Sixty years after Independence and six years after making it a fundamental right, the government has cobbled together the draft legislation that guarantees every Indian a prerogative taken for granted in much of the civilised world: education.
While the intent is laudable — agonisingly slow as it may have been in shaping up — the nation cannot afford to lose much time in making primary education universal. Already, Chinese engineers and workmen are building dams and laying pipelines for Indian companies, and Central Asian pilots are flying our planes. As the economy barrels on, the costs of not upgrading our skills set can only mount.
The next couple of decades will see a spike in the number of Indians joining the workforce and if the State cannot provide them with the basic tools to seek their livelihood in a modern labour market, it could end up nullifying the demographic dividend that comes by a nation centuries apart, if at all. Two in three Indians work on farms today. Moving them into an office would need a generation to spend its working life on factory floors. A process the Chinese are well into. Should we be left behind?
The need for universal primary education cannot be over-emphasised. Farming’s share of national income has dwindled to less than one rupee in five and it will lead two-thirds of the population deeper into poverty unless a big chunk of farm workers finds jobs in other parts of the economy. And jobs there are in manufacturing and services, but not enough qualified Indians to fill them — witness the surge in wages over this decade. Putting a 14-year-old through eight years of basic training is the least the Union government should be doing to plug this gap.
The Right to Education Bill took this long in the making because the Centre and the states kept bickering over who picks up the tab. The Holy Grail of Indian expenditure on education — both public and private — at 6 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (Rs 300,000 crore) is just about double of what we spend every year at present. Doable, with service tax collection at Rs 50,000-odd crore and climbing upwards of 20 per cent a year.