As India steps into the 69th year of independence on August 15 this year, it is time to look back and take stock of the situation, to celebrate its successes, to take stock of its failures and to look through the prism for its future.
The world too has evolved during this period. The oldest and the largest democracies of the world, the US and India, are getting closer after the days of the cold war and mutual suspicion, when there is a decline of the communist doctrine and when the ugly face of Islamic militancy is raising its head as a hydra-headed monster threatening world peace.
In order to examine the present, it would be appropriate to look back at the situation in India at the time of Independence.
Shashi Tharoor, a senior Congress politician, who was in the running for the post of Secretary General of the United Nations and was recently in the eye of a storm over the mysterious death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar, addressed a distinguished gathering at the Oxford Union Society recently on the impact of colonialism on the Indian economy. He said that India’s share of the world economy had dropped from 23 per cent to four per cent as a result of the British rule. His speech, which went viral on the social media and kicked off debates in print media and TV studios, pointed out that Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. “In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India”, he said.
Taking example of the handloom sector, he said weavers in India became beggars and India went from being a world famous exporter of finished cloth, into an importer. It went down from having 27 per cent of world trade in the sector to less than 2 per cent. He said by the end of 19th century, India was already Britain’s biggest cash cow, the world’s biggest purchaser of British goods and exports, and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and added that ” We literally paid for our own oppression”.
He said railways and roads were really built to serve British interests and not those of the local people :“these were designed to carry raw materials from the hinterland into the ports to be shipped to Britain. In fact, the Indian Railways were built with massive incentives offered by Britain to British investors, guaranteed out of Indian taxes paid by Indians, with the result that you actually had one mile of Indian railway costing twice what it cost to build the same mile in Canada or Australia, because there was so much money being paid in extravagant returns. Britain made all the profits, controlled the technology, supplied all the equipment and absolutely all these benefits came as private enterprise — British private enterprise — at public risk, Indian public risk”.
While Tharoor may have very strong views on some of the issues, which may not be palatable or may generate adverse and equally strong reactions, the point is that it is important to take in to account the situation when the British rule ended to examine the progress made by India or otherwise. The first census in free India was conducted in 1951, four years after the independence but the figures even of that year provide a glimpse of what the British had left behind.
For instance, take the literacy figures, about which Tharoor later mentioned in one of the panel discussions, when the British left India. The total literacy percentage in India around that time was only 16 per cent. The 1951 census figures state that the population of literates among males was 27.16 per cent and merely 8.86 per cent that among females. The revised 2011 census figures, the latest available, show that the literacy percentage had gone up among the males to 80.9 per cent and that of females to 64.60 percent, still far from a satisfactory number but a steep increase from the first census after Independence. As per the 2001 census these figures were 75.26 and 53.67 per cent respectively.
Experts point out that even the low literacy percentage during the British rule was deliberate and whatever efforts were made to promote education, these were aimed at the objective as to how it would help the British Raj. Thus, the British did set up elitist schools with the aim of placating the super rich and influential and creating a pool for its own civil services.
But the literacy figures emerging from the census can also be misleading. In fact these are. A study conducted by a New Delhi-based non-profit Pratham, which surveyed school children across 500 districts, found that a fifth of 10-year-olds could not read sentences. Around 50 per cent of seven-year-olds surveyed couldn’t read letters and more than 50 per cent of 14-year-olds were unable to divide numbers. Another study on higher education estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of graduates with masters degrees in business administration, were employable. While engineering colleges have proliferated, only 19 per cent of engineers they produce are employable, as per a survey conducted by Aspiring Minds, an assessment and grading firm.
The problem starts with the standard of education at the primary level. Government schools are in a pathetic shape. No person, who can afford it, likes to put his children in government schools. Same is the situation in the government secondary schools. A “test” recently conducted in Punjab found most teachers failing in subjects they were supposed to teach and even the recent government initiatives like special reservations for students from economically weaker sections of the society, also has so far not shown the desired results.
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