It has been well over a year since the onslaught of Covid-19 began in India. The first phase was a relatively minor one which led us to lecture prematurely that all was well. We even began to export whatever vaccines were available with us. Then the second, vicious wave came and we did not know what had hit us. There was no medical infrastructure worth the name — hospitals, oxygen, ventilators, medical staff, etc. Lakhs died and lakhs lay ill but we are not sure about the numbers. The world helped, but not as much as it could have. Now we are awaiting the third wave and praying it will not come.
This, however, is not the objective of this article. Facts cannot be distorted by fudging data, Covid did happen, lakhs of people did die, and our preparations were not anywhere near the mark. Why did this happen? We cannot blame the British Empire, we have had 73 years of Independence; that is enough time for a first-rate health structure to come up. However, since the dawn of Independence, no government has paid heed to two priorities of development: health and education. Look at the budgetary allotments over the years and you will know the root cause of the problem. What should have happened is the development of model hospitals at the district, divisional and state headquarter levels. Stress should not have been put on magnificent buildings, but on full quota of doctors, nurses and state-of-the-art equipment. A cluster of villages could have had a primary health centre which could take care of minor problems and refer other cases to a higher level hospital.
Along with this was the need to have an adequate number of medical colleges and training colleges for nurses. The number could have been worked out on the basis of the number of hospitals. Enough generalist and speciality doctors should have been recruited and posted equitably. Special focus was needed for rural dispensaries because most are without doctors, who do not want to go there because of lack of facilities.
Above all, there was a need for political vision and a will at the top that health and education are the two fundamentals of human development which lead to overall development of the country. This has been sorely lacking since 1947 and during the course of a very long career in the government, I have seen health ministers and health secretaries dealing almost the whole time with the matter of transfers and postings. There is so much pressure that there is no time for policy matters. Even after all these years, we have not developed a policy and lobbies within lobbies carry the day. In such a situation, corruption thrives, right from the purchase of medicines and equipment to positions and transfers. The result is that our prestigious institutions for learning and research (PGI, AIIMS, etc) face a tsunami of patients from all over, because the system at lower levels does not work. This leads to these institutes of excellence dealing with thousands of outdoor patients at the cost of their teaching and research.
Coming to education, the less said the better. Our leaders and educationists have always talked of setting up higher institutes of learning, but where are the students going to come from? Our primary schools are mostly on paper — proper accommodation, toilet facilities (especially for girls), etc, are lacking. There are not enough trained teachers. These teachers are not models of intellectual or teaching abilities or moral rectitude. The unions are very powerful and do not allow any major changes. Here, too, a lot of time is wasted on postings and transfers. And likewise, the infrastructure is also missing — not enough schools, colleges, no laboratories. We should have created a national-level structure with the objective of teaching children to think, to develop a scientific temper. Producing lakhs of graduates in History, Political Science, etc, is of very little use. We need students indulging in creative thinking right from the beginning and undertaking research in universities. The number of arts students needs to be drastically reduced and these young boys and girls should be taught other skills which would give them jobs in industries. The needs of industries should be worked out in advance.
The government and industries should fund research in universities, even the military can give funds for research in the needed spheres (this is done in developed countries). We need our professors and students to do their research together. International-level seminars, webinars, exchange programmes should be regularly held so that we can keep abreast of developments. We have now entered the digital age, and that was quite some time ago. Today’s world is far advanced in robotics, AI, microbiology, etc, and where are we? Covid and the resultant closure of schools has led to online teaching and learning. Millions of children have no computers, no smartphones and families of four or even five children have to share one phone, which is normally with the father. This has resulted in dropping out of two or three of the children who now work to support the family. I have seen the hunger in their eyes (leave alone their stomach) for education. Even the poorest of the poor realise that only education and good health can get them out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Years ago, when computers had arrived, the Chinese realised that they did not have enough children who knew English. They selected five million boys and girls and gave them a crash course — in a short time, they had the nucleus of a new generation of English speakers. They improved their universities and schools, trained faculties and made it a national movement. They sent thousands of students to study in the US, UK and other countries, and most came back and helped close the gap with the West.
Why cannot we produce a hundred million smartphones (or more, if necessary) and give them to these children? Experience tells us that most of the teachers are not very savvy in teaching online. We should design a crash course for use in the whole country. These measures by themselves will give us a good start and systems should be devised for selecting students for higher studies and diverting others to skilled jobs.
We missed the Renaissance and the awakening of the artistic and scientific temperament, we missed the Industrial Revolution and today also we are hardly present in these fields. Let us not miss the Digital Revolution. Those who can afford to are going abroad for their graduation and further studies — most will not come back (unlike China). The only reason is the quality of education which gives them better opportunities. How have the Nadellas and many others risen to the highest levels on the corporate ladder? I am sure there are men of vision in various fields — come forward and make this vision of good education and good health a reality. In both these fields, we have to work from the bottom-up: primary schools, primary health centres, high schools and skill development centres, colleges fully equipped to focus on science to prepare students for jobs in industry, research facilities to enable faculty and students to carry out cutting-edge research, well trained faculty at all levels, modern gadgets to help especially those who cannot afford them. Let there be a national plan and let it be formulated by our leading professionals from India and abroad. Form a team to formulate this plan and monitor it, get leading industrialists and government experts to focus on infrastructure. Let in even renowned NGOs. The plan should include crash courses for teachers to be able to teach online and enough training centres for teachers at colleges and higher institutes. A health plan can be formulated on similar lines.
In fact, in addition to reservation of various kinds, had we planned for a revolution in education and healthcare, we would have already been a developed country. Today, along with the reserved classes, we have millions of poor people (who live below the poverty line) from other sections of society who also need help. Help can only be along the lines indicated above, otherwise the middle-class and rich children will go abroad and others will be stuck at home in abysmal poverty, ignorance and poor health. The times call for a revolution in these fields — if we miss this Digital Revolution, we will be doomed. The demographic dividend that we talk of will turn into a nightmare if large sections of the youth remain uneducated and unemployed.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP
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