Previous post: Part 1.
I find it hard to comprehend very large numbers. For instance, when I consider that India has 1.12 million schools (primary and secondary), I am dumbstruck. I have to translate it down to relative numbers because the absolute numbers are beyond me. So, I would roughly estimate that out of population of approximately one billion people, about 200 million are in the school-going age. If you have one school per 200 kids, that means India must have approximately a million schools. Now the number of schools makes sense to me.
What continues to evade comprehension is how they define what constitutes a school. If you have a place which does not have even a single blackboard or a teacher, no classrooms, no toilets, no playground, and no discernible educational facilities, would you still call it a school? Is that school a state of mind, an abstraction that exists in the imagination of some government bureaucrat?
According to a study done by an education think-tank (NUEPA), “Elementary Education in India: State Report Cards 2005-06″ (PTI report, July 2007), nearly 90,000 elementary schools do not have a blackboard. Of these, around 22,000 do not have teachers.
Besides blackboards, thousands of the schools also did not have buildings, drinking water facilities, toilets, boundary walls and playgrounds. As many as 1,02,227 schools — or 9.54 per cent of the total schools imparting elementary education — had only one classroom, the report said.
If you have a bladeless knife without a handle, can you meaningfully claim to have a knife at all?
This is the most damning indictment of the Indian state controlled education system – it fails in the most elementary task of providing elementary education to tens of millions of children. Given this failure, is it any surprise that it fails in the more challenging task of managing the later stages of the process?
What I find most disturbing is the lack of understanding among the policymakers about which problems have to be solved and in which order. In any system, there are multiple problems. Harder than solving the problems is figuring out which problem to solve first. Getting the sequence right is absolutely critical.
In any sequential process, an error earlier in the process propagates and gets magnified later in the process. Fixing a failure earlier in the sequence prevents the propagation of the failure and involves much less effort than in later stages. If a person does not have the opportunity of getting a proper elementary education, the person is forever handicapped. Regardless of how natively talented the person is, she will not be able to make much use of any other educational opportunities she is presented with later in life. Reserving seats for her in institutions of higher learning only serves to compound injury with insult. It says to her, “You are not actually capable of competing. The others are more talented than you. So we will do you a favor and reserve you a seat.”
I think thoughtful people should be more concerned about the fact that someone – anyone irrespective of which group they belong to – is denied basic education than with the matter of which group gets what sort of reservations. That individuals numbering in the millions are denied, either by design or by incompetence, basic education is what should keep us awake at night.
A Rant about Ignoring the Individual
Let me underline one matter. I am concerned about and interested in an individual, not a group. I think that an individual is the proper unit for policy considerations, not groups. Policies that are made with reference to groups are immoral, wrong-headed, and stupid. Unfortunately, groups have always been the target of most, if not all, public policy debates.
I think it goes back to the leaders of India. They never appreciated individual freedoms and individuality. Perhaps they were merely stupid. Or perhaps they were smart enough to realize that treating people like sheep makes them easier to be herded. Gandhi was especially astute. He focused on groups and exploited them. He went so far as to rename a group as “the children of god” – which necessarily implies that the rest are the devil’s spawn.
Gandhi’s heirs are the current crop of Nehru’s spawn, and they and their handmaidens continue that policy of naming groups and pitting one group against another. The chief handmaiden of the Gandhi family, Dr Manmohan Singh, went so far as to explicitly state that Muslims have more claims than non-Muslims. He did not say that any individual who is disadvantaged due to circumstances beyond her control deserves a little help from society; no, he said that Muslims as a group have a higher claim to resources than non-Muslims. That Dr Singh said that is astonishing enough. What is truly staggering is that most people did not even notice the immorality of his stance. His statement is the most potent combination of stupidity, immorality, cynicism and insanity that could be uttered by anyone who is probably not actually stupid, immoral, cynical and insane.
End of rant.
Let’s consider a counter factual. Imagine sufficient resources (financial and institutional) were available so that every child had an opportunity to get a basic education. By basic education I mean the ability to read, write, think logically and be numerate. Unless a person is mentally handicapped, the outcome of having the opportunity is predictable—everyone becomes sufficiently educated to be at least minimally productive. Let’s refer to this as “Foundational education” to indicate that without this foundation, an individual can neither function even minimally in society nor go up the education system at all. I am assuming that everyone needs foundational education and is capable of acquiring it.
The middle-class (and above) in India can afford the cost of foundational education (FE). The children of the poor cannot. Public resources are required for them. Imagine an efficient and effective system of aiding the poor exists.
I believe that individuals vary in their abilities and their preferences. Not everyone wants to be a brain surgeon and not everyone is capable of becoming one. Besides if everyone were to become brain surgeons, we’d have an acute shortage of rocket scientists. What we need is a system which allows an individual to climb as high up any educational ladder—accountant, brain surgeon, computer programmer, dentistry, engineering, forensic medicine, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy—of her choice that she is capable of and wants to.
Moving on with our counter factual scenario, let’s now imagine that our individual is interested in becoming an engineer. So she appears for a test that evaluates her ability and preparedness for undertaking engineering studies. Happily she is found to be capable, and she gains admission into an engineering school. In this story, we imagine that there are no capacity constraints in any field of education: if someone is capable of undertaking the study, he or she has the opportunity.
What about the cost of this higher education? If she has her own means (through her parents, say), paying for education is not an issue. But if she needs financial assistance, student loans are available. In our imaginary system, the benefits of education exceed their costs. So repayment of the loan is not a problem.
In this system, there is no need for reservations. The system has the capacity to supply to the demand for any kind and any level of education.
Now back to the real world of India today. To start with, there are a huge number of people who don’t have access to the foundational education. Around six percent actually pass high school. And then this small percentage faces the incredibly hard task of scrambling for a limited number of seats in colleges.
To take one example, consider the IITs. To a first approximation, no one gets to go to the much-celebrated IITs: two out of every hundred who aspire actually get to study in one. Quite possibly, the top 10 percent of those who compete for IITs are fully qualified for it. But there are just not enough seats.
It is a dismal situation. But what is worse is the response of the policymakers. Instead of expanding capacity, they do the brain-dead thing: introduce quotas and reservations that are based on group identity.
Reservations in educational institutions based on caste and religion are bad for a number of reasons. First, it ignores the individual. It is immoral to discriminate against an individual based on any characteristic that is not only outside his control but is also immaterial in a given context.
Second, it induces inter-group rivalry and hostility. This imposes enormous social costs.
Third, it distracts attention from the real problem. The real problem is that the system is unable to meet the demand. This problem is solvable provided the political will is there. The hoopla over quotas and who is getting how much makes people lose sight of what needs to be done.
In the next bit I will go into how we can create a system which is not supply constrained and therefore has no need for reservations.
Next post: Part 3.