By Ding Gang
On the very first morning I arrived in Mumbai, I went to the most emblematic landmark of the city – the Gateway of India. However, it was not the magnificent architecture that caught my attention, but young people in threes and fives with backpacks on their shoulders passing by the structure in the morning fog.
They seemed to have just woken up and were heading to somewhere, but it also looked as if they were wandering around aimlessly on the streets. I saw the weather forecast in the morning – the temperature was expected to peak at 40 degree Celsius that day.
Those who have traveled in India must have noticed the most prominent feature in the country – the huge population. Most tourists would be surprised by those idling young people on the streets. When I was in Jaipur, Rajasthan in northern India, I saw quite a few young men and women sitting on the grass, chatting since the early hours of the day, even though it was not a holiday or a festival.
Yuan Jirong, a People’s Daily correspondent in India, told me that 60 percent of the population in India is below the age of 25. That means, in a country with 1.2 billion people, approximately 700 million are youths. This is an enormous amount of wealth when it comes to the labor force.
But according to local foreign enterprises, most young Indians, especially women and those in the lower castes, are undereducated. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spared no effort to attract foreign investments, a crucial problem emerged – the quality of Indian labor cannot satisfy the need of foreign companies.
Like many developing countries, the unfair education system in India has not only severely hindered the nation’s economic development, but also led to the widening gap between the rich and the poor, which has become a chronic obstruction that perplexes the country’s development.
A taxi driver, who looks to be in his 20s, told me that he lived in the suburb of Mumbai, dropped out of primary school and started to do part-time jobs because his family needed money. He added that many young people he knows are the same – “Do we have other choices?” He shrugged his shoulder.
When we passed by a splendid building in the center of the city, he pointed at the gate, telling me it requires a large sum of money to go to a private school like that. His words made me think of the kids selling souvenirs outside many tourist attractions.
It has been over two decades since India made primary education universal. In 2009, India also passed the Right to Education Act and forced private schools to reserve 25 percent of its enrollment for low-income, poor and disabled students.
But my friends told me that private schools are pretending to have implemented the bill, while charging fees for other services and setting up a number of hidden thresholds, barring students from poor families from entry.
Many more poor children are influenced by their families, communities, and the social environment. Combined with the fact that they cannot get along with children from upper-class or middle-class families in private schools, they are more likely to end up like the young Indian taxi driver – opting to drop out of school.
The gap between the rich and the poor reflected in India’s education is not just related to money, but also the gap in economic and social rights, and traditional social classes.
India’s economist Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, noted in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation that the root cause of poverty in India lies with the country’s societal structure which prevents social mobility among different classes.
Compared with India, thanks to the 1949 revolution, which completely eliminated the division between social classes and realized free and compulsory education for all, China has achieved rapid development over the past decades.
But this does not mean that the education system in China is flawless. Like in many other developing nations, class differentiation is a major barrier in obtaining higher education. What India needs to focus on is how to continuously break the barrier to class mobility. And what China needs to do is to prevent the gap between classes from widening. From this point of view, the education situation in India should also serve as a warning to China.
(The author is a senior editor with People’s Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.)