Sunday, September 27, 2015

Smriti Irani, have a good cry. Then give 240m kids a chance

Smriti Irani should begin by asking why 15-year-olds from India who took part in a famous international test came second last — only ahead of Kyrgyzstan. Yes, Indians ranked 73 out of 74 in 2011 in a simple test of reading, science and arithmetic called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The response of the UPA government to this shocking result was to refuse to participate again in PISA.

We had been warned. The respected national survey, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), has repeatedly shown that less than half of Class V students can read a paragraph or do a simple arithmetic sum from a Class II text. Teachers’ performance is worse. Only 4% of teachers pass the Teacher Eligibility Tests (TETs) and three in four teachers cannot do percentage sums from a Class V text in UP and Bihar. Learning outcomes have declined in recent years despite the nation spending tens of thousands of crores on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Right to Education Act.

I would hang down my head and weep if I were Irani and presiding over one of the world’s worst education systems. After a good cry, I would ask a second question: Why do desperately poor Indian parents pull their children out of government schools, which are free, and send them to low-fee private schools? A parent must be desperate to spend hard-earned income for what is available free. ASER data shows that the share of rural private schools has grown from 19% to 29% in ten years; it is over 50% in urban areas. India now has the largest percentage of children in private schools.

The problem, tragically, lies in the Right to Education Act 2009 (RTE), which assumed the problem was to bring kids into school. But in 2009, 96.5% of children were already in school. The problem was of learning and RTE is silent on learning outcomes or teacher quality. It made another bad assumption — assessing children’s performance is stressful on kids — and made it illegal to test students to find out if they are learning.

Instead of improving the quality of government schools, RTE has unleashed a corrupt inspector raj upon private schools, leading to the closure of many on dubious grounds. The Punjab and Haryana High Court stepped in to stop this. RTE also forced upon private schools a quota of 25% seats for children of poor families. In itself, this is not a bad thing. At least, it’s a chance for the poor.

Irani has recently invited suggestions from the public to mend the system. Here is my response in six simple steps. One, the problem is management, not money. It is an outrage that one in four teachers is absent and one in two, who is present, is found not teaching. UPA’s experts were good at spouting pedagogy but failed miserably to bring accountability. Two, focus on learning, not schooling. Follow Gujarat’s Gunotsav, which measures outcomes.

Establish regular nationwide assessments. Overhaul the National Achievement Survey (NAS), making it a barometer of learning.

Third, great leaders make great institutions. Stop appointing headmasters on the basis of seniority. A strong principal can turn around a weak school if he is an instructional leader, not only an administrator. Again, follow Gujarat and institute a headmaster eligibility test for selecting principals. Set up training centres to create school leaders. Four, since teacher salaries have improved after the last pay commission, create incentives to attract better talent into teaching. Instead of third-rate Teacher Education Institutes (TEI), build prestigious teaching institutes at India’s top 10 universities, while strengthening the State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERTs) and District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs). Five, don’t harass private schools or treat them like cash cows. Get rid of ‘licence raj’, which will encourage genuine entrepreneurs to enter education. Six, learn from the best practices in Chile, Singapore, Sweden, Brazil and Poland which have invested significant energy in reforming education.

India has been historically unlucky in the poor quality of its HRD ministers — in persons like Arjun Singh, who cared only to play the OBC reservations card. If you want to be different, Ms Irani, stop obsessing over IITs, appointing RSS people to key jobs, and teaching Sanskrit and Vedic mathematics. Implement these six steps and save the futures of 240 million schoolchildren, and go to glory.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Death penalty: Life can be far worse, says the Mahabharata

It has been over a month since we hanged Yakub Memon. Since then many Indians have wondered, what did we achieve? Some are worried that we may have made Yakub into a martyr, especially among a section of Muslims who feel that they are singled out for the death penalty. Others believe that justice was done, sending a powerful signal to terrorists. In a landmark report, the Law Commission, headed by Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, has now recommended abolishing capital punishment, except in terrorist cases. Among its reasons: the state must never be guilty of killing an innocent person; there’s no link between death penalty and the amount of crime; and death sentences are inherently arbitrary, with no principled method to remove arbitrariness. As for me, I believe that keeping a person alive in maximum-security, solitary confinement without the prospect of bail is a far greater punishment than death.

Human beings have long wrestled with the right relationship between crime and punishment. When we lived in tribes, individuals and clans avenged crimes. After we moved into civil society, we gave the state monopoly power to punish crimes under due process of law. However, the idea that ‘if a good person suffers, the bad one should suffer even more’ is embedded in our psyches. We deny it, proclaiming piously ‘I’m not the sort of person who holds grudges’. Yet we applaud when the villain gets what he deserves in life, in novels and movies.

Thirst for revenge is a powerful instinct in human beings. Many psychologists think it bad for it damages the ‘core of the whole being’. Others argue that vindictive emotions are legitimate and bringing criminals to justice restores moral equilibrium in our lives. Thinkers from Plato onwards believed in the legitimacy of retributive justice. Punishment creates moral equality between victim and offender; forgiveness makes the offender superior to the victim.

The other aim of punishment is to deter future crime — provide incentive for a normal person to obey the law. In the past 50 years, public opinion shifted in the West from retribution and deterrence to reforming and rehabilitating criminals. But rehabilitation programmes in prisons mostly failed and criminologists became disillusioned. Today, the global debate is more modest — about ensuring that punishment is fair and proportional to the crime. One is painfully aware, however, how difficult it is to achieve proportionality in practice. Prison sentences vary widely for the same crime in the same country.

Crime and punishment is the central theme of Ashwatthama’s story in the Mahabharata. By all accounts, Ashwatthama was a fine young man —confident, modest and fair-minded. The son of the great teacher, Drona, he grew up in the privileged company of princes. When war is declared, he finds himself on the wrong side. He fights with integrity and in the end accepts the defeat of the Kauravas. He is outraged at the deceitful death of his father, however, and vows revenge. He sets fire to the victorious, sleeping armies of the Pandavas. His night-time massacre is a deed so repulsive that it turns the mood of the epic from martial triumphalism to dark, stoic resignation.

When Draupadi, Pandavas’ queen, learns that all her children died in the night massacre, she cries for vengeance. When Ashwatthama is finally captured, the Pandavas debate over the right punishment for his horrendous crime. Death would be too kind, they agree. Krishna ultimately pronounces the sentence: ‘For three thousand years you will wander on this earth, alone, and invisible, stinking of blood and pus.’

Indians have long felt ambivalent about the death penalty; hence, very few executions have taken place since Independence (57 in 68 years). Most of the world has abolished it — only 36 have not and this includes India and the US. The UN resolution says that it ‘undermines human dignity’. But I am not convinced. I would argue that retaining the death penalty, in fact, enhances human dignity. The most serious argument for its abolition is that it is almost impossible to implement it fairly; why have we not used it, for instance, against the ghastly crimes of the Naxalites? Whether Krishna’s sentence meets the test of proportionality, the Mahabharata has the right idea — keeping a person alive, brooding and suffering over his deed, is a far greater punishment than death.