The miles to go before I sleep...

  • Start teaching science at school and incorporate demo
  • Research, design, implement comprehensive teaching module on science, civic sense
  • Interview social change agents working @ ground level
  • Pilot peer-to-peer teaching programme

Monday, December 15, 2008

Is targeting the poor alone always efficacious?

With my on and off involvement with centers close to social development, I find one attitude that may have to be changed for better efficacy of social initiatives. Let me have the first stab at defining the attitude.

"A social initiative will produce a better impact when it is targeted towards the economically poorer sections of the society. The richer the beneficiaries are, the lesser social impact it has.."

While in general this point has a validity, it has to be revisited for every specific case. Here is an example. A team of my friends and I conducted a science demo in a private school nearby. When I talked about this, "Don't you think your initiative would be more useful to students of government schools?" was one question that popped up universally. My answer is "In my case doing it in *this* private school is likely to have a higher social impact" . Why?

1. This private school doesn't have a lab infrastructure in spite of the students paying a nominal school fee (Rs. 200/- per month).

2. The students here do have a capability to read, listen to and understand English, Telugu and Hindi which provides us flexibility in our implementation. So, it gets easier for us to get more students to start "thinking and reasoning science" - a better success rate at our initiative. On the other hand, a government school on which we are working on the ability to grasp English is lesser providing us with challenges (lesser number of teachers from our office)

Much more importantly, access to better education sure is relatively much more difficult for the poor. However, schools that fall in the economic category of the one that we are working on also face problems faced by government schools (non-availability of teachers, labs etc.). In addition to that they also suffer the ignorance of NGOs that rush to help poor quality government schools. It is almost as if these students are paying Rs. 200/- per month to be ignored!

Thankfully, in our case, we need to ignite as many minds to think and reason (in science and others..). In our eyes, whether the students have the ability to pay Rs.200/- or not, if their inclination to reason is lacking, they are equally poor! Only the former is equipped with a skill (English language) that offers flexibility for us to make a better impact.

A society, apart from being categorized into economically richer and poorer, can also be categorized into rich and poor based on other criteria. And the economically richer need not be richer (or have better opportunity) in all the other categories. Social upliftment, one must remember, is not only the upliftment of the economically poorest, but the upliftment of the society as a whole.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Terrorism in, parochialism out ... for now at least

I am not interested in going deep into the Mumbai terror strikes, which is already over-analyzed in all spheres. But the one silver lining that I see out of this unprecedented and audacious act is that everyone, including the politicians have for once forgot about petty parochialism. Raj Thackrey shut up for sometime now, or if he is still talking, there is none to listen. But it is such a pity that sanity on one issue has to be established only superceding it with a far worse insanity! Pity!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Face-to-Face with Comat technologies

Cross-posted from ThinkChange-India

TC-I Fundwatch has recently reported a Rs. 60-crore investment by Omidyar Network and Unitus Equity Fund (UEF) on Comat technologies, a profitable social enterprise doing business with the rural poor.

The CEO of Comat technologies Sriram Raghavan recently talked to NASSCOM Emerge Blog and offered some good insights into Comat's success in becoming a profitable social business.

Sriram's answer to one question explains the business model of Comat technologies succinctly.

"Q. Your own business is built around the Rural Business Centres. What exactly are these?

SR: It is a very simple concept. The rural business centre is primarily an access point for rural citizens, where we use technology to deliver different kinds of services - only those that help improve the quality of life in villages. We don’t want to sell soaps and consumer goods.

I’ll give you two examples. Take government certificates such as birth, death, land and property related papers. If you have to get one from the taluk or the district office, you have to go to that particular office, wait in a long line and follow cumbersome processes. We deliver it to the village directly – it takes about five minutes for the same cost, i.e., Rs. 15 per certificate. This makes a very big difference to the rural consumer.

The other area we are in is education. There are teachers in rural areas, but the quality of education is very poor. Our centres bring live classes from best teachers in cities who broadcast their lessons online, much like the erstwhile UGC programmes. Except that here, we have two- way interaction and the students and teachers can speak to each other."

Sriram Raghavan also shared a few of his experiences with rural consumers that can come handy to a new social enterprise venturing into the villages.

"In a typical agrarian set up, income generation is a twice-a-year cycle – unlike in urban areas where we earn monthly salaries. It is important to bear this in mind as you have to position your product around this insight."

With a turnover of Rs.55 crore while improving the lives of about 10 million rural inhabitants, there should be little doubt about the success of this unique business model. But the best aspect about the venture is that it has identified one critical handicap of the Indian villages and working successfully towards eliminating it. Better said by the man himself.

"All these years, rural India has been isolated; they have been “informationally disabled”. It is now time for a change and we want to ensure that."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Live accident report: Are we learning anything?

The picture didn't turn out to be clear...but two things
  1. it still delivers the message
  2. for once I am glad it didn't since the real scene was terrifying and nauceating (literally one more minute and I would have passed out!)

It happened right outside my residence but on the opposite side of the road, as I was walking home. I just heard the loud crash. But as I crossed the road, I knew that the guy passed out the moment he hit the ground. He was injured in the back of his head and, needless to say, it was profusely bleading.

The only thing that went right was that someone immediately called 108, the ambulence service (one good service for the insane hyderabad traffic). But what went wrong?

  1. No helmet!
  2. His companion, who escaped unhurt, had no clue that the first thing to do is to stop the bleeding, nor did the on-lookers. None seemed to have first few minutes after an injury to a vital organ is crucial. That guy basically racing to his death. ZERO AWARENESS OF FIRST-AID! It took another first-aid dumbo to tell him to stop the bleeding.
  3. The on-going traffic dutifuly stopped to catch a glimpse of the accident and pay "homage" to the hapless victim. The called ambulence can reach to about 100-150m from the victim, but no further. The police was on scene regulating the traffic, but the flow was still slow. In this situation, if you are on scene and if you are not helping, your are hurting!

But he is just one in a billion....a piece of statistic...what is the lesson learnt...right? Look at the picture again...

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

From Madness towards Method

Be it your office pantry, or a weekend gathering of friends, when you run out of topics to gossip, all you have to do is drop in a word "traffic" and everyone one will suddenly find a story to say and gripe about the anomaly. A few socially active ones among us will take it a little forward by trying to propose a CSR initiative to regulate traffic in an area near the location of their work. But I personally believe that traffic regulation will be ineffective if the initiative doesn't involve the traffic police. I would be even better, if traffic police initiates and leads the initiative...which is why I was pleasantly surprised this morning as I was walking by the Police lines circle, as I watched the traffic police hard at work.

Standing by the sidewalk with my phone-camera, I could see that the police working with maddened determination to three things right the first time and then repeat it throughout the day, hoping to "train" the beast to comply with the order.

  1. At the whistle, stop behind the stop line. Motorists wishing to take a right, stop to the right side of the road.
  2. Allow the pedestrians to use the zebra crossing to cross the road
  3. At the next whistle, allow the traffic flowing straight to go, while holding the traffic flowing right (or take a U-turn).
  4. At the next whistle (when the traffic on the other side of the road is stopped), allow the held traffic to take a right or U-turn.
Repeat it!

Standing there and looking at the constant whistling and frantic gestures of the traffic police, I could realize that this job is so much easier said than done! The police might have chosen today, a holiday due to observance of Id-ul-fitr, to exercise this pilot but the traffic was still huge. Nevertheless, they seemed to have handled the traffic quite well.

But man! it was quite a sight to see vehicles neatly lined up against the stop-line to allow the pedestrians pass without fear of being run over! Finally, one small step towards method in what is the very essence of madness. Hope this pilot doesn't die at infancy, but grows and lives long enough to get into the subconscious mind of the average motorist to prompt him/her to follow the traffic rules.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Redefining Thirst

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: design crisis)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A "win-win-win" idea for education

This idea about improving education at the bottom of the pyramid (every one uses the phrase these days!) came to me in a flash when I was in the middle of a class when I wasn't even thinking about it consciously. But the more I thought about it ,the more I realized its win-win-win potential not only in education, but also in social integration. Doesn't it sound awesome?

Ok, no more beating around the bush, here is the idea. Its simple. Private schools strive to improve their students' performance. Government schools just can't get their kids to cross the pass mark since they don't have good teachers and labs. Private school students don't get out enough to have a good community-activity-based learning at school. To strike all these with a single effort, I say, get get all these students from private schools, to a government school to teach there.

- Government school kids get "access" to private school teaching (lets say the kids teach under the supervision of the private school teacher). Further, kids approach their friends first when in doubt. So, better learning prospects for government school kids. If teaching is in the form of a demo, even better!

- A student learns better when he/she teaches. So, potentially the academic performance of private school kids is likely to improve too!

- Kids get exposed to other kids of different economic background, hence get a feel on one anothers' lifestyle early on. I feel this would help moulding them into socially aware and sensitive adults who understand the "other side" better.

If the private schools involve all their kids and count this activity as a replacement of, say a couple of class tests, they can count it against their internal (or call it externals!) while giving a breather to their students from those mundane class tests. I think this idea lends itself to easy validation. All one has to do is observe the medium-level performers in private schools (say students who score 75%-90%) to see if tihis exercise helps them close in on the rank-holders.

Since private schools constantly strive to improve academic performance, if the school prinicpal is an "experimenting kind" this idea should attract her. I guess from here on a lot of implementational problems may arise. How does this strike you as an idea?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Profile - Amy Smith, MIT D-labs

Ms. Amy Smith is an instructor MIT's D-Lab which offers courses in Mechanical Engineering. But unlike the conventional engineering course or lab, Ms. Smith along with Ms. Bishwapriya Sanyal offer a course in which engineering students don't just learn the concepts of mechanical engineering, but go all the way to complete a product that addresses need of the under served communities of different parts of the world.

In a four-part course, the students start out ( in the "Design" part)learning about specific sectors of development that need to be addressed and the appropriate technology that can be applied. The second ("Development") part, is a combination of
  • lecture, which talks about various aspects of design like affordability, sustainability, design for manufacture and assembly,
  • Labs that offer experience on fundamentals like welding, circuit-boad design, CAD etc
  • Case studies and field trips to understand the needs of the people to who this product will eventually be useful
  • design review discussions to present and refine ideas of the product
The third ("Dissemination") part of the course focuses on brain-storming ideas to make the product that conceived by part-two to be "ready to roll", which includes making the product scalable, affordable and marketable. The fourth part executes what was conceived in part three.

In the process, her team has been successful in providing local solutions for local yet, problems local to a specific region as against trying to find a generic "one-size-fits-all" solution. The best example for this is offered by the following video of her presentation outlining a method of using sugarcane waste and biomass to produce a clean and efficient fuel thus providing a solution to the worst killer of children under five - household cooking smoke, but also to make the fuel at home using the abundant agricultural waste (this avoids cutting trees and cuts down on expenses in buying fuel) Truely amazing...and this is just one of the projects in MIT D-labs.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Laptop for school kids

A recent post in ThinkChange India made me squander much of my work time into this post. But what the hell!

When the news comes out, it sure does come out in bulk! :) This is not the only laptop for education story I came across within the last week. Here is Classmate from Intel and ICT's research initiative on a computer for Rs. 400. This sure seems to be another emerging trend that will change the future forever. But is it for good or for the worse? Here is my take.

1. The three laptop initiatives put together, laptop should reach the bottom of the pyramid faster. I have my doubts about XO and classmate, but if ICT's initiative is a success, Rs.400 laptop should be affordable to anyone who is rich enough to afford school books.

2. "meant for education", probably means that it allows parents worried about the darker side of the internet such as adult content to breathe easy.

3. About "expensive laptops vs. reading, writing", I think reading and writing wouldn't suffer a loss that can't be compensated by improved creativity, skill and understanding that current book-oriented education suffers from.

The idea of bringing technology right into classroom sounds amazing, but I wonder if this initiative is taken because of a clearly identified necessity in the academia that such laptops can address (looking at it from the govt's perspective rather than OLPC or ADAG). It is one thing to use a laptop for an academic purpose and it is another to modify the academia for using a laptop! Currently, I don't see any resource that talks about this. So, while I don't see this as a definite negative, I doubt if the state cares enough to architect an educational model that includes the laptop to serve its purpose rather than model itself for using the laptop.

Another concern is, cheaper laptops is likely to translate into more laptops, quicker obsolescence and more wastes...and that with already bad waste management system and a proven slow and reactive (as against proactive) government, the future of waste management doesn't look too good. But, this may be the catalyst that pushes the govt. to do something about wastes.

On the whole, I find that the negatives such a improving the curriculum, waste management are a few things that have to be done regardless of the"laptop for education", but a computer with the purpose of making education entertaining, creative and productive would be a big leap forward at best and a small leap forward at its worst. So, Go laptop!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mr. Role model IAS

The offshoot of the fast growing economy and getting-rich-fast middle class is not only the fast increasing consumerism, but also fast increasing social consciousness among the young-and-the-restless. Consequently, the government apathy and corruption seems to dominate the hot debate, be it in the media or overtea.

But are all those in the government corrupt? Or all of them callous towards their duty? Over the last few month I have come across some surprising encounters that demonstrated extra ordinary commitment public interest amongst a few bureaucrats (IAS officers) who, in their flesh and blood, walk the surface of India (this is a partial lift-off from Einstein's famous mention about Bapuji).

Here is quick mention of three of them

Mr. M.N. Vijaykumar, IAS (Bangalore, Karnataka)

He has been a crusader against corruption among his colleagues and politicians in the state of Karnataka for the past 25 years. He had once tried to introduce a transparent systems by which files related to public works are freely available online at (link broken), but three days before the site became operational, he got transferred with immediate effect. That was just one of the six-times he was transferred for either blowing the whistle or trying to make the system more transparent. His wife maintains a frequently updated blog in which she claims harrassment and threats by his own higher-ups and attempts on his life. She also has a forum for people to participate.

Dr. Santhosh Babu, IAS (Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu)
He has made news for his success in bringing school kids to where they belong - school!. In his back2school program he partners with Sarva Shikha Abiyan and AID India, uses computer technology to track kids who don't show up for school, and send a Village Volunteer force (VVF) track them down, find out the reason (usually the necessity to work), solve their respective problems and bring the kids back to school.

To show the scale and effectiveness of this program, let me provide two quotes from Business Standard here
"The effort involves a 10,000-Village Volunteer Force (VVF) consisting of child volunteers, panchayat presidents and headmasters of the 1,700-odd schools in the district."
"Using software aptly named, back2school, developed by Chennai-based Arbiter, the district administration monitors each schoolgoing child daily. And the results are showing: 8,000 of the 8,867 school dropouts are back in school."
And this is just one of the slew of his educational initiatives such as Ariviyal Anandam (Joy of science) program provides science kits and trains teachers to use them to teach children in about 10 districts of Krishnagiri, and Padippum Inikkum ("Education is interesting too") initiative to use trained volunteers of AID India and SSA help teachers and students to improve the reading ability of the kids by way personal attention and in-class demonstration.

Dr. Kushal Pathak, IAS India Post
A medical doctor by education and an avid web-developer by hobby he has harnessed his passion and profession to create not just one, but two useful platforms for the general public who may need help on social issues and issues related to handling the government. is a forum of citizens to help his/her fellow citizens on any problems he/she may face, from drinking problem, getting a ration card or filing a police complaint.

He has also created another web-portal dedicated to Right to information in which he has comprehensive information database and discussion forum for procedural and legal aspects exclusive RTI.

India has a lot of people and limited available resources. This leads to competition and inevitably forces people to bend or break the rules for survival. Given that, it is easy for anyone (not just a government official) with a secure job to step down from his/her ideological stance and settle for an easier way of earning his/her life (by way of corruption or simply shunning responsibility). In this scenario, the live example provided by these three extraordinary gentlemen (and I am sure a numerous others unknown to the general public) upholds the faith that good governance and justice do have place outside the
law books and among the society. It is just a matter of will.

Full credits to where it is due.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Indian media

For over half a decade now we are used to the rhetoric about the emerging superpowers India and China and how India, though much smaller and slower than China, has the democratic setup and independent journalism to its advantage.

While hypocrisy rules in the name of democracy, the so-called independent media is too weak and naive to be the watchdog that guards or restores the democratic values. The role of the media is all the more crucial when the masses are not enlightened enough to understand the complexities of the issues that will end up affecting their everyday life (eg. the union budget). But the Indian media has proven to be immature and incompetent so far. The article in India Together by Ramachandra Guha highlights the current status very well. But it doesn't really take Ramachandra Guha to point all this out. All we have to do is to watch the news channels and the writing is on the wall - big, bold, underlined and in uppercase.

For example, take the Indo-US nuclear deal. Now what would be the questions you and I want answered by the proponents if we are to decide for or against the deal? I thought about it for a few minutes, prepared a list of questions and tried to find some answers. Ideally these are the questions that the so-called distinguished media-men like Karan Thapar, Rajdeep Sardesai are supposed to ask the politicians when they manage to get them to the hot seat.
  1. Reports suggest that the most nuclear power would do Rediff: 8% TOI: 7%. Given that how can you justify the nuclear deal to be crucial?
  2. What would be costs in terms of natural resources used? Water, electricity etc..
  3. How will the consequent increase in the requirement of technical workforce (nuclear scientists, technicians etc) be addressed?
  4. Each nuclear plant is estimated to cost a lot and takes a long time to complete. What is the expenditure? How many nuclear plants will be constructed? How are the expenditure justified provided the return is insignificant and unguaranteed?
  5. What is the plan to dispose the nuclear waste safely?
  6. What is the estimated price of electricity when the nuclear power becomes operational? Will it increase, decrease, stay the same?
In other words, how will the deal help people?

Now when I searched for relevant interviews and articles to find out if any of them addresses the above questions, I found that most revolve around the political angle and focused on "how do you address what XYZ party's accusation" and "how do you react to abc minister's comments?". For example, An interview with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherji
CNN-IBN: Devil's Advocate - Pranab Mukherjee (pdf)

CNN-IBN's Indepth section on Indo-US Nuclear deal provides for the best example of the Indian journalism's lack of a sense of purpose. It is nothing but a collection of "Breaking news" that talks about a politician or a party . A few articles from the section..

Left accuses PM of telling 'blatant lies' in Parliament
Advani put personal gain above N-deal: Kapil Sibal

Not a single article really goes "in depth" into the deal, analyzes the 123 agreement or any other related document, interprets it and comes out with answering the question a common man would have.

The print media seems to do a better job than the television. Few artciles like this one in Times of India and this on in Hindu Business Line bother to expose people to some analysis. However, the larger fact still remains. The politicians get away with what they want to do and are not subjected to answering the questions that they are supposed to answer.

How exactly do we consider the Indian media to be an advantage?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The largest hypocricy

"Son, what’s your name?"

"Good…nice name.

"Father’s name?" "Anvar Rasheed".

"Mother’s name?"

"Lakshmi Devi".
The headmaster looked at the parents and asked: "Which religion should we note"?

"No need to note any. Please mention ‘no religion’."

"Caste?" "

The same."
The headmaster leaned back on his chair and asked rather gravely: "What
if he feels the need for a religion when he grows up?"

"He can choose his religion if and when he feels so."

Rather progressive, probably to the extent that if it happens in India, I would have guessed that it would only be in the movies. But it so happens that his has happened in the 7th std. social studies books of the Kerala state board. But this piece of text has blown-up into a controversy engulfing the entire state.

Just like how Indian movies have a monotonous mix of six songs, poor dialogues, scantily clad heroines and an ill-fitting comedy track, I find that such controversies have their own formulae. Look for a reformative work, cook up a controversy and blow it out of proportion, take to the streets in protest without proper permission, throw stones at the police, burn a bus or two, call for a bandh, force the government to thwart the reform, wait till the next work of reform to pop-up.

M.F. Hussain's paitings, Parzania, Tasleema Nasreen, Khushboo, Kashmir land transfer and the list goes on, but the story is the same. This is the best we can do in exercising democracy. Vandalize public property that was built with our own money. Paralize public life and incur losses that will come back to bite us. Thwart reform that would one day make us a tolerant society. Amidst all this the parties concerned (M.F. Hussein, Tasleema Nasreen, Kushboo) are often conveniently forgotten. The learning curve is absolutely flat.

I find perverse amusement to see the striking similarity between the poor wisdom of us Indians in understanding the quality of movies as well as democratic values. But that is who we are. A bunch of morons who can play cricket, write software, but somehow simply can't learn to resolve differences by proper democratic channels. If we say that we are the largest democracy, we actually become the largest hypocricy.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Bridging gap between academia and industry - One step closer?

I remember the days from undergraduate college when I would attend the computer lab session once a week, sit in front of a dying black-and-white computer monitor with nothing but MS-DOS and copying FORTRAN program from the "observation notebook".

I also remember that right after college, I used to go to TULEC - A TATA Infotech computer education center which charged Rs.40000/- for its software courses.

Looking back I can't but wonder if the courses that were offered to me in TULEC should ideally be part of my college curriculum. After all, all the software companies needed the skill and the century or so old University of Madras still had syllabus that was also probably as old and badly needed upgradation anyway. Couldn't the former push the latter for its own good? It seems the stakeholders, the companies and the government have finally turned that corner. FINALLY!

Addressing the Fifth annual NASSCOM HR Summit 2008 in Chennai (July 3-4), Dr. Chandramouli, IT Secretary of Tamil Nadu said that 'IT finishing schools' that "would act as a pre-employment training centre to hone the skills of both engineering and non-engineering students to make them readily employable" [The Hindu - July 4] would start functioning within a month's time. In this is public-private partnership training center would be up and running in all the districts of Tamil Nadu. Each centre would have about 25 computers and students will go through a 3-month training program designed and conducted by the participating companies.

An ICT Academy of Tamil Nadu (ICTACT) is also setup for training the faculty, apparently to allow the cutting-edge industry knowledge to percolate into classrooms directly.

Prima facie, the stakeholders (mainly the government) are serious about this initiative, given that the ICTACT is autonomous, with board of directors represented by the state government, academic and industry (it would be good to know who they are) and a research and training headquarters would be set up in Chennai.[ Business Standard - July 4]

But the scary part is, a search on ICTACT in Google or Tamil Nadu's IT department website comes up with nothing. I guess one has to wait just a little longer to see the bridge across the abyss that separates the academia and the industry, but hopefully only a little longer.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hitting the Road:Teaching module - Draft 1

Idea generated for schools so far
  • Teach kids to make their own notebooks.
  • Teach kids to make chalk piece

How does this help?
    • non-availability of free notebooks @ govt schools
    • Relevant vocational training
    • potential means to earn
  • Teach kids of appropriate age about technologies related to clean energy like solar energy
    • How tap solar energy
    • How the market is growing etc
How does this help?
    • creating experts in a market of demand for the future
  • All the soft-skills appreciated in a corporate environment
    • committing to a task of reasonable difficulty and completing it on time
    • being regular with work taken up and establishing proper communication about updates/possible delays
How does this help?
    • time-management, probably study better while being good at extra-curricular
    • develops proper attitude and work-ethics and improves job-prospects
  • Safety
    • Basic fire-safety
    • First-aid and emergency response
    • Details of phone numbers, addresses of hospitals in vicinity.
How does this help?
    • Duhh......!
  • Community activity
    • Some kind of an activity that sensitized them
  • Community activity
    • Some kind of an activity that sensitized them to importance of sanitation, public health, environment etc.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Access to notebooks at govenment schools

I was in conversation with an active member of India Sudar, an NGO working on the education for students from the lower-economic section of the society.

I came to know from him that while the government provides textbooks and uniforms for free, they don't have the capability provide notebooks. This unsurprisingly turns out to be a severe limitation to learning. When inquired, the government officials respond,
"Even the government has limited resources. To offset our limitations we have empowered the school's headmasters and senior teachers to partner local NGOs and philanthropists to receive the relevant aid".
Makes sense doesn't it? But I think, and the India Sudar member agrees, that this is not a sustainable model. So, what do we have? Even when ills like hunger and child-labor are removed from poor kids' way to the school, the good work is undone by the absence of guaranteed access to something as trivial as notebooks. I think this is a good idea for social entrepreneurship. Notebooks are available everywhere. Can be made from recycled paper too! Making notebooks is a good small-scale business. All it needs is an entrepreneurial idea that takes care of the economics and connects the demand and supply. Are you aware of any already existing models? (not donation of notebooks of course). Do you have any idea yourself?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why private education is supply-driven? And why is none talking?

It is a known fact that access to education for the people in the lower economic strata is a big problem. But at least it has got considerable visibility is partially addressed by NGOs and social entrepreneurs. But how about education for the middle class? Indian middle class gives great importance for education. This demand for the so-called quality education makes running a private school a lucrative business. Currently, private education is heavily supply-driven (schools), and the demand (parents) has very less say.

For example,
- Fees are high and increasing. And the donation, the need for which the school explain.
- Parents have very limited say on curriculum or the method of teaching they would prefer.
- one-dimensional education system (academics and rote-learning..bad/no sports program or arts program like learning music etc).

A few schools like DPS are exceptions at least in terms of quality of infrastructure. But it is still not a participatory model which includes parents. For example, I came to know from one of the parents (my aunt) that DPS doesn't even allow parents to enter the school premises during regular hours. Parents can't contact teachers at any time other than the scheduled parent-teacher meetings. In schools like DAV, an important selection criterion for kindergarten kids is the educational qualification of parents. What is the reasoning behind such rules? Why discriminate against a child for the ostensible fault of his/her parents?

I have never heard of a school that advertises "We provide a complete package of education, not only academics, but also community & environmental awareness and sports program." Nor can parents ask a school principal "Can you please tell me why your school is better than the rest?". But come to think of it, isn't that how it is supposed to be? After all, education is our constitutional right. Besides we are paying the schools, not the other way round.

Part of the problem lies with the parents. They liken teachers to medical doctors and assume that teachers know the best about the needs of their kids and they themselves are ignorant about it. However, the change in their mentality would be of little use if the absolute power of the schools doesn't change.

Currently, this absolute power is a problem precisely because because no one, especially parents, is considering it as a problem, let alone do anything about it! No one seems to be talking about it. I think that is where the change should begin.

The Wonders of Physics

Remember those days at school? Understanding how things work was an option as against a necessity. To put it correctly, it was relegated to being an option because of another necessity. Scoring! I remember my teacher standing under the blackboard and actually telling us "If yo u don't understand, Memorize!". That clearly defined the priority for us. To make things worse, we had a live example in the rank-holder. Irrespective of his/her understanding of the subject, he/she universally memorizes. Besides, we are left at the mercy of diagrams in science books that leave much to our ability to imagine, and the lab experiments that don't relate to what we study in the classroom to understand. In many ways, understanding was not even an option. Further still, which other subject apart from, may be, mathematics had any content to be understood?

English, Tamil: A bunch of poems to be memorized. For prose, the answers to the questions were always a couple of paragraphs..and some grammar to be remembered. Done!
Social studies: Memorize! Its a collection of stories, dates and names anyway.
Science was cat-on-the-wall. Some you understand, some you don't. But never mind. Go the social studies way!

Such an attitude bothered me even as a kid though I didn't know what to do to understand other than read the book again. Honestly, I really didn't think about how "understanding" is really going to help me in the future! I never had a future beyond the upcoming exam then! :) Looking back, the worst feeling I have is, I didn't even realize that science can actually be understood deeply.

Now, after reaching a stage when all those years of "darkness" won't matter anymore, (not to mention the lamenting so far...) it is still gratifying to know that someone is working to bring science in its natural form right to the people who needed it the most. Kids!

"The Wonders of Physics" is a series of demonstrations on various concepts of classical physics like light, sound, pressure, heat. The credit for this initiative goes to Professor Clint Sprott of The University of Wisconsin-Madisson. The videos taped during his demonstrations buffers for free online! You don't really need to have a kid who is struggling with understanding science to watch these videos! You can wash your sins that you were forced to commit in your school days even now. Its never too late! :)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Saving paper, saving trees? A few answers

I have posted the same post on NGO Post and got a few answers

First is a video that gives an idea about the tree-to-paper relationship

So, the number is 1 tonne of paper = 17 trees. One of the articles from says
"Unfortunately, the paper making process is not a clean one. According to the U.S. Toxic Release Inventory report published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pulp and paper mills are among the worst polluters to air, water and land of any industry in the country. The Worldwatch Institute offers similar statistics for the rest of the world. Each year millions of pounds of highly toxic chemicals such as toluene, methanol, chlorine dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde are released into the air and water from paper making plants around the world.

Paper making also uses up vast quantities of trees. But trees are a renewable resource, which means that once one is cut down another can be planted in its place. In fact, much of the wood used by paper companies in the U.S. comes from privately owned tree farms where forests are planted, groomed and thinned for harvest in 20 to 35 year cycles, depending on the tree species. Around the world, tree farms supply 16% of all wood used in the paper industry while the bulk comes from second growth forests. Only 9% of the wood used to make paper is harvested from old growth forests, which are impossible to replace because of their maturity.

Yet, while tree farms or plantations help feed the demand for wood, they can't provide the plant and animal diversity found in natural forests. Plus, according to a 1996 report from the U.S. Forest Service, the rate of harvest for softwood trees in the southern United States outpaced growth for the first time since 1953."

To summarize, manufacturing paper results in environmental degradation less because of cutting trees and more because of the method used. Though this offers a good idea about paper and its impact on environment, one must note that these are data mostly associated with US. In the Indian context, I found this in Myth and Reality about Plastic

Paper is not eco-friendly

We need to remind ourselves that making of paper and products consumes a lot of chemicals and requires a large amount of water and effluent problems are severe. Besides paper, unless coated with polymeric materials (or wax), cannot withstand wet conditions which are widely prevalent in India, particularly during monsoon periods. Paper making also consumes a lot of energy. In the Indian context the most serious problem is the availability of pulp. Environmental degradation has unquestionably occurred due to pulp manufacturing activities as commercial forestry, on large scale, is still a taboo. Padmabhushan Prof. M. M. Sharma (FRS) "

I have also stumbled upon information related to conservation in general, not necessarily related only to papers.

The story of stuff has a 20 min video about how consumption-minded lifestyle is killing the planet's life. Its a lot of talk (not necessarily cliche) with lots of statistics. But the core point is

- Recycling is important, but most of the products used are not recyclable and
- Lesser consumption pays off better in preserving environment.

Another link portrays people's consumption in the US in a unique pictorial representation rather than plain statistics. For a listing of companies all over India, involved in recycled paper products click here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is saving paper, saving trees?

I head an employee-driven CSR team in my company in India. I get numerous suggestions about saving paper by replacing paper cups with ceramic mugs and re-using papers printed on one-side for "personal" print-outs.

Though I don't oppose these ideas, I have my reservations about their efficacy. Following are the questions that have surfaced to my mind repeatedly.

- Trees cut for making papers have to be replanted because, we will run out of papers otherwise. We have no idea about the number of trees we are losing because of making papers. We also don't seem to be running out of papers. So, in the end we don't know if we are really causing a significant depletion of trees. May be we are, but is there data?

- The only way to cut lesser trees without compromising the supply of paper is to recycle paper. India seems to have a defunct system of recycling wastes. If we are indeed degrading environment by cutting a lot of trees, it is possible that this trend can be more significantly minimized by putting a system in place that recycles most of the paper wastes when compared to small initiatives in individual companies to save papers.

Of course we are better off taking these small initiatives irrespective of the status of recycling, but my concern is, we have no way to measure how many trees we end up saving. What if the contribution of 100 companies with an average of 100 employees actually comes to saving 5% of trees, while setting up a recycling plant that can recycle paper in the neighborhood (companies, homes, schools any and building where paper is used) can reduce the number of trees cut of paper by 50%?

Simply put, how can one make this initiative measurable? Is there a comprehensive and accepted research that can answer my questions?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Are slum-dwellers poor?

Off late I have been running into urban poverty and slum-dwelling a lot through articles on Urban Poverty alleviation and Slum displacement in India Together and a post in ThinkChange India.

At least articles in India Together suggest that slum-dwellers are subconsciously considered poor and marginalized group of people. However, one detail I came across in ThinkChange-India's (TC-I) post slum tourism got me thinking.

"There were two figures that Girish [tourist guide] kept repeating during the tour: 10,000, which is the number of small-scale industries operating in Dharavi, and USD 665 million, which is the annual turnover Dharavi’sresidents are estimated to generate."
When I read the Slum displacement article about the "unfair manner" in which Delhi Development Authority has has displaced the "poor" slum-dwellers to a slightly improved, but small tenements far from the city, I instinctively set out for an arm-chair investigation to ascertain the validity of both of the quoted adjectives.

Google-god :) blessed me with (only) two academic papers related to this topic. (Both open as PDFs)

[1] SLUMS IN CHENNAI: A PROFILE, Dr. C.Chandramouli, I.A.S.Director of Census Operations, Tamilnadu

[2] Livelihoods and Collective Action among Slum Dwellers in a Mega-City (New Delhi), IASCP conference 2002 **unpublished draft version**

The India Together article talks about the finding of a research done on Delhi's slums. The article's main argument about the "unfairness"

"... the plots are given [to slum-dwellers] on a five-year lease and there is no guarantee that the plot holders can continue to live there after that.....Why would anyone, rich or poor, be willing to relocate without a guarantee that they had the right to stay in the new location? "
However, [1] says that about 40% of Chennai slums are rented and indicates the active presence of land mafia. Chances are Delhi's case falls in the same ballpark. [2] directly says that vested interests actively collude the government officials/politicians in keeping slum-dwelling insecure. Given that, a 5-year guarantee of own land seems be a windfall to the displaced slum dwellers.

Further, [2] states that
"Average income about Rs 3000 (NOK 500) per month – more than twice that of official poverty line"
"Majority posessed a one- or two-room brick house (pucca)"
If so, they should be thankful for a 5 year accommodation with better standards of living (as claimed by the India Together article) in spite of not being exactly poor. After 5-years? Well, how about they finding their own way instead of looking for government help?

One possible source discrepancy could be the research methods carried out by the researcher quoted in India Together and the researcher referenced above. I have left a comment for the author in the website, and an e-mail to the authors of [2]. Hopefully that will throw some light.

To add more to this, before watching it in the movie Mudhalvan (Nayak in Hindi) I heard about instances when slum-dwellers do illegally rent out the flats that slum clearance board alloted with an intention to move them out of the slum to a nearby area with better living condition. Consequently, in spite of getting richer from the rent, they continue to more subsidies for being slum-dwellers by choice. I don't have any accepted material for this, but if I were a slum dweller it would make sense for me to do this. Now who is at the receiving end of corruption? The slum dweller or the government?

Getting to the question,
- Are the slum-dwellers really poor? Or are they just institutionalized to living in poor conditions?
- Do they really live there for want of choice or simply to extract more subsidies from govt and NGOs by selling "poverty"?

I think a typical slum is a mix of both, but I get a feeling that the scale is gradually tilting towards the latter on both the questions.

Finally, I later noticed that the post in TC-I carefully addressed only the living condition of Dharavi and refrained from poverty. Well done!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Trade Balances due to rise in food-prices

The following is an interesting map that shows the trade-balances due to the projected price rise in food. The condition of African countries seem to be very bad! An already poor continent is projected to lose more than 1% of its 2005 GDP in trade! Looks like the only "middle-class" countries that get to gain reside in South America.

While I know that the map's projections show an unfair trend, I don't understand what trend is fair! Would the situation be fair if the developed nations lose and poor nations gain? How much the loss in the developed nations will in turn affect the under-developed ones? This is still a projected data. So, the more important questions are...can anything be done at all to avoid this projection from sliding into reality? If so, are the stake-holders, the UN, the developed nations and NGOs willing to make the relevant sacrifices?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

British aid to India?

BBC Radio broadcast a short debate between two people, one from a British pro-taxpayer's organization called The Taxpayer's Alliance arguing against the British (taxpayer's) aid to India and the other from Christian Aid arguing for aid it.

The point behind the former's argument is the country has a fast growing economy and has a lot of money at its disposal. India should find means to redistributing its wealth itself instead of depending on British tax payers. Christian Aid says that taxation is the only means the Indian government has for redistributing its wealth, but faces unique problems like a large poor, population with very less means to earn their living, socially exclusion like the caste system, all of which call for immediate attention instead of waiting for a set of social reform policy to be implemented effectively.

I feel that a revamp in public administration, policy making and enforcement especially for poverty alleviation on part of Indian government is due even if this discussion is not considered. If the British funding is indeed revoked, it would be a blessing in disguise since (hopefully) it will put Indian government in a tight(er) spot and push for some innovative solution.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Demonizing plastic

"Never reuse coke bottle for storing drinking water. It may cause cancer", I was told by a friend once. That was shocking! I thought, "Can plastics react with food material in time and cause such harmful effects? Can't trust things with looks, can you?". Yet, somehow the statement seemed to make sense. After all, it is plastic! Its non-biodegradable, and with so much campaign to ban plastic, it has to be right!

From then on, when I see a plastic bottle lying around my kitchen or being reuse, my stomach used to churn and images of cancer victims vomiting blood on to the wash-basin or white kerchief (the colour contrast dramatized the fear factor!).

Recently, however, I came across a link to that talks about Myth and Reality about plastic Environmental Information System (ENVIS) an Indian government sponsored body " collect, collate and disseminate information relating to Environment to Universities, Registered Societies or Private Bodies or State Government Departments / Organisations."

Apparently, the whole campaign about plastic and cancer is just a sensational media campaign of what was a Master's Thesis that didn't go through the rigour of scientific peer review. Reuse of plastic is still not recommended for fears of spreading infection resulting from human contact and improper cleaning. But no cancer involved. This link and the pages that follow (find the small "next" link right at the bottom of this page link) offer a good insight not only into plastics, but also into the difference possible between the object and the perception of the object! For example, the link calls into question the use of paper as an alternative to plastics. It says

"Paper is not eco-friendly

We need to remind ourselves that making of paper and products consumes a lot of chemicals and requires a large amount of water and effluent problems are severe. Besides paper, unless coated with polymeric materials (or wax), cannot withstand wet conditions which are widely prevalent in India, particularly during monsoon periods. Paper making also consumes a lot of energy. In the Indian context the most serious problem is the availability of pulp. Environmental degradation has unquestionably occurred due to pulp manufacturing activities as commercial forestry, on large scale, is still a taboo. Padmabhushan Prof. M. M. Sharma (FRS) "

The article's take is that the only factor that can be called malicious to life is human. It repeatedly points out that plastic is not bio-degradable, but they are 100% recyclable. The solution to managing plastic is to recycling and recycling is entirely in our hands!

However, few details are unclear to me. My understanding is that there are recyclable thermoplastics like those used for making poly-bags and non-recyclable ones like Bakelite. What of the second kind?

Further, the link offers incineration as a way to get rid of plastic. I find from other links dedicated to protecting the environment that incineration is a widely hated method of generating energy from the waste. Unless an alternative method to this method exists, it seems that minimizing the use of plastic seems to be the best way forward.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

How to make the humans not to emulate dogs?

Hyderabad has a very "liberal" attitude when it comes to answering natures calls. Almost everyone seems to think "As long as it is out of your body, it doesn't matter where it goes".

I stay in an apartment adjoining a stream of sewage. Right on the main road, is a long compound wall and a relatively well constructed pavement. These are very attractive places for the "Filled-up and the Restless" to relieve themselves. There is also a moderately maintained Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation's (GHMC) public toilet. GHMC has strategically constructed such toilets at various locations in Hyderabad close to such places that are used as public toilet. However, the GHMC toilets are clearly not used properly. I think it is because of the one-rupee that is charged for use. Now this is a problem statement. The solution is to conceive a way by which the use of this (or any public) toilet can be enforced.

I think this issue is directly related to Standard of Living, though the benefits can be intangible prima facie. So, I am interested to do something to ensure that this trend doesn't continue. I am willing to take suggestions on this.

The questions that I have be answered are
  1. If you live in Hyderabad or a place that has similar attitude, do you think the cause the one-rupee charge?
  2. If, so, is that the only cause?
On my part, since I feel the money is the problem here, we can create a public fund of one rupee coins and allow (meaning persuade) "the Filled-up and the Restless" to use money from the fund for the toilet instead. That is the theory. I do understand practical considerations.
  • How to collect the money?
  • How to safe-guard and disburse the money (vending machine?)
  • How to advertise the fund and advertise against the use of compound wall or sewage.
But before all that
  1. Do you have any alternative/better/easier/more sensible ideas?
  2. If not at least do you think that this idea can be modified/improved?
We need to keep in mind that the idea may have to be implemented at different places in Hyderabad and elsewhere. This may be a farsighted consideration, but I think it is important nevertheless!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Blah blah blah ... Wah!

That was hilarious! Everything about that was right except that Headlines Today is also among the pack. But why blame the news channels alone? Turn to entertainment and out of about 25 channels (or is it more than that?) not a single one seems to have found a source of entertainment that is not related to movies and the slow-moving soaps. And the lesser I talk about the channels that strive to "deliver the divine truth" the better it would be. It is startling that humans, in spite of being different in almost every aspect starting from DNA, facial features, fingerprints, cornea, brain structure, blood group and so on, seem to be hopelessly and boringly SAME when it comes to airing a television program, publishing a newspaper or making a movie!

But then this isn't such a new point to talk about. The boredom is so much around us that we seem to have become institutionalized to it. How else do you explain the fact that there are so many worshipers of so many soaps with blaring and ill-fitting background score and ignominious dialogues? How else do you explain the fact that a well-known hero, a new-face model, a party number and its remix and a bunch of sleazy encounters (though lifted off from hollywood) can easily offset a storyline that doesn't exist, roles that calls for no acting and actors who don't have roles to become box-office hits?

Now this whole post may be self-referential! You may ask me "You talk about trite. What is so new about this post? This is talked about by almost everyone who maintains a blog! Your post is only as different as the programmes you talk about!"

Good point! That is why I shut up for such a long time! But for sometime now, it appears that at least somebody in the broadcasting business has finally got bored of the sameness. The Tamil channel called "MakkaL TV" - "MakkaL" being Tamil for the work people - stands as a proof for the fact that....

1) ... entertainment extends beyond movies
For the last two weeks that I have caught a glimpse of this channel, I didn't find a single program that is related to movies! Yet the channel has managed to come up with programs that entertain people. Considering the dependence of the other channels on movies for their survival, this channel seems to have taken up a very bold challenge and won it hands down ! The most attractive programmes are interactive. To highlight a few..
  • "Tamil pesu, thanga kaasu" (Speak Tamil and win a gold coin) is a challenge to the general public to speak continuously with out usage of any other language.
  • "Sol vilayattu" (word game) is another 3-round challenge played live over the phone, Word jumble, "cross-word", and "who is in the picture?", at the end of which the winner wins a handsome prize, a silk Saree!
  • Over the phone employment advise for the unemployed
2) can speak Tamil with minimal use of English and still not sound weird!
The presenters of all the TV programs in this channel stick to colloquial yet unadulterated Tamil language and are dressed in traditional and simple tamil attire such as dothi, Khadi shirts and Saree (though not always). The more important aspect is that the channel doesn't seem to overplay the pro-Tamil sentiment and stops well short of looking and sounding Tamil-chauvinistic.

As a downside, I must point out one fact. Like most of the other Tamil channels, this is also run by a political party and an ally in the current DMK coalition government, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). And I haven't watched their news reports yet. That gives me a fear that I might have come up with this post a little too soon!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An open letter to The Hindu

Respected Editor,
The purpose of this e-mail is to express my deep disappointment over the prejudiced views expressed by The Hindu against men citing the unfortunate and detestable "Mumbai molestation" incident on the New Year's eve in the article "An assault on dignity" -The Hindu Magazine dated 13th January 2008

Quote from the article
"The real issue that we must grapple with when such incidents occur has a name; it is "patriarchy". It includes the inability of men to accept that women have rights, that they are human beings, that they should be left alone, that they have a right tooccupy space in the public arena."

To say that all men are unable to consider women as human beings reflects a narrow-minded and prejudiced outlook of the author against men. I don't deny that social malices like dowry system still exists and are perpetrated solely against women. But on what basis does Ms. Kalpana come to a conclusion that such crimes are committed only by men? I do agree to the fact that women are always the victims in rape and I do empathize with them. At the same time there are also numerous cases in which women place false molestation charges against men and get away with it riding on the benefit of the "sympathy factor". What is the intention of Ms. Kalpana? To get justice for women or to get even with men for all the crimes committed against women (by both men and women)?

A sizable number of terrorism-related incidents can be attributed to Islamic terrorists, Indians or otherwise. I am sure The Hindu would not publish an article that implies that all muslims are terrorists. Why then does it publish an article that aims at blaming and defaming men because crimes are committed against women (by both men and women)? Articles such as these helps no good cause, but can flame up male and female egoism.

Ms. Kalpana is entitled to her opinion, however prejudiced, shallow and shameful they are. But the fact that this article made it to the front page of The Magazine (due to lapse in editing or conscious endorsement by the editorial team) is a clear indicator of the fast declining standards of journalism The Hindu. I believe, just like how money problems can't be solved my money, gender issues can't be solved by only one gender or pitching one gender against the other. The only ways are

1. consensus between the two genders by sensitizing both of them of problems faced by one another,

2. strict *enforcement* of the law to deter perpetration of such crimes (this includes accessibility and transparency of law enforcement agencies)

Badhrinath J
303, Patnivilla Apartments,
Rasoolpura, Begumpet,
Hyderabad - 500016

PS: I am also in total disagreement with the following views of the author

"Laws have never succeeded in changing mindsets. The death penalty has not reduced the number of murders. The Dowry Act has not stopped the custom of giving and taking dowries. Stronger laws dealing with crimes against women, although essential, have not reduced the incidence of crime"

These views seem to lack supporting evidence. Was there a time in India when the death penalty was abolished and the rate of murder increased or remained the same? Further, this analysis also depends on how well the laws are enforced, and how easy was it to make complaints when crimes are committed.