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.

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