Recent reading of two seemingly disparate issues made me question if they might be connected after all? The first was in Thomas L. Friedman’s 2008 book – Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution and How We Can Renew Our Global Future. In his book, Friedman says that the earth is heading towards a new era. We’re no longer in a ‘post’ world – post-colonial, post war, post-Cold War. We’re at a turning point – where the problems of energy demand and supply, climate change, biodiversity loss and energy poverty are no longer those we can return to – at a later date in time. We have to address these now, for there to be a later. The second reading was a news piece which uncovered that in Sasaram in Bihar, children study under the dim lights of the railway station at night. Power in this district of Bihar is erratic and unreliable. A majority of the homes here do not have power for more than ten hours a day and the evenings are the worst.
When I look at these two observations together, it becomes more and more obvious to me that while achieving universal education is India’s goal; what should be our priority is achieving this in an India where the pressures of global warming, globalization and population explosion – are upon us. As I see it there are four important issues that need to be considered.
One, the health impacts that increasing energy stress are causing are reducing the ability of many people to access education. There are two aspects to this. First, indoor air pollution is one of the biggest health hazards in rural India. Biomass cooking, according to the World Health Organization causes around 5 lakh deaths in India, mostly women and children. Second, without access to clean water, parents are increasingly reluctant to send their children to school. This affects young girls disproportionately more. This means that for education to be a choice in the first place, we need to simultaneously (a) ensure clean and safe alternatives to biomass cooking (b) guarantee availability of clean water and sanitary conditions in schools across the country and, (c) provide sustainable, long term alternatives of energy consumption.
Two, in a world that is more globalized and competitive than ever before, being highly skilled is more of a necessity than an option. The RTE Act leaves the education of children post-grade 8 a question mark. This Hindustan Times article makes the point starkly. For many Indians, education after Class 12 is still inaccessible and unaffordable. There is a massive demand-supply gap in higher education. This makes their ability to contribute and collaborate limited. In such a scenario innovations don’t happen and productivity doesn’t accelerate. Focusing on (a) novel and affordable solutions in secondary and higher education for the poor and, (b) enabling them to access information technology and better wireless connectivity (by providing green sources of electricity) to make the most of these opportunities, must be of our main concern.
Three, to achieve inclusive education and ensure that the real beneficiaries of any policy actually benefit from it means that we need to invest in and develop our villages. Our cities are stretched beyond capacity. Population pressures are leading to crumbling infrastructure and decreasing quality of life. Developing villages by investing in infrastructure and assuring provision of clean, sustainable and long term energy sources will, by creating the necessary supply conditions, encourage the increased proliferation of private schools in these areas. Demand for such schools already exists. This means that everyone, including the economically disadvantaged, will have the ability as well as the choice to empower themselves.
Lastly, the poor – the ones who have contributed the least towards the present unstable climate, are the worst prepared for and most affected by extreme events such as droughts, famines and floods. This constant struggle to battle climactic forces reduces their ability to participate in education. For those who do attend schools, drop outs are common and this is one of the many reasons for poor learning outcomes for India’s school going children. Research has indicated that if the predictions of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predictions on global warming were to come true, India’s GDP could decline by as much as 9%. The effects of this on the education sector would be catastrophic.
Thus, while achieving education for all needs to be one of the most important policy focuses, we need to be cognizant of the inter-dependence between energy and education. We are unlikely to truly achieve equitable quality education at all levels without also focusing our attention on green solutions to the energy problems facing us. The question is not whether global warming projections will come true or not. The point is, if they do, we will have the capacity to meet them and if they don’t we will have moved on to a more efficient and sustainable way of living. ‘Energy poverty’ as Friedman terms it, is going to make it much harder for those at the bottom of the pyramid to access educational opportunity and unlock their potential. While we cannot undo the damage that has been done, what we can do – by acknowledging the existence of and acting on this multi-faceted challenge – is ensure a brighter, more certain and more able future for those who need it the most, while innovating along the way. After all, isn’t that what great revolutions are made of?