India must realise that if it needs to sustain its growth, expand its markets and improve the quality of life of its millions, rural education is where it must start from
A recent article by Stanford economist Scott Rozelle revealed that 80% of urban Chinese students have access to the internet, compared with 2% of their rural peers. The gap, he says, threatens to leave too many children behind and jeopardises China’s economic future. He called this to be the greatest digital divide of any country in the world and also cited the example of how test scores of students learning Mandarin through computer games and software rose sharply by the advent of computers in rural schools. Within 10 weeks, test scores rose on average from the equivalent of a C+ to a B. The results eventually led to a 10-year-plan laid out by the government that calls for every student in China to have access to the internet. Closer home, in Mumbai to be precise, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation found that students in its schools with internet access outperformed those in other BMC schools without internet access. Clearly, technology is not just a differentiator but also an enabler when it comes to driving positive outcomes in areas such as education, health, financial inclusion, governance, etc.
Personally, I believe that India’s demographic status as a young nation is a double-edged sword. While corporate India looks at the bottom of the pyramid as a potential market, other segments look at this demographic as a source of permanently cheap labour. In India, almost 72% of the population lives in rural or semi-rural areas. On the map of poverty in India, the poorest areas are in parts of Rajasthan, MP, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. Of these, about 300 million young people are in the age-group of 13-35 and most of them are forced to migrate seasonally or permanently, without the skills and competencies required by the modern economy that India is rapidly becoming. Of these 300 million, approximately 100 million would be children below the age of 18 with little to no access to even rudimentary education. We’re therefore talking about more than 100 million rural kids going through the system without the skills they need.
A World Bank report of public schools in rural India showed that physical infrastructure remains woefully inadequate, with 82% of schools needing repair. Books are