Road to riches signposted in English
October 1, 2011
In a village called Banka in northern India, a community of former
Untouchables is building a temple to a new deity, the Angrezi Devi, or
Goddess of English.
As the walls go up, the idol is ready to be installed: a female figure
in robes similar to the Statue of Liberty in New York, only holding a
pen in one hand and the Indian constitution in the other. She stands
on a computer.
The former outcasts, 200 million of India's 1.2 billion people and now
calling themselves Dalits, have long struggled at the bottom of the
Hindu caste ladder, many converting to Buddhism and other religions to
escape. Now they're turning to the English language.
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''In 20 years no jobs will go to anyone in India who doesn't know
English,'' the writer who suggested the new deity, Chandra Bhan
Prasad, recently told a BBC interviewer. ''If we don't do something
now the Dalits would not be job-worthy.''
Banka is just one part of a craze sweeping India, as a wry professor
of English at Delhi University, Alok Rai, told a conference titled
''The Reluctant Superpower: understanding India and its aspirations'',
held by Melbourne University's Australia India Institute a week ago.
As Rai and other speakers explained, it is a symptom of a vast
stirring of ambition that contains great risks as well as
opportunities - including for us in Australia. India hasn't shaken
free of the possibility of serious relapse in both its economy and
In Rai's student days in the 1960s, Indians tended to see English as a
colonial holdover. Now they've swung 180 degrees to a longing for
English ability as part of a ''euphoric embrace of globalisation''.
English coaching colleges are mushrooming. ''Everywhere, all over
India, anyone who has a few square feet of space and something that
sounds like English to people who don't know English can make a
fortune,'' Rai said. ''It's there and it's waiting to be made.''
Rai can't find it in himself to mock the trend. ''What one sees there
is a deeply moving spectacle,'' he said. ''These are people who have
pooled their limited resources in the hope of acquiring something that
is going to make them a part of the modern world.
''They want it; they want it desperately and this is something that is
going to give them not merely call-centre employment - that is the
least of it - more than that, there is international access, the
glowing world of globalisation. Everything waits at the end of that
English college diploma.''
To Rai, it's more than a touch worrying. ''There is this huge
constituency who are ready and wanting, in both senses; both not
having and wishing to have,'' he said. ''This desire is not a kind of
passive, neutral kind of wanting.''
It makes him think of a successful marketing slogan for an Indian
mobile telephone company: ''Aap mera number hai.'' It can mean both
''This is my number'' and ''It's my turn now''.
''The message for someone like me was 'step aside','' Rai said,
adding: ''In this eagerness there is, if not already an anger,
certainly the possibility of an anger; of a kind of rage, of
impatience to inherit the world.''
Which is why Rai is wary of complacent forecasts that India, having
hit a sustained 8 per cent-plus economic growth rate, is also about to
reap the benefit of a youth dividend - a young demographic profile -
that will allow it to make up lost ground to China in coming decades.
''As with the peace dividend [at the end of the Cold War] I am a
little wary of the youth dividend,'' he said.
Isher Judge Ahluwalia, an eminent Indian economist, expressed her
concern about Indian complacency. India dallied for 13 years after
China opened its economy before doing the same in 1991 (in which time
China doubled its gross domestic product), and it needed a balance of
payments' crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union to take the
Recently it has slipped back into fiscal profligacy, and a sustained
high growth rate can't be assumed. It now has $US300 billion ($307
billion) in foreign reserves, as against just $US1 billion in 1991,
''but in this frantic and fragile world of foreign exchange reserves,
no amount is adequate if the perception is that the policies are going
the wrong way'', Ahluwalia said.
And India is still to make reforms that would allow rapid growth of
labour-intensive industries. ''While the growth rate of GDP has been
high and sustained, it has not been associated with a high growth rate
of employment,'' she points out. Many saw India hitting a ''sweet
spot'' in its demographic curve, where it could reap the dividend of a
large, young workforce relative to its total population, ''but the
other side of the same coin is that if we don't educate our youth, and
if we don't empower them with human capital, this could become a
demographic disaster'', she said.
The Congress Party has tried to counter this with rural job-creation
schemes but this is only a temporary fix. The other path is investment
in education. ''Both through government efforts and through
public-private partnerships there is now [a] lot of emphasis on higher
education and particularly skills development, for which Australia
really offers a tremendous opportunity,'' she said.
That's our opening. Not just to bring students here, but to open
colleges and campuses in India. Whether anyone can meet the
aspirations of India's young before they turn to a rage that makes the
present anti-corruption furore seem just a prelude, is one of this
century's big questions.
Hamish McDonald attended the conference with assistance from the
Australia India Institute.
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