Invest in education, make it a priority

The third week of May had been one of appraisement. Reams and bytes of news space across newspapers, television channels and online media had been devoted to evaluation of one year of the NDA government. The Narendra Modi-led party had stormed into power last year with the promise of reviving the flagging economy and speedy development.

As a child rights activist, I was hoping to see an increased amount in this year's budget for the development of children. Unfortunately, even now, in a country where 41 per cent of the population is under 14, only 4 per cent of the annual budget has been allocated to children’s causes. The world is closely watching the progress of the Modi government’s exemplary ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign for the daughters of our country, but it lies in insufficient budgetary allocation besides other things.

Development as a goal has been given the highest priority by governments and public alike, across the world. But a fast-paced development does not guarantee its sustainability. It is a known fact that unless development is equitable, inclusive and sustainable, it will not result in long-term change.

Good quality education is the key to sustainable development. A recently completed study from 50 countries established that every extra year of schooling provided to the whole population can increase average annual GDP growth by 0.37 per cent. Where education is of good quality, the improvement of cognitive skills increases the impact to 1 per cent. A single year of primary school increases the wages people earn later in life by five to 15 per cent for boys and even more for girls. For each additional year of secondary school, an individual's wages increase by 15 to 25 per cent.

Education is not just a fundamental right for each human but it has the power of enabling of all the other rights. When one wall of a classroom is built, millions of walls that divide humanity collapse. When a child picks up a pen, the power of a gun in the hands of a soldier weakens. When a girl belonging to a socially and economically excluded family sits in a classroom shoulder to shoulder with boys, equality and social justice begins. There is no other tool as powerful as education to break the shackles of human slavery.

Yet, quality of education we impart to our children is at an alarming situation. According to reports, in 2014, only a fourth of all Class 3 children in India could read a Standard II text fluently. The situation of maths is worse. Some 20 per cent of all Standard II children cannot still recognise numbers up to nine. English learning has witnessed a downfall in the last few years. For instance, in 2009, almost 60 per cent of Class 8 children could read simple sentences in English but in 2014, this figure is down to 47 per cent.

Not only are the education quality levels appalling, we are not even able to account for children embroiled in labour across grimy factories and scorching farms across the country. The  government lists the number of child labourers to be around 45 lakh, while the non-governmental agencies peg it at a much larger five crore. We do not even know where these children are, let alone educate them.

It is time that we make development, a reality for all, even the most marginalised. We cannot dream of a sustainable future without understanding 4 Ps. These Ps – People, Planet, Prosperity and Peace – are pillars on which a sustainable society stands. Education is the enabler that binds these pillars individually and jointly.

Sustainability of people is unimaginable without education that fosters skill formation, employability, entrepreneurship, equity and ethics. Education is the enabler of human rights and development, not just for children but also for adults. An encouragement of life-long learning and participatory democracy has to rank high in each nation’s political agenda.

Sustainability of planet

The second pillar for sustainable society is the sustainability of the planet. Today, our planet is succumbing under the increasing demands of urbanisation. Natural resources, water and food are fast depleting. The devastation in Nepal is nature’s retaliation to the human excesses. It is through the power of scientific education that a sense of shared responsibility and innovation in resource management can be inculcated in every citizen of the world.

The third pillar is prosperity. While prosperity is an aspiration for every individual, community and country, millions of people fall below the poverty line. The rise in prosperity has massive disparities, which are only widening. Only quality education for all will translate into long term economic growth and plug the gap between the rich and the poor.

The fourth pillar for a sustainable society is peace. It is not only an instinctive quest of each of our lives but also a divine right. In these times of civil unrest and constant threat of terrorism, secular and scientific education is vital. Education enhances reasoning, understanding and accommodation of other’s viewpoints and creation of harmony.

The countdown has begun for the announcement of the UN-created Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015. These goals are a follow up to the Eight Millennium Development Goals that conclude this year. One of the 17 proposed SDGs is ‘Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. When the whole world is recognising the immediate need of investment in education, should not we as a nation take it as a priority too?

Remember, investing every one dollar in eradicating child labour, will yield seven times the amount in two decades. Each dollar invested in quality education will return 15 times the amount. Let us raise the pitch for investment where it really matters. Calls for development will run empty without this promise.

(The writer, a child rights activist, is winner of Nobel peace prize-2014)

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