What is the purpose of education? A discussion in the context of India

Coming a day before Guru Purnima – an important Hindu and Buddhist occasion to acknowledge the importance of your teacher in your life – this post is quite apt in its timing. Recently, some public figures in India made statements that made me quite uneasy. These comments were to the following effect:

IndianSchoolSome of these statements were taken out of context (see below). However, these statements got me thinking. What IS the purpose of education anyways? and is English really a culprit?

A brief Google search leads me to the following “goals”:

  • To prepare children for citizenship
  • To cultivate a skilled workforce
  • To teach cultural literacy
  • To help students become critical thinkers
  • To help students compete in a global marketplace

Yes, education is supposed to attain these goals. However, I believe the primary function of education is to achieve two objectives:

  • Make a man capable of asking questions
  • Impart him the ability to seek answers

Everything else is secondary and arises from the satisfaction of these two objectives. Is nation-building the most important task of education? It is, in terms of policy. But from the point of view of the student, it definitely is not. The purpose of education is simply to make the student aware of the world around him and give him the ability to go beyond what is already known through his own synthesis. This may include asking questions about how the country is being run and what crop to plant in a given season to finding cures for cancer. In terms of policy, education is supposed to create responsible, patriotic citizens with a love for the country and awareness of its civil structure. Sadly, it is true that the Indian education system has failed even from a policy perspective.

In addition, I believe that India, today and over the past, has also failed miserably in satisfying the primary  objectives of education. Hence, we have hundreds of thousands of students graduating our colleges, but hardly a fifth of them being actually employable. Our failed education system is the reason why only 1 or 2 Indian universities (out of 11,000!!)  end up being recognized among the top 200 in the world, and why Indian high-school students fail to make a mark in any international test of learning performance.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be distilled wisdom of the ages.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be the distilled wisdom of the ages.

Why has it failed? In my opinion, one of the culprits, relevant in the context of this post and Guru Purnima, is the belief that Gurus and elders should be respected, never questioned and obeyed faithfully – because they know best! One of the popular shlokas recited by every school student goes like this:

Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshat Param Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namah



— (Skanda Purana, Guru Gita by Sage Vyasa)

which equates the teacher to the all powerful trinity of Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The Guru is the supreme God. The student should worship and pray to him with all his heart.

Even today, rote learning and marks and grades are given more value than imparting “real education”. The priorities and the purpose of education, sadly, is not clear.

A system based on adherence to Guru’s teachings, on faith in elders and scriptures or that based on rote learning can never foster critical thinking, unless the Guru himself encourages such behavior. Even the first objective of education has not been satisfied by the Indian education system!

But lets assume that that objective is indeed satisfied. You don’t need English to gain the ability to ask questions. Traditionally, we have had great thinkers who have tackled serious questions on philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, physics etc., without the knowledge of English. So, yes, for the first objective, English is not needed.

But what about the second objective? The thinkers and scientists of yore – Patanjali, Kanad, Aryabhatta, Susruta – did remarkable things. But they could only succeed because they knew the prevalent language of their day – Sanskrit. Just like that, if you don’t know English today, you can ask all the questions you want but you will be extremely limited in your ability to seek answers.

That too depends on the field. If you want answers related to philosophical questions, sure, India has more literature on that than any nation on the planet. However, you will never know what Plato said or what Popperian science is or how philosophy is being reinterpreted in the light of neurological discoveries. If you want to get into political science, you might learn the teachings of Chanakya and views of our eminent freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak on how the government should be run, but you will not know how Magna Carta came into existence, why democracy is the prevalent political system of today and how United Nations operates. If you want to know about science, forget about it if you don’t know English.

Percentage of people who speak English in each country of the earth (2013)

Thus, I argue that in today’s world English is the most important, if not the ONLY means to achieve progress. Now someone might say, “Hey, China manages to progress without English! South Korea and Japan do it! Why should WE bow before the Western world?” Well, that’s a fallacious argument in the first place. China educates its people in Mandarin, but the people who hack into computers of the NSA or those who build turbines and design massive buildings cannot do it without learning more from books or from the Internet which are English-based systems. They may translate those books into Chinese, but that cannot argue against the fact that English is the absolute medium for information transfer today.

History is witness to the fact that civilizations have progressed only with the influx and exchange of new ideas. Civilizations that failed to encourage new thoughts and failed to encourage sharing of ideas ended up as closed and insulated, and finally perished. If we end up keeping our children from English, espousing regional languages over English for the sake of nationalism and place a priority on the study of our ancient scriptures over modern scientific knowledge, then we risk cultural stagnation.

I should make it clear that I am not suggesting regional languages should be thrown in the back…it is absolutely important to know your roots and your culture to be a responsible citizen of the country. This is just an argument for why English should not be thrown in the back.

Finally, about the statement that English ends up corrupting our minds…well, as usual, it was twisted by the media. The context of that statement was different (see video below, starting at 6:10), but I still have issues with some statements in that speech, which I will leave for discussion on another day.






Why India needs better public health?

They say that change always involves a pivotal event that can drastically change the course of things in a new direction. Change is often necessary be it in the way we think or in major things e.g. the way we deal with things of national importance. Revolutions in science and technology often change the course of human life and one such change deemed to happen is in global public health. We are currently on the verge of experiencing a third wave of revolution in science.

Life expectancy in many parts of India is still less than 60 years (yellow). These regions are some of the most densely populated regions of the country.

The first happened about two decades ago when scientists began understanding that DNA was the basis of genetic transmission and the first animal Dolly was cloned. The second revolution happened around the early 1990s when scientists started understanding the molecular and cellular basis of genetic events. According to the latest report by UNFPA, the human population on this planet is 7 billion and this huge population certainly poses numerous challenges and at the same time several opportunities to tackle the problems at hand. India is currently the second most populated country in the world and by 2015, the population is predicted to rise making India one of the most populated countries in the world. If we fast forward and extrapolate to 2020, India will still remain one of the most populated countries in the world, though world population would seem to plateau at that time. These numbers for population of India are not unexpected. China has taken drastic measures to control their population by implementing several policies where India has obviously failed. But these increasing population numbers mean huge impacts on public health and since Indians will constitute about 17% of the world population they will have a significant impact on global public health too.

The need for better public health cannot be overstated here. What we fail to understand is the health of a nation is pivotal to its economic growth. Currently, the population of US is increasing steadily but this increase is due to migration of the youth and due to the high standard of living and good public health practices and strict environmental regulation, issues of public health are seemingly less of a concern as compared to a country of 1.2 billion people like India.

Another issue particularly relevant to India is of environmental injustice which arises as an offshoot of having huge populations reside in a small square kilometer areas surrounding major cities. Most people residing in such areas belong to low-income households who can barely afford 2 meals a day let alone feel or even bother about environmental pollution surrounding them. Good health facilities are available mostly to the higher income households who can afford to eat and live better.

How can find a solution to these issues? In my opinion, what we really need is an institute analogous to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that monitors on-going environmental degradation, puts legislation on emissions, hazardous waste emitting industries, and designs ways to controls epidemics arising in the affected areas. Large scale programs such as National health and nutrition examination survey (NHANES) assess health and nutritional status of people in the United States. These models or systems may not exactly be applicable to India. The job at hand is large. But we can atleast build models similar to those in developed countries   Several agencies such as Center for Science and Environment (CSE-India) and other NGOs are trying to alleviate the problem at hand by generating awareness among the masses. But this just seems like a drop of in the vast ocean of environmental degradation. We need to develop a long range vision for toxicity testing along with public health measures which could involve:

  1. Establishing institutions that will solely govern the status of public health. Primary health clinics in these areas can work with regional hospitals documenting cases of diseases such as tuberculosis, Hepatitis B, HIV to cancers of the cervix, lung etc.
  2. Give grants to small institutions to conduct research on nearby-areas simply documenting preliminary studies of effect of chemical contamination on human cells.
  3. Create awareness at the grass root levels e.g. Schools, primary health centers, NGOs can talk with people about the industries nearby, talk with parents regarding their child’s health, provide free medicines at the beginning of each season, free vaccination camps etc.
  4. Reduce the use of plastics drastically. Take measures to properly recycle metal tins, nickel containing batteries, wires, e-waste, electronics especially in ship breaking areas ,junkyards or places where salvage workers come in direct contact with toxic metals and chemicals.
  5. Proper identification and documentation of hazardous waste sites across the country. Each site should then be studied systematically encouraging collaboration between scientists, public health doctors, local NGOs and citizens or village folk.

These methods are not guaranteed ways of achieving success over the perils of environmental degradation and public health problems affecting India today but hopefully a few steps in the right direction can make a lasting impact.

If you are interested please see the link below that points towards a series of articles published in the medical journal –The Lancet, focusing on the state of Indian public health.

Indian health: the path from crisis to progress

What the theory of evolution teaches us about corruption in India

Corruption Index of various Indian states. Darker color indicates more corruption.

The Manmohan Singh government at the centre has been “heralded” as the most corrupt government in the history of independent India. Since 2008, there have been at least 112 reported scams and frauds in India. According to one study, India has lost over $500 billion (INR 25 lakh crore!!!) just due to corruption since independence! Thats 1/3rd of our GDP of ~$1.8 trillion! Forget about bad policies, wars, waste, inefficiencies in the system…this figure is JUST DUE TO CORRUPTION! Sadly, this is not just corruption occurring in politics, but in big businesses, small businesses and government services too. It is all pervasive and ubiquitous.

Now the big question before everyone is how do we fix this? What measures can we implement to curb corruption? There have been some measures proposed and implemented over the past few decades, the notable among which include:

  • The Right to Information Act, 2005
  • Establishment of the Central Vigilance Commission (1964) and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India
  • Digitization of services and records, minimizing human involvement, using the internet more effectively to disburse services
  • Other recent measures like Aadhar
  • Lokpal/Jan Lokpal/Lokayukta (proposed/partially implemented)
  • Citizen Charter in government offices (proposed/partially implemented)
  • Making the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) an independent body from the government (proposed)

It is clear that these measures – especially the RTI Act – have had a very significant impact on corruption. Arvind Kejriwal and Team Anna are pressing for even more stringent measures. The big question to ask at this point is whether these measures will indeed curtail corruption or whether Indians will find a way to “innovate” and bypass the system as always? The answer to this riddle lies in the theory of evolution. 


Increasing population in India causes increasing competition for resources like jobs, money, education, stability. This mad race for resources leads to corruption.

The theory of evolution is a broad-based theory, the most famous part of which – evolution by natural selection – was proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859. What the theory says is that the natural tendency of living organisms is to change. At the molecular level, that happens via mutations in the DNA. However, once there is change, the environment around the living organism decides whether the change is beneficial or not. If the cost incurred by the change is low and the benefits high, then the change will thrive and spread in the population. However, if the costs are high and outweigh the benefits, then the change will be “selected against” and will be removed from the population. This is termed as natural selection.

Now, since we living organisms share our resources with each other, another level of complexity arises in the form of competition for the resources. If the competition is high, the selection pressure will be high…individuals will be forced to change and adapt at a much faster rate than normal. If you don’t change, you will be selected against and weeded out from the population.

Now think about the Indian society for a second. The population of India is 1.2 billion and the country is one of the densest countries on the planet. Thankfully, the land is abundant in natural resources, so some resources are not limiting. But for resources like jobs, money, land, education, food…there is an extreme competition! There is simply NOT ENOUGH of these facilities! We have to fight for it and get it by hook or crook or someone else will get it! There is a mad race for these resources! Thus, it is not very surprising that Transparency International found that the most corruption occurs in need-based services – like Police, Income Tax, Land administration and Municipal services. 

Obesity in countries where food is abundant is an evolutionary response to overabundance of food

Interestingly, we Indians are also demonstrating the classic response of living organisms to limiting resources. One of the things that unicellular organisms like algae do when subjected to limited carbon/nitrogen is gobble up everything that is available and store it within the cell as fat. Who knows when the resources will run out? Once they do, then the cells start using this fat for growing. We humans also show the same behavior physiologically. The reason why obesity is on the rise in the western world is because our bodies never got to eat so much food since the beginning of mankind! We were always plagued with famines. So, when our bodies started getting abundant food, we started storing much of it as fat. We don’t know when the feast would end…so store everything up for future use!! (Read: The Thrifty Gene hypothesis)


This is the evolutionary basis of corruption in India. A lot of us have suddenly gotten really rich. Given our huge population, we don’t know when this period of boom would end and the competition for resources will intensify. So what’s the safe alternative? Gobble up as much resources (money) as possible and store the black wealth away safely for future use. Given the costs associated with doing so are so low (corrupt officials are rarely caught), the cost-to-benefit ratio is atrociously low and is enormously encouraging for practicing corruption! This is probably the major difference between corruption levels in India and China despite having similar population sizes – In China, the cost of corruption is high and there isn’t as much competition for resources (update added: check at the end of the article).

So what’s the take home message? You can only curb corruption by increasing the cost to benefit ratio. Evolutionary theory suggests the following three measures:

  • Significantly increase the cost for corrupt practices. Lokpal/Citizen’s Charter/Independent CBI/RTI are the right steps in this regard. The conviction rate for corruption-related cases should also go up drastically. As the Chief Justice of India suggested, there should be fast-track courts specifically for corruption cases.
  • Significantly decrease the competition for resources so people don’t feel existentially threatened. This means increasing social mobility, bettering the delivery of services and creating more educational and infrastructural facilities.
  • Manage resources wisely. This means drastically increasing the use of technology, internet, increasing R&D spending and conducting periodic scientific surveys of where the resources stand and are they being distributed properly.

This unique insight offered by evolutionary theory significantly reduces the complexity of the task. Don’t be mistaken though – these are not easy things to be accomplished politically and logistically. However, the faster we implement this three-pronged approach, the faster we’ll be able to reduce the tendency and the mindset for corruption in the country.

Edit (27th October): Just saw this news report in New York Times talking about how the relatives of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, have accumulated a $2.7 billion fortune since he became the head of the nation. The extended family of the next-in-line, current Vice President Xi Jinping, has also accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade. So China isn’t that different from India at the higher levels after all…in India, the free press (or whatever is left of it) may be vigilant in getting these murky dealings out into the public. You simply can’t do that in China and so they remain buried. The question here is – how widely/deeply has corruption percolated in the Chinese society?

Independence Day special: Why India shouldn’t have existed

An artistic rendition of the Indian flag

Today, as we celebrate our 66th Independence Day, it’s important to note that India is an unlikely country, a nation that should not have existed!

India is the oldest continuous human civilization in the history of this world. Our history dates back to ~4000 years BCE and some of the traditions established in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (eg: Lord Pashupati who is now Lord Shiva) are still being followed 6000 years hence. On the other hand, other civilizations (excluding the Chinese) such as the Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, Roman, Greek civilizations collapsed, only to remain alive in buried artwork and erected monuments. The other great historical civilization – the Chinese – despite having to experience frequent wars, has enjoyed a relatively high level of stability over the past six thousand years. Most of the fighting in China has been internal and very few external conquerors like Genghis Khan tried to claim China. On the other hand, the Indian civilization has sustained despite centuries of warfare and attacks.  the history of India is peppered with foreign invasions – from Alexander, the Great to the British.

And India hasn’t needed foreigners to attack the country…we have been fighting a lot amongst ourselves for the past six thousand years. Here’s a list of some of the major kingdoms who have ruled different parts of India over the past six thousand years. The following information has been gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on History of India:

  • ~1000 BCE: The 16 Mahajanapadas of the Vedic period –  KasiKosalaAngaMagadhaVajjiMallaChediVatsaKuruPanchalaMatsyaSurasenaAssakaAvantiGandhara, and Kamboja
  • ~500 BCE: Consolidated 4 kingdoms around the time of Gautam Buddha – Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala, and Magadha
  • 322-185 BCE: The largest empire in the history of India – The Maurya Empire
  • 230 BCE – 300 CE: The Middle Kingdoms of India – Sunga, Satvahana, Kharavela, Kushan, Chola, Pandyan, Gupta, Chalukya
  • 700 CE – 1200 CE: The late Middle Kingdoms – Vijaynagara, Chalukya, Rashtrakita, Sena, Pratihara, Hoysala
  • 1200 CE – 1800 CE: The Islamic Sultanate – Khilji, Sultan, Thuglaq, Mughal, Tipu Sultan, Nizam, Shahi (Islamic), Maratha, Rajput, Sikh (non-Islamic)
  • 1800 CE – 1961 CE: The Western rulers – British, Portuguese, French


And despite all this infighting we continue to thrive as a nation. And it’s not just infighting between kingdoms. India has 30 officially recognized languages and 1652 dialects. We have people from three human races – Caucasian, Dravidian, Mongol – living in our country. We have people from almost all major religion living in India. Indians are also divided by an intricate caste system – we have several dozen castes and sub-castes in India. Each state, each linguistic group, each caste, each region has its own cuisine. Some people argue that the human diversity in India is only comparable to the continent of Africa!

Different colors, same feeling

We fight a lot and there is no reason India should have existed given such diversity and infighting, but still we have managed to stick together for the past 6000 years. Why? What makes us special than all the other empires that could not withstand the test of time, despite a large homogeneity? I think the following may be some of the reasons:

1) Common cultural experience

There are 1.6 billion Indians today, some of them far away from their lands, like me. However, all of us – whether we are from South India or North-East India or North India – are bound by a common cultural experience. India has been overwhelmingly Hindu. Today, 85% of Indians are Hindu who share deities, mythological stories, customs and traditions. We have all been told of the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the whole world is a family! Hinduism believes in multiplicity of gods and beliefs and thus has offered refuge to any and every religious belief that entered its land. Even Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains had Hindu ancestors at some point or their religions are closely associated with Hinduism. This creates an unparalleled cultural history, an experience which no other nation on this planet can boast of!

2) Caste system

From its establishment in the early post-Christ years, Islam has grown to become the second largest religion in the world! It has spread from all over the Middle East to Northern Africa to Central Asia to Southeast Asia. However, despite being ruled for 600 years, India couldnt become an Islamic state. Why? People might find some explanations in having large-hearted Mughal rulers like Akbar, whose Sufi leanings helped patch up relations between Hindus and Muslims, or resistance in the form of local Hindu rulers like the Rana Pratap and Shivaji Maharaj. However, an important factor that may have contributed here is the caste system. Members of the lower castes may have been predisposed to convert to Islam in the medieval ages, just like Buddhism. However, the caste relations among communities were so strong that once a religion was associated with a particular strata, the other castes wouldn’t want to embrace it. Even now, there are castes among Muslims and Christians. Despite it being an overall bane for India, the caste system may have unwittingly contributed to keeping India Hindu over the middle ages, thus keeping our cultural memory intact.

Times of India front page on 15 August, 1947

3) Partition

I really think the partition of India was one of the best things that happened to this country. The extremist Muslims of the Muslim League, who couldnt bear to live in a multi-cultural society, who were filled with hatred and were prepared to go to any lengths to split Pakistan from India went to Pakistan, while the moderate Muslims, who realized the fallacy in the Muslim League approach, decided to stay and contribute to India. When the Indian National Congress approved the partition plan, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (the Frontier Gandhi), an opponent of the partition, famously told the INC, “You have thrown us to the wolves!”. Moderate Muslims like Zakir Hussain, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Abul Kalam Azad chose to stay in India. Since the foundation of Pakistan was based on extremism and hate, no wonder the nation had had to suffer such a tumultuous, unstable leadership.

4) Language-based states

For the first time since the Maurya empire 2000 years ago, India in 1947 extended from the Indus river to Myanmar. Some 450 million souls in the 1950s were looking forward with hope. Most of the newly created countries in the past 50 years have suffered extremism and anarchy post Independence – take a look at our conjoint twin Pakistan! India thrived, and one of the primary reasons was a stroke of genius by our founding fathers, especially Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar! The Constitution of India was a remarkable document, which allowed each linguistic group to have its own identity and its own kingdom. The states were allowed to thrive as semi-independent entities – each given a charge of their own fortunes and fates. This remarkable division may have stopped several more decades of infighting between linguistic groups.

The chaotic democracy in India offers voice to thousands of ethnic and community interest groups in the country.

5) Democracy

The Emergency of 1975 as well as the mini-uprising post Anna Hazare’s unceremonious arrest in 2011demonstrated the enormous importance Indians place in democracy. Despite the pitfalls of the system, despite corruption, democracy is a thread that binds every Indian together now. The value we place in democracy has increased many folds over since the advent of the Internet, with government’s efforts to curb Internet freedom and the ease of propagation of information and ease of organizing over the web. The four pillars of our democracy – Legislative, Executive, Judiciary and Press – have severe endemic problems, but there are enough good people at every level in the system to keep it running efficiently. The role of NGOs – the 5th pillar of our democracy – has been crucial in this regard. Representation of the common man wouldn’t have been possible in absence of a democratic society.


Today, as we celebrate the 66th Independence Day, India is fraught with problems. The problems are compounded by an ever-burgeoning population, limited resources, climate change and destruction of our natural heritage. We cannot rest on the laurels of our past successes. Today, we are proud of our country because our ancestors strove to leave a country fit for their future generations to live. The challenges of this generation are enormous, but we must also strive to leave our children and our grandchildren a better India.


Happy Independence Day!

Education for the masses

According the 2011 Census, India’s population is 1.2 billion – one sixth of the world’s humanity. By 2050, India’s population will be 1.6 billion, surpassing that of China. Keeping these 1.6 billion people happy is a monumental challenge. If the unemployment rate in 2050 remains the same as today – at 10% – there will be 160 million unemployed people in India. That is more than the current population of Russia! To satisfy this ocean of humanity, India will have to not only create jobs in current sectors of the economy but also create new sectors, allow for development and propagation of new ideas and create social change that trickles down to the bottom of the pyramid. Now, people can throw in all sort of indices, talk about the rising GDP of India and increasing market capitalization to suggest that India is progressing. But all of this is unsustainable if the society becomes chaotic. The big question before the country is – how do we maintain peace and stability in the country 50 years from now?

Educating the adult population

The most fundamental solution to this conundrum is education for the masses. Successive governments in India have recognized this problem and that is why we have a National Literacy Mission and Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan in place since 1988 and 2001 respectively. The Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan is targeted towards primary education (6-14 age group) and intends to get the ~200 million children in India to go to some sort of a school. The aim of the NLM program is to impart functional literacy to all non-literate persons in 15-35 age group, where “functional literacy” is a key word. Functional literacy means being able to read, write and calculate and being aware of the civic society around. With this definition and through these initiatives, functional literacy in India has reached up to 74% – 65% for females and 82% for males – from 12% in 1947. NLM claims that 120 million people have been made literate since the program started. Innovative concepts like Ekal Vidyalayhave also contributed to children going to schools, especially in rural parts of India.

However, the question is, are these efforts sufficient? Despite spectacular progresses, India still has the largest population of illiterates in the world. Estimates suggest that the rate of growth of literacy is sluggish and that if the same rate continues, India will take another half a century to be fully functionally literate. Again, remember that all these statistics talk only about functional literacy. In a survey of 16,000 villages, an NGO found that 60% of the school going children were unable to perform simple division. The dropout rates even in primary school are high – around 20%. were Despite obtaining school-level education, studies indicate that more than 80% of the children do not go on to attend college. Of those that attend college, over 70% are unemployable. It is no surprise that Indian students perform poorly in nearly all international indicators of education quality.

In a few decades, the competition for resources in India will start getting more acute. There will arise individuals who will begin to take advantage of peoples’ pains and use them for electoral/monetary gains. Not that such individuals dont exist now, but the conflict will only grow in the coming decades. What we’d need is enlightened leaders – not just one or two but in hundreds of thousands. We’ll need leaders with vision and zeal. Creating such leaders is rarely possible without good education. So while the goals of the Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan and NLM are noble and should be continued, it is absolutely important to create systems where the leaders of tomorrow will thrive and grow. We need an education system that not only educates the masses but also elevates the masses.

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