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Saturday, June 15, 2002

The other day I was talking to a chauffeur who was driving me around in a district town. He stopped his education at 3rd grade. His father had passed away and his mother could not take up a job with two little kids in the house. So he and his older brother took up work to support the family. He is now about 30, and has a wife and two kids. He earns a decent wage. He seemed bright and hard working. “Why can’t you study now?” I asked. That set him thinking. He responded, “In my twenty three years of work at different places, no-body ever told me to study. You are the first person”. I cautioned him that education might not give him a greater income, but would certainly shore up his self-esteem and enhance understanding of the world around him. He liked the idea that he could study at this age, and that he had the ability. Now he is seriously making plans to study while on the job.

We have so many such people around us who have not had opportunity to realise their potential on account of personal circumstances. And as time passed, very few ever thought they had it in them to do anything better than what they are already doing.

A friend was recounting the story of their twenty-five year old maid – a competent person, bubbling with energy. She has energy to do everything under the sun, except study. She doesn’t even sit with her daughter and make her study. But she is interested in learning new things. My friend asked her hairdresser if she could teach her maid to manicure and pedicure. She readily agreed, but felt obliged to caution: “you will be spending a couple of thousand getting her trained. Are you sure you want her to learn all these things – she might leave you after some time.”

These two episodes typify the dilemmas of our society. Far too many people are living lives of quiet desperation. Most people have no opportunity to fulfil their potential. But society at large is pretty cozy and comfortable with status quo. If a person, inherently capable of doing a lot more or better quality of work, does not have the opportunity to hone her skills or improve knowledge, she can never move up on the economic and social ladder. But giving her an opportunity may mean those of us who are now enjoying inexpensive domestic labour will be forced to do things on our own. That is the ultimate tragedy in our society! How can we drive our own cars, cook our own food, wash our own dishes, tend our own garden

We often overlook the fact that the societal benefit of having fully productive people far outweighs the loss to our individual comfort. If the potential of the many unskilled and semi-skilled persons is fulfilled, we as individuals benefit a lot more by getting better quality goods and services at lower prices.

Our problem is not  merely that of individuals unwilling to give up status quo. Our society does not make it easy for people to learn new things, explore exciting avenues, and make new beginnings in life. We categorize people pretty early in life, and create slots for them. We make it very hard for them to break out of those shackles. There are no easy learning opportunities, and no real support for new beginnings. Open universities and distance learning are certainly a good start, but a lot more needs to be done. But first, we of the comfortable middle classes should be willing to recognize that many around us have had no decent opportunity for a better life and to acquire greater skills. Life need not end at thirty. People should be given opportunities to overcome their early disadvantages. We should learn to encourage them to improve their skills and gain more knowledge.

Many senior citizens in the US join universities to obtain a degree. Often they are not even seeking a job or income. Such learning is great fun. Can we provide the same opportunities to those many around us whose potential is unfulfilled?

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