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Nick The Elitists

Technology can be a great leveller. Pre-defined text and video content can be generated using AI, ML based authoring tools. Virtual Reality can aid design, 3D modelling, editing, transformation, and testing in virtual environments

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The Prime Minister, last year in June, announced that, fourteen engineering colleges in India, have started technical courses in five regional languages and hoped they will particularly help the marginalised sections of the society.The Union Home and Cooperation Minister Amit Shah recently reiterated the need to teach professional courses like Medicine, Engineering and Law in local languages and called it a moment of “renaissance and reconstruction” for the education sector. Is this a good idea? 

Eons back, Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher said, “The only constant in life is change.” That said, change in Society can be brought about in two ways. One, to plan to the last detail and then implement. The second is to drive ‘change’ by ‘change’. While the first takes long to realise and may even falter and fail, the second reaps dividends in the shortest time, if the intentions are noble. The government’s intent to drive ‘change’ by ‘change’ is obvious. That it termed it “renaissance and reconstruction” shows seriousness of intent. One suspects the intent is also to democratise and remove education from the elitist clutches. Will this change be reformative? 

Ancient studies were essentially conducted in Sanskrit. Vedas, Vedangas, Samhitas. Puranas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads are all rooted in Sanskrit literature. As English now, Sanskrit then, was seen as the language of the elite. There must have been several other languages then as well, as there are now. Education in Sanskrit or others must have been debated even then. That realisation must have promoted education in other languages too. We would not have had as exalted development of religion and culture, if it were not so.   

Unfortunately, 300 years of Mughal rule killed Sanskrit and its variants. 200 years of British rule later, promoted English as a medium of instruction. The dominance of English language snowed the Indian belief system much under its own pedagogy. This was buttressed by the infallible argument of the British that leaves all other languages indefensible. To qualify English, the British, perhaps had just one argument, “English puts every other language at an equal disadvantage” While it sends the jury into a tizzy, the affairs of the world carry on. We continue thinking in our native language and paraphrasing in English. Surely, Thomas Macaulay, and his argument that Western learning was superior, and could only be taught through the medium of English was both positively arrogant and misplaced.  

India is predominantly rural with more than 6 lakh villages, each needing an urban setting of public services and facilities, currently provided by the government. We are short of doctors, nurses and hospital beds as the pandemic showed. A research of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center reminds us that compared to the world average of 150 doctors per 100,000 people, we only have 86 doctors registered for practice. Those who practice in the villages are even lower. A Primary Health Centre (PHC) sanctioned for a rural area needs at least one doctor to be functional. For the 33 of the 36 regions, more than 8500 posts are vacant.  Rural settings need a massive makeover in infrastructure and facilities. The dichotomy is that a 5+ trillion-dollar economy cannot be realised by urban participation alone while we expect the rural population to ape the urban ways. 

Rural folk cannot be expected to learn in urban centres and return back to roots. Migration can be halted only when education comes in languages, they understand and familiar to their settings. That is true whether for engineering, medicine, law or any other.  

Yes, there are operational difficulties. For one, availability of books is poor and technical literature is predominantly English. Besides, current teachers are educated in English. What can be done? Books can be translated. Often the argument is, are there equivalent words? Since language is only a medium, why can’t we use a hybrid mixing of Hindi or any other and English within conversations, individual sentences and even words? Are we not doing it today? Technology too can help in translations. Natural language processing (NLP), a branch of artificial intelligence, focuses on helping computers to understand the way the humans write and speak. Though this is a difficult task as it involves a lot of unstructured data, it has been successfully used to translate from Indian languages. One other argument is that it will promote ghettoisation. But then, will new jobs not accrue? 

Technology can be a great leveller. Pre-defined text and video content can be generated using AI, ML based authoring tools. Virtual Reality can aid design, 3D modelling, editing, transformation, and testing in virtual environments. It is a universal tool to display objects, processes, locations, and historical events, with no language barriers. A big part of investments in VR education is directed towards training medical students and personnel while simulations prepare doctors and nurses, practice different clinical cases and improve skills. VR helps study complex technical material through practical tasks. 5G will enable all these. Ed-Tech companies will eventually come up with textbooks encoded with AR possibilities.

Current Professional education in the country is truly elitist. With the cost reaching the skies, children from poor families cannot dream of becoming engineers, doctors or lawyers. Those who do, opt for practice abroad or pursue higher education, leaving the country's rural health centres tottering and rural infrastructure gasping. Engineering students too, passing out of the elite engineering colleges leave for greener pastures. 

Gary Kasparov once had said “ A grandmaster must memorize thousands of chess duels in his head, as these are for him what words of the mother tongue are to the ordinary people and what notes are to a musician” Profound words indeed. We need to change the rules of the game so that children with fire in the belly, even if they are poor, study engineering, medicine, law or any other. Education in local languages is the first step to fire that passion.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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technology Magazine 31 December 2022

Dr S S Mantha

Former Chairman AICTE and Adj Prof NIAS, Bangalore.

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