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
Poha

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.
Kachori
Kachori
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
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.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sustainable Political Engagement

Throughout my life, I have never followed politics. Political people, regions, parties, portfolios were alien to me. The only exception was during Obama's first election campaign. There was something about his oratory that captivated me (like a billion other people probably). I watched a lot of his speeches, sometimes multiple times. It was unfortunate that my political interest in US at that time was exponentially higher than it had ever been for Indian politics. This will not be true for everybody but I have not engaged, or seen a lot of people engage, in political debate and discussions a lot. I have mostly seen political discussion done by a handful of my friends.

There is widespread abandonment of public systems in our country, especially by the middle class - education, healthcare, urban spaces, environment, water, politics. As we have moved from a market economy to a market society, the basic public services are now privatized and intersection of different layers of society is decreasing. 

Still, things have changed quite dramatically in the past few months when it comes to political engagement. I have not seen an election where everybody is so passionate and worked up about the ideologies and people they support. Painstaking research is being done by individuals to validate their beliefs and claims. 

Let's take this incident. 

I post an article about a certain political candidate on my facebook wall. One my friends from IIT comments:

"There are bound to be separatist and sadist sections in every think tank, but does that affect the health of the country as a whole?" 
... And by saying that she was well dressed and all, is he saying that the poor need not have a sense of morality. Using nazi reference to sensationalize one's view is definitely the last straw, that too with complete disregard to the efforts that went in to ensure the riots from causing much more loss of life. A typical self righteous, bourgeois point of view from a half informed author."

I must admit, I was quite surprised. It was not because of that person's belief but because of the heavy language used. 'Sadist', 'self-righteous', 'bourgeois'! And not coming from a JNU or law student but from an IITian who I least expected it from. What happened to IITians not being able to understand political science and all of these 'intellectual' subjects? 

Another friend of mine (again IIT), posts these updates on his wall -  

Sample 1 - "BJP and Congress hid themselves behind the section 22 of the NCT act of Delhi. This section requires a prior assent/sanction of Central Government with respect to Finance bills to be introduced in Delhi assembly. 
First of all, the same NCT act says in the subsequent section 26, that even if the prior approval is not taken, if the LG and in some cases the President gives assent to the bill after the assembly passes it, the bill will be considered valid. 
Second of all, DLP is not a finance bill. The expenditure of running Lokpal in Delhi will come out to be 50-100 crores which the Delhi government can fund from its own budget."

Sample 2 - "Even the Rule 55(1-a) transaction of Business rules state that LG only needs to refer those bills to Centre which are passed by state assembly and are repugnant with the Central law. 
Delhi government or any state government does not work 'under the supervision' of Union government. Constitution provides for 3 separate lists namely the union list, state list and concurrent list. If the Home ministry denies permission for any bill on state/concurrent list to be tabled in a state assembly, it would mean an encroachment by the Centre on the rights of the State government. The state government is the supreme legislative body in the state."

I am shocked! This guy was posting troll pictures and love songs a few months back. Did he just finish a crash course under the Chief Justice? 

As long as the debates and arguments remain civilized and tolerant, all of this is amazing. People start participating in public affairs and politics becomes a service for the public once again, we might be able to say that we are a well-run democracy instead of just surviving. This is cannot happen only in this election. This engagement has to continue, irrespective of whoever gets elected. 

I saw this video today and it tells everything I want to and more. Millions like Shyam Negi - keeping democracy alive since 1951. 


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mohtarma visits the library

Preeta finally visited the library after hearing about it for a year. On my request, she has penned down her experience there. This is the second guest-post on the blog, not counting the student writing posts, and as usual, the writing is much better than what is normally written on this blog. Hopefully, some of it will rub off on my writing too.

---- Mohtarma (Preeta) Speaks -----------------------

I was visiting Bombay in my first vacation in over a year, and I had this library on the list of places I had to visit. I had heard about it since the days of its inception – from stories of painting the walls to acquiring bookshelves. Finally, in January, I came around to visiting it. I had a couple of hours to myself before the children started coming in, which I spent browsing the books and revisiting the books that I had read when I was a kid like the Malory Towers books and the story about the enormous turnip. Before I realized it, the children started streaming in – some of them directly from school, without even having changed out of their uniforms or having lunch.

The curiosity about the new visitor, yours truly, spread like wildfire. “Nayi didi aayi hai”, the word went around. Soon, they took it upon themselves to show me around – where the library passes were kept, the balcony where they likes to read, where the fiction books were kept, where the science books were kept, and where the games were kept. The sense of pride and ownership they felt about this place was amazing.

They asked me about myself, and were eager to talk about their lives. When they heard that I was from Delhi, they even asked me about the jhadu party and how they won the elections.

My conversations with these kids were refreshingly honest – it took me a while to register how differently I was used to acting in a profession where every word is weighed to meet a certain purpose. When they asked me why I was visiting, I told them, “I love reading, and Prachur bhaiya told me about your library”. They told me about their favourite stories, or the homework assignment that they were working on and gossip about who got scolded in class for what mischief.

I read with some of the kids – watching their expressions change as they slowly moved from word to word. They took up books to satiate a curiosity, and not out of compulsion. To see them inspired by stories like Malala, to be scared of gruffalos, to be excited about the history of different countries reminded me of my own reasons why I enjoyed reading. Some of them played games. They involved me in their games, and they showed me how to play. Their acts of spontaneous kindness and unguarded friendships made me feel completely at home.



These were extremely smart, sensitive and impressionable children. They had a childhood very different from what I, or most people I know, had. And still, I could see in them the same excitement that I feel in turning the page of a book. Between long school hours, tuitions and work, the tiny room above the Mahalakshmi dairy in Kamraj Nagar was to these kids an alternative universe. A small space, and window of time, where the possibilities are endless. Everybody deserves that.