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Education and India’s Jobs Crisis

Education, Quality


The Wall Street Journal

In a page-one story Monday, The Wall Street Journal reports that India’s economic slowdown is giving rural Indians fewer incentives to leave their home villages and farms in search of better-paying work. For some who have already left, it means going back to a way of life they thought they’d left behind.

Specifically, the credit-rating firm Crisil predicts that by 2019, 12 million more people will be working in agriculture than in 2012. Compare this to what happened between 2005 and 2012, when the agricultural workforce shrank by 37 million people, and you get some sense of what a turnaround this could represent for India if Crisil’s forecast bears out.

This stalling of urbanization and industrialization touches on many aspects of India’s extraordinary, if rickety, economic rise. As discussed in the story, part of the problem is the country’s undersized manufacturing sector. In Europe and East Asia, factories have helped bring millions of unskilled workers from farm communities into urban life. In this election season in India, the question of whether the government should prioritize economic growth or the needs of the poorest is again at the center of the policy debate.

But it’s important not to undervalue another factor that is also preventing more people in India’s countryside from finding more productive—and hence more remunerative—work.

School education in India is “abysmally poor,” as one report put it last year.More boys and girls are enrolling than before, but quality hasn’t kept up. In some rural schools, teachers skip class as often as their students. The Right to Education Act, enacted in 2009, guarantees free and compulsory elementary education but has been criticized for setting such unrealistically high standards for quality that schools are encouraged to pay bribes in exchange for certifications from government inspectors.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet and polymath, issued this diagnosis many decades ago: “In my view the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education.”

That rings true in the village of Morkahi, where we met Ram Singh, one of the people profiled in Monday’s story. Mr. Singh and his brother, Lallan, left home without finishing high school to find work in New Delhi. Today, both men can read and write at a basic level, though they regret they didn’t stay in school longer.

Lallan told us he regularly cut classes. During one of our interviews with him, in the gargantuan Delhi produce market where he loads and unloads trucks, we found him flipping through a Hindi newspaper and asked what kind of news he was interested in. He said he liked the photos but couldn’t really understand any of the stories.

Morkahi is in the poor, eastern state of Bihar, which is one of India’s worst performers, education-wise. The state’s overall literacy rate—64% in 2011—was the lowest in India that year. According to a 2010 study, only 40% of 8- to 11-year-old students in government schools in Bihar could read a simple paragraph. Just 43% of them could subtract a two-digit number from another two-digit number.

The truly depressing thing about that last statistic? The nationwide average in India was also 43%.

At Rajya Samposhit High School, just up the road from Morkahi, there are nearly 1,000 9th-grade students and more than 600 10th graders—but only three teachers.

“You can imagine the kind of situation we are in,” Gopal Prasad Dubey, the school’s geography teacher and vice principal, told us. “The futures of these students are not as bright as the government claims them to be.”

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