For several years, important voices have been speaking of the economic potential of India's young population. Slightly less than half the country's population — around 500 million — is under the age of 15. Statisticians predict that, over the next decade, India's labour force will grow by a staggering 100 million, over ten times the corresponding figure in China. By some estimates, over 25 per cent of the global workforce will be Indian by 2030.
These numbers make one thing clear: the entire world has a social and economic stake in ensuring that we are providing top-quality education to India's children. At the moment, however, the scenario is bleak. School education receives little priority from the government and is continually subordinated to higher education.
State governments across the country boast about high enrollment rates, but conveniently mask the fact that dropout rates are alarmingly high.
According to a recent study, 15 out of every 100 Indian children will never see the inside of a school. And among the 85 who do, over 50 per cent will drop out before fifth grade.
Furthermore, within India's schools, the quality of education is falling sharply. Through my own experiences as a primary school teacher in some of Mumbai's most deprived slums, I have been repeatedly shocked by the magnitude of the problem.
In the city's municipal schools, only a handful of fifth grade students can read first grade books. Almost all students struggle with elementary arithmetic. These students are little more than a statistic — they help the government show high enrollment rates but learn very little during their four-hour school days.
The situation of young girls, in particular, is appalling. The problems begin even before they are born. Despite being banned, ultrasound tests are being used across the country — particularly in the north — to identify and abort extraordinary numbers of female fetuses. According to the 2011 census, the country's child sex ratio has dipped from 927 per 1,000 to 914, a 60-year low.
At school, the discrimination continues. Shockingly enough, in many rural areas, thousands of adolescent girls are dropping out of school because of one crucial reason: the lack of separate toilets for them.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a private commissioned survey of India's schools, recently discovered that 40 per cent of the country's schools did not have separate toilets for girls. And among the schools that did, only 30 per cent had toilets that were in usable condition. Moreover, other girls do not attend because their daily walk to school — often to a neighbouring village — is physically unsafe. Daily taunts and harassment put them off attending school altogether.
Education has always been highly valued by Indian parents; across religions, cultures and social strata. And now thanks to broad changes in Indian society, almost all families consider the education of their daughters as an equal priority.
In the Mumbai slums where I work, poor families scrimp and struggle to send all their children to the best schools they can afford. Why? Because education is their only weapon against a life of penury and struggle. As one commentator wrote, "They dream of their educated children going on to build a decent life and pulling them out of the slums and poverty."
The reality, however, is that their children do not even stand a chance. The quality of instruction they are receiving ensures that they will never be able to compete — whether for college admissions or in the job market — with privileged students who can afford expensive, top-quality schools.
India requires education reform on a massive scale, and yes, sustainable change will take time as well as broad-based consensus. In 1968, the government-sponsored Kothari Commission recommended that India spend 6 per cent of its GDP on education.
However, in the 43 years since that report, India's total educational outlays have never exceeded 4.3 per cent of its GDP in any given year. As a critical first step, the government can commit to dramatically raising its education budget.
Yes, this funding will help build more schools and increase access to education, but it can also allow us to tackle some of our most basic and immediate problems. Building basic toilet and sanitation facilities for girls in government schools across the country will, by itself, make a huge impact.
Perhaps then the country can also explore ways of providing safe transportation for girls. In the state of Bihar, for instance, a government initiative to provide bicycles for girls has resulted in a dramatic rise in school enrolment.
Just as importantly, India will need to commit considerable funding towards teacher training, which still needs a tremendous amount of work and effort.
India needs to wake up quickly to the importance of educating its children, and collectively find solutions to the challenges on the ground. As concerned global citizens, the onus is on us to help discuss solutions and contribute towards them because, in just a few years, its implications will affect us all.
Rakesh Mani is a writer and Mumbai-based teacher working with low-income schools.