India’s population dividend:High quality STEM education key to securing future, leading the world

FILE PHOTO: People shop in a crowded market amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kolkata, India, January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

The population of India, set to have reached 1.4 billion and soon to become the world’s most populous nation, is not a problem. Unlike the canards spread by certain political circles and their supporters, the population of India is in decline as the national Total Fertility Rate has fallen below replacement level. India’s population will naturally decline, with the percentage of senior citizens growing as the numbers of young people reduce. Over time this will reduce the total productive workforce upon whose output the seniors depend for their continued sustenance. Therefore, unless our young population is properly, nurtured, educated and skilled, our national growth and development will be in jeopardy.

This will require much more allocations to the primary and secondary budgets ar central and state levels. Primary healthcare will need similar investment. Our population must be regarded as a major resource for the world. Migration is not a bane but a boon. Skilling people to world standards will enable them to regard the world as their workplace , benefit less privileged areas and provide additional income for the nation.To achieve this, our nourishment of children must be complete and balanced, with optimal use of available food resources, particularly proteins, without regard to prevalent consumption prejudices but in accordance with medical advice. Many of our schoolchildren depend upon the midday meal scheme to get through the day. This must provide adequate calories and balanced nutrition to enable them to achieve normal physical growth and mental development.In the interest of our own future well-being, malpractice and corruption must be completely eliminated from this scheme.

Although Indian children are now entitled to free and compulsory school education, the quality and spread of this service still leaves much to be desired.Poor children often do not attend school regularly as they work to supplement their meagre family income. As a result basic literacy and numeracy have been found by independent assessors to be often below desired levels. This prevents absorption of school education provided at increasingly higher levels, creating frustration among the children for failure to meet expectations and encouraging early drop out from education,

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There may be several innovative remedies for this situation.The private sector may be encouraged to devote part of their CSR funds for these.NGOs and other civil society groups may be instrumental in evaluating project viability and supervise implementation and assess results for the investing companies. For example, Anganwadi workers may be trained to impart basic literacy and numeracy skills to early learners.In the early stages, encouragement must be given to the use of printed or written material in literacy and numeracy campaigns rather than digital media Children at school may be encouraged to refresh and practise their skills by teaching illiterate parents,especially mothers, or other family members. This will serve to inculcate pride in learning and improve adult literacy levels. Retired village teachers may also be used for adult literacy programmes. Small mobile libraries may be used at block level to periodically distribute books and teaching materials.

FILE PHOTO: Government job aspirants take part in a quiz as they prepare for various jobs in a college ground in Arrah, in the eastern state of Bihar, India, June 24, 2022. REUTERS/Saurabh Sharma

Open schooling methods and appraisal systems may be encouraged for adult learners and school dropouts to further their education and impart necessary extension services. The old “Each One, Teach One” programme may be reinvigorated to eliminate illiteracy within a few years.Use of renewable energy in public buildings will enable them to be used for education in shifts during the evening at no additional energy cost. Night schooling may be provided to enhance knowledge, digital literacy and skills useful for augmenting incomes.Televising of education may continue to be a major activity of Doordarshan, the public broadcaster, with valid diplomas being offered upon passing appraisals conducted at the end of a televised course.

Senior citizens skills may be used to impart education, training and skills as well, helping to give them a purpose in retired life, keeping their minds engaged and sharp and saving them from mental and physical health issues arising from inactivity, isolation and boredom. They may be used also to help keep their environments clean, disseminate social welfare messages to local communities undertake surveys to determine local issues which need administrative attention, etc. Small financial rewards distributed on target achievement basis will help.

Meritorious, gifted and talented scholars must be encouraged to acquire the latest knowledge from across the world to improve our own technologies and practices.Our educational systems and qualifications should be dovetailed into the most advanced knowledge sources around the world, so that our graduates may be able to pursue advanced courses elsewhere without the need for “bridging” courses.Negotiations may be undertaken for mutual recognition of qualifications between India and other countries hosting large numbers of Indian students, especially acquiring professional and technical education. This will especially help increase the employability of qualified medical practitioners, engineers and scientists.

We now have a situation in which far more candidates qualify in tests for public employment such as teachers than there are available posts. This leads to corruption, wastage, frustration, litigation and avoidable agitation. Testing agencies should not pass in the relevant examination more than 120% of candidates, so that all posts can be duly filled efficiently while keeping a reserve list against expansion and contingencies.

Skill training at internationally accepted levels must be given to sectors such as healthcare technicians, nurses, construction trades such as plumbing, carpentry, electricians, mechanics, personal groomers, culinary workers, jewellery makers, lapidarists and others to enable them to work anywhere in India and abroad.

High quality STEM education will enable India to lead the world in the evolving technological and knowledge-based economy. Training may also be offered in diverse languages.

A truly “whole of society” approach will enable us to prepare the human resources and optimise productivity which will generate the demographic dividend we all hope to benefit from in the near future.Only if we invest properly in the future generations will our own futures be secure in this turbulent world.

(This article appeared in South Asia Monitor July 26, 2022. The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)

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