Saturday, June 21, 2008

India's Children of Liberalisation

The Financial Times profiled the generation of Indians born in the 1980s and early 1990s who are just coming into adulthood (free reg. required or BugMeNot).

Finding a place in the country’s 24-7 economy might be a breeze for the 24-year-olds of First World India. But for the 800 million inhabitants of Third World India who live on less than $2 a day, growth has been little more than a spectator sport. FT interviews with seven 24-year-olds from across the spectrum of religious, caste and geographic backgrounds highlight not just the widening gap between these two worlds, but the danger of a backlash against liberalisation that could prompt a return of the politics of envy and the socialist remedies that consigned India to decades of disappointing growth.
Among the profilees is Sweta Singh, a software engineer for Infosys.
Women account for 32 per cent of the Infosys workforce. Even if the number of people employed in the IT sector – under 2 million – is small, it has been an engine of female empowerment. “Sixty per cent of my classmates are working like me, but there are still 40 per cent who got settled down and married,” she says. “Part of them must always be thinking ‘I should have gone out there and taken a chance.’ ”
Her life is in stark contrast to Ranno Banwasi, who is a Musahar, "a low-ranking Dalit – literally “oppressed” – caste that remains ostracised long after the abolition of “untouchabilty”. She and her husband only earn enough money to eat one small meal a day, and her soon-to-be born baby will almost certainly suffer from malnutrition - if it survives. Only 2.6% of Musahar woman and 6% of Musahar men are literate and their educational opportunities are limited.
The few Musahar children who attend school find themselves taunted by their higher-caste teachers, who will often try to turn them away or segregate them from their peers. Who, they ask, will do the manual labour if Musahar children become educated? Banwasi never even got that far. “My father was a fool – he never sent us to school,” she says, offering her visitors a snack of puffed rice and molasses. “The family needed the money, so I had to work.”
The article concludes that India must educate their entire population to assure the country's place in the global economy.
The isolated existence of the country’s Dalit population exposes one of the India’s greatest myths: that caste has disappeared. For middle-class Indians, the idea that wealth will eventually trickle down is accepted as fact. For Banwasi and millions like her, that idea is nothing more than a self-serving upper-caste delusion. Unless India invests in educating all its people and equipping them for employment, it is hard to see how the country will enjoy a demographic dividend on the scale that some are predicting. Indeed, unless a far greater proportion of the population is able to participate in the country’s growth, India’s economic model could prove politically unsustainable.
It will be interesting to see if international initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child, which currently has a a program in Khairat-Dhangarwada village, 81 km from Mumbai. It seems like a neat idea, but it likely won't help the very poorest of the poor and those children who are kept out of school for cultural reasons. See the recent Technology Review article for more about the successes and limitations of the OLPC program.

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