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A Literate Legacy

Ajmal Noorani
Monday, May 31, 2004
Ajmal Noorani
A couple of years ago, one of the valley veterans used this column to castigate members of the diaspora for contributing to stateside institutions while doing nothing for the colleges in India that started us on our journey to success. Then followed news of a few top VCs & entrepreneurs giving millions to their alma maters in India, to plant their names atop the leading business/engineering schools. All well and good...

But is churning out more MBAs and engineers really going to solve the biggest problem in India—poverty? Even if you are the staunchest proponent of trickle-down economics, you’ve got to admit this is a drop in the bucket and it’s going to take a whole lot of trickling to make any difference to those at the bottom of the pile. After all, the opportunity to go to these colleges is available only to the English-speaking middle and upper classes, which constitutes a fraction—used to be 2 percent when I was in engineering college in the ‘80s, and it can’t be much higher now, can it?

Is it any wonder that the Indian masses threw out the BJP coalition despite the advances the nation has made in increasing exports and raising the standard of living for the suburban elite & middle classes (and in increasing the number of engineers & MBAs churned out each year)? Capitalism is great, and is the only workable solution we have, but there’s no denying that it increases the gap between the rich & poor.

If we really want to make a difference, we must attack one of the root causes of poverty: lack of literacy. A major part of the solution to problems in the developing world lies in education. Hungry people need to be fed, but also need to be able to earn their living. Further, there is a direct correlation between the average life expectancy at birth and the adult literacy rate. People who have learned to read and write are more attentive to hygiene and health, less fatalistic and more likely to turn to a doctor in time of need. And most important, literacy encourages later marriage and smaller families, a much-needed brake for the speeding population growth on the subcontinent.

In the face of immediate crisis, literacy will always come a poor second to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and healing the sick. No wonder (and that’s not even accounting for corruption and apathy) that governments on the subcontinent spend less than 5 percent of GDP on education. Illiteracy is a major barrier to development that needs to be acknowledged if long-term economic and social changes are to be affected.

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