IN no other democratic country in the world is the development of education so caught up in political influence as in India. During a recent visit to India, many parents told me that they were fed up with corruption in education and subtle political interference in the day-to-day administration of colleges and universities. As one irate father remarked, ``Nothing in education gets done in India without money under the table.''
India has made impressive gains in education since it achieved independence in 1947. The literacy level has risen from 14 percent in 1947 to almost 52 percent in 1991. Emphasis on social services and development of a scientific attitude among students deserves praise, and India has made a national commitment to improve the education of the socially and economically backward classes. In addition, the federal government's National Policy on Education, adopted in 1986 to improve the overall system in India, is a step in the right direction.
But these gains have been marred by rising corruption and malpractice in education, the use of political power to influence the decisions of heads of educational institutions, and the alarming growth of English-language private schools.
With the split in the old Congress Party and the rise of Indira Gandhi as the new leader of the Indian National Congress (I) party in 1980, political interference in the judiciary and in education, as well as corruption in public life, increased rapidly. Mrs. Gandhi and her son, Rajiv, subjected the educational system to political abuse. More scandals broke out in education during their regimes than in any other period after independence. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, the chief ministers were charged with using their influence to change the grades of their relatives in medical schools. As a result, the chief minister of Maharashtra state had to resign in shame.
But that was then. In October of this year, 70,000 students marched through Bombay to protest against corrupt universities that are in the business of selling degrees. Shortly before the protests, a leader of the opposition party in the Bombay Legislative Assembly shocked the members by displaying a university degree he had bought! In 1991, one of the deans of a leading university in Gujarat was demoted because of a bribery scandal. Instead of reprimanding the administrator, the top leadership in the Congress (I) Party looked in another direction.
In India corruption comes in a variety of forms. Donations for school admissions have become so common that many middle-class parents who can hardly afford them have nonetheless become resigned to them. One of my acquaintances wanted admission for his granddaughter to a kindergarten. The school management asked him to pay 5,000 Rupees (almost $158). He paid the money. But when he insisted on a receipt, he was told to take his granddaughter elsewhere. The managers of private schools choose school uniforms, select textbooks, provide school transportation, and make money. To them, education is big business. In 1986, parents in Gujarat revolted against the rising cost of education and donation practices for school admission. The government agreed to take firm action against the management. But the ruling party was worried about its own constituency. It did nothing. People are in the same fix again.
THE craze among the parents to send their children only to English- language schools has reached an epidemic proportion. The parents honestly believe that the local municipal schools hire incompetent teachers and that the quality of teaching and learning has gone downhill. And since these schools teach through the mother tongue of the child, many parents have turned to English schools. Parents who are too poor to pay the tuition at private schools are forced to keep their children in municipal schools.
The quality of students who emerge from private schools also is questionable, since most of the teachers there are products of traditional schools. They have problems not only with intonation and pronunciation but also with English grammar.
Examinations dominate all Asian countries, but the situation is even worse in India. I have seen students rush to coaching classes in the morning and evening to improve their academic performance in school examinations. Private coaching classes teach selected subjects with heavy emphasis on rote learning and on cramming the textual materials without the student being able to understand.
No wonder examinations have become so controversial. The former Delhi University registrar and controller of examinations charged that the universities have lost direction. In his interview with the Times of India, he remarked, ``Never in [Delhi University's] 71 years has so much ... controversy been raised about examinations.''
Students steal exam papers, threaten college instructors for giving stiff examinations, and sometimes take over school buildings. Very recently Delhi city police arrested a lecturer in a local college along with four students and charged them with leaking questions for a business exam.
India is not living up to its educational commitments. In the first five-year plan (1956), it provided 7.8 percent for education in the budget. But in 1991-1992, it spent only 3.9 percent of its gross national product on education. Recently the World Bank ranked India as the 115th among all countries in government support for education. Among other Asian countries, Thailand spent 4.2 percent and Malaysia spent 8.5 percent GNP on education.
The Indian government is aware of the relationship between education and economic prosperity. It is closely watching progress in countries like Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But India's commitment to basic education in practice is sorely lacking. India has to meet the challenge of corruption in public life quickly and firmly. It also needs to make changes in its plans to restructure educational priorities. Corruption, unemployment, and political interference in education are blocking the path of prosperity in the world's largest democracy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.