Posted by: Vikram | November 9, 2013

The puzzle of arrested development in India

I recently heard the webcast of a talk by Abhimanyu Singh, an IAS officer who later joined UNESCO to work on literacy and is currently the director of UNSECO-Beijing. Comparisons between India and China are frequent, but Singh clearly and powerfully brought out how comprehensively China had outdone India when it came to literacy, especially female literacy. China’s adult female literacy rate is a whopping 40 % more than India’s. No surprise then, that Chinese women are far more likely to be part of the productive workforce than Indian women. Another powerful statistic, the most illiterate province in China is Tibet with 32 % illiteracy and a population of about 3 million. There are five Indian states still below this mark (including Andhra from the ‘developed’ South), with a combined population of about 300 million people !

The great thing about his talk was not only did he present data, but he gave a detailed historical overview as to why he thought China had done so well and India lagged behind. Perhaps, as he was speaking to an audience of educators, he focused on the legal and political regime in China that enabled it to prioritize mass education, and the differences in the legal regime in India. For example, in China childhood and adult education became compulsory and mandatory soon after the PRC gained power. In contrast, in India universal childhood education was only included in the non-binding Directive Principles of State Policy, and only in 2010 did education become a Constitutional right.

I am curious about why there was no societal and electoral pressure on the Indian state to prioritize education and other social goods after independence. Singh mentioned a book ‘The Child and the State in India‘ by Myron Weiner, which inquired into the question of arrested development in India. A review of the book summarizes its conclusion in the following way,

India’s educational expenditure as a proportion of gross national product is not exceptionally low: … It is not the capacity to do more that is lacking, in Weiner’s view, but the will. He locates the principal explanation for poor performance in primary education in the belief systems of the state bureaucracy—”a set of beliefs that are widely shared by educators, social activists, trade unionists, academic researchers, and, more broadly, by members of the Indian middle class”.

An astonishing constellation of forces is seemingly arrayed against compulsory education, …. these include the small businessmen who employ child workers, Gandhian supporters of cottage industry, upper caste groups fearing competition for jobs and the disappearance of a menial class, and often parents themselves, whether in exigent need or believing in their right to their children’s labor. On the education side, opponents of compulsion include teachers (who benefit from large student enrollment but low attendance), state education department officials (for reasons Weiner does not make wholly clear), and Illich-style enthusiasts for “deschooling.” Indeed, Weiner claims to find no significant forces for compulsory education.

In short, the reviewer says, “Mass schooling is subversive of the social order.” But why was there no desire to subvert the social order ? This assertion contrasts greatly to the politics of the freedom struggle and the mood of India on the eve of independence as described by British historian Yasmin Khan,

It is difficult to exaggerate the turmoil that India was experiencing at the close of the Second World War and the sense of entitlement and hope that had fired the imagination of the people. … The newest aspect of 1946 was the fusion of so many different movements, some urban, some rural, some violent, and some law-abiding, many of which were explicitly directed against British rule while others, led by rebels, targeted exploitative Indian landlords, loan sharks, autocratic princes and existing social dynamics more broadly. The one thing in common was a feeling of resistance to the status quo.

So where did all this revolutionary energy go ? Khan mentions that the Congress’s four-anna membership regime allowed all and sundry to join the party and perhaps dilute its subversive potential. But the debates of the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution itself, the passing of the Hindu Code Bills and the abolition of zamindari indicate that the post-independence Indian polity was not conservative. Did the partition horrors exhaust people so thoroughly that they no longer had the energy to push on and continue subverting the social order ? Or did the highly fractionalized caste nature of inequality diffuse these energies and just result in very modest gains overall ?


  1. Reblogged this on AntiStable and commented:
    Thought provoking and nicely written.
    On primary education I sometimes wonder about why we did not see our past systems of private patronage reemerge post independence. Also the lacking emphasis on education in the native tongue.
    Would love to learn more about this.

    • Thanks mchellap. Regarding native tongue, primary education is in the state list and they usually provide education in the native tongue.

  2. Thanks for the comment. reading my note again, I should have made it clearer! The question of primary education was with regard to private patronage. Its not like it is totally absent by any means. But just not enough.
    The question on education in native tongue has more to do with higher education. English skills are a clear barrier to entry both for higher education itself and also for further employment…. which basically precludes much of our population.

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