Indias changing image abroad

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Dec 24 2005, 06:53am hrs
In popular western imagination, media commentary or business fora, there is steady metamorphosis underway about Indias image, best portrayed by Thomas Friedman in his bestseller The Earth is Flat. Despite continuing problems of poverty, infrastructure and bureaucracy, the most common reference about India now is its growing consumer market and success in fields like information technology.

Even the US Central Intelligence Agencys (CIA) recent 2020 project, issued by the National Intelligence Council, says that China and India will be new major global players that will transform the geopolitical landscape.

The image of a decrepit and burdened society is rapidly being supplanted in general talkin fact, even western comedy routines- by the image of the smart, geeky Indian who is likely to take western jobs away. While a large part of this picture is excessive, much like the negative stereotype in earlier eras, one incontestable fact is that the growth of an educated middle class is the real success story of modern India.

In fact, nowhere is Indias educational profile more in the spotlight than via its diasporic community of engineers, doctors, writers, academics and management gurus. Generally speaking, and with perhaps the exception of Gulf countries, where the bulk of Indian expatriates are low-skilled workers on short-term contracts, the vast majority of ethnic Indians living abroad tend to be very well educated, if not very well paid.

This translates directly to a higher economic index. As per the last official census in the UK, the average income of Indian living in Britain was about 15% higher than the national average, while in Canada it was 20% higher.

In the US, where this has been meticulously documented by a report We the People: Asians in the United States, that was issued by the US government some time ago and was based on the 2000 census, emigre Indians have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group, including the Chinese.

This report found that Indian migrants had higher incomes and educational levels than not just the average US family but also virtually every other Asian community. For example, 64% of Indians held a bachelors degree or more, as compared to 48% among Chinese or 54% among Pakistanis.

Almost all the positive changes regarding India whether market reforms, a dynamic IT industry, a vibrant civil society or even the rising profile of Indian professionals abroad are directly related to the growing culture and thirst for education, now one of the fastest growing activities in the country. The middle class is saving, borrowing and toiling for the right academic opportunity for its children as never before, even though a good degree can be very expensive for the average family.

In the last few years, since study loans were introduced, Indian banks have witnessed an almost 400% increase in loan applications. Going abroad for studies has now become such a standard practice that every year more than 50,000 Indian students join foreign universities.

In fact, by the end of 2002, India already surpassed China as the leading country of origin for international students in the United States. Further, at least at the advanced management and college level, India holds a current advantage over its Asian competitor: for every one student China sends to university, India sends six. So far so good, but education remains tightly controlled and poorly supervised by the government, in effect reducing both quantity and quality in one stroke.

India has a large number of smaller cities and towns where the aspiration levels of its middle class and the resulting scramble for slots in top educational institutes, like the IITs and IIMs, is now totally out of tune with available opportunities. This huge demand-supply gap in education in India, or even its skewed metro-city or higher-level distribution, threatens to erode much of our past advantage as other countries catch up.

China is investing an amazing amount of resources and energy to improve educational infrastructure, especially to impart foreign language skills. The Chinese creative spirit is still deeply trapped within the dictates of a communist regime, but it may not be too long before we start hearing about Chinese success in soft areas, like publishing, movies and the like.

Meanwhile, South Korea, with a population of 45 million, already has 120 universities, while Israel, with a population of only six million, has 10 universities. If we were to correspond these figures to our population, India needs at least 2,000 more universities today.

Should the government allow private higher education Many people worry about the quality of private colleges, especially since some that already exist have proven to be sub-standard.

This is an evolving debate, but the situation begs some sort of private-public partnership in diffusing social benefit and retaining Indias competitive edge.

At the very least, government officials, industry leaders and other cheerleaders of our successful image transition need to get together to discuss providing a jobs-oriented school education in the countryside.

The writer is editor, India Focus