Tuesday, October 25, 2011

TRAIN JOURNEY!

From my childhood a train journey has always fascinated me. I remember the first time I travelled in a train. I was 7 years old and carrying a pen and paper with me to document whatever I saw. It was a condition that my insistent father had put them. I did eventually throw away his dream of seeing me complete my masters in English from Oxford but writing as a hobby somehow stuck to me.

A train journey to Delhi is always special. The famed Rajdhani travelling at a blitzkrieg speed always astounded me. I loved the Rajdhani for its speed for its food and for the people that travelled in it.

Perhaps no mosaic of Indian culture is more vivid that a train ride. So at 6:00 AM on the 19th of October I boarded the Rajdhani for Delhi. I was the first to arrive in our coach. I always liked to arrive early and watch others board the train. My seat was reserved in the upper berth, so I tucked my luggage under the seat and quickly settled in my berth. The journey and the fun had began.

The first to arrive in the coach was a burly Sardarji. Disciplined and light traveler he was undoubtedly an Armyman. Unlike the Assamese and our mishti loving cousins the Bengalees, the Sardarji travelled light. The Armyman tucks his luggage and then climbs to the berth opposite to me. He then settles, gives me a smile and sits down to read Alladin. Yes Alladin man was I shocked!

The next to arrive was a meek looking person of Mongoloid stock. An Assamese no doubt. The easiest way to find an Assamese is to look for the quietest person in a room full of people. Of course like exception to every rule I was an exception to the quiet Assamese concept!

Suddenly there is a large thud on the ground and I look down. A middle-aged man surrounded by others who were saluting him and saying “Ok sir ji”,”Ok Sir ji”. The person was pumped out, the typical Jat.A Jat and an Army man there you have your chest thumping arrogance.

So here it was me sandwiched between two Armymen a Sardarji and a Jat and a meek Assamese doing what they do best-keep to themselves. The train started and the Jat officer started his stories about how valiantly he performed relief work in Sikkim during the recent post earthquake relief operations. After a point of time even listening to heroic exploits gets boring. Scenes kept changing in the Jat’s story sometimes an injured child sometimes a grieving woman sometimes a blind an old man. The end result was however the same the Jat officer arrives to save the day. Atlast fed up of his heroics he went to sleep. Sardarji and I, his ardent audience gave a sight smile to each other relived that the ordeal had ended.

It was about an hour of quietness in the berth when the newspaper vendor arrived with the newspapers. Now another vicious cycle started of 3 men exchanging newspapers. I have never understood the fascination of middle aged men with newspapers. They can gloat at one single newspaper for like ages!!!I knew this cycle would not end so I settled down with my book.

Morning gave away to afternoon and it was time for lunch. Me being the avid foodie ordered non vegetarian food. It arrived and at best the chicken was funny. What was even funnier was that the Sardarji the Jat and the Assamese all had vegetarian food.I thought they were being foolish who would want to not have their daily dosage of chicken! In less than an hour however I realised they were not foolish I was. Post lunch I started developing pain in my stomach. I felt like puking, Sardarji came to my rescue and gave me a tablet.
I climbed down and sat with the Jat officer. He had transformed from Chandragupta Maurya to Florence Nightingale.He was taking so much care of me that I felt like I was going to drop dead in the next 10 minutes. Truely the big hearted Jats did everything king size they loved you king size and hated you king size. And then I learnt a valuable travel lesson –Never have non-vegetarian food on train.

Afternoon gave away to evening and with the advent of evening a new wave stuck our little group.It was in the form of two men Shuklaji and Dwivedi ji .These men represented the typical Indian culture –gyan-knowledge of everything under the sun and most of the time useless! In one hour they gave us a heavy dose on everything from Anna Hazare to Shri Ram’s philosophy. Infact they took pride in asking questions like “What came first the Ramayana or the Mahabharata?”As we struggled to find an answer they sat there with a contended look on their face. They loved basking in the glory of knowledge
.
Finally not able to hold himself any longer our Jat officer burst out “Ok ji chalo ji sona hain.”Shukla ji and Dwivedi ji looked devastated that we didn’t want to further enhance our knowledge base; they didn’t want to leave. But what choice do you really have when you are against two army men one a burly Sardarji the other a rustic Jat!

Their departure was followed by a nap and a walk which I took up and down the train. When I returned to my compartment it was dinnertime and we were in Patna. Our nearby compartment got emptied and suddenly there was scream, laughter and talks of mishti. Bengalis in Patna??You got to be kidding me! Yet true to their form the bhadraloks had arrived and with them had arrived the famous Bengali ability to scream all night and share aloo parathas ;a skill no other Indian community has been able to perfect. And there it was all night long nonstop chatter. The last thing I heard was “Can Messi play for Mohan Bagan?”Yah right I thought!

The next morning I woke up early only to find the Bengalis awake and they were quiet. I peeked in hoping everything was all right. Suddenly I saw Shukla ji and Dwivedi ji seated right across the Bengalis with the famous contended look on their face! The Bengalis too were gasping for answers that related to cosmic energy, God, theory of relativity etc. Thank God for the cauldron of knowledge!

At about 10:00 we arrived at Delhi. I exchanged handshakes and numbers with all 3 men of my compartment and they left. Since I had the heaviest luggage I thought that I would be the last to leave from our compartment. However after they left I was not able to pull out my luggage from underneath the seat it had got stuck. I was perplexed not able to find a way.And then suddenly I heard a voice asking me in broken Hindi if I wanted help! I turned to find it was the Bengali gentleman, the mishti they had always reflected in their mishti behavior! He helped me arrange my luggage and then went back to his screaming hysterical family!

I turned towards the other with a smile in my face. My friend Gaurav had arrived to pick me up. As we piled our luggage onto the auto which was waiting at the gate I realised this is India a vivid sojourn a dream an enigma truly a mosaic!



Friday, October 7, 2011

62nd Republic Day-choices from here

As the night sets in I look at the clock ,its 10.08 PM .It's just two hours to go before India moves into its 62nd Republic Day.It is indeed a joyous occasion for all of us.Yet,deep in my heart there is a touch of sadness .As the day progressed today I heard that an honest Additional Deputy Collector was burnt alive in Malegaon.And I questioned myself is this why we choose to be a republic?Did the forefathers of the nation have this picture of India in mind while they were building this nation?

We all have indeed come a long way from being a colony to a superpower in the present world scenario.The American President declared that India has arrived.The WEF in Davos predicts that India will be the largest superpower in terms of economy by 2040.So in 30 years we will do the inevitable we will be the numero uno nation of the world.The theme India Shining seems to be on a high.Yet we all know that today something is deeply wrong in this nation.There is an ulcer which is waiting to burst.The bubble burst however will not be merely economical ,it will encompass larger parameters.,it will grab a larger domain.So as we sit on top of this time bomb called India I ask myself how can this timebomb be defused?And the answer lies in identifying the root problems and taking measures.Thus with this intention in mind I sit down to analyse the 4 big problem that plagues our nation today.

1. Corruption :- A few months ,or just a mere year back we would have been tempted to add the word Terrorism in this position .However in the past few months we have encountered such massive scams that there is no doubt that today Corruption is the biggest worry on our mind.People ask what is the problem with the Hawala Money the Black money .The problem lies in the fact is that this same money can be used by terrorist organization since this money does not leave a paper trail behind.In other sense this money cannot be traced.

Hence it becomes extremely important for us to understand the relevance in the present context.Reports suggest that the Telecom Minister has committed frauds to the tune of Rs. 1.72 lakh crore.The poor people of India doesn't even understand how many zeros are written in a lakh crore.Yet the system has allowed people to get away with that kind of money.On the other hand in the same country the Ranjarajan Committee decries any move to make the Right to Food universal since it will cost the national excheaquer Rs. 70000 crore.So the same nation in which Rs. 1.72 lac crore can be stashed as corruption money ,Rs 70000 crore cannot be manged to feed the poorThe Adarsh housing scam is another example of how immune we have become to the system.There is no respect left even for the fallen martyrs.The nation has indeed steeped to new lows.The Sukhna scam,the Cash for Judges scam the Nira Radia tapes expose that every arm of the nation is corrupt in one way or the other.

And the worst part is that this penchant for corruption has caught on to the new generation as well.So long ahd we heard in the "youth will come save the day " jingle that we had actually started believing it.But reality has struck indeed hard.Today even 24-25 year olds are involved in corruption.Noble professions like Civil Engineering are becoming lucrative for many because government sector jobs in these sectors offer large under table money.Indeed it has become a sad spectacle.The paneca to this problem lies in example from the top.The politicians the bureacrats the top officials have to come out clean.Else this nation is doomed to fail.

2. Internal Security:- While we all eke out fancy deals for fighter jets and aircraft's we all tend to forget that the biggest threat to India lies not from her external threats but from her internal threats.The question of Pakistan or China attacking us in the present context seems anything but prepostrous.The so called external threats merely exist in the minds of a few self proclaimed defence experts and the arms deal lobbyists.


Maoism and Terrorism are indeed two of the biggest challenges that India has to face .And as the experiences have shown over the past two years in Mumbai at Dantewada.We the people the government cannot remain complacent.The biggest way to combat this is stregthen our police and paramalitray forces .They must be trained and equipped in the most modern facilities.A larger sum of the defence budget must be actually spent on arming our internal combat units.Until policing gets strong India will always be vulnerable.If needed the government must think in terms of community policing and other such innnovative ideas.The general public must behave in more informed and vigilant manner.they must be aware of their surroundings.Small steps can go a big way in keeping the country safe.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

POPULIST MEASURE OR A REAL DEVELOPMENT TOOL





The government has recently announced a slew of measures which aim at making rapid improvements in the education scenario in Assam. However we must be able to dissect whether such measures are actually going to benefit the education scenario in Assam or they are merely populist measures.

Let us take the example of the Anundoram Borooah Awards (ABA) Scheme which is 7th year running in Assam. It is often considered a colossal achievement on part of the Assam Government .The scheme ensures that every student who has obtained a certain percentage of marks in the HSLC examinations would be given a computer/laptop or else cash in its place. The choice was left to the students whether they wanted to use the cash or the laptop.7 years has passed since this programme was started with much gusto .Now we must analyse what has been the actual achievement of this scheme. Let us examine what the programme has actually done in the past 7 years(Table 1)

 

Year
No of 1st Div.
No. of PCs/Laptops Distributed
No. of Cheques Distributed
Total nos. of Awardees
2005
12,756
12,649
107
12756
2006
13,493
12,358
1135
13493
2007
12,692
11,094
1614
12708
2008
17,331
14,722
2558
17331
2009
17,362
under progress


2010
19,335
17,637
1698
19,335
2011
19,459
17,288
2171
19,459

        Table1: List of awardees (From Amtron website http://www.amtron.in/htmls/Anundoram-barooah-award.html )

So the scheme has seen a quantum leap in terms of total awardees with over 8000 students’ addition since its inception. Now assuming that each computer comes at a cost of Rs.19943 (which was the value of the cheque) then the total money spend on the scheme in 2011 would be Rs 38, 80, 70837.If the government decides to further extend the scheme to 50% and above that on an average about 25000 more students would become eligible hence bringing the total cost to almost Rs 89 crores in that scenario. Now the question is that this money that has been invested does it assure the state of any long-term return, sadly it does not. In all probability it merely assures the “youth vote”, when a 16 year old turns 18 in two years he/she will be indebted for the computer.

Let us analyse why technically this money is a mere wastage of public exchequer more than anything else:
First of all no computer can guarantee a student would open up to the rich experience of the cyber world and would indulge in e-learning almost immediately upon obtaining a computer. When IIT’s are contemplating restrictions on student’s time with internet it seems almost frivolous to argue that one computer can change a student’s life. Of course there is no debate as to the utility of a computer today in a student’s life, but to argue that a computer will bring a revolution in student’s life is debatable.

Secondly supporters often argue that the ABA scheme has been designed on the lines of the famous UN OLPC (One Laptop per Child) scheme. This is an absurd comparison for many reasons. OLPC has been a well thought out programme. It’s most important component has been researching and designing a laptop which has the best possible features for a student at the least possible cost. Even the recently launched “Akashdeep” tablet featured as the world’s cheapest tablet has gone into years of research before being released to the market. The reason why such extensive research takes place is for the fact that when such schemes are unveiled the cost factor must be taken into account. The cost shouldn’t be such that it becomes a burden on the state exchequer, thereby affecting overall well being of its citizens.

In designing the scheme in Assam however no such considerations has been done. The ABA scheme has been associated with AMTRON. However AMTRON mainly deals in facilitation of IT projects rather than innovation; with the exception being the Broadband over Powerline scheme that AMTRON has envisaged. Thus in the case of the ABA scheme AMTRON has acted as a facilitator rather than a crusader for a cost effective innovative solution.  The Assam economy which already reels under a deficit budget (where the expenditure is more than the income) has to incur an additional expense of 38 crores with no assurance of return or real development to the State economy. This increases the chance for greater debt which might further devastate the already destroyed state economy.

Thirdly just as merely announcing new college building does not signal development, merely handing away computers with gusto doesn’t announce a revolution in terms of e-literacy in the state. What is required is a proper roadmap involving academicians, industry captains, educationist and people who are intrinsically attached to the IT industry. Such a roadmap was evidently missing on part of the ABA Scheme. A prime example of the lack of communication between the students and the authorities is regarding the goal of the scheme itself. The ABA laptops/computers come loaded with Linux Operating Systems. The students on reaching home realise Linux is not easy to operate especially to play games, watch movies etc. And they convert their systems to Windows Operating System. What they don’t realise is that Linux as a technology is miles ahead of Windows especially as a secure operating system. Linux with its open source programming also offers chance to the students to awaken their creative cells by tweaking the source codes to their own choice. In short Linux is a learning experiencing in itself. However students unaware of such benefits shift to Windows thus negating perhaps the most important benefit of the ABA scheme. This also creates the chance for software piracy since most of the students who move to the Windows system get a pirated version. This simple fact is a pointer to the theory that merely handing out computers doesn’t ensure a remarkable rise in e- literacy.

Fourthly supporters of the ABAS educationists, academicians etc often argue that the computers have brought about a sea change in terms of students quality in Assam. This is another colossal myth. Let us consider the figures for 2009.In 2009 there were almost 17,362 students who cleared in first division. In 2011 this batch appeared for the 12th examinations alongwith various medical, engineering exams etc. Yet in 2011, for example in the IITJEE examinations, under Guwahati Zone, 76 candidates qualified out of the 6,928 who had registered in Assam. By contrast 499 candidates from Bihar qualified in the highly competitive test. Similarly Assam recorded dismal performances in AIPMT, AIIMS entrance test, AFMC, CLAT etc. Thus computers haven’t been able to bring about a sea-change in the lack of competitive culture that is prevalent among the students of Assam. While the failure of students in competitive examinations can’t be blamed on computers, the justification for giving away computers on the basis that students will get motivated and start preparing for national level examinations is also an absurd idea.

In this case the way forward starts in reorienting the ABAS. It can act as a harbinger of change if it’s made exclusive to cover only merit and distinction holders would get a computer. That would in true terms increase the chance for competition to achieve the award. Apart from this, instead of awarding computers the government can draw out a well structured scholarship scheme on the lines of the NTSE examinations. This examination must be merit based rather than caste or community based. Students of Class 10 would be eligible to sit for this exam and those who clear would be given scholarships which would help them to complete studies upto Masters Level. The scholarship scheme should cover only top notch national level institutes in every field. Students should be encouraged to pursue research oriented career by offering them scholarship upto Doctoral level if they pursue so. As it is frequently argued the real wealth of knowledge lies in the doctoral research a country holds. In this way such a scheme would genuinely bring a competitive spirit among the students where their future is assured. Merit can’t be judged on the basis of the Class 10 examinations. The government must diversify the scheme to award proficient young dancers, musicians, painters etc on the Lines of the Presidential Award for Culture awarded by the Central Government.

Apart from this the Government must improve the IT infrastructure of the schools rather than handing away computers to students who would not be able to understand its true value. The Rajiv Gandhi Computer Literacy Mission which was started in 2004-05 must be renewed with gusto. The government must make efforts to appoint one proficient computer teacher in every school whose proficient in both Assamese and English fonts while handling a computer. Such teachers can be selected on the basis of examination on the lines of the TET (Teachers Eligibility Test), only this would test the proficiency of the candidate. Finally apart from improving the education scenario the government must widen the opportunities for investments and start-ups by students who hail from Assam. This would ensure that students who benefit from the ABAS get a chance to come back and contribute for the state and the country in general. If proper economic policies are conceived and Assam is able to retain atleast 10% of its students then it would truly be a boon to its development. In this way instead of making ABAS a populist short term measure the government can turn it into an objective reality of being an instrument of change .It would truly usher in a new era of development in Assam.