India’s Rise to Superpowerdom: Still a Dream

As the 5th largest economy in the world, India is poised to become a superpower. But even as the country has boasted consistent economic growth of over 7% and maintains the world’s largest youth workforce, what are challenges on the road to superpower stardom?

One of the foremost challenges is the huge difference in the level of achievements among various sections of Indian society. While some sections of India's population are making the seemingly impossible happen, other sections are lagging far behind. Some of the most pressing issues India faces today include: abject poverty, lack of skilled manpower, lack of infrastructure, extremely low gender empowerment, and severe internal political and communal tensions.

All the aforesaid issues are extremely important in any debate about India’s prospect of becoming a global superpower. This article, however, makes an attempt to briefly outline the problems that India is facing related to education, which affects the availability of skilled manpower. According to the 2001 census, India’s overall literacy rate was slightly over 65% and the youth literacy rate over 80%. However, when it comes to higher education, the percentage falls steeply to roughly 7%. At present, nationwide, 25% of teaching positions are vacant and even the premier institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are experiencing a vacancy rate as high as 34.2%. With one of the lowest public expenditures in education, the Indian education system remains at the bottom.

The condition of higher education is so poor that Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh admitted in 2007, “Our university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair ... In almost half the districts in the country, higher education enrollments are abysmally low, almost two-third of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters...”

Even more disheartening is the picture in rural India, where nearly 70% of the population resides. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2010, a survey covering over 13,000 schools from over 500 districts of India gives a bleak picture of the grave situation. The report finds that only 53.4% children in Standard V can read a Standard II level text. This suggests that even after five years in school, close to half of all children are not even at the level expected of them after two years in school!

Further, the report points out that nationally, there has been a decline in the ability to do basic math (i.e. recognize numbers and do basic operations), as compared to last year. This decrease of a few percentage points is visible across all standards. For example, the proportion of Standard I children who can recognize numbers (1-9) declined from 69.3% in 2009 to 65.8% in 2010. The proportion of children in Standard III who can do two-digit subtraction problems decreased from 39% to 36.5% in the same period. The proportion of children in Standard V who can do simple division problems dropped from 38% in 2009 to 35.9% in 2010. 

Overall, in Standard VIII, three quarters of all children are able to do basic calculations, about two thirds of all children could use a calendar, and only half could do the calculations related to geometry topics, such as area. The questions related to area seemed to be the most difficult for children to solve. Such problems are usually found in textbooks in Standard IV or V, but not in Standard VIII. Among Standard VIII children, the state of Kerala does best with 79% children able to solve the problems followed by the state of Bihar at 69%. 

Grossly, the study finds that middle school children are weak on everyday calculations. So what purpose does going to school serve? When children, after having spent 7 to 8 years in school, cannot read a basic level text and conduct everyday math calculations, can schooling be called a waste of time?  

As a nation, India must ask itself where the country is heading and whether this is the right kind of progress India, as a prospective superpower, should be making. Many other aspects of India’s growth need to be addressed, but as the central aspect of human progress, education deserves urgent and serious attention from the Indian central and standard governments.

Otherwise, attaining a superpower status will remain a mere dream for 1.2 billion Indians.

Photo Credit: Shahidur Rashid Talukdar