NEW YORK, New York — In India, education inequality remains one of the most salient issues holding back the country’s development. Educational inequality and poverty together create a negative feedback loop. Low-income students are unable to invest in high-quality education, thus lowering their future chances of success. Every year, millions are trapped in this vicious cycle that threatens to keep them below the poverty line forever.
Meeting The Challenge
However, times are changing. A new generation of Indians is rising to meet the challenge and tackle poverty once and for all. They are members of the global Indian diaspora, which is spread from the United States in the West to Malaysia in the East. In their home countries, Indians have been remarkably successful. And they are harnessing that success and bringing it back to India.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the United Kingdom, once a colonial empire formerly possessing South Asia. Netra Sathe, a British Indian national whose family is originally from the western Indian city of Pune, spoke to The Borgen Project about her story. “My family is funding an extended cousin of mine, giving her a college education in India.” She continued, saying, “my family values education a lot. And I suppose my cousin’s father might not be able to provide as much as what my father can send over.” Stories like Sathe’s have become increasingly commonplace in the Indian diaspora, especially as younger community members grow acutely aware of family challenges in Asia.
Donating to Pratham
In 2014, members of the Indian diaspora in New York City gathered at the Museum of Modern Art to donate over $2 million to Pratham, a leading NGO in India. The organization was founded in 1994 by two Indian nationals who sought to expand preschool access to low-income families in their home country. Although it began in Mumbai, it eventually ballooned to include states across India. The organization drew upon a large and diverse diaspora to fund its missions.
The donation of over $2 million to Pratham constituted a sea change for the Indian community abroad. Traditionally, many (like Sathe’s family) would give directly to relatives at home. But now, their scope has expanded. While families continue to give directly to relatives in India, they donate an increasingly large amount of money to NGOs fighting poverty on a systemic level.
Actions Mirror Other Diasporas
In many ways, these actions mirror the behavior of other large and successful diasporas. Jewish Americans are a prime example, many donating to NGOs and other organizations to fight poverty in Israel. These efforts will continue to grow in the Indian diaspora as long as the heart-wrenching consequences of poverty remain visible.
“At the JW Marriott Hotel in Pune, people rolling up to that hotel will come in luxury vehicles. And exactly opposite the entrance of the hotel, there’s a line of slums,” says Sathe, a sense of disbelief in her voice as she spoke. “It’s just such a stark income difference, and people there don’t seem to care.”
Where Inequality Comes From
In large part, this unrelenting inequality stems from the deep chasms in the education system. Children of low-income backgrounds (especially girls) are much more likely to have access to subpar education if any. As adults, they are all the more likely to end up across the street from places like the JW Marriott rather than inside its doors.
Further confounding the problem of educational inequality are a host of other systemic challenges. Corruption, pollution and a lack of infrastructure development are each a drag on the economy in their own way. They compound the poverty of ordinary citizens.
Then Narendra Modi swept the Prime Minister’s office with grand promises of reducing bureaucracy and deregulating industry. Some of his reforms have been successful. Others not so much. In particular, a 2016 banknote demonetization sent ripple effects through the wider economy.
Amidst an already palpable sense of uncertainty, COVID-19 hit. The economy plummeted, and hundreds of thousands died. In part because of a particularly contagious strain of the virus called Delta and the Modi government’s inconsistent policies on large gatherings.
Some Significant Progress
This is not to deny the reality of India’s phenomenal progress over the past few decades. Since economic reforms in the 1990s, the economy has ballooned in size. It is now the sixth-largest in the world, rivaling even Britain. In the wake of India’s rise, pundits have coined the idea of an “Asian Century.” This describes the seemingly inexorable growth of nations like India and China.
This progress will depend on the ongoing solidarity of the Indian diaspora and their connection to a sometimes distant country. But the efforts already undertaken by Sathe and others lend hope for the future. The two worlds of the Indian nationals and Indian diaspora are no longer separate in their common solidarity to fight poverty and reduce educational inequality.
There are still great cultural differences. Members of the Indian diaspora have carved their own distinct identity, a source of pride and celebration for millions worldwide. But the family ties also remain strong. Families fuel the empathy and generosity that has engendered a global movement to fight poverty in India.
“If it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t have been kept very culturally in touch,” said Sathe, reflecting on the recurring theme of identity in her own life. “She taught me to be proud of my heritage.”
– Zachary Lee