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Kerala, literate YES, but does its literacy create an impact?

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“I never let my schooling interfere with my education” said Mark Twain. While its extremely funny on one side, it’s surely very profound. As a country, from 1947, we have made huge progress in terms of our literacy rate, but the contribution of fellow Indians in terms of innovation and new discoveries has been rather poor. Literacy, by definition, is just the ability to read and write. It doesn’t mean intelligent, it doesn’t mean aware, hell it doesn’t even mean educated. Being literate only means you can read this piece, not necessarily understand it.

As long as Indian civilisation has existed, the North vs South debate has been part of discourse. The now almost discarded Aryan Invasion Theory was probably the origin of the debate. The wedge created by the theory then and fermented by the Dravidian parties in the south for selfish gains now means a divide between the two regions of the nation exists. The first argument used by the south Indians in any North vs South debate is the better literacy rate in the south. And no one takes more pride in their literacy rate more than the Keralites.

Traditionally Kerala has been the state boasting of the highest rate of literacy in India. Ranking consistently at the very top with a literacy rate of well above 90% in the last census. While remarkable, on closer examination, it is apparent that the numbers only flatter to deceive. Boasting of the highest literacy rate in the nation should also be supported with boast worthy educational infrastructure, research work, social and business development among other things. This however isn’t the case.

The ASER survey, conducted for 12 years now, reports the status of children’s schooling in the country. It tests school children’s ability to do elementary maths and basic reading skills.

In 2017, the AESR survey conducted in Ernakulum district of Kerala threw up some rather surprising numbers. Shockingly, only 17% of the kids enrolled in schools upto 12th standard could perform subtraction. Between the ages 14-18, only 15% students could identify numbers between 10-99. Unsurprisingly, this number was the lowest in the South Indian region. A similar survey in 2016 showed 1 in 4 kids in class 8 could not perform basic arithmetic skills like subtract and divide. Almost 39% of the students in class 5 could not perform subtraction. The state stood 9th in the country on the basis of arithmetic performance of its students. However it must be noted that the state did better than the national average in all these parameters, but the numbers do not justify the pride and dare I say the arrogance, displayed by the Keralites in their literacy rates.

Its a fair assumption to make that a state that takes such immense pride in its literacy should boast of the best academic institutions of higher education too. Sadly this is far from reality.

In 2018 the National Institute of Ranking Framework (NIRF) published a list of the top 25 Universities in the country. You expect at least one from Kerala. Well, there are none. ZERO. In fact four of the 10 universities in this list come from the “uneducated” North of the country. There are 3 from the south of India, but none from Kerala.

The Outlook Magazine publishes a list of the best colleges in India every year. Its the same story from Kerala when you check the list of the best Engineering, Medical Colleges in the country. Among the top ten in both these categories, ZERO institutes come from Kerala. Even in non science streams like commerce, management studies, arts, fashion technology there are ZERO institutes from Kerala in the Top ten.

Biased you say? A similar survey is published by The Week every year. Same situation repeats itself. Absolutely NONE, ZERO, colleges from Kerala in the Top 10 across streams in professional or non professional courses.
Nursing care from Kerala is renowned internationally . Surprisingly, ZERO Kerala Nursing colleges make any top 10 list.

Keralites take immense pride at the contributions fellow Keralites have had in Space technology through ISRO. Padma Vibhushan awardee, K Kasturirangan, a famous space scientist, is son of Kerala. He headed the ISRO from 1994 to 2003, published over 200 papers and laid a strong foundation to make ISRO a top notch space agency. But his state of birth has had very little to contribute to his meteoric rise. His higher education was primarily completed in Mumbai and Gujarat. Another ISRO chief, hailing from Kerala, K Radhakrishnan, was born in Trichur in Kerala. After completing his graduation in Kerala, he had to move out of the state to complete further education in other states across India to achieve what he did. Once considered the second most powerful man in India, after Jawaharlal Nehru, V K Krishna Menon, is another famous son of the Kerala soil who moved out of his state for quality higher education. He completed his B.A. and Law in Chennai & moved to London School of Economics.

Varghese Kurien, the father of Amul, one of the most influential names in the dairy industry, was born in Calicut in British India. He too moved to Chennai to get high quality higher education before going on to achieve what he did. The “Metro Man” of India, E Sreedharan, born in Kerala, completed his professional education in Civil Engineering from Andhra Pradesh. Sreedharan’s school mate, Magsaysay Award winner & possibly India’s best Chief Election Commissioner, T N Seshan, was born in Kerala and went on to do his higher studies in Madras Christian College, Chennai.

An important parameter of academic excellence is high quality research work done & published by educational institutes. According to a report published in 2016, 60% of the medical colleges in India haven’t produced any research papers in the last decade. When we looked at Kerala colleges, the number was above 90%. Many, if not all of these colleges have had no papers published EVER. If one looks up a list of India’s best research institutes, NONE from Kerala feature in the list.

Education opens up the door to possible prosperity. One of the ways to become prosperous is setting up successful businesses. Among India’s Top 20 companies, no matter what parameters you may apply, NONE come from Kerala or by people from Kerala. Many of our biggest banks in the public sector were founded by people in south India. Among the Top 10 however, no bank founded in Kerala finds a place. Contrast that with the relatively less literate Gujarat. Many of India’s biggest companies were established by people from Gujarat. The Jain community, a tiny minority from Gujarat, is the highest tax paying community in India. That is IMPACT.

The lack of top class manufacturing business ventures in Kerala is hardly surprising considering its historical & continuing romance with Communism. A list of the 10 Richest Keralites shows many Keralites have done remarkably well in business, most of them in the gulf countries. MRF, one of India’s premier tyre manufacturers, founded by a Keralite is headquartered in Chennai. Deeply entrenched unionism, hartals at the drop of a hat have kept serious manufacturing businesses from taking root in Kerala. One of the country’s biggest jewellers, Joy Alukas, is owned by a Keralite, but headquartered in Dubai.

The people of Kerala are no doubt intelligent, hard working & have the skills to not just survive but thrive anywhere in the world. But for good quality education & to make a sustainable living, they have historically & in the present have had to look beyond their state boundaries. A high literacy figure, while good to boast about, means nothing if it isn’t creating the impact that it should, both in the world of academia or business. The relatively less literate state UP hosts two of India’s top 10 ranked universities, BHU & AMU.

Lets look at the Jews as an example. Persecuted for generations, the small community is just around 1.5-2 crores across the world, Less than the state population of Kerala & 0.2% population of the world. The Jews, like the whole south Indian community, prides itself on its academic excellence. As a race, the Jewish people have the most number of Nobel Prize winners accounting for about 23% of the prizes awarded between 1901 & 2017. Besides, the country of Israel, the only Jewish country in the world, boasts of the highest Doctors to population ratio. A number of companies in the Fortune 500 have been created by Jews. Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs are just to name a few being founded by Jews. A number of heads of the most powerful central bank in the world, the US Federal Reserve, have been Jews. The impact had by this academically excellent community is hugely positive, long lasting & continuing. They have made an IMPACT.

So dear Keralites, the 90% literacy just means over 90% of the population can read & write a few lines. That’s just a number. The impact that you create is far more important reason to take pride in. Lets create that IMPACT.

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