India: state governments across the country now reversing historically anti-English policies

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Nov 16 17:58:48 UTC 2008

Yes we can!
16 Nov 2008, 0007 hrs IST

Beyond business

When I told people that I was working on a book, they assumed it was a
memoir of my business career, or my take on management strategy. They
looked quizzical (and were probably alarmed) when I said that I was
writing a book on India. Businessmen, after all, do not usually make
good public intellectuals. I console myself that I am but an
accidental entrepreneur, who if he had not walked into the office of
the charismatic N R Narayana Murthy in late 1978 in search of a job
would probably have at best languished in a regular nine-to-fiver
while living in a New Jersey suburb, taking the daily train to

The way I see it, the fact that I am not a specialist of any
particular stripe, whether in history, sociology, economics or
politics, may actually give me a broader viewpoint on our most
significant issues. At a time when our arguments are so polarized,
what we need might indeed be an avid amateur, and someone who can
avoid the extreme ends of the debate. While this is a book on India,
this is not a book for people fascinated with Indian cinema and
cricket — I would not be able to add very much to either topic,
colourful as they are. Instead, I have attempted to understand India
through the evolution of its ideas. I think that no matter how
complicated, every country is governed through some overarching themes
and ideas — an intricate web of shared, core beliefs among a country's
people is, after all, what unites them.

The ideals of French nationalism, for instance, the notion of the
United States as the land of opportunity and the emphasis on 'harmony'
in Singapore were all dominant ideas that shaped the economic and
social policies of these countries. India in particular, for all its
complexity, is a country that is as much an idea as it is a nation.
The years of colonialism have meant that India has not evolved through
a natural arc; disparate regions were brought together by the ideas,
good and bad, of British administrators and Indian leaders. My first
glimmer of the power of these ideas came when I was five years old. I
understand this in hindsight, of course. One day my father bundled all
of us into his Austin motorcar and drove us to a rally.

It was 1960, the Congress session was being held in Bangalore, and we
were there to see the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru. As a towering
leader of our independence struggle and the country's first prime
minister, his stature both within the country and outside was immense
— to a whole generation, he was synonymous with India. My memory of
standing on the sidelines, caught up in the large crowd and waving at
this thin, intense man is an unforgettable one.

Growing up in those days, it was very easy to believe in the idea of a
nurturing government and public sector. A paternal, socialist state
would own companies which would create wealth and the wealth would be
used for the betterment of society. Why allow wealth to be created in
private hands where it would probably be used for nefarious purposes?
It all made perfect sense. The logic of it, especially coming from the
benevolent patriarch Nehru, appeared unimpeachable. My father, an
ardent Nehruvian, would constantly rail against the evils of big
business, and how the Indian approach was the ideal approach. Many
Indians believed in these ideas then; few of us believe them now.

The structure of my book is based on this ebb and flow of ideas, and
how this has shaped the changes in our economy and politics. For
example, through the early days of independent India, many saw English
as a language of the imperialists and did everything possible to
marginalize the tongue. This included attempts to make Hindi the sole
national language, and restricting or banning outright the teaching of
English in state schools. But once outsourcing made English the entry
ticket to a global economy and higher incomes, the language rapidly
became a popular aspiration, a ladder to upward mobility for both the
middle class and India's poor. As a result state governments across
the country are now reversing historically anti-English policies, even
in places where Hindi-language nationalism was trenchant. Such is the
power of changing ideas.

English: The language of upward mobility

The economist Omkar Goswami concurs with the Indian economists I know,
when he refuses to give in to unbridled optimism on how India is
changing since reforms. He notes, however, that the shift in certain
attitudes has been unmistakable. "We now rely less on kneejerk
hostility, when it comes to our feelings about foreign things," he
says. This change is especially clear in our attitude towards English,
which has undergone a transformation post-reform. The change was
largely driven by the rise of India's outsourcing industry. The 1990s
had marked the rise of Indian IT companies including Infosys, and our
key advantage in competing in the global services market — our purple
poker chip — has been India's large numbers of affordable, educated
and English-literate workers.

In the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector in particular, over
65% of jobs are defined as voice-based jobs, and English language
proficiency is the main requirement for these companies. These firms
were closely aligned with global corporations, and both productivity
and wages were linked quite closely to global market averages. The
result was that, through the 1990s, potential earnings for India's
English-skilled graduates surged. In a sense, this Indian industry has
carved out a route to the American dream for our workers.

The present number of English-literate, skilled graduates barely
scratches the surface of what India is capable of. Even though the
number of graduates and engineers in India has more than doubled over
the last fifteen years, only 13% of India's youth actually opt for
higher education, and English literacy in India remains below 30%.
Companies in India's outsourcing industry are attempting to expand the
number of English-proficient graduates through training courses for
college students in English language skills. Not only can the talent
pool get much deeper, this industry in India has the potential to
absorb large numbers of English-skilled workers. Employment in the
sector has crossed 1.6 million, and there remains immense room for
more growth — the number of jobs created is set to cross three million
by 2015.

This highly visible rise of the outsourcing sector has helped
transform Indian attitudes towards the English language. English is
emerging as the language of aspiration for the Indian population — as
a passport to a lucrative job and entry into the country's growing
middle class. A friend of mine is an entrepreneur who runs Corner
House, a popular Bangalore ice cream and sundae parlour. He told me
resignedly that he had taught his staff some English so that they
would be able to take orders, and they left him to join a BPO company!

The rising pay-offs of English language skills across Indian industry
are also creating a widespread demand to learn the language. The
private sector has been quick in responding — English training in
India has surged to a $100 million industry in annual revenues. Sriram
Raghavan is an entrepreneur who runs Comat, a company dedicated to
building rural IT kiosks across the country, and he says that one in
three customers to the kiosks comes for English lessons.

"They have a sharp eye for the jobs that are available, and they are
quite pragmatic," he tells me of his rural customers. "I have people
coming to me asking for English lessons for their wives, since that
can help them get jobs as receptionists and secretaries at government
offices." The language is also popular among people migrating to the
city. "They know," Sriram says, "that if they learn English before
they move to the city, they will land much better paying jobs. It's
the difference between working as a construction worker or being the
manager of the construction team."

The language is making a substantial difference across levels — people
who work as janitors at offices, for instance, find that knowing
English means better errands to run. "I run around bringing tea and
snacks and cleaning up," one of them says. "There is another guy who
knows to read and write English. He visits banks and clients and gets
four times my salary."

As a result this aspiration for English is now cutting across income
classes — English-medium private schools have mushroomed across rural
India and in the slums of the urban poor. Nearly one-third of all
rural schoolchildren are now enrolled in private schools, and close to
50% of these schools are English-medium. Dalit leaders have also
pushed for effective English instruction in schools. Organizations
such as the Dalit Freedom Network are establishing English-medium
schools to cater to the Dalit community.

"I think that our leaders now recognize how important English is for
Dalits to access both employment and economic opportunities,"
Chandrabhan tells me. In his own irreverent way, he has even initiated
a campaign for English by celebrating the birthday of Lord Macaulay.
"It helps raise awareness about the need to learn English," he grins,
when I ask about the event. "We've now celebrated his birthday three
years in a row."

Moving deadlines

Play a waiting game with an Indian, and you will always lose. Indians
— inured to serpentine queues, traffic jams, foundation stones laid
for bridges never built — have long adapted to an economy that moves
slowly and that has, in key reforms, struggled over the last mile.
India's policy makers and politicians have been great at forming
agendas and presenting blueprints, and our five-year plans have been
nothing if not exhaustive. Our big weakness has been in execution.

When it came to the goal of attaining universal education, the country
has moved its target year time and again, all the way from 1959 to
2010. We will miss it this time as well. In our infrastructure
projects, we have regularly faced time overruns that were longer than
the initial planned completion time. Several years ago, the government
had put up a large green board next to a bridge that was under
construction in Bangalore with a date marking the beginning of the
project and the planned completion date.

Initially, the second figure said 2002. As 2002 came and went, a
sticker appeared over it that said 2004. Another sticker finally
appeared over the earlier faded one, this time also specifying the
month: June 2006. The bridge eventually opened a year later.

We have become used to these moving deadlines across some fundamental
reforms. This challenge of implementation we have faced across the
economy — in our infrastructure, the growth of our cities, our schools
and single market reforms — and it has invited many unfavourable
comparisons to China. Ministers like Kapil Sibal have been frank about
admitting this difference, saying, "We can't (unlike China) build a
Pundong overnight."

Rather than executing with vision, India, unlike China, executes with
crisis — as states are forced into action by market pressures building
up. This response-led strategy has not been a good model for growth.
It has made chaos the rule in our crumbling cities, our highways that
meander into deadends and mud roads, and in schools with failure rates
of 100%.

Considering how popular these issues of infrastructure, connectivity,
better cities and schools are now among Indian voters, implementing
them should have been a no-brainer. But the state here is in a
struggle with itself; the government's ability to execute its plans
and targets has been overwhelmed by interest groups and a slow
bureaucracy, of which Lord Curzon had complained, "Round and round
like the...revolutions of the earth goes file after file in the
bureaucratic daily dance, stately, solemn, sure and slow." Change has
been painful, and hard-won.

In essence, while the Indian economy has changed over the past 25
years, the state has not. Our public institutions function under the
same rules and incentives as they did in 1980 and under standards that
date back to colonial India. What is required is a fight to remove
long-rooted interest groups and bring about fundamental changes to our
governance. This is where our most passionate disagreements now lie.

Running out of time

It is time to recognize that the opening up of India, and granting
people economic opportunity and freedom, has been a vital turning
point in our history. A mercurial, fast-growing economy such as
India's has a very short window for implementing reforms that broaden
access to a large group of people — countries grow fastest in these
early years and newly opened markets are a source of enormous
opportunity. But such expansionary reforms have come to a grinding
halt in India, as people stall and question the effectiveness of these

Politicians and economists who opposed reforms first argued that it
did not lead to growth or reduce poverty — an argument that could have
been made in the jittery early 1990s. But when growth took off and
poverty rates fell, it was alleged that much of this growth has been
jobless growth. Over the last few years, however, it has become clear
that the economy has created millions of jobs, accommodating the many
job seekers coming into the city from smaller towns and villages.

Job creation has in fact reached the point that it allows economists
such as Dr C Rangarajan to postulate that "we'll reach full employment
by the end of this decade". This for India would be a landmark never
seen before — although in the light of the number of India's
self-employed, it is also a muted success.

Most recently, the charge of the anti-reformers has been that with
economic growth we are now facing rising inequality. This argument
does give me pause. There is no doubt that both liberalization and
globalization load the dice in favour of people who are better placed
to take advantage of the new opportunities, and who have easier access
to markets. But this is also a rationale for making the economy more
open, not less.

Emerging inequalities have been especially evident in India from a
regional perspective; even as most of India has taken off with growth,
middle India — the BIMARU states — languishes. Here, the emerging
demographic dividend comes with a largely illiterate population. The
green revolution, the white revolution and the IT revolution have, to
a great extent, passed them by. And the politics of revenge has
obscured development.

Addressing these rising inequalities in class and region means opening
the doors wider and empowering more people to enter the market and
benefit from it — this will entail ensuring full literacy, creating a
common market so that people can get the best price for their wares,
and building better cities and infrastructure to access markets. It
will also mean removing the shackles on higher education, which is one
of the most potent means of social mobility; enacting the labour
reform laws necessary to create large-scale jobs in the industrial
sector; and opening up organized retail and revamping supply chain
infrastructure so that farmers have access to better, freer markets.

The challenge now is that many voters, or rather interest groups
within our electorate, view the solution to such inequalities as the
problem. The policies that would address our challenges in inequality
and emancipate our farmers, our illiterate and our rural poor are
precisely the ones that are now politically volatile and locked in
debate or lost in committee. But without these reforms in place, we
will again have a system that promotes the sharing of elite power
between a strong state and a dominant business sector at the expense
of the large majority. As before, the elite will 'close themselves
in...and close others out'.

We are in a new era of speed. Montek Singh Ahluwalia has pointed out
that India has moved from a time "when growth was at 3.5% every year,
while population grew at 2%, which meant per capita income doubled
every 45 years". But now, he notes, "a growth of 8 to 9% and
population growth at less than 1.5% means that our per capita incomes
are doubling every nine years". Such growth is coupled with rising
aspirations, and is fuelled by media in a country where television
sets are quickly becoming ubiquitous. We only have a dim comprehension
of what this pace of change means in terms of how we will cope with
challenges in our environment, energy, health and infrastructure

This is why I believe that the only way to push changes through and
safeguard our economic future is to create a safety net of ideas.

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