Education at the bottom of the (Indian) pyramid

I, like almost everyone I talk to, am bothered about the state of affairs regarding education & skills. I’m not referring to the political agenda in England revolving around free schools, the promotion of academy status for schools, the education maintenance allowance, university fees or any such subject that’s being debated in our political media; rather I’m referring to the injustice of the 60million or so children who’ve never set their eyes on a school building. More so, I get even more vexed when I hear about the millions of children who do attend a school, but leave without learning anything! How comes that never comes up in our media?

The reason I mention this, is recently, I was fortunate to have met with Madhav Chavan, who in the mid-90s founded a NGO in India called Pratham. Later that evening, I attended a dinner hosted by their UK chapter where he laid out the challenge.

His argument was simple. One of the main reasons children fail in the Indian schooling system is because they lack basic literacy skills – they can’t read or write. As a result of this realization, Pratham’s dedicated itself to reaching the absolute bottom (of the famous Indian) pyramid to equip those children (and now adults) with these skills.

To assist their work, one the most valuable things that Pratham instituted and conducts with rigour is a national survey, called ASER, which has now become the de-facto study on education in India, as approx 720,000 people in 16,000 villages across the sub-continent are surveyed.

Chavan highlighted some of the following statistics, which made me sit up and think (read: pull my hair out):

• 97% of children in India are enrolled in a school – emphasis is on enrolled. They don’t necessarily attend or sit exams.
• After four years of learning, in class 5, between 40 – 50% of children can’t read or can’t write.
• In rural India (which is the majority of India), after four years of schooling, in class 5, 60% of children fail to solve a simple division sum.

If this is the case, regardless of where we live, we all need to worry.

If a quarter of the world’s work force is expected to reside in India within the next 15 years, where are all the skilled workers going to come from? Yes, India has a large, and young population that could be a massive advantage in its ascendancy to super-power status, but there’s simply no hiding from these facts.

Right now, it’d be quite easy to take a pot-shot at the role of government, but as Chavan explained, India is a very complex country, where there is a long term commitment in fixing this problem. I assume the challenge comes in dealing with the situation here & now – which if you’ve ever visited India is a challenge in most spheres of life.

As is so true, he explained that where good leadership exists, you find change. For example, some progressive state governments do recognise the huge hurdle that exists and are doing something about this. Bihar is a good example. It has 10 million illiterate adults, and to institute a programme to equip them with “employment ready” skills will require an army of volunteers, which Pratham is trying to marshal with the support of Nitish Kumar, their Chief Minister.

Similarly, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, realizes as a result of ASER data on his state that in order to translate his success in attracting massive investment commitments he needs a skilled and educated workforce. He’s now mandated his Ministerial team to visit schools to assess for themselves the problems in their system.

If you read my first post in January 2011, you’ll see that I took my kids to a Pratham school in Mumbai. The thing that struck me was that Pratham’s model works because it’s so simple. Because it’s low-cost. Because they’re at ground level. But more importantly, because they can prove their method works.

At the dinner later that day, surrounded by ultra successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and city professionals, Chavan conveyed his message with great effectiveness. His audience were positively agitated and somewhat pissed off at the situation in their beloved motherland. In typical fashion, wanting to put the world right several suggestions were offered by those assembled, but Chavan put it all in perspective, at least for me. He explained: in a country where almost 75% of the population defecates in the open, you need solutions that take into cognizance the reality of India, here and now, and build on them rather than building clouds in the sky.

He’s right. You & I know it. By offering our support to the likes of Pratham, we’ll be doing something about the challenges facing our future generations.

There’s cows on the roads!

Ever since my kids were born, I’ve wanted to take them to India – the land of my ancestors. Partly, as I wanted them to connect at an early age with their heritage, and partly as I think they’ll be better equipped for the future if they start understanding the nuances of India – a country that everyone’s accepted as being central to global prosperity in the future.

In their lifetimes, they’ll see massive change. The centre of gravity will shift from Europe & North America to India & China. Given their obvious link to one of these future superpowers, our purpose was to introduce them to the sights, smells, and joys of our motherland.

So, we took them to Mumbai – home to the Indian film industry, commercial capital of India, and a bustling metropolis that is, arguably, the most outward looking of all Indian cities where their eyes came alight with – not the razzle dazzle of neon lights – but by seeing cows, goats, and pigs sharing the roads with the human race and by witnessing the sheer number of people on the streets of Mumbai.

Although I say it in light jest, it’s an important lesson that they realize that a civilization as ancient as it is, respects & shares with others, and that the concept of private space is (a luxury, and) perhaps, unique to the western hemisphere.

Along with the (rather, costly) saree shopping we had to endure on this visit; on New Years Day, we took the opportunity to visit a community school run by a NGO called Pratham in a Mumbai slum. I’d heard and read a lot about their stellar work, but visiting projects such as the ones we did reminded us that India may be a wonderfully colourful, vibrant, and hip place to be but there’s absolutely no escaping the fact that India is still home to a third of the world’s poor.

Cars, scooters, and rickshaws not only share roads with cows and other animals, you also visibly see the increasingly affluent sharing their immediate vicinity with some of the poorest people on the face of our planet.

My kids visited a crammer class of 20 students aged 7, who all sat cross-legged on the floor in a one room building with a teacher who used a blackboard to coach them on how they could attain a 80% pass rate for an exam, which if they did would provide them with 750 rupee (just over £10) scholarship to study further.

We worked our way through the slum – with open sewers, noisy workshops, and a dhobi ghat, to visit a room that also doubled up as a community library, which had fewer books than, not our local school library, but the books on the shelves in my children’s bedrooms! It may have been woefully inadequately resourced, but what came through was the immense pleasure of the children’s faces from being able to read the few books that they had at their disposal. With every page they turned, you could see their minds working overtime to grasp and understand what the author intended.

Lastly, we visited another home, where 20 children aged 2 – 6, who had never gone to school, were able to say the days of the week, read an early stage book, and respond in English to us.

All of this served to bring to the fore not only that we’re materially better off and have comforts that so many don’t, but the fact that there’s an entire generation that’s young and hungry to succeed. They’re going to take every opportunity that comes their way to improve their lives.

Economic forecasts show that as a result of various factors, primarily due its very young population, almost 25% of the world’s workforce will reside in India, not in 50 years, but in the next 15 years – in our lifetimes!

The basic message that we want our kids to recognise is that they have an inbuilt advantage, which they would be wise to embrace given the strides that India’s going to be making. Their economic well being in London, will in some shape or form, be dependent on how they understand and interact with India.

As parents, my wife & I committed to doing everything at our means to ensure our children run faster than we did, have larger dreams that we had, and in all are able to stand strong, not on their own, but realizing they belong to an increasingly interdependent and connected ecosystem – on in which they understand that their actions can have a major impact on someone else’s prosperity and vice-versa.

Whilst, I’ve focused on the material benefits of a relationship with the Indian subcontinent in this post, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that’s all India offers for the future. It was Mark Twain who aptly described India as “India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only”, meaning that her ancient traditions, religious practices, philosophical outlook could perhaps address and teach us how to be better people and, just perhaps, answer the mother of all our questions – “what is the meaning of life”.

My daughters are way too young to grasp such issues, but, I hope that as a result of the connection they made in their 2010 Christmas break, they’re able to run that little bit further, climb a bit higher, and dream a bigger dream.

Our future depends on an alternative view… the Hindu view

I wasn’t brought up to be a culture junkie who enjoys traipsing around galleries, museums, and art shows commenting on the significance of the treasures and sensory delights that may be displayed. I was brought up in a working class environment by loving parents who wanted me to do the best that I could, and it’s this sense that I try to inculcate in my kids, also.

But, as I’ve grown older, my appreciation of all things considered ‘elitist’ by some circles has increased as a result of being exposed to a very different world after I started my business. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and discuss all types of subjects with some fairly serious figures from the arts, business, and politics, some of whom I have forged fairly strong associations with.

The one moment I’d like to recall is a discussion I had with a much respected Jain businessman, who’d called me over to his home one Sunday for a lovely Gujarati breakfast, who I’d helped to organise an event in the House of Commons, and as a result became aware of their significant achievements.

For those unaware, the Institute of Jainology is currently engaged in digitising ancient Jain manuscripts that will be made available to all using the internet. Naturally, all of this work is extremely expensive to do, so I questioned their wisdom in embarking on such an ambitious and resource intensive project.

His response sticks out because it marked a turning point in my thinking. He explained, in brief, that history teaches us that our world will be characterised by the decimation of various civilisations that have come and gone. His understanding on the subject was quite extensive and he went to great detail to identify critical events that contributed to such decline.

Whilst today it seems that what he said was so obvious, at that time my thinking was somewhat uninitiated on such topics. He elaborated that one of the critical aspects that can save civilisations is the preservation and protection of its arts, high culture, language, wisdom materials & traditions, as when these are destroyed, the trickle-down effect of their loss is a major contributory factor in these civilisations being wiped out.

My reason for explaining the above is that earlier this week, I was invited to the Annual Governors Dinner of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS), which is an institution that was created to promote the further study of Hindu studies at the most acclaimed Oxford University. From what I understand, this is the only such centre of its kind that exists anywhere in the world.

Dixit Joshi, Head of European Equities at Barclays Capital was invited to deliver the keynote address, and he made some fairly sensible points, of which he affirmed:

1. How the centre provides a deeper understanding of the Hindu traditions, which are complex.
2. How the centre provides a connection between Hindu thinking and the challenges we face as a global society.
3. How the centre is helping to strengthen a sense of Hindu identity and a better understanding of what it means to be a Hindu today.

He concluded his speech by stating: “And for every text collected and preserved, for every new insight into our past, and for every new parallel drawn to the present; there will be a stronger foundation and greater relevance for our Hindu traditions.”

“We have an opportunity to ignite a spark in people’s minds. To help the centre reach across our society and light the fires of knowledge in all that it touches. And to build the traditions of our past into the foundations of our future.”

“I believe that we have before us an opportunity to invest not just in the Centre for Hindu Studies but in the quality of thought and debate that will help to shape our future.
And, for me, that’s an investment opportunity too good to turn down.”

Given the importance of the subject and the manner the OCHS has gone on to building itself, it struck me how they’re so massively underfunded, which is surprising given the material strength of Britain’s Hindu community.

To me such a situation definitely points to (i) a lack of confidence in Hindu values, which should be a major concern for all of us, and also (ii) for a need to create a centre that is fit for attracting investment by philanthropists, trusts, and other major benefactors, which must be addressed by the OCHS, which it’s not currently in the best shape to do.

We may be a god fearing, temple going, enterprising community, but if we seek to stem the decline in the practice our traditions and the applicability of our values in the post recession world, then we ought to take the lead from Dixit Joshi and Harish Patel who I salute and give them the credit they deserve in firstly, recognising the need and secondly, for raising the profile of a promising institution like the OCHS.

I’m not here to bat for the OCHS, so rather than argue that we ought to support them for our own selfish interest, I believe that we owe it to humanity to provide a sensible and balanced alternative view on how to tackle some of the biggest challenges humanity faces.

I sincerely believe such institutions can play a pivotal role in doing so, but it’s important that they ask themselves and understand fully whether they’re truly fit & equipped for purpose before embarking on such a journey.