Cover Story

Cover Story

Indian education @ tipping point

All of a sudden, education of the country’s 450 million children below age 18 — the largest national child population worldwide — has become a high priority, hot- button subject. Dilip Thakore reports

On the eve of release of this eighth anniversary issue of EducationWorld — India’s pioneer and as yet sole education news and analysis print publication — there is a discernible sentiment of quiet satisfaction in the monthly’s bright seventh floor head office, which offers a panoramic vista of traffic-choked Bangalore (pop. 7 million), the information technology capital of resurgent 21st century India. Since EW was launched upon an unprepared public with the mission statement to "build the pressure of public opinion to make education the No.1 item on the national agenda" in November 1999, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, the back-burner subject of education and development of the nation’s abundant human resource has steadily moved up on the development agendas of government in New Delhi and the state capitals. And on the priority lists of 192 million households countrywide.

All of a sudden, education of the country’s 450 million children below age 18 — the largest national child population worldwide — has become the high priority, hot-button subject it should have become decades ago. Almost all self-respecting daily newspapers have introduced weekly education supplements; hundreds of education focused heavyweight NGOs (non-government or voluntary organisations) including Pratham, CRY, Akshara Foundation, Akanksha, Infosys Foundation, Seksaria Foundation among others have sprouted countrywide; and seminar and lecture halls across the country are reverberating with impassioned pleas and debates exhorting Central and state governments, the establishment and public to pay greater attention to expansion and contemporisation of the country’s crumbling and rapidly obsolescing education system. Almost imperceptibly, India’s huge population of children and youth (500 million Indians are below the age of 24), hitherto regarded a Malthusian threat to economic development, has metamor-phosed into a high-potential resource which if adequately educated, could prove to be a major goods and services provider of the rapidly emerging global economy.

Yet perhaps the prime factor which is steadily pushing education to the top of the national development agenda is the unprecedented shortage of skilled professionals, technicians and even modestly skilled shopfloor workers, being experienced by Indian industry. With the hitherto laggard economy mired for several decades in the so-called Hindu rate of growth (3.5 percent per year) currently growing at 9 percent plus per year following the liberalisation and deregulation of the dirigiste, Soviet-style, centrally planned economy in 1991, for the first time in 5,000 years of Indian history, employers are pursuing skilled professionals and personnel with job offers garnished with never-before pay and perks packages.

The grave skills shortage currently facing Indian industry and the economy in general, has belatedly awakened the nation’s somnambulistic political class to the need for quality — rather than ritual — education to be dispensed by the country’s 934,521 government schools characterised by shabby infrastructure, crowded classrooms, multi-grade teaching and chronic teacher absenteeism. Reportedly shaken by a Union HRD ministry survey made public a few months ago which highlighted that a massive 53 percent of the 200 million children enrolled in primary schools countrywide at the start of each academic year drop out before they reach class VIII, prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh recently became perhaps the first political leader in Indian history to make more than a cursory mention of education in a major speech to the general public.

Addressing the nation from the ramparts of Delhi’s historic Red Fort on the occasion of India’s 60th Independence Day (August 15), Singh acknowledged the need for a massive effort to expand and upgrade the country’s primary, secondary and tertiary education systems. "For every one of our people to benefit from new employment opportunities being created across the country, we must ensure that every Indian is educated and skilled. No nation can progress unless its people are educated. We have shown our government’s commitment in this regard by tripling public spending on education in the last three years. I request states also to give priority to education, as education alone is the foundation on which a progressive, prosperous society can be built. Growing revenue earnings have improved the fiscal capacity of the states. They must now give priority to education," said Singh in a nationally televised address in which he announced a slew of new Central government initiatives in secondary, tertiary and vocational education.

Although the prime minister’s claim that the Congress-led 17-party UPA (United Progressive Alliance) coalition government at the Centre has tripled spending on public education during the past three years is an exaggeration — New Delhi’s budgetary outlay for education has been rising by 30 percent per year — his exhortation to India’s 34 state governments and Union territories to make larger provision for capacity expansion in education was overdue. Under the Constitution of India, education is a concurrent subject with the Centre and states entitled to enact legislation.

But with the great majority of schools and colleges scattered across the country within the administrative jurisdiction of state governments, the greater share of spending on education is done by them with the Centre typically contributing about 25 percent of the aggregate national outlay on education (estimated at Rs.120,000 crore) annually. Unfortunately as implied in the prime minister’s Independence Day address, education expansion and upgradation has traditionally been a low priority item for state governments which have ruined their schools and colleges through language chauvinism, institutional nepotism, and condonation of massive substandard textbooks printing rackets.

Therefore the prime minister’s resolve to initiate several high-potential Central government projects in post-primary education has been warmly welcomed in academic circles. During the course of his 60-minute Independence Day address, Singh made several specific proposals to expand capacity in the education sector. Among them: promotion of 6,000 "new, high quality schools — one in every block of the country"; helping state governments to establish colleges in 370 under-served districts across the country; establishment of 30 new Central universities; promotion of eight new IITs, seven IIMs and 20 greenfield IIITs (Indian Institutes of Information Technology); 1,600 ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes); 10,000 new vocational schools and 50,000 new Skill Development Centres.

Meanwhile in another development of great pith and potential, the teething troubles of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) — established two years ago under the chairmanship of Satyen (‘Sam’) Pitroda, the Chicago-based telecom switching systems millionaire who against all odds engineered India’s astonishing telecom revolution (the number of telephone connections in India has risen from 25 million in 1990 to 250 million currently) — are over and the stellar cast commission is beginning to get into its stride. "I am quite satisfied with the progress and level of acceptance of the commission," says Pitroda. "NKC is an extraordinary experiment which is in the process of blueprinting a fundamental shift in the way we assess education in the 21st century. What the commission is working on is a generational mindset change whose impact will be felt after ten-15 years. But after some initial problems, people who matter have begun to appreciate the scope of the commission’s mandate. I am particularly gratified by the way prime minister Manmohan Singh and his government are supporting our endeavours," he adds.

According to all indicators, NKC is in the process of engineering root and branch reform of the country’s moribund education system which by common academic consensus is notorious for its rigidities and is obsolescing rapidly. Pitroda says that the commission is engaged in the task of transforming the current information gathering-oriented education system into a knowledge generating universe by reviewing the subject of knowledge creation from "five broad standpoints — access, concepts, creation, applications and services".

"Under access we are addressing such issues as literacy, language, translations, libraries, networks and portals. Under concepts we are looking at school and vocational education, higher education and medical, legal, management, engineering and open and distance education. Creation involves science and technology, intellectual property rights, innovations and entrepreneurship, while application focuses on traditional knowledge and agriculture. Finally under services we are addressing the issue of accelerating e-governance. NKC has already made several recommend-ations in these areas and government has absorbed most of them into its policies or is in the process of doing so. We believe the implementation of the commission’s recommendations will transform the current information gathering-oriented education system into a knowledge creation and dissemination universe," explains Pitroda.

But while the vaulting ambition and radically reformist resolve somewhat belatedly articulated by the prime minister and Pitroda are a necessary pre-condition of 21st century India reaping its much-hyped demographic dividend, there’s a real possibility of the great expectations aroused by the prime minister’s Independence Day address and NKC’s radical reformist agenda remaining empty rhetoric, unless a major resource mobilisation effort is made for education. According to conservative quick estimates made by EducationWorld, the price tag for implementing the prime minister’s Independence Day promises for education development is Rs.275,100 crore (see box) — over twice the current annual education outlay (Centre plus states) of Rs.120,000 crore.

Independence Day promise price tag

In a sharp departure from past practice of cursorily mentioning education on state occasions, on Independence Day (August 15) this year, prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh gave pride of place to education promising the promotion of a slew of new institutions. The estimated price of the prime minister’s promises:

Rs. crore
6,000 high quality schools30,000
370 colleges in states7,400
30 Central universities1,500
5 Indian Institutes of Science Education & Research600
8 IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology)800
7 IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management)800
20 IIITs (Indian Institutes of Information Technology)2,000
1,600 ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes)32,000
10,000 vocational schools50,000
50,000 Skill Development Centres150,000
Source: EW Estimates

However it must be noted that in his Independence Day speech, the prime minister did not disclose the time frame within which this cornucopia of education and self-betterment opportunities will be showered upon the country’s long-suffering youth. Even assuming this bounty is proposed to be spread over the Eleventh Plan period (2007-2012), it will require capital expenditure of Rs.80,000 crore (plus additional revenue expenditure estimated at 20 percent of the annual capital outlay). Admittedly within an economy growing at 9 percent per year, on the assumption that a rising tide lifts all boats, even if the national outlay for education is maintained at 3.8 percent of GDP, the magnitude of the additional resource mobilisation effort will be reduced. Nevertheless an additional Rs.70,000 crore per annum will need to be raised for investment in education, to redeem the prime minister’s commitment.

According to EducationWorld, mobilising additional revenue on this scale is no great shakes. In early 2007 in a path-breaking cover story titled ‘How to reap India’s demographic dividend’ (EW February), we provided a detailed road-map to the Union government and public to mobilise an additional Rs.152,000 crore for investment in the education and health sectors (see box). But for imperial New Delhi rolling back kickbacks-intensive defence spending, unwarranted middle class subsidies, privatising loss-making public sector enterprises and cutting wasteful government expenditure to release resources for redeployment into education, is a herculean task, especially with a general election looming on the horizon.

Getting & Spending: EW Road Map

Resource mobilisation 

Defence expenditure saving


Food subsidy saving


Fertilizer subsidy savings


Government salary savings (Centre plus states)


Non-merit subsidy cuts


PSE disinvestments


Tax exemption savings


Taxation of IT industry




Expenditure for educationRs. (crore)

Toilet blocks for 765,000 government primary schools


Additional teacher in all government primary schools


603 JNV (Jawahar Navodaya Vidayalaya) schools cost of construction


New JNV operational subsidy @ Rs.2 crore each


33 IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) construction cost @ Rs.120 crore each


33 IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) construction cost @ Rs.120 crore each


603 VET (Vocational Education and Training) institutes @ Rs.10 crore each


New VET operational subsidy @ Rs.5 crore each


Proposed National Scholarship Loans Fund corpus


Allocation for childcare and nutrition52,000



Moreover it is pertinent to bear in mind that basic education infrastructure in contemporary India is in such a sorry state, as testified by the recently released Elementary Education in India 2006 report of the Delhi-based National University for Educational Planning and Administration (see EW cover feature September), that an incremental Rs.100,000 crore per year during the Eleventh Plan period is required to enable India to attain the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of primary education for all children by the year 2015. Therefore the secondary and higher education expansion commitment made by the prime minister will require another entirely separate revenue generation effort of similar magnitude.

Nevertheless given the nation’s huge population and its fast expanding tax-paying middle class base, resource mobilisation on a massive scale for investment in India’s abundant human capital as outlined above is not beyond the capability of a determined and purposeful government in New Delhi. "With the economy growing at over 9 percent per year, the Centre’s tax revenue inflow is rising continu-ously. Moreover the government is spreading its services tax net wider, which will further boost tax revenue. Therefore by freezing outlays in other sectors of the economy at current percentages of GDP, it is very feasible to double the national outlay — Centre plus states — for education. Finance is not the constraint," says Narendra Pani, hitherto assistant editor of the Economic Times and currently professor of economics at the School of Social Sciences of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

Dr. Sunil Bhandare, research professor at the Sinhagad Institute of Management, Pune and economic advisor to Tata Sons — the holding company of the multi-billion crore Tata group of companies — also believes that resource mobilisation on the scale required to realise the prime minister’s ambitious vision is eminently feasible. Provided the Congress-led UPA government deregulates the education sector and rolls out the red carpet for education entrepreneurs, and embraces public-private partnerships to develop the country’s massive human resource factor endowment.

"Despite government discouragement, private sector entrepreneurs are increasingly and successfully entering the education sector, not necessarily for national development purposes, but because it makes good business sense to do so. The Central and state governments should encourage private investment in education by making it easier to purchase land and access enabling infrastructure such as electricity, water etc. Liberalisation of the education sector would enable government to quite comfortably mobilise the resources required to realise the promise the prime minister made to the nation on Independence Day. After all, the funding required aggregates to a mere 0.5-1 percent of GDP. This investment amount can easily be raised under the public-private partnership model," says Bhandare.

Yet while acknowledging the importance of huge resource mobili-sation for investment in the hitherto neglected education infrastructure, experienced educators warn that it is not a sufficient condition. In particular they warn against the traditional tendency of officialdom to throw money at problems. Indeed the consensus of opinion within Indian academia is that the top priority of the country’s moribund education system should be deep-rooted reforms, rather than bigger budgets.

"Education has been steadily moving up the people’s agenda — even if not the government’s — for the past two decades, and with higher rates of economic growth government outlays for education have been rising as well. But the missing factor in Indian education has been reforms within the system. Indian education is stuck in a time warp, and groaning under an archaic philosophy. For instance although it’s an open secret that the large and growing number of private sector entrepreneurs in the education sector are prospering and earning profits, legally all of them are obliged to maintain the polite fiction that they run not-for-profit institutions," says Madhav Chavan the Mumbai-based promoter-chief executive of Pratham, arguably the country’s most respected education NGO which manages over 2,500 balwadis (creches) and remedial education centres across the country, and annually publishes its ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), which measures learning outcomes in rural primaries countrywide.

According to Chavan, a large number of newly affluent Indians are ready and willing to invest in education, but urban planners who make provision for industrial layouts, SEZs (special economic zones) etc seldom bother to plan spaces for education and health institutions. Even business and industry, the largest ‘consumers’ of educated youth, has not begun to seriously think about education. "Throwing money at the problems of Indian education as indicated in the prime minister’s Independence Day speech is likely to prove infructuous without radical reforms in education," he warns.

A plea to look beyond resource mobilisation at the "critically important" nuts and bolts issues of the education system is also made by Dr. M.P. Ravindra, education and training advisor of the Bangalore-based IT software and consulting services blue-chip corpor-ation, Infosys Technologies (revenue: Rs.13,893 crore in fiscal 2006-07), repeatedly voted India’s most respected company by business period-icals and pink newspapers. According to Ravindra, although education has progressed on the development agendas of the Central and state governments, and there is greater public awareness of the importance of education for self and societal advancement, the quality of education provided by India’s schools and colleges is deteriorating, rather than improving.

"A fundamental weakness of Indian education is that no planned effort is being made to incentivise bright young people to opt for academic and teaching careers. Salary and service conditions in schools, colleges and universities are so poor that India’s youth take to teaching as a last resort. Therefore the education system is witnessing the phenomenon of nursery school children being taught by failed class X teachers, and primary children by para teachers who scraped through class XII. This is happening on a mass scale across the country. The end result is that the Indian education system barely produces 1,000 Ph Ds per year against the 10,000-15,000 we need," says Ravindra who is well acquainted with the quality of graduates produced by the education system. From the year 2001 when he signed up with Infosys to head its education and training wing, the annual intake of graduates into this pioneer IT corporate has risen from 1,500-2,000 to 20,000 currently. Thereafter the education and training wing puts Infosys’ graduate recruits through a rigorous four month induction and preparatory programme, which reportedly costs the company over Rs.5 lakh per head.

Likewise, Dr. Parth Shah a former professor of economics at Michigan University and currently president of the Centre for Civil Society, Delhi, believes that paucity of financial resources is the least of the problems of Indian education. According to him the Congress-led UPA government is perpetuating the tradition of "pouring more and more money into a dysfunctional system" which is the equivalent of throwing money away.

"Actually India spends more than 6 percent of its GDP on education — 3.5-4 percent is spent by government and 3 percent by the people. Today nobody asks whether the country has the resources for purchasing 200 million cellphones and financing the necessary pan-India network of communication towers. Resources flow automatically into the telecom industry. All that government needs to do is to replicate the telecom development experience in education — encourage private sector for-profit, non-profit, domestic and foreign investment in education with fair and transparent rules. Money will flow into education as it does into the stock market," advises Shah.

Although it’s difficult to contest Shah’s call to apply the logic of market economics in the education sector, given the pathetically rundown condition of the country’s 1.124 million schools, of which 83.14 percent are government owned/managed (46,364 schools don’t have a proper building; the average school has only 3.8 classrooms; 136,848 schools have only one teacher; the student-classroom ratio in over 200,000 schools is over 1:60; 170,000 schools don’t provide drinking water to their students; 420,000 don’t provide separate toilets for girl children, and 787,000 have to function without any electricity), massive government investment is required to upgrade the existing education infrastructure, if not to expand it. Moreover incremental investment and systemic reform in education are not mutually exclusive conditions for modernising and upgrading the country’s schools, colleges and universities to enable India to reap its fortuitous demographic dividend.

Be that as it may, the establishment of the National Knowledge Commission which two years on is getting into its stride; the historic full-bench judgements of the Supreme Court in the T.M.A Pai Foundation (2002) and P.A. Inamdar (2005) cases which affirmed the fundamental right of all citizens to establish and administer education institutions of their choice (and earn reasonable profit); and not least the countrywide acceptance of the value premises of EducationWorld which completes eight years of uninterrupted publication this month, read together with prime minister Manmohan Singh’s heavy emphasis on education develop-ment in his Independence Day address to the nation, are indicators that education is steadily if not spectacularly, moving higher up on the national development agenda.

Suddenly the best and brightest minds of fast-track, resurgent India are focused upon ways and means to expand and upgrade the country’s long-neglected education system. The tipping point is imminent.

With Autar Nehru (Delhi); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) & Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)