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Can’t fail the youth

The last 20 years of economic reforms have set free the animal spirits of our economy. But the animal can leap farther, Shashi Tharoor writes.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2013 00:28 IST

There has never been a better time to be an optimistic and patriotic Indian. This is not to dismiss the daunting challenges that face the country today. Crushing poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition, disease, discrimination based on caste, community and gender, all continue to be the defining elements of everyday life for an unacceptable number of our fellow citizens. And yet, despite these, India today is better placed than it has ever been to meet all these challenges with a realistic chance of overcoming all of them in our lifetime.

In 2013 and beyond, the best is yet to come for India, and the key that will unlock and unleash our long-suppressed potential is — education.

We were blessed with having, in our founding fathers, a group of individuals remarkable in the breadth of their intellect, the scope of their vision and the depth of their integrity. The idea of India finds its moral voice in Gandhi, its political expression in Nehru, its aesthetic sensibility in Tagore, its administrative cohesion in Patel, its nationalist pride in Bose, its composite culture in Azad, and its constitutional ethic in Ambedkar. That we have yet to attain proper fulfilment of the destiny they charted for us is no fault of their vision. Rather it reflects our own collective failings and the dimensions of the task at hand.

Since Independence, education has played a vital role in every aspect of nation-building. The strong bond of citizenship that unites us Indians today has emerged through the efforts of generations of dedicated teachers, who ensured that our education reflects both our cultural values and national aspirations. They provided the narrative framework in which the next phase of the story of India in the 21st century is set to unfold. But whether it will unfold at a pace and in a direction consistent with the expectations of more than 500 million youth or not, depends largely on the kind of educational opportunities we are able to provide them.

The task for our policy makers in the field of education is cut out. The last 20 years of economic reforms have set free the animal spirits of our economy. But the animal can leap farther: this process of growth and prosperity needs to be sustained and even accelerated. Doing it will require improving the quality of our human resources.

The government for its part has adopted a multi-pronged strategy to achieve the national policy objectives of universal, affordable and quality education. From expanding the scope of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Mid-day Meal Scheme, and the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2009, the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan for increasing retention rates for secondary education, the creation of new universities, IITs, NITs, IIITs and IIMs and a variety of schemes for increasing the scope and quality of vocational education, the government has devised policies and allocated resources to every level of education.

But we also know all that we have done is not enough in itself.

The challenges of educating and training this vast population under the age of 25 are too vast for the government to meet with its own resources. It is for this reason that the last two decades have seen the increasing participation of the private sector. Even foreign universities are now showing a keen interest in creating institutions in India. However, the entry of private players in this socially sensitive sector has raised concerns with regard to equality of access and quality of outcomes. To address these, the government has prepared legislation which, when in place, will create a more robust regulatory framework for this absolutely vital segment of our economy and society.

Over the next 20 years, India faces the challenge and opportunity of growing at a rate of 8% and more, with a youthful, productive working-age population. A well-educated, highly-skilled workforce will be an essential prerequisite for driving this momentum. We know that the price of failure is too high: the Naxalite movement shows what might become of frustrated and unemployed young men. We are therefore all the more determined to succeed.

(The author is minister of state for human resource development and a parliamentarian from Thiruvananthapuram)