Sunday, 24 August 2014

Chronicles of a Failed State - Part 2

"The redemption of this education system cannot happen," says the gentleman to my left somewhat pontifically, "till the time the children have the katora (bowl) in their hands!"

I am in Hardoi, a district to the west of Lucknow in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, for a new Edulever project. Rains have eluded this part of the state this year, and a disconcerting sultriness hangs in the air. Hardoi town, with a population of 170,000, seems like any one of the numerous small towns that dot the north Indian landscape. Its most recent claim to fame is that the 2012 Bollywood movie Ishaqzaade was shot in the district.

Over two-and-a-half days, we visit a few senior secondary schools - also known as Inter Colleges - in parts of Hardoi. These schools typically run from Classes 9 to 12, and the ones in the villages are usually plain-looking single-storied structures. Enrollments vary - from as low as 50 students in Classes 9 and 10 in some cases, to as high as 750 in others. As we discover during our visit, many of the schools are single-teacher schools: the same teacher is expected to teach all subjects - English, Hindi, Science, Math and Social Sciences - to all the students.

We reach a rural school at around 8:20 am; 10  minutes before it is scheduled to start. A locked iron gate greets us, with a few students waiting outside; their number swells quickly. I start talking to a group of students who tell me that the school has only the principal, and no teachers! Today, even the principal has chosen to be absent, and I'm curious to know how the school would be run.

What happens next is nothing short of miraculous. At 8:30 sharp, a senior student unlocks the gate, and the students start entering the school. Someone rings a gong, and the students - completely on their own - line themselves along the two corridors of the school, boys on one side and girls on the other. Three girls of Class 10 move to the head of this perfect-line formation, and start conducting the morning prayers! They lead the singing of three bhajans one after the other, with all the students joining in chorus. The national anthem, recited rather than sung, marks the end of this morning assembly. I am told that the students are quite used to conducting the prayer-assembly on their own, unimaginable in a regular city school.

The classrooms, with wooden benches and desks, are soon filled up. The room has fans, but there is no electricity. I engage myself with the students of Class 9, who lament the lack of teachers and especially the fact that they are not able to learn English. I decide to conduct an impromptu Spoken English session with them; they are clearly ill-at-ease even in introducing themselves in English.

Another school we visit is in Hardoi city itself - the R.R. Boys' Inter College. It is housed in an imposing building, constructed in the 1920's in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. This school has over 2000 students from Classes 6 to 12. The exterior of the school is reasonably well-maintained, but the interiors are a different story altogether. The principal's chamber is a dim-lighted, dreary government office. We interact with a group of teachers, who are ready with their tales of woes - too many students cramped in one classroom, parents' apathy about their children, the poorly thought-out Right to Education Act that compels them to promote all students irrespective of academic performance till Class 8, and most of all, the aforestated "katora" - an allusion to the mid-day meal scheme of the government which has significantly reduced the time available to the school management to focus on academics. There is a grain of truth to this argument against the MDM scheme, as highlighted in another post in this blog.

 One more rural school, and a similarly depressing story about the system's apathy towards students' learning requirements. No electricity in this school as well, and many students are sitting in near-darkness (in more ways than one). Learning levels of students in classes 9 and 10 are abysmal - most students of class 10 are not able to solve Class 6 math problems given to them. The representative of the local NGO accompanying us casually mentions of the rampant cheating - in collusion with the teachers - that happens in these schools during the board examinations. Amazingly, students are known to seek admissions in those schools where this malpractice is more prevalent, so that they can pass exams easily!

The Edulever team with the Sandeela school teachers.
The headmistress is third from right.
The last school we visit offers a glimpse of hope. This is an all-girls' school in a place called Sandeela on the highway connecting Lucknow with Hardoi. The headmistress, Chitra Sonkar, greets us with a bright, warm smile, and is clearly in command of the proceedings at the school. She was earlier a teacher at the same school, and is concerned about the fact that there are only 10 teachers for a school of over 1000 girls. Despite this, she has been working diligently to raise the standards in the school, and her efforts are evident. This is the only school we went to that had a decent Science Lab. The learning assessment we conducted also shows better results here. A clear pointer to the fact that when a system fails, a strong and committed individual can still make a big difference by just doing her work with dedication!

For most parts of U.P., however, the education system is beyond Reform - what is required is nothing short of a complete Reboot. This might sound radical; but knowing that the future of lakhs of children is at stake here, a radical solution is called for. Even if it means completely dismantling the existing system and replacing it with a stronger, more efficient, and most importantly, a more accountable system.               

Friday, 21 February 2014

Chronicles of a Failed State

The recently completed Shaheed Path in Lucknow - an elevated 6-lane expressway that allows quick access from the airport to eastern UP - is a driver's delight. If you're travelling to Faizabad, for example, the road can get you speeding towards your destination, bypassing Lucknow city almost completely, in a matter of minutes. If your visit is during the waning winter season, you will be enthralled by the miles of mustard fields on the way - the enchanting yellow atop green stretching for as far as the eyes can see. You can do your business in Faizabad and be back at the Lucknow airport to catch an evening flight, carrying with you an idyllic portrait of rural India, and feeling smug about improved infrastructure in the state of UP.

Venture a little within the state, and you will quickly realize how deceiving this idyllic portrait can be. Barely 40 kms from Lucknow, within the Lucknow district itself, is the Mal block. On 19 Feb 2014, I made a visit to Mal to understand the employment situation among village youth as part of an Edulever project. Accompanying me is Anjani, a social worker with the NGO Vatsalya, which has been working in this area for the past several years with a focus on the Girl Child. On the way to Mal, Anjani talks about the grim scenario surrounding the demographics of females in this area - the curse of female foeticide is rampant: in a survey done by Vatsalya in mid-2011 in eight districts of UP, the Child Sex Ratio came out to be only 625 in children under 1 year of age. He went on to describe how the practice of selective abortion flourishes as an industry with the connivance of the state officials. Shockingly, people are willing to pay upto Rs. 1 lakh to get a female foetus aborted. And the "doctors" in order to make the quick buck are known to have aborted male foetuses as well declaring them to be female! Anjani shares all this with disarming casualness, attending to routine calls during his narrative.

Taking a narrower road along the mustard fields, we presently find ourselves in the village of Roodan Khera with close to 200 households. A row of mud houses stands along the dirt path that bisects the village. We meet Kaushalya, mother of five, and member of a self-help group (SHG) formed by Vatsalya to promote small savings for livelihoods. The SHG has 15 members, and has managed to accumulate a fund of Rs. 15000 to help them in times of need. Kaushalya and other women of the village are adept at "chikan" work, the thread embroidery work Lucknow is famous for. Middlemen from Lucknow visit the village to get work done from the women. For a Kurta that would sell for at least Rs. 1000 in the market in Lucknow (with the salesman often gloating about the "hand-made" work on it), Kaushalya gets paid a measly Rs. 15 for doing the entire Kurta.

We move on to another nearby village, Kerora. The discussion with Anjani has moved to the health of the Anganwadis - the backbone of early child care system in India, part of the ambitious ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) scheme of the government. Each village (and also urban slum) is supposed to have an Anganwadi, with 2-3 workers assigned to it, providing basic nutrition and health services (including immunization) to children below 6 years of age. The Anganwadi workers are paid Rs. 1500, and given a monthly grant depending on the number of children in the village. At the Kerora Anganwadi, a decrepit two-room structure, Sunita is the older of the two workers on duty when we visit. The children have just left: they are supposed to be there from 9 am to 1 pm. Sunita informs us that they served cooked Arhar daal and chawal (lentils and rice) to the children today. For the provisions, Sunita gets a sum of Rs. 4500 as her monthly grant. By a recent court directive, this money now gets credited directly to her bank account. However, in a practice that prevails across the entire state and perhaps even in other states, Sunita is forced to pay half this amount to the officials who do the rounds, and the collected booty supposedly finds its way to the top of the ladder through a well-oiled mechanism. Refusal to pay would obviously incur the wrath of the officials, and Sunita dare not take a chance!

It is past 2 pm, and time for us to leave. The village is a picture of desolation. A large number of buffaloes line up the path, lazy and oblivious to our presence in the village. Anjani talks of the rampant alcoholism in the villages around, of how certain households earn their livelihoods by brewing and selling the country liquor made of rice and mahua, an Indian medicinal plant. Even the children in these households are engaged in this occupation, though Vatsalya's intervention has curbed this malpractice. The village has a government school, but most parents prefer to send their children to the low-cost private schools that have sprung up across the countryside. A wise decision - the neglect of the government school system has ensured that even though teachers in these schools are paid salaries that are ten times of their counterparts at private schools, the quality of learning remains abysmal in the government schools. During our visit we could see several young girls on bicycles returning from their schools, the only picture of promise in an otherwise gloomy scenario. Before getting into our car, we walk past a broken mud house - which stands almost as a representative of the Failed State around us.



Thursday, 2 January 2014

Looking Back, Looking Ahead...

Whew! Did 2013 really have 365 days?

If the year seems to have just whizzed past, it’s a reflection of how engaged we’ve been in making the wheels turn at Edulever and Agrasar. The change of year is a good time to pause and reflect on the twelve months gone by, and play a soothsayer for the year ahead. In fact, as I begin to retrospect, my mind goes far beyond the past twelve months…

Around the time that Edulever was born in late 2009, I happened to hear this John Denver song that goes, “inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.” The words beautifully resonated with my thoughts on making Edulever grow. I was convinced about the need to have a very strong foundation for the organization, to have the pursuit of excellence as the central theme of whatever we do. Now, four years later, I have an abiding sense of satisfaction that we have largely managed to create the foundation while being focused on excellence in our work. Of course, this has only been possible because of the wonderful set of people we’ve found along the way…

For me, 2013 was the year in which I began to feel confident about our work on Skill Development. Our organizational understanding of this domain grew significantly over the year, thanks largely to getting our hands dirty at the Agrasar Centers of Employability at Saharanpur and Gurgaon. The understanding was enriched by the work we did for the SMART Program of Tech Mahindra, which has easily been the most comprehensive project we’ve done at Edulever. We can be collectively proud of the fact that the SMART program, which had just three centers at two locations when the year began, has now grown to 25 centers at eight locations across the country.

Edulever team members during a field survey
in an MP village, July 2013 
The year also saw the Edulever team successfully take on the challenges of conducting field surveys in a rural area, when we implemented the two projects of ChildFund. The team that went to these villages in tribal MP and Rajasthan came back tougher and wiser. The projects barely scratched the surface of livelihoods and higher education prospects for rural youth, but have certainly whetted our appetite for more. If all goes well, this may well be the Next Big Thing for Edulever to take on – cracking the Skill Development code for rural youth.

We continued to do our "bread and butter" stuff - Curriculum and Training - in 2013, most notably the curriculum on Vocational Training that we completed for Saath. We also came close to reaching the 1000 mark on the number of people trained tally - this will be an important milestone to cross in early 2014. While a lot of ground still needs to be covered in fulfilling our mission of "Making Classrooms Happier", we are progressively getting there, one project at a time!

When I posted the “New Year Musings” exactly a year back, the Edulever-Agrasar team was all of 12 people. Today, this number has grown nearly three-fold, with Agrasar well and truly coming into its own during the year. If I were to step back, and take a paternalistic view, Agrasar has over the year emerged as a bright, confident, and ambitious younger sibling, with an obvious mind of its own! Honestly, the delight in witnessing this emergence is no less than that of looking at one’s progeny take a confident stride into the outside world.

The Agrasar team exudes a confidence and self-assurance seldom seen in a team as young. They are also among the most hard-working group of youngsters one could ever expect to meet. We have been quite gender insensitive: nearly 80% of the Agrasar team are young women in their early 20's!

Edulever-Agrasar team, Dec 2013
For me, the highlights of Agrasar over the year were as follows:

(1) The MIS for the SMART centers is perhaps the best example of an MIS that I have seen. More than the information it captures, it is the regularity of information being captured by it, and then being analyzed by the top management, that makes it a significantly strong tool. The entire team deserves kudos for giving shape to the MIS.
(2) The emergence of a strong team of community mobilizers, which forms the backbone of any organization hoping to work for the transformation of any community. Though I have not interacted much with the team members, my joy knows no bounds when I hear of the diligence and effort being put in by this team.
(3) The insights gained into the lives of migrants in Gurgaon is next on my list. I can see ourselves delving deeper in the migration related work, hence the foundation created in the SDTT project over the year will be crucial as the project expands its scope and depth.
Agrasar Prasang, July 2013
(4) The successful execution of Agrasar Prasang. It was thrilling to see the team come together and achieve what it did in hosting the first ever event at Agrasar. We have already decided to make this an annual event, so the preparation for Prasang 2014 should be underway within the next few months.
(5) And of course, taking our tally of students trained at our centers to 564, and those placed successfully in jobs to 408 - the numbers speak for themselves!

2014 could well be a “leap” year for Agrasar. Two new Centers of Employability are already on their way; we will hopefully be adding a few more in NCR in the next few months. I am also keenly looking forward to the start of our Education work in Agrasar, as that would complete the portfolio of our work in Gurgaon. God willing, we will soon be commencing a project on early childhood development in Gurgaon.

I would be failing in my duty if I do not address the fact that as Agrasar expands its footprints, the responsibility of being a responsible and mature organization also expands manifold. Even as we scale new heights, we must remember to do so with humility and a sense of selflessness. To me, these are timeless virtues that should never go out-of-fashion, especially in the sector we are working in.

Finally, the recent developments in the political arena – the outcome of the Delhi elections – have given us a huge reason to cheer for all of us in the social development space. Mr. Kejriwal has almost single-handedly shown that large scale reform at the highest level in a short period of time is possible – provided you start by listening to the people, make them an active participant of the change process, and most importantly, remain absolutely focused. The other important feature of AAP’s success – one that has not really been talked about much – is the extent of planning and coordination that would have gone into achieving what they did. There is a lot to learn from them as an organization – more than the political victory, their biggest achievement is that they have been able to dent the die-hard cynicism that had become ingrained in many of us. Yes, at the age of 42, I finally went ahead and registered for my Voter-Id card yesterday…there is now a definite incentive to vote!

With best wishes for a fulfilling 2014 for all of you,                

01 Jan ‘14