English gives Indians an edge in global market, but disparities are stark

Education may be holding India back from emulating China's economic trajectory, with India producing far fewer skilled workers than China, Winston Mok, an investor, wrote in an article for the SCMP

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Education may be holding India back from emulating China's economic trajectory, with India producing far fewer skilled workers than China, Winston Mok, a private investor, wrote in an article for the South China Morning Post.

Mok said among 112 non-English speaking countries, India and China are ranked side by side (48 and 49, respectively) in the EF English Proficiency Index.

"English remains an official language of India and is often seen as an advantage among employers, particularly in global commerce. However, its use is largely restricted to elite circles. A mere 10.6 per cent of Indians speak English, and only 0.02 per cent count it as their first language", Mok said.

Mok argued that while India can learn from China's success in education, China still has strides to make in critical thinking and allowing a diversity of ideas.

While China's working-age population has been declining for a decade, India's growing population - which is set to surpass China's next year - is young; more than half of Indians are below 30. Meanwhile, on both sides of the Atlantic are high-profile business and political leaders of Indian origin. In particular, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have produced a strong pipeline of talent for Silicon Valley, the article said.

Yet while Indians at the top of the pyramid are thriving, it is not the case all round. In August, India's overall urban unemployment rate was 9.6 per cent. The situation is much starker among young people (more than 25 per cent were recorded as unemployed in the second quarter of 2021) and graduates (almost 18 per cent early this year), and is particularly acute among women.

Husain Haqqani and Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute wrote in an article for The Hill, "But, by and large, Western hopes of a modern, fast-growing, prosperous and free market-oriented India have not been realized at the pace predicted by some in the first few years of the 21st century. India's current rate of economic growth is woefully inadequate for India's domestic goals as well as the objective of becoming a serious rival to global economic juggernaut, China. The latter makes India's economic policies a strategic concern for U.S. policymakers".

Husain Haqqani is director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute. He served as Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011.

The U.S. has, for years, hoped to assist India's rise as a way of checking China's growing power. But even though India is the world's fastest growing major economy, its economic policies continue to disappoint American, European and Japanese officials and investors, the article said.

From the perspective of the U.S. and India's Western partners, it is a matter of unrealized expectations. India cannot catch up with China without overcoming the large gap in the relative size of their economies. China currently has a nominal GDP of $17.7 trillion while India's GDP stands at only $3.1 trillion. On the other hand, India is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous country in 2023, raising its domestic challenges of providing food, education and employment for an expanding young population, the article said.

One academic has called the recent trend "the beginning of the end" of India's global technical competence. Academics believe that local-language technical education creates dissonance with global demand and that those students graduating from vernacular medium higher education institutes may struggle to find jobs, Rest of World reported in a February article.

The argument in favour of higher education in native languages also overlooks that without the widespread adoption of English, India wouldn't have been able to compete globally the way it has over the last two decades, the report said.

India's success as a software exporter and the rise of the country's IT industry in the 2000s is widely attributed to the English advantage, which created an outsourcing industry worth over $ 190 billion. Because of these perceived advantages of English-based education, several elite higher education institutes, including the premier IITs - the alma mater of several Indian-American CEOs - have vehemently opposed the introduction of degrees in regional languages, instead, they say that they would offer more support for students to navigate the English language barrier, Rest of World reported.

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