When six-year-old Rahul wakes up in his little hut in Burdwan district, which he shares with his five brothers and sisters, he is unaware that today he may have to go hungry as his midday meal in the Anganwadi will not be given to him. His only incentive to go to school/Anganwadi every day has been consumed by the rats! He will have to sit under the hot sun for the next four hours as the school’s roof has been blown away by a storm six months ago, and watch his teacher doze off, and be without any drinking water to quench his thirst.

Far away in Nagpur, ten-year-old Anita wakes up, excited to go to school because it is her best friend’s birthday. Yet she dreads going into the class as she has a ‘test’ today for which she has not been able to memorize three pages of a chapter in EVS. She is scared that her parents will scold/beat her at the end of the week when she shows low marks. She will not be able to convince them that her low marks are not because she is a ‘dumb’ child but because she could not comprehend the chapter ‘taught’ by her teacher in school.

Lata, living in Delhi, has just completed her school and is applying for an admission to various colleges. The cutoff list for Economics, which is her choice of subject, is 94 percent. But she has ‘failed’ to qualify for an admission in it as she has a mere 88 percent. She will have to settle for choosing a subject which she may not really want to pursue but will necessarily have to take as there is no other choice available.

Nikhat has just completed college and is on the lookout for a job in Mumbai. At every interview, he is asked what his skills are and all he can narrate is his marks in the subjects he has studied. He fails to understand the meaning of the word skill.

These are just some of the stories of millions of children in India. They also show the longitudinal journey of most Indian learners from pre-school to after college. Education is a struggle for many in our country. Whatever this obsolete education system in our country churns out, one thing is certain that there will never be a dearth of sob stories to narrate on the outcomes of this system…at least till the system lasts as it is.

What do these stories say? Rahul, at the pre-school level, is challenged by the lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, and the lack of accountability for the quality of education given to him by the existing system. He does not know another world and fatefully believes that his educational life will be as dreadful in the future as it is now. For children like him, an aversion to education begins early and can soon lead to their being dropouts from a system which had at first unwillingly accommodated them and then unabashedly excluded them, resulting consequently in their becoming part of a syndicated nexus of child labor and petty crimes. Anita is part of a system that ingests, digests, and then expels content from textbooks. She may dream of becoming a singer but does not have the courage to express it. Frustration, repression, and anger may lead her to run away from home or commit suicide if her dreams are not fulfilled. Lata is a victim of a state-sponsored education which is inimical to creativity and intellectual freedom. She wants to be an economist but will be forced to become something else. For the rest of her life, she will learn to be mediocre in her work and spend the day merely doing a routine job which neither interests her nor provides her any satisfaction or happiness. Nikhat is a casual victim of the retention syndrome that lays emphasis on retaining information rather than on learning for effectiveness. He is unable to get a job because there is a huge gap between what is taught in the classroom and what the world requires. He has information but he does not know what to do with this information. He will end up being jobless and may take to becoming a member of some so-called ‘martyrdom’ movement.

Do these stories narrate real life or is real life being exaggerated through them? Does the familiarity of all this depress you? Does this make me a skeptic? Is this the kind of youth the Indian education system churns out?

Fortunately, the stories above present only one side of the picture. In spite of what you hear and see in these, in India the opposite also holds true! In a land as diverse and with as many distinct pursuits as ours, the co-existence of contrasts is startling. The same can be said of our education system. While at the bottom of the pyramid there is a dearth in the quality of education imparted in a majority of the schools, there are simultaneously spurts of innovation and creativity occurring in myriad schools at the upper layer of the pyramid. If there is a reliance on traditional forms of execution at the bottom there is also the pursuit of reason and innovation in educating many at the top of the pyramid. This has produced many creative, innovative, and enterprising individuals who are making their mark domestically and globally in many fields. These are two distinctly visible sides in the same world! Unfortunately, one weighs more than the other and has led to a huge disparity.

This starkness is amazingly heightened when we see that the system sometimes creates unexpected learning outcomes. Schools with a conventional form of education which lack in the so-called ‘quality’ education have produced high marks achievers in the boards. Of course, it is a different topic altogether whether achieving high marks is a measure of attaining great achievements or not. What is also amazing in this system is the fact that those from deprived homes or first generation learners studying in conventional schools are beginning to clear competitive exams earlier meant only for the elites educated in innovative schools. A recent example of this is the increase in the number of the lower strata of people clearing the board examinations or qualifying for the Indian Administrative Services.

Yet the new millennium’s story of India does not begin or end with merely comparing the two different kinds of worlds or the ironical contrasts within one system itself. It is a fact that we will always remain in different states of evolution at the same time and there will always be a debate on what we need to do with our education system, depending upon which side of the world we belong to. Yet we can learn from each and apply what needs to be done from either side.

Our story begins with standing up together as a bold nation and as conscious citizens and taking action. It involves a three-way process.

Action begins from first recognizing and understanding that education is the need of the hour—the key that opens most doors in the world today. Let me elucidate. During the Great Depression in 1929 people could not afford to pay taxes. Hence, schools could not be funded and teachers were badly paid. Since schools had no funds new subjects could not be introduced and traditional subjects like the 3Rs were maintained. Today, with the world being hit with another economic slowdown what is amazing is that in the minds of most people education is now being looked upon as a creator of wealth, better future prospects, and the fundamental enabler of a knowledge economy. Many new subjects, skills, and courses are being created to fulfill this demand both at the school level and beyond it. Supply, unfortunately, as always, is not being met. Why are we unable to fulfill this demand? Who or what can fulfill this demand?

The answer to the former question lies in understanding that for decades now we have allowed education to be viewed only from an egalitarian perspective. The great intention has been the hallmark of the system but unfortunately, we have given birth to the stories of Rahul, Anita, Lata, and Nikhat. Of course, this perspective, as demanded at the time of implementation, has given rise to a quantitative jump in the number of literate people in our country, yet it has simultaneously led to more disparity and an ironical development in qualitative terms. There are high dropout rates due to the system’s characteristic inability to reform itself. As Aristotle said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’ We will continue to produce more such youths if we do not question the core edifice on which our education system stands. We need to be bold in our approach and with a new focus move towards reforming our education system.

With constantly changing paradigms the philosophy and the way we need to create new policies needs to be relooked at. The world has changed and education has become an important industry today! It is an industry that no one wants to openly accept and acknowledge as one. Why? Because of the habit of traditionally looking at it from a social perspective and also because the very word industry conjures up the connotations associated with words such as product, consumers, and profit and creates a sense of frustration and despair in the minds of many and, of course, there is the justifiable argument that education, if openly accepted as an industry, may soon become a slave to market forces. Yet education has become an industry that is here to stay is an irrefutable fact. Instead of denying the fact or brushing it under the carpet we need to review and renew our mindset and look at how this industry needs to be egalitarian in the true sense and bring in the new reforms to fulfill the needs of a newIndia. We need to create an education system that engenders generations of independent thinkers and innovators who can initiate enterprise and create opportunities that can sustain and secure a future for themselves as well as others, and reduce social disparities and disadvantages.

We, collectively as a nation and individually as its citizens, need to take on the challenge of creating this new industry. It is the only industry that touches the future of every individual and has a remarkable soul. It is in our hands to look with a fresh perspective at the way we organize and legitimize this industry. After all that we make of this industry is what it will make of us and our future generations.

So how do we define this inclusive industry? What should be the pillars on which this industry should stand? How will this industry restructure and modernize education? How will this industry work towards creating a system that not only caters to the market needs but also addresses the larger question of education for a knowledge economy? How should this industry create a framework for lifelong learning both within the school and outside it? How can access to education be overcome through technology? How can we optimize and capture the opportunities that globalization has presented? These are some of the basic macro questions both policymakers and the implementers must be involved in and find answers to. We all know that the answers to these are not easy to get. Yet if we do not allow for free thinking, and continue to ignore the indifference and the unwillingness to engage in creating a vision collectively, we will not be able to move ahead.

Once we have accepted this fact we can then, secondly, move toward creating an action force to ensure that our vision is achieved. While the industry focuses on macro issues the action force should be the executing body to implement the ideas at the micro level. This action force should be independent in thought and not influenced by any political ideology, help in strengthening the education industry through the creation of the required infrastructure, support systems, and learn to map the emerging needs of the economy with all the stakeholders. The critical task for this force would be to define priorities which could address practically how to expand access to quality education and make it relevant, how to ameliorate teacher vacancies, reverse high dropout rates, correct inadequate teaching, and learning materials and uneven learning achievements, and many more important challenges. Does this seem like we are boiling the ocean? Even if we are unable to boil the entire ocean we will at least begin to heat it! The heating must begin and must be achieved within a certain time frame.

Lastly, to ensure that the impact of the action force is sustainable, an independent citizens’ evaluation and monitoring system and body must be created to put in place the human element. Its role would be to ensure that the dynamic and constant change that impacts the industry is looked at from both a human, egalitarian perspective and a productive economic dimension, and addresses the vision of the industry.

Once we allow for free thinking and accept that we need to treat education from both qualitative and quantitative along with a social and deliverable perspective, only then can we give birth to new stories. These stories will be different from the ones narrated earlier. These will be stories of empowered youths, of young entrepreneurs and a generation who will have faith in the power of knowledge and learning. They will not only fulfill the requirements of a growing economy but will also be happy individuals with a purpose in life.

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