Archive for the 'Travel' Category

The Myth of Indian Education

“Indian students rank 2nd last in global test; better than only Kyrgyzstan in Math, Reading, Science” was the Times News Network (TNN) headline of 15 January 2012, after the results of an annual review (2009) of worldwide education systems was released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Of the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the two states entered by India (Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) ranked second from last. China’s Shanghai province came out on top in all three categories.

Only a day after the TNN story, the Government of India released the results of its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2011.  An Indian Express article dated 19 January 2012, titled “The crisis in learning,” outlines two major national trends that have emerged from this report.  First, that close to 50% of rural children (aged 9 to 14) pay for their education either in a private school or to a private tutor. (In the 5 years since ASER has been conducting the survey, private school enrollment in rural areas has gone from 18.7% to 25.6%, with some states at near 50%.) Second,  the low level of basic learning, particularly in reading and math. (It is estimated that half of all students in Standard 5 cannot read Standard 2-level text. And 40% of Standard 5 students cannot solve a 2-digit subtraction problem with borrowing.) According to the Indian Express article, these low learning results are not new.  What is disturbing is the indication that the already low levels may be declining further.

ASER looks at primary school children and PISA evaluates secondary school students (15-year olds).  What about higher education?  Set aside the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) on which India’s worldwide reputation in education rest, and you will find under-educated students with low job prospects. A 19 January article in the Hindustan Times reports that a Right to Information (RTI) activist has received information that 51% (319 out of 620) of the colleges under the University of Mumbai do not have principals, including renowned colleges of law, management, commerce, arts, engineering, aviation and architecture. Lawsuits abound regarding arbitrary and high capitation fees (fees charged for admission over and above tuition and other published fees), discriminatory admissions (low test ranked students will gain admission over higher ranked students by paying a high “fee”), and institutions operating under false accreditation.  Anecdotal stories from teachers and students alike point to sham institutions, including medical schools, that are built to bilk students of capitation fees. One recently (and partially completed) medical college in Pondicherry offered an acquaintance an extremely generous salary (part of which she was directed to give back to the college) and asked her to report to the college on only two days – the days when the college was scheduled for inspection by accreditation bodies. Staff quarters were never completed because no staff was expected to live on campus.  Students, having paid so much money just to get into the school, muddle through for the degree, having learned nothing.  The same is true for the myriad of IT training institutes and universities that may have, at one time, been competent institutions of learning.  A recent acquaintance reports that a business school professor at Pondicherry University could only recommend three candidates from the entire program for a data entry job.

In an effort to exert some control over the educational institutions under its jurisdiction, the central government has directed all institutes to publish an annual balance sheet, starting 2013.  According to this LiveMint article dated 18 January 2012, India has 527 universities and more than 31,000 colleges (of which at least 60% are under private control) where approximately 15 million students pursue higher education.  This is clearly an attempt to “decommercialize” the education sector and “take care of concerns that many private institutions engage in malpractices to fleece students.”

Unless the quality of education is improved, starting from the ground (primary school), up, India will continue to lose the development race against China.

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Happy Pongal

Wish You Happy Pongal

Inset of kolam featuring clay pongal pot and deepam

Pongal Tableau

Another inset of Kolam featuring the over-flowing pongal

A more linear tableau: sugar cane, pongal being cooked to over-flowing over a wood fire, the sun, and a plate of offerings

A few of the Pongal kolams drawn on two streets in Kuruchikuppam, Pondicherry

Meter-long Coffee

South Indian filter coffee is rapidly disappearing, replaced by instant coffee powder.  But whether or not these street-side coffee bars use filter or instant coffee, the “mixing” of boiled milk and coffee is still done the same way.

Cooling coffee

The coffee is generally served in a steel cup with a lip and a small, empty bowl (also with a lip) so that the customer can perform a mini version of the same process – pouring the coffee from the cup into the bowl, and vice verse, holding on to the edge of the lips of the vessels (the liquid is boiling hot!) – but this time, to cool the coffee enough to drink.

And the taste?  Like coffee candy.

Making Garlands

Garland maker on Rue Francois Martin, Kuruchikuppam

Just as onion prices have gone sky high, so have the price of garlands that South Indian women wear in their hair or drape around the necks of idols or pictures of gods (or place on the pillows of their Western guests).

Garland supplies, Goubert Market, Pondicherry

Women sit on the ground or on makeshift tables and make garlands from morning to evening in long strands that they then break into different lengths depending on customer desires.

Garland maker at Goubert Market

The garlands are sold by the “arm”  – that is, the length from the tips of your fingers to your elbow.  An “arm” of sweet-smelling jasmine used to cost Rs. 5 to 10 two years ago.  Now, they are Rs. 15 to 20, depending on the season.

The video below is a short clip of the garland maker pictured in the red sari on Rue Francois Martin in Kuruchikuppam, Pondicherry.

Women sit on the ground or on makeshift tables and make garlands from morning to evening in long strands that they then break into different lengths depending on customer desires.

Fishing Village at Pillaichavady, Pondicherry

Fishing boats at Pillaichavady, Pondicherry

Mending nets

Mending nets on the beach

Boat motor

Dwelling, Pillaichavady

Running water tap

Older sister

Younger sister

India Imports Onions from Pakistan

The astonishingly high price of onions throughout India has pushed the local topic of conversation away from the mega corruption scandals of the day (the Commonwealth Games (CWG), Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society, the give-away of the 2G telecommunications spectrum, etc.) to the lowly onion, an indispensable ingredient in Indian cooking.  Nationwide, prices are around Rs. 60 to 80 per kilo.  In Pondicherry, it is Rs. 80 ($1.82 at Rs. 44 to U.S. $1).

India exported onions until April 2010.  Prolongued rains in the onion growing areas of Maharashtra, Gujarat and South India resulted in the current shortages.  Effective yesterday, 21 December 2010, the Price Fixation Advisory Committee (PFAC) of the Ministry of Agriculture issued a decision to “voluntarily suspend issuance of NOCs [no objection certificates] for export of onion by NAFED [National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India], NCCF [National Cooperative Consumers’ Federation of India], and other STEs [I assume this stands for State Trading Enterpises]…” and that NAFED and NCCF would sell onions at Rs. 35-40 through their retail outlets. Wholesale prices in Nasik, one of the major growing areas, came down 35% based on the announcement.  The same day, in a complete reversal, India imported onions from Pakistan. (The cost of onions from Pakistan, including customs duty, cess, transportation and handling chareges, is Rs. 18-20/kg.)  Now, prices in Pakistan are expected to go up 25-30%.

How is the common wo/man affected?  In Pondicherry, street vendors are adding cabbage as filler to supplement onions.  A Times of India Poll:  Will you continue to buy onions? currently stands at 48% (Yes) to 52% (No).  One “no” voter blames the price rise on the 2G, CWG, Adarsh, and other scams.  This article claims that onion prices will threaten India’s growth and government, and a Facebook comment states:  “Give me my bonus in onions.”

Ramachandra Guha’s “Ten reasons why India will not and must not become a superpower”

On 13 April 2010, Ramachandra Guha gave his:  “Ten reasons why India will not and must not become a superpower” lecture, presented by the International Development Research Centre and co-hosted by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Canada-India Foundation, at the Asian Centre at UBC.  (The talk can be seen in its entirety in the video above.) Since an initial essay published in the summer of 2008 giving seven reasons why India would not become a superpower (referenced in this article in India Together), Guha has expanded his reasons to ten:

  1. The rise of left-wing insurgency in Central and Eastern India (a brutal civil war between the Maoists and the Government of India).
  2. The rise of right-wing religious fundamentalism (BJP/RSS).
  3. The decline and corruption of the democratic center (particularly the conversion of political parties into family firms).
  4. The degradation of public institutions (such as universities, law courts, hospitals, civil services).
  5. The growing (spectacular) gap between the rich and the poor.
  6. The rapid pace of environmental degradation (air pollution, dead rivers, depletion of groundwater aquifers, disposal of toxic and nuclear waste, etc.).
  7. The superficiality of the mainstream media (or “the Indian media’s complicit worship of wealth, celebrity and super-stardom”) and abandonment of commitment to serious environmental reportage.
  8. Political fragmentation and the instability engendered by multiparty coalition governments (price of support is the most profitable ministries).
  9. Unreconciled borderlands (Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur).
  10. Unstable neighborhood (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka).

Guha seems to have greater cachet as a lecturer in the West and greater credibility in critiquing India because of his all-India education: St. Stephen’s College, Delhi School of Economics, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.  He has been nominated by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines as one of the world’s one hundred most influential intellectuals and by India Together and BusinessWeek as one of the fifty most influential people in India.  He is a 2009 recipient of the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honor.

Guha speaks passionately and knowledgeably about the environmental degradation taking place in the pursuit of “growth” and the displacement of a voiceless tribal population of 90 million living in forests (on top of natural resources and by rivers) that the Government of India is looking to exploit, primarily through public private partnerships. (Guha is one of three academics that have filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India against the activities of Salwa Judum, a state-supported vigilante group killing and displacing the tribal population in the state of Chhattisgarh in pursuit of the Naxalites (Maoists).)

Guha contends that the pursuit of superpower status detracts the Government of India from addressing the problems listed above.  Rather, India is uniquely placed to be a “bridging power” – to be a greater influence in culture and ideas, and promoting the ethic of democracy and diversity from which other countries can learn.  “The Indian national experiment is the dream – we should fulfill it.”


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