India's highly-qualified computer scientists, engineers and doctors impress many in the world. But they are the exceptions. India's schools are underfunded, and the country has the world's highest illiteracy rate.
On April 4, 2009, education was enshrined in India's constitution as a human right for children between the ages of 6 and 14. As of that day, the government intended to make education free and mandatory for pupils up to the age of 14. Only good education for children can guarantee India's economic growth and its rise to superpower status, said India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"We must offer children a good future - only then will our population become our biggest weapon," he added.
Despite the good intentions, India has not lived up to its pledges. Routine checks in some of the poorest states show that nearly 40 percent of teachers do not turn up for work at state-run institutions, which account for about 80 percent of the country's schools. Absenteeism is mostly due to low wages - a primary school teacher earns an average of 12,000 rupees a month or around 220 dollars.
Education as status symbol
In rural areas, different grades are lumped together in classes of as many as 80 students to cope with absent teachers. And teaching methods often rely too heavily on rote memorization. Still, there is reason to be optimistic, said Mumbai-based education expert Indu Shahani.
"Indian students want to learn, no matter what the obstacles are," noted Shanai, who has sat on many panels that aim to improve India's educational system.
Education is a status symbol in India. Many parents do their best to enable their children to attend private schools even when they have a limited income or never attended school themselves. That spells debt for a lot of families.
Low education spending
The Indian government recognizes that India's education system poses major problems. Critics say the government allocates too little of its budget to education - currently, around 10 billion dollars or less than four percent of GDP. But the government can point at least one improvement. In the last ten years, the literacy rate has increased from 65 percent to 74 percent.
There is much to do on literacy issues. India still has the highest number of people who cannot read or write. However, higher spending on education would not necessarily solve India's many problems, said education expert Sahani.
"There is no doubt that education and health are the most pressing problems in India, but just adding money to the system doesn't work," she explained. "You have to adapt the strategies you use over time."
A very competitive elite education
For years, investment has gone into elite universities, such as the Indian Institute of Technology, which offers 8,000 engineering students a world class education. Only 24 universities are funded by the federal government, compared with more than 200 universities and 20,000 colleges financed by state authorities. But those institutions combined provide space for less than ten percent of high-school graduates to enroll. The college entrance exam period has come to mark a time when newspapers are filled with stories of young students who kill themselves, unable to cope with the high expectations of their families.
Girls are less likely to attend school in rural areas where the education of boys may be a priority for families
Those who are fortunate enough to graduate from universities often belong to India's elite. Many of them move to the US, the UK, Australia or Canada, where their English skills can make integration easier. Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad recently presented a plan to stop the brain drain. Any medical student who goes to the US for advanced studies must come back to India - otherwise he cannot practice in the US.
"We have lost nearly 3,000 doctors to the United States over the last three years," said Nabi Azad.
Girls not being sent to school
Women are underrepresented in public offices, although the country was led by a woman in the 1970s when Indira Gandhi served as prime minister. And in families with many children, the education of girls is often sacrificed in favor of education for boys.
In a patriarchal society like India, there is a persistent prejudice that only sons can provide for their parents in their old age. Girls are married off and absorbed by other families. But educating girls may be more significant that most think, said Shahani.
"When you educate a boy, you invest in an individual, but if you send a girl to school, then you invest in a family, and sometimes even a whole village," she explained.
Author: Priya Esselborn / cc
Editor: Greg Wiser
A weekly look at globalization, education, economic development, human rights and more.