Sunday, November 25, 2007

If you're a Dalit or a woman and want to liberate yourself from social constraints, learning English would be a giant first step

TODAY'S EDITORIAL: Freedom Language 24 Nov 2007
Globalisation is often assailed as increasing inequality across the board. But an interesting study in Mumbai, which deserves to be replicated in other Indian cities, suggests it can decrease gender inequalities and reduce the relevance of caste, a prime factor behind inequality in India. The study, based on a large sample and published in the American Economic Review, showed that access to English education increased the range of choices available to boys and girls coming from urban working-class homes where caste identities are still strong.
Those going to Marathi schools are likely to remain stuck in blue-collar occupations when they pass out, but those going to English schools often graduate to white-collar professions. And that may work in favour of girls. Boys are part of a network that funnels them from Marathi schools to traditional jobs in mills, factories, dockyards or construction. But girls, not being part of this network, can go to English schools and move on to white-collar jobs. Being part of the new economy also opens up choice in marriages. It was found that 31.6 per cent of those who went to English schools had inter-caste marriages, as opposed to only 9.7 per cent of those who studied in the Marathi medium.
Caste distinctions will soon blur if a large number of young people marry outside caste. The practical conclusion from such a study looks simple. If you're a Dalit or a woman and want to liberate yourself from social constraints, learning English would be a giant first step. It's interesting to compare this with the method for encouraging social mobility favoured by politicians: greater reservations for OBCs, a loose category within which all sorts of politically favoured constituents are included. The problem with that is it's a bit of a zero-sum game. To reserve a seat for someone belonging to a quota is to deny it to another, perhaps equally deserving candidate. It also undermines the principle of merit in educational institutions and jobs.
But to learn English is not a zero- or even a negative-sum game. Anybody can learn, and demand will follow supply. Moreover, it allows one to access opportunities in the local as well as global economy. When the Indian economy suffers from a skills shortage, there can't be anything wrong with this. It's been found that higher numbers of those educated in English migrate from their state. That not only weakens caste ties, but labour flows can follow the jobs, which is good for the economy. If it's serious about encouraging social mobility, the government should promote the use of English.

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