India’s children are neither parrots nor monkeys – give them a break, a real one

It will help immensely if Start Up India is preceded by Wake Up India
India’s children are neither parrots nor monkeys – give them a break, a real one
India’s children are neither parrots nor monkeys – give them a break, a real one
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During a recent interaction with the media, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the response to the Start Up India event in New Delhi was so massive, he thought the next time a stadium would be in order. In Davos, business people and bureaucrats who have rarely if ever risked anything were encouraging young India to take the risk of being part of the fourth industrial revolution, jobs for which do not exist yet but automation will be the centrepiece. At an event in New Delhi Sundar Pichai the CEO of Google said India’s education system should encourage children to take risks. It is okay to fail, he said – failure is what has made Silicon Valley what it is today.  

Indians are good at telling stories of school and college dropouts as long as it is nowhere near them or theirs. In America, Steve Jobs was a drop out and Bill Gates quit Harvard goes the drift. To make sense of this gabfest, I did a quick search to see what lower kindergarten (LKG) applicants typically children between three and five are expected to know to make the cut. They are expected to count till 100, know the alphabets, both capital and small letters. They are expected to know shapes – square, circle, rectangle etc. Some LKG tests also expect general knowledge – who is the prime minister of India. It is okay if the child says Sachin Tendulkar – that cannot be grounds for worry, but it is. Children barely able to walk alone attend mind abacus classes. In a piquant post this week Soumya Rajendran wrote that sending children to the moon was easier than getting them into LKG. She is being kind – Mars is the new moon. Read her post here.

When 19,000 people including engineers and people with a master’s degree apply for 114 safaikaramcharis (cleaning jobs) as is happening in Uttar Pradesh we get closer to reality. India has a jobs problem, but if it has to start up, it has to wake up to the grim reality of the winger parents and children have to go through to get a foot in the door. There are three very blatant issues staring us in the face. Primo, money, access and caste or a combination of the three can help children get into the right schools. Secondo, this makes any real competition false. Tertio, if there is no genuine competition, we are managing risk institutionally to achieve the least common denominator. StartUp India cannot be a celebration of mediocrity.

Job creation is a high priority for this government and economic inclusion is one of its pillars. Perhaps the most effective path to achieve this is through the formal sector which also addresses other determinants such as poverty, health and above all, education. Currently, some 14% of India’s workforce has formal sector jobs amply suggesting that if Make in India must succeed, it must make for Indians and more importantly create jobs. Jobless growth as India’s IT revolution showed plays a limited role in an economic take off. There exists a plethora of development models – East Asian, Chinese seem the flavour of times – suggesting how India can create 100 million jobs in the next two decades. The Asian tigers and their cubs are not democracies. Labour reforms, an aggressively pro-business climate and institutional reforms is more difficult in a democracy, but backed by sound and long-term thinking, it could make India a vibrant economy. As Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan recently said, India has too many of the wrong kind of regulations and too few of the right ones. More reforms means more competition, more competition means a more mind-set that is ready for it, more mind-set means a very different type of education that promotes risks and failures.

You cannot succeed if you have not failed. If a child’s success is routed through tuition classes, rote learning, lack of creativity and absence of risk, we need to do some serious thinking about what we are offering India’s future generations. Parrots can be taught to sing, monkeys have produced results comparable to good traders and robots run many sectors. The question is no longer is do we trust robots. It will increasingly be – do robots trust humans? If we don’t wish to end up as the world’s back office across sectors, we have to invest in our children and the way they learn. Start Up India will work if India wakes up to this opportunity.  

Postcript: Sports. Don’t even talk about it.

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