Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Demography is destiny

About 5 years ago, I had written a rant titled "India and I". Based on largely anecdotal evidence, I had painted a picture of an Economy of a trillion dollars and billion people. Basically before writing the piece, I spoke to myself, number one, because I had said a lot of things :-)  Getting opinions from a sample-size of one, spouting Truthisms and dissing experts have all become fashionable in the political climate now, and where politicians go MBAs cannot be far behind, can we?

This brings us to the idea of the follow-up piece for the original rant. In grandest MBA traditions of sharing the blame and getting the disclaimers early, I must state clearly that I am compiling a follow-up under duress. In a moment of madness, at a time when spirits were high and equivocating seemed uncalled for, I had told a friend that I would send across an update to him. Said friend recently bid goodbye to his consulting career and was perhaps wistfully looking back at his armchair- pontification days and thus pinged me to deliver. So, here goes -

Demography is destiny, or is it?

Demography is destiny is one of those fabulous catch-all phrases that can bend to suit any narrative. Japan's economic downturn, India's growth potential, democrats' election prospects are all explained with the idea that 'demography is destiny'. The numbers-are-vital storyline forgets one vital point - the quality of the constituents. It is this quality of the demography that I worry about the most.

I have spent most of my career in the education sector and recently have begun engaging with school students and teachers. The teachers I have interacted with have all been wonderful and are delivering the curriculum with enormous amounts of diligence and meticulousness. If that is the case, what exactly is my peeve?

I think we are achieving the wrong set of objectives. The entire pedagogy is  linear and rule-based; we care more about the mechanics than the fundamentals, more about processes than about conceptual depth. The best students are keen, they are willing to learn, and thanks to the law of large numbers, we frequently have break-out students who are brilliant. But the system is not gearing students for the skills that will be required in 2035.

In my mind, the entire education system should be about the processor, whereas it is currently about the apps. We add layer after layer of rules, technologies, factoids to young brains without spending the time on building their ability to process. It is akin to Google recruiting 10000 people and taking 3 years to teach them the Syntax of C, C++, Java, Fortran and the like.

The results are already there to see. As a country, we get whipped in PISA rankings. All the IIT and IIM professors talk about these days is how the quality of intake has fallen. We can attribute some of these anecdotal points to the 'rosy retrospection', but the truth probably is that our students have definitely not improved over the last two decades or so. The rest of the world has not been static - the math textbooks followed in Singapore are fabulous, Finland has a wonderful teaching system, the US is continuously investing on pedagogy and technology. In a world that is probably approaching a discomfiting level of compassion-free meritocracy, we are in danger of being left behind.

India's original sin
Jawaharlal Nehru gave this Country a lot of wonderful things - the most important of them being articulation of the idea of being Indian. But even his biggest fans will concede that he made one vital error, one that would haunt India for a long time. He completely, dramatically, spectacularly undermined the importance of primary education. India spent ridiculously small amounts on this most crucial of growth drivers and we never realized the price we were paying. Missionaries, the private sector, middle-class India's fetish for the 'degree' have offset this somewhat. But with every passing year, the primary education deficit is becoming pitifully obvious to see.

Recently, I read the watermelon story from Mr. Manohar Parrikar, and one passage struck a chord with me like none other. In seven years, Parra’s best watermelons were finished. In humans, generations change after 25 years. It will take us 200 years to figure what we were doing wrong while educating our children.

According to me, we are doing a great deal wrong with educating our children.

On the positive side, technology is a great leveler. It reduces teaching costs like no other tool that has gone before it. I fervently hope that we crack the code and give the next generation sound online learning options. There perhaps is a window of opportunity  where we can do something meaningful and bypass the rot that has set in our formal learning system.

What has changed in the last five years?
I promised my friend an update and so I am duty-bound to have to tick some boxes in the richest "then vs. now" traditions.

On governance, I think this has improved reasonably. From the bar UPA 2 had set, it could hardly get any worse. My beloved state Tamilnadu has become worse, but I think that issue is more local.

On the sense of entitlement, I think this has gone down substantially. There is nothing like a tough economic environment to knock people of their perches. The real estate market becoming sane has had one lasting impact - it has stopped generating notional wealth for property-owners. There is no automatic get-rich scheme available and people have realized that this is the new normal.

I have come to love this new normal. Like Salmad Rushdie in Midnight's Children, I have become wary of collective optimism in the Indian Economic context. The behavioural excesses from that optimism wear me down. This is why I have been such a skeptic on the supposed E-commerce wave, but that is a post for another day.

On the issue of politics of jingoism, things have taken a turn for the worse across the world. Trump, Nigel Farage, Indian media's war-mongering are all clear instances of this turn. The voices being raised against this are currently weak and burdened with their own history of parochialism. So, any stab at statesmanship looks like partisanship in another garb. When Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and NDTV are enlisted for the good fight, the whole damn thing looks like a bloody joke. India desperately needs the grand old Congress party to become strong again. For the long-term health of the republic, this right-ward lurch has to be offset by a sane centrist voice.

Currently, India's rightward lurch is not(yet) alarming. It is probably a mild reset that the Country was screaming out for from years of left-leaning lunacy. Importantly, the Indian public now gets to see the full colours of the excesses of the right, which will automatically make the left-center seem palatable. So, the current reset is probably the equivalent of some blood-letting that will result in long-term peace. At least, this is what I am hoping for.

On the economic front, things are mixed. The world economy is playing a much bigger role than at any point of time in India's history. The 2008-10 recession, low fuel prices, easy money are all factors on which India has had little control. Our finance minister has done some random things - he picked a fight with the RBI governor for no reason, and he seems to believe that tax-increases are the 'in' thing these days. But so far he has done little to really screw the economy. And with Mr. Jaitley as the finance minister, this is perhaps the best we can expect.

Education - this should be the holy grail
I read this piece on the Cuban Education system and became very jealous. Completely free till 9th grade, free food and care before and after school, and a teacher-student ratio of 1 : 20. I fervently wish we have an education-fanatic somewhere higher up in our governance hierarchy. Estonia has recently overseen a technology revolution that  one can only marvel at.  All their schools were online by 1998!

Any long-term thinking about India should begin and end with - How are we going to educate our current 2-year olds? If we get this right, everything else will become irrelevant.

Any reader should note that I am a primary education junkie. If you take the previous generation's education-fetish and multiply it ten-fold, you would still underestimate the importance I would place on sound primary education. I do not care much for degrees, I do not hold much store on fancy colleges and big campuses. But on primary education, I am of the view that the Indian budget should take its budgetary allocation and double it, and then double it, and then double it about 5 more times.

To put it another way,

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet. 

This was written by Aaron Sorkhin for yet another fabulous episode of The West Wing. The exact dialogue can be seen here.

If any of you knows anyone in the Union Government (this one, the next one, or the one after that) and you carry some sway over creating/appointing a minister for primary education, you know whom to call. I guarantee that I will make gigantic monumental changes, and by using technology well I will do this without ratcheting costs as well. :-)