A Literate Legacy

Date:   Monday , May 31, 2004

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.

What can you do? Get involved with and contribute to the non-profits that provide primary and secondary education to the rural and urban poor, such as Asha (www.ashanet.org) and The Citizens Foundation (www.thecitizensfoundation.org). These are shining examples of the difference a few can make to the lives of many. For example, TCF was set up by a group of citizens in Pakistan in 1995, who built the program and the initial schools using their own money to prove their methods work. Today, this professionally managed, not-for-profit organization runs a network of 180+ well-managed, purpose-built schools in urban slums and rural areas across the country, serving all persons and communities on a completely non-discriminatory basis. Their own teacher training center supports a system that has 20,000 enrolled students taught by 1,200 trained teachers, and they claim to have created over 2,000 jobs. Their goals are even more ambitious: 1,000 schools catering to 350,000 students. Nearly 50 percent of their students are female, and to encourage parents to send girls to school, the entire teaching staff is female. Many TCF students attend school by paying as little as Rs. 5 per month, including the cost of uniforms and books! And the schools follow a comprehensive curriculum in line with the official syllabus prescribed by the education board, and the books are obtained from a government-approved publisher. The schools have well equipped laboratories, a play area, a library, and art room and all essential utilities such as water, electricity & toilets—luxuries in the urban slums and rural areas where these schools are located, but necessary for an environment conducive to learning. Is it any wonder that these children consider school the best part of their day? Take a look at the picture and imagine what a huge difference this makes to the lives of these impoverished children—an education as good as that available to any middle class child.

For the price of a dinner & drinks for two at a fancy restaurant (about $130), you can educate a child for a whole year! Certainly puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?