Thursday, March 25, 2021

A tale of two heroes: An Ashoka University donor on the challenges of doing good in today’s world

 The Times of India | March 2021

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, professor of political science and a passionate critic of the government, resigned from Ashoka University last week because he felt he’d become a ‘political liability’. The media has portrayed it as a morality tale of good versus evil but, in fact, it’s a tragedy.

It’s a tale of two modern Indian heroes: one courageously showing truth to power; the other idealistically trying to build a better world; both performed their duties, doing what he had to do; but it all ending badly. The ‘tragic flaw’ was not the rottenness of the court of Denmark but the imperfect world outside – an authoritarian state, tribal political parties, uncivil wars in an Age of Hatred – forces beyond the heroes’ control.

The first hero, Ashish Dhawan, had a dream – to create a world class, non-profit liberal arts university with half the students on free scholarships. He grew up in a professional family in Kolkata. After finishing his schooling at St Xavier’s he got a scholarship to Yale, where he experienced the wonders of a liberal education. He went on to Harvard Business School and from there to the investment world.

At 30 he returned to India, set up ChrysCapital, a venture capital firm, with the mission to nurture Indian startups. This is when we first met – he invited me to join his board. A dozen years later the firm was hugely successful, and Dhawan quit at the peak. Energising a bunch of similar idealistic, successful entrepreneurs like himself, he began to pursue his dream. For the past ten years, he’s been giving away his millions, passionately building Ashoka University.

The other hero of the story is Pratap Mehta, who grew up in roughly similar circumstances in a Jain family in Jodhpur. After schooling at St Edwards in Shimla and St Xavier’s in Jaipur, he got his BA at Oxford and a PhD in politics from Princeton. He went on to teach at Harvard where we first met. He returned to India, headed the Centre for Policy Research, making it a premier Indian thinktank, famous for intellectual honesty and rigour. But he built his formidable personal reputation as the author of elegant, forthright observations in his closely read weekly column.

Ashoka, meanwhile, was quietly laying the foundations of excellence in liberal education. I was invited to deliver a lecture there and was blown away by what I saw. I decided to become ‘a founder’, donating my own savings to Ashoka. In 2017, Ashoka invited Mehta to join as vice-chancellor. I thought it was a perfect marriage.

Soon, however, there was trouble. His strong views about the government were beginning to worry the university; Dhawan, however refused to stop Mehta in any way. I remained a distant cheerleader, unaware of the storm brewing, until one evening I was asked for advice. I suggested he continue to write vigorously but delete ‘Ashoka’ from his byline.

In 2019, Mehta decided to step down as VC but continue as professor. One afternoon, as we discussed my favourite project – to create a world-class department of Indology and Sanskrit at Ashoka – he said he had trouble “balancing his administrative duties with his academic interests”. He had “unlimited freedom” but little time to teach. Ashoka, he said, “was an extraordinary success story … Its commitment to academic values, the integrity of its processes, and the extraordinary talent it has assembled make it a truly special university.”

I felt all was well. So, imagine my shock when I learnt last week that Mehta had resigned from Ashoka. The following day, Arvind Subramanian quit in sympathy because Ashoka was “no longer able to protect academic freedom.” 90 faculty members expressed solidarity with Mehta. 150 academics from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, LSE, MIT, you name it, questioned Ashoka’s commitment to freedom. Students announced a two-day boycott of classes. Ashoka’s reputation had been indelibly stained.

No one seemed to know why Mehta resigned. I discovered there hadn’t been any pressure from the government. Many of the 150 donors of Ashoka, however, were offended by Mehta’s weekly bashing of PM Modi and the state. Not surprising, donors are conservative. The university worried that if funding dried up, the university might have to cut scholarships, raise student fees, freeze faculty salaries, chop new academic programmes. Still, no one asked Mehta to resign or to stop writing. But Mehta himself began slowly to realise that he was becoming a political liability. In an act of integrity, he resigned. Dhawan had mixed feelings. As a genuine liberal, committed to dissent, he felt sad. But as a protector of his baby he felt relieved.

The tragedy then is this: two good men, both doing their duty, were caught between conflicting loyalties, ended in wounding a promising fledgling institution. Ashoka has been damaged, diminished in the global academic world – it won’t be easy to attract world-class faculty in the future. The tragedy is bigger – India desperately needs to create world-class institutions and this is a setback to the nation’s ambitions.

The consolation is this hasn’t happened for the first time. Even Harvard and Yale, when they were young, faced similar challenges. The redeeming power of tragedy is to cleanse our emotions and seek renewal. There’s too much that’s good at Ashoka, bursting with creativity. After much soul searching, Dhawan has publicly admitted to lapses and there’s genuine commitment to change. A firewall is being erected between the founders and the institution; an Ombudsman is being appointed. Having gone through agni pariksha, I’m convinced that Ashoka will rise again.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Gurugram Inc won’t expand in Haryana anymore, eyeing hubs like Noida now

 The Print | March 2021


With its job reservation bill, the Haryana government led by BJP Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has scored a self-goal. Haryana will lose out in the end if it goes ahead with its plan to reserve 75 per cent jobs in the private sector for the local people. While there are several challenges to implementing it, the real worry is that companies will abandon Haryana. The industry fears that Haryana, from being a competitive, attractive state, would become an uncompetitive, unattractive state to do business in.

It will lead to flight of capital from Haryana

The obvious example is Gurugram, Haryana’s most dynamic hub of job creation and industrial growth. Gurugram has become globally competitive on the back of IT and IT-related services. Because of this, people in Haryana have benefited enormously from this prosperity. Gurgaon is an amazing miracle, like Bangalore. And those who think it’s a small bunch of IT people are mistaken. The economic multiplier works in such a way that a person in an upwardly mobile job creates 3-5 indirect jobs through consumption. And local people benefit from that job. The prosperity runs right through the economy. With this new law, top persons in the information technology industry have already begun to talk about Noida and other places to expand their businesses in. Their regional headquarters may stay in Gurugram, because the law does not affect existing industries, but many big companies are saying they just will not be able to operate under the circumstances of this reservation.

In another industry in Gurugram, I know of a design-based company that needs highly skilled designers. During its hiring process last week, the company managed to find one such person, but she was living in Noida. Since her salary was below Rs 50,000, the company would not be able to hire her under the new law. Yes, the law does allow exceptions, but they’re afraid the process of seeking approvals would mean delays, corruption, and the whole burden of managing a new form of license raj. Since they need highly skilled people, they usually find them in different corners of India. In their case, exception-seeking would have to be the rule. Since their main capital is skilled human capital, not a big factory, they feel it would make sense to just move their business out of Haryana. So, what we are looking at is a flight of capital from Haryana.

A new form of License Raj will bring anxiety to job seekers

After all the fine work Haryana has done for the ease of doing business, which attracted masses of companies, it is now taking a step in the opposite direction. With this law, the  government has enhanced the discretionary power of officials. In the process, it has landed its officials with a headache — how to decide if someone is a Haryanvi? What about a person whose one parent is from next door in Delhi or neighbouring Punjab or UP and the other parent is from Haryana? What about the case where one eighth of your blood is non-Haryanvi? Officials in Nazi Germany used to face this dilemma, and a person with even one sixteenth Jewish blood was considered a ‘Jew’ and would be killed.

In order to implement this law, state officials will ask you for proof if you are a Haryanvi. This will create anxiety among all job-seekers. How will a poor Haryanvi get such a proof in a country without documents? Even upper and middle class people don’t have marriage certificates. Suddenly, you will make a person of mixed blood into a despised foreigner. An industrialist with a moral conscience doesn’t want to be part of a mindset that divides Indians — demonising some people, valorising others. Another reason why many will leave Haryana.

It will fail in the courts

Before this happens, however, industry will go to court, and argue that it is illegal. Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala’s article in ThePrint says that the government is within the law but there’s enough legal precedence to show that it violates Article 14 on ‘equality before law’ and Article 19, which allows everyone to live and work anywhere in the country. Even the Andhra Pradesh case, which is in the high court, is likely to be struck down. Haryana’s politicians, indeed India’s politicians know this well and this is the cynicism behind this move. They will go back to their constituencies and say to the people, ‘Look, we tried to do it, but our hands were tied. We couldn’t do it because of the wretched courts’.

It undermine’s Modi’s vision of one India 

This law is especially embarrassing to Prime Minister Modi and his vision of ‘one India’. It’s a slap in the face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), when its own chief minister in a BJP ruled state is creating ‘tukde tukde’. The 75 per cent domicile law demonises the migrant. Many of us remember the damage the Shiv Sena has done to the ‘open arms’, cosmopolitan culture of Mumbai. In support of jobs for Maharashtrians in the 1970s, it demonised South Indians, beating Tamils in Matunga and Dadar. In the 1980s, Shiv Sainiks started attacking Sikh taxi drivers. In the ’90s, it was the turn of the Biharis and UP bhaiyas.

This is real ‘tukde tukde’ because you are no longer proud to be an Indian — the regional identity supplants national identity. As the feeling of being Indian fades, you begin to see the migrant worker as ‘a foreigner in my state’. It’s a pity because studies on migration show that migration is a symptom of a nation’s dynamism. Not only will this law bring economic loss, it will promote social disorder. The irony in all this is that Haryana, more than any other state, has benefitted because it was part of something bigger — because of its proximity to Delhi and Chandigarh. From a sleepy village, Haryana became part of greater Delhi/NCR, benefitting enormously from the energy and prosperity of the whole region.

It will slow national recovery

There has been a palpable change in direction in the last year at the Centre. Modi has finally begun to deliver on the reforms that brought him to power in 2014. There have been reforms in labour laws; the corporate tax rate has been reduced to levels that are now in line with our competitor nations; there has been an investment-oriented, job-creating Budget. Even as political parties were clamouring for Covid giveaways, the Modi government did the right thing for the long term — choosing to create jobs. The reforms in agriculture are our ‘1991 moment’. Despite opposition from vested interests — rich farmers and arhatiyas in Punjab and Haryana — the government hasn’t caved in. Finally, to get money for Budget 2021, the government has bitten the bullet, gone for privatising the holy cow, the public sector. Yes, privatising! No euphemisms, no reform by stealth. This has changed the mood of the industry. We can now begin to believe in the serious business of growth. But in one go, this proposed reservation law could undermine this mood, creating doubts in the minds of investors: is India once again returning to the bad ways of the old license raj?

Haryana govt’s claims don’t hold

The reasons given by Dushyant Chautala are specious. The law will not benefit employers; it will harm them. He says that the new law will provide a qualified workforce, which will enhance efficiency. But only if you hire the best available do you enhance efficiency. If you are forced to hire local people and if they are not equal to the best available, then you are limiting yourself. Dushyant Chautala also talks about reducing absenteeism. The reality is that migrants have less day-to-day absenteeism; they are more motivated than the local people. Also, his claim that the law will reduce crime rate is basically saying that migrants are responsible for crimes. This too is a false claim. He is playing with fire when he demonises migrants, as the Thackerays did in Bombay. This will only bring violence to Haryana and make it less attractive for investment.

Dushyant Chautala says that other states are doing it. Well, two wrongs don’t make a right. Besides, the courts will throw out those laws in all the states. He has mentioned a ‘sunset clause’ of ten years , which is a good thing. All laws should have a sunset clause. But the reality is that it’s very difficult to roll back something once you have given it. Politicians know it. After 10 years, politicians will find ways to extend the law, knowing that undoing cheap populism is equal to committing political suicide.

Why are bad, self-defeating laws legislated?

Politics and economics don’t converge necessarily. Economic policy delivers in the long term — it’s a five-day Test match. But politics is short-term game — it’s a T20 match. In politics, you have to get elected at any cost, and you have only a few years to deliver. Thus, the interests of politicians and economic reformers are often different. A politician, like NT Rama Rao, got elected by promising Re 1/- rice and he bankrupted the Andhra Pradesh treasury. Punjab’s politicians promised free electricity to farmers, again bankrupted the state, but also through excess use of water made one of the richest states significantly poorer. Because of the mismatch, it is difficult to do reforms in a democracy but it’s also why self-defeating laws like the 75 per cent reservation in Haryana are enacted.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Don’t kill 2nd green revolution: Rolling back farm reforms would privilege a small but vociferous group over the silent majority

 The Times of India | December 2020

The current protests by Punjab’s farmers hold many lessons. One of them is that politics is a short game, a T20 cricket match, while economics is a long term, five-day Test match. Punjab’s farmers are playing the former while the government is playing the latter, which makes it frustrating for the two sides and for spectators in the stands.

Because of this mismatch, a second lesson is that it’s difficult to reform in a democracy. A populist who promises rice at Re 1 per kg will usually defeat the reformer at the polls. Hence, successful reformers spend more time selling reforms than doing them. India’s reformers have failed in this regard, which is why 29 years after 1991, India still reforms by stealth and Indians cannot distinguish between being pro-market and pro-business. They continue to believe that reforms make the rich richer and poor poorer, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the world’s great communicators, forgot this lesson and didn’t win the nation’s support for the three farm bills before enacting them in June. His government resorted to stealth, pushed the farm bills through Parliament without talking to the opposition, states, or farmer organisations. This led to false rumours that the price subsidy (MSP) and government procurement would go away soon and corporate farming would replace peasant farming. He can still repair this damage.

A third lesson is that a small, organised, and well-funded group in a democracy can hijack the nation’s interest when the majority is silent and unorganised. Behind the protests are arthiyas, buying agents in APMC mandis, who stand to lose Rs 1500 crore a year in commissions, plus rich farmers of Punjab, who are part of the 6% of India’s farmers who benefit from the MSP regime, according to the 70th round of the NSS. Both are powerful. The arthiyas finance elections, are often politicians and leaders of farm unions.

The three farm laws offer three basic freedoms to the farmer. One, he can now sell anywhere to anyone, freeing him from having to sell to a monopoly cartel at the APMC mandi. Second is the freedom to store inventory which was constrained so far by stocking limits in the Essential Commodities Act. This gives incentive for cold storages to come up, to whom farmers can now sell directly. Third, it gives farmers freedom to make forward contracts, transferring their risk to businessmen, leading hopefully to a freedom to lease unviable lands for a job and a share in profits.

The Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) is an obsolete institution from an age of scarcity, meant to protect the farmer but becoming his oppressor, a monopoly cartel fixing low prices for the farmers’ produce, forcing distress sales. The reforms have broken this monopoly and since June, out-of-mandi farmer sales have grown sharply while mandi transactions have plunged 40%. This reform needs to be followed up with a stable policy on exports, unlike the present ‘start-stop’ policy, under which onion exports were recently banned. This is why farmers hanker after MSP.

It’s good news that farmer unions and government have finally begun to talk. The main demand of Punjab’s farmers and activists supporting them, is to make the minimum support price a legal right. This is a bad idea because it makes Punjab’s farmers produce what people don’t want and discourages them from growing what people do want. It results in overproducing wheat and rice and underproducing protein rich daal.

Every year, the nation groans under a mountain of excess grain, some of which is eaten by rats. Because of MSP, the Punjab farmer grows water guzzling rice, harms his soil, lowers his water table and kills thousands of people through air pollution from burning stubble. The Punjab farmer is not to blame. He behaves rationally – growing what he’s incentivised to.

By giving farmers freedom from irrational controls, the reforms seek to raise farmers’ incomes through higher productivity. Indian farm yields are only half or a third of our competitors. China, with half the arable land of India, produces double the crop. The problem is that 80% of Indian farmers own less than two hectares. These can become more productive by use of scientific methods and by growing high value crops. But it requires infusion of capital and technology.

The farmer, however, doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Nor does the government. Hence, the next reform should give farmers freedom to lease their lands to agri-professionals with capital and technology, and become in turn shareholders and workers on the same land, setting the stage for the second green revolution.

The downside to this scenario is a fear of big business taking over agriculture. The answer is for farmers to organise themselves in the form of cooperatives, or farmer-producer organisations like Amul that the PM has spoken about. It’s not easy to make a success of a cooperative, but there are enough examples to emulate.

The other fear of farmers – of MSP going away soon – is unfounded. Government has to point out that it needs to procure rice and wheat to supply lakhs of ration shops under the Food Security Act. Covid-19 has dramatically underlined the importance of the food security system in a time of crisis. No government can handle the political challenge of doing away with food security. It’s too big a risk. So, farmers can relax. But it doesn’t mean that MSP should become a legal right. In the ideal world, it would be far better one day to replace the entire system of agriculture subsidies – water, power, fertilisers and MSP – with a minimum basic income to the farmer. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Doing good in India gets harder: Philanthropy should be regulated by an independent regulator, not by the home ministry

 The Times of India | November 2020

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was a tragedy in modern India’s history. A second tragedy was not to have undone the terrible laws enacted during the Emergency. One of these is the Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act or FCRA, which was amended last month and has become more draconian.

Its purpose is to regulate funds received by charity groups from abroad. Its consequence, however, has been to create panic among lakhs of people in India and give a bad name to our country abroad. The latest amendment evokes images among international donors of the return of India’s dreaded licence raj. At one stroke, it has undone the good work of this government in the ‘ease of doing business’ as well as the positive atmosphere created by the recent agriculture and labour reforms.

Some international donors have begun to question if grants meant for India should now be diverted to more hospitable countries where philanthropy is more welcome. There are a number of provisions in the latest amendment but let me focus on two that are almost impossible to implement.

One forbids the transfer of a foreign donation to another organisation. I shall illustrate with a real life example. An international foundation discovers a major breakthrough to improve children’s learning in reading and arithmetic. It gives a grant to a reputable Indian NGO with expertise in education to implement the programme. The latter selects ten outstanding local NGOs in the states, each with a proven record of working with schools to execute such a project. This FCRA amendment has now declared this collaborative programme illegal. There’s panic across India as thousands of local NGOs with lakhs of employees now face the prospect of closing down.

Many scientific research projects that depend on external funding face the same future. India’s green revolution wouldn’t have occurred under this FCRA amendment because the Rockefeller Foundation, which discovered the high yielding hybrid wheat in Mexico, wouldn’t have been able to sub-grant to implement the programme in the field.

The timing of this amendment is also ironic. When India is battling a deadly virus and the prime minister has applauded NGOs for their stellar role in delivering urgent relief, the regulator has decided to punish them. The NGOs were able to set up shelters and feeding centres for migrant workers with unimaginable speed precisely because modern philanthropy works in a collaborative way by sub-contracting field execution to smaller NGOs.

A second provision has put a cap of 20% on overhead expenses. Again, it misunderstands how civil society works. Those NGOs who run research institutions, schools, hospitals, and shelters out of foreign funds will now have to prove that most of their employee expenses are non-administrative. More difficult will be the job of NGOs involved in capacity building of state governments. The salaries of these employees will be termed as ‘overheads’ because their employees don’t interface with ‘beneficiaries’ but train government employees instead, who in turn deliver benefits to beneficiaries.

After this fiasco, the government should question if such a law from the Emergency era is needed. In practice, all foreign remittances – to persons, to industry, to civil society – are controlled by the finance ministry under Foreign Exchange Management Act. Why should charitable contributions be controlled by the home ministry under FCRA? If the purpose is to control terrorism, there is already the FATF (Financial Actions Task Force) to do that.

Most countries control terrorist funding through FATF type mechanisms. Moreover, NGOs are already regulated by many existing controls – Prevention of Money Laundering Act regulated by RBI, income tax and 12A certification, 80G certificate, Charities Commissioner, Registrar of Companies. In fact, the government did once consider scrapping FCRA in the early 1990s in the spirit of liberalising the economy.

If the law can’t be scrapped, why should the home ministry be burdened with regulating philanthropy? The home ministry is a well-meaning policeman, trained to distrust people, and its natural reaction is to use force. Wouldn’t it be better to entrust the regulation of civil society and philanthropy to an independent regulator in a department such as economic affairs in the finance ministry? It would then want to implement finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s excellent promise in 2019 to create an electronic fund-raising platform, a transparent social stock exchange under SEBI for listing social enterprises and volunteer organisations. This change would make it easier for both: For those trying to do good in India and for the home ministry, freeing it to do its job of catching terrorists.

There’s no point in blaming BJP alone. UPA made the FCRA law harsher in 2010 by extending its net to cover more civil society groups. In 2012, three NGOs lost their licence during the protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. BJP went further to make compliance more onerous by increasing e-filing requirements and making licence renewal more difficult. Both political parties were complicit also in breaking the FCRA law. In 2014, the Delhi high court found them guilty of illegally receiving foreign contributions. The law was quietly amended to make it easier for political parties to accept foreign funds.

Vidura, royal counsellor in the Mahabharata, explains to King Dhritarashtra that raj dharma begins and ends with doing good to the people. A king enacts a law to catch a thief but if that law ends in harassing lakhs of innocent people, it is adharma. When this government implemented ‘self-attestation’, it was an act of dharma. But this FCRA amendment is an act of adharma. Without meaning to, the government has created fear among lakhs of idealistic, committed young people and is about to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Now’s the time to practise ‘maximum governance and minimum government’ and undo this damage.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

India’s language conundrum: The National Education Policy has skirted elegantly a political minefield. But the obstacle is the teacher

The Times of India | September 2020

 In 1947, a weary Britain packed up and left India, leaving behind absent-mindedly the English language and a headache for Indians. Ever since, we’ve been quarrelling over the place of English in our lives, particularly in what language to teach our children. The latest to join the debate is the National Education Policy (NEP), which to its credit, has skirted elegantly a political minefield, coming up with an answer that has satisfied almost everyone, offending only those who insisted on being offended. But the obstacle is the teacher.

At the root is a conundrum based on two facts: One, children learn best in the early years in their mother tongue; two, if a child isn’t fluent in English by age 10, she’s disadvantaged for the rest of her life, especially in getting a job. There’s plenty of research to support both facts. Nativists and educationists focus on the first, practical parents on the second.

The answer is simple: Teach the child in grades 1-5 in the mother tongue but also give a strong dose of English to ensure the child is fluent by 10. Since a child is naturally bilingual, this is possible. Have a dual medium of instruction – teach the arts in the mother tongue; the sciences in English. The practical problem is the average Indian teacher cannot teach, not just in English but in any language. 91% of 7,30,000 teachers tested in 2012 failed the basic teacher eligibility test. This is not a failure of policy but of governance.

NEP, through brilliant drafting, has given freedom to states, schools and parents. While strongly recommending learning in the mother tongue, it has refused to ban English medium schools. Its framers were mindful of damage done in Bengal, Gujarat, UP and other states that had banned English earlier in primary schools and decimated the futures of a whole generation. Having missed the IT revolution, all these states have made a U-turn. Mamata Banerjee destroyed communists in Bengal on this issue. Yogi Adityanath proudly reintroduced teaching English in primary schools in UP.

BJP-RSS, by accepting NEP, has in effect conceded defeat. One of its oldest, dearest projects was to rid India of English and make Hindi the national language. Just last year, Amit Shah pushed the case for Hindi. But the Sangh Parivar has lost its convictions – its own sons and daughters want to learn English and get a good job. Imposing Hindi today is a vote loser.

Sometime in the 1990s, India’s mindset changed. The constant whining against the colonial language died and English became an Indian language. A middle class of aspirers came up after the economic reforms. Confident in its own skin it regarded English not as an alien imposition, but as a skill to navigate the global economy. With the IT revolution, parents began to move their children from government to private schools that taught English. Today, 47.5% of India’s children are in private schools, making it the third largest school system in the world. In it, 70% of parents pay a monthly fee less than Rs 1,000 and 45% less than Rs 500. English has been democratised.

Meanwhile, English is even more dominant globally after the IT revolution. Linguists believe that whoever speaks a language owns it. They predict that India will soon have the world’s largest number of English speakers. Given the proliferation of Indian writing in English, they foresee Indian English becoming a widely spoken variant like American English.

NEP rightly reminds us, however, of the virtue of bilingualism and let’s hope we’ll do a better job this time. The last time, it led to a tragic social divide. The well-off kids, led by the Khan Market gang, went to English medium schools and aam admi’s kids in Sadar Bazaar went to Hindi (or regional language) medium schools. The former became brown sahibs and the latter were condemned to be ‘deaf’ in any serious discussion in business, government, or the university. HMT, ‘Hindi medium type’, became a slur. English became the new Sanskrit, the language of exclusion. In the charming film Hindi Medium, Irrfan Khan makes heartbreaking attempts to get his daughter into an English medium school. Frustrated, he says, “India is English, English is India.”

Back to the conundrum: The rise of English shouldn’t be at the expense of the mother tongue. Language is not just for communication; it’s a source of new ideas, new emotions. I cannot think and feel without language. There are certain emotions I feel in Punjabi that I don’t in English. Since a child is naturally bilingual, India should aim for bilingual instruction. Today, technology can help. There are a number of interactive apps on our phones, such as Hello English, that can make one fluent in English and become teacher aids. It’s also possible now to have bilingual teachers since teacher salaries have risen to respectable levels.

The NEP envisions teaching becoming a true ‘calling’ and has even proposed a four-year BEd professional degree. But India’s problem remains governance. Unqualified teachers have proliferated, hired not on qualifications but by paying a bribe. A chief minister is serving a 10-year jail sentence for selling teaching jobs to 3,206 teachers. Once hired and protected in this way, teachers don’t feel they need to teach and are routinely absent. Unless state governments fix this problem, no amount of good policy making will help the Indian child to realise her future.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

One and a half cheers: National Education Policy promises much, but fails to come to grips with India’s education crisis

 The Times of India | August 2020

There is so much good in the recently announced National Education Policy (NEP) that it seems churlish to point out its failings. It will receive well deserved applause. However, the truth is that it has failed to come to grips with the crisis in Indian education. I will focus only on schooling, the crucial foundation of the edifice. Instead of three cheers, I am afraid I can only offer it one and a half.

NEP has many excellent recommendations. It clearly shifts the focus away from inputs to outcomes. It junks rote learning in favour of critical thinking, conceptual and creative skills. Its best feature is to launch a mission to achieve basic language and math skills by Class 3 for all children by 2025. Tracking a student in Classes 3, 5 and 8 through a reliable, standardised assessment will help improve her performance, allowing her parents to make an informed choice among schools.

Finally, it separates government’s role into two bodies, one that regulates education and a second that runs state schools. Thus, it overcomes a conflict of interest which has forced regulators to gloss over the disastrous performance of state schools while shackling private schools in a penalising licence raj.

With all this, why doesn’t NEP get three cheers? Because it hasn’t honestly faced the ground reality of these eight facts. Fact 1: One out of four teachers is absent in state schools across India and one in two, who is present, is not teaching. This is not because of low teacher salaries – starting salary of a junior teacher in UP last year was Rs 48,918 pm, or 11 times UP’s per capita income.

Fact 2: In many states, less than 10% teachers pass the Teacher Eligibility Tests. Fact 3: Less than half the students in Class 5 can read a para or do a math sum from a Class 2 text. Fact 4: India’s children ranked 73rd out of 74 countries in the international PISA test of reading, science and arithmetic (just ahead of Kyrgyzstan). The UPA government was so embarrassed – it banned the test.

Fact 5: As a result of this rot, even the poor are abandoning government schools. Between 2011 and 2018, 2.4 crore children left state schools and joined private schools, according to the government’s own DISE data. Today, almost half of India’s children (47.5%) are in the private school system, with 12 crore children, making it the third largest in the world. In it, 70% parents pay a monthly fee of less than Rs 1,000 and 45% parents pay less than Rs 500. Hence, India’s private schools are not elitist.

Fact 6: But good private schools are very few and it’s heartbreaking to see long lines of parents waiting to get their child into a decent school. The reason is that it’s difficult for an honest person to start a school. From 35 to 125 permissions are required depending on the state, and can take up to five years and lakhs in bribes. Hence, idealistic educators stay away and private schools end up mediocre.

Fact 7: If the rate of emptying of government schools continues, “they will be history” as Amartya Sen put it. Many are already ghost schools with teachers but no students. Fact 8: Overall, it costs a third to educate a child in the private system versus government system as a result of efficiency. Society as a whole, thus, gains through better learning outcomes at a lower cost.

Framers of the NEP did not face up to these inconvenient eight truths. Why should a parent spend hard earned money to send her child to a private school when she can be educated free plus get a mid-day meal, uniforms and books in a state school? Parents are not stupid and exit state schools because of governance failure, not pedagogy. If the teacher is absent or doesn’t teach, what would you do? State teachers get away because they monitor the polls and politicians are afraid to touch them.

So, what is the answer? The only solution is to fund children, not schools. This idea was first mooted in 2000 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee realised that government schools kept failing despite 50 years of reforming them. The idea is simple: When a child reaches age 5, she qualifies for a monthly scholarship for any school of the parent’s choice. Teachers are paid salaries from the income a school earns from scholarships; so, they show up and teach with inspiration. With competition good schools will flourish, bad schools will close.

The poorest child will have dignity because she will have the power to exit a bad school. Government will have plenty of money for scholarships from not having to run schools plus the money from the sale/ lease of its schools.

Education is a public good like roads or public buses. The government doesn’t have to build roads or run buses. Similarly, it should fund schools, not run them. Instead of cheap talk against profit and eulogising philanthropy, NEP should have shed hypocrisy and been more honest. 85% of India’s private schools survive only if they make a profit. If 9 out of the world’s top 10 economies allow for-profit schools, why can’t India? This single change will bring huge investments into education, improve quality and choice. Principals wouldn’t have to lie or be called thieves. Black money would be curbed.

Let me close on a positive note. I would love to be proved wrong and see the NEP accomplish its wonderful mission to achieve universal foundational language and math skills by 2025. If it succeeds, I’ll be the first to give three cheers!


Friday, April 17, 2020

India faces sophie’s choice: The government’s tragic lockdown dilemma is that it has to pick between lives

 The Times of India | April 2020

The old idea that civilisation is destroyed from within, not from without, has been turned upside down. In just a few weeks a virus ten-thousandth of a millimetre in diameter has spread around the world like wildfire from a market in Wuhan, to threaten our civilised order. How we respond to the moral dilemmas raised by Covid-19 will reflect on our values and the number of lives we save.

The first dilemma: Given its horrific cost, was the lockdown necessary? President Donald Trump in America and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the UK dawdled and both nations paid a heavy price. Johnson considered an alternative: Allow the virus to spread until most people get infected and become immune; with herd immunity, the outbreak would fizzle out. When told that 2,60,000 people would die so that the rest of the UK could live, he backed off.

India’s choices also became clear when faced with the consequences. Epidemiologists’ models predicted around 400 million Indians would be infected by end July – with 40 million severe cases – and at the peak, 10 million patients would have to be hospitalised. But India has only 1,00,000 intensive-care beds and 20,000 ventilators. Creating herd immunity would mean about half of India would need to be infected, and with a 1% mortality rate 6.5 million would die. This is not an imaginary exercise: 17 million Indians actually died in the 1918 Spanish Flu. Lockdown is, thus, the only answer.

The lockdown has worked in China and the world is implementing some variant of it. But social activists like Harsh Mander have argued against it because: 1) it would hurt the poor unconscionably; 2) social distancing is not possible in crowded India; and 3) Covid-19 cases in India are tiny. This reasoning is flawed. The lockdown will slow down the virus’s spread, which will help the poor far more by improving their chances for a hospital bed. India’s Covid numbers are small so far because we are not testing enough people. Our death numbers are also low because India typically records only about 25% of deaths, many of which might show up in records as respiratory distress, not Covid.

During this lockdown, a poor migrant from Bihar was heard to say, ‘If corona does not kill me, losing my job and hunger will.’ He expressed the tragic choice facing the desperate government: ‘Who should live and who should die?’ Even if India manages to contain deaths through lockdowns, the coronavirus is likely to spread until a vaccine or cure is widely available. Extended or multiple lockdowns will bring mass unemployment and a brutal recession.

The worst affected will be half a billion daily wage earners, many of whom may die of hunger. The cost of welfare packages will destroy government’s finances, already weak after a terrible slowdown. The pandemic could turn India back by decades, killing the hopes of a generation. From a fast growing middle income economy, India could become a desperately poor nation.

The dilemma is in the old adage: Is the cure worse than the disease? Some states in the US have appealed to this maxim by justifying not locking down. Texas Lt Governor Dan Patrick added another dimension by suggesting that the elderly should be willing to die in order to save the young. Can our moral intuitions justify such conclusions?

Framing the question as a trade-off between saving people from the virus but condemning those who survive to a life of hunger and poverty, you reach what Derek Parfit, the moral philosopher, called a ‘repugnant conclusion’. Both options are as offensive as Sophie’s Choice, when Meryl Streep has to choose between saving one of her children and killing the other. I too wondered if it was worth saving lives if the result was a world teeming with lives not worth living. But then I asked myself, would I choose to let my son die of Covid-19? My moral intuition was clear: I would choose to save a present life rather than worry about future lives. Vidura in the Mahabharata made the opposite decision and chose to sacrifice a person to save a village.

In the coming weeks, Indian doctors will face other dilemmas: With only one ICU bed, do I give it to a 20-year-old patient or a 50-year-old, both with equal chances of recovery? Current rules of triage prefer the young as their life is still unlived. Some would prefer the 50-year-old who has experience and skills and might contribute more to society. But we all agree that you don’t choose on the basis of wealth, caste, or religion. I would choose based on ‘first come first served’. Whatever the doctor decides, something of moral value is lost, leaving him scarred for life. After the crisis, we shall face other dilemmas. Currently surveillance apps/ data networks are helping governments to trace infected persons. How do we wrest this new power from the state after the crisis?

It takes centuries to create civilisation but only weeks to lose it. How our leaders cope with moral dilemmas reflects our values. Americans are paying a heavy price for Trump’s Covid scepticism. Winston Churchill diverted American food ships meant for Bengal’s famine to feed troops in Europe – think of his political standing after the war. It is difficult to be good in any age. But in the age of coronavirus it is especially important to respond rightfully to preserve our values.