Oct 202013

My Column in the DNA, on the 17th of October 


A few years ago I was on the interview panel of a leading Indian University that had just launched an honours degree programme in Economics. We, me and another professor, were supposed to interview students who had just finished their 12th and evaluate their suitability for this prestigious programme. These were students from all across India; they had scored high percentage in the higher secondary exams and had cleared the university entrance exams with flying colours. So, one expected invigorating interview sessions with the them. We began by asking simple questions: What is the full form of GDP and what does it mean?

Or what is inflation and what does five per cent growth in inflation mean? Most students were flummoxed by these simplest of queries, and we were perplexed because these youngsters averaged over 85 per cent in their class XII board exams. We discussed among  ourselves and decided to lower the bar with such questions like what is the full form of RBI; what is the full form of SBI. But these too met with the same response – blank stares. Or, when the student was street smart then a furtive glance around the room, followed by a look up to the skies, a look down and the classic line “it is on the tip of my tongue, I will get it” … and then a few seconds later “can you give me a hint?”. And so it continued. Finally, we began asking questions that were, what we defined as, sitters: Who is the Finance Minister of India (in those days it was Pranab Mukherjee).

And, we had a list of such questions that anyone should be able to crack. And then a candidate walked in with academic excellence of 90 per cent. He had been on the school hockey team, took part in extra-curricular activities, had great marks in the entrance test.  We asked him: Who is the former Finance Minister of India who is also the current Prime Minister? He looked at us and said, “But that is not in my syllabus but I think it is a  lady, her name begins with P”.

The co-examiner and I looked at each other, neither of us could fathom who the candidate was speaking about. Our confusion must have been evident, because the candidate helpfully added “she usually has her head covered”. We looked at each other and ventured “you mean Pratibhatai Patil, the President?”. The candidate beamed and said “same difference”.

This story may seem farfetched, but it is not. For the last decade I have been a visiting faculty for media-related subjects at the University of Mumbai. Some of the answers at the university level seem as if they are from the film Munnabhai. ‘Sonia Gandhi is the daughter of Indira Gandhi and grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’, is a routine answer. Another standard response is that Hindi is the mother tongue of all Hindus, all other religions speak other languages. Or, another favourite ‘educated people read English news, illiterate people read regional newspapers’ an answer that never fails to get examiners to burst into peals of laughter while marking the answer papers. I have heard professors who correct answer papers for other subjects complain about such ‘innovative’ answers. Sometimes, when the answer is not unique, but written by a series of students, we fear that this was what they had been taught.

There is a problem with education in India. Our graduates know very little. And whatever little they know is usually wrong. Talk to any recruiter and you will hear horror stories of how difficult it is to find entry-level candidates who can walk and talk at the same time. And, if you think that this is just a problem facing the Humanities, it is worse in Engineering. Many private engineering colleges have an unwritten rule instructing teachers that they cannot fail students for lack of knowledge. In fact, given that employers only choose to even interview students who have scored a first class, the mandate in many of these colleges is to ensure that maximum number of students score a first class.

As a result many IT companies that recruit from these institutes end up having to make students take exams that clarify the basics and then spend a considerable amount of time and energy training these ‘first class graduates’ so  that they are able to perform the most mundane of activities. The scenario is not very different in Management programmes either. And, now with professional courses coming into the picture, the scenario has become even more muddied.

There are courses that sound great, even from an employer’s perspective, but there are very few teachers who can be pressed into service. For example, a BSc in Biochemistry cannot really be taught by Biology and Chemistry professors but that’s what is happening now. It needs to be taught by specialists.

In many of these cases, students are the first generation in their families seeking higher education. And, they have dreams of a bright future. Their parent mortgage land and homes to ensure their children have the advantage of a good education. And, the system provides them with a degree that, more often than not, is not worth the paper it is printed on.

As Einstein once said: “The only thing interfering with my learning is my education.” And this has come to pass in India. What we need is a relook at the system of higher education. There are professions that need skills and not degrees. And these skills need to be constantly updated. Academia is also required, but its application is different it is meant to be a quest for knowledge.  In conflating the two what India has is the worst of all possible worlds lack of excellence in academia and lack of skills and employability in candidates. The solution, possibly, is to look at these as separate entities  and aim for excellence in both.

Apr 242012

My column in today’s DNA


The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, known simply as the RTE, came a century after Gopal Krishna Gokhale made an impassioned plea to the Imperial Legislative Council for introducing Free and Compulsory Primary Education in India. He said,  “the state should accept in this country the same responsibility in regard to mass education that the government of most civilized countries are already discharging and that a well considered scheme should be drawn up and adhered to till it is carried out.. The well being of millions upon millions of children who are waiting to be brought under the influence education depends upon it…”


Nine decades after this speech, the Right to Education became a fundamental right, and a 100 years later the Government of India delivered the Act that allowed for Universal Public Education. The Act mandated that education not only be provided byGovernmentSchool, but also that 25% of all seats in every school inIndiabe reserved for children from economically weak sections. Needless to say, private schools had an objection and challenged the Act. Last week the Supreme Court upheld the law, but exempted unaided minority schools from the ambit of the law.


Naturally there has been a debate about the SC ruling. Many are fuming about the restriction of economic choice of private schools and an assault on the right to do business, others are aghast that their children will be studying with the children of their servants, and there is outrage that minority appeasement is being followed by exempting unaided minority schools from following this law.


The first thing to remember is that education, especially school education inIndiais not a business. It is not supposed to be run on the principles that govern a business – namely profit. Private Schools, across, the country  are by a myriad of charitable public trusts. The trusts receive land from the government at low or no cost  and are supposed to, by law, reserve seats for economically weak classes. Much the same as hospitals that are built on land granted by the government. Neither do. If a SC ruling is needed to ensure that these ‘charitable trusts’ are forced to honour the letter and spirit of their contracts, then so be it.


For those who are having kittens at the prospect of their children studying with the children of ‘servants’, they will get over it. It was probably the same reaction people had  when the British Raj mandated that all Indians of all castes had access to schools paid for by the Government., or that white families had in the Southern States of theUSAwhen the Government mandated the end of segregation in schools. The coming together of children from all backgrounds is going to do them all good. The children will possibly take to it a lot better than their parents.


The second, equally important thing to remember is that minority does not mean religious minority. It can mean any minority – religious, linguistic or indeed a sect. Many  quality schools in cities fall under this category. What the SC has done has exempted, in addition to religious schools run by unaided trusts,  some of the best schools from being part of the RTE. And this exemption is discrimination. This needs to be challenged because the law of the land applies to all, and there is no such thing as unaided. Trusts are given a wide range of tax exemptions on their activities- and it can be argued that these constitute aid by the tax payer.  It also needs to be repealed because you will have a slew of educational trusts applying for minority status, defeating the purpose of the law.


If you look beyond the cities, across states, private schools have begun providing school education. This means schools run by Trusts, and usually those Trusts run by politicians. They were granted this to enable the state to provide better education for children. In many cases these trusts have taken over the infrastructure of existing government schools with the promise of providing better quality of education to the students. Should these not be required to provide free education to economically disadvantaged ?


Finally, the problem is not with either the RTE or the SC ruling. The problem is with a Governmental hypocrisy that decrees profit in education to be a ‘sin’.  Maybe, parents and schools should lobby the Supreme Court for allowing businesses to run schools on the principles that govern good business. Not allowing businesses to run schools and perpetuating this sham of ‘charitable trusts’ will stunt RTE for the right to receive education will be best fulfilled when there is a corresponding right to provide education.


May 182009

Dear Government,

Good to know that you are off life support and on your own two feet. One hopes that you can move full steam ahead and deliver things that your earlier version couldn’t. Given that you are fighting fit, here are somethings that i would like from your current avtaar

a) Education – If you haven’t noticed – there is a caste system been created in education. The way the system is moving there are one set of institutes for the middle class and one set for the poor. The former delivers jobs, the latter doesn’t.

This has arisen because the State School and University system has stopped delivering. The policy towards schools has encouraged a mushrooming of private schools – many of which don’t deliver any of their promises. My driver’s sons and maid’s daughter go to schools like these – the kids come out functionally illiterate. Their parents are skimping and saving and depriving themselves to give their kids a better education, but they don’t realise that the schools are not worth the monies that they spend.

Can you please strengthen the State School System. I studied in a state funded school – my education was great. I would like to see more Kendriya Vidyalaya and comparable schools that create a meritocracy.

Can you please stop dragging your feet on this and deliver quality education for everyone. Education that doesn’t just get everyone into class, but also give them very real learning, skills and vocations.There is no reason why parents should sent their children to high fee private schools that don’t deliver. Can you also take a relook at the University system – drag it into this century. There need to be more Universities.Linked to this is the strengthening of ITI’s. More IIT’s are great, but how about good vocational training.

Can you move language out of the Wren and Martin or equivalent space and teach communication instead?
I don’t really care if they are private, public or foreign school/universities – excpet that Publicly funded Universities/schools need to provide world class education. Other Public Sector Undertakings do this – why can’t the education system ?

b) Public Health -The mark of a civilized society is that people who fall ill, will get treated, without mortgaging everything that they have for treatment.

We already have a Public Health System – why is it so shoddy? Why do state funded hospitals look like patients will get Gangrene. Why am I – the tax payer -subsidising medical students – if the same medical students will not go and work in rural India ? Why aren’t there more LMPS – License to Practise Medicine. You – the Government need to evolve a private public partnership to ensure quality health care reaches all, and crack the whip.

Instead of giving ‘free’ medical care – can you please evolve a system of health vouchers & health insurance. Indians don’t value anything that is free – if it is free it must not be good 🙂 Change the policy to suit the people. We aren’t the British – we don’t see free as entitlement, we see it as substandard.

I would like to see compulsory health insurance for every single citizen. For the poor – pay the premium. Unleash the LIC’s and the National Insurance corporation on this task – they are truly efficient and they will deliver.

c) SME Policy – I run a small business – and i have to follow the same statutory and tax requirements as a MNC that spans every single continent. One of my business partners is for ever filling out multiple tax details. Yet when it comes to Government policy there is little or no support in terms of policies. Can we have a single tax window? Can we have easier access to working capital? can we have a system that is slightly more pro active to our requirements? We, as a sector, generate more wealth and create more employment than the Big Boys – treat us well. We are your wealth generators.

d) Urban Renewal /Slum Rehabilitation – When you are moving out slums into pucca constructions, can you make sure that you don’t create inner cities that become the hotbed of crime 15 years from now ! Learn from the European and the American Cases. Build housing that fosters & nurtures community, that has public congregation areas. Create parks and greenery. Don’t create ghettos, help create strong, vibrant communities. Drainage, water, lighting is going to be a key. Ensure that new constructions have rain water harvesting, have solar panels that deal with basic energy requirements.

Ensure that there is adequate public transportation – look at China for the right things. I don’t want Mumbai to be Shanghai but i wouldn’t mind their high speed bullet trains 🙂

e) AgrarianTransformation – We are an agrarian nation. Our farmers deserve better.

The reason why farmers are committing suicide is because their input cost is greater than their output price. This won’t change unless the land holding increases and the farmer has some control over price. You can waive loans year after year after year, but no good will come from it – unless you seriously look at increasing land holding size and at price support.

I understand the historical reason for small land holdings – but can we please look at a decent co-op policy that builds economies of scale while purchasing inputs – seeds, fertilizers etal – and can command a price while selling. And, which above all allows the farmer his ‘do bhiga zamin’ yet allows him economies of scale.

Subsidies here need to get replaced with vouchers – i don’t see why the tax payer is subsidizing the rich farmer.

f) Energy – As India develops we are going to require more energy. The most basic energy that we need is electricity. Stop issuing advisories and start implementing the law on renewable energy sources. Why can’t every village in India be lit up – solar energy works perfectly well in countries like Sri Lanka – why doesn’t it work here ? Why do cities like Patna or Hoshiarpur have to spend so many hours in darkness or using inverters – solar power will light them up.

g) Community Relations – you need to appreciate that the reason why organisations like the VHP, the RSS, the MNS and SIMI have gained prominance is your own policies over the last 62 years in general, and the last 25 years in particular.

Our spiritual needs are taken care by our religious books, our legal needs by the Constitution. Every citizen has the same rights and it is the job of your Government to safeguard those rights. It is actually quite simple. If in doubt, check how Nehru shoved the Hindu Marriage Act down the collective throats of a Hindu Patriarchy to protect women.

You have failed to protect minorities by pandering to their most virulent and violent fundamentalists. Be these fundamentalists linguistic, religious or ethnic. There is no reason why girls in Rajasthan should be married off pre-puberty, there is no reason why Muslim women ought to hear ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’ without support or redressal, and there is no reason why UP’s and Bihari’s ought to fear for their lives in Mumbai. You have failed by not implementing the law.

h) Human Rights – The mark of a civilized society is protection of Human Rights. What are these Rights -these are those Rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution.The Right to Be oneself, the Right to Practise one’s faith, the Rigth to oppose your policies, The Right to speak out against Institutions, The Right to Question, The Right to Enquiry, The Right to Expression, The Right to Redressal…. you get my drift.

The way the system is structured -most of these Rights are violated. You need to do something about it. At the centre of your policy should not be Caste, Community or Vote Banks – it needs to be the Individual. Your job is to protect us. Not the mob that is baying for our blood.

Often Justice Delayed is Justice Denied. And, in the Republic of India – there is no single greater violation of Rights than delays in delivering justice. You need ot seriously overhaul the Criminal Justice System. Bring efficiencies across the board. Pay the Police well, pay Public Prosecutors decent monies, computerise the system, clear the backlog. The way we pay our Police – especially the lower ranks is a disgrace. How do you expect a honest police force when you pay them less than what a driver or a maid makes ? Unless these are done, Human Rights will continue to be violated. We may not have a problem the way China has, but it is still a violation. Justice has not just to be done, but seen to be done.

and finally,

i) Governance – you, the Government , have Good Policies. Make sure that they reach the people. Make sure that the system is simplified so that people understand it. Have a look at all the 3 zillion forms that are needed to do anything with the Government and ask if it is needed. Single window should work for most things. Put in place checks and balances – but do not ritualise them. Crack down on Leakages. Stop them. Prosecute those who are corrupt.  Let everyone in the country understand, appreciate and internalise – that if they commit a crime they are going to be prosecuted to the full extent of the Law, and go to jail if found guilty. Governance is not a concept. It is practise. Good Governance needs to be seen.

You have a mandate. If you don’t deliver, we may have to find someone else who does 🙂


Harini Calamur, Citizen of India

Mar 272008

Two stories on further education. 

One is about a 12th standard topper who quits formal education.

…Urvi Pithadia, 17, has been forced to discontinue her studies just a week after joining junior college. Nobody there volunteered to help the wheelchair-bound girl in and out of classrooms and elevators.

Urvi is suffering from muscular dystrophia, a genetic disorder which weakens muscles. It’s impossible for her to move around on her own.

After her SSC triumph, she enrolled herself at SNDT’s College of Arts in Vile Parle. “Even though there was elevator facility at the college, Urvi required someone to push her wheelchair. There were college maids, but none of them ever helped Urvi even to the restroom. She felt utterly helpless and was so depressed, that we thought it was better for her to discontinue studies,” her mother, Mita, told DNA.

 The second is about a girl who never recovered from the injuries inflicted by her teacher because she didn't want tuitions..

 Rinky Kaushik, who was allegedly beaten by her teacher for refusing private tuitions, has died after remaining in coma for three months.

A teacher of the Dinkar Model School, Dhirendra Kumar Dinkar had allegedly thrashed her with a stick after she refused to attend his tuition classes.

 I am speechless wordless. I can't even rant. WTF, WTF, WTF ?

Dec 012007

Nita has an interesting post on tuitions/coaching classes and this actually began out as a response, but it grew so very long, I decided to post the long form here, the short version is on her site :

There are coaching classes for practically anything. There are kids who take coaching for maths and science, yet others for economics, accounting, history, geography and political science, yet others for languages. By the time the average student is finished with all the tutoring for the day – college & tuitions – there is a) no time to learn and absorb, and b) no time for anything else.

So after 15 years of education, what we get out are people with great memories, a great ability to reproduce someone else’s work without any problem…. and pretty much little else… And while Nita rightly points out the various interest groups that allow for a flourishing coaching class set up, there is one that is as important than the rest. Parents.

Parents in [tag] India[/tag] have this insane innate sense of competitiveness when it comes to their kids. Where I live there are kids in pre primary who start tuitions. ….

When I was a student only weak students took tuitions or those who were aspiring for IIT – we used to end up in all these summer classes run by our teachers in college or at Agarwals….

But, this coaching class – which is a school away from a school – has been in place and attracting large numbers fro the last 15 years or so… Kids spent hours studying till they probably peak too soon… and they are egged on by their parents.

And, I don’t blame these parents. India is a country of a billion – with education always been considered a path to power & wealth – and parents are worried that if their children didn’t go to classes to get those extra percentage points – they will be left behind…… Now, however good the education system is, you still cant’ get away from the fact that there will always be too many students coming out of the system, chasing too few jobs.

Unlike the west, where children move out after a certain age, and lead lives independent of their parents, In India education of children is also seen as a ‘pension plan’. Now, unless the fundamental way of looking at the family changes — and I am not sure that it should — and parents stopped pressurizing their kids to greater and greater heights, I can always see private tuitions / Coaching classes being in place….