Why educated Indians are only half-literate

Nine half-literates are produced by our colleges, by Nasscom’s numbers, for every graduate of passable quality. What is Nasscom’s solution to this?

Mint 31/10/09

Can India’s high growth continue? No. Last year India produced goods and services worth $1.2 trillion. This is around Rs50,000 per Indian. Of this, 54% came from services, 29% from industry and 17% from agriculture. Services include trade, transportation, hospitality, mobile telephony, and software and outsourcing. Industry means things such as manufacturing, mining and energy.

Of every 100 Indians, 60 depend on agriculture. The Indian farmer is unproductive. We are self-sufficient in agriculture, but what this means is that 60% of the population feeds 100%. So each farmer grows food for himself and less than one other person. America is also self-sufficient, but farming families are only 1.3% of population. To sustain growth, half a billion Indians will need to do something other than agriculture. But what?

China dominates industry, and India is a star in services.

Seventy per cent of India’s growth comes from services. Ten years ago, Wipro’s turnover was $150 million. Today it is $5 billion, TCS is $6 billion and Infosys is $4.5 billion. Software and outsourcing is only 7% of India’s GDP, but contributes 2% of overall growth. Soon this will become 3%. The IT-BPO sector is great: not polluting, not much bribing needed, and, because it’s urban, each job creates three indirect jobs.

One strategy to sustain 8% growth is to make the sector big enough, fast enough so it cancels out the unproductive parts of our economy.

But that isn’t going to happen.

Wipro employs 95,000, Infosys 105,000 and TCS 143,000. Of the Fortune 500, only Wal-Mart in America adds more people annually than either Infosys or TCS.

Last year Infosys hired 28,231 people, including 18,000 graduates paid Rs3 lakh a year. This year they will hire 20,000 at Rs3.25 lakh. Infosys is hiring though there isn’t enough business. We know this because 30,000 people at Infosys are “benched”. So why are they still hiring? And why raise salaries? Because they cannot find competent people. Infosys spends twice as much as its American competitors on training: 4% of revenue.

Nasscom says software firms reject 90% of college graduates and 75% of engineers who apply for jobs because they are not good enough to be trained. This year Infosys increased its training of employees to 29 weeks. That’s seven months of training. Why do they need so much training? And why is the quality of applicants so poor? Because the educated Indian is only half-literate.

Nine half-literates are produced by our colleges, by Nasscom’s numbers, for every graduate of passable quality. What is Nasscom’s solution to this? It wants government to boost college enrolment from 10% of those in secondary school, to 25%. Nasscom knows this will only increase the number of job applicants, not the quality, but there’s no other solution.

India produces 3 million graduates, but Nasscom says next year will see a shortage of 500,000 graduates, because incompetents will swamp the rest.

We must remember that passable quality in most call centres isn’t a high standard. Only common sense and elementary language skills are needed, just like in journalism, another area where the problem of quality is visible.

India has more English news channels than America and England. As demand for journalists has grown, supply has turned poor because in India quality thins out quickly. NDTV started with a high proportion of people who attended expensive colonial institutions, such as Sanawar’s Lawrence School, in the studio. But its correspondents—those who report from the field—are half-literate, though they work in English.

Indians survive in English because of our reliance on stock phrase and cliché. If you were to read the transcript of an NDTV or CNN-IBN programme and edit out stock phrase and cliché, little information of value would remain. This is remarkable because the journalist’s trade is information.

What explains this reliance on tired language? Two things: The first is that none of us really has a feel for English because it’s foreign. Most Indians educated in English cannot write a paragraph without error.

Second, this inability to present information comes from an inability to process it sequentially. This is a flaw of primary education and no media school or style guide can correct it.

English newspapers have the same problem. Their solution is segregation: The Anglicized upper-class mans the desk, reshaping the materiel that the half-literates bring in. A similar, classist solution has been arrived at in television, because there’s really no other way.

It is wrong to assume that the problem here is merely aesthetics. The desk’s job includes debriefing, because the reporter returning from an assignment often does not understand what he has witnessed. The majority of Indian reporters will fail to answer in one line the question: “What’s your story?” They must be escorted back through the event so that something coherent can be drawn out.

The question is: Why are so many Indians half-literate?

Nasscom says India’s “focus should be on improving the quality of graduate and postgraduate out-turn” by “enhancing capacity…policy deregulation and nurturing clusters of research institutes”.

Wrong solution: The problem is primary education. Fixing this is not possible for decades, because quality schooling comes from institutions, not buildings, as Tagore said.

And institutions are founded on commitment.

Till 20 years ago, when no money was to be made in primary education, there were only four English schools in Surat, a city then of 1.5 million. Lourdes Convent run by Carmelites, St Xavier’s run by Franciscans, Seventh Day Adventist run by Presbyterians, and Sir JJ run by Parsis.

Hindus, 90% of the city’s population, founded none, though we are quite good at building temples.

Today, when education is decent business, there are 40 schools in Surat. But these are only buildings; those who go through them learn little.

Prosperity for a billion people will not come from making policies and letting everything else fall into place. We will learn that soon.


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