I would describe the Mercedes Benz International School in Pune to be the Rolls-Royce of schools in India.
They follow the International Baccalaureate Organization’s curricula. About half their students are Indians and the others are the children of expatriates working in multinational firms in Pune.
It is the kind of school that if you have to ask what the tuition fees are, you probably cannot afford it. With only 167 students, it is as exclusive as it is expensive. The annual fee is mind-boggling—to me at least—over half a million rupees a year. The top fees is Rs 5.7 lakhs ( approximately, US$ 13,000) and the one-time fixed cost is Rs 3 lakhs.
I visited them for a few hours yesterday. The Director of MBIS, Mr Michael Thompson, is English. Over coffee and biscuits he explained what the school was all about. Later we walked around and had a look at the neat little campus nestled in among a lot of IT companies in the industrial area called Hinjewadi. Infosys, Wipro, and others of that ilk are beautifully laid out in what is called the “Rajiv Gandhi IT Park.”
The Mercedes Benz school is very far away from where I live. Physically it is about an hour away, or about 30 kms on the other side of town. In a very different sense, it is farther away from me. The school that I went to when I was small had a fees of Rs 70 a year, undoubtedly somewhat subsidized by government grants. The MB school is about 10 thousand times as costly. Even accounting for inflation, I would say that the MB school is about a thousand times more expensive than the school I went to.
Why is everything in India named after the Gandhis? The huge national park in Borivali in north Mumbai is called the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Did not know that Sanjay was a great nationally renowned nature lover. If I had not known better, I would have figured that he must have been the John Muir of India.
Pretty much half the things around India are named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. What astonishes me most is when educational institutions are named after the family which does not have a single graduate degree among the whole lot of them. Not that they could not afford to go to college. No, they all attended colleges and attempted to get degrees but failed to get one.
On second thoughts, given the moribund state of the Indian educational system, perhaps naming educational institutions after the luminaries of the Nehru-Gandhi family has a certain aptness to it.
The kids in the Mercedes Benz schools were having fun. One large group was having their lunch in the school cafeteria. A smiling, happy, noisy bunch of I guess 8 to 10-year olds. We walked past another bunch which was evidently the school chorus and band. They were led by a couple of music teachers, one a Canadian-Indian and the other Danish. We looked around the classrooms and the labs and the library. Everything was neat and tidy.
I regretted not bringing my camera with me. But then this school was very similar to the very upscale schools that I had visited during my recent visit to New Zealand. I had pictures of those schools and this one was in no significant way different from them. I made a mental note that I would have to write to Gordon Dryden, mine host in Auckland, who had taken us to all the schools in NZ.
Since I don’t have a car, I had rented one for my visit to MBIS. On my way back, I was thinking about what I had seen. A world that I live very far away from. Education that costs every year the equivalent of 30 times the annual income of the average Indian.
The traffic on the way back was, needless to say, absolutely horrible around the Shivajinagar area where they have been doing some road construction work for the last two years or so. The dust and the din is awful and makes one wonder what went wrong that we have to suffer this.
But I should not complain. In the stopped traffic an old man with a very shriveled face appeared at the driver’s side. I dug into my pockets and handed the few coins I had to the driver to give to the old man. He turned away with gratitude on his tired face. On my side of the car then appeared a little girl, about 7 years old. She had in her hands a couple of packets of Q-tips.
I shook my head to indicate that I did not want any. But she pleaded with her eyes, asking for some help. Usually I carry about fifty rupees in change to give as handouts but I was out of change. My wallet I recalled had only one-hundred rupee bills. I was not totally sure that I had any lower denomination bills. For some reason, I was against giving out a Rs 100. But I did not want to reach for my wallet and check. If I had done that, it would have raised her hopes, only to be dashed if I did not give her any money after all. I sat there feeling miserable shaking my head no until she gave up and went to the next vehicle.
Life is a random draw. She should have been in school, doing singing practice or perhaps having her lunch with a bunch of her friends talking loudly. Instead she was barefoot in the dusty street breathing in car and diesel truck exhaust for hours hoping to make enough money to survive another day to do the same the next day. Her parents had produced her and somehow she had survived the neglect so far to reach this age. One day, perhaps in less than 10 years, she will herself get into the role of producing more like her.
This is a sector of the economy. The labor sector. They reproduce themselves very efficiently. They survive on very little. They work in the dust and the heat and in dangerous conditions. Around where I live, the construction industry is booming. Huge apartment complexes are rising up as thick as forests. I admit that since no trees are being planted, this is a substitute forest. Anyway, the laborers toil away with no protective gear. Twisted steel bars used for reinforcing concrete they handle with their bare hands. Bare-footed, they wade into a pool of cement. Their children walk among all the rusted steel bits, barefoot.
There are lots of IB schools coming up in India. Pune itself has about a half dozen. Education is really big business. And for education to be really delivered well and efficiently, it has to be run like a business. Currently education is supply constrained. I am hoping that sufficient providers enter the sector so that the increase in supply will drive down the prices and competition will increase quality.
When I look at the vicious cycle of poverty that the majority of India’s children are caught in, I have only one hope and that is education. If we can educate just one generation fully, we have some hope of solving India’s problems. That is the challenge but given the uneducated leadership, I am afraid that it may not come to pass.