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I saw magic the other day

August 5, 2009

I live in what they call in the American parlance, suburb of Bangalore. The area is still developing and there is a lot of construction going on. The workers who work in these buildings live in temporary settlements. They are poor, as one might expect and they live from hand to mouth. Last evening while I was on my way to the local market I saw someone sitting under the street light. On closer inspection I found a young child of six or seven sitting with his school bag, his books open, writing. The child was engrossed in his work. He was sitting on the deserted road as there was no electric connection in his hut like settlement. I was tempted to stop and talk to the child but then refrained. I did not want to divert his attention. Today morning when I was passing the same street I saw his elder sister wearing a crumpled, not too clean white school uniform writing in her notebook, obviously catching up on school work that she had missed. If this is not magical then what is? These people with very modest means spend from their meager income, ensuring that their kids get education. I will not be surprised if they sometimes go hungry but they have not abandoned their school and their textbooks. The kids are studying under street light and their parents are encouraging them, firm in the knowledge that this is the only passport to a better future.

I remember reading in one of the leading national magazines a few years ago of a young man who had cleared the Indian Civil Services competition (this is arguably one of the toughest competitions in India) and whose parents were daily wage earners. They must be earning equivalent of a couple of dollars daily and none at all if they fell sick. That young man said that the two things that his parents cherished most as they moved from one place to another in search of work was the books of their children and their ration card (a ration card is issued, especially to the poor here in India so that they can buy subsidized food from fair price shops). What he said was that their struggle was to keep body and soul together and then to educate their children. One can only imagine what that family must have felt when one of them cleared the Civil Services competition. The civil servants in India are the modern day nobabs in our country. From rudimentary hutments to a British style bungalow must have been a huge step. He said that the one thing he asked everyone he met from the disadvantaged section was whether they had their ration card. He knew the importance of this innocuous document that can be the difference between life and death and the way forward for millions here in India. For education can come only if one has a full stomach.  There are innumerable such success stories and their numbers are only increasing. This is a welcome trend.

Remarkably, it was only yesterday that the Education Minister introduced a bill in the parliament making education compulsory between the ages of six and fourteen. I know that this is an ambitious project and one that should be welcomed by all. In a country of more than a billion people where there are more than 500 million kids between the ages of 4 and 15 the challenges will be mammoth. I do not know whether it will be possible to give education to such huge numbers. What is appreciable is that the government is thinking in terms of implementing education as a fundamental right. This is a big step forward. It is also reported that India will be spending a lot of money on this Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education For ALL).  Allocation of resources will not be a problem. The challenge will be in the implementation of this ambitious program. It is a huge task and will need 6.8 million new teachers at the primary level. The development of infrastructure will be another big challenge. I am not a skeptic. Not when I see kids sitting under street light with their text books engrossed in their school work. I see so much awareness about the importance of education in India now and with the mass media explosion the awareness levels are increasing exponentially. People in remote villages will know that money is being sanctioned for schools and colleges. They will demand from their Panchayat (local governing bodies at village level) as to when the money reached them, how much it was and how was it used. I would suggest that the state and the central government publish in the local newspapers and broadcast it on radio as to where and how much money is sanctioned and for what purpose. The people will then follow it up and make sure that the funds are used for the purpose that they have been released. The hunger for education is enormous here in India. And now when the government has taken this up so seriously this can only get better. The other challenge will be to impart the right kind of education. But let us start from the basics, education per se. 

The state of Kerela is an example as to how education has reached the remotest corners of the state. Kerela has a hundred percent literacy. Other states need to emulate. Education is the passport to a better life. This realization among the common people is what is so healthy in our society. My hunch is that if the Indian children are not given a chance to educate themselves, they will demand it such that governments will fall. Any serious political outfit cannot afford to ignore this basic demand of people. Education has become a political issue now and this cannot be side stepped. I see a resurgent India. I see a light at the end of the tunnel. India is rising. Soon there will be fewer have-nots. The one sure way of banishing poverty is education.  And the child that was studying under the street lights could well be the Magistrate of the city we live in some years from now. The hunger for knowledge is insatiable. And that is the future for India that we see a few years from now.

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