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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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"The Right to Education in the Third Millenium"

Address by Mr. I.K. Gujral at the opening ceremony of the 70th General Assembly of World University Service at Sharjah (UAE) at 0930 hrs on saturday the 12th december, 1998

EXCELLENCIES,

LADIES & GENTLEMEN,

I am grateful to the World University Service and His Majesty, the Ruler of Sharjah for providing me the opportunity to address this distinguished audience here this morning. I must say to the credit of the World University Service that they have come out zealously in defence of academic freedom and autonomy of the institutions of higher education. The Declaration at Lima and Delhi stand out as milestones in the long journey that academic institutions must cover to cope with the challenges of the coming century. Maintaining the autonomy and independence of intellectual pursuits are essential if the academic community is to seriously make its contribution in the next century.

We meet here as another year draws to a close, with only one more remaining between us and the new millennium. This should have been a time of anticipation and excitement, as the world awaited the dawn of a new age, replete with fresh hopes and promises. Instead, a sense of foreboding and menace lingers in the air, pregnant with unspoken dangers. Sometime the world seems to me like a train, rushing into the dark night, hurtling towards some unseen disaster. What is the reason for this sombre mood? I do not think there is a single cause. The serious socio economic crises afflicting Asia and many other developing countries has contributed much to the prevailing sense of despair and to the fading dream of an enlightened and progressive world order.

For this all of us assembled here, policy makers and educationists alike, have only ourselves to blame. Fifty years ago this year, the General Assembly of the United Nations had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration, it may be recalled, had proclaimed education to be a fundamental human right, a goal that was reaffirmed most recently in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989. The unfortunate fact is that even fifty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and despite all the subsequent reaffirmations by the international community, the goal of Education for All has remained a distant and elusive mirage.

A few days ago, UNICEF released its report on the State of the World Children. This report underscores the distance that we still have to cover in arriving at the goal of universal education. The report pointedly tells us that "nearly a billion people will enter the 21st Century unable to read a book or sign their names - much less operate a computer or understand a simple application form. And they will live even in a more severe poverty and poorer health. They are the worlds functional illiterates and their number is growing".

I am aware that the World University Service Association addresses itself to the goals of higher education, but to move ahead on this front is not possible until more attention is paid to the prevailing high rates of illiteracy and drop outs from the primary education system. UNICEF’s report highlights this problem, pointing out how in developing countries, 130 million children of primary school going age, including 73 million girls, are growing up without access to basic education. Another 150 million children start school but do not complete even Grade V. Many millions more languish in substandard teaching institutions where little real learning takes place. The UNICEF’s recommendation is that an Education Revolution is absolutely essential, a revolution that would have five key elements - learning for life; access, quality and stability; gender sensitivity and girls education; the State as key partner and care for the young child.

Education has correctly been identified as one of the most effective and useful tools for social transformation. It has proven its utility as the most effective means of policy intervention towards ending child labour and in reducing discrimination against girls and women. Moreover, the education of girls is the single most important factor in providing education to all children, or as they say in India, "educate a boy and you educate a person; educate a girl and you educate a whole family." Conversely, the denial of education weakens society as a whole for it leads to socially dysfunctional people. UNICEF’s report at more than one point stresses that "children who grow up without basic education not only find it harder to sustain themselves and their families but also to make their way as adults in society in a spirit of tolerance, understanding and equality."

It is ofcourse important to provide basic education but the quality of education has also to be emphasized a great deal. I am personally conscious of several hundred schools in my own country where children attend but they do not learn much by the time they finish primary education. Sometimes they complete school without even becoming literate. It has been estimated that in India, 110 million children are outside the purview of the school system and of these 40 million had never ever been enrolled. To make any sort of dent on a problem of this magnitude requires political commitment at the highest levels with matching allocation of funds, and I do not think that the State should grudge according priority to this. The utility of education as a vehicle for social change has been affirmed time and time again. The recent Human Development Report on South Asia, for example, notes how the States where illiteracy has been overcome are able to undertake tremendous social progress, even solving problems of excessive demographic growth.

The unfortunate fact is that few Third World elites have really felt the need to develop the latent skills and talents of their people. It is embarrassing for me to confess that in my own country, India, after five decades of planned development, literacy levels have shown some increase, doubling over the years 1961-1991, but even so half the population is still illiterate, and less than half the children finish schooling. This wide spread illiteracy and lack of educational avenues represents a colossal waste of a nation’s most precious resources. But instead of addressing this, instead of the unglamorous, painstaking but ultimately far more rewarding task of teaching, training and educating people, the policy making elites end up merely chasing the empty symbols of power, forgetting about the true substance of power, which springs from the soul of the human being.

Faulty theory and inadequate understanding is itself responsible for this malaise. In many developing countries, India included, there was a long held misconception that equated steel mills with economic development. On the premise for over three decades, huge resources were funnelled into creating a steel industry, even as the task of building human beings was forsaken and forgotten. Today it is acknowledged that these very same mills, far from being the potent symbols of economic virlity that they were made out to be, are really capital intensive, employment unfriendly, environmentally hazardous and financially unviable extravaganzas. But instead of coming back to the basics, the elites are once again busy chasing new symbols of power, nuclear power being the more current rage. Tomorrow the mania for nuclear power will probably go the same way as the steel mills of the past. Meanwhile, the human being who is the well, the source and the ever abundant spring of all achievement and greatness is neglected, as policy makers run after the maya, the false illusion of power and achievement.

I have emphasized the overriding power of knowledge and education in building a great society, but it comes with one important caveat. For imparting learning is one thing, imparting the right spirit of learning is quite another. It is not that all educated and enlightened people are saints, selflessly contributing to social betterment. The contrary has often proven true when otherwise well educated people have been guilty of many ghastly sins and horrors. A particularly gruesome example is provided by the notorious Cambodian leader Pol Pot who while alive presided over the worst every genocide known in human history. Pol Pot, together with a number of other leading luminaries the Cambodian Communist Party of his time were all highly educated people, most of whom had received their education in the French Universities in the mid Nineteen Sixties. Pol Pot himself had earned a Doctorate in Economics from that most illustrious centre of learning, the Sorbonne.

As this unfortunate example would indicate, there is a wrong kind of a wrong spirit of learning, which is rooted in human conceit and which leads man up the garden path of pride and arrogance, scorn, contempt and hatred towards others, ending up eventually in disaster. This is of course the half learning of the demagogue, the racist, the communalist. True learning, by contrast, is rooted in justice and reason. It fosters a spirit of inquiry, humility and equal respect for all living creatures. It is this learning which frees the human spirit to soar and to adventure forth, exploring ever new frontiers of achievement, ideas and creativity. Indeed if there is one essential feature of this true learning, I would say that it is humility, the humility that comes from appreciating the greatness of Nature and the insignificance of Man himself in the vast playground of His Creation. Humility is the true face, the hallmark of wisdom.

The challenges before the Third World are many, and if we are to succeed in transforming our societies, inculcating the right spirit of education and learning is central to it all, a spirit which was described by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in these words:

"A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for Truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If the Universities discharge their responsibilities adequately then it is well with the nation and the people. But if the temple of learning itself becomes the home of bigotry and petty objectives, how then will the nation prosper or the people grow in stature".

EXCELLENCIES

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

We in Asia have inherited a glorious tradition of learning, of great scientific and technical achievements. The Arabs, like the Indians before them, produced a splendid stream of learning that can be seen even today in the renowned centres of learning from Cairo to Constantinpole right upto Cordoba and beyond. The unfortunate fact is that we citizens of the Third World have failed to match the scientific temperament that our very own forefathers were blessed with. Some 2500 years ago the great Indian sage, Gautama Buddha, had enjoined upon his followers not to accept or believe anything, not even the word of the Buddha himself, unless they had verified the hypothesis in question by trial and experiment. When I contrast this spirit with the dead weight of conformity, superstition and blind belief that disfigures India even today I wonder what crucial element in our character we have lost and how do we regain it.

How does the Third World begin to redeem its future? There is no doubt that we will have to lay great stress on the individual and his development, an approach in which education and educationists would have to play a central role. A myth has long been propagated, a myth that has been blindly accepted in the relevant academic circles, to the effect that economic development is all about statistical measures such as GDP, income and consumption levels, stock market indices, public finances and the like. The reality as I think I have been able to communicate here today is that economic development is all about the growth and the development of the human being, both as an individual and as a social creature. It is high time that due focus is brought to bear on this reality.

Fortunately, the concept of human development has recently entered the literature of economics and I am indeed proud that eminent economists from the subcontinent - I am referring to the late Dr. Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan and of course our very own Noble Laureate Professor Amartya Sen who have done so much to popularize and propagate this concept. The elements of this approach are well known. To further human development, Governments have the responsibility to ensure the Rule of Law is maintained and upheld through an efficient honest and predictable administration that fully respects the rights and privileges of every individual, having particular regard for the weaker sections of society. Human development also implies that Government must ensure basic civic services and facilities such as healthcare, education, vocational training and the like. These areas must be the focus of concerted public action and intervention in the years ahead.

Openness and transparency are other attributes that we should encourage. The human mind can never grow in a world that is closed or fragmented by the narrow walls of nationalism. The outside world acts as a mirror in which all our faults stand exposed, allowing us to better appreciate our own inherent strengths and rectify our weaknesses. Every great society has been an open, cosmopolitan society, ever receptive to the winds of change and new ideas. Those who urge closed borders on the grounds of economic expediency or on swadeshi philosophy are merely exhibiting their utter ignorance of the standing lessons of history and economics, an ignorance which would be laughable but for the huge damage it can potentially cause.

International trade and commerce serve not only as instruments of economic efficiency but are also powerful vehicles for the dissemination of new ideas, technologies and best managerial practises and there is no good reason why developing countries should deny themselves the benefits of an open economy. The UNDP’S Human Development Reports have emphasized how globalization assists in poverty reduction if it is carried out with due caution and fairness. Globalization is in idea we should not resist, rather we should strengthen ourselves to be able to meet and successfully overcome the challenges it poses.

EXCELLENCIES

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

In conclusion let me reiterate that the lessons served on us both by history and economics are clear : those who control knowledge and technology will be the masters of the world, while those who ignore this aspect of human development risk losing themselves in the bylanes and dead ends of history. It was the great misfortune of the developing world that the intellectual impulses that fostered the first Industrial revolution passed them by, consigning them for the next three hundred years or so to marginalization and irrelevance. The goal of rejoining or reducing the distance between the Third World and First worlds will remain just a dream unless the developing world is able to equip itself to participate in the ongoing revolutions of Informatics and Microelectronics. For this, their huge human and intellectual resources that have so far remained dormant and suppressed under the weight of oppressive social and political structures, must somehow find release. The challenge before Third world societies is in many respects quite straightforward - it is to develop, through education and training and character building, their own abundant human and intellectual resources. It is on this path that education and educationists will have to show the way.

Thank You

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Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles