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Latha Jishnu: The commons and the classes

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Without a common school policy, India’s barbaric and unequal system of education will deepen divisions in society.

The first requisite of a good servant is that he should conspicuously know his place. It is not enough that he knows how to effect certain desired mechanical results; he must, above all, know how to effect these results in due form. Thus wrote the legendary academic in The Theory of the Leisure Class, that superb treatise on the effect of wealth on behaviour. “Any departure from these canons of form is to be deprecated, not so much because it evinces a shortcoming in mechanical efficiency, or even that it shows an absence of the servile attitude and temperament, but because in the last analysis it shows the absence of special training.”

It was a pungent, ironic observation but a couple of weeks ago it appeared Delhi had taken Veblen seriously. To ensure that such a lacuna should not reflect on its image as the capital of an economic superpower in the making, it launched the programme for skill development of domestic workers, a programme to turn out trained housemaids for the rich and the burgeoning middle class. And in this endeavour, it had impressive sponsors: the International Labour Organisation (ILO) no less, the and the Delhi government, all under the umbrella of the high-sounding National Skill Development Programme.

For the most part, domestic workers are poorly schooled or illiterate and their skill development consists of nothing more than a basic course in how to stay clean and speak well and learn to operate household gadgets. Part of the package is learning how to prepare an ‘urban meal’, serving food in a formal environment and handling domestic pets. All this would help in their ‘career progression’, we are told. Barring the absence of frilly caps and aprons, this harks back to the Victorian era when overworked and dirty scullery maids made their way up the floors of the aristocratic homes to become parlour maids or the ultimate mark of favour, the lady’s maid. There was a clearly marked career path a couple of hundred years ago.

For Delhi’s domestic assistants, the future is less certain. Somewhere in the future, wages will go up as demand for ‘trained household assistants’ picks up and the law is amended to fix a minimum wage for this category, promises Delhi Chief Minister It’s a cozy arrangement in which the training is done by an NGO and private institutes with the and the labour ministry picking up the tab. But one thing is clear: the training initiative is geared to helping prospective employers much more than the maids. That this is the most high-profile skill development programme that the government — and the — has been able to come up with for this category of workers is a telling comment on the job prospects available to them. But the clue to the real motivation for this initiative may lie in the changing socio-economic profile of Delhi and other cities in India.

According to figures given by the government the demand for domestic servants is scheduled to grow six-fold to 600,000 in the next five years. That clearly is an underestimation. Even today, the average middle class home in the capital employs an average of 2.5 maids, apart from drivers and gardeners, according to another calculation. In coming years, the socialist republic of India would need, perhaps, two or three times that number of domestic helpers to serve its burgeoning middle class.

The just released India 2039: An Affluent Society in One Generation prepared by the Asian Development Bank says India could witness a dramatic expansion of its middle class from 10-20 per cent of its population today to an incredible 90 per cent in 30 years if it plays its cards right. “With a population of 1.6 billion forecast for 2039, India could add well over a billion people to its middle class by 2039,” it says. And a Goldman Sachs study expects that 500 million people will be added to India’s cities by 2039 since 10 of the 30 fastest growing areas of the world are in India.

Will the flow of cheap, raw labour from which domestic assistants and the like are fashioned be adequate to meet the escalating demands of a prosperous India? Undoubtedly. And there’s a simple reason why this will not be a problem in the foreseeable future: our appalling education system. The unequal, brutal and deeply flawed system that denies the poor even the semblance of learning and deprives all but the elite of getting a clear start in life will ensure that India will continue to have a deeply divided society in which the lack of basic skills will keep the poor trapped in lowly jobs.

There clearly is a vested interest in keeping the system thus. The debate on reforming the system, too, is skewed and dishonest. Those who advocate market-based solutions to the lack of schooling in India refuse to acknowledge that the common school system prevalent in the US, UK and other developed Western countries was vital in nation-building and building egalitarian societies. While the liberal economics of the developed world, specially the G8, is constantly touted as the way forward, the schooling system of these countries is never held up as a model worth emulating. To admit that the developed world grew and prospered on the basis of strong government-funded schooling which provided quality education would undermine their arguments for privatisation.

As noted educationist Anil Sadgopal points out: “No country in the world has universalised elementary education without promoting a common school system. Therefore, the lack of commitment to CSS implies that India will never be able to provide education to all children despite the rhetoric of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan.”

All the solutions that are being suggested now, such as education vouchers that would allow the poor to send their children to a private school of their choice — one wonders at the choice that exists between non-functional government schools and profit-making private institutions that are just a notch above them — and the 25 per cent reservation in private schools for the poor are nothing but a deflection from the need to overhaul the grossly divisive and unequal system.

It’s not as if the problem is new. In 1964, the Kothari Commission on Education had warned: “There is this segregation in education itself — the minority of private fee-charging, better schools meeting the need of the upper classes and the vast bulk of free, publicly maintained, but poor schools being utilised by the rest. What is worse, this segregation is increasing and tending to widen the gulf between the classes and the masses.”

In the intervening 45 years the gulf has only deepened. But if all of India went to the same kind of schools how would one get the endless flow of domestic helpers?

First Published: Sat, July 18 2009. 00:02 IST