Children waiting for school bus under umbrellas in New Delhi, India Image Credit: ANI

Many years ago, in a shared taxi from Jammu to Srinagar, there was a Kashmiri student going home. He said he had been doing a PhD in Germany to become a scientist. I asked him where in Kashmir he lived, and he said he was from a village in some district. I forget which district, but it struck me that a ‘villager’ in Kashmir was becoming a scientist in Europe.

If a village boy in India’s Hindi heartland was becoming a scientist in Europe, it would be news in the local papers. In Kashmir it surprised no one. The budding scientist told me that even government-run schools in Kashmir use English as the medium of instruction, which had enabled him to easily study science in college and move to Europe.

This is in contrast to the Hindi heartland, where almost all government schools have Hindi as the medium of instruction.

While we always think of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s (first Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and later as the Chief Minister) land reforms as the reason why Kashmir and Kashmiris are prosperous, we don’t realise a big part of their prosperity comes from having English, which has helped them move into modern professions and migrate across India and the world.

Naeem Akhtar, a former education minister in the J&K government, tells me his own village in Kashmir has students studying abroad. He says that the English language helped Kashmiris migrate and survive 20 years of a deadly conflict in the Valley. ‘English is a skill more than a language’, he says.

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India versus Bharat

Politicians in most of India have ensured an education system that can be summarised as ‘English for the rich, Hindi for the poor’. This is true of many states outside the Hindi heartland too, but to a lesser degree.

See this map of English language usage in India. English and prosperity go hand in hand, as you can see here the more prosperous states have a larger percentage of English speakers.

As a result, Hindi-speaking Indians try to move heaven and earth to earn enough money to send their children to privately-run English-medium schools. But most can’t. According to government data, roughly two-thirds of India’s children go to government schools, only a third to private schools, some of which may be government-aided.

A government report found that in 2019-20, a fourth of India’s children were studying in English-medium schools. This percentage keeps increasing every year, incrementally, largely due private schools.

One of the saddest things about the economic impact of Covid in India is that thousands of private schools have shut down, and many students have moved from private schools to government schools. One wonders about the plight of those who have been forced to move from English-medium to Hindi-medium schools.

The urgency of English

There is nothing new about the argument that Indians need English-medium education for social mobility. Everyone other than our politicians understand this. What has changed is the urgency of this goal. India’s poor have a last chance to learn English and rise out of poverty.

India’s demographic dividend is in its last few decades. India’s fertility growth rate is already below replacement levels; India’s population will actually start shrinking in 2048, 25 years from now.

When that happens, India will have an ageing population which poorly paid, Hindi-speaking youth won’t be able to support economically.

The reason for our pessimism is that it is abundantly clear India is not going to have a mass manufacturing revolution. India’s policymakers can keep chasing manufacturing and export of goods but the results are only going to be incremental.

If there is a transformational opportunity, it is in services. Since the 1990s it has been clear that India’s big global opportunity is in services, as the information technology sector showed.

Recent economic data has shown a surprising surge in services exports, thanks to the rise of ‘global capability centres’ that help the world’s companies with not just IT but also data analytics, research and consulting. Advances in artificial intelligence could actually help us take advantage of more such outsourcing.

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Yet, India’s politicians and policymakers have failed to pivot to focusing on human capital. They have not invested their energies in improving the quality of education, and their insistence on not letting the poor have English-medium education will one day be seen as their biggest mistake.

History will remember that these politicians and policymakers — each one of them — give their own children an English-language education.

India’s unemployed and unemployable youth are not going to acquire the skills needed to work in the factories that will never come anyway. Besides the competition from countries like China, Bangladesh and Vietnam, automation is anyway reducing the manpower required in factories.

While India must pursue every possible opportunity to grow manufacturing, it needs to stop chasing the idea that it can become the next China.

India can only become the next India, the world’s services hub, full of English-speaking professionals making reports and crunching data. Why are we denying these opportunities to those who can’t afford to send their children to private schools?

Exporting human capital

Services export is not even the only opportunity. The global population is already shrinking. The world’s most prosperous countries already have an ageing population with not enough young workers to support them. The world doesn’t have enough doctors or nurses, bankers or beauticians.

Exporting humans rather than goods is another way India can ease its unemployment problem. With around $100 billion in annual remittances from migrant workers abroad, India is already the top exporter of human capital.

Once again, this is an opportunity denied to millions of Indians who are forced to study in government-run schools where the medium of instruction is not English.

Our politicians who obsess about mother tongue education need to be asked: where are the jobs in the mother tongue?

Ask the parents

Some politicians can feel the pressure from the public and are responding to it. The Andhra Pradesh government has already decided to switch all government-run schools to English medium.

Jharkhand and Rajasthan have started government-run English-medium schools, but the transition is slow because they don’t have enough English-speaking teachers yet. For every one seat in a government-run English medium school, there are three applications.

In West Bengal the Communist government had at one point completely stopped teaching English even as a separate subject. Today, the Mamata Banerjee government is promising to open new English-medium schools.

Here is a modest proposal for all state governments (since education is a state subject). They should ask parents of all enrolled students in a government school if they prefer English-medium education or education in the mother tongue for their children. If a majority of parents say mother tongue, so be it.

Let the parents decide. Politicians will then feel less guilty about bowing before a ‘foreign’ language.