An East Delhi Citizen's Blog

general riff about politics, education, media, society, cricket..

Archive for the month “May, 2009”


How rote-learning is maiming the natural ability of a generation
For the umpteenth time, the annual “spelling bee” competition in  the US was won by a student of Indian origin. Why am I “underwhelmed”? And, what does it tell us about us, Indians, and the way we approach education and learning?

Our generation of urban middle class Indians grew up with a drive to “get somewhere”. And, thus was born the culture of competitive examinations. Faced with an “eliminative” rather than “selective” process of making it past the portals of engineering and medical colleges (the only pathway to heaven in our times), we huffed and puffed our way through class 12, groaning under the stress of qualifying for the JEE (IIT entrance) and also, doing sufficciently well in the “boards” so that if all else failed, we could join a Science Hons (the really adventurous ones went and did Eco Hons too!) course in the University.

About 80% of my engineering class batchmates landed up abroad pursuing higher education, better life and opportunities and a green card. Hardly anyone came back. Those that have nominally become Americans, have remained moored to the cultural ethos and learning styles that got them to US in the first place. Fiercely competitive, always looking for outside source of approval/ corroboration of your learning standards.

Today, IIT and medical school aspirants start studying from class -9. And, have a regular 12 hour a day regimen for 4 years. Think about it. At the age when your counterparts in other parts of the world are growing up, discovering themselves, having their first dates, beefing up on social skills, our children are sacrificing the four best years of their lives towards chasing the dream of being IIT students.

Murmurs of discontent have been heard. The Director of IIT Chennai recently was quoted as saying the JEE is failing to select the truly bright, those that will potentially do groundbreaking work.  
Quote: “I am looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors. The coaching classes only help students in mastering (question paper) pattern recognizing skills. With this, you cannot get students with raw intelligence,” said IIT-Madras director, M S Ananth. : Unquote

Literature and social sciences courses do not attract talent in sufficient measure. If this continues, in a few years, who will teach these courses? And, those that do English Lit, do so to gravitate to Mass Comm. Who wants to teach or research the language? Those who study sociology, are IAS hopefuls. As are those who study History.
Scoring high marks in an exams is all that matters. This is ingrained in us so early in life, that reading for pleasure and for “happy discoveries” is now a threatened pursuit.

So, today’s products will perhaps know many words. Will that equip them with the ability to produce great literature or be a really pursuasive speaker? Why burden your mind with spellings of words that you are never likely to use?

Now look at the bottom of the pyramid
We have a maid who has studied till the 9th standard; all in Bengali. But, when we ask her to recite a book of nursery rhymes, in Bengali to our young 5 year old, she does so extremely haltingly, with no feel for the words, let alone the humour.
What price this education? How will she get ahead on this basis? How much of this will be useful to her when she has her own family?

Yeoman work being done by Pratham, an NGO I respect a lot for both the intellectual rigour as well as the hard work that goes behind their initiatives, has resulted in measurable data regarding the basic literacy levels. To quote from their study: (for access to their full version, click here)

ASER is usually done in October and November each year. In most states, the school year is at least half over. For states where the new session starts in January, the school year is almost finished. For rural India, the ASER 2006 results show that:
· In Std 1, close to 40% children cannot as yet recognize letters
· In Std 3, over 50% children cannot yet read text at Std 1 level
· In Std 5, close to 60% children cannot yet read text at Std 2 level
School enrollment in today’s India is well over 90% in most states. Thus India is close to reaching the enrollment targets set by the international MDG goals and the national goals set by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But the data on basic learning indicates that there is still a long way to go before we can say that children in India are learning well.

Our education system is dysfunctional and learning is incidental. Not only are our children losing out on “life-skills”, even the so called rote-learning is not impacting a large percentage of our children in a positive way. Those who theorize about the demographic dividend that India is likely to reap from the burgeoning young population will do well to ponder if a nation of barely educated people will get us to where we want to go.


The lessons: if only BJP will learn the right ones!

Why Advani and Rajnath should “spend more time with grandchildren”

Confession time! I voted BJP. And, I may not like it, but the electorate in its collective wisdom has voted. And, obviously BJP has failed to extend its appeal among those states where it is not in power.
The time to rebuild the party was in 2004; where Advani should have followed Vajpayee into political sanyas. It did not happen. Now, BJP is paying for it.
The next best time? Now. Get rid of Rajnath and get rid of Advani and for heaven’s sake, do not get back Joshi or Shekhawat.
Sadly, the lessons have not been learnt. Advani, for form’s sake has offered to resign but the party refused to accept it; demonstrating total clueless-ness and showing every signs of a party that has no sense on how to move forward.
If there is one lesson from these elections, it is that the electorate will reward good governance. And, roti, kapda, makaan remain the basic concerns. Frankly Hindutva is not a concern. My 80 year old grandmother, told me more than 10 years back (in half wonderment and half dismissiveness): “why does Ram need protection?”.
The lessons from Bihar, Orissa, Gujarat, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and  Madhya Pradesh are the same. Perform, provide the basics and show us improvement.. we will vote for you.
The real sad part of this election for BJP was its refusal to project younger leadership, take credit for providing good governance in all the states they were ruling and use that as a proof point for bringing about faster pace of reforms.
The real measure of the greatness of Vajpayee should be apparent now. For those with short memory, including those in BJP; here’s what Vajpayee achieved.
1. Fiscal responsibilty act: made it mandatory for the fiscal deficit to be mainatined below a certain level. This is law; Congress flouted it with impunity, BJP did nothing to point it out. Because Advani simply does not get it.
2. Limited the size of the union cabinet to 10% of the Lok Sabha size. Huge, huge deal. Remember cabinets with 114 members?
3. The Golden quadrilateral: the massive countrywide roadways project. The Congress stopped it. BJP sayed not a word.

Congress twiddled its thumbs for the last 5 years. It built zero infrastructure (e.g. no addition to power generation capacity in the last 5 years.. stopped the golden quadrilateral projects..) and freely spent money.
It frittered away all the savings in grand consumption schemes and ensured it had no savings to invest. This with the smart surds duopoly at the top. The tragedy again, was that BJP never raised a voice against this, did not offer a policy perspective or create communications to counter this.
Instead, the energies are frittered away on Ram Mandir, Afzal Gurtu, Ram Setu, beating up pub-going women, Varun Gandhi..
When you have nothing substantive to offer, offer Swabhimaan. It’s free! It worked in 1999; ten years later, it did not. I can assure you, unless Advani, Rajnath etc are all pensioned off right now and new younger and visionary leadership established, the BJP will get an even worse drubbing. Because, it will be up against a “Chikna” Rahul Baba.

The partyless wonders: where Shekhar Gupta loses the plot

The partyless wonders.: The Indian Express, 2nd May

Shekhar Gupta has argued the case against Independents in our political system. For the full article, published in the Indian Express, follow the link above.
To start with, I am a little perplexed why Shekhar is so excercised by the sight of independents like Sanyal and Gopinath. Hasn’t he seen independents contest before? I remember ballot papers bigger than newspapers and even now, most constituencies have more than 10 to 20 candidates contesting. So, what gets Shekhar’s goat, this time? Could it be that some of these independents could queer the pitch, while not winning themselves, for some of Shekhar’s friends?
Let us look at the arguments made by Mr. Gupta. The basis of parliamentary democracy is the party system. To quote:  “…fundamentally, the notion that you can invent a new politics where independents displace parties is not only fanciful, it is also undemocratic. The essence of parliamentary democracy is the party system. All democracies are built around competing parties, ideologies, mass leaders, manifestos. Imagine a Parliament of 543 individuals, or where even 10 per cent of the members have no party affiliation. Imagine the incoherence, the sheer anarchy.”
At least Shekhar does not call this unconstitutional. Because it certainly is not. The constitution gives us the right to contest elections upon reaching the age of 25. So, Shekhar’s point is that our constitution is permitting undemocratic things. Good lord!
Why bother imagining a parliament where 10% or more members have no party affiiliations, Shekhar? Are you saying that the current Lok Sabha, split as it was along party lines (in how many parts, Shekhar?) was orderly, conducted itself with decorum and above all, was a model of behaviour that the incoming Lok Sabha should aspire to follow? A certain Mr. Somnath Chatterjee would certainly disagree!
In this Lok Sabha, we have parties with fewer than 5 MPs; quite a few have less than ten seats. We have parties with 1 member. Not so long ago, Mr Chidambaram was one such MP. How different is a  “single MP-party” from an independent?

 Shekhar goes on to say: “The other fallacious notion is that the world of politics is filled with stupid, uneducated, lazy and corrupt people, usually of a criminal bent. That comes from an unquestioning acceptance of the Bollywood caricature of the neta.”
No Shekhar, Bollywood has not even scratched the surface. Here is a slightly old story, datelined 13th Feb, 2006 in TOI headlined 115 MPs have criminal backgrounds. This was not the fertile imagination of some “bollywood type”. This was the then CEC, Mr. BB Tandon speaking. In his opinion, published in the newspaper, “the existing laws were inadequate to stop criminalization of politics”.

More vitriol from Shekhar: “This argument won’t go much further than Malabar Hill living rooms, and not merely because most of these angry “we the people” were most likely not seen among the 40-odd per cent who turned out to vote in South Bombay, preferring to escape to Alibaug, Madh Island or Goa: who wastes a four-day weekend for a mere vote?”
Read your own newspaper, Shekhar. In today’s Indian Express, in a story headlined : Day After, how low and why , the area-wise voting percentages in all Mumbai constituencies are published. In Mumbai-South, the highest voting percentage of 43.28 was recorded from Malabar Hills. In Mumbai South Central, it is Dharavi which records the lowest percentage. Who is guilty of generalizing/ caricature now?

Drawing a parallel with the corporate world, ranting against the entry of independents into politics seems like arguing against startups and saying the only people qualified to do business are Tata, Birla, Singhania, Mafatlal and Modi. We are glad, 40 years ago, one Dhirubhai Ambani said, “to hell with status quo”. Also, is there just place and space for the professional politicians in the system? All those so called highly educated MPs: Sachin Pilot, Deora, Rahul Gandhi, Jitin Prasada, Hooda.. would they have managed to get anywhere in the Congress hierarchy unless their fathers were well connected? Let us say Meera Sanyal wanted to join the Congress. What would you have her do? Fight the elections in her apartment blocks first, as a means of gaining experience?
BJP does not, unlike the Congress, treat entry to politics as a birthright. However, what if Sanyal or Gopinath did not wish to join BJP for whatever reason?
Meera Sanyal and Gopinath, like many others could have sat at home or gone out to light candles. That they chose to do something which I did not have the courage to do, has my admiration. Whether you should vote for them or not (I unfortunately vote in East Delhi), is your call based on whether you think they can deliver for you, dear voter.

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