Are Indian Kids Getting Enough Opportunities to Realise Their Capabilities?

We asked students in Bihar and Delhi about their access to eight different activities including painting, athletics, singing, theatre, chess, coding and mental mathematics.

Recent estimates predict that India is going to overtake China in population this year and will also become the world’s third largest economy by 2030, overtaking Japan. But India is not as good at winning Olympic medals or capturing scientific patents like other societies.

Sweden – whose nine million people won 11 Olympic medals (in 2016), achieving a rate of more than one medal per million – also secures more than 300 scientific patents per million people. On the other hand, India with more than 100 times as many people, wins far fewer Olympic medals (two medals in 2016 at a rate of one medal per 500 million people) and many fewer patents (6.25 patent applications per million people). The question is – is India bereft of talent or are its talents not ferreted out as effectively?

In every society, the children of the super-rich get every opportunity. The question of ferreting out talent revolves on the children of the poor and on whether they are given opportunities. National performance as well as social justice hinge upon the same fundamental concept – equality of opportunity, i.e., equally hardworking and talented individuals should be able to rise as high, irrespective of their income, gender, caste and locality.

Students in Bihar. Photo: Sujeet Kumar

How deeply does India dig for its sports and its scientific talent? To what extent do people in different segments of Indian society have the opportunity to show their talents for sports and mathematics and painting and writing and other achievements? Little is known on the subject. Methodical studies are just beginning.

We contribute to this important and growing body of knowledge in our recent working paper, asking 806 students (410 in rural Bihar, 103 in slums in Patna and 293 in slums in Delhi) between 12 and 14 years in age, enrolled in government schools, about their access to eight different activities including painting, athletics, singing, theatre, chess, coding and mental mathematics. We also asked about these Class 7 and 8 students’ career preferences and willingness to take part in talent-spotting events of different kinds and about a small number of socio-economic indicators.

Students in Bihar. Photo: Sujeet Kumar

To our dismay, we find that as many as 42% of the Bihar sample have the lowest participation score, zero points, meaning that they had no opportunity whatsoever, at school or outside, for taking part in any of the eight activities over all of the previous five years! A total of 80% took part in a painting event on one or two occasions, a few took part in singing once or twice – and that was it, over all of five years. The situation in Delhi is only marginally better. Among the sample from Delhi slums, 24% have the lowest participation score, zero points, while as many as 90% have scores of 10 points or fewer, indicating that the individual took part in one or two activities at the entry level once or twice over five years – but had no chances of competing at any higher level nor even any regularity of training and competition.

The average participation scores for each activity are very, very low. Take for instance the score of access to athletics competition, the score for Bihar is 0.34, which means that at most 34% of sample had access once (and only once) to entry-level competition while the remaining 66% did not have a single opportunity for all of the past five years. In Delhi, 59% had no access whatsoever to sporting competitions and 88% had no access to mental mathematics or chess. If there is a hidden talent – and there must be very many hidden talents in these large populations – how are these talents going to be discovered?

Gender and caste gaps are significant, though given the very low level of participation overall, the difference is that between low and lower. The data reveals that girls have lower participation scores but in particular activities (singing and story writing) their low participation rates are less low than those of boys.

Hardly anyone takes part in multiple competitions. Those who participate more intensively at the entry level are unable to move up to a higher level of competition. Even as schoolteachers would like to see their pupils’ capacities grow, no child from any of these schools, whether in Bihar or Delhi, has moved up the ladder in the art world or in athletics or coding or any of the other lines.

Hundreds of thousands of talented individuals remain unaware of the talents within them. Simply because the mechanisms of talent identification and development are under-developed, the nation performs well below its true potential.

Students in Bihar. Photo: Sujeet Kumar

It is not a case of unwilling participants as much one of absence of opportunities. More than two-thirds of young respondents are eager to take part if such competitions were organised within reaching distance.

Absent opportunity, the value of talent plummets. Poverty persists, despite abundant capability. How does a boy come to know he has the talent to be a successful artist unless he has access to paints and to painting competitions? How does a girl know she can become a star athlete until she has the chance to show her worth at athletics meets at successively higher levels?

This is not the fault of any particular government, but probably more, a consequence of a long-held belief that there is only one proper way for an individual to advance – through academic studies. A jingle in Bihar goes  – padhoge likhoge banogey nawaab, khelogey koodogey banogey kharaab (by studying hard you become worthy, by playing and extra-curriculars you destroy your life) – and thus, families’ and communities’ and the state’s efforts almost entirely go into developing one kind of talent.

But this robs individuals of opportunities while making it harder for the nation to ferret out talent. It is time we got ourselves out of this conundrum. Research and practice both need to rise to the challenge. Talent is the resource a 21st-century India cannot afford to squander. What needs to be done can be learned from illustrative national and international examples.

Sujeet Kumar is at the Centre for Policy Research and Anirudh Krishna is at Duke University.