circumstances. India remains a society with notoriously low mobility across generations. According to data available from the 2011-12 India Human Development Survey-II (IHDS-II), sons born to economically or socially disadvantaged families often find it difficult to climb the ladder of success and prosperity.

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How easy is it for somebody from Shaquib’s background to do what he has done? To put it bluntly, it is extremely difficult.

Data from the IHDS-II—an exercise conducted by the Delhi-based National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, US, with a sample size of more than 200,000 individuals—allows us to track inter-generational occupational mobility for sons and fathers across various occupational categories. The data shows that the chances of sons born to non-white-collar employees becoming part of the white-collar workforce have not improved in independent India: 9.7% of sons born to farmer fathers in the 1950s made it to a white-collar job. For somebody born in the 1980s, this share dropped to just 3.4%. It’s true that, even sons born to fathers in white-collar jobs find it more difficult than earlier to land similar jobs, but their chances are 11 times better than a farmer’s son (see chart 1).

To put it differently, only slightly more than half of the sons born to industrial-worker fathers in 1980 (Shaquib’s father’s employment category) could even get out of their father’s profession (see chart 2). Obviously, not all of them moved to more remunerative professions. We say this on the basis of educational attainment for the category of sons born to industrial workers. Only 14% could become graduates, and less than 4% become postgraduates (see chart 3).

Clearly, if India’s children have to do better, providing quality affordable education remains the key.

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