Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Education offers hope for Bhopal's poor

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Bhopal

Children at a school and clinic in Bhopal
Poverty and illiteracy remains widespread in Bhopal

The thumb print remains an acceptable form of identification in Bhopal's ration shops.

As a symbol, it clearly illustrates both how thousands of people in this Central Indian city remain poor and illiterate - a quarter of a century after the city suffered the world's worst industrial disaster - and how bureaucracy is alive and well here.

In the wake of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak, the city has become heavily reliant on government money. The state sector has come to dominate after years of considerable effort to attract private investment has, for the most part, failed.

"It is not just about investment," says Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is the capital city.

"We want the lives of the people of Madhya Pradesh to be enriched."

Prestigious education

Professor Vinod K Sing, director, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal, with students
In the next 10 years, Bhopal is going to be very different when education is concerned
Professor Vinod K Singh, director, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal

Improved education is central to this strategy, which involves a transformation of Bhopal from a city where illiteracy is widespread to an education hub that is attracting some of India's best academics.

Professor Vinod K Singh, who has worked in academia in Germany, Canada and the US, is amongst those who have given up their prestigious and lucrative careers elsewhere to create a string of new colleges here.

"There are two kinds of people," he says. "Some people want fruit, other people want to plant trees."

Fresh from having established the School of Planning and Architecture in Bhopal, Prof Singh is in the process of building up a new campus here for the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research.

"The government is spending vast amounts of money," he says.

Big budgets

Dr Madhumita Mukherjee, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal
So far, Bhopal has been known for the gas tragedy, but I hope in the future it will instead be known for the institute
Dr Madhumita Mukherjee, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal

For the time being, the institute is based in a vast, though not particularly comfortable, brick building in New Bhopal. Yet Prof Singh is seeing much interest from prospective students.

"The students who come to these institutes are really bright," he says.

Across India, the institute receives 600,000 applications for between 5,000 and 7,000 places.

About a third of these students will be based in Bhopal, where Prof Singh has a 1,000-crore rupee ($215m; £131m) budget to build and kit out a new sprawling 200-acre residential campus near the Bhopal airport.

"We have to buy state-of-the-art research equipment," Prof Singh says.

"And we're recruiting faculty members from all over the world," he adds, pointing out the salary budget comes in addition to the start-up budget.

Economic boost

In a noisy, windowless laboratory filled with Bunsen burners and microscopes, Dr Madhumita Mukherjee is busy teaching her students the facts of physics.

Students at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal
Some of India's brightest are coming to Bhopal to study

Having left behind a promising academic career in the US to come here, she hopes the institute will help change Bhopal's fortunes.

"So far, Bhopal has been known for the gas tragedy, but I hope in the future it will instead be known for the institute," she says.

Prof Singh is in no doubt that the institute has done much to change Bhopal's image already, at least in academic circles.

And he is convinced local people in Bhopal will benefit a great deal.

The new campus will create at least 1,000 service jobs for gardeners and guards, caretakers and couriers, and the spending power of both students and staff will benefit local shopkeepers, he insists.

"In the next 10 years, Bhopal is going to be very different when education is concerned," he says.

Benefit outsiders

In a file picture taken on December 4, 1984, blinded victims of the Bhopal tragedy sit in the street and wait to be treated at Bhopal hospital after a deadly poisonous gas leak from the Union Carbide factory.
Initial deaths (3-6 December): more than 3,000 - official toll
Unofficial initial toll: 7,000-8,000
Total deaths to date: over 15,000
Number affected: Nearly 600,000
Compensation: Union Carbide pays $470m in 1989

Source: Indian Supreme Court, Madhya Pradesh government, Indian Council of Medical Research

But the dangers are still real that rather than generate wealth locally, the money poured in by the government will end up in the pockets of outsiders.

For starters, the contracts to build the campus are not going to companies from Bhopal. Indeed, they will probably not even go to firms from Madhya Pradesh, acknowledges Prof Singh.

Moreover, most, if not all, the academics - both staff and students - will be moving here from other parts of India.

And as they will be living within the residential campus, their contact with locals from Bhopal will naturally be limited.

Then, when the students finish their degrees, they will probably seek employment elsewhere, Prof Singh agrees.

"If there are industries in Bhopal, they'll stay. Otherwise they'll go elsewhere," he says.

But given that the institute will also bring in research grants and consultancy fees, and that over time the research will start to bear fruit and come up with patents that will be useful for industry, chances are there will be more private investment here in the years to come.

But perhaps most importantly, he continues, local people's educational ambitions will be raised by the mere presence of dozens of new colleges that have been built in the last couple of years, including the National Institute of Fashion Technology and the Medical Institute.

"And slowly, the gap will narrow," he says.

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