Ideas for India – Part 1

Atanu Dey and I put together this note recently.

India’s economic growth and development poses challenges that are clear but fortunately are solvable. The hard part is not in the figuring out the solutions but in the implementation, and more specifically in the prioritizing and sequencing of the implementation. The elements that require immediate and sustained effort relate to “infrastructural elements” which are few in number but form the absolutely necessary foundation upon which any functioning economy is based. These elements are interrelated in complex ways and if present simultaneously, they enable that emergent multi-dimensional phenomenon we call development. The elements are:

  1. Education. Physical capital-both natural and man-made-combined with human capital produces wealth in all its form, from agricultural to manufactures to services. The quality and quantity of educated people strictly determine the economic prosperity of an economy. India needs a radically different education system as the current one is dysfunctional and largely irrelevant in the modern context. Fortunately, this radical re-engineering is possible through the use of powerful tools presented by the revolution in information and communications technologies. To achieve this, institutional reform of the type that encourages private sector participation in education is necessary.
  1. Energy. Any economic activity, like all processes in the universe, depends on energy. Today’s developed nations achieved their level of prosperity on cheap fossil fuels, an opportunity not available to India’s billion plus people. Fortunately, India is large enough to be able to leapfrog the fossil fuel stage and invest in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Becoming a world leader in the development and use of these energy sources requires a national will that can be articulated by visionary leadership.

(This will be continued tomorrow.)

114 thoughts on “Ideas for India – Part 1

  1. I would disagree on the quantity of education point. MP produces more engineers that the US, do we need so many? And I am sorry to say the quality of education apart from a few institutes is a disgrace. Most of the people graduating from our colleges neither have learnt anything nor have any skills that can take India to the next level.

  2. Rossoneri you are right, but what Rajesh is saying (:-) Atanus is saying ) is we need to change the mode of operandi in our educations system.
    Since we have lot of tools availalble at our disposal we can leverage them.
    I think we need more then that though, our education system was designed by rulers which was isn’t applied at all. Anyway there is more, but yes education needs a reform. I think by the end of yr segment, we will know which are the vital verticals which needs and immediate fix.

  3. rossoneri:

    Have you considered the possibility that the reason that the quality of the engineers that you correctly decry has something to do with the government control of the educational sector?

    My point is that poor quality, given free markets, is soon weeded out. For persistent and chronic quality problem, the production system has to be controlled. Have you ever wondered how come you have no quality problems when you have access to a wide range of goods to select from?

    Education is a service like many others. The quality and quantity of that service is best guaranteed by a free market. Entry barriers in any industry harm both the quality and quantity of the product.

    India’s failure in having a good education system is rooted in the monopolistic control that the government imposes on it.

    Sure, there are bad private colleges. That is because they are licensed. Having procured the license, they are protected from market competition. Whether it is bad money, bad cars, . . . anything at all, the reason they exist is because the good is not allowed into the market.

    I am sure that a brief comment of mine cannot fully convince anyone of the basic problem that plagues Indian education. So I will resist the temptation to write at length over here.

  4. Dear Rajesh,

    Energy is definitely one of the most important issue for sustainable Indian growth. We are lacking coal as well as oil for our long term use.

    But leapfroging these by alternatives is very expensive. Of alternatives solar makes most sense for India. I know of plans by which Government of India is trying to promote solar generation similar to Germany and Spain but the burden to be borne by government is very large.

    Developing solar technology is possible but it again is game of constrained resources and facilities.

    GOI could help with setting right structures such as power trading platform, RPS mechanism etc which could help to move in right direction.

    It would be interesting exercise to articulate a clear workable vision towards this goal.


  5. @Atanu, I agree with your argument of free markets and would love to hear your thoughts in detail. What my contention is that the population of India is so large and the “dreams” so biased, that everyone wants to be an engineer. We need more economists, scientists, people in with education in the arts.
    1. There are no private institutes providing such education.
    2. Since people only want to become engineers, we accept low quality engineering education over a JNU education in the arts.

  6. I agree that education is THE fundamental stepping stone for India’s development. But there are many aspects to this issue.

    Atanu – I agree that free markets will help with improving the quality & quantity of education, but only to a certain extent. Remember, markets serve those who have a need and can also pay. There is a large segment of population that has the need, but cannot pay. Until we figure out what solutions work best for that segment, we are just talking about fine-tuning our existing system, not transformative change.

    My 2 cents on this is that we should have free markets in education so that those can pay are served well, but supplement it with a govt/non-profit program where the families/children who can’t pay actually get paid to attend school. The long-term benefit to society will surely exceed the cost for the program.

  7. The major constraint in delivering quality education to the Indian populace derives from its impossibly large population.

    From that perspective, the Indian education system is an experiment in scaling up what is essentially a closed circuit system with constant interaction between teacher and student into a one way street.

    Akin to a mass prayer meeting, where everyone prays, but is not necessarily in a state of prayer.

    Despite this limitation, we should recognize that the system did some things right, for one, it may have produced a nation of clerks, but literate clerks are much better than illiterate people.

    In that process it did kill off a lot of creativity, a home with many to feed cannot afford haute cuisine. Notice that even within the Western system, its geniuses have largely had a parallel education that put them ahead of their peers, much of this was gained either from their peers or parents, the inputs from an educational institution are far less.

    The present Indian educational system can easily be looked at with a critical eye and may look a prime victim for overhaul, but there are things within it that work, and work better than the claimed solutions.

    For teachers who need to correct a thousand papers each year, the major problem is in keeping up, not researching the quality of a students understanding. Even in the best of institutions, creativity is a prickly affair that diverts resources and delivers far less than what the theories promise.

    For educating the masses, the present system works rather too well, a simile being the military training which improves the physique and strength of any recruit who undergoes it. As the system iterates through generations, it is bound to become much better. It is however true that course corrections and criticism are necessary.

    Those who seek to change the delivery model of Indian education should remember that estern Nations produce far less graduates than we do.

    Our graduates are not as outstanding as the ones there but we have fewer people who need dummies books. Our software successes have proved that from such a base we can run with the best of them.

    Indian engineers don’t write the best software, and rarely create anything new in this fascinating subject, however they can can produce average software at a pace that outruns the West. Can Western style education provide this pick up and run facility?

    If one aims to mimic Western style education in Indian schools, there is ample evidence that such systems do fail, the West is wondering about bringing back Japanese and Indian style math drills at least for its schools, because the creative method can only go so far.

    All those international public schools in India with their Western style quality education systems have failed to provide one singular Indian talent, normal schools fare much better, what more proof is required?

    Calls for reforming the educational system are not exclusive to India, however those who seek a complete overhaul rarely have concrete designs in its place. They have a wish list that is tough to implement and whose results are at best dubious.

    Looking down upon a system does not produce the right solutions, working it from within can.
    To this end there is a lot that successful Indian entrepreneurs, particularly from the tech arena can do. While it is obvious that the masses need better quality education, the right model for its delivery is not so obvious at least to educational administrators, whose idea of a computer education is to make the child remember the multiple ways Windows allows one to cut and paste.

    Techprenuers should find a way not only to influence policy but seek ways for a tech aided model that can bypass such artificial restrictions on delivered educational quality. There are practical ways to generate this too.

    Let us imagine an all India competition for school teachers, with levels moving up from inter school to inter district to inter state, in presenting the recommended class material in such a way that it naturally draws students into the subject, makes it easier to understand and fosters creativity in them.

    The output of such a competition not only identifies the better teacher but also creates teaching material that can be easily and widely disseminated using new technology. This way a high quality educational input is produced and disseminated, thus overcoming the poor quality of many of our school teaching.

    This is also a way of rewarding good teachers and teaching material which will in turn trigger competition and enthuse them to do better in their classes.

    One can think of many other ways. There is merit in creating an educational thinktank, one that is staffed by young people with innovative ideas and willing to test them. A place where the techprenuer can actually help without making the whole system his test bed and breaking it in the process.

    The actual problem in Indian education is not about the masses, it is about identifying and promoting that special breed of people who are original. It is these people who change nations, who change sciences and drive them forward. In isolating this people and breeding them, our educational system has actually failed.

    For instance, the elite Indian institutions, the IIT’s are a prime case, whose glamor has always outpaced their actual output. It is unfortunately true that Indian science hasn’t produced one singular or engineering breakthrough despite these institutions and their products being granted facilities above their peers. One wonders if the future will fare any better.

    This is where a real change is required, right from the ways of choosing students for these institutions to fostering a sense of innovation in them and rewarding such innovation. A mere facility in math and science sans any kind of originality seems enough for most to get in, and it shows.

    No Nobel prizes, no major breakthroughs in any engineering or fundamental science, no innovative ideas in any major industry, the list continues.

    Urgent changes are required in how we track and find academic stars for our educational systems, it is here that Western style changes will actually deliver, they are pretty good at identifying potential stars early on and grooming them well.

    This is where successful entrepreneurs like Rajesh and others can help. Create systems that foster and reward original thought. Breaking existing education systems may seem revolutionary but may not provide the right results and soon.

    Normal people need a normal education, and the present system does it successfully and on a scale that satisfies the Indian population at large. While there is a screaming need for bettering the quality of education, what needs to be done can be and needs to be done from within and not from without. Reforms are definitely required, but not system overhauls….

    Hope this little tirade helps…


  8. Rajesh/Atanu

    I agree with you on the renewable energy part.
    But solar and wind both prove to be costly (atleast in installation). How about bio fuel like sugar based ethanol(used so much in brazil). and I wud like to know your thoughts on Nuclear energy. now that we have made the DEAL with the US of A, how much should we depend on that? Would our vast thorium reserves help in that?

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  10. Sorry but your tirade was of no help. It rambled on pointlessly and incoherently. You should post such gibberish on your own blog and not use other blogs as your soapbox.

    You will cause a lot of waste of other people’s time.

  11. @udaya
    I can’t agree with you more on your statement “Reforms are required and not overhaul”.

    Yes even if we produce worlds best 30,000-40,000 engineers/MBAs/Science/Medical/Commerce (all put toghether and not individual)/year through the so called premier institutes that is good enough. Reforms on the top first than bottoms-up approach. Let the top change obviously to cop-up with the change the bottom will change. It is easy to change the top because less-in-number/open/money/influence/power/everything-to-do the change.

    If that 30-40K are good the remaining 300-1000K can follow.

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  13. the summary of ideas is great. in terms of education, I think frankly we need to focus on the following for education (among many other sub bullets, details):

    – improving the basic education through institutional reforms, allowing private sector to come in more, creating better incentives for govt teachers, adding more accountability in terms of checks and balances (I.e. teachers lose their jobs if they don’t perform). I know these are tough things to do due to employment rules, but we need to add accountability and incentives.

    – create a larger vocational education focus – by creating either stronger vocational courses, specialized schools, etc.

    – improve our tier 2 / tier 3 colleges and ensure that people are graduating with the appropriate and comprehensive skills to be employed

  14. Nice exchange of ideas. I have been “researching” the education system from the time my son was 1 yr old. Some observations from this are that the whole education system needs a revamp starting from kindergarten (nursery or Montessori). The education system is largely inflexible and puts too much emphasis on rote learning and marks. The child at a very early age gets attuned to this system. A similar system is followed in graduate and post graduate courses too (excepting IIT’s and IIM’s where the probability of gaining admission is remote). This puts pressure on the individual to score higher marks, which don’t necessarily measure one’s learning. As long as the marks are high, the individual is considered intelligent.
    A change needs to be bought in educational institutes by implementing a more progressive and global form of education that focuses on various talents of the child. Some schools like Inventure Academy ( are already making these changes. But this is just a beginning by one school. All schools should provide opportunity for children to learn and demonstrate their learning in multiple ways.

  15. My daughter goes to Inventure Academy. I chose the school specifically due to their mix of traditional and modern education. For the fact that kids are not only given the text books , but been asked to use them as GUIDES….and ask questions, not just read and mug whats been written. I spoke to a kid who had just this past year given his IGCSE board exams, he said that he only had the usual ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling, but at no point was he scared of the exam itself, because he “knew he could handle it” this coming from a child in the age of Borad Exams=Stress. Such confidence…..but then again….their results have proved just that, i don’t think the children are ever made to feel dependant on the Teacher or the text. I hope more schools follow the example set by school like the Inventure Academy.

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