One of the greatest privileges of being a Chief Economic Advisor was the opportunity to meet with students from all over India. Over the course of nearly four years, my team and I visited scores of educational institutions across the country to talk about India’s economic issues and the Economic Surveys.
Each time, I was struck by the students’ curiosity, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. In campus after campus, turnout exceeded our expectations, questions exceeded the time to answer them, and we always left wanting to return. Indeed, it was the students’ evident desire to learn, so that they could participate in the national project of building India, which inspired my team and me to create an online course on the Indian economy.
Among the campuses we visited were places that have been in the news recently: Jamia Millia University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), all bastions of youthful idealism. I remember in particular the welcome by the students in AMU — a rousing Jana Gana Mana, with the boys all dressed in black sherwanis and the girls in white salwar-kameezes with red dupattas.
But something has changed over the past few months. Thugs armed not just with weapons but with ideological hate have perpetrated unprovoked violence, not only in these universities but in campuses across India. Among the many victims could easily have been some of the students we met and still remember: The eager escort, the enthusiastic guide, the brilliant questioner, the impressive organiser, the selfie-seeker.
We speak of creating a $5-trillion economy by taking advantage of our demographic dividend. But if our universities become war zones rather than sacred sanctuaries of learning, we don’t build human capital. We make carcasses of the hopes of our students. Just as the psychological burdens of poverty and hardship narrow cognitive bandwidth (according to research by Sendhil Mullainathan and Anandi Mani), the psychological burdens of violence on students could impair their capabilities and turn the demographic dividend into a demographic wasteland. Indeed, since building human capital, maintaining social peace and creating strong institutions are key determinants of long-run development, recent actions triply undermine achieving sabka saath, sabka vikas.
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It is bad enough that our higher education system has routinely been failing our youth. It is bad enough too that their prospects of getting decent, well-paying jobs are becoming more grim. To heap violence and physical and psychological insecurity only adds more hopelessness to their educational years and to their sense of the future that awaits them.
And why are these students being attacked? For exercising their right of expression, their right to articulate their concerns and opinions about a set of measures they fear might consign many Indians to second-class citizenship, if not deprive them of their identity altogether? Are their fears exaggerated or misplaced? Regardless, they must be heard. How else will we be able to understand and address their concerns? And to be clear, address them we must.
As the images of violence on India’s university campuses have streamed on screens and phones across the globe over the past months, the poet Yeats’ dark evocation keeps coming to mind: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” So, too, does a climactic scene from Mira Nair’s movie, Monsoon Wedding. The character played by Naseeruddin Shah confronts a relative who has abused a younger family member, saying: “These are my children. I will protect them from myself even, if I have to.” We too must ask: Aren’t these our children, who need to be protected from ourselves, from our instincts to hate and harm? These young, our college students, need to be nurtured, educated, and equipped to build the wealth and future that we want for our country.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 11, 2020 under the title ‘Demographic dividend to demographic wasteland’. The writer, currently teaching at Harvard University, was chief economic adviser to the government of India from 2014-2018.
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