"If you want to compete in the world today, English is a must. That's why I have taken initiative to ensure that our children study through English medium," said Jagan Mohan Reddy on Monday, defending his government’s decision to make English the medium of education in state-run schools.
While this announcement has started an intense controversy — and is expected to gather more steam in the coming days — it’s important to look at the move primarily from a utilitarian view. Will the decision to foster education in English aid economic growth in the long run?
If considered closely, the detractors of the move ostensibly seem to speak from a regionalist point of view. For them, it’s a form of cultural colonialism that stands to threaten regional identity.
Thanks to a strong grounding for Dravidian politics in the south, regionalism has always been a distinctive feature of the region. Therefore, the row over the government’s proposition is not surprising. Having said that, the same regionalist force that opposes English today has in the past provided fertile soil for the language to flourish, which in turn, aided the region’s economic prosperity — let’s see how.
Almost all studies of the glaring economic-divergence between India’s northern and southern states have taken cognisance of the fact that the south was much poorer than the north in the initial two decades following India’s independence. Using conventional approaches and formal parameters, these studies have made significant attempts to explain the south’s miraculous strides towards higher growth rates that placed the region ahead of the rest of the country in various socio-economic indicators. However, as in any other divergence story, several informal and cultural factors appear to have also played a catalysing role in the south’s growth.
Among these informal factors, the awakening and the empowerment of the regionalist forces in the south became a blessing in disguise that aided the region’s growth. This is not to say that regionalist beliefs are positively associated with growth because that’s certainly not an equation that can be generalised.
It rather calls for a further introspection to figure out the possible ways through which regionalism could have influenced growth. One such significant channel through which regionalism propelled growth is by promoting English education. In other words, it was a strong regionalist movement in the south that paved the way for English education in the past.
To establish the relevance of such an argument, it is important to understand the root cause of regionalism’s rise in the south. Southern regionalism is based largely on a strong anti-Hindi sentiment. The history of anti-Hindi agitation in the south predates India’s Independence. A series of violent anti-Hindi demonstrations that were launched in 1937 against the Congress’ attempt to make Hindi a compulsory language subject in the schools under the Madras Presidency had laid the foundations of the strong regionalist sentiment that lasts to this day.
The south’s opposition to Hindi accelerated in the post-Independence era forcing the Nehru government to enact the Official Languages Act in 1963, thereby ensuring the continued use of English as India’s official language along with Hindi. Thus with Hindi and English being deemed as India’s two official languages and the south’s resistance to the former allowed the English language to flourish in the region. In other words, English eventually became the south’s official language.
A vast amount of academic literature exists on the role of English language skills in determining growth. These studies indicate that regions which constitute a larger proportion of populace with English speaking skills are likely to grow at a faster rate. Further, higher proficiency levels in the English language unleashes entrepreneurial activity by empowering businesses to expand beyond geographical boundaries.
A 2013 study titled, The Returns to English-Language Skills in India, published in a University of Chicago’s journal, finds that on average the hourly wages for men who speak fluent English is 34 percent higher, and for those that speak little English is 13 percent higher than men who have no command over the language. Hence, the argument that is presented here is motivated by a strong theoretical base.
In all, regionalism appears to have influenced the south’s growth by developing an English-speaking culture that was conducive for growth. Finally, when India liberalised its economy in the 1990s, such a culture ensured that the south was at a better position to reap the benefits of an era that saw a spectacular rise of India’s entrepreneurial class. A prevailing English speaking culture in the region also meant the south was better prepared to ride the IT sector boom of the nineties, which it did. As IT companies marched in to set up offices in India, the south became the preferred option, with Bangalore being crowned as India's Silicon Valley.
On the other hand, several studies have noted that the north has treated English with contempt, branding it as a videshi (foreign) import that threatens national identity. Such cultural attitudes towards English proved costly for the north in the post-reforms era. The opposition to the global language was indeed staunch, inasmuch that such policies were implemented that prohibited the use of English in state and local governments.
Even when India was at the cusp of economic liberalisation, massive anti-English movements like the Angrezi Hatao Andolan (‘Oust English Movement') reiterated the northern resentment towards English. The then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s words capture the intensity of this rage: “The English language is the biggest curse on this country and the state... If I could do it, I would burn this language altogether."
Such a classified analysis also explains partly the reason behind southern states ruling the charts when it comes to population control, healthcare, literacy and other socio-economic indicators. In essence, exposure to English education in the south was able to create, in TB Macaulay’s famous words, "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect".
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Updated Date: Nov 15, 2019 15:51:11 IST