Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
Last weekend, I went through the typical routine of watching a film and then doing a week’s worth of shopping. First I watched the beautiful Taare Zameen Par. Then I spent an hour inside the nearest hypermarket.
The amount of choice inside the hypermart was staggering. I counted more than 30 kinds of cheese, 60 kinds of biscuits, 50 types of papad, and quite as much variety across soaps, soft drinks, farsaan, cooking oil, pickles and so on. I needed shampoo, and I walked past two shelves of it before finding something for “normal hair.”
Some people complain that there is too much choice on offer, but I find the variety wonderful. It caters to individual taste. For example, there is shampoo available for people with “dry, rough, sensitized hair”, “dry or damaged hair”, and “weak, fragile, difficult to grow long hair”. To those of us who do not fall into these categories, these might seem excessive, but clearly they exist because they sell —and fulfil someone’s needs.
Isn’t it wonderful how the free market does this? Instead of shoving one or two types of each product down people’s throats, it effectively treats us as individuals. Entrepreneurs, seeking to find market niches to make a profit, end up empowering us as consumers. Without knowing anything about me, the market caters to my personal needs to a degree my grandparents would have found unbelievable.
Watching Taare Zameen Par, however, reminded me that in the area where it matters most, our children don’t have the same choices open to them.
Aamir Khan’s film is about a dyslexic boy let down by his school. His teachers do not recognize what makes him different and treat him as if he is stupid, shattering his self-esteem. Then Khan comes in as a sensitive teacher and turns things around.
This only happens in films, of course, and most kids in that situation would not be so lucky. They would be able to buy potato chips in the precise flavour they might desire—“classic salted”, “sour cream and onion” or 40 others—but would be denied of an education tailored to their needs.
This is not just something that applies to dyslexic kids. All children are unique. Some are better at languages than in math, some have short attentions spans, some have high learning curves, and so on and on. And yet, when it comes to education, they are treated as if their needs and abilities are identical.
This rigidity applies not just to schools but also to higher education. “Arts”, “science” and “commerce” are segregated streams, and a young man who wishes to study both physics and 19th century English literature would have a problem doing so.
You might argue that when it comes to education, it is logistically impossible to cater to individual needs. After all, schools and colleges have limited resources, and a teacher-student ratio can only go so far. Individual attention seems an impossible pipe dream.
I would argue, though, that our failure to imagine a way forward does not mean that none exists. All successful innovations work precisely because no one thought of them before, and they fulfil a need somewhere. If we give entrepreneurs the scope to innovate, they will find solutions. The problem with our education system is that the government has a stranglehold on it, and severely restricts private participation.
For example, it takes 14 licences from four authorities to open a private school in New Delhi, which could take years. There are all kinds of bizarre parameters schools have to fulfil to open a school—such as playgrounds of a specified size—and, most absurdly, they aren’t allowed to operate for a profit. They get around this by opening trusts and suchlike, which restrict their scope for further investment.
When will our government learn that the profit motive is a good thing? It spurs innovation and benefits fellow human beings, for that is the only way to make a profit.
Besides these entry barriers, there are other restrictions on what these schools must work towards. If they are not affiliated to a government-approved board with a government-approved syllabus, such as ICSE or CBSE, their students are going to find it hard to get into government-approved colleges down the line. Everything has to be government-approved, which stifles innovation.
I can barely imagine what products my hypermart would contain if all the industries that produced them were run by the government as education in India is. There would be fewer product categories, virtually no choice within those categories, and everything would be more expensive. Thanks to competition and relatively free markets, that is not the case.
When it comes to trivial things such as potato chips and garlic sev, we have been empowered with choice. When it comes to something as important as education, we have not. Isn’t that a disgrace?
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Also read: My piece on school choice in India, Fund Schooling, Not Schools.
My thanks to the members of the Satin e-group for their inputs on this piece.
You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.
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