EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What drew you towards education?
About 16 years ago, I was looking for a credible NGO to partner with, and came across Akanksha in Mumbai. I liked what they were doing in the field of education and started taking interest in this area. I realised that 39 percent of India’s population is still illiterate. Of those who attend school, only 58 percent manage to go to Class V. And of those who do manage to stay in school, 90 percent do not go to college. I feel that an excellent education is one that gives our children solid academic skills, values, exposure and access. Our system at present does not ensure any of this, let alone integrate these ideas in our education system.
What projects do you support?
Thermax gives three percent of its profit to our foundation. We support some of the centres that Akanksha runs for poor children, who go to schools but learn very little. Akanksha supplements their learning by providing them after-school support on spoken English, maths and personality development. Along with Akanksha, we have signed a PPP to run four schools with the Pune Municipal Corporation and two schools with Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation. By “run”, I mean we appoint principals and teachers, provide financial, administrative and government liaison support to all our schools. We were keen to start a teacher training institute. But due to limitations imposed by the NCTE ban on opening new institutes, we decided to carry out in-service training for municipal teachers. Seventy teachers from English-medium municipal schools have volunteered to attend this programme for one year and improve their skills. I feel Teach for India has the potential to transform the educational landscape of India.
How should India’s education model be different from the current one?
In India, everyone talks about the Right to Education and follows this model. Unfortunately, it focuses only on inputs without any demand for learning outcomes. We insist that teachers should have certain qualifications but do not bother to find out if they attend classes regularly and even when they do attend, what quality of education they impart. We often do not make learning an enjoyable process. We need to make learning enjoyable so that students have a thirst for knowledge all their lives. We do not encourage innovative practices and learn from the ones that have succeeded. Very often, what we teach is not relevant to the students.
Do you think quality of education is India’s biggest challenge today?
Yes. The Programme for International Student Assessment indicates that we have come second last and the only country that has performed worse than us is Kyrgyzstan. In this globalised world, if we have to compete, quality of education is a must. The system at present neither prepares them for jobs nor makes them good citizens. We have 12,000 teacher training institutes and most of them are of terrible quality. Unless we improve these institutes, we will never be able to improve the quality of education.
Why has education become the epicentre of future growth and our demographic dividend?
India has a younger population in comparison to many other countries. Thousands of young people are expected to join our work force in the next couple of decades. Whether we can reap this demographic dividend to the nation’s advantage or let it become a curse depends on drastic quality improvement in this new workforce by much better education and skill development. It is not enough to have lots of young people; these young people need to be properly educated and skilled to fully contribute to the new economy. In the absence of education, the existing inequalities in our society will grow further and increase frustration among the youth.
How can education bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor?
Education is the only tool available for the poor to bring themselves out of poverty and improve their standards. We have many examples, such as Dr Raghunath Mashelkar and Dr Narendra Jadhav. They came from disadvantaged environments but have achieved great heights through education. Quality education opens up job opportunities, thereby reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.
Despite being a robust democracy, has India failed to give equal education enough importance?
I’m not sure if I agree that we have a robust democracy. We do have elections every five years, which are reasonably fair, but to be called a robust democracy we need many improvements. In fact, because we are not a robust democracy, we have failed the poor. Despite having Independence for over 60 years, we have given neither quality education nor skilled opportunities to the underprivileged.