Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Olympic Sized Diversion

The summer Olympics ended with a bang last weekend. US won the most medals, while China won the most golds. By this time the people in the US olympic committee are probably strategizing as to how to win the most golds in London in 2012. It is natural in a culture that prides itself of athletic prowess. But while the eyes of the world were fixated on the grandest ever Olympic closing ceremony, two seemingly disconnected articles appeared in two separate corners of the world this weekend. One was in the Boston Globe, the other on the Yahoo! India website. Here are the links to both:

First, the Boston Globe editorial by Derrick Jackson, titled Going for Gold in India, an editorial describing the first ever olympic individual gold medal won by an Indian athlete.

The second, titled "India to have fourth of global workforce by 2020: PM", is a report on the announcement by the Prime Minister of India to Quintuple the investment in Education, and create a world class workforce of 500 million people by year 2020.

The Boston Globe editorial chronicles the story of Abhinav Bhindra, a 25 year old from Delhi. The first individual medal won by an Indian was a big deal, and Bhindra became an instant national hero. However, Derrick had a different slant on this victory - "But as every American who ever needed computer support knows, India is the 100-pound weakling laughing all the way to the global awards stand. As China and the United States produce athletes in very different, yet equally obsessive ways - and as we treat college and pro athletes as demigods and allow our children to become enslaved to high school coaches and suburban soccer programs - India is producing brainpower." I could not have said it better myself. As if to rub salt in the wound, the article goes on to say "But it is also interesting that the nation's first individual gold medalist also happens to be the 25-year-old chief executive of a company that makes controllers for computer games. While many half-educated American athletes retire into a fog to find meaning in the rest of their lives, Bindra wins the gold, then mints more gold as our children become zombies playing with his products."

As if by coincidence, the Indian prime minister's speech appeared on the newswires. Here is the first line "India is expected to account for a fourth of the world's total skilled workforce by 2020 and the central government is according top priority to higher education, allocating Rs.275,000 crore (Rs.2.75 trillion) to the sector, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said here Tuesday." and it continues further "'We have significantly increased allocation to the education sector with a five fold increase to an unprecedented Rs.275,000 crore,(Rs.2.75 trillion)' he said while addressing faculty and students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Guwahati." Five fold increase? A country that already produces 6 times the number of engineers and 10 times the number of computer programmers as the US to increase the investment in education by 500%? The investment will also be more broad based "Approval had already been granted for eight new IITs, seven Indian Institutes of Management, 16 central universities, 14 world class universities, five Indian Institutes of Science, 10 new National Institutes of Technologie, 20 Information Technology Institutes, and 1,000 polytechnics, he added." Admittedly, much of this newly educated workforce will be needed to support a projected population of 1.5 billion by 2020. At this rate, the proportion of the population engaged in high paying occupations will be way out of proportion compared to the US. Finally, Mr. Singh declared "This big and unique opportunity for India will come from an education revolution that we must undertake as our most important national endeavour.'" Now, we have heard just about every US president declare the same thing for the last 30 years. Billions were spent to rectify the problems found in the 1983 study "A Nation At Risk". The result? Education achievement has been flat to down. Even fewer students graduating with technical degrees. At the same time, the India has gone from a third world apology for an economy, to the second largest technical workforce by 2008, and in the next decade, is poised to be the largest.

How will we deal with this new reality? A country that is already committed to producing $20 computers and $2500 cars that get 50 mpg will be hard to ignore by anyone's standards, especially by the beaten down middle class teetering at the edge of poverty.

In the meantime, will we still continue to focus on winning more Olympic gold medals in 2012? Will parents push their kids harder on the parallel bars, or win more golds in swimming than Michael Phelps? Will the youth of the country focus all their energies on the next olympics? Or will we be mature enough to treat the situation for what it really is - an Olympic sized diversion.


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