These days in India, when "merit" and "social justice" have become an either/or issue, there is some merit in having a relook at how "merit" is defined - and created/manufactured - in our society.
Notwithstanding the criticism that the educational infrastructure did not grow in India since independence, the data gives an altogether different picture:
According to another report, the total number of medical colleges in India also grew from 30 to around 250 with an intake of just about 20,000 (India has about 0.6mn registered doctors for a population of more than a billion people!)
Inspite of such growth, however, two factors have impeded the positive impact of this growth in the educational infrastructure:
1. The population has grown faster, and the demographic profile of the country has changed in favour of a very large young and vibrant generation (India is one of the youngest country, with a median age of less than 25: *please see the postscript)... Every year, close to 40lac (4mn) students pass out +2 from the Indian pre-degree educational schools/colleges.
2. The quality of many professional institutes is much lacking. For instance, the more than 100 engineering colleges in Karnataka and 200+ in Tamil Nadu lack sufficient faculty and infrastructure, but demand exhorbitant fee. Similarly, of the close to 1,000 B-schools in the country, only around 50 are recognised by the AICTE, etc..
...And therefore, the demand for good-quality educational (and occupational) opportunities has fast out-stripped the available opportunities.
In many ways, the working definition of "merit" in contemporay India is a function of this big supply-demand gap, where less than 2% aspirants to professional courses qualify to have "merit", i.e., get selected to their desired courses... and a mere difference of less than 0.01%ile in the admission test can change one's status from "merit" to "de-merit"
And so, to win in this Darwinian landscape, an entirely new industry has taken shape during last decade or so, which specialises in "Manufacturing Merit"...
...the "Coaching Institutes":
(1bn =1 crore):
...the list goes on: Professional Tutorials, Sachdeva New PT College, Rau's Study Cirle for IAS, Delhi-based Akash Institute, Trichur-based PC Thomas Classes, Sahil Study Circle, Chanakya IAS Academy, Ascent Education, etc. etc....
[Note: Obviously, one needs to apply a "correction factor" to the claims of numbers by the coaching institutes;0)... Nevertheless, there is no denying that they play a critical role in creating "merit" in the current system.]
...and How do the Coaching Institutes manufacture "Merit"?
There is no doubt that they - at least the "good" ones - help polishing the potential/knowledge that the aspirant must already be possessing (in fact, a few coaching institutes have their own "entrance test" or criteria for admitting the candidates for coaching!)
Compared to the broad generalised coverage of +2 and other courses, however, the coaching institutes are more focused to make the aspirant succeed in the entrance exam. This has to be so, since in our given system, one's "merit" (or lack of it) is determined by a one-shot, one-day-cricket-match kind of entrance exams. One single wrong answer or one single missed question can bar one's entry into the domain of merit.
Therefore, besides other things, the Coaching institutes, also
In fact, these latter contributions of coaching institutes are often their USP/differentiating feature.
From a purely socio-historical point of view, the coaching institutes, in a very short period of time, have revolutionised two major changes in the societal texture of India:
1. they have redefined and evangelised a new meaning of "merit", which is essentially based on the supply-demand gap of opportunities in the society, and
2. they have successfully created a small but vocal new "social class" which owns the "merit" (and its definition) in the society.
*Post-Script June 4th,'06: I stand corrected on this claim about India becoming a "young country" in the recent years. Please see Dilip D'Souza's informative posting contradicting this myth.