A recent Economist article, talking of the opportunity to outsource business-support services, labelled India as “back office to the world.” If India can deploy 50 million people in services at USD 10 per hour (USD 20,000 per annum), then Indian has an opportunity to earn USD 1 trillion in revenues, so goes the reasoning. Compare the potential with India’s exports in the last 12 months which stood at USD 50 billion. Whatever the numbers are, what is clear is that for the first time there is an opportunity to leverage India’s people.
For any dream to be realized, the starting point has to be Education. One can think of education of three types: K-12 (upto the twelfth standard), technical education (engineering, medicine, arts, commerce specialization after K-12), and adult education (training the existing workforce).
The first aim must be to ensure that K-12 education is made mandatory for all. This is the cornerstone for building the workforce of tomorrow. English must be one of the primary languages taught, along with computer and software skills. Even today, literacy rates in many parts of India are less than 50%. This needs to be change with help from the government, private enterprises and non-government organizations. K-12 education for all is the pillar for tomorrow’s India.
The next step is to ensure that based on people’s interests and skills, they are trained further in specialized areas. It is not enough for to look only at the arts, commerce and science streams. There are many more vocational courses which could be made available to people – for example, secretarial services, carpentry, manufacturing.
Each discipline needs training, and that is what must be imparted to students. In some ways, it is like what used to happen centuries earlier when specialized crafts were handed down from one generation to the next. In this case, specialists in all areas need to impart skills to the newer generation.
In the sciences, there must be a focus on research and development. India needs to be graduate more Ph.Ds and offer exciting and rewarding opportunities for them. If Indian industry is to look at inventing rather than copying and adapting, it needs to make investments in core technology development. Closer ties are needed between educational institutions, Indian enterprises and Indians abroad to enable this. India needs to create world-class “Centres of Excellence” in areas like life sciences, information sciences and molecular biology. This will also ensure that Indian teachers and graduates, many of whom are being tempted with offers from abroad, stay at home.
The third sphere of education is on ongoing adult education. The pace of change in the world is increasing. What one has learnt can become obsolete fast. If the person is not to become redundant, then it is imperative that there be a process of continuous education. This is where the Internet (and the Internet community centres) can play a role in India. They can become hubs to ensure that adults can retrain themselves with new skillsets.
Among all the building blocks, Education is the one which can make-or-break the India of tomorrow. It can ensure that either India stays as an “emerging market” or create a new “Field of Dreams”.