Friday, April 17, 2015

Hindsight Before Foresight is Needed to Solve India's Education Conundrum

A few days back India woke up to a photo of an experience many have heard about or have gone through – cheating in exams. The photograph was of rampant cheating occurring during the board exams conducted by the Bihar Government. This unfortunately is not a new phenomenon in India. The same event was captured a decade back, nothing has changed. But cheating is not only rampant amongst the youth, news channels broadcast cheating that occurred during a promotion exam for junior judges. Is the education and evaluation system in India promoting cheating and cheaters? 
Rote is the method of learning that has been most prevalent in India. This is not surprising, given that it was memory that was key to handing down various prayers and texts through generations in ancient India. Memory was seen as a virtue which also stood for a particular class of people. This could be a reason why memorising is such an important part in teaching and learning in India.

Today, the use of rote is also an outcome of the schooling system that sees reduced number of teachers and higher number of students. In 2010, the then Minister for Human Resources Development stated that there was a shortfall of 12 lakh teachers while 5.23 lakh posts were vacant. In rural India, 11% of primary schools have a single teacher. In such a situation rote is indeed the only way for a teacher to impart some form of knowledge. A student blindly vocalising what the teacher says may just be parroting the sounds he hears but the student is being kept occupied for those hours. Thus it comes as no surprise that, one of the main findings of the 2014 Annual Status of Education Report is that approximately half of the Standard V children surveyed could not read at Standard II level. The report claims that Close to half of all children will finish eight years of schooling but still not have learned basic skills in arithmetic.”

So, there is every reason for students to cheat when they are tested.

Besides indicating a breakdown of the education system cheating can also be seen as a symptom of a society lacking moral fibre. But how can one grow this moral fibre when not only the education but many in society are complicit in creating cheaters? Teachers, instead of teaching in class conduct tuitions, parents prepare their children's class assignments. It would be pointless to teach students citizenship in an atmosphere that disrespects it.

But this is not just the case in India, there are instances of cheating in the US and UK too. These however have more to do with schools getting accreditation and therefore funding. Chinese students have also resorted to malpractices to crack exams.

Finland must be doing something right. Their education system has constantly been rated high. The main objective of the Finnish education policy is to offer all citizens equal opportunities to receive education. Therefore the focus is on learning and not on testing, thus teachers and schools are not forced to get students to perform in tests. This is not to say that students are not assessed constantly, but this is upto the teacher. Students come face to face with exams when they are 16 years old when they answer a mandatory standardised test. Most importantly the teachers are highly qualified, they are selected from the top 10% of their graduating class and have state sponsored master's degrees. The education system is publicly funded in Finland. A teachers job is highly sort after, it has been reported that in 2010, there were 6,600 applicants for 660 primary school training jobs. In Finland, High school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102% more than what other graduates make. It could be said that Finnish society give their teachers the same status as that of lawyers and doctors.

In India, teaching as a career option is not the first choice and many institutes offering a Bachelors in Education are of low quality. This is the reason why many States in India have sought exemption from the Teachers Eligibility Test (TET) which is an essential criterion for teacher recruitment and was started in 2011. This is a classic case of which came first – the chicken or the egg, on the one hand there are low quality teachers because of teaching is not rewarding monetarily and then the government is reluctant to give permanent posts to the teachers.

Any education system needs to be built on foresight, in terms of what the child needs, what the child will do for the nation and finally what the nation needs. However in India, a judicious use of hindsight would be more appropriate before looking into how the education system can create the citizens of tomorrow.

Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People'

Saturday, April 11, 2015

About '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People' and its author 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Getting into a train in India - An excerpt from 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People

A para on journeying in trains taken from '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People'. Book available on Amazon,

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Toilets are business essential as well as sanitary blessing for India

The Indian government recently announced fines of up to 5,000 rupees ($80.25) for those caught defecating along the railway tracks, long an unpleasant sight for Indian travelers. But the state of sanitation in India remains dire, leaving some little choice but to go in the open.

As once happened in the West, India is moving from open defecation to outhouses to indoor toilets, but progress is slow. Some 130 million households lack toilets and a recent government survey showed that only 32 percent of rural households have toilets.

The benefits of toilets are many; they include safety, privacy, reduction of pollution, reduction of disease and infant mortality. Building them is not only a human rights priority, but also an environmental necessity, and one that would bring business benefits.

One major reason why sanitation has become such a major issue is that it is dependent on the provision of water. Households in India, even those of the rich, are not supplied 24/7 with municipal water. One can only imagine the situation of those living in the slums and rural India.

In many parts of the country, not only is surface water polluted, but also the ground water has been depleted if not ruined by pollution. This weakens the efforts of universal sanitation and acceptance of toilets. There is an urgent need to treat water before it can be supplied. Setting up such systems would make communities water independent and ensure that the toilets are used for the purpose built.

Toilets would need to be plugged into a larger drainage system. This would imply expenditure on constructing and maintaining sewers. It would necessarily segue into increasing the capacity of the existing dysfunctional sewage treatment plants. Installing community treatment systems would go a long way in reducing costs and ensuring waste water is properly treated.

This is a market that needs to be tapped if India is going to achieve total sanitation. The Indian water and wastewater treatment market is touted to be worth a potential $1.2 billion. However, the treatment being looked at currently is based on large effluent treatment plants.

The market potential for community-based waste treatment systems stems from their ability to treat waste water at source and then provide water for use in the community. Another positive is the decrease in infrastructure and maintenance cost.

Sanitation would also entail personal hygiene which means use of products like soap and even toilet cleaners. With the construction of toilets, the toilet owner becomes a bigger consumer.

In India, one sees many advertisements about the need to wash hands. These are not only created by the government but also by companies promoting their products. However, open defecation reduces the use of soap, whereas toilets can easily provide it. The construction of toilets will not only increase the consumer base but will also increase the number of literal toiletries that can be consumed.

The construction of toilets makes socio-economic sense for many reasons. As well as ensuring dignity, toilets will reduce sickness and therefore ensure less expenditure on health, increase number of working days, and enhance the security of women. It also makes business sense because it opens new markets, creates employment and can reduce migration to urban areas.

The Indian government and Indian corporations need to see the provision of toilets as a sound business measure. It's only then that the vast country will achieve universal sanitation. 

The author is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. Follow him on Twitter at @samirwrites

Published in

What India Needs to Learn from China

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to visit China before the end of May. Modi has been to China before, as chief minister of Gujarat, when he sought to attract business and learn from China’s socio-economic model. He should be aiming to do something similar this time. Besides discussions on the China-India border issues, reopening the overland Silk Road, and creating a maritime version, Modi should take time to study the Chinese model of resettlement and pollution control.

These issues have only grown in importance as New Delhi steps up its efforts to achieve economic growth. Take for example the six industrial corridors that are being planned. These are five more than the UPA government had envisaged. The Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), built to facilitate movement through the six major states of India (Uttar Pradesh, the National Capital Region, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) will cover 1483 square kilometers and will have 11 investment regions and 13 industrial areas. The official DMIC website states that around 180 million people, or 14 percent of the population, will be affected. The Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society (JACSES) points out that at least 350,000 hectares will be allocated for the DMIC project. To put these corridors in place many thousands of hectares of land will need to be acquired, displacing a large population. India’s efforts at resettling those whose land has been acquired leave much to be desired.

Now the BJP government has upped the ante and plans 100 smart cities in these six corridors. The government will need to design cities that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable and that permit social equity for their residents.

There is a real danger that the industrial corridor project and the Smart City project will fail if the BJP government does not pay heed to the socioeconomic aspirations of those being displaced. Displaced persons could stall the project if they are provided with insufficient compensation in terms of cash, training in new skills needed in the new economy, and new opportunities. After all, they will be living in these Smart Cities too. The Smart Cities project will not be able to meet its goals if those who have lost their land are not provided, as part of the resettlement package, with the economic skills they need to thrive in these areas.
Modi would do well to study the resettlement policies of China. According to a document prepared for the World Commission on Dams report, there is much to be learned from the Xiaolangdi project. The document states that the approach to resettlement and rehabilitation for this project was different. The World Bank supported efforts to provide “sufficient financial and human resources to facilitate resettlement.” China’s developmental resettlement policy integrates resettlement plans with regional socioeconomic development. Consequently, skills, low-interest bank loans, training in cash-crop cultivation and other assistance are provided so that resettled people can participate in the local economy even as industrial jobs are provided. A key aspect of this policy is that fund disbursement is sanctioned according to plans for resettlement in such a way that enhances economic conditions. Though the success of the resettlement is debatable, the process at least acknowledges the need to assimilate displaced persons in the local economy.

China also has a very large resettlement bureaucracy that extends down to the village level. Thus there is a decentralization of authority. This can ensure that the lessons and skills acquired from projects are shared within the bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, India’s wish to surpass China has finally come true, in at least one respect: Delhi’s air is more polluted than Beijing’s. Vehicular pollution is one of the key ingredients in the pollution that both capitals suffer. Pollution from exhaust is a function of the number of vehicles on the road, emission standards, and road congestion. Vehicles don’t run optimally on congested roads, which means more pollution. To decrease air pollution the number of vehicles on the road has to decrease, vehicles have to run optimally, and emission standards for vehicles have to improve. For light vehicles, China put in place the China IV standards in 2011 for gasoline powered vehicles, and China V for vehicles in Beijing and Shanghai. Across India, vehicles have emission standards as per Bharat-III norms, and vehicles in select cities comply with Bharat-IV emission norms. These standards are similar to European emission standards.
Besides improving on its vehicular emission norms China is also putting in place systems for the introduction of a congestion tax. This kind of tax is a negative incentive to car owners, encouraging them to drive less. London introduced this in 2003. Local Chinese governments are using schemes such as a license plate lottery and final digits on license plates to deal with traffic congestion. Beijing already limits new cars to 20,000 a month. Civic authorities in Beijing are also planning to create low-emission zones within the city where all vehicles would have to follow pollution norms. They are studying similar concepts already in place in London and the Netherlands. Moreover, Beijing already has a regulation in place that aims to cut annual vehicle increases from 240,000 to 150,000, the goal is that by 2017 vehicle ownership is capped below 6 million.

Beijing has also come up with a Beijing Clean Air Action Plan (2013-2017). Under the plan, 300 polluting plants in Beijing were to be shut in 2014. Since 2013, 663 facilities have been closed; by 2016, 1200 will be shut. Moreover, the Beijing government has listed 105 production techniques that will be phased out, along with 50 types of dated production equipment, in a bid to ease air pollution. A similar plan needs to be created and implemented in Indian cities, ranging from Delhi and Bangalore to Vapi and Chembur.

The Chinese story is not all about technology, military power, and a massive consumer base. It is also about putting in place policies and laws that improve the lives of the common citizen. What we see is that the Chinese have learned that economic growth that lowers human and environmental standards is pointless. India needs the pragmatism to imbibe what the Chinese have learned from their mistakes. This is our jugaad and it will save the country much time and heartburn in the long run.
Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas 76 Towns & 1 Million People, available in hard copy now. He tweets at @samirwrites

Published in The Diplomat 

Launch of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People' in Goa 14 March 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dont let the 2% come in the way of CSR

In 2013 the previous Indian Government modified the Companies Act adding Section 135. It provides for mandatory spending of atleast 2% of the average net profits made during the 3 preceding financial years on CSR. Net profits are calculated as per Section 198 of this Act. Schedule VII lists CSR activities which include eradicating extreme hunger, enhancing vocational skill, contribution to Prime Minister's Relief Fund or similar funds.

To clear the air post the modification, the Government issued a circular (General Circular No. 21/2014 ) on the 18th of June 2014 with the subject “Clarifications with regard to provisions of Corporate Social Responsibility under section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013.”

Besides clarifying specific points raised by companies and citizens the Assistant Director (CSR)at the Ministry categorically states “ The statutory provision and provisions of CSR Rules, 2014, is to ensure that while activities undertaken in pursuance of the CSR policy must be relatable to Schedule VII of the Companies Act 2013, the entries in the said Schedule VII must be interpreted
liberally (emphasis in original) so as to capture the essence of the subjects enumerated in the said
Schedule. ----”

Corporates may not wish to spend over 2%. However there are non-expenditure avenues. There are also opportunities to stretch the CSR budget without reducing the impact. The unwillingness to spend money on CSR should not inhibit the willingness to help society.

Corporates see CSR as an avenue for employee engagement/empowerment, brand building, brand extension and market penetration and therefore the following suggestion may not go down well even though it can save money, time and create a deeper impact.

Two corporates focusing on different CSR activities can work together on one 'population'. This is the way forward. Here CSR activities though different are synergised and feed off each other because the target group is the same. For example, corporates focussing on women's empowerment or enhancing vocational skills and wishing to enter rural areas can team up with those working on rural education. The new entrants would be able to build on the goodwill created by existing activities and thereby reduce time and money to make an impact.

However, it could also be that a non CSR activity becomes the foundation for the CSR activity of that corporate.

A business activity of a corporate can be extended into avenues that include CSR activities. Take for example the Financial Inclusion programme of banks, private banks in particular. These banks go deep into rural India (or poorer parts of urban India) creating accounts and disbursing money. The face of the bank is usually one person on a motorcycle or a small room in the village carrying technology that allows them to feed and generate data. Can this person and technology be used to improve government programmes? Take for example the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. This government sponsored scheme was initiated in 1975 to tackle malnourishment among children, pregnant and lactating women. Later primary non- formal education, health checkups were added to the scheme to make it one of the worlds largest integrated family and community welfare schemes. The Anganwadi Worker (AWW), the lady in charge of the village creche, also handles the scheme there. Her activities include teaching young children and feeding them, visiting families with children and lactating mothers and documentation. Documentation is a time consuming process because the lady has to fill information by hand and then has to deliver them to the district/block office which could be many miles from her village for further processing. This naturally eats into her time and reduces the efficacy of the data as data would be feed into a computer by a 'third person' far removed from ground realities, this could lead to incorrect data generation and inability to make decisions.

All this data can be fed into the ICDS central system in real time at the anganwadi. The technology being used in Financial Inclusion can be expanded to incorporate feeding of such data. Data entry can be done with the help of the concerned bank worker. This frees up time for the AWW and insures data can be accessed and analysed within a short period.

Cashless CSR
Most corporates have large office spaces in cities. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of employees are concentrated in such places for a fixed periods of time. Many marketers would call this a captive market and would love to dip into them. The employees in a majority of instances are part of households or run households. They need to buy groceries, gifts etc at frequent intervals. Such purchases take time and effort. This becomes an opportunity for CSR and a way to reduce the demands on the employee.

Corporates by giving opportunities to organic farmer groups to sell their produce directly to employees are helping these farmers extend their consumer base and get a better price. A similar initiative can be undertaken during festivals when initiatives promoting weavers or products of disabled groups are given floor space.

Infact one doesn't even need floor space. The IT department along with the CSR departments can create applications which could put the employees in touch with producers on particular office days to create a virtual market.
However, the CSR that all corporate’s should head towards is bettering existing business practices. This will improve their bottom line, the environment and society. For example a soft drink manufacturer could start using glass instead of plastic bottles to not only reduce the amount of waste ending up in the landfill but to make consumption sustainable. If such manufacturers wish to use plastic then they could create a system employing ragpickers to collect the plastic for reuse/recycling. Such a move would be trendsetting, compelling rivals to follow suit and would provide opportunities for brand building. The only thing limiting CSR is not money, but ideas.

Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas 76 Towns & 1 Million People. The hard copy will be out on February 26th. He tweets at @samirwrites