When the BRIC hypothesis was proposed in 2003, it was met with equal shares of celebration and scepticism. However, what has happened since then has only served to strengthen the argument that Brazil, Russia, India and China - the BRIC countries - will emerge as the leading economies.
China and India have grown faster than most predictions; on the other hand, the G7 nations remain mired in slow growth, high unemployment and large budget deficits - a trend made worse by the recent financial crisis. In purchasing power parity terms, China and India are already the world's second and fourth largest economies, respectively.
Among the world's economists, policymakers and business heads, there is now a widespread belief that a change of guard in the global economic order is inevitable, perhaps even imminent. Over the next couple of decades, the 20th century giants - the United States, Europe and Japan - will lose ground to a few emerging nations led by China and India. Of course, beliefs alone do not make history: a sooner-than-anticipated peak in oil production, a war in any of the geopolitical hotspots, or any other such improbable event might completely alter the global balance.
It is not such improbables that worry me though, it is the probables: the two make-orbreak factors that will decide whether or not India lives out this promise. The first is social: whether (or not) we move towards a more just and equitable society. History tells us that economic growth without social development is rarely sustained. The second is environmental: whether (or not) we are able to reverse the ecological damage, and manage the effects of global warming. The ecological limits to human growth might constrain us sooner than we imagine.
For both factors, the initial steps will be through specific government interventions. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are already attempting to improve access to livelihood, nutrition, health care, education and other public infrastructure. Some work has been done to strengthen environment protection laws, and to promote low-footprint technologies. We need to build community awareness on the need to preserve and nurture natural environments. And the five-year plans need to chalk out responses to the effects of global warming, such as erratic monsoons, rising coastlines and depletion of fresh water sources.
But, given the sheer size and complexity of our country, I believe that significant shifts in social and environmental consciousness cannot happen only through government schemes. They will only occur when a majority of Indians are empowered to create lifeopportunities for themselves, and are able to see the complex web that interconnects each one to the other, and to the larger ecosystem.
For a million schools to change, government and civil society organisations will have to come together in active partnership
This is why I am concerned about the state of schools - because, in a democratic society, there is only one way of empowering everyone, only one way of developing a certain ethical consciousness; and that is education. To understand where we stand, perhaps there is no statistic more telling than this: for every five children who enrol in school today, only one will complete ten years of schooling. To be fair, the government has made earnest efforts to improve access - today, 97 per cent of villages have a primary school close by.
This is a commendable and remarkable achievement. At last count, India had well over a million schools, with a primary school in almost every nook and corner. Not only is it the world's largest education system, it is also by far the most complex, given the sheer variety of India's languages and cultures. The problem is that of quality. If you were to talk to educationists and non-governmental organisations, you will hear one refrain - that the quality of teaching is abysmal. You will hear that schools function ineffectively, inefficiently, and at times do not function at all. While most children enrol in school, they learn very little through the years. Is it any surprise that most drop out over time?
There are many reasons for this. To list just a few: poor quality of teacher education, insufficient teachers, poor understanding of educational aims and how children learn, systemic and social pressures on schools, inadequate academic support for schools, and archaic administrative methods.
Setting right the quality issue will take an enormous effort. Each school is a complex social system with a unique legacy of intent, ability and understanding. While some elements of change can be driven systemically - reforming teacher education or developing better curricula - some can be done only contextually and collaboratively with each school.
The government works in broad brushstrokes - its schemes and programmes are evolved centrally, and often are an attempt to find a common solution to what are actually diverse problems. Which is why I strongly believe that, for a million schools to change, government and civil society organisations will have to come together in an active partnership.
The Lok Jumbish programme in Rajasthan, where the government (with resources and reach) and civil society organisations (with context and rigour) came together, is an example.
Societies and systems change when there is a critical mass of congruent desire. The government has made significant improvements in hard infrastructure, and is focusing on issues of quality. There is a greater civil society action in education than ever before. There was a time when I felt that I might not see a quality revolution in my lifetime. But now I believe that change is imminent; that in the next ten years, our million schools will reach a much higher level of performance.
I believe it is possible to have a society where human beings live in dignity, peace and with a sense of well-being. India can be an economic superstar but that is meaningless unless we also become a far more just, equitable, humane and sustainable society. The key to this rests in the state of our million schools - that is the barometer of India's future.