Monday, March 30, 2015

IITs are a waste of public money if not reformed

Discourse on IITs in India is absolutely fascinating. They are a set of public technical universities set up after independence by a visionary Prime Minister to herald industrial revolution in India. The same Prime Minister also absolutely ignored public primary education causing us much grief ever since. But IITs have come to mean so much more to the middle class Indian family. Get into one and suddenly you are the Shehenshahon ka Shehenshah (King of Kings) in the family; a Pole Star who will be the beacon for the future generations. In India, your wisdom will be trusted by everyone. Even if you graduate from an IIT in Assam in Chemical Engineering, your opinion on everything from politics to health to terrorism to education (especially education) is sought after and valued. Any little mishap is reported widely in the media. Placement seasons need to be covered on front page of national news. This doesn't happen to other elite universities like IIMs, Law universities, JNU and others.

IITs are funded more lavishly than any other public institution. They take a substantial amount of our higher education budget. This has also led to a strong debate about spending public resources on those who go on to earn many times than average Indians and sometimes not even in India. The most recent being this article on Scroll titled - "Dear Smriti Irani, stop giving my money to IITians." As expected, it provoked an article in response titled - "No, Smriti Irani is not wasting your money on the IITians." The response article is one of the poorest responses I have read.

I have studied in an IIT (not sure if that gives me more authority or just makes me guilt-ridden). My facebook feed was filled with outraged friends who think they have contributed significantly to nation building. They are the 'cream' of the population, have made it completely on their own and owe nothing to the society or the country.

The unfortunate part is that criticism against IITs is true to a large extent. There is a need for a major structural reform. Sadly, a lot of the debate is around money - cost to the exchequer, salaries of IITians etc. No self-respecting, elite university in the world is self-sustaining from the fees of its students. It depends on the grants from various bodies. It's important to frame the debate in a wider perspective and see a university as a knowledge hub which is central to the needs of the area in which it is situated. And that is where our IITs, and possibly other elite universities, have failed.

Prof. Milind Sohoni has written about it extensively using data and mathematical models in some cases. To avoid technical details, I just want to present the important points from two (1 and 2). He has also suggested reforms. Do check out his page for papers, videos and presentations on the same.

Role of the university
Historically, the university, i e, an institution of higher education and research, has been a key site for knowledge formation within society. Europe proudly (and rightly) claims the modern university as its primary contribution to civilization.

Disconnected Research
The Indian university now functions as two disjoint sets of institutions, the elite and the regional institutions. The elite universities, which admit 2%-3% of the total student population, aim to be counted as members of the global knowledge elite. This overriding criterion defines their academic and research programs. These regional institutions who teach the bottom 97%, follow curricula and a research agenda that is largely influenced by elite institutions.
As a result, there is neither an indigenous tradition nor an empirical basis, such as a needs analysis, for the curricula followed by either the elite or the regional university. Moreover, there is little systematic research or practical training in important developmental areas such as groundwater, cooking energy or sanitation, or socio-economic areas such as district-level planning, panchayati raj, or the cooperative sector.

Poor selection criteria based on 'fair' exam
The 'fair' IIT-JEE used by elite universities rejects 99% of exam-takers. Sadly, it is this, rather than their training, which connects students to high-paid global service sector jobs and in turn, determines the elite university.
Unfortunately, the competitive exam also serves to define and measure the outcome of school or college education. Thus, a student’s learning of a subtle, cultural, plural, and practical skill such as science is tested by a time-bound, objective, multiple-choice exam in which most students must fall in their own esteem.
These ingredients of “elitisation” leading to poor relevance, the absence of the regional or the vernacular, and the aspirational dysfunction caused by competitive exams, constitute the current crisis in higher education.

Placements do not benefit India

University-Society Connect
Is the population from the University serving the society?
Through data, most graduates of IITB do not choose jobs, which directly benefit the Indian economy, nor are they in the field of engineering and technology (ET). Many choose to work for global companies and/or for global markets and largely in the service sector. These global service companies pay substantially higher than core ET companies and are largely oblivious to the training that these students have received.

  • Only about a quarter of the UGs and about half of the PGs take-up engineering jobs. This accounts for about 33% of the total number placed. 
  • Global companies serving global markets (GGs) employ more than 60% of all graduates and pay more than 75% of the total salary awarded to graduates. 10% placed abroad.
  • Indian companies serving global markets (IGs) pay the least and are not a major employer of IITB graduates.
  • Global companies working for Indian markets, employs about 8.3% of the total number of students placed and about the same fraction of ET jobs. Thus, companies which possibly transfer technology to the Indian economy, employ a relatively small fraction of graduates.
  • Indian companies serving Indian markets (IIs) employ about 18% of IITB graduates and yet pay only about 10% of the total annual salary received. These jobs pay the least across all profiles, barring the IGs.

Irrelevance of University Education

For all programs, and across all (major) sectors, ET is not only the least paying but also the salaries decrease with an increase in the number of years of training, i.e., from B.Tech., DD to M.Tech.
So salaries are determined by the initial pecking order as opposed to University studies, which indicate a failure of the same.

Indian engineering companies hire irrespective of CPI indicating curriculum's relevance to Indian needs and engineering practices.

So there is limited relevance of institute's education when highest paying sectors are finance, consulting and IT which require generic skills. So student's preferences are at odds with the institute's mandates and research interests of its faculty. 

Most importantly,  For most UG students, the training received in their programs, as measured by their CPIs (GPA), is either irrelevant to their sector of employment, or if relevant, it is largely
inconsequential. Selectivity at the time of entering the institute has a substantial influence on sectors and on salaries. That means that your performance in 12th grade (17-18 years of age) plays a larger role in deciding your salary than 4-5 years of university education. That is a dangerous sign for a university!

And a lot of this is connected with our excessive focus on 'merit' as defined by JEE. In fact, in a stylized globalized world, an identification of excess merit within the less developed society poses certain allocation risks. This in turn, may lead to higher initial wages, but eventually to lower wages, higher inequality and a loss of entrepreneurial skills within the less developed society. (the current tech boom is a small, negligible fraction of India's problems - I would say the most meaningless also.) 

To sum up, IITs and other universities need some major reform which needs to start with a change in our vision. Only then will they be really worth the taxpayers money. Producing graduates who pay more taxes or identifying creme-de-la-creme of the vast Indian population is not a valid argument for a public institution meant to build knowledge for India's needs and challenges.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Murder in Mumbai: My first Indian murder mystery

A month back, I started reading my first ever Indian murder mystery. That's right. After 26 years of growing up in India, I read the FIRST mystery novel which is Indian in its setting, characters and tone.

Murder in Mumbai by K.D. Calamur is about a police inspector and a journalist investigating the murder of a foreigner in Mumbai. It is not the best murder mystery I have read by far and not really a page-turner. However, it was engaging enough to capture my attention for a couple of days because the context was something I could relate to. After years of reading American mysteries and thrillers, it was wonderful to read a story with 'Inspector' and 'police' rather than 'Sheriff' and 'cops'. Just the Indian setting made the novel so much easier to relate to and I did not have to make the effort to understand and visualize American novels. 
Why did it take 26 years for me to read an Indian murder novel? Some of it is my fault. I haven't explored enough or taken effort to discover good Indian mystery novels. However, the fact that I have to 'make an effort' to discover good Indian books in India is exactly the problem with the system. Throughout my childhood, reading crime fiction meant Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews and Agatha Christie. As I grew up, the abundance of Sidney Sheldon, Harlan Coben, James Patterson was unavoidable. Not only crime fiction, in children's books as well, it is tough to find Indian books outside of mythology and Panchatantra genre moral tales. Young adult is full of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Divergent series etc. 

Where are the Indian authors? Where are the books in Indian languages in Indian settings? Books which show that in India, going out in the sun is not joyful. Books which talk about Holi, Onam and Id instead of Thanksgiving and Easter (I still don't know what these two are all about). The problems are many - lack of quality authors, lack of distribution capacity outside big cities, lack of book reviews and lack of a book reading culture in general. 

Do you feel this is changing? 

Friday, January 30, 2015

RK Laxman: Common man ignored

R.K. Laxman died this week. Incidentally, the common man has also lost representation in the media in the last 5-10 years. If you are not a celebrity or in the urban middle class, good luck getting your issues covered in the media. How many farmer stories have we seen on TV in the last one year? How many stories are based in rural settings? Have our newspapers become glossy urban magazine covers? Speaking about issues of the poor, the marginalized is now considered activism and progress impeding socialism.

To sum it up:
Farmer commits suicide.
Adani gets loan.
R.K. Laxman dies.

Do watch P. Sainath talk about these issues in brief. I recommend watching his longer talks if you have the time.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Will legalizing child labour really save our children?

Wikipedia states: "Child labour refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful."

I was surprised to see an article on livemint dated 24th November, 2014 titled - 'Save the children, legalize child labour' by Prashanth Perumal where he argues that legalizing child labour will be better for children. I quote: "... at least in the availability of some alternative venues of work, children could escape much deeper poverty as well as the ineffective schooling system."

If India was so bad that the alternative to child labour was prostitution, slavery or being inducted into militia, then I could understand the argument. The reality in India is that more than 95% of children are enrolled in schools. While there needs to be a lot of improvement in all aspects, a majority of them are safe and fed somewhat nutritious meals courtesy mid-day meals. Some of them even manage to learn something according to ASER reports.

The article references an article by Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Kailash mentions in his argument that big reasons for child labour are parental poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, failure of development and education programs. Also, children are preferred by industries due to various unethical reasons.

Ironically, Prashanth states the same reasons as arguments for legalizing child labour. Since a lot of Indian parents are poor who need money and our schools are abysmal which don't teach anything, let's make our kids work in hazardous and exploitative environment till we make it all better. Thankfully, the policy makers don't think like that. So far.

If a legislation is passed legalizing child labour, what would be the outcomes? It will legalize the industries that already indulge in this practice. It will also give permission to all the other industries across the country, which do not employ this practice, to start this practice. Industries will consider, some might give in to the temptation, employing children in place of other employees. Where will these additional child labourers come from? I doubt they will come from higher income families. These children will come from the most vulnerable groups who are most likely to give in to this temptation. Scholars say: "... this encourages illiteracy, inhumane work and lower investment in human capital. Child labour... also leads to poor labour standards for adults, depresses the wages of adults in developing countries as well as the developed countries, and dooms the third world economies to low-skill jobs only capable of producing poor quality cheap exports. More children that work in poor countries, the fewer and worse-paid are the jobs for adults in these countries."

The education system will have lesser pressure to improve itself and cater to the challenges of working with the most vulnerable children. This will "deepen inequity in an already iniquitous structure. This happens because in reality the practical becomes a goal for the disadvantaged; whereas the privileged strive for the ideal as their goal, pushed by both internal and external forces." 

The reason we make child labour illegal, like almost all the countries in the world, is so that the child is: protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."  That is our commitment to our children. Once we aim for this ideal commitment, we need to improve all the inter-related aspects that can make it a reality: economic growth, education system, nutrition, etc.

Rephrasing what is written here: "Such choices have cumulative, historical effects and they cannot be unwound. So, a society or nation committed to equity and democracy must decide what we want for our children and then go for it, for the whole system. It’s then that the burden of making it happen becomes clearer, and the society has to figure out how to make it happen, obliged to do whatever is required and provide whatever support is needed."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Don't go to Indore: Food trap

I wrote this post after my trip to Indore a few weeks back but then it was forgotten in drafts while I went about my job of saving the world. However, I realize that keeping my global audience away from this amazing piece of work is social injustice. It's surprising to me that I have never written about food. Hence this post now, on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I was in Indore for a few days for the much publicized Global Investors' Summit 2014 which has apparently attracted gazillion rupees of investments. God knows when those investments will see the light of the day. Our esteemed PM was also there speaking something similar -

Being my first trip to Indore, I was looking forward to exploring the city in my free time and maybe trying out a few of its famous dishes. My Hyderabad food orgy had ended just 2 days back so I was quite keen on keeping things light and vegetarian. The vegetarian plan succeeded. Light... umm...

Sleepy, disheveled and lost was how the sleeper bus dumped me on the highway in Indore at 7am. After becoming respectable at my hotel, I found out that Chappan (56) dukaan was walking distance from there.
Chappan Dukaan
Named after the 56 shops that operated there at one point, it is a famous place for food joints in Indore. A lot of legendary food outlets are here. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to try all of them but after 2 days, I realized that I had given it my best shot.

First stop was Young Tarang where Poha and Dhokla (called Khaman) were consumed with great relish. The poha was slightly sweeter than what I am used to in Maharashtra and had a generous dose of namkeen. I liked it.
Poha Indore

The sweetness and namkeen are a common feature of food in Indore. Up next was Johnny hot dog which is like a landmark in Indore. Here they serve NOTHING that looks like a hot dog.

Johnny Hot Dog
Johnny Hot Dog
It's a bun with tikki or omelette inside it served with onions and chutney. They call them 'benjo'. Yep. Benjo! This is a hindi-speaking state for god's sake! For my still-a-teenager mind, ordering 'ek benjo' loudly was great fun. That it tasted great was a bonus.

Lunch at the summit (I had come there for work remember?) was completely an Indian mela. All the 'global' investors were running around for plates, clamoring for food and in front of the kulfi stall, acting like refugees being handed out food packets. I skipped it. It was a good decision considering what I did for dinner.

I went with a group to Sarafa Bazaar. This bazaar is in a gali in a proper Indian market which has many shops, narrow lanes and a huge crowd. It's not a place which millennials haunt which is a pity. Sarafa Bazaar saw Ghengiz Khan assault on food that night. First I went for the Indore trademark Kachori. Ate two types of it.
Then came Sabudana Khichdi which like everything Indori had more namkeen and sweetness than what I am used to. That did not prevent me from polishing off a plate of it.
Sabudana Khichdi
Sabudana Khichdi
I changed the food genre completely and went for a cold, sweet and extremely colourful Kulfi falooda which looked somewhat like this.
Kulfi Falooda
Colourful Kulfi Falooda
There was still a long night ahead. Did I mention that I was planning to eat light on this trip? Next stop was Joshi Dahi Bada, a place which you cannot afford to miss. The owner, Mr. Joshi I guess, loves showing off in front of new customers and it is fun watching him do this thing. Noticing that I was new, he called me over and asked me to sit near him while he prepared our dahi bada plate.
Joshi and my bonding time
At Joshi Dahi Bada
During his preparation, he will throw the plate full of yummy dahi badas up in the air and catch them intact. That's how he builds his USP.

Joshiji throwing the plate in the air
While we were eating, we wanted a dahi refill. He specifically asked that I come and get the refill. So I did. Then he showed me his other act - of putting four types of masala in one chutki. He somehow stores all four of them in his fingers when he puts his hand inside the masala dabba once but then puts each one separately in four strokes without getting more masala. Fascinating. Dahi bada and a magic show combined. At his shop, I also tried Bhutte ka kees for the first time.

There was this poster of Shahi Shikanji. Normally, shikanji is lemonade (nimbu pani) for me. But here, it is a thickened milk drink with lots of dry fruits inside. My friends told me that it was very very very heavy so I thought that I shall skip it for another day. I rounded up the dinner with alu patties (which really are not patties but pakodas) and one more helping of dal kachori. A night well spent I must say.

The next morning started with a bang. I landed at chappan dukaan like a coke addict in need of a fix. I cleaned off a plate each of Kachori and Alu Patties (pokadas elsewhere). Then I saw Shahi Shikanji and went for it. It was delicious! I patted my burgeoning stomach and made my way to the summit for a nice nap.

The dinner started with an Egg mutton benjo.
Benjo looks simple but is yummy!
Then I tried Bhel puri. No points for guessing - it was sweeter and had more namkeen. However, I didn't like it as much as some I have had in Mumbai.

For better or worse, India doesn't have a lot of franchise chains for Indian street food. There's one for Vada Pav. I haven't come across other very popular ones. But in Indore, I saw the first franchise chain of Pani puri. These were street stalls that advertised 6 or 9 types of flavoured water like teekha, hing, pudina, khatta mitha, jeera, imli and keri. Keri was my personal favourite and I had second helping of that flavour. The stall owner turned out to be the franchise owner and he was very nice. He gave me TWO sukha puris after I finished. He surely knew how to win my loyalty. Enough of these appetizers. I wanted something filling. The chinese and rolls place caught my eye. I sauntered over there and looked at the menu. The smell was very tempting. I ordered the healthiest thing on the menu - A butter fried egg chicken mayonnaise roll. I still haven't been able to burn off the fat from that roll but it was totally worth it. In India, the culture says that every meal should end with sweets. Who am I to argue with Indian sanskriti? So I scraped clean a plate of Ras malai. Contented sigh. It's a pity that Bombay sucks when it comes to sweets and ras malais. On the way back, I spotted a pan-wala advertising a khushboo wala paan. My curiosity got the better of me and I walked back to the hotel chewing a khushboo wala meetha paan.

My final day involved a repeat of some of my favourite dishes. Breakfast consisted of Poha, Kachori, Dhokla and Sabu Dana Khichdi. Early evening dinner consisted of a soda lemon, dabeli (this was also very good and reminded me of my childhood dabelis in Gujrat), another egg mutton benjo and the multi-flavoured Pani Puri.

I am pretty sure that a few more days and I would have blocked all my arteries. Which is why my advice to everyone is that if you value your life, do not go to Indore! It's a food trap.

Friday, September 12, 2014

मेरी मातृभाषा - Meri Matrabhasha

आज मैं तुम्हें लिखने में इस्तेमाल कर रहा हूँ. कई बरस बीत गए हैं.

बोलना सुनना तो बहुत होता है तुममें. पर उसमे भी कई शब्दों के लिए अंग्रेजी का सहारा लेना पड़ता है. ऐसा नहीं है कि तुम्हारे पास उन अर्थों के शब्द नहीं है पर न जाने क्यूँ साधारण से शब्द भी अब तुममे नहीं आते. तुममे लिखना-पढ़ना तो बिलकुल नहीं होता. जंग लग गया है दिमाग के उन कोनों में जहां तुम्हारे शब्द छुपे बैठे हैं. ये लिखते हुए भी मैं कई शब्दों के बारे में सोच में पड़ जाता हूँ. अनिश्चित सा हूँ तुम्हें लिखते हुए.

तुम्हें पढ़ना भी कम हो गया है. स्कूल के बाद तो कभी तुम्हारा कोई उपन्यास ही नहीं पढ़ा. बरसों से अंग्रेजी में ही पढ़ रहा हूँ. एक दूरी सी आ गयी है हमारे बीच. तुम्हें पढ़ना अजीब लगने लगा है. अंग्रेजी का सहारा लेना पढ़ता है. विज्ञान, कहानियां, उपन्यास, सब कुछ अंग्रेजी में ज्यादा अच्छे स्तर का मिलता है. ज्यादा मिलता है. (अब मुझे ‘स्तर’ ही ध्यान नहीं आया. क्वालिटी और स्टैण्डर्ड ज़रूर दिमाग में आये)

थोड़ा दुःख होता है कि मेरी अंग्रेजी का स्तर तुमसे अच्छा है. मुश्किल विचारों को मैं सिर्फ अंग्रेजी में ही प्रकट कर सकता हूँ. वाद विवाद में अपने आप उसकी तरफ मुड़ जाता हूँ. परायों से बात करने में सबसे पहले अंग्रेजी ही निकलती है. ‘छोटे’ आदमी से तुममे बात होती है. ‘बड़े’ आदमी से अंग्रेजी में.
पर अपनेपन का एहसास तभी होता है जब मैं तुम्हारा इस्तेमाल करता हूँ. विदेश में ज़रूर तुममे बात करता हूँ. अपनों से बात तुमसे ही की जाती है. अब जब भी तुममे कहानियां पढ़ता हूँ, दिल के उस तार को छू जाती हैं जो कोई अंग्रेजी कहानी नहीं छू पाई. अंग्रेजी पिक्चर में जब तक subtitles ना हों, तब तक मुझे पूरी तरह विश्वास नहीं आता कि मैंने सही समझा है कि नहीं. गानों के शब्द समझने के लिए काफी प्रयास करना पड़ता है.

ऐसा क्यूँ है? क्या ये ज़रूरी है कि अंग्रेजी के करीब आने के लिए तुम्हारा साथ छोड़ना पड़े.
इससे पहले तुम पराई हो जाओ, मैं तुम्हें अपना बनाए रखना चाहता हूँ. वापस पढ़ना चाहता हूँ. लिखना चाहता हूँ. और इसके लिए मुझे अंग्रेजी का साथ नहीं छोड़ना पड़ेगा. और न ही उन भाषा आंतंकवादियों के साथ मिलना पड़ेगा जो शुद्धता और संस्कृति के नाम पर तुम्हें और तुम्हारे चाहने वालों को सीमित रखना चाहते हैं. हो सकता है कि वर्तमान में तुम्हें कुछ शब्द दूसरी भाषाओं से उधार लेने पड़ें. पर वो स्वाभाविक है. उससे तुम्हारा स्तर और अपनापन कम नहीं होता. बढ़ जाता है. और कुछ समय में, वो अपने ही हो जाएंगे.

आधुनिक विज्ञान, विचार और शिक्षा तुम्हारे द्वारा नहीं हो सकती क्या? क्यूँ तुम्हारी किताबों का स्तर निचला रहे? जब हमारा समाचार, सिनेमा और अपनेपन की बातें तुममे हो सकती हैं तो क्या हम तुम्हारा दायरा बढ़ा कर दुनिया के ज्ञान और विज्ञान को व्यक्त नहीं कर सकते? क्या तुम्हारे ही माध्यम से दुनिया को तुम्हारे चाहने वालों के पास नहीं पहुंचा सकते?

कर सकते हैं. मैं प्रयास ज़रूर करूँगा. कुछ और न सही, वापस तुम्हारे करीब तो आऊंगा. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Will you beat me?

We have recently revamped our ‘basti’ library. Xook (pronounced zook) Books is its new name. We are trying everything to spread the word and get kids into the library. We are quite innovative about it too. Our strategy is that we stand on the road, stop kids walking on the road and ask them to come to the library. Does it actually work? Well, it does. A lot of them walk in after asking questions like – "What kind of books?" 
"Is there a fee?"

A few days back, my mother stopped a small boy and asked him to come and explore the library. 
"What's there?"
"It’s a place for you to read." 
The boy was a little skeptical. He asked – 
"I can read anything?!"
"Yes, you can read anything."
"If I don’t read, you will not beat me, will you?"

She was stunned. Speechless. She wanted to embrace him, comfort him and say – 'We will not beat you. Ever!'

Beating children is widespread in India. Everyone does it - parents, relatives, teachers, principals. This report, though slightly old, highlights the issue of corporal punishment. As this article mentions- 

"Despite being outlawed by the Right to Education Act in 2009, corporal punishment continues unabated in India’s schools. Just some headlines from the last few weeks. Jharkhand: "Teacher beats 8 year old to death." Ghaziabad: 6-Year-Old Allegedly Beaten by Teacher For Not Doing Homework. Howrah: "Class Eight Student Allegedly Beaten with Iron Chains by Teacher." One teacher in Kakinada did not even spare visually challenged students, beating them mercilessly."

A couple of days back, a new boy walked into the library. He looked a little lost so our librarian made him sit down and read him a story. After finishing the story, she told him to wander and explore the books. He went through multiple books before choosing one and sat down to read it. It appeared like he was struggling with it. Seeing him struggle, our librarian got up to help him. To get a better look at the book, she moved his hand. His hand automatically turned with palm facing up – prepared to be caned. He pleaded - 
"No. I am reading. Don’t hit me."

When I heard about it, I was disturbed and shocked at the instinctive sense of fear. Violence and fear is ingrained with reading and studying. However, what happened next gave me hope and belief to continue to do what we do. One of our 'Xook-ie' (yes, that's a word) kids looked at him and informed him – 
"Arey! Don’t be scared here. Nobody hits anyone here. You are safe here."

There is just joy of reading here!

This post has also been published on Indiateach - The Indian education blog.