Let's start with education, which should be an Indian national embarrassment. In Kolkata, a city renowned for its intellectual tradition, I dropped in on a government school and chatted with some ninth graders.

What is 6 times 9, I asked them. They didn't understand in English, which is part of the curriculum, so a teacher translated the question into Bengali their native language. The students still didn't know. That's not their fault, but that of an educational system that leaves too many behind.

In rural Rajasthan, I visited an impoverished village and came across a handful of children who simply hadn't attended school that day. Absenteeism is a national problem, and the school later told me that attendance that day was just 68 percent.

One boy in the village who had skipped class, Mukesh, was a fifth grader and the first child in his family ever to register for school, which sounded impressive. His mother told me she had never attended school at all.

But when I asked Mukesh through a local interpreter what 5 plus 8 equaled, he guessed 11. I wrote the letter P in my notebook and asked him what English letter it was; he had no idea.

My interpreter wrote down a couple of simple words in Hindi, the state's official language, and he couldn't read them.

National Survey confirms that even when Indian children go to school, they don't necessarily learn much. Fewer than half of fifth-graders can read a text at a second-grade level.

CHINA has thrived in part because it made enormous investments in human capital -transforming what in the early 1980s had been a broken education system - and that created a literate , numerate work force. 

In contrast, India isn't even in the ballpark. Figures vary, but perhaps only 35 percent of Indian children make it to grades 11 and 12.

One gauge of the broader human capital challenge in India : Some 35 percent of children are physically stunted from malnutrition, higher than in much poorer African countries like Somalia and Burkina Faso.

It's difficult to nurture a modern, educated work force when so many children are badly malnourished, for this can only impair brain development and cognitive bandwidth.

BUT WAIT ! Maybe there's hope. In the 41 years that I've been visiting India, I've seen tremendous improvements in education and well-being.

Teacher absenteeism used to be routine, and in Bihar State I once came across a school that opened only once a year, for exams, which teachers then filled out so that it would look as if students were learning.

All that is much rarer today, and the authorities in some states have eliminated book fees, uniform fees and other informal charges that were a barrier to school attendance.

Free hot lunches and deworming are now routine, and it's rare to find young children who are completely outside the school system.

In Rajasthan on this trip, I visited a school that had only two classrooms for eighth grades, so some of its classes were conducted outside. But the teachers were qualified, present and engaged. 

I was impressed that the school had a free free-K attached to it, open to all - and, most startling, the school provides free sanitary pads to girls to encourage them to attend school during their periods.

Moreover, parents these days seem to care deeply about Education. Perhaps one-half of Indian children attend private schools - a huge strain on family budgets - because parents want their kids to get the best education possible, including schooling in education.

These private schools often aren't very good, but they reflect families' recognition that education is the path to success.

The Essay continues. The World Students Society thanks author Nicholas Kristof.


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