It is always great to talk to teenagers. The other day I was speaking to two of them who are in their first year of college — articulate, ambitious and not afraid to ask difficult questions. The first thing one notices among this age group is that they know how to push a discussion forward. They never stop you when you are yet to complete what you have started saying and, most importantly, they think about what you have said before they speak. In particular, and this may be because they are just about starting to find their feet as adult Indians, they seldom assume that you must be wrong if they do not understand what you have said.
Our discussion was about inclusion in education. And they started with the following question. There are millions of students finishing school who sit for the Indian Institute of Technology exams, but only a few thousands get in since there are only that many seats in these institutions. These are expected to be the very best, and people know it. The fact that a very small proportion of those who try actually get admitted makes IIT-ians end up being a small and exclusive group. Would inclusion mean that more IITs are created, more seats are generated, and a greater number of students get into these institutions? And, if that happens, and the IIT entrance tests are truly discerning, more seats would mean that we will have to go down the talent ladder, and students with lesser and lesser ability will become IIT-ians. This will dilute the average quality of an IIT-ian, reduce their average pay and, hence, the rush to enter an IIT. They did not stop there but went on to say that, indeed, can this not be said for all levels of education?
Obviously, I was immediately tempted to say that everyone entering an IIT is not “inclusion”. But, before I said that, I started thinking how to define “inclusion”. If inclusion is a concept worth striving for, it is worth defining it in the first place. To ensure that it is indeed a worthwhile thing to achieve, we must be able to distinguish between what is inclusion and what is not. If everything we want to do is “inclusion”, it is a trivial concept; if we cannot figure out what it is we must do, it is a vacuous concept. Given that all our leaders and all multi-lateral aid agencies and everyone who wants to make a statement are talking about inclusion, it is a great idea to try and understand what it is and what it is not.
In India, financial inclusion is a common term. We have operationalised it into that of opening a bank account for every adult. Unfortunately, when some of us went to some villages to help the villagers open bank accounts, they were totally unexcited about it. We explained the advantages of opening the account – saving their extra cash and withdrawing from it whenever they wanted to – but they were not impressed. At first we thought it was a lack of “financial literacy”, another buzzword doing the rounds in academic, civil society and policy circles. It was only later that we realised the reason was much simpler. Going to the bank for any purpose was difficult, if not impossible, for these villagers. The bank was a frightful place, and they were treated with disdain by its officers. At least, that was their perception. They were more at ease doing other things with their money than saving it in bank accounts. Oh! They would love to have access to something like bank accounts — but not in the institutions we wanted them to open in. The bank to them was exclusively for others, people who were not like them.
So, if having bank accounts is not financial inclusion, what is? We are back to the original question: what is inclusion? Let us try another oft-repeated objective: inclusive growth. Many suggest that our post-reform experience is not one of inclusive growth. I am yet to understand what exactly this means. Does it mean that everyone’s earnings must increase at the same rate? Or, these rates could be different as long as they are all positive? Should the poor first become non-poor and then others can grow?
The students’ question brought back all these confusions that I have long had and tried to cover up so that I was not excluded from the group of people who knew what inclusion is and, hence, talked about it a lot. I did not want the teenaged students to include me in their group — those who do not know what inclusion in education meant. So, I racked my brains and came up with the following answer. Inclusive education does not mean that everyone must enter, or pass out from, an IIT. It only means that if you wanted to, you could have a shot at it. The child labourer is excluded because she can never dream of entering an IIT; she may absolutely hate IIT, but not trying to join an IIT should be her decision. Even if there is only one IIT train, every child must have access to the platform where the train comes. Of course, not everyone will get on to the train but everyone knows what to do to have a shot at the train. This is called inclusion in education. Everyone must go to school till class 12; those who work hard, and are willing to work harder still, will join an IIT. Others will, by choice, decide not to work that hard and become economists.
The writer is research director at India Development Foundation and the director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Shiv Nadar University