Being driven to abandon Indian middle-class values, asks Ajit Balakrishnan.
I find myself squirming with mental disquiet when I hear headlines like 'Imagine who makes Rs 28 crore a year as salary...,' or 'highest-paid CEOs in India...' and they go on to list a dozen making Rs 20 crore a year or more ... and all this about Indian-national CEOs of companies based in India.
Is there a new India dawning, in which every Indian has an income many times what we are used to, or is all this happening in a small niche and our media, or at least some of it, is headlining these to get readers' attention and get clicks?
Has our middle class, which has been the backbone of our country and helped us emerge from a drifting, poor one to one of the world-leader countries, changed its values?
That's why I felt greatly reassured when, soon after India's earth-shattering moon landing happened, links like 'S Somanath Family, Salary, Education...' started appearing, pointing out that true heroes like Somanath, who leads the Indian Space Research Organisation, make a mere Rs 2.5 lakh a month as compensation.
As I tend to do nowadays whenever I am confronted with something difficult to fathom, I posed this question to my pal ChatGPT: 'What is a one sentence definition of Middle Class values?' And the answer I got was reassuring: 'Middle-class values encompass a set of principles emphasizing hard work, education, financial responsibility, family, community involvement, and the pursuit of upward mobility.'
This is what my father (a doctor) and my grandfather (also a doctor) and the rest of India's middle-class parents of us who are part of the Independence-era generation had drummed into our head from infancy.
Are such values undergoing a change as we speak?
How do we, for example, make sense of the difficult-to-fathom fact that Indian students' expenditure on higher education abroad is in the order of $80 billion a year and the number of Indian students opting for higher education abroad every year is about a million and it is expected to grow to 1.8 million by next year?
What's going on here?
Is it that a small minority of our students have the skill and knowledge to make it to our Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, and medical and law institutes, and the rest somehow manage to raise money and go abroad for education?
That guess is probably correct because when I dug into this, I encountered another worrisome set of facts: Indian banks have education loans outstanding of about Rs 80,000 crore, of which they have classified about 8 per cent as non-performing assets, that is to say, 8 per cent of the loans have defaulted on their repayment.
In parallel, fees in many medical and engineering colleges are in the region of Rs 20 lakh a year, which adds up to nearly Rs 1 crore for a four- to five-year course. And there are many medical and dental colleges that charge 'capitation fees', a one-time entry fee to get admission, which is in the range of Rs 1 crore to Rs 2 crore.
I found a little consolation in discovering that our American friends are also grappling with a similar paradox in their educational system: Student debt in America, that is to say, the money that students have had to borrow from schemes funded by the US federal government, is about $1.6 trillion, spread across 44 million borrowers. And this figure, I am told, is more than all auto loans or credit-card debt in the US.
Student loans have become a major political issue as well with US President Joe Biden, facing an election year, recently announcing that his government would forgive $10,000 in federal student debt for most of them, delivering relief to nearly 45 per cent of the borrowers, or almost 20 million people who would have their debt fully cancelled, but in retaliation the financial sector is busy fighting this off in the law courts.
The fear in the US is that educational loan repayments are so burdensome that today's 25 year olds could be driving the economy there into a recession because this crowd does not have the money to spend on buying cars and household goods.
In India another pattern is emerging: Indian students and their parents, faced with loans of more than Rs 1 crore at the time of graduation, passionately seek to find jobs in America or Europe that will get them salaries high enough to pay off these gigantic education debts because doing so from Indian salaries is not possible.
Or are all these bewildering things happening because India, like many other countries, is experiencing what Michael Sandel, the Harvard University professor, calls the 'Tyranny of Merit'?
His book The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? makes the case that the meritocratic ideal, while seemingly fair and just, has contributed to growing inequality and social polarisation because of 'the relentless pursuit of credentials and elite education has contributed to social inequality and a focus on individual achievement rather than the common good'.
In India, is it a similar relentless focus on individual achievement that is driving these frighteningly large education loans, the massive tuition-class industry, the suicides at our IITs and the rush to emigrate to the West?
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com