I was struggling to read my Marathi copy of the play ‘Natasamrat’ by Kusumagraj –a complex and beautiful flow of an elevated dialect when my domestic help, who has passed her tenth standard, paused from cleaning the floor and said, reassuringly: ‘It’s ok, take your time. Words in Marathi are complex because one word performs the function of two in English (for example ‘ya’ is ‘come in/here/along’). So obviously, it will take twice as long.” That a simple woman with a basic education can acquire a feel for semantics is integral to the Indian way of learning. We see this replicated across sectors that we routinely neglect: weaving, potters, the diamond industry, agriculture, arts.
Our handlooms, just 11% of the textile market today, but employing around 20 million workers, is bleeding an irreplaceable feel for the cloth. In the Lahaul valley, crop rotation and mixed cropping – up to a combination of 16 varieties of pulses and legumes - protect both soil fertility and the crop itself from transfer of diseases and pests. In water conservation, the impact of deforestation, rapid industrialisation and ignorant crop choices, has pushed Maharashtra to its only option left now - indigenous techniques such as micro irrigation, terrace channelling, farm ponds, earth stop dams and urgent reforestation. Micro solutions like Lijjat and Amul grew exponentially till today, our dairy farmers have sponsored our Olympic athletes.
Yet, a vast majority of those equipped with this kind of knowledge are painted by the all-too broad brush of illiteracy. Their induction into a mainstream education system implies rejecting systems of knowledge they already have. Our definitions of literacy adopt an either/or approach that measure our understanding of words and numbers, but fail to measure taught or inherited knowledge that might actually be more effective to navigate a labour workforce. We routinely take the most skilled weaver and slap a label of “illiterate” on him and make him part of the 28.7crore whom we claim hold us back. Bereft of what they know, they are ill equipped to question what they clearly don’t.
In 2014, the UNESCO report labelled us the largest most illiterate country in the world. In 2015, our Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) was a measly 23.6% though our literacy rate was 74.04%. In Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2014, 96.7% children are enrolled in schools, 71% attend, but children of the second grade can still not read what they ought to be able to in the first. India is also launching a Rs 1800 croe digital literacy project to educate 60 million people. According to IndiaSpend figures, India’s enrolment is only vocational 5.5 million a year and only 2% of Indian workers have any formal skills. That we must bridge gaps in education is the writing on the wall so many of us cannot quite read yet. Yet, even among our 30 lakh graduates, only 5 lakh are actually employable according to the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).
I recently met with Atul Satija, founder of The Nudge, a Bangalore-based gurukul style not-for-profit seeded by Nandan Nilekani and the Tata Trusts, backed by Mphasis, Cisco, Godrej and others that trains young people entering the workforce in various fields for skill gaps at up to four batches a year. Their second batch of graduates—49 students—just passed out in June. The Nudge notes that one million join the workforce every month. Of these, 23 % come from impoverished backgrounds, 50% are school dropouts, and 0.5 million every month lack the skills to be employable. This results in an up to 250% job hopping culture, little chance of promotions, and low productivity. While the government has earmarked Rs 1500 crore to fill skill gaps by 2022, that’s all still bridge work. Satija believes we need a 360 degree approach. Because literacy as it stands today is just one part of it. What the process leaves our workforce deprived of, says Satija, is crucial self esteem.
There is a reason why even a minister in India fakes a degree. Background verification firms such as First Advantage have reported discrepancies of upto 71% in qualifications. That India faces a major fake degree racket has more to do with how ill-equipped those passing through its education system feel.
A 2012 study by the Centre of Emerging Markets at the ISB, Hyderabad (Mehta, Chakraborty & Thomas), found that the western model of evaluating skill, dismisses workers in “dirty jobs” as unmotivated, whereas workers indeed do have aspirations, just not as understood by the western model. The study highlights the need to understand Indian workers from multiple perspectives.
It points to an inherently incomplete system of education. When the diamond merchants first set foot in Antwerp, they were not given prime stones. They were given cast offs. The only reason they could gain a foothold was because they harnessed an inherited skill to carve more facets to command top price. International designers like Donna Karan make trips to South India’s Coimbatore to engage with fabrics like ahimsa textiles, produced by Vijaylakshmi Nachiar, in which silk is woven with indigenous techniques without harming silkworms. Closer home designer Raghuvendra Rathore is reinventing what bespoke is, by encouraging weavers to create one-time-only signature motifs.
While China scores a Nobel win for ancient medicine, we have little scientific study to see what we can practically harness from our indigenous strands of medicine. The kind of ground-breaking mathematics that came from a self-taught Ramanujam, that we have never been able to replicate with the break up of Kerala’s mathematical gurukul systems, has a lot to do with formalising structures which an entire population is only allowed to think inside of. And India has not produced a single grammarian capable of engaging with the nuances of our 780 languages which, linguist Ganesh Devy explains, stand on the strength of “our anarchic way”.
From Kota’s IIT factories to fake degrees, education and its indices today are being used as a validation of people. Until we expand the measure of those whom we call literate, we will have no understanding of how to change education and its outcomes.