If we look at the education scenario, the existing status is equally gloomy. As per data released by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) for 2013-14 academic year, 99.3 per cent students out of the total projected population in the relevant age-group were enrolled in primary classes across the country.

But in the same academic year only 49.1 per cent from among the age-group concerned were enrolled for higher secondary classes. Thus between primary to Higher Secondary levels, more than 50 per cent of the students are dropping out of the school cycle at various stages.

There cannot be any doubt that this continuous drop-out syndrome is the biggest problem now facing the school education system. The standard and quality of education being imparted in our schools across the country is equally dismal.

In the mad rush to increase primary enrolment the quality of this base of learning has been ignored by both the policy-makers as well as those in charge of monitoring. The result has been gradual erosion in the overall quality of primary education as has been repeatedly pointed out by independent surveys like ASER.

As per the ASER report, 2016, the percentage of Class 3 students in rural areas, who can read at least Class I level text in the vernacular language is 42.5 percent. In case of arithmetic only 27.7 per cent of children in class 3 can do a two-digit subtraction.

In case of simple divisions it has been observed that the children’s ability in Standard V has remained at 26 per cent between 2014 and 2016. Even among Upper Primary students in rural areas the ability to do a three-by-one digit division in Class 8 has declined from 68.4 per cent in 2010 to 43.3 in 2016.

The declining quality of learning at the basic level has affected the standards in subsequent stages and has created additional burdens for the Secondary classes. There is also a serious rural-urban difference in the system of education at the primary stage.

In urban areas most of the schools, both private and as well as Government, have two years additional learning at the pre-primary stage at 3+ age where the students get their first acquaintance of the words and digits and drawing lines and circles in a much more relaxed atmosphere when their minds are more receptive.

In contrast most of the rural students are deprived of this two additional years and start at class I at 5+ age having lost two vital years of learning. It is also a fact is that in the drive for new schools and additional classrooms under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) the pressing needs for secondary education have been ignored for far too long.

Thus we are treated to the spectacle of overflowing classes often with more than 60 students and teachers forced to take up subjects they are not qualified to teach. Hence the increasing demands for general category teachers like those in languages, history, civics or geography rather than more qualified and specialized science or technology teachers.

Of the 49 per cent boys and girls who complete the full school cycle, only about half or 24.5 per cent in the 18-23 age group enrol themselves in undergraduate courses. As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2015-16 the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for boys is 25.4 while that for girls is 23.5.

This being the age of technology it is ridiculous that around 41 per cent of the total undergraduate seats are occupied by students studying arts or humanities. Unfortunately, we are still blindly following the colonial model started by the British and have failed to attune our education system to the needs of a modern technology-driven society.

There is need for many more polytechnics, engineering and medical colleges, marketing and entrepreneurship training centres, business schools etc. where the bulk of the students may join after completing the secondary course instead of losing two precious years at the Senior Secondary level.

Many of the students who join undergraduate courses in the general stream do so because they have nothing else to do and soon become campus trouble-makers who are picked up by political parties to join their student wing to be groomed as their future political workers.

What about the missing 51 per cent of the students who dropped out from schools at various stages as well as the 25 per cent who fail to get admitted to the undergraduate courses? Some of course join polytechnic schools after completion of 10th standard in schools but, as pointed out by the U R Rao Committee, the number of such diploma polytechnics in India is extremely limited.

Whereas ideally there should be four polytechnics against one engineering college in India, the reality is just the reverse. Till 2016 there were only 500 AICTE approved polytechnics, against 3345 engineering colleges.

Most of these institutions have outdated instruments with students passing out ignorant of the latest tools and machines used in modern factories. Less than one per cent of the school and college dropouts can get themselves admitted to the polytechnics and the remaining 50 per cent of our young remain as outcasts.

Uneducated and unskilled, they hardly have any future to look forward to. Many in the rural areas many join their fathers’ profession as cultivators or as landless agricultural labourers either in their own areas or in other States. But agriculture as an occupation is shrinking sharply as reported in the last three decennial censuses.

In 1991 cultivators and landless agricultural labourers consisted of 67 percent of the total working population. In 2001 agricultural occupation declined to 58.40 and in 2011 to 54.60 per cent. Thus the scope of further manpower absorption in this traditional occupation is steadily declining as in all developing countries.

Other traditional family occupations such as masonry, plumbing, washing, small trades, cook, barber etc. are also fast dwindling in the face of relentless pressure from the organized sector. Shrinking job opportunities in the rural areas have led to the shifting of urban centres particularly during the day, creating problems for an already stagnant urban job market.

Finding no other way, many of these jobseekers are forced to take up petty crime and later, enter the underworld. Others take up odd jobs that are temporary, with poor pay and an uncertain future.

This in fact is the story of more than half of the Indian youth without formal education beyond the Upper Primary stage and without any training in skills. They are joining the ever-increasing ranks of the unemployed.

A more or less similar situation was faced by China in the 1970s and 1980s but its response was through reforms in education with full emphasis on mathematics and science subjects and providing for skill development on an unprecedented scale.

This helped to create an army of new entrepreneurs in the small and medium sectors often in the export-oriented units with State support and opening its doors to massive foreign investment with the lure of cheap labour and tax concessions.

Under this ever increasing pressure on decent sustenance and survival, the traditional Indian social fabric is slowly being torn apart. The age old custom of concern and care for aged parents is fast dwindling, thus creating serious living problems for the growing 60-plus population.

Stories of domestic violence against aged and defenceless parents are reported in the newspapers almost every day. What is of far greater concern is that such domestic turmoil and pressure on living conditions is also affecting traditional Indian social norms and culture of tolerance as we are gradually turning into an intolerant, violence-prone and uncaring society.

This is reflected in every sphere of social, political or religious interaction shutting out the contrary viewpoint while the credibility and control of institutions responsible for the maintenance of our society are deliberately being eroded.

Thus instead of the proclaimed demographic advantage we are actually sitting on a potential powder-keg with the fuse slowly but surely running out. Unless our cynical leaders have time to sit down and grasp the gravity of the situation, our survival as a nation may soon be at stake.

(Concluded)

The writer is retired Principal Secretary, Govt of West Bengal