India: The Road Ahead and the Pitfalls”
by Mr. Sekhar Dutt, Defence Secretary, Government of India
on the occasion of the 101st Foundation Anniversary of National
Council of Education, Bengal organized by Global India Foundation,
Kolkata, 12 March 2007
Knowledge always had a pride of place in the Indian history.
We are proud of the fact that we can boast of being the inventors
of ‘zero’, and the originators of the “Arabic”
numeral system. Aryabhatta, the astronomer, Bhaskaracharya,
the mathematician and Shusrutha, the surgeon, among others
can be counted as stars in our intellectual firmament. The
dominant Indian syncretic tradition boasted of valuable treatises
of great philosophical and scientific import. However, it
is also a fact that large numbers of peoples were forcibly
kept out of the process of knowledge seeking, due to the then
prevalent, iniquitous and hierarchical social structures.
In the past few centuries, it is worthwhile to note that while
India benefited from the exposure to modern means of transportation,
communication and education, large – scale disruptions
in the form of foreign invasions, long periods of foreign
rule and the resultants drainage of wealth from India did
contribute to reduced standards of living and constricted
opportunities for personal development and well being.
Education made its incipient beginning in ancient India through
an oral tradition, where sages and saints imparted knowledge
verbally. As Buddhism flourished, education became more accessible
and India witnessed the establishment of famous educational
institutions like Nalanda, Vikramshila and Takshashila. Nalanda
University had around 10,000 resident students and teachers.
Students came to seek knowledge from foreign countries like
China, Sri Lanka and Korea. The medieval period saw the establishment
of elementary and secondary schools, as also a few colleges
at cities like Delhi and Agra. The multicultural fabric of
India was thus forged with an excellent interaction between
Indian and Islamic traditions in all fields of knowledge.
The British put in place the infrastructure for primary, secondary
and higher education in India but an important reason that
guided their endeavour was to equip Indian nationals with
the necessary skills sets to staff the colonial administration.
The pioneer of the social reform movement, Raja Rammohan Roy
was a strong advocate of modern, Western, and English education.
Not only did he establish institutions for that purpose but
also lent a helping hand to others who endeavoured to do so.
Awareness through education and skillful use of the print
media by early reformers created the growing possibility for
dealing with prevalent social evils and religious prejudices.
The outreach of education had a far reaching impact in bringing
social evils like purdah, sati, and female infanticide to
the public domain. Rabindranath Tagore also shared the view
of these reformers that lack of education was responsible
for many of India’s social ills at that time. He wrote:
“In my view the imposing tower of misery which today
rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the
absence of education. Caste divisions, religious conflicts,
aversion to work, precarious economic conditions – all
center on this single factor”.
Though the British had their own administrative and economic
reasons for establishing the formal structure of modern education
in India, in retrospect, it seems that it did facilitate the
rise of India as an emerging power in the current times. In
the era of globalization, since English is the global “lingua
– franca”, we are well – poised to leverage
our language proficiencies to create market competencies.
It is instructive to recall the emphasis given to education
as a society – transforming instrument during the hey-days
of nationalism and the struggle against the British rule.
The National Council of Education (NCE), the birth centenary
of which we are celebrating this year, was established n March
11, 1906 to “organize a system of education –
literary, scientific, and technical – on national lines
and under national control”. The Bengal National College
and School, under the leadership of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh aimed
at imparting a practical system of education to enable its
students to become productive, and conscious members of the
society. Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Wardha Scheme’
on basic education, also emphasized learning through activities.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi “Real education consists
in drawing the best out of your self. What better book can
there be than the book of humanity?”
Independent India, faced with the enormity of the tasks of
nation – building, invested in national institutes of
excellence like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)
and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMS), to provide technological
and managerial underpinnings of our growth. These institutions
have succeeded enormously in turning out graduates of the
highest caliber, who have made a mark for themselves and their
institutions and indeed for India worldwide. While the phenomenon
of ‘brain drain’ has led to calls to regulate
the movement of these resources trained at the expense of
the national exchequer, there is no doubt that the ‘Brand
IIT/IIM’ is a much sought after talent across the world.
During the formative years, education policy revolved around
building national capacity for self – government and
self – sufficiency where the states were primarily responsible
for financing and providing education. In the second phase,
emphasis was laid on skill based education, with technical
institutes mushrooming all over India. The All India Council
of Technical Education (AICTE) was one of the nuanced efforts
by the Indian government on these lines.
With the opening up of the Indian economy in the early 1990s
and the resultant high rates of growth that we have experienced,
there has been a tremendous improvement in the various socio-
economic indicators, signifying robust all - round growth.
In the current financial year 2006-07 ending March 31 for
instance, the economy is projected to grow at a solid 9.2
per cent and double-digit growth rates are well within our
reach. We have indeed come a long way from the time when our
growth rates, derisively called the ‘Hindu growth rate’,
at 2.5 - 3 per cent, barely exceeded the rates of population
India is now the fourth largest economy in the world, in purchasing
power parity (PPP) terms. We are the world’s fourth
largest pharmaceutical producer and the second largest textile
manufacturer. Our strengths in Information Technology and
IT Enabled Services are of course only too well known. Revenues
from this sector are expected to reach nearly $150 billion
by 2012. The infrastructure sector is also witnessing rapid
growth, with massive investments planned over the next 5-
10 years on improving roads, ports, power sector, airports
and oil and gas.
The services sector make up more than 50 percent of the total
output of our GDP. Agriculture, which was the mainstay of
our economy until only recently, now accounts merely for a
little over 20 per cent and industry accounts for about 25
per cent. These figures demonstrate the tremendous economic
transformation that has taken place in our country. From a
rural, agricultural economy, we have already transformed into
a modern, tertiary economy. But this is an evolving process
and there can be no room for complacency. In a country where
the majority of the population is still dependent on the agricultural
sector, it is imperative that definitive steps are taken still
quickly to improve the situation. This would require large
scale investments in strengthening the irrigation system,
undertaking new projects to increase the areas under cultivation,
more use of innovative technologies like drip irrigation,
rainwater harvesting, and better use of environment –
friendly methods to increase output. It is heartening to note
that India is making good use of bio- technology to meet its
growing food needs. Research on making its major food crops
resistant to diseases and drought is also being pursued vigorously.
For an India which is resurgent we cannot have a small manufacturing
sector. Our manufacturing sector has to have a quantum increase.
Our technical manpower needs to be deployed more extensively
and more efficiently. The share of the manufacturing sector
to our GDP will need to be increased significantly.
While the high growth rates have opened up enormous opportunities
to uplift a whole mass of people into zones of relative prosperity,
there is a greater need to sustain and increase the momentum
as also to spread the benefits of a wider swath of populace.
As we stride ahead confidently towards a future of greater
promise, we also have to be increasingly conscious of the
challenges that need to be overcome. These include the millions
who are under – nourished, and the huge mass of population
still struggling to eke out a decent standard of living. Significant
portions of our population are still ill – equipped
to avail of the opportunities that ’New India’
is providing. One of the main factors that prevent these masses
from being proud partners in India’s success stories
is the lack of education and the resultant freedom of thought
and choice that it confers.
As part of the goal of reaching out to socially disadvantaged
groups, a focus has also been put by the Indian government
on achieving gender equality. Number of programmes has been
introduced in this regard and these efforts appear to have
borne fruit. This is reflected in the female literacy rate,
which has increased from 39 per cent in 1991 to 54 per cent
in 2001. The male literacy rates have increased from 64 per
cent to 75 per cent over the same period. Some of the important
initiatives include the Mahila Samakhya Programme (Education
for Women’s Empowerment) with a focus on the socially
excluded and the landless women. This programme is an example
of creative collaboration between the voluntary sector and
The Eighty Sixth Constitutional Amendment makes free and compulsory
education a fundamental right for all children in the 6-14
age groups. Recent efforts have been made through the Ninety
Third Constitutional amendment, whereby 27 per cent reservation
for backward classes in educational institutions has been
ensured. This is a requirement we owe a responsibility to
uplift the socially disadvantaged groups. The government has
renewed its commitment to its social obligations by increasing
the budgetary allocations for education, health and family
welfare in the current year. The challenges before us are
enormous and would require sustained efforts to make it a
level – playing field. Our high economic growth rates
would hopefully give us the wherewithal to achieve our goals.
The education sector has received allocations of Rs. 32,352
crores in the recent budget, an increase of 34.2 per cent
from the previous year. Another interesting aspect of the
current budget is that a 1 per cent education cess has been
introduced by the Finance Minister in order to collect an
additional amount of Rs. 5000 crore to fund secondary and
higher education. Though it is comforting to talk about the
strides made in the field of education, limitations remain.
Educational facilities, spanning the spectrum from primary,
secondary and the tertiary levels, need to be made more representative
and accessible to a larger student population, and include
the socially disadvantaged groups also.
As the Defence Secretary, I would have been pleased with a
much higher allocation to the defence sector. However, as
an individual with a social responsibility, I would like to
reiterate that education and health need a focused attention,
if our dreams of a secure future for the children of India
are to be fulfilled. It is pertinent to quote Nobel Laureate
Prof. Amartya Sen in this regard: “Basic education,
good health, and other human attainments are not only directly
valuable as constituent elements of human capabilities and
quality of life but these capabilities can also help in generating
economic success of a more standard kind, which in turn can
contribute to enhancing the quality of human life even more.”
In the future ‘knowledge – based society’
India is a well positioned to take its place as one of its
primary drivers, on account of its proven expertise and huge
talent pool. As innovation occupies a key role in creating
new market niches, it is essential that we spend more than
the current 1 per cent of our GDP on research and development
(R&D). The private sector can bring an enormous amount
of leverage in this respect. The mushrooming of the private
education providers in recent times catering to different
streams is to be welcomed, as long as their functioning is
properly monitored by regulatory mechanisms to ensure academic
accountability and standards.
The Ministry of Defence for instance has opened up the Indian
defence industry to 100 per cent private sector participation,
with foreign direct investment (FDI) capped at 26 per cent.
This was done to allow major import substitution in defence
products through private sector participation. The emphasis
being given to ‘Indianise’ defence procurement
reflects the government’s conscious effort to lessen
dependence on foreign sources. This we believe will make us
more self – reliant and confident to deal with the enormous
challenges, both within and without, facing the country.
While there is relative calm on our borders, we cannot be
oblivious to the developments in our immediate neighbourhood
that impinge negatively on our society. To sustain the current
levels of economic growth that would propel us into the category
of middle – income country in the near future, stable
borders and internal peace are essential pre -requisites.
Today, low intensity conflicts and non – state actors
are a continuous challenge to our security establishment.
The armed forces of our country need to be suitably equipped
to face these current challenges and possible future threats.
It is also essential to realize that the nature of warfare
has changed. Future wars would involve greater use of technology
to achieve rapid battlefield dominance. India’s strengths
in IT can be effectively leveraged in this regard.
A conflict-free environment where individuals experience the
freedom from fear is needed. This would enable them to fully
realize their creative potential. The government on its part
needs to undertake training programmes for teachers and act
as a bridge in coordinating programmes between different departments
and at different levels, including the teachers' unions, parent-teacher
committees and the civil society in general. The first immediate
challenge, which India faces today, is the accessibility to
the educational infrastructure in remote regions of India.
The dropout rate for the girl child in India needs to be taken
care of. In places where infrastructure is available, education
should not just be limited to classrooms but should be undertaken
with the purpose of ensuring the child's happiness.
Happiness, however, must not be confused with mere pleasure.
This mistaken attitude results in liberty yielding to indulgence
and self-seeking pleasure, peace yielding to cowardice and
indolence, human rights to complacency, and democracy to mobocracy.
What needs to be ensured therefore is to increase the level
of awareness about the developments in our immediate environment,
in our villages and cities and in the society at large so
that the individual could assume the responsibility for change.
The dangers of indifference and cynicism are great because
these attitudes reveal a decisive lack of passionate engagement
with life and withdrawal from reality.
Religion has an important role to play in fostering and nurturing
capable and sensitive minds. It however needs to be properly
channelised to avoid indoctrination. The great works of literature
are also the essential building blocks of the spiritual heritage
of humanity. The love for the oppressed, the disadvantaged,
and the left-out, is an essential stream permeating all religious
thought. Jesus for instance, in-a life exemplifying the philosophy
that he preached, put a premium on compassion and the need
for inclusiveness to make this world a better place. Similarly,
Bodhisattva Vimalakirti's statement, "Because all living
beings are sick, therefore I am sick ", attests to an
empathy with the wider world around him. When in the midst
of adversity, empathy remains high, a healthy flow of communication
prevails. On the other hand, the loss of a sense of connection
between people signals the breakdown of communication in a
society. Unable to communicate, to recognize the worth of
a single person's life, people find themselves endlessly debating
- and are often incapable of answering - the straightforward
question: Why is it wrong to kill? Spirituality should therefore
preferably be an important ingredient in any wholesome educational
system. Such an approach can play a significant role in nurturing
human consciousness so that the students are better equipped
to grapple with the complexities of an emergent India. As
Swami Vivekananda has rightly affirmed, "Through education
comes faith in oneself".
culture and traditions have nurtured a healthy respect for
education. The great Tamil scholar Thiruvalluvar has in his
widely read works, stressed the importance of education, when
he writes 'knowledge is serene and indestructible wealth;
there is nothing else in benefits to compare'. The American
philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey affirms that
'everything, which is distinctly human, is learned'. A genuine
human community transcends all borders. Education is a vehicle
to develop the character and spirit necessary to serve and
augment the lives of others, enabling us to remain strong
against social injustice and hardship. To educate and to encourage
global citizenship is a task that is the responsibility of
us all. In other words through education what we need is the
ethos of soft power.
To achieve greatness, the challenge is to dream big. The words
of President Kalam to inquisitive students in his book 'Ignited
Minds' are apt. "Dream transforms into thoughts. Thoughts
result in actions.... if there are no thoughts, no actions
will emanate.... Success always follows dreams". With
India having one of the world's largest populations of young
people under the age of 20, the challenge to constructively
channel their energies in socio-economic development is enormous.
The twin themes of national resilience and international interdependence,
that underpin the philosophy of your organization, the Global
India Foundation, should also be the guiding attributes of
an India that is emergent. We need to weather the challenges,
and make the best use of the enormous opportunities for development
through quality education and increased awareness in an interdependent