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Thursday, April 29, 2010

How to kill innovation, learn it from our Govt

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UPA Govt last month rolled out a massive national scheme under which they will provide the women in rural areas with sanitary napkins. While the exact details are unclear, women below the poverty line will be provided with the napkins free of charge where as the rest of the rural women will be charged Re 1 (.02 USD).

This is clearly a great step towards the end goal.  However, there's a 48 year old Coimbatore resident, A. Muruganatham, who isn't smiling.

A. Muruganatham and his invention, a machine that can churn out 120 sanitary napkins an hour, has been creating a lot of waves in the developmental sector.  A high school drop out, Muruganatham created his machine after realizing that there was an immense need for low cost sanitary napkin at the base of the pyramid. According to him, it costs just about 1 rupee (0.02 USD) to produce these napkins and the machine itself costs Rs 66000 (approx USD 1500).

Please read the complete article. This is precisely what I hate about Soviet styled Central Planning.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When will Election Debates make a debut in India

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Last week, Britain made history when for the first time, the leaders from the three mainstream political parties debated in front of a studio audience and was also televised live. Such debates have become a regular feature in the US where this tradition started with the historic debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon way back in 1960. Other countries to have tried this include France, New Zealand, Australia and Iran (Source).

Importance of these Debates
The importance of such cannot be overstated. Firstly, these debates provide a direct platform to leaders to directly reach out their target audience. These leaders otherwise usually spend crores on traveling around the country and in organizing rallies which is mainly attended by party loyalists and not ordinary people.

The present spending limit for candidates is Rs 25 lakhs in Parliamentary elections and Rs 10 lakhs in Assembly elections. How many Indians can spare such large sums of money. More importantly, once they get elected, wouldn't they be motivated to get return on investment. India does not have open and clean system to raise funds for political parties like that of the US. Thus such debates can create a level playing field by reducing the role of money power in elections.

Secondly, such televised debates can lower the power of media-houses. Media houses and Journalists are universally known to have their own biases and often cover stories favorably. For e.g., in UK media has largely ignored the Liberal Democrats in the past. However, last week their leader comprehensively dominated the first Election debate in UK. Thus, the debate created a level playing field and allowed real talent to flourish.

Additionally, a major issue plaguing Indian media today is the rising phenomenon of paid news. It has been widely reported in the international media and it includes the big media houses as well. For e.g., a 2004 article in Asia Times Online claims that even Times of India sells its space for paid coverage (I can't comment on its authenticity). Another more recent article (2009) on Wall Street Journal says,
Ajay Goyal is a serious, independent candidate contesting for a Lok Sabha seat in Chandigarh. Never heard of him? Neither, probably, have a lot of people in Chandigarh because when it came to getting press coverage for his campaign he was faced with a simple message: If you want press, you have to pay.

So far, he says, he's been approached by about 10 people – some brokers and public relations managers acting on behalf of newspaper owners, some reporters and editors – with the message that he'll only get written about in the news pages for a fee. We're not talking advertising; we're talking news. One broker offered three weeks of coverage in four newspapers for 10 lakh rupees ($20,000). A reporter and a photographer from a Chandigarh newspaper told him that for 1.5 lakh rupees ($3,000) for them and a further 3 lakh rupees ($6,000) for other reporters, they could guarantee coverage in up to five newspapers for two weeks.
In the recent Maharashtra elections, three newspapers that compete with each other, Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times, carried the same piece, with the same picture and headline on Ashok Chavan. There are people on record saying that representatives of the Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, Punjab Kesri, Eenadu asked for money. (Source)

In such a corrupt environment, it is important to reduce money power and create a level playing field which is exactly what these debates tend to do.

Some people might question the efficacy of such debates. Televised Debates is not everyone's cup of tea. However, such debates only judge the articulation and fluency of the candidates which has no relation to their ability to Govern. Such debates would effectively rule out the likes of ManMohan Singh any chance of becoming the Prime Ministerial Candidates. But isn't fair enough. Aren't leaders expected to articulate and inspire.

And is it too high price to pay, considering if such a system is in place, it would force the likes of Mayawati to come out and face the music and answer questions from the audience. Mayawati has conveniently and continuously ignored the media since the dalits to read or bother newspapers and English new channels. Such debates will not allow candidates to make false promises as they will be cross-questioned. The likes of ManMohan Singh can continue to hold other important positions like Finance Minster or in the Planning Commision.

Another important aspect is that, the party which is ahead has little to gain from a debate in which the leader might slip up, and forfeit their advantage. This has been evident in Britain where there has been a tradition that at every general election the leader of the Opposition challenges the Prime Minister to a televised debate (on the grounds they have nothing to lose) only to be turned down by the Prime Minister (on the grounds they have everything to lose). LK Advani too had challenged ManMohan Singh for televised debate on the eve of the elections which was rejected by the Prime Minister.

Conducting such debates in India
Conducting debates in far more linguistically homogeneous societies like UK or US is far more easy. The obvious question is in which language would you have such a debate. India is far too diverse linguistically. Hindi is unsuitable in the south or the north-east while English is restricted to the urban and elite class. Secondly, India has a multi-party system and any meaningful televised debate can occur with such a large number of participants.

In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine conducting election debates in National Elections atleast in the foreseeable future. But why can't we have such debates in Assembly Elections. States in India were created linguistically and every state has a state language. These debates can be conducted in the state language. Furthermore, each state typically has just two or three major political parties or groups. So an effective debate can be conducted under the aegis of the Election Commission of India.

Final Words
We proudly call ourselves the World's Largest Democracy. But there others like Arundhati Roy who call India's democracy a fake democracy. The reality is somewhere in the middle. We only have pockets of Democracy. Even after 62 years of independence, democracy has not reached every part of the country.

We must bring democracy to every doorstep and Election Debates are a great way to achieve this because it gives a voice to everyone.

If we strengthen our democracy, development will follow. This new democracy can take on anyone including Naxals. Democracy is for the people,  by the people and of the people.Our forefathers fought hard so that we enjoy basic rights. It is now our  turn to fight their unfinished battles. It is now time that the Indian Civil Society shun its ignorance and demand a level playing field. It is time that our leader must face the music.

Would love to see a debate between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in 2014. And if you still haven't watched the UK Election Debate, you may do so on Youtube.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Right to Schools (Education)

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After more than 60 years of independence, India's literacy rate is 65%. This is surely a vast improvement over the earlier figures but it is still very low when compared to some of our neighbors like China or Sri Lanka. Importance of education cannot be understated. An educated person is much aware about cleanliness and health, he is much more efficient in work even if he is a farmer, he is much more aware of his rights, he is much more likely to adopt family planning.

Since 1991, our economy has grown at a tremendous pace. However, this growth has been far from uniform. For e.g., in 1999-2000, the Gini Factor (a measure of inequality) was around 32 which today has increased to 36 today. Clearly, the poor have not been able to take advantage of this new economy.

The new economy demands different skills from the old economy. Today, India has a demographic advantage with a large working population and a very small dependent population. However, in the absence of any education, this demographic advantage could easily turn into a demographic disaster. We should not forget that when China began its reforms in 1978, it already had the basic raw material an educated workforce. Therefore, something drastic has to be done to improve not just education but also its quality.

Historical Perspective
The Indian Constitution in its Article 45 states that the "The State shall endeavor to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years". However, despite high enrollment rates the quality of education is extremely poor with Class 5 student unable to solve simple Class 2 arithmetic problems or having basic reading skills.

Right to Education
The UPA Govt drafted the Right to Education Act in 2005 and it has now been implemented from 1st April, 2010. I came across an excellent critique of this act by Parth Shah. The basic features of this act are as follows:
  • Every child from 6 to 14 years of age has a right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood school till completion of elementary education.
  • Private schools must take in a quarter of their class strength from `weaker sections and disadvantaged groups', sponsored by the government.
  • All schools except private unaided schools are to be managed by School Management Committees with 75 per cent parents and guardians as members.
  • All schools except government schools are required to be recognized by meeting specified norms and standards within 3 years to avoid closure.
Everyone agrees that the act is well intentioned. However, as Mr Shah rightly points out, this Act stresses on inputs rather than outcomes. It is being assumed that with better school facilities, books, uniforms, teachers the quality of education will improve. The act stresses on neighbourhood schools with one school every kilometer.

With such high focus on inputs, I would call this act Right to Schools rather than Right to Education. No doubt, infrastructure is important. For e.g., one of the reasons why enrollment rates for girls have been lower is because of lack of toilet facilites for them, something that the improved school infrstructure will address. However, the act in its present form fails to address the delivery  mechanism. There aren't enough check and balances for the evaluation of either the students or the teachers.

Furthermore, this act unfairly punishes schools that pays market wages rather than civil servant wages. Now this is something I find it hard to understand. Why should a civil servant in Delhi get the same salary in lets say Patna? There is a huge difference in the cost of living. Airtel has offices around the country, does it pay the same salary across the board? It must be understood that some states have more tax revenues than others. States like Bihar, Orissa and UP have very low revenues. Centre deciding what the pay structure of the civil servants in these states is ridiculous.

At the moment, the Centre-State contribution for RTE has been fixed at 55-45. How can this ratio be uniform across the board when some states much more poor than others. It must be recalled that when the 6th Pay Commission report was finalized, the poorer states were not happy. In poor states, it is the state that has to make the investment as the private investors are not willing to investing. By increasing the expenditures of the State Govt leaves very little for the State Govt to invest in other projects.

This is precisely the reason why I believe Mayawati is justified in her opposition to RTE (ofcourse her expenditure on Dalit statues cannot be justified). Other states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh have also joined in their opposition. Centre must have a higher share in poorer states.

RTE also penalizes private schools that lack infrastructure like buildings or playground. These schools which operate mostly in rural areas or in urban slums, are extremely cost efficient and numerous studies have found them providing atleast similar education if not better than Govt. schools. A much better system would be that the state provided reimburses the fees and let the people decide as to which schools they intend to send their children.

The RTE envisages to increase the compensation of the teachers to close to Rs 20000 per month. This is a huge amount. However, this carrot alone is unlikely to make any impact since there aren't any sticks. Most teachers in Govt schools particularly in rural areas are irregular in their attendance. The act does not contain any performance based pay structure, without which there isn't going to be any incentive to perform.

The 25% reservations is the only step that is is going to make any verifiable change. The act also mandates that there cannot be any separate classes for those in the reserved category thus ensuring complete integration. However, what is not clear is as to what is the definition of these disadvantaged groups. There is a scope of nepotism here and several undeserved candidates may also benefit from this. This will also push up the tuition rates as 75% of the students will bear cost of the remaining 25%. The reduction in seats by 25% however should not be any problem as this would would attract setting up of more schools to mean this demand. And since we now have reservations at school level, every effort must be made to gradually remove reservations at top and this must start in 2025.

No doubt this grand scheme will have some positive effects. There are around 5000 cities and towns in India. 25% of seats reserved in the private schools in these cities will surely benefit the poor. Even if we assume that 10% of the seats will be siphoned off to those with fake BPL certificates, atleast 15% will be genuine beneficiaries. This is huge number.

Then there will ineveitably more efficient administrations. Take the examples of Bihar and Uttarakhand. Both these states in the past have used innovative means to boast enrollment rates in their states. Bihar Govt provided free cycles to all school students, which boosted the enrollment rates enormously (schools were far away from homes).

Uttarakhand has achieved nearly 100 per cent enrolment of students in schools this year and the drop out percentage has come down to mere 0.31 per cent from 15 per cent in 2000-01. The government has been implementing several innovative schemes like `Sapno ki Udan', `Pahal' and `Muskan' under the Centre's flagship programme to improve the quality and reach of education in the State. The salient features of `Sapno ki Udan' include organising `Mobile Schools' to reach out to the children and their parents, to identify and mainstream `Out-of-School' children, hosting community and educational fairs and conducting regular health camps, Radhika Jha, the State Project Director of SSA, told a visiting team of journalists.

"The Mobile Schools/Multi Purpose Vehicle are equipped with projector, computer library, learning material and other necessary tools. These vehicles are used to provide mobile schooling as well as to extend awareness and motivational campaigns among the masses," she said. `Pahal' is an initiative in PPP (public private partnership) mode for providing school education to `never- enrolled' and drop-out children in the age-group of 6-14 years belonging to vulnerable sections like rag-pickers, beggars and scavengers. `Muskaan' is another successful programme that aims at ensuring education of children of migrant labourers from states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
According to a NASSCOM study, only 14% of the graduates produced in India can be directly recruited by the Industry, which clearly points out to the lack of quality. This is true even in the primary education field. Mere passing of the Right to Schools(Education) is not going to change anything significant unless coupled by any change in the delivery mechanism.

Let us forget, NREGA was initially launched without any checks and balances. No doubt it has made an impact, but the impact is nowhere near the amount of money being pumped into the schemes as a large amount is being siphoned off. In case anyone is interested, please go through the following article where eminent economist Surjit Bhalla analyzes NREGA using some numbers. I am convinced that RTE is going to be yet another scheme that will fail to deliver its objective.