The poor condition of basic education in this country is well known to all and here are some basic facts to just get the evidence on it. Nearly 33% of adult Indians are illiterate and drop out rates for primary students is 30%. The overall teacher pupil ratio is 1:46, and on an average there are less than three teachers per primary school.
Only 53% of habitations in the country have a primary school, nearly half of all children in the 7-14 age group cannot read and a staggering 10 million primary age children remain out of school. It’s a reality we would all like to change and the best way to start doing it is with the primary school system.
So what is it that we need? If you are about to say more investment in primary education, more schools and more children attending these schools, please wait. This is not what we need. What we do is a mobile phone and a large mobile network.
If one section of India’s corporate giants, film superstars and advertising spin doctors are to be believed, all those who strive to improve the fundamentals of our primary education are fools of the first order. The answers are much simpler. Put a mobile phone in the middle of nowhere and this country will be transformed. Children will sit transfixed and listen to education blasting out of four inch contraptions, attendance will be 100%, girls will certainly outperform the boys, all children will be magically educated, will become supremely confident and will be ready to take on the world. It’s a revolution waiting to be unleashed. We were looking in the wrong place so far; we were wasting our time putting in place a system of primary education. It’s not working, so don’t invest any more – maybe it’s not late even now to do away with it.
Another mobile communications company, for instance, advertises prominently that network connections are at least as important as basic necessities as food, air and water. That many of our systems, including primary education are in a mess will be disputed by no one, but when a corporate entity pounces on this reality in its pursuit of even more profit it can only come across as obscene. The effort is not even to mock, leave alone castigate a system that fails its citizens so badly. It’s a cynical and brazen attempt to capitalise of a situation, mislead a people and predate on unfulfilled aspirations. We cannot forget that subconscious messaging of this kind gets absorbed slowly but its impact on the human psyche can be huge. That in fact is the purpose of most advertising and however much one believes otherwise, no one is really immune. We believe we will never be taken in, while in fact this is exactly what is happening in a manner that we are not even aware of.
The advertising industry, the self proclaimed creative geniuses are bound to spring up in vehement defence – with the fig leaf of creative freedom and creative license. When it is advertising, anything goes; anything should be allowed to go. Responsibility to a larger context in promotion of a business is either for someone else or then good in Corporate Social Responsibility discussions and brochures.
Advertising of this kind is a mockery of the hopes and desires of a large section of people who are struggling hard to get their children basic education in the anticipation that their lives will be at least a little better and it’s not even an alternative system of education that is being promoted or sold. Don’t bother about teachers, education or school is the unbelievable message that is being sent out. The government may be discussing a bill to make primary education a fundamental right but industry and advertising would rather have people ‘buy’ than fight for what should be fundamentally theirs.
That might well be the way to turn the argument on its head. Advertising is a statement on society and the intelligent creative giants could soon have us believe that campaigns such as these are indeed mirrors for society to look into and look at itself. We are not ‘selling’, we are only reflecting the deepest concerns of our times and our people. It is the most selfless kind of corporate social responsibility endeavour that makes us all realise how badly our government and systems have failed. It’s a call to the conscience of all. And yes, if we further our business on the side, surely no one should complain. Win – win, you see?
We would do well to bear in mind that countries who are considered developed and powerful today have invested and continue to invest huge resources in their people and the kind of education they get. In Northern America and Western Europe for instance, more than 90% of kids are in primary school, nearly 14% of government spending goes to education and there is one teacher for every 14 children at the primary level. Compare these with figures for India and the direction for action cannot be seen more clearly. This is where innovation, creativity and high quality messaging are most needed. That’s the idea that sirji needs to work on. That’s where the real difference will be made and quite likely even ensure better sales of phones in the long run.
This article was first published in Deccan Herald dated August 18, 2008 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.