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

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?