Saturday, 18 February 2012

Conversations with guides

For someone who works in the education sector in India, I rarely get the chance to meet young people with recent or current experience of education. While I was in Cherrapunjee, though, I met two: Kupar, my guide on the first day, and Lapinbya, who took over for the (considerably less strenuous, thank you very much) second day. My conversations with them - in some ways quite similar, in others very different - threw some light on life for young people in India, and particularly in the North East.

Both are relatively fortunate. The fact that they can speak English well enough to act as a guide for foreign tourists immediately places them in an advantaged position vis-a-vis their peers. In fact, Kupar told me that when tradespeople find out he is a guide, they sometimes put their prices up - something which took me by surprise, since I'd assumed that was something that happened to foreigners but not to locals. Both were of small stature, friendly, intelligent and curious to know about my life and what had brought me to India.

Kupar had dropped out of school just before 12th grade, when his mother passed away. His father works away in Bangladesh and can only come back rarely. "I am alone here," he said, but saying one is alone in Cherrapunjee is not quite like saying one is alone in, say, London. Kupar was evidently on first name terms with pretty much everyone we passed on the way. Anyway, he said he enjoyed the freedom of living alone, but I wasn't entirely convinced.

I asked him what he wanted to do later on in life. "Be a guide," as his initial answer - and it's a good job: relatively well paid, out in the fresh air, meeting people and keeping fit into the bargain. But a bit later on, he confessed that in five years' time or so he would want to think about something else. What, I asked, but couldn't get a clear answer. He said he would probably finish school, but at the moment there seems to be little incentive for him to do so. I suggested that as the tourist industry took off there would be a lot of opportunities for someone who could speak English and was experienced in dealing with foreigners, but he pointed out (rightly) that they would mostly be in Guwahati or Shillong. In the villages, choices are unlikely to expand much.

Lapinbya was different. From a large family, she was about to complete a Bachelors' of Business Administration. She was fashionably dressed and I got the feeling that she would have preferred to be in the big city than up in the hills of Meghalaya, but her whole family was here. When I asked what she wanted to do after her degree, her answer was "do an MBA". Beyond that? Possibly something in finance. What was unspoken, of course, was the fact that for young people in North East India, even with a degree, jobs are scarce.

I'd just been at a conference in Guwahati discussing skills development for the North East and was taken aback by how many people assumed that skilled people would simply leave the region. Some astonishing figures were thrown around: 14 million people would emigrate in the next ten years, according to some - from a region with a population of less than 40 million. I'm not against skilled migration, but it seems to me impossible that the region could sustain that level of emigration without some serious social consequences. Yet the alternative - skill development aligned to job creation in the region - seemed to get little attention.

Lapinbya's frustrations with the limited opportunities open to her were clear: "I wish I hadn't been born here," she told me, quite frankly. And there is more holding her back: a sense that North Easterners have become associated in Indian minds with particular job roles, particularly in personal care and other service sectors, to such an extent that it is difficult for them to get other types of work even if they do migrate. Again, this chimed with what I heard at the conference, where speakers reflected on the "natural orientations" of the people of the region as being towards service. I couldn't help but feel that a culture of openness and friendliness was rather being hijacked by a culture where it's difficult to get people to do service roles.

Indeed, the difficult relationship between the North East and the rest of India ran strong under my conversation with Lapinbya. She spoke of "Indians" very much as people different from her, saying that Indian tourists always made it half way down to the root bridge and then went back, skipping the climb but missing the amazing sight at the bottom of the slope (and indeed, an Indian couple we overtook on the way down did just this). Yet she also resented them for not recognising her as Indian ("whenever I go to Kolkata they say 'Chinese! Chinese!'"). This is an ongoing difficulty for those from the North East: proudly and recognisably different, yet for the most part (the ongoing separatists operating in various North Eastern states aside) wanting inclusion within India on their own terms.

But for young people in particular, life on one's own terms is a pretty hard task in this part of the world. What you can do for a living and where you can do it are in principle for you to decide, but in practice people are constrained by multiple factors - even when, like Kupar and Lapinbya, they are relatively lucky. My conversations with them made me realise how much potential still goes undeveloped in today's India, and hopeful that I can play even a tiny role towards releasing more of it.


carvaka said...

i was just thinking why you don't mention our education system , despite being involved .

i would like to hear what you think as an outsider and what program you are involved in.

i have been educated in some of india's best institutions and very recently i was teaching in a mediocre college for one year. so i have some experience in both end of the spectrum of the education system. and it left me very pessimistic.

the elite schools and colleges are reasonably ok. in the highest level we have some excellent institutes. but most of the primary education system is even beyond pathetic.

and no fundamental reform seems to be in the offing.

primary education is the most important deciding factor in the future of india and signs there are quite depressing.

Chris said...

I've actually deliberately avoided commenting too much on education issues on this blog, because I'd like it to stay focused on my personal experiences of India rather than my work life. I deal a lot with stakeholders in the education system and it's a lot simpler if I avoid contentious areas on this blog - means I am less likely to upset anyone professionally!

I have, however, recently started blogging on my work website too - if you send me your email address I can send you the link to that. My area of focus is vocational education and skills rather than primary, though.

carvaka said...

i understand.

how do i send you my email?
shall i post it here?

Chris said...

Drop me an email -