Byline: Gurcharan Das (Gurcharan Das is the author of "India Unbound" and a former CEO of Procter & Gamble India.)
I recently got a call from a board member of one of the world's largest consulting companies, who invited me to speak to them about why so many Indians were succeeding in the global-knowledge economy. He mentioned innovations emerging from GE and Microsoft's R&D centers in Bangalore; advanced avionics installed by India's Air Force on Russian fighter aircraft, and sophisticated research on global capital markets outsourced by Wall Street to India. Finally, he rattled off the names of a dozen Indian leaders of multinational corporations.
I was skeptical. "Perhaps it's our large population?" I suggested. He countered with half a dozen large countries that are invisible in the knowledge economy. "Or maybe it's simply knowing English?" He asked if there was something in India's education system that might help explain its recent economic success.
The best in India do get a decent education. Aside from the famed Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, there are about 20 other centers of excellence in science, engineering, medicine and even the liberal arts. Both students and parents are intensely dedicated. Night after night, middle-class Indian parents insist on overseeing their kids' homework--it's a rare mother who accepts a dinner invitation during exam season. By the age of 15, the young are packed off to coaching classes to prepare them for entry into the competitive colleges.
What's changing is the access to quality education below these top levels. Government-run schools are a mess: a national study by Harvard University faculty found that on any given day, one out of four teachers in state-run primary schools is absent, and of those present half are not teaching. But private schools--which can range from expensive boarding schools for the elite to low-end teaching shops in the bazaar--are proliferating. …