Indian Competition : The Darwinian Side

(via IHT) Somini Sengupta talks about Anupam who from Bihar’s lower middle class makes it to IIT. Anupam Kumar, 17, is the eldest son of a scooter-rickshaw driver. He lives in a three-room house made of bricks, mortar and a hot tinroof, where water rarely comes out of the tap and the electricity is off more often than on along a narrow unpaved alley here in one of India’s most destitute corners.

Anupam is good at math. He has taught himself practically everything he knows, and when he grows up he wants to investigate if there is life in outer space. He says he wants to work at NASA.

“It’s becoming very important to explore other planets because this planet is becoming too polluted,” he said with a deadly seriousness the other day.

Next door to his house, a family of pigs rifled through a pile of garbage on an empty lot. His mother, Sudha Devi, a savvy woman with a 6th grade education, cooled him gently with a palm-frond hand fan.

His father, Srikrishna Jaiswal, who made it through the 10th grade, flashed a slightly bemused smile at his son. “He has high-level aims,” he said.

“I’m not so concerned about reaching the peak,” Anupam clarified. “I’m more interested in doing something good for the world.”

For now, Anupam’s sole obsession is to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IIT, the elite network of 7 colleges established shortly after Indian independence in 1947 that produces tech wizards and corporate titans.

It is difficult to overstate the difficulty of getting into the institute. Of 198,059 Indians who took the rigorous admissions tests in 2005, 3,890 got in. That’s an acceptance rate of less than 2 percent. (Harvard University, by comparison, accepts 10 percent.)

Anupam does not know anyone who has attended the IIT. Nor do his parents.

But they all know this: If he makes it, it would change his family’s fortunes forever.

“I feel a lot of pressure,” he said. “It’s from inside.”

A voice in his head, he says, tells him he must do something to rescue his family from want – and that he must do it very soon. No wonder, then, that Anupam’s mother makes him wash his hair with henna, a traditional Indian hair-dying technique: At 17, he is going grey.

In Anupam’s story lies a glimpse of the aspirations of boys and girls in India today, a country that arguably offers greater opportunities than it did for their parents, but one that is also more competitive and a great deal more stressful.

More than half of India’s one billion people are under 25, and for all but the most privileged, adolescence in this country can be a Darwinian juggernaut. To be average, or even slightly above average, is to be left behind. Nowhere is that more true than here in Bihar, India’s iconic left-behind state, which makes the drive to get out all the more fierce.

“For average students, they have no scope,” said Anand Kumar, 33, who runs a one-man IIT-preparatory academy here. “The new generation feels more pressure than my generation. Nowadays, the competition is very tough.”

At 7 on a recent morning, with the sun already blistering, Kumar, drenched in sweat, drilled a gaggle of nearly 600 students, almost all of them boys, in calculus. “Find the domain of the following function,” he repeated into a scratchy microphone, as he inscribed an equation on the blackboard.

His young charges, packed tightly under a tin-roofed compound, all preparing for the IIT exam next spring, furiously scribbled in their notebooks.

Every week, Kumar tutors more than 2,000 youngsters, each paying just under $100 for a yearlong math session. Thirty others, the most gifted and neediest, he teaches for free, in an intensive seven-month course that includes room and board. He has received death threats – he suspects from competitors who resent his low fees – and one a recent day two policemen and two private guards stood sentry.

The intensity of competition can reveal itself in extreme ways. Kumar recalls how one of his neighbors, under enormous pressure from his family, failed the IIT entrance exam and took his own life; he was 18. One former student of his, the son of a poor peasant, sank into a crippling depression since failing the exam last year.

At home, the television could be blaring, the music could be on, the lights could have gone out, but Anupam would be studying, his father said. At family parties, Anupam would be found in a quiet corner, his head in a book. Relatives warned Sudha Devi: “He will go mad,” they told her.

Anupam’s education has been spotty, as it is for many in a country where public education is often in disarray. He enrolled in a small neighborhood private school, then a government school in 9th grade. But most days, like many children, he skipped school and studied at home. Every now and then, a math tutor, impressed by his gumption, gave him tips for free.

Anupam says he was drawn to the mysteries of space at age 9, after a television serial, called “Captain Vyom,” in which an astronaut ranges across outer space in pursuit of bad guys.

He recalls telling his mother about his interest in life in outer space, and he remembers her matter-of-fact encouragement: They haven’t discovered it yet, he recalls her saying, but you can explore.

“He says there’s something called research,” is how his mother describes it today. “He wants to be a research wallah.”

In the spring of 2004, studying by himself, Anupam failed the IIT entrance exam; it is virtually unheard of for anyone to make it on their own. Then, under Kumar’s tutelage, he devoted himself with the intensity of a monk.

On May 22, he took the exam again, six hours of math, chemistry, and physics.

On June 16, Anupam learned the results. He made it into IIT, with a rank of 2,299.

After he graduates and starts working, Anupam said, his first order of business would be to fix his house. He would like to install a proper roof. Then, dig a bore hole so water can be drawn right at home. As soon as possible, he said, he would like his father to stop driving a rickshaw.

The question that remains unanswered is what happens to the rest ? We need an economy that provides a future for not only those that get into IIT but excel in all professions. The new economy has a need for good lawyers, media, tourist guides, carpenters etc. They go through good training and provide a service that is the envy of the world. Output that raises the overall median of talent in every sector. Stay tuned as we find the root problem of bad service and transform.

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