It is our children’s future, not our ancestor’s pride, that deserves our outrage first. Here is a sample of what has outraged Indians over the last year: a violent mob attacked a bus full of schoolchildren to protect the honour of a mythical queen. Riots erupted between caste groups over a battle fought two hundred years ago. Young people were killed for falling in love outside their faith and for eating the meat of their choice.

We are willing to die and kill for dead queens, sacred animals, and caste history, all symbols of our past. But why is our response so muted when it comes to our children and youth, who symbolize our future?

Angry high-school students are out protesting on Delhi streets over the leaked Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) grade 10th and 12th question papers. Data analysis conducted by Geeta Kingdon shows that between 2004 and 2016, the median percentage score in CBSE’s school leaving examinations have been systematically inflated by 8%. Only 40% of our 14-18-year-olds can calculate the price of a shirt sold at a 10% discount and less than 60% could read the time from an analog clock, according to the findings of the Annual Status of Education (ASER) report. And, less than 17% of India’s graduates are employable.

None of these revelations are new. We have known for years that our education system is failing. Children are going to school but not learning much beyond “floor level tasks.” Yet, there has been no big bang policy shift, very little sustained media scrutiny and indeed no parent uprising.

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Why does the bleak future of our young people not stoke our collective outrage?

Students, parents and employers all benefit from good education. But they lack the voice to press for change. Politicians, bureaucrats, and media can influence education from the outside, but they find it of no use to advance their agendas.

Till recently, the software outsourcing industry boomed. Companies flocked to hire at campuses of even second rate engineering colleges. Most of these graduates are ill equipped to do entry level jobs. Corporations spend months to reskill them rather than getting entangled in lobbying government to fix college teaching.

Politicians do not win elections, or bureaucrats get promotions on an education platform. It takes years for good education policies to show results and even for bad ones to fail. Few in public office have that kind of patience to sow and wait. Fewer have the gumption to take on the entrenched unions, cartels, and ideologues who block meaningful change in schools and colleges.

Children are the most important beneficiaries of a good education yet the ones with least power to shape it. When children are in school, they are either unaware of how little they are learning or afraid to speak up. College students sometimes raise their voices in protest, but mostly on issues tangential to their learning.

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Parents choose to exit the school system rather than pressuring it to change. Millions of parents pull their children out of broken government schools and enroll them in low-fee private schools. Then they find out that even private schools do not deliver much better results. The better-off among them find refuge in tuition centres. The rest make do with what they get.

However, this pattern of exiting without a voice need not be fait accompli for Indian education. “The time for the richer Indian to secede has come to an end,” notes philanthropist Rohini Nilekani in her article for this column “The end of secession” (13 November 2017). “The foul air in Delhi is a perfect example of a great leveller. Rich and poor alike must breathe in its health hazards,” Nilekani argues.

The leak of CBSE question papers may be the fateful “foul air moment” for Indian education. Fates of children living in Gurgaon skyscrapers hangs in uncertain balance alongside their mofussil peers. Consider this. There will soon be 100 million under-skilled and under-employed young people on our streets. Many will be desperate, leading them to harass, loot, and molest, or to harm themselves if not others. A student commits suicide every hour in India, unable to fulfill aspirations, cope with failure, or find emotional support, according to IndiaSpend reports.

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Would we keep quiet if these were your children or mine? Will they find a college of their choice? Will they qualify for a job when they graduate? How will we grow our businesses when there are so few skilled people to hire? What India story will we sell to attract foreign investors? What myth will politicians spin to get the disillusioned to vote this time?

Now is the time to cry out for an excellent education for every child.

Parents, students, and employers must demand that our institutions deliver real capability and not empty certificates. Let us stamp our vote to those leaders who can make this happen. Let us not keep quiet till we get what we deserve. But with the right to raise our voices comes the responsibility to stay invested. Media must capture this moment and ensure that those in power heed this call. It must hold them accountable for action.

It is our children’s future, not our ancestor’s pride, that deserves our outrage first. Only then can we begin to unleash the potential of our 100 million young minds. #KhabarLive


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