Bridging the rural literacy gap

Updated: Oct 15 2012, 08:13am hrs
India must realise that if it needs to sustain its growth, expand its markets and improve the quality of life of its millions, rural education is where it must start from

Partho Banerjee

A recent article by Stanford economist Scott Rozelle revealed that 80% of urban Chinese students have access to the internet, compared with 2% of their rural peers. The gap, he says, threatens to leave too many children behind and jeopardises Chinas economic future. He called this to be the greatest digital divide of any country in the world and also cited the example of how test scores of students learning Mandarin through computer games and software rose sharply by the advent of computers in rural schools. Within 10 weeks, test scores rose on average from the equivalent of a C+ to a B. The results eventually led to a 10-year-plan laid out by the government that calls for every student in China to have access to the internet. Closer home, in Mumbai to be precise, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation found that students in its schools with internet access outperformed those in other BMC schools without internet access. Clearly, technology is not just a differentiator but also an enabler when it comes to driving positive outcomes in areas such as education, health, financial inclusion, governance, etc.

Personally, I believe that Indias demographic status as a young nation is a double-edged sword. While corporate India looks at the bottom of the pyramid as a potential market, other segments look at this demographic as a source of permanently cheap labour. In India, almost 72% of the population lives in rural or semi-rural areas. On the map of poverty in India, the poorest areas are in parts of Rajasthan, MP, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. Of these, about 300 million young people are in the age-group of 13-35 and most of them are forced to migrate seasonally or permanently, without the skills and competencies required by the modern economy that India is rapidly becoming. Of these 300 million, approximately 100 million would be children below the age of 18 with little to no access to even rudimentary education. Were therefore talking about more than 100 million rural kids going through the system without the skills they need.

A World Bank report of public schools in rural India showed that physical infrastructure remains woefully inadequate, with 82% of schools needing repair. Books are often unavailable, and teacher absenteeism tends to be high. A study of primary schools in six developing countries found that 19% of teachers were absent on any given day, and 23% were absent in rural schools in India, Indonesia and Peru. The cost of a bad education and missed opportunities for Indias rural young is just too big for India to ignore. Hundreds of thousands of migrants are making their ways from the countryside into big cities where jobs await. But, as wages go up, so will the demand for skilled labour. Being poor and looking for a job is one thing. Being poor and uneducated is another. This premise therefore sets the stage for a disenfranchised class and greater poverty that can destabilise India and jeopardise its role as one of the worlds economic stars. Equally important in the Indian context (as in the Chinese context, for that matter) is that the demographic advantage can be lost if social, political and environmental challenges are not deftly managed. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing, underscored by corruption and the lack of balance between equitable growth and corresponding infrastructure. If sustainability is the key to success, then ensuring that the growth story percolates across all levels of society is essential. India must realise that if it needs to sustain its growth, expand its markets and improve the quality of life of its millions, rural education is where it must start from.

The International Labour Organisation has stated that India will account for the highest working age population in the next 10 years. In fact, 64% of the increase in the working age population (15-64 age-group) among the G20 nations in the period 2010-20 will happen in India. Despite recent economic growth, poverty levels have not been reduced at the same pace. Poor rural people continue to live with inadequate physical and social infrastructure, poor access to services, and a highly stratified and hierarchical social structure, characterised by inequalities in assets, status and power. Therefore, states need to take a sharp look at what population really means to their economic growth and analyse how to use their demographic situation to improve their competitiveness and, hence, enhance their prosperity. What is heartening, however, is that Indian states, even the so-called BIMARU ones are now (notwithstanding electoral rhetoric) more intent and focused on bridging some of these gaps. Education and health are high on the agenda but the pace of change needs to be improved through technology enablers or aggregators. The Aakash tablet is arguably one such step that could help personalise the learning experience for teachers and educators alike.

Similarly, technology-enabled education such as VSAT can help communities access broadband-enabled web content as well as use interactive video- and voice-enabled platforms to collaborate and share content and can be a major enabler in making quality content and services available remotely. Technology can also help make the teaching-learning experience more integrated, improve quality and equally importantly make education more affordable. It can also be a big catalyst in providing a fillip to vocational- and skills-based training, thereby allowing Indias young to access jobs for low and medium skilled workers and revitalising Indias labour marker. Only when we see educators and government realise that India needs to change the game in education altogether to let the countrys young bridge the gaps in primary, secondary and vocational education, will we see a consistent learning experience offered in schools and institutes of higher learning regardless of income, region or geography.

The author is managing director, Hughes Network Systems India