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Not easy to get filthy rich in India

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PUNE, India -- In a new novel called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid uses the format of a self-help book to narrate one man's life. The first chapter advises "move to a city," the second, "get an education".

Getting a good education is the No. 1 concern of parents here. While free universal education (ages six to 14) is the law throughout India, the education provided by state schools in the state language is often so poor parents who can afford the fees send their kids to private schools (called public schools, as they are in Britain).

In cities, an estimated 50 per cent of students attend private schools; in rural areas, 27 per cent. So moving to a city is not bad advice if you want to get a better education and become even moderately rich.

And while Hamid has not said "get an education in English," that is what private schools provide. A recent study shows those who speak English earn about 30 per cent more.

But what about the students who can't afford private schools? These children must attend school in their state language for at least eight years. Keep in mind two thirds of India's population is still rural, so this is a big chunk of the majority of children.

To level the field just a little, rural students are allowed to sit a special exam in Grade 5. If they do very, very well on that exam, they are eligible to attend an English medium school for top students, funded by the government.

The central government funds 593 such schools, including boarding fees, and one third of the placements are reserved for girls. In the latest intake, 1.6 million students sat the exam for 47,440 places. In other words, no matter how hard they studied or how well they did on the exam, only about three per cent could succeed. It is like a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

I visited Grade 11 and 12 students in one of these schools a few weeks ago. The students I met had been filtered once again for special tutoring, so they have a chance of passing yet another exam to enter an Indian Institute of Technology. (IIT's are considered India's best institutions for training engineers.)

I travelled from Pune with staff from the non-profit group that provides the extra tutoring. They had come to monitor progress, hear complaints and offer support. One young man in our group had come through the same system himself, graduated from an IIT in computer engineering, and landed a job with Bosch.

We met the students in their classrooms, for though it was a school holiday for everyone else, those fortunate enough to receive extra tutoring had to keep plugging away. They have classes six days a week and in the final two years are allowed no holidays at home.

In both classes, students sat in lecture theatres, at tables for two, surrounded by worksheets and fat books of test questions. In each class, a single tutor stood at the front but cheerfully vacated when our contingent arrived. The Grade 11 class had 75 students, the Grade 12, 50.

The 21-year-old, who had come through the same system and worked for Bosch, gave both classes a pep talk, like a football coach before an important game. "How many of you will go to IIT's?" he kept asking, until everyone raised a hand.

In fact, from the experience of previous graduates, more than half the students who receive tutoring will get into an IIT on their first go, which is an outstanding record. The rest will either try again or register in a less prestigious institution.

But wherever they go to university, since they are from poor families, they will need to take out loans, and the rate of interest is 14 per cent at the moment. Then, after four years study, they will once again compete for jobs -- their very first jobs -- since the intensive study required for admission has never allowed them time to work even part time.

There might be other ways to start from nothing and get filthy rich in rising Asia (like Moshin Hamid's hero who starts bottling water), but you can be sure some are fraught with danger and none of them are easy.


Winnipeg writer Faith Johnston lives in Pune, India, during winter months with her India-born husband.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2014 A9

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