Monday, December 21, 2009

A Discovery in India, Outlook

James Tooley, The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves, Penguin; 302 pages; Rs 499

I first met James Tooley on a cold morning in Delhi. I was drawn to him by his sincerity, his passion, and most of all by his infectious smile, which made everyone in the room smile back at him. As I watched him I thought of Tagore’s observation in the Stray Birds about how much the world loves a man when he smiles.
Tooley’s remarkable book, The Beautiful Tree, is a tale of heroism. In it, he discovers that in the slums of India, in remote mountain villages of China, and in shantytowns in Africa, the world’s poorest people are creating their own schools to give their children a better future. In an extraordinary journey which began in the slums of Hyderabad, Professor Tooley finds out how committed entrepreneurs and engaged teachers in poor communities have started private schools with very low fees (Rs 70-170 per month) in two rooms or entire buildings and these are affordable for the children of rikshawallas, street hawkers, and daily labourers. He concludes that 65 percent of schoolchildren in Hyderabad’s slums are in private unaided schools. In India today, there are tens of thousands such schools which are run by the poor for the poor. The education establishment, however, wants to close them down. The new Right to Education Act gives the government three years to close all ‘unrecognized schools’.
Before his discovery in India, James Tooley believed that government schools were the answer to universal education. Then he asked parents in the slums why they had removed their children from government schools with better facilities, and why they were paying their hard earned income to send them to private schools. The answer in all cases was that government schools had failed. Teachers did not show up and when they did, they did not teach. Despite that you had to often bribe to enrol your child. This explains why more than half the children in India’s cities and a quarter in India’s villages are in private unaided schools.

The government makes it difficult for these private schools to function. Tooley was baffled to learn how often inspectors visited these private schools for the poor. It was not because of an unusual dedication to quality and standards, but to be ‘made happy’ as one of the school teachers put it. Schools have to resort to bribery to keep the inspectors from closing them down. The principle effect that the Right to Education Act will have on them will be to raise the bribe required to make the inspectors ‘happy’. This in turn will force these schools to raise fees to the children of the poor. As the headmaster of one of these schools, a man named Wajid at Peace High School, tells Tooley that he became a private school educator because ‘Sometimes, government is the obstacle to the people.’

The secret of success of these private schools is that ‘teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children)’. In a government school, on the other hand, the chain of accountability is much weaker, ‘as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. This contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents.’

Tooley also quotes studies which explain their success: ‘The results from Delhi were typical. In mathematics, mean scores of children in government schools were 24.5 percent, whereas they were 42.1 percent in private unrecognized schools and 43.9 percent in private recognized. That is, children in unrecognized private schools scored nearly 18 percentage points more in math than children in government schools.’ The reason is that on average, they had smaller class sizes, more motivated teachers, all the while spending less than public schools. When parents pay the fees that keep a school afloat, he reasons, the school becomes more accountable to them.

These schools do not get recognition because they do not meet standards—i.e. they do not have a playing field of a certain size and they cannot pay government salaries to teachers (which after the Sixth Pay Commission are around Rs 20,000 per year). If they had to pay those salaries and have those playing fields, the schools would have to quadruple their fees. Then they would no longer be schools for the poor.

Professor Tooley’s pioneering research has turned the conventional wisdom on its head with a profound message of empowering the poor. Instead of being dependent on government and foreign aid, the world’s poor are educating their children with their own rupees. Instead of trying to uproot this beautiful tree and close these schools, governments should help them to obtain some form of graded recognition so that they are not outside the law. The Beautiful Tree is required reading for anyone who cares about achieving universal education in India.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bring in reforms to prevent more Kodas

At a smart luncheon party in South Delhi this week something very peculiar happened. Someone blurted out, ‘These high and mighty guests are friends of Madhu Koda!’ This did not go well with our celebrity hostess, to whose discomfort the conversation soon went downhill as people sought the latest ‘juice’ on the Koda scandal. To my surprise, a consensus seemed to emerge that liberalization was at the root cause of corruption.

The link between corruption and economic reforms was also echoed in a cover story in one of our national magazines this week. In an opinion poll conducted by MDRA and the magazine, 83.4% of the people in eight major Indian cities believed that corruption had gone up after the liberalization process. It confirmed to me that people, who are otherwise sensible, still do not get it. They do not understand that corruption persists in India because reforms are incomplete and scams occur in sectors like mining which have not been reformed.

Madhu Koda’s is a rags to riches story. A labourer in a state owned iron ore mine in Chaibasa becomes an MLA in 2000. Five years later he is minister in charge of the lucrative mines portfolio. In 2006, he wins the ultimate prize--he becomes Jharkhand’s chief minister. Along the way he amasses Rs 4000 crores by giving away mining licenses in exchange for bribes, according to the charge-sheet. He turns non-entities into mining barons, gifting 11,100 acres of land to dubious companies. But he shares his wealth with his friends and everyone is happy.

Mining, like defence contracts, is prone to corruption. Extracting resources from the ground does not lend itself to the usual rules of competition. A mine is a natural monopoly and the state, which gives the right to mining, is also a monopoly. The two come together in the backroom and you get crony capitalism. What is the answer? It is not to focus on individuals but to change the system. Simulate competition. Have open, transparent bidding under a firm regulator (like an auction). The regulator evaluates the quantity and quality of coal in a mine, sets a minimum price (to keep out frivolous bidders and cartels) and offers the mine to the highest bidder. This would replace the present corrupt system of leases and licences, of monitoring production at each mine, checking each truck to ensure the operator does not clear 100 trucks and records only 30.

This is a tried and proven system followed in sensible mining countries and it will prevent future Kodas. The petroleum ministry has adopted it in India and it routinely auctions oil and gas fields. The Ambani brothers will not allow us to forget the many contentious issues related to the gas flowing from the Krishna-Godavari basin. But no one has criticised the government of corruption in awarding the gas fields to Mukesh Ambani’s company. The reason is that they were won in an open auction.

It is also important to break the monopoly of Coal India and de-nationalize coal mines which were nationalized by Indira Gandhi in 1973. India is the third largest producer of coal in the world but we have suffered immensely in the past 36 years from the lack of competition. ‘Power plant shut down because of lack of coal’ is a common headline in our local papers. Koda is a creation of this system. Efforts to undo it--Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Amendment Act 2000—remain stuck because politicians in the mining states do not want it.

Good societies do not look to heroes. They quietly reform their institutions. The best news is that we have in Delhi a coal minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, who wants to reform precisely along the lines outlined above. His ministry is ready with a Bill to set up a regulator and open coal mining to competition. The Koda scandal should give him boost, but this reform will only happen if the entire cabinet and Sonia Gandhi put their weight behind it in order to counter the powerful lobby of mining interests, state politicians and bureaucrats.

The word ‘coda’ means the concluding passage in a composition of Western classical music. The coda in Madhu Koda’s story will hopefully see a speedy trial and a deterrent sentence for the guilty. But the really satisfactory coda will be the reform of the mining sector along the lines of the Hoda Committee report. The Koda story teaches that the answer is more reforms rather than less. Not only economic reforms, we need police reforms to make our investigating agencies autonomous; judicial reforms to speed up justice and deter future Kodas; administrative reforms to punish rotten bureaucrats and reward good ones and bring accountability; finally, political reforms to prevent criminals from entering politics. Only then will dharma rise in our nation. -

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Wanted : A World Fit For Women

The conviction this week of Ajeet Singh Katiyar in Delhi in the notorious Dhaula Kuan gang rape case of a university student from Mizoram is good news. More important than the conviction is the 71 page judgement of the court which admonished the defence for maligning the victim and maintained that the private life of the victim is irrelevant. ‘A lady who has lost her virginity is not unreliable’ said the judge, whose verdict was primarily based on the victim’s consistent testimony.

We seem to have come a long way from the 1979 case of 16 year old Mathura, who was raped by two policemen within a police compound when the court acquitted the policemen on the grounds that Mathura had eloped with her boyfriend and ‘was habituated to sexual intercourse’. This case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which sadly upheld the verdict. It became a landmark case, which went on to energise the women’s movement in India.

There were echoes in this week’s judgement of another historic case--that of Hanuffa Khatoon, who was gang raped in 1998 at the Howrah Station by railway employees. In that case, the Supreme Court in an unprecedented judgement held rape to be a violation of the fundamental right to live with human dignity. The court said: ‘Rape is a crime not only against the person of a woman, it is crime against the entire society…Rape is therefore the most hated crime’.

It is to literature that one turns to understand the human moral condition. The Mahabharata offers an amazing moment of insight about women’s status. After Yudhishthira loses everything in the game of dice to Shakuni, Queen Draupadi is dragged by Duhshasana into the assembly of nobles to humiliate her. She cries out, ‘this foul man, disgrace of the Kauravas, is molesting me, and I cannot bear it’. She reveals a right wing conspiracy to steal her husband’s kingdom in a rigged game of dice and looks to the elders in the assembly at Hastinapur for justice. But they fail her. Most disappointing is selfless Bhishma, who says ‘a woman and a slave are the property of others’. In the end, as every Indian child knows, only her never ending sari protects her from being disrobed. By the way, a company offered a ‘Draupadi Collection’ of saris after the successful TV series, which presumably did not stretch infinitely.

The attempted public disrobing of Draupadi is consistent with the moral paradigm of patriarchy. Karna’s revolting remarks show that patriarchical culture divides women into angels and whores. Draupadi has become a ‘whore’ in Kaurava eyes after their ‘defeat’ of the Pandavas. Their big-chested masculinity does not allow them to think that this unhappy person could have been ‘me’. Their wish to humiliate her is also related to the disgust that many men feel towards the sexual act. All cultures contain the seeds of violence when it comes to female sexuality. Tolstoy’s famous novella, The Kreutzer Sonata grew out of the Russian writer’s own relationship with his wife, and it describes the events that lead to her murder. The husband has violent and humiliating sex with her, and he feels miserable each time he rapes her. Since she is merely an object of bestial desire, he decides that he must kill her to put an end to his misery. Only after her death does she become ‘human’ in his eyes.

It is tempting to believe in the cynical French saying that the more something changes the more it remains the same. In two areas, however, there has been dramatic advance in human equality. One is the almost complete elimination of slavery in the world and the other is the recent rise in the status of women, even in urban India. Indian law has done its bit in addressing the issues of property, dowry, and domestic violence (and some claim that it may even have gone too far). But the real change has come with the dramatic rise in women’s education and job opportunities in a rapidly growing economy. Two-thirds of India’s women still live in villages, of course, and they have a long way to go but India is rapidly urbanizing and they too will soon feel the change.