Monday, March 10, 2008

This Waiver is immoral, 9th March, 2008

Nagoba Khamnakar feels like a fool. Like many farmers in his village of Mahakurla in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, he borrowed money from his bank last year. He repaid it diligently, in installments and on time. Many of his neighbours, however, did not. When the Finance Minister announced last week in his Budget an amnesty against repayment of small farm loans, he said sadly, ‘What is the use of being honest?’

Canceling debts of small farmers worth a massive Rs. 60,000 crores, equal to 3% of all loans in the entire banking system, was a staggering, seductive but a hugely destructive act. When Devi Lall, announced a similar loan waiver worth Rs 9,000 crores in 1990, he killed most cooperative and rural banks. Farmers stopped repaying loans, banks stopped lending to them and it took ten years for the nation to recover from that mistake. When we hurl abuse at Devi Lall, we always add, ‘What did you expect from an illiterate peasant!’ But what do we say to a government headed by eminent economists and reformers?

One’s heart goes out to those in distress in the rural areas. There is great suffering, indeed, in our villages. But there are other, better ways to relieve it without turning the nation dishonest. For example, a sustainable crop insurance program or a restructuring the loans would have done much more good. There will be distress again; farmers will borrow again; and get into trouble again. A crop insurance scheme will then come to their aid, unlike this one-time political bribe. Sharad Pawar, the Agriculture Minister, admitted as much when he confessed the day after the Budget--‘I cannot say if [suicides] will stop after this loan waiver’.

Human society is based on trust. When the ordinary person takes a loan, he feels duty bound to repay it. He will even sell his family’s jewellery to fulfill his promise. This is because we learned as children from our mothers to keep promises. Tulsidas’ ideal, ‘praan jaye par vachan na jaye’ was held up to us as a moral ideal. We admire Karna in the Mahabharata for not switching sides because he had given his word to Duryodhana. This loan waiver wounds that moral universe. It tells the farmer not to bother to repay his next loan, because, who knows, another party will be in power and it too will cancel his debts. What message does this send to the honest village woman who struggles every week to repay her micro-loan? It is like excusing the crooked businessman who bounces his cheque. Or bailing out victims of sub-prime loans in America who are clamoring for a similar act of false compassion.

The irony is that the UPA government might actually lose more votes than it gains from this loan waiver. According to NSSO figures, almost 60% of farm loans are from money lenders. They will not benefit. R Radhakrishna Committee says that farmers from the suicide prone areas of Vidharbha and Chatisgarh will benefit less than the richer farmers in the irrigated areas who grow sugar cane and grapes. Since those who will not benefit (or benefit less) are greater than those who will, resentment will build, and the UPA might end up in losing more than it gains. Sharad Pawar has understood this. Hence, he told the farmers of India last week, ‘Don’t pay a single paise to money lenders.’ No one likes the village sahukar, but to break a promise to someone you don’t like is just as wrong as to someone you do.

Imagine the staggering paradox--to turn a nation dishonest in order to win an election, and then go on and lose it! This is one irony that the UPA government might prefer to forget.

Leaping into a bilingual world, 24 February 2008

My friend, the linguist, Peggy Mohan, likens the evolution of the English language in India to the mobile phone. Just as our masses are leapfrogging to cell phones without going through a landline stage, she thinks that English might evolve in the same way from elite to a mass, second language of the fast growing Indian middle class. If functioning with pre-literate dialects is not to have a phone; and learning a standard regional language, say shudh Hindi, is to acquire a landline; then aspirant wannabe’s Indians might actually leapfrog from their pre-literate mother tongues to literacy in functional English.

This English is a skill above all, linked to getting a job, and associated not with the culture of Shakespeare but with the popular culture of Hinglish--Bollywood, FM radio, SMS, and advertising. Of course, mixing English words with our mother tongue has been going on for generations. Earlier it was basically the aspirational idiom of the lower classes. Now it is also the fashionable idiom in upper class drawing rooms in south Delhi and south Mumbai. This English is shared and democratic.

India’s poor send their children at great sacrifice to private, English-medium schools of varying degrees of quality. These children face incomprehension initially but eventually most of them manage to take a leap into a new world. This happens because a child is naturally bilingual. Our education mandarins dismiss these schools and think the parents stupid. The same mandarins thrust shudh Hindi down their throats for fifty years but all they achieved was an unemployable person. Now, at least, these children can get a job—so, who is the one who is stupid?

This should be a wake-up call for our education establishment. Unless we drastically reform how we teach regional languages, they might suffer the landline’s fate. According to Alok Rai, author of Hindi Nationalism, shudh Hindi was never a peoples’ language. It arose from a power struggle in the mid-19th century between Brahmins and Kayasthas, each of whom had their own schools and scripts--Devanagari and Kaithi By the time Brahmins won in the 20th century, English had become the language of the elite. At Independence, the Hindiwallahs tried to impose their Sankritized Hindi on the nation but they failed. Had they promoted Bollywood’s Hindustani, they might have succeeded. Yet they didn’t learn. So, the Hindi we are taught is artificial and soulless--like the landline, it doesn’t connect with the masses.

Instead of fighting Hinglish, our educationists must teach Standard English and regional languages in a lively and relevant way to naturally bilingual children. Studies show that if a child learns both languages by the age ten, she is advantaged for life. The problem is the dearth of English teachers. We at SKS Microfinance plan to overcome this with interactive English teaching on the computer, using a program like Pygmalion, which Karnataka is using in select government schools. It trains teachers to become facilitators. The child talks to the computer, who corrects her each time she makes a mistake. We aim to make 600,000 children bilingual in 600 primary schools, charging Rs 250-350 per month fees, for which SKS will provide loans to its 17 lakh customer base. Our schools will be run by professional edupreneurs like Educomp or Career Launcher and employ the new $100 computer. Tell me now, isn’t this how our government should be thinking? The Chinese government is.

Stephen Jay Gould, the biologist, argues that human evolution is not smooth and continuous but a series of jump steps, with long periods of stasis punctuated by quick flurries of adaptation. This explains perhaps the dearth of missing links in the fossil record. Languages evolve similarly. It took English only a hundred years to produce Shakespeare. Hinglish might do the same in the 21st century.

End this Killer Raj, February 10, 2008

For the first time an Indian institution of higher education has been ranked among the top twenty in the world. The Indian School of Business (ISB) was ranked 20th in a list of the top100 business schools by the prestigious Financial Times two weeks ago. A Chinese business school was No 11; four European schools came in the top 10, and the rest were from the United States.

But wait a minute. Isn’t the ISB illegal? ISB officials explain that they don’t want accreditation from India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) because then “they will decide our courses, our student intake, and even the size of our buildings”. I spoke to a top AICTE official, who scornfully dismissed the Indian School of Business--“its fees are too high and it doesn’t even have a permanent faculty”. I gently suggested that its faculty is world-class if not permanent. And why worry about fees when every student has a loan. They must be doing something right if students command a mean salary of Rs 16 lakhs a year at graduation.

ISB is India’s only school in the top-100 list. There might have been more but for AICTE. One of these is Mumbai’s premier SP Jain Institute, run by a no-nonsense Harvard graduate. It doesn’t bribe; nor does it succumb to politicians for admissions. Hence, it is punished. It applied to admit 120 students in 1992, but got approval for 45. In 2001, it applied for 180 but didn’t get approval for six years. In 2004, AICTE rejected its unique dual degree program with a reputed foreign university, whereby the latter would have flown its faculty to India. Its innovative program for family-run businesses was also rejected. Last year, it seriously contemplated closing down. Instead it has started campuses in Dubai and Singapore--far beyond AICTE’s reach.
What do you do when the keepers of the law become its oppressors? AICTE was set up to encourage higher education but it achieved the opposite. Honest officials have tried cleaning it up periodically, but they have always been removed by politicians, who happen to own many of our worst private institutions. The answer, of course, is to give autonomy to all education institutions. Regulators should only ensure that they provide mandatory disclosure on the Internet about their courses, faculty, fees, and facilities (with severe punishment for false claims). Professional rating services should evaluate colleges with the same credibility as CRISIL rates industrial companies. Competition will take care of the rest. Students will be able to make informed choices. Good institutions will thrive and poor ones will close.
In the India of my dreams the government will stop running universities and colleges. All institutions will be autonomous. The government will plough all the money saved into scholarships. The Government’s role will be limited to governance-- ensuring corruption free ratings and corruption-free exams (with the credibility of IIT-JEE) at various stages in a student’s career. The tombstone of the UGC/AICTE Raj will thus read: “For fifty years we promoted rote learning, incompetent faculty, and mediocrity. We punished original thinking and failed to create an employable graduate. We pushed students into a parallel universe of coaching classes, which ironically took their obligation to students far more seriously. We deserved to die.”

Building India is about building institutions. This Sunday let’s celebrate the emergence of a world class institution in India. The altruistic founders of ISB had a vision. They funded it privately and nurtured it in its early years. They persisted in difficult times, especially when they were under attack from AICTE. Now, his is how to build fine institutions.