Indian elite: 'Rural poor don't need education'

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The women's silk saris glistened under soft modern lighting as the guests settled down to after-dinner conversation in the Delhi drawing room. The guests, all from successful business families, were explaining why it was not important for village children to go to school.

Reading and writing are not necessary in the villages, an engineer argued; there are scribes for hire in the markets and transistor radios for news and information. Poor parents need their youngsters' labor at home or the small wages they can earn outside.

Besides, he said, education could break down the old values. The children would become disrespectful of their parents. They'd want to go to the cities, and then who would work in the villages? And yes, his own children were in private school, headed for the better colleges. One-quarter of the world's child laborers are Indian children - 13 million of them.

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The 1950 Indian Constitution set the goal in black and white: compulsory and free education for all children through age 14 by 1960. Successively, the deadline has slipped: It is now 1990.

Meanwhile only 80 percent of youngsters of primary-school age ever enroll in school: By the end of fifth grade, 63 percent have dropped out. A young hotelier explains why India doesn't push to get and keep all its children in school.

''We can't do that,'' he says. ''They'd all become communists.''

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