ASER Has A Silver Lining By – Dipankar Gupta

ASER Has A Silver Lining

If the middle class is stuck in the lift, an aspiring class is running up the stairs

The Indian middle class is elusive; now you see it, now you don’t. When only 3% of households own cars, it’s easy to miss them in the surrounding biomass. Not just the US and South Korea have more cars percapita than India, but so do Congo, Afghanistan and Yemen.

So, let’s get real. When we are among IT professionals in India we see cars everywhere. But step out of this select gathering, that number but three million in India, and the world looks quite different. Here the carrot and stick feel alike for nearly 80% of employees who have no work contract.

To believe then that upward of 400 million are now occupying the middle class space is pure, dogged imagination. This fiction takes away our attention from the fact that there has been an impressive rise in the numbers of the “aspirational class”.

These are people who try their most to be middle class, and yet never quite make it. To qualify as middle class they put in their all to breast that tape. Unfortunately, while the spirit is more than willing, the legs are just not there. Even so, their aspirations never die.

The 2017 Annual Status for Education Report (ASER) has pessimism written all over it. It records how teaching standards are slipping fast, and could soon be under the proverbial duck’s tail. Yet, so strong is their aspiration, that the young keep enrolling; even a hopeless school exudes hope.

This is the silver lining in the dark ASER clouds. The percentage of 18 year olds in educational programmes has risen from a mere 32% in the 2001 census to an estimated 70% according to ASER’s 2017 survey. Are parents of these 18 year olds seeing rainbows at night?

This determination to see their young through schools to a better life is worth every sacrifice. Parents willingly tighten their belts past the last notch to afford private schools for their children. Consequently, the percentage of students studying in such establishments remains high and has stayed that way for some time.

Between 2010-11 and 2015-16 student enrollment in government schools across 20 Indian states fell by 13 million, while private schools acquired 17.5 million new students. In all, according to District Information System of Education (or DISE) data, about 35% of children today are in private schools – a huge jump from the 1980s when the number was just 2%.

All of this is not just an urban phenomenon. The ASER findings show that only 1.2% of youth are willing to work in agriculture and that very few young people want to follow their parents’ dreary professions. The jobs most sought after are in the army and police. Education can help in such aspirations because there is an entry test to pass.

Nor are the young satisfied in being herded into vocational schools. They aspire instead, like most middle class people, to be university graduates. Thus while a minuscule 5.3% of those between 14-18 years of age turn to vocational training, 74% aspire for a bachelor’s degree.

Workers in late 19th century Britain also wanted their children to experience the “luxury” of education. They resented the fact that the posh middle class was slotting them into vocational schools as if they were not good enough for universities. This aspirational urge was also a self-respect movement and out of it came several institutions in England such as the University of Reading.

From this a more robust middle class also emerged in Britain. Instinctively, the aspirational class in India seems to be choosing the same route. In fact, ASER records a substantial jump in the number of graduates and predicts their proportion will double in the next decade. Why should the poor be destined to vocational schools? Can they not dream bigger?

Those that still can’t make it refuse to follow their fathers’ footsteps in the mud. Agriculture is hardly an option and that is why they turn instead to non-farm occupations. No wonder, micro and small industries are sprouting more readily on village soil than wheat and rice. According to the MSME Census, there are more such units in rural than in urban India. Squatting over a loom in a windowless room is preferable to pushing a lifeless plough.

Aspirations can be a powerful motivator of knowledge. While their teachers may not deliver at par, schoolchildren are aware of a wider world because that’s where they want to make a life. Once again ASER figures show that as many as 64% could identify the capital of India. Not just that, 79% knew exactly the state they lived in and 42% could even point it out on a map.

These numbers should not be sneezed at for in developed America, according to a Gallup/Harris poll, 73% of Americans could not identify their home country on a map. Not bad at all; the aspiring Indian village kid scores higher than grown Americans.

The aspiring class in our country is running up the stairs while our so-called middle class is stuck in the lift.

Courtesy: Times of India / 27 January, 2017

Link- https://epaper.timesgroup.com/Olive/ODN/TimesOfIndia/#