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Last Updated: Monday, 8 May 2006, 00:32 GMT 01:32 UK
Education barrier for India's poor

By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Delhi

A woman walks past hi-fashion boutiques in New Delhi
Luxury goods and exclusive brands are all wooing the new rich
It was a glamorous evening in one of Delhi's most exclusive venues.

As the music played, the rich and fashionable gossiped and waiters moved through the crowd with silver trays of drinks and canapés.

Before dinner was served, the main lights dimmed and the master of ceremonies announced the star of the show, businessman Lovy Khosla.

Standing in a cascade of glitter, he launched his latest venture, Elvy - described as India's first lifestyle catalogue.

After the presentation, I asked Mr Khosla what kind of people he hoped would buy the bone china, platinum-stemmed wine glasses and other luxury catalogue items.

"Aspiring Indians", he said, "the new emerging middle-class".

He admitted the divide at the moment between rich and poor was huge - but eventually, he said, everyone in India would prosper.

'Brain industry'

At times, optimism like Mr Khosla's does seem justified.

More and more people nowadays have the means to buy the international goods now available in India's cities.

A call centre in Bangalore
There is demand for educated workers for the booming IT sector

The IT shops I visited in Delhi, for example, were buzzing with all the latest technology.

The IT sector itself is still small but clearly booming, a key part of India's new wealth.

But there's a clear mismatch between the hinterland of rural unemployed and the IT sector's demand for educated workers.

Kiran Karnik, the President of India's National Association of Software and Service Companies, told me one of their biggest problems is finding enough suitable recruits, people with the right education and skills.

"You have a lot of people with minimal or sometimes no education," he said.

"And the industry we work in requires at least a certain minimum level of knowledge. It's not a brawn industry, it's a brain industry. That means we're looking for people who are by and large graduates."

But why, in a country of more than a billion people, are graduates relatively hard to find?

Why do about some 93% of Indians never progress beyond secondary school?

Poor education

I travelled by train into rural Uttar Pradesh, one of India's biggest and poorest states to see the education available for children in villages there.

Slum children from New Delhi in a charity school
Despite ambition many children will give up studies to earn a living

I was taken to a small village by Sandeep Pandey, one of the founders of the educational charity Asha (Hope).

There I came across about 50 children, of all ages from about three to 15 years, sitting under the trees chanting their lessons.

They have to learn together like this because there is only one teacher.

There was also a government school nearby but some parents in the village complained that they did not send their children there because the standard was so low.

When I asked the children what they would like to do as adults, they crowded round, faces beaming.

"Teacher!" cried one. "Doctor," said another. They were full of enthusiasm. But privately Sandeep was pessimistic about their chances.

"The children saying they want to be doctors or teachers or engineers, they'd never be able to make it," he said. "In the end they'd end up being unemployed or underemployed."

Most of the children, he said, dropped out before they finished primary school.

Their parents knew they would eventually work on the land so more than a basic education seemed a waste of resources.

"The only hope," he said, "is that by learning to read or write, they will check corruption. We don't have any hope beyond that."

'Living hell'

Those who do leave the countryside without higher education, in the hope of finding greater opportunities in the cities, often end up living in slums.

Asia's largest slum, Dharavi, in Mumbai
Many villagers who migrate to cities end up living in slums

I visited Banwal Nagar, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Delhi, a labyrinth of narrow lanes with no running water, stinking open drains and massive overcrowding.

There I met Babloo, a shy 18-year-old who came here from a village in Uttar Pradesh a year ago.

He told me he came with his brother who is earning just enough as a tailor to feed them both.

Babloo said they were always hungry in the village, there was no work there. Now Babloo is helping out - unpaid - in a mechanic's shop, trying to learn the trade.

Sitting with us, listening to Babloo's hesitant story, was an old-timer in Banwal Nagar, Anrud Mandel, who came here 25 years ago.

I asked him if he thought Babloo and his brother had done the right thing in coming to Delhi.

His answer was emphatic: "No. Like all of us, he had to leave his village because there wasn't work there."

"But we'd all be better off in our villages if we could earn enough there to feed and clothe our children and ourselves."

He gestured to the conditions all around us, the air thick with flies. "This place is a living hell."

There is no doubt India's impressive economic growth is providing new opportunities.

But the challenge is finding ways to put them within the reach of the children in India's poorest villages.


SEE ALSO:
Indian budget pushes for growth
28 Feb 06 |  Business
Do India's budget sums make sense?
28 Feb 06 |  South Asia
Indian growth story to continue
27 Feb 06 |  Business


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