Monday, 26 December 2011

The Misfortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Nearly 20% of India's population forms the base of the
socio-economic pyramid, earning less than Rs. 100 per day
By the time Mr. C.K. Prahalad published his most famous and cited work in August 2004, I had spent two years in Pratham, the largest primary education NGO in India. Till then, I had seen the innards of our metros - particularly Delhi and Mumbai - and had seen enough to know that the reverend management Guru had a point, but was not convinced in entirety. The book spoke of the BoP as the 4 billion poor of the world, living on an annual income of less than $1500 (which translated to just over Rs. 5000 per month then). In the Indian context, this Bottom of the Pyramid had a population of 400 million, around 40% of the country's people. But it was clearly visible, even then, that this BoP has several layers, and the bottom-most of these layers (often called the poorest of the poor) did not qualify for any of Prahalad's theorizations.

Thousands of young men migrate to the cities leaving
behind their wives and young children

Now, 7 years later, I have had the chance to peer at the bottom of the barrel in the rural context as well. It is here that the economic divide is at its most stark, and most troubling. Last week, I was in Kalahandi and Bolangir in Orissa, among the poorest districts in the country. The region had gained international infamy in the mid-1980's when the sub-human conditions here had led to several starvation deaths, catching the attention of the bourgeois media. The starvation may not be as rampant now, but the poverty certainly is. Significantly, whatever growth that has happened in the region has largely been an urban phenomenon - property rates in the town of Bolangir have more than doubled in the last ten years, but the conditions in the rest of the district - entirely rural - have worsened. The average household income would not be more than Rs. 10000 per annum, or around $200.

Is there hope for these children?

Numbers, we know, conceal more than they reveal. It is not the 200-odd dollars that these people earn is significant, what is more significant is how they earn it. Since local employment is not an option, and returns on farming are marginal, migrating for work is the only recourse for a livelihood. Hence, in some of the villages that I went to, nearly all the adult males were away to distant cities such as Mumbai and Chennai. Many others go to work at the brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh each year, family in tow, working and living in abysmal conditions, and being paid just about Rs. 200 per week as subsistence wages. Their incentive: in addition to the weekly wage, they are given an advance of Rs. 8 to 10 thousand which proves to be an irresistible bounty for them. They do this year after year, and generation after generation - as they never have a chance to develop their skills to do anything better.

With Mr. Abhimanyu Rana (left) in his office at a village
called Mahaling in the Kalahandi district

If there is a solution to this, it is certainly not within the current political system: the administration at all levels refuses to acknowledge the existence of migration from Orissa. Schemes such as the MGNREGA and IGAY (Indira Gandhi Awas Yojana) may have the potential to bring on an economic upturn, but their shoddy implementation has made the rural populace turn away from them. Commerce and industry too have shied away from investing in this region, as they have several better, more profitable options. If there is some hope, it is in the collective conscience of our society, as evinced by youngsters such as Abhimanyu Rana who runs an organization called Karmi in the Kalahandi district. Karmi is a small organization - too small to even have a website of its own. With the limited resources that Rana has been able to muster, he is doing some commendable work for poverty alleviation and livelihood promotion in the region. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust has been an important supporter for Karmi over the years. But it will take hundreds of Karmis to make any perceptible impact in the fabric of a Kalahandi, and thousands of supporters to champion the cause. Till then, the bottom of the pyramid will only get more and more distanced from the rest of us.             

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Letter to 'The Stakeholder'


The CEO/Director General/Secretary General/MD
The National/State/Industry Level Skills Development Intervention

Subject: Reminder that you are not ‘The Stakeholder’


Cambridge Dictionary defines the term stakeholder as “a person such as an employee, customer or citizen who is involved with an organization, society, etc. and therefore has responsibilities towards it and an interest in its success.” And, there are other similar definitions.

  As per my understanding from the field there are two types of stakeholders – Suppliers and Recipients. Suppliers can further be subdivided into ‘direct suppliers’ and ‘indirect suppliers’. I know very well that this language won’t be acceptable to development theorists. But this is from the perspective of a practitioner who has worked in this milieu for only three-four years. I might change my thinking/language when I turn old and wise. So please bear with this, till then.
            You are suppliers. Youngsters are receivers.  So what is most important for a skill-development supplier to know? …..
‘Need of the receivers’ – standard answer. I accept. TNA (Training Need Assessment) is a fashion. Everybody does that. At least documents that. Think More…
Try answering these questions -
  1. Are you the only supplier?
If the answer to the above question is ‘NO’, then go ahead –
  1. Who are all the other suppliers out there? – Direct and Indirect.
  2. What does each supplier supply?
  3. What do other suppliers plan to supply in near future?
Remember, there are equally wise people around. You are not ‘The Stakeholder’, but, ‘A Stakeholder’. Find them. Know them. 

Prerit Rana
(Just Another Stakeholder – Skills Development)

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Sound of a School

An article on The Education Challenge published in today's issue of Mint only reiterates what we have known since long, that the quality of education offered at our schools is falling alarmingly. The article cites an year long study conducted by Wipro and Education Initiatives on Indian private schools, looking at scholastic and non-scholastic activities at these schools. Unsurprisingly, the article states that "Both teachers and pupils believe that rote learning is still the backbone of the school system in India." Rote learning, to me, is not learning at all. It is merely memorization.

At the Anjuman-e-Islamia School in South Mumbai
Over the last ten years, I've had the opportunity to visit scores of schools across the country. These have mostly been government schools, but some private and NGO schools as well. Each time, visiting a school when classes are in progress is a fascinating experience. With these visits, I've come to an interesting observation - you can figure out the quality of education in a school with your eyes closed. Literally. All you need to do is to stand for some time at a central location in the school campus, close to where the classrooms are. And listen carefully.

In nearly all schools, if you position yourself near the primary classes, you can hear the sound of children chanting and reciting. It could either be the alphabet (A for Apple, B for Ball.... or अ से अनार, आ से आम...) or it could be numbers (thir-teen, four-teen, fif-teen...recited in a mechanical, sing-song way) or the multiplication tables (Two 1's are 2, two 2's are 4....). The teacher goes first, the children repeat in unison. Sometimes, the teacher would make one of the children as the the sound would be of one child going "L-for-Law-in!"...and all the children bellowing the same as they look at the picture of a ferocious lion in their textbooks. This goes for minutes on end, session after session, day after day. What else can the poor teacher do when she has to manage 50 to 60 children, of the kind when even four of them can be handful?

The Cotton Hill Girls High School in Trivandrum, Kerala, is the
largest all-girls school in Asia, with an enrollment of over 5000 
The rote learning continues in the older classes. The standard way of teaching is for the teacher to read out a lesson from the text book, while the children are expected to follow the text. Predictably, the children lose interest into the first paragraph, and in learning for a lifetime. Discipline in many such schools is equated with the silence of children - and is enforced with strictness. If you go and listen to these older classes, the sound would usually be of the teacher reading from a text book, and his occasional admonition to the children to "Keep Quiet!" or "Be Silent!"

An ABL session at a classroom at the Bodhshala
in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Bodh is a leading Education NGO. 

I've also been to schools that vigorously practice Activity Based Learning (ABL) right from pre-primary years, and the results are starkly different. ABL as an approach presumes children to be active learners rather than passive ones, where each child is actively engaged in a learning activity with the teacher as a guide and facilitator. The sound in these schools is distinctly different - it is a vibrant, steady buzz of children conferring among themselves as they go about performing activities assigned to them. This sound is positive and enthusiastic, with a rhythm but not a monotonous one. When you hear this sound in a school, you can be sure that the children here are actually learning.

Unfortunately, ABL is being properly implemented in only a few schools across the country. Tamil Nadu was the first state to adopt it in all its schools around five years back, and since then, most other states have followed suit. However, its implementation is inherently difficult - inadequate infrastructure is of course an impediment, but the biggest challenge is to get the teachers to adopt a mindset of being Facilitators, rather than just Teachers. More about this in a later post...