Posts Tagged 'Pondicherry'

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.

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

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.”

India’s Dying Beaches

I almost feel as though I am in Pondicherry.  The vicarious excitement and stress of trying to keep up with the sudden barrage of media stories and activities initiated by NDTV’s coverage of “The Death of India’s Beaches” has my adrenelin pumping as I try and support our colleagues at PondyCAN.

On 28 May, 2009, Probir Banerjee, PondyCAN’s President, was interviewed by Prannoy Roy of NDTV, fulfilling a promise Roy made months before to take up the issue of coastal erosion.  Realizing the magnitude of the problem, Roy initiated a state-by-state coverage of the issue in a series called “India’s Dying Beaches.”

Continue reading ‘India’s Dying Beaches’

Ayudha Puja in Pondicherry

Ayudha puja at Renaissance Workshop

Ayudha puja at Renaissance Workshop

The people of Pondicherry celebrated Ayudha Puja on 8 October 2008, the 9th day of Navaratri (30 September to 9 October this year).  Durga puja is called Ayudha puja in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Ayudha puja is “worship of the weapons” – which in common terms is translated into implements and tools.

Father and daughter washing a scooter

Father and daughter washing a scooter

People clean their houses and wash all the implements and tools of their trade, including their vehicles.

Doorway decorated with palm and banana fronds

Doorway decorated with palm and banana fronds

People decorate their homes, offices and other places of work as well as their vehicles with palm and banana leaves.  The youngest palm fronds are cut and shaped into decorations. Unfortunately, most people now also use “modern” decorations, including colored crepe paper.

Mark and I were invited to two puja celebrations – one at the carpentry and furniture refinishing workshop of a friend (where we had the best food we have had to date in Pondicherry – the carpenters/cooks were from Bihar) and the other at the Shuddham office.

Everyday Hero – C.H. Balamohan

C.H. Balamohan

C.H. Balamohan

On 30 September 2008, C.H. Balamohan retired as an Assistant in the Education Department of the Government of Puducherry (GOP). After 40 years in government service, Balamohan should have been an officer – a Director or at least a Deputy Director of the department.  However, his promotions were suppressed by the GOP because of Balamohan’s work on behalf of the government employees – he only had 2 promotions in 40 years.

Balamohan is a quiet, unprepossessing person.  He suffers from diabetes, at times bed-ridden and unable to walk.  He wears khadi and carries a cloth sachel.  He gets around town on a scooter. Yet when he sees any kind of injustice, he becomes a changed man.  Put a bullhorn in front of him and he can inspire and rally thousands of people.

In 1979, Balamohan began his fight for the rights of the government employees, forming and acting as President of the Ministerial Staff Association (he was part of the Ministerial cadre in the Education Department).  From there, he went on to help form other government employee associations in the Education Department, Health Department, etc.  At his retirement, he was Honorary President of the Confederation of Pondicherry State Government Employees’ Association, consisting of 100 employee associations.

Continue reading ‘Everyday Hero – C.H. Balamohan’

India Hot

Mark and I landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India in the early morning of September 25, 2008.  On a hunch, I asked a Korean Airlines representative at baggage claim if there was a shuttle to the Domestic airport for our flight to Chennai, dreading the haggling with taxi drivers at 2am.  Much to my surprise, the representative gave me specific instructions on how to get to the free shuttle:  “make a right after clearing customs.”  “How long has this shuttle been in service?” I ask the people at the counter.  They gave me the “what kind of idiotic question is this” look and huffed:  “over a year.”  Well, blow me down.

Even at 2:00am, the shuttle took 20 minutes, negotiating the crowded tarmac at a slow crawl.  We arrived at the Domestic terminal to find that our flight time had been changed from 4:55am to 5:40am; there were no free seats in the terminal area; and the Cafe Coffee Day lounge did not open until 3:00am.  No matter.  We were happy to be in the terminal as opposed to in the 86 degrees F streets at 2:30am.

It wasn’t until we reached Pondicherry at around 11am that the distress of 90 degree heat and 86 percent humidity hit us.  Since then, brief showers yesterday and the day before yesterday have done nothing to cool things down or reduce the humidity.  It is now 91 degrees, but “feels like 102 degrees” according to Weather.com.  Life exists only under a fan.

I suppose our discomfort is more acute given the 4 months of cool and even cold weather we had in Vancouver this summer.  That plus the extra pounds we gained from eating extravagantly over the last 6 months.

I hope we adjust quickly or it is going to be a long two months before the weather cools in December.

The Long Road Back to North America

We are back in Oakland, California after a multi-leg trip which started on 23 March from our moisture-soaked room on the roof in Pondicherry.

23 March 2008

Maya brought sweets and curd to our quick lunch with Puru and Ajit at the original Surguru to send us off with a bit of tradition.  One last round of onion rava dosas followed by the rasgullas made with palm jaggery, then off to Chennai with Bappu and Puru.

We reached Chennai around 4:30pm and found Sujatha’s place with no difficulties despite the “old number 10, new number 2” address in Saidapet.  Bappu and Puru came up for a cup of coffee and ended up with masala dosas as well.  Sujatha looked absolutely radiant – which means that she is having lots of fun torturing her new husband, Balaji (who is a great guy and extremely tolerant).  We stayed up way too late talking and were kept up most of the night by Chennai mosquitoes that are able to bite through bedcovers and negotiate the currents created by an overhead fan.

24 March 2008

A short taxi ride to the airport and a 7:15am flight from Chennai to Mumbai, where Sachmo meets us at the new domestic terminal (a great improvement and very efficiently run, at least by Jet Airways).  We drop our luggage off at the new Mam office and get to catch up with Madhu, Akash, and Vishal.  Pani puri at Monsoon in Lokhandwala market, then off to visit with Smita and Ashok Shah, where we are the beneficiaries of left-over aamras made from the first of this season’s Alfonso mangoes.  Tea with Suchi and Shreedhar at the Tea Center near Churchgate, then back to Bandra for dinner with the Mam group, including Kumar and Brijesh.  A shower at Akash’s bachelor pad and off to the airport, courtesy of Madhu.

25 March 2008

A 4:35am Korean Airways flight to Seoul during which we awoke only for the bibim bap.  An hour and a half layover at Incheon International Airport, just long enough for a stop at Welly& Food Court to share a kim bap and then our final leg on Korean Airways to SFO, where we are picked up by Betsy and Zing.

26 March 2008

Two mosquitoes escaped from our bags when we unpacked our sodden clothes.

Pondicherry – A Pie Too Small

Government administration in Pondicherry is at a standstill. Teachers and Government contractors for essential services (such as municipal waste collection) have not been paid for six months; large numbers of positions (including secretaries for several departments and superintendents in almost all departments) haven’t been filled; and power struggles from the lowest levels (Councilors) to the highest (Ministers) have ground the cumbersome bureaucracy to a halt. The files are piling up, and if paper is not pushed through up to 21 departments and public bodies (municipalities and commune panchayats – local urban and peri-urban governing bodies), nothing gets done.

The Union Territory (UT) of Pondicherry covers 480 square kilometers comprised of four regions – Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam – in three different States – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The population (according to the 2001 census) of the UT is around 974,000, with about 735,000 (75%) in the Pondicherry region. The region of Pondicherry is composed of non-contiguous, swiss-cheese-like pockets interspersed with areas in Tamil Nadu. Pondicherry region is divided into 2 municipalities and 5 commune panchayats. The municipalities are further divided into wards.

Because Pondicherry is relatively small, there is not enough graft to go around to keep all the elected officials happy. In fact, the lowest (and newest – the first elections took place in 2006) level of elected officials – the Councilors – may not make enough to recover the loans they took out to pay for the votes in their wards before the next elections.

The Chief Minister, N. Rangasamy (who is the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Thattanchavady in Pondicherry), has consolidated most of the important portfolios under his charge. He is responsible for something called “Confidential and Cabinet”, General Administration, Home, Revenue and Excise, Public Works, Planning and Finance, Co-operation, Town and Country Planning (including the Planning Authorities), Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment, and “all other subjects not allocated to any other Ministers.” Note the oversight for Public Works Department (PWD), which accounts for over 50% of the Rs. 1,445 crore (over US$ 370 million) Planning Commission budget allocated to Pondicherry in 2007-08 from the Central Government. More on that later.

There are only 5 other Ministers in Pondicherry.

The Health Minister, E. Valsaraj (who is the MLA for Mahe), is also in charge of Labour and Employment, Law, the Port, and Housing. Six graft cases have been registered against E. Valsaraj by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau for financial irregularities in a land deal in Mahe.

The Education Minister, MOHF Shajahan (who is the MLA for Lawspet in Pondicherry), is also in charge of Art and Culture, Transport, Information Technology, and Fisheries.

The Tourism Minister, Malladi Krishna Rao (who is the MLA for Yamam), is also in charge of Civil Aviation, the Local Administration Department (LAD – which includes the municipalities and commune and village panchayats), Community Development, and District Rural Development Agency.

The Welfare Minister, M. Kandasamy (who is the MLA for Bahour in Pondicherry), is also in charge of Adi-Dravidar (Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Caste) Welfare, Women and Child Welfare, Urban Basic Services, and Fire Services.

The Industries and Power Minister, V. Vaithilingam (who is the MLA for Nettapakkam in Pondicherry), is also in charge of Agriculture, Forest, Animal Husbandry, and Economics and Statistics.

The 5 Ministers have failed to oust the Chief Minister (apparently, he sends too much money back up to the Center), but are now demanding that the Public Works portfolio be withdrawn from his purview. The Chief Engineer of PWD, C. Anandane, has been charged with several counts of corruption by the Anti Corruption Division of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). He was removed from office the morning of 29 February after calls for his dismissal from several of the minor opposition parties, who are capitalizing on the infighting and corruption cases against key members of the Government. (The Chief Minister and Lieutenant Governor not only delayed proceedings against Anandane by the CBI but refrained from dismissing him from office.)

Opposition party leaders in Pondicherry also claim that many of the schemes announced for the 2007-08 budget have not been implemented, and that with less than a month to go, only 60% of the budget has been spent. (I wonder why pre-primary school teachers, who make Rs. 2,500 a month – about US$ 64 – have not been paid since October…) The Planning Commission has approved an increased budget of Rs. 1,750 crore for the next fiscal year – 2008-09. There are three Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers that are awaiting department allocation.


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