Sunday, January 24, 2010

Educating India

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 24, 2010

The Other Half

The Annual Status of Education Report, 2009, is out… pointing out yet again that what stands between rural girls and a good education is often basic facilities like transport and proper toilets…

Photo: A. Muralitharan

Soldiering on: How long before they are forced to drop out?

Swati and Anita are two young women from rural Maharashtra. They have one thing in common. Both dropped out of school once they completed Standard VIII. They wanted to complete their schooling. Both spoke passionately to me when I met them about their desire to study. Even their parents wanted them to study further. But circumstances would not permit this.

Both girls faced an identical dilemma. While the school up to Standard VIII was in their village or close by, the high school was some distance away. The only way to go there was by the local State Transport bus. While going to school was not such a problem as it was during the day, at the end of the school day, they had to wait several hours before they could catch the bus back. If for some reason the bus was cancelled, and this would happen with alarming frequency, they would have had to walk back to the village in the dark, something their parents would not contemplate. Hence, the only option was to drop out of school. In contrast, the brother of one of the girls faced no such problem. As soon as he was through with his classes, he would hitch a ride on a passing truck and make his way back. This was not an option open to the girls.

Tragic situation

What is tragic is that both these girls are as bright as any you would meet in a city like Mumbai. The only reason they will not become the engineers and doctors of the future is because there is no reliable transport linking their village to the nearest school. And theirs are not remote villages in the interior of Maharashtra. Swati lives a mere hour away from Pune. If this is the story of Swati and Anita, think how many millions more like them must be chafing at being deprived for no other reason than a safe mode of transport.

We also know that many more girls drop out even before Standard VIII for another reason: the lack of toilets in schools. The latest ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) 2009, a comprehensive survey of government and private schools in 575 out of 583 districts in India, revealed that only 50 per cent of government schools have toilets and that four out of 10 government schools did not have separate toilets for girls. Even where there were separate toilets for girls, as many as 12-15 per cent were locked and only 30-40 per cent were “usable”. I visited a school in Bihar where toilets had been constructed but within days their doors had been stolen and the toilet pans smashed making them unusable. If girls dropout when they reach adolescence, it is often for no other reason than the lack of toilet facilities. Even in a city like Mumbai, the dropout rate amongst girls attending municipal schools is markedly higher than that of boys because of the absence of toilets for them.

The annual ASER study, facilitated by the NGO Pratham, is a constant and important reminder of the state of education in this country. In 2009, ASER surveyed 16,000 villages, 300,000 households and 700,000 children. There is nothing on this scale done by an agency outside government, hence its importance. But each year, when ASER results are made public, we are reminded that education is not just about quantity, or the number of children who enrol in school — a number that is increasing — but the quality of the education these children get. And that, although it is getting better in some states, is still shockingly poor.

Conducting simple reading and mathematics tests in schools, the survey reveals that a little over half of all children in Standard V in government schools cannot read a Standard II text book. This means a 10-year-old cannot read what a seven-year-old is supposed to be able to read. What then are these children learning even if they become a statistic showing increased enrolment and attendance in schools?

Disturbing trend

Precious little, it would seem. What they cannot learn in school, they do so by paying for private tuitions. One of the more disturbing statistics in the survey reveals that one in four children in Standard I in private schools is sent for private tuitions as are 17 per cent of Standard I students in government schools. Can you imagine that? Little six-year-olds being sent for private tuition. By the time they reach Standard VIII, over one third try and learn what they are clearly not taught in school through private tutoring. An analysis of the budget of poor people would reveal what a chunk of their earnings goes into such tuitions because they hold on to the belief that education will pull them out of poverty. But given the poor quality of education in these schools, their children will never be able to compete with those with ability to pay for better quality schooling.

Fortunately, not the entire ASER report is gloom and doom. One of the brighter moments in it is the fact that in Bihar, the state considered a basket case on most counts, the dropout rate for girls in the 11-14 age group has reduced from 17.6 per cent in 2006 to 6 per cent in 2009. So Bihar must be doing something right. In fact, one of the striking sights in Bihar today is of girls on bicycles, given by the government if they clear Standard VIII, going to the nearest high school.

The desire to ensure that children get a good education runs deep in most Indian families. Parents will sacrifice and save to invest in their children's future. Even poor families, including the homeless with no secure shelter, find a way of sending their children to school. The increase in the enrolment rate in India — 96 per cent of children between the ages of 6-14 are enrolled in school, government and private — is proof of that.

What urgently needs to be tackled is the quality of education, basic facilities like toilets and running water, and transport, particularly for girls. Even this will not suffice unless there is a notable change in the status accorded teachers who ultimately decide whether and what children learn. Instead of the inordinate amount of attention that continues to be paid to institutes of higher learning, or private institutions that promise to prepare rich children for studies abroad, something much more simple and basic can and needs to be done to educate India and Indians.

(To read the original article, click on the link above)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

You talkin' to me?

Indian Express Op-ed, January 23, 2010

They did not ask for it. But Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has given Bal Thackeray and his nephew Raj an unexpected and generous New Year gift. For two political parties virtually joined at the hip, what could have been sweeter than the so-called “secular” state government giving them a perfect chance to revive the much-flogged Marathi Manoos issue? Indeed, if proof was ever needed of the bankruptcy of Maharashtra’s political culture, this action exemplifies it.

What, one wonders, was Chavan thinking when he told the waiting media after the weekly Cabinet meeting that from henceforth those holding permits to drive taxis in Mumbai would have to know how to “read, write and speak Marathi”? Did he really believe that by doing this, he would undercut the ground on which the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) base their politics? In any case, the rule already exists as part of the Maharashtra Motor Vehicles Act 1989 but has rarely been enforced. So why now?

The Congress and the NCP, despite having won a clear majority in the state assembly elections last year, are worried at the growth of the MNS, which won 13 assembly seats principally in urban areas. With Mumbai municipal elections due in 2012, they are concerned about the expanding base of this party. Yet, could this be the only reason for such a gimmick?

For that is all it is. Mumbai has around 56,000 taxis — kali pili taxis, or the black and yellow taxis that have become such a symbol of this city. Of these, 24,000 permits are lying unused. In other words, drivers or owners with permission to run taxis are not running them for a variety of reasons, including lack of funds to convert these vehicles to CNG (now mandatory), replacing old vehicles with new ones etc.

The government has now decided to sell these unused permits to anyone willing to bring in new air-conditioned taxis with global positioning systems (GPS). This is ostensibly part of the plan to modernise Mumbai’s taxi system. The city already has such taxis run by private operators. But there are only a couple of thousand of these in a city of 17 million. Furthermore, not all the 24,000 permits will be sold at one go. Only 4,000 are up for sale this year. So the fuss being made is essentially about an additional 4,000 jobs as those who have been driving taxis for many years, irrespective of whether they speak Marathi or not, will not be affected.

Yet, by making this announcement, Mr Chavan has put the lives of the majority of ordinary taxi drivers who come from outside Maharashtra at risk. Given the standard tactics employed by the MNS and the Shiv Sena, these poor men will have to face harassment by their goons whenever these parties seek political mileage. Just as thousands of street vendors were once targeted by the MNS as “outsiders”, taxi drivers will now come under attack.

Yet what does the taxi-using public of Mumbai want? Compared to other cities, Mumbai’s taxis are a dream. Some of them might be broken down and dirty. Some of the drivers do drive rashly. Some of them do refuse to ply unless to a destination that suits them. But seven times out of ten you can easily hail a taxi on Mumbai’s streets and give your destination, and the driver simply puts down the meter and takes you there. The only test these drivers need is that of safe driving and learning their way around a city changing by the day. Passengers barely care whether such a test is given in Marathi or any other language, so long as they get the service they are paying for.

Instead of dreaming about making Mumbai into Shanghai or Singapore, Ashok Chavan and his colleagues need to deal with the more urgent needs that Mumbai faces — water, better roads, an efficient public transport system and above all, affordable housing and of course, better governance. If he concentrates on these, both the Marathi Manoos and the so-called “outsider” will thank him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A water-less future

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 10, 2009

Water wars are not a figment of sci-fi imagination. Access to water will define the gap between the rich and the poor…

The trend in urban development is more waste and less conservation...

photo: N. Sridharan

Common resource?Water at a premium for some....

Can you manage a family of five or more on four buckets of water day? That is a maximum of 80 litres a day. Not per person but for five people. Therefore, 20 litres per person per day. And then there are days when there is not a drop of water. This is the challenge facing millions of people, not in a water-deprived desert area but in Mumbai, the city with the best supply of water of any city in India.

So if people predict that the next water wars in this decade will take place not between nations but between communities in our cities, they are not far off the mark. The wars will be between the poor, the most deprived, and between the rich and the poor. The rich will also suffer water cuts, as they already do. But they will manage without having to face too much hardship because they will always have the ability to hoard, store and buy water. The poor, on the other hand, will get less than they already do, which is little enough. And without permanent housing, they will never have the same ability to store water, as do those who live in puccabuildings. So the gap between the rich and the poor will be defined through access to water.

Increased burden

With this scarcity, the burden on women will increase, as it already has. Receding water tables and decreasing snow melt have forced millions of women, in deserts and mountain regions, in villages and towns, to work harder to find water. Somehow they must fulfil their principal duties of washing, cleaning, cooking — and so they scrounge and beg, and walk longer distances to fetch that one, two or three buckets of precious water.

The other reality that is emerging is how, in times of scarcity, no one wants to share, be generous, least of all those who have enough. Housing societies in Mumbai, for instance, are making rules not allowing “outsiders” from taking out water from the buildings. These “outsiders” are actually the “insiders”, the domestic help in all our homes without whom our lives would be really difficult. They are the people who cook and clean and wash. They do this in homes where water flows through taps. And then when they finish work, they go out of the buildings to their homes in a slum where there are days without a drop of water. Yet, we feel justified in denying such people water at times of acute need. There is no culture in the world that defends the denial of water to a thirsty or needy person. Yet, the urban middle class ethos is defending just this.

Islands of indulgence

Islanded from this growing reality of the water crisis are also the gated communities and “future cities” that bore down and pull up the common resource from underground water springs, unmindful of the impact on people dependent on these streams. As a result, people who always had enough for their needs are now the needy while those with the financial resources to build these new urban islands feel no compunction in justifying the wasteful use of what they like to call “their” water. While their pools and fountains never run dry, the villages around them wonder why their wells have no water.

These are times where we need to learn from those who survive on practically no water, or very little. There are hundreds of examples in India of traditional communities who have survived on very little. Yet, their example is rarely heeded. Instead, the trend in urban development, particularly, is more waste and less conservation based on a totally unrealistic understanding of the availability of water as a common resource.

There is one community that can certainly teach us, and the whole world, the value of water. And that is the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. A fascinating book on water that those planning our water policy should read is Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Droughtby James G. Workman (published by Walker Publishing Co., New York, 2009). Workman, an international water expert, studied the Bushmen in the heart of the Kalahari Desert in present-day Botswana. And he realised that these are the real water experts. The situation in which the Bushmen survived is something we cannot imagine. Yet survive they did, until non-Bushmen decided to cut off their access of water and forced them to move.

An ethics of sharing

Workman describes the Bushmen “code of conduct” with regard to water. It “allows people to negotiate informally over the water resources they require, reaching out to partners with whom to exchange if and when they need more or less. People increased supply by efficiently reducing demands, and the benevolent result of their integrated informal right to water brought Bushmen into a relative state of social abundance.”

A wonderful phrase — “state of social abundance”. Instead what we are seeing in our cities is precisely the opposite because of an ethos that despises generosity and sharing. Explaining further the Bushmen's approach to the crisis of water, Workman writes:

Prepared for extreme deprivation, Kalahari Bushmen chose the hard responsibility of a dry reality over a government-dependent fantasy of water abundance. Outside of their reserve the so-called civilised world found that for all our military might and Internet bandwidth, certain things still lie beyond our grasp. We discover we cannot ‘regulate' our climate, clouds or rain. Out here, while elected leaders kneel to pray for a thundershower that will provide temporary relief, the increasingly dry hot wind whistles through the thorn trees in the central Kalahari and whispers the ancient secret those last defiant Bushmen never forgot. We don't govern water. Water governs us.”

Indeed, water will govern us. It will also determine whether we can be a humane society.

(To read the original, click on the link above)