Friday, December 4, 2015

Where to read news in India

From not reading news at all till middle of college, I have come a long way. Everyday I open multiple news sites, twitter accounts and I get multiple newspapers at home. However, most people I know don't actively think about the news that they are consuming. Most editorials in India are really bad. Most places don't do good and enough ground-level reporting.

Here's my opinion on best places to consume news in India. I hunt for news on education, healthcare and data backed opinion so increased bias towards those.

Business-Standard - Excellent overall.
Well researched, insightful pieces that are backed by data. They really clear the air on economy, government efforts and policies. Pretty good editorials also by Shekhar Gupta, Mihir Sharma and Ninan. Way better in content and credibility than Economic Times.

Indian Express - Great general editorials.
Especially Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Their coverage of select stories is also fantastic. However, news selection is limited and tends to get carried away in its anti-establishment angle.

Indiaspend - Data pieces
Finally someone is researching problems in India using data. They cover a wide spread of problems.

Times of India - Widest news coverage
I know, I know. Toilet paper, Times of Boobs etc. Now set aside your outrage. It does have advertorials and lacks credibility. But it has the widest coverage. Everyday I see so much local news covered that is not covered in other newspapers. There is just more news in a TOI paper than in other papers. Compare and see.
It's editorial is pretty bad. They print Chetan Bhagat for christ sakes!

Scroll - Ground reports
They cover more education, education and other social sectors than any other paper. Every few days, a great piece of journalism will come like this one on healthcare in Kolkata.

The wire - Insider, anti-establishment pieces
They need more improvement but still produce some good reads.

Livemint - Good longform articles
Cover business areas that other newspapers don't. My personal favourite is Anurag Behar's column that stands out from the capitalist tone of the business papers.

The Telegraph - Outrageous headlines are fun to read.
Opinion by Mukul Kesavan and Ramachandra Guha are good. Nothing else to write home about.

Hindi - I still haven't come across a really good Hindi newspaper. Navbharat Times has decent news. Lokmat is Indian Express in Hindi so nothing new there. Naubharat is absolutely trash. Amar Ujala is average.

I want to keep on updating this post in light of new information. If you have any suggestions, let me know. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

नानी और धूम 3

2013 की बात है| धूम 3 रिलीज़ हुई थी| माँ देहरादून में थी नाना-नानी के पास| माँ को पिक्चरों का बड़ा शौक है पर अब तो कभी कभी ही देख पाती हैं|  देहरादून में हमारे घर के पास ही नया multiplex बना है| नाना-नानी को तो अब पिक्चरों का शौक नहीं रहा पर धूम 3 का  माँ का बड़ा मन था तो नाना-नानी को खींच कर multiplex ले गई| आप लोगों को धूम 3 का बारे में पता नहीं है तो ट्रेलर यहाँ देख सकते हैं|

दोपहर का शो था| टिकेट खरीद कर ये तिकड़ी सिनेमा पहुंची| अपनी सीटों पर इन्होने कब्ज़ा किया| पिक्चर शुरू हो गई| 15 मिनट बाद नानी थोड़ी बेचैन हो जाती हैं| सीट में हिलते हुए वे माँ की तरफ मुड़ी और बोली -
'अरे ये पिक्चर शुरू कब होगी ?'
माँ थोड़े अचम्भे में बोली -
'पिक्चर तो शुरू हो चुकी है| 15 मिनट से चल रही है|'
नानी ने मन में कुछ सोचा होगा| चुप चाप स्क्रीन की तरफ वापस मुड़ गई और शायद पिक्चर को और ध्यान से देखने लगी|  माँ को लगा की उनका मन लग गया है पिक्चर में| सब पिक्चर में इंटरवल हुआ तो नानी उठ कड़ी हुई|
माँ:  क्या हुआ?
नानी:  मैं घर जा रही हूँ|
माँ:  मगर क्यूँ?
नानी: पिक्चर में कुछ हो तो रहा नहीं है| लोग सिर्फ मोटरसाइकिल (motorcycle) ही चलाए जा रहें हैं| मैं सोने जा रही हूँ|

इतना कह कर नानी उठ कर घर चली गई| लगता है उदय चोप्रा का आकर्षण भी नानी को धूम 3 में नहीं रोक सका|

Thursday, July 2, 2015

India has given up on its citizens' healthcare

We were sitting in an executive room of one of the big private hospitals in the country. After our point of meeting was discussed, the two senior healthcare professionals lamented on the severe shortage of healthcare amenities in the country. 

Contrary to my expectation, they both rued the fact that unlike other countries, Indian government was not spending enough money on setting up public hospitals and healthcare facilities. They said that private hospitals such as theirs will never be able to serve the majority of India's population because of the costs. A larger public healthcare system will also ease their own pressures and workload. Also, hospitals need to be in the vicinity of people rather than far away. In their experience, they find that people prefer a 'good-enough' doctor closer to home than the 'best' doctor far away. Some of the government hospitals they had seen had an extremely good infrastructure and simply needed to be managed well. 

I got curious about our spending on healthcare and some basic research paints a very dismal picture. India has one of the lowest spending on health in the world. It is a miserly 4.5% of our GDP. Rather than GDP, the share of government's expenditure will paint an accurate picture about the government's intent towards providing minimum healthcare to all its citizens. 
And that's where we fall spectacularly. Only 4.7% of our annual budget! All the countries listed below including Pakistan (4.8%), Bangladesh (7.8%) and Nepal spend more share on their citizens' health. USA, UK, Germany, Japan spend close to 20% of their expenditure on health. China is getting there slowly.

Health Expenditure by the Government
All data from WHO (2013)

If one believes that healthcare is a public good and quality healthcare should be provided to all citizens, then a larger share of expenditure needs to be borne by public funds. Higher spending in private institutions in health (like in education or transport) indicates an unequal society. This also reflected in the data. 

More equal societies like Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, Japan etc showed more than 70% of healthcare expenses borne by the government. Unequal societies like USA and China had more private spending. Sadly, we had one of the lowest public spending in the world at 32% with the remaining 68% being paid by citizens to private institutions. 

Public vs Private Distribution of Healthcare Expenditure

The lack of public commitment to health simply creates a market for private players to provide services and extract profits. Our politicians have their hands deep inside this market. Given the fundamental nature of health, it is the poor that are affected the most.

Additionally, we have a severe shortage of skilled human resources in this field. The Medical Council of India is one of the biggest scams in the country which doesn't allow setting up of more medical colleges despite dire need of professionals. The crores of backdoor donation industry keeps on thriving while the Indian government has given up on our healthcare.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why I don't want to be an IAS Officer

"China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy, recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history. Those who aspired to a career in the imperial service had to submit to three stages of gruelling tests conducted in specially built exam centres, like the one that can still be seen in Nanjing today – a huge walled compound containing thousands of tiny cells little larger than the lavatory on a train:

These tiny brick compartments [a European traveller wrote] were about 1.1 metres deep, 1 metre wide and 1.7 metres high. They possessed two stone ledges, one servicing as a table, the other as a seat. During the two days an examination lasted the candidates were observed by soldiers stationed in the lookout tower … The only movement allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies, or removing human waste. When a candidate became tired, he could lay out his bedding and take a cramped rest. But a bright light in the neighbouring cell would probably compel him to take up his brush again … some candidates went completely insane under the pressure.
No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination. But with its strong emphasis on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 characters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution. It was fiercely competitive, no doubt, but it was not the kind of competition that promotes innovation, much less the appetite for change. The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclusion of the masses from their activities."
This extract about 14th century Chinese bureaucracy is from Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest. 

Indian Civil Services Exam. The number of my friends who have prepared or are preparing for this exam for months and years is not small. It has become an industry, like all competitive exams in India become. Seeing their hard work, I was curious about the selection procedure. So I went through the earlier question papers of subjects I have some understanding about. I also looked at the interview questions. While I am not any expert, I have a feeling that this selection process is not unlike the Chinese model of 14th century. 

Like most competitive exams in India (CAT, CLAT and the like), this one is also deadly dull, excludes the masses and produces a conformist, conservative, mostly English speaking elite. And boy, elite it definitely is.

Why do so many of my skilled friends who are engineers, accountants, scientists and lawyers want to be IAS officers? The most common reasons are 
  1. Assurance of a Sarkari Naukri (government job) - The holy grail of Indian families. This is not the main reason for many of my friends who have other lucrative career options if they so desire. However, I wonder, why not other government jobs which require their skill. There are engineers, scientists and lawyer jobs in the government which are also at similar pay scales. 
  2. Power and Prestige - This is the main reason. IAS officers are treated like demi-Gods. They have big houses and many servants. Their families live comfortably. They are part of this elite community. They have a lot of power and prestige, much more than other government positions. That's why my engineer friends prefer to be IAS rather than civil or mechanical engineers in Railways or Defense.  
  3. Service the citizens - Some people choose this because they think this is a good way to provide essential services to the citizens and make their lives better. However, the number of people for whom this is the prime reason is a small minority.

Given all this, how does the bureaucracy actually perform?
A study by the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released in 2012, ranked and rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. According to the study, India's inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy was responsible for most of the complaints that business executive have about the country. A paper prepared in 2012 by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions states that corruption is prevalent at all levels in civil services and it is institutionalized.

The problem with too much prestige based on success on a single selection process (which is debatable) is that the selected feel unreasonably meritorious. Most IITians, IIM grads and bureaucrats suffer from this syndrome in varying quantities. In the case of civil services, this leads to excessive pride in generalist and managerial abilities. Inter-domain transfers hinder the development of specialized knowledge and expertise. Some good recent opinions on this are in the Express and Business Standard. A good case for a separate Indian Education Service is made by Ranjekar and Giridhar, stalwarts of Azim Premji Foundation and University. I am sure that there are other fields where a similar case can be made.

If you speak to bureaucrats, they will tell you all kinds of problems - political interference, uneducated masses, lack of initiative in the system etc. Seldom will they mention that they have just been transferred from the agriculture to the education department and have no clue about the principles or best practices in education.

This (arrogance?) is caused by many factors. There is social superiority given by their position. The quality of their Grade 2 and lower officers and support staff is even worse. The sycophancy by private vested interests and their junior staff is nauseous. Apart from corruption and political influence, while the entrance may be meritocratic, the promotion system is entirely the opposite of meritocracy. Initiatives can lead to 'problems'. Given many such experiences over time, many choose to just pass time without controversy. So much better to be inactive and safe rather than proactive and unsafe.

In no developed country do generalists (apart from politicians) have such power and control over areas which should be in the hands of specialists.

Personally, I find it difficult to work if I am given respect and standing which is not based on my expertise. In IAS, I don't have the choice of choosing my field or my mentors. And I want to specialize in a field and do good work in it.

I do want to work to improve the public system, especially education. But maybe becoming a bureaucrat is not the best option. Though, it might be worth reconsidering if they start the Indian Education Service.

Disclaimer: The intention of this post is not to malign bureaucrats. There are hard working, sincere people at all levels in the system and India would be even worse without them.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The agony of IPL on TV

I am not the 'classiest' of cricket fans as I don't normally watch Test cricket at a stretch. I also don't care much for the IPL or its teams. Still, it has normally been watchable despite being quite forgettable. Post World cup fatigue is obvious this year like it was in 2011.

However, This IPL is probably one of the worst sports broadcasts in the history of the world. The trashy bollywoodization of the sport is now complete. It all starts with the 'theme' song - India ka tyohaar - which just shows dancing un-commentators like Siddhu, Shoaib Akhtar, Gaurav (started as a VJ) and some women I don't care to know the names of. If one just looks at this wedding style dance sequence, one can never guess that it is about a sports tournament.

The studio match analysis starts and ends with a bunch of girls doing a dance routine in cheerleader clothes. Except for titillating the horny Indian male, they serve no other purpose. The commentary in the studio is done by some TV artists with expert comments from Siddhu and Akhtar. There is not a single serious and half-decent sports commentator that has been recruited to give this tamasha feel like a tournament.
Who can shut him up?
Siddhu has gone from bad to worse. When he is not mouthing couplets, he is still mouthing couplets. There is no pause, only excited, meaningless poetry. In fact, he talks so much that Sony Max does not even keep a co-commentator during large stints of Siddhu's commentary. For our MBA loving society, this is gold. Commentator efficiency metric can be devised which leads to profit maximization due to this cost reduction of another commentator. If Siddhu can't keep the audience engaged, show made-up women conducting dumb interviews.

There is hardly any difference in our daily soaps, prime-time news and IPL broadcast. In this tackiness, the real cricket played by the players gets undermined.

Sadly, this tackiness is not only there on TV. It is also there in the stadiums. Sidharth Monga writes describes his agony trying to follow 'cricket' in the stadium.

Update: They have some decent, regular commentators like Gavaskar now in the studio.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Guilty Elite: The Bloody Poor #2

It is very common to hear statements like these from my family and friends -
  • Oh these poor people don't want to work...
  • You don't know these poor. I know them very well. All of them are lazy... 
  • They don't plan for the future but waste their money...
  • They should not be treated well or they will get used to it...
  • They want to live on subsidies and free stuff...
  • MNREGA and Food Bill has spoiled them. Why will they work?...
It is reminiscent of those movie showing the colonial British where they used to say: 'These bloody Indians....' The ignorance of their lives is the same. The transactional nature of the interaction with them which is devoid of any human relationship is the same. Clumping together a huge group of diverse people is the same. Most of all, the tone and the contempt for our fellow country men and human beings is ALSO the same. 

I came across this wonderful poem by Shefali. Her other wonderful poems and writing can be accessed here. I have attempted a very poor and literal translation in English as well.

आम  आदमी (The Common Man)

मेरे देश में इंसानियत न जाने किस कैफियत में जीती है,
पानी बहता है घर में, बाहर गरीबी दिनों की प्यासी होती है |

(I am not sure why humanity lives in such stinginess in my country
water flows in the house, outside poverty is thirst for days)

क्यों पालता हूँ मैं यह 15, 26 , 2 अक्टूबर के ढकोसले,
362 दिन जब मेरी मोहब्बत आँख मूँद कर सोती है |
क्यों स्वार्थ  का अंत नहीं मेरे, क्यों मैं कुछ बाँट नहीं पाता,
गाडी की चमक के सामने, क्यों उसकी रोटी की भूख छोटी है |

(Why am I part of the shams on 15 Aug, 26 Jan and 2 Oct
when my love sleeps peacefully for 362 days of the year.
Why is there no end to my self-interest, why can't I share something,
In front of my car's glossiness, why is his hunger for bread frivolous.)

"My boss is a sadist" goa के लिए छुट्टी देने से कतराता है,
मेरी 19 साल की नौकर का इक बार न आना, मुझे रास नहीं आता है |
"यह छोटे लोगों को छूट देना , होती है अच्छी बात नहीं",
झट से कह देता हूँ मैं, आती उसकी बूढी अम्मी याद नहीं |

(My boss is a sadist because he detests giving me leave for Goa,
Absence of one day of my servant for 19 years is hated.
"Giving leeway to these smaller people is not good",
I say it quickly without thinking about his old mother.

Pizza Hut में मैंने अपने बच्चे का जन्मदिन मनाया था,
उसके सामने 2 बच्चों ने हमारा कूड़ा उठाया था |
पेशावर में जो हुआ, उससे मेरा खून खौला था,
3000 बच्चों को भूख ने उस दिन, मौत की तरफ धकेला था |

(I celebrated by child's birthday at Pizza Hut,
2 children cleared out the garbage in front of it.
I blood boiled at what happened at Peshawar,
Hunger killed 3000 children that same day.)

भिखारियों को पैसा देना, माफिया को बढ़ाता है,
NGO को दिया पैसा तोह करप्शन में ही जाता है |
मेरा दिल फेसबुक पर गरीबों के लिए धड़कता है ,
पर मुझे अपना पैसा मेरे बैंक में ही अच्छा लगता है |

(Giving money to beggars strengthens the mafia,
Giving money to NGOs is adding to corruption.
My heart beats for the poor on Facebook,
but I like my money in my bank only.)

मैं कैसे कर लेता हूँ यह, सोच के मैं शर्मिंदा हूँ,
आम नहीं हूँ ख़ास हूँ मैं, यह सब करके भी ज़िंदा हूँ |

(I feel ashamed about how I manage to do this,
I am not common but privileged that I am alive even after doing all this.)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Guilty Elite: Toilets #1

This is the first post in a start of a series (hopefully) which will show inequality. I will try and keep judgment out of it.

I went to watch Byomkesh Bakshi at R-City Mall today. When I was in the loo, it seemed like they had managed to fit in an inordinately large number of urinals in that space. I don't think anyone would ever have to wait for someone else to finish. Feeling very curious, I counted.

In a Cinema in Tokyo (from Wikicommons)
Another place where I have never had to wait is the public toilet at CST Station in Mumbai. It has many stalls for men to stand and pee on the wall. It doesn't have urinals. I remember counting the stalls there as well.

I did some basic finding and calculation about the number of people visiting at each location. R-City mall has 8 theaters. One theater I counted had around 250 seats. Let's take that to be the average. Tomorrow, 6th April Monday, there will be 42 shows running during the day. So the maximum number of people that can ever watch a movie in a single is day is roughly (250 x 42) 10,000. I think, R-City would be happy to have even 7,000 people in a day and the average would be more like 5,000.

So here are the statistics (minor errors possible):

Movie show timings - 9 AM to 1:30 AM
Train timings - 4 AM (ish) to 12:45 AM

Number of people visiting daily

  1. CST Terminus: More than one lakh -  > 1,00,000
  2. R-City: 5,000 average (10,000 is the absolute best case)
So CST has at least 10 (usually 15-20) times the number of people.

Toilet Facilities

  1. CST Terminus: 42 urinals. 4-5 taps. Don't know about toilets.
  2. R-City: 47 urinals. 7 wash basins. 7 toilets. 
More number of every facility and obviously, much better in quality. I don't have pictures of either since I couldn't find any of them empty at any point of time.

P.S. As much as things change, the more they remain the same. :)
Our consecutive seat numbers. 17 after 15

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."