Sunday, 15 March 2009

Four women in search of a future

Creativity killed, Talent murdered, Growth stunted
By Shree Venkatram

This is the story of four brilliant students: Shivani, Tara, Tanvi and Anita, who passed out of school in 2004. Their names have been changed, for their story is being told without their permission. They are all at the exciting age of 21 years, getting ready to claim the world. Unfortunately, something has gone terribly wrong.

Shivani was the head girl of her school. Bright, extremely creative, she scored well in her school exams and got into a leading college, counted among the top ten in India. She became an active member of the college’s dramatic society, then its secretary and in the final year was its President. She wrote, produced and directed plays, winning acclaim at inter -college festivals. She received an invitation to perform one of her plays in Pakistan.

She spent a summer vacation equipping young people in the slums of Delhi to bring out wall newspapers. She worked with them on their writing skills and taught them how to draw and paint. She spent another holiday brightening up the lives of little children in a slum. Every day for two months, in the gruelling heat of Delhi summer, she jumped over the garbage heaps and drains to put the children, a few years younger than herself, through rehearsals to produce a lively play, that gave the parents and the community an evening of colour, joy and laughter.

She was keen to build on her creative talent, and applied for a post-graduate degree course in mass communications specialising in film making at a university in Delhi. Her name did not figure even on the list of those called for a first-round interview. India had said “No” to a person of her calibre. She is now preparing for CAT (Common Admission Test) conducted by the Indian Institutes of Management. She might get in, chances are she might not, for her aptitude lies elsewhere. But one thing is definite: A budding film maker has been stymied, throttled.

Tara went to one of India’s best schools and made it to a leading college. Her results have been brilliant. She writes lyrics, composes music and plays in an all-girl band. Highly motivated and creative, she brought out a campus newspaper, conceptualising it, putting it together, seeking ads and then selling it, along with a bunch of students.

She too had sought admission to the same course in mass communications. She too failed to make it. I do not have her reaction, but the people who know her are dumbfounded. Why are such brilliant students failing to secure seats to institutes of higher learning? Have reservations taken over to such an extent that promising students are being turned away?

Tanvi had set her heart on medicine. A conscientious student, she had scored well in school. So keen was she on pursuing medicine that she took a year off to prepare for the Pre-Medical entrance examination. While other girls her age caught the latest films, hung around with friends, and took vacations, she sat through special classes and took the medical entrance exam. India denied her a seat. But many aspirants, way down in the list from her, made it. Two of them were her classmates. She says while in school she was not even aware that they belonged to a ‘backward category’. Their parents were high-ranking bureaucrats and politicians. The children owned the latest gadgets, wore branded clothes and came to school in chauffer driven cars.

She lost a year, but what is worse, she lost the belief that hard work gets you what you want. She learnt that modern day India sacrifices merit. Embittered and disgusted, at the age of 18 she sought admission to a regular BA course.

While still in school, Anita volunteered her Friday evenings and Saturdays to teach at a neighbouring school for disadvantaged children. In college, she spent time with an NGO working for women in mental trauma. She entered an international competition and her entry, based on the work she had done, got selected. At the age of 19, she had the distinction of being published in the leading medical journal of the world. She coordinated the women’s development cell of her college and got interested in pursuing a course in development studies. She applied to two prominent British universities well known for their development studies course, and a leading Indian institute that began a course in development studies this year. The British universities gave her admission. But her parents, neither rich nor in politics, could not afford the fees. The Indian institute said “No” to her. Disheartened, she entered another stream. India has lost a caring individual who wanted to learn and work in the field of development.

Where do we go from here? Are we going to let talent waste like this? Are we going to let our politicians lead us this way?

Wake up India! Let us not do this to our best talent, to our most creative youngsters. Let us not kill hopes, but nurture them. Let us set up more quality institutes of higher learning. Though there are many fly by night institutes proclaiming to teach mass communications and charging exorbitant fees, why is it that we have only a couple of quality institutes? And what logic is there for reserving seats in courses that build on creativity? Can creativity ever be reserved?

Isn’t it ironical that 60 years after Independence we continue to look West to deliver our people from poverty and want? What kind of education policies do we have that we have not been able to set up departments of development studies in all our universities? Why are there only one or two institutes offering a postgraduate course in development studies with almost 50 per cent of the seats being reserved?
India needs to assiduously build its pool of talent. It needs to nurture its young socially committed youngsters. And it needs to do so very badly.

The article first appeared in the Indian Express.

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