“Emerging India: The Road Ahead and the Pitfalls”

Address 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 growth.

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 State.

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".

Our 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 world.