In The Armchair

Teachers: The Biggest Impediment to Education in India

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on June 27, 2007

A small portion of the Indian population is experiencing unprecedented prosperity levels as a result of the new globalization wave and the economic reforms of the Narasimha Rao government. These forces have led to India being catapulted into a “knowledge economy”. The press, both Indian and foreign, often cite figures comparing the number of engineering graduates from India favourably in comparison to Western countries. There is a general sense of optimism, a feeling that our educational system is at par with or superior to the Western systems.

However, the truth is that the economic prosperity is masking the mess into which our educational systems are devolving. The Indian educational system at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary) is worse off than it was a decade ago. The reasons we are not seeing immediate effects are manyfold. Perhaps the two biggest reasons are: 1. there is always a lag of a decade or two in the manifestation of the effects of such a lapse; 2. globalization cushions the effect, providing easy access to skilled workers from elsewhere.

However, the devolution is real. The scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, esteemed scientist C. N. R. Rao, has in his official capacity advised the Prime Minister that Indian science education has been on the decline for almost two decades, and that the effects will be felt soon. (See, for example, this article.)

At the primary and secondary levels, India’s education programme has been a failure. Although literacy levels have been creeping upwards gradually, the rate of progress was far lower than what was envisioned when the constitution was adopted (free compulsory education for all children upto 14 years by 1960; see Constitution of India, Part IV Article 45). Often, the government is blamed for not providing teachers with sufficient resources, not paying them enough or for not monitoring them well enough.

However, an alternate viewpoint is that the teachers are themselves responsible for aggressively demoting the status of education and making education subservient to politics. Teachers in India are overwhelmingly unionized and political, and resist positive change in an organized fashion. Politics is endemic to the teaching profession. These views from the book The Political Economy of Education in India by Geeta Kingdon and Mohammed Muzammil are explained in detail in this article by Swaminathan S. Aiyar, consulting editor of The Economic Times. I think this viewpoint might explain the reason why, despite struggling against illiteracy for so many decades, we have failed to make inroads into universal education in India.

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In Spite of the Gods

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on June 20, 2007

Until the early 1990s, India was an economic backwater which attracted almost no international interest. Economic reforms led by P. V. Narasimha Rao in 1991 led to the rapid economic growth of the economy. In recent times, overzealous publicity and reporting have made it appear as though India is on the brink of “superpower” status, and this has spawned a spate of books trying to explain the character of the country to Western audiences. “In Spite of the Gods” by Edward Luce, a British journalist and former Financial Times New Delhi Bureau Chief, is another book is this category.

I will review three aspects of the book: 1. Its character, or what it tries to be; 2. How well it is written (how interesting it is), and 3. its accuracy. The book itself covers so much ground that this review will need to be a little lengthy.

Luce’s main interests are the political and economic arenas in India. Each of the Eight chapters consists of several “patterns” that Luce has noticed in collective Indian behaviour: sycophancy, criminalization of politics, Hindu fundamentalism, the State oppressing the poor, and so on. To shore up the argument for each of the patterns, Luce relies on interviews (with a surprising number of very prominent people), events (historical and current), anecdotes, and other cultural observations. These patterns all form evidence for some small-scale themes that appear throughout the book, such as the fallacy (in his opinion) the Indian nationalist perception that progress lies in developing the villages and decentralizing political power. These smaller scale themes, in turn, are tributaries to his recurring largest scale theme: the condition of the poor in India. Luce writes a lot about the intersection of politics, economics and culture, and how each of these shapes and interacts with the others.

Luce does all of this a trifle haphazardly, with a slight lack of organization within chapters, revisiting themes and patterns throughout the book. But he manages to make it all very interesting. His patterns provide novel viewpoints on familiar topics (familiar, at least, to Indian). His anecdotes and event summaries are piquant. The interviews are often with very important political figures, in interesting situations, and that makes for entertaining reading. But they are usually humourous or otherwise interesting, even apart from the importance of the interviewees. His travels through India allow the reader to interact vicariously with a wide spectrum of aspects of the Indian ethos that are not directly accessible to even Indians.

The style of the book gives the impression that Luce put some effort into telling all sides of a story, and that he was trying to report unbiasedly about all of his topics. He also seems to have benefited from advice from people like Ramachandra Guha, a very prominent Indian historian. The bigger picture that emerges from this book is reasonably accurate. For people unfamiliar with India, the book would be great: a concise yet fairly comprehensive introduction.

On the negative side, the book’s biggest problem is that it simply collects common opinions about India that the author agrees with. The lack of true scholarship means that the book lacks the accuracy in detail that comes from thorough study. Almost every other page has a debatable assertion. Luce has a penchant for hyperbole and sensationalism, perhaps as a result of his journalistic background. Luce frequently contradicts himself or tells only half the story.

For example, he (rightly) cautions against using the all-India 2001 census figures to conclude that Muslim fecundity is on the rise. But he himself commits this fallacy when he uses the overall census figures to claim that Christian missionary activity is not on the rise in India. There are many reasons why the figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. Most new Christian converts are advised by their church not to admit the conversion so that they continue to receive backward class benefits; this severely distorts the reported figures. In very recent news, the Christians in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh alone have claimed they form up to 15% of the population of that state — or 1.1% of the all-India population. (This claim was made to support a demand for job reservation for Andhra Christians.) This belies the national percentage according to the 2001 census (2.3%). Luce tells only the side of the story that supports his thesis. On child labour, another of India’s gigantic social problems, Luce omits mention on both sides of the problem. He fails to connect it with bonded labour, and he also fails to explain how hard it is to fix the problem. The biggest obstacle is not the four mostly academic arguments that Luce claims some people put forward to justify child labour. Most Indians are interested in ending it, but there are problems. First, it is very low on the list of political priorities, which is dominated by things like caste, religion, reservations and subsidies of various kinds. Second, most of the children are working so that they can eat; simply taking their labour away will starve them. Providing free food or sending them to school is hard because of bureaucratic corruption. Removing bureacratic corruption, again, is low on the list of electoral priorities. Perhaps Luce would have seen this if he had tried to suggest a solution.

As another example, Luce rightly spends considerable energy flaying the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat for its blatant anti-Muslim stance and for its failure to provide security to Muslims during the Godhra riots. But his dislike for Hindu nationalism again causes him to exaggerate or cite exaggerations. For example, Luce (and to be fair, many media reports) claimed that “thousands” or “2000 or more” muslims died in the Godhra riots — whereas even the Congress, the state government’s main rival, has only claimed around 800 deaths — of which 200 were Hindu. I don’t mean to downplay the well-known complicity of the Modi government or the horror of the events that took place. But Luce is “selling” a viewpoint. He also succumbs to the temptation to talk only about the negative aspects of that government. For example, Gujarat is the only well-governed North Indian state, and is considered by many to currently be the best governed Indian state, with the most rapidly rising human development indicators. Luce never mentions these positive aspects, surprising in a book that spends almost a hundred pages on human development. On patriotism, Luce can’t see why Indians would get incensed at the the pockets of Indian Muslims who feel more Pakistani than Indian, supporting Pakistan in cricket matches and the like. He likens this to the innocuous support that Indian-origin citizens in the UK have for India when India plays England. This analogy is so misleading it feels almost deliberate. A more apt comparison would be with the USA and the USSR in the cold war era. If there were pockets of Americans in 1961 who vociferously supported the USSR, I wonder how many of them would have escaped being branded communists and thrown in jail. By contrast, most Indians might not like their pro-Pakistan citizens, but definitely don’t do anything about it.

It is also sometimes hard to see exactly what Luce bases his opinions of individual politicians on. He seems to decide beforehand how he will portray each politician. Many politicians (appropriately) get short shrift from Luce. However, he is surprisingly, inexplicably charitable towards Sonia Gandhi, the widow of erstwhile Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and current wielder of the Nehru-Gandhi family power. Sonia is a kingmaker, easily the most powerful person in India and the closest thing to a dictator India has seen since Indira Gandhi 30 years ago. She controls the actions of half the state governments in India through puppet strings, “summons” Chief Ministers (who have to call her “Madam”) to Delhi if she disapproves of something they have done and doles out political rewards for loyalty to her. (To put this in perspective for non-Indians, it is like a politically powerful person within one of the two parties in the USA appointing a puppet president of the United States, and summoning the governors of the states to Washington to explain their actions. India’s Chief Ministers are actually more powerful than American governors.) Luce’s portrayal of her is soft and reads like Congress party progaganda: that of a graceful, tearful, long-suffering widow, humble, patriotic (towards India), pure of motive and gentle of heart, yet blessed with amazing insight into the hearts of the Indian people and electoral politics and motivated by a genuine desire to protect the India her family worked so hard for. She might be some of those things, but there isn’t much evidence cited. Luce ignores her blatant interference in the CBI’s investigations in the massive bribery case that India has spent millions on, in order to get her friend Ottavio Quattrocchi off the hook. Luce’s admiration doesn’t seem to be based on anything she has done. To me, an Indian, it looks like he was just charmed by her Western demeanour.

Luce’s opinions on Bollywood, the Bombay film industry, also hint at his penchant for turning the book into a rant. He believes, incorrectly, that films dealing with social issues are not produced. They are produced, albeit in much smaller numbers than the commercial films. But that is true of every film-making community in the world. He cites an interview with Amitabh Bachchan in which Amitabh clearly favours commercial films. Luce seems not to notice that the glitzy films he is so opposed to are lapped up by the poorer sections of India, whom he is trying to champion. Luce may be surprised to learn that it is the rich in India who criticize the “masala” films and the poor who want more of them. In India, the “art” films dealing with social issues are the exclusive preserve of3B3B the rich. In effect, Luce is unintentionally asking Bollywood to stop making the films that are most appealing to the poor and to make more films that appeal to the rich.

Luce is also subtly insulting towards Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru at various points throughout the book, and tends to take the familiar Western viewpoint that India owes much of its success to the West. Luce has nothing good to say about Gandhi or Nehru. He portrays Gandhi and Nehru as silly, unwise and somewhat unscrupulous people who didn’t really understand how the world works. Gandhi is blamed for the Congress party’s current habit of religious opportunism (this flies in the face of most of the Congress party’s early history). This is the first book I have seen where Gandhi is consistently portrayed negatively.

Most of this may seem like nitpicking, but these issues are (as Luce himself says) heatedly debated in India.  To be fair, Luce covers so much ground that it’s hard to provide a perfectly balanced perspective on all issues.  At the same time, he seems disingenous when he carefully tries to portray his writing as balanced when it is anything but.

Sycophancy in the Congress Party

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on June 19, 2007

The Congress party’s least attractive feature is its heavy culture of sycophancy. There are many parties in Indian politics that are based on sycophancy towards individuals: examples include the DMK, AIADMK (under both Jayalalithaa and M. G. Ramachandran) and the Telugu Desam during the NTR years. But the Congress party is, I think, the only one where dynastic sycophancy plays such a strong role.

The Congress party formed two entirely different entities before and after independence. Soon after independence, the towering Nehru successfully transformed the Congress into a dynastic hegemony (possibly; some say it was Indira and not Nehru who did this). Amazingly, this hegemony has now become self-sustaining, almost religious. The dynasty itself no longer has to expend energy to maintain it. It has persisted through the deeds as well as misdeeds of Indira Gandhi, through the Rajiv Gandhi years, through the “dark ages” when no Nehru-Gandhi family member was at the helm, and seems to be growing in zeal even now, during the Sonia Gandhi years.

The years without a Family member leading the Congress were a time when alternative leadership could have taken hold, but the Congress party workers had the religious zeal of converts. No one other than a Gandhi family member, any Gandhi family member, could satisfy them. P. V. Narasimha Rao, the true architect of India’s financial reforms and successful party caretaker during its hardest period, was sidelined, refused a place in Delhi (though Rajiv Gandhi — having accomplished much less than PVR — was given a samadhi) and his body was ignobly returned to Hyderabad after he passed away. The Gandhis are famously jealous of merit; while claiming great laurels for their own family (naming various national and state institutions and monuments after themselves) they deliberately keep similar merit awards away from other deserving leaders.

In current times the toadyism has reached new heights. The most senior and accomplished politicians in the Congress willingly submitted themselves to the absolute will of Sonia Gandhi, a political neophyte. Nay, they begged her to rule over them. Sonia Gandhi is much more powerful than even the Prime Minister of India, whom she had the total liberty to choose. While there is nothing wrong with a strong person leading a political party, the amazing thing is that Sonia Gandhi did nothing to assume such absolute power. She has no political or governing experience or accomplishments; indeed she has no experience of any sort whatsoever. The power was handed to her on a platter because she was the only viable deity in the Congress party religion.

Already, other heirs apparent to the Congress monarchy are treated with nearly apotheosized reverence. Look at the picture at the top of this post, from this article on Rahul Gandhi’s birthday. Rahul Gandhi is not even in attendance!

In another example of this deification of the Gandhi family, Congress workers have put up a poster depicting Sonia as the goddess Durga in Moradabad; see the picture at top.

Some argue that this is a fault of the lower level Congress workers and not the main leaders; however, the leadership reinforces this kind of behaviour by doling out perks to Gandhi Family loyalists. For example, it is well known that the Congress’s current candidate for the post of president, Pratibha Patil, is a long-term Family loyalist who stood by Indira Gandhi even through the Emergency. (According to this report, she even added her own touches to the Emergency, including forcible sterilization.)

While the Congress party itself is fairly functional, the idea that the ruling party should be so staunchly monarchic, and so anti-democratic, is disturbing. If those are the ideals they hold, how can they be trusted to rule the country?

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The Scar

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on June 14, 2007

With The Scar and his other books (Perdido Street Station comes to mind), China Mieville has created a very rare thing: a new genre. It is fantasy, but quite unlike any fantasy ever written before. Mieville creates a dark, dystopic world filled with various monstrous races, each more horrible than the next. Despite obvious connections to steampunk, Mieville’s creations stand out.  Mieville’s story is well-paced, gripping and satisfying– all except the very ending, that is. It becomes clear right at the end that Mieville really had no plot all along.

Nevertheless, the story, the characters, the monsters and the world in general are richly detailed, well-developed, and interesting. Like most successful science fiction, The Scar asks a battery of philosophical and ethical questions. Like many good authors Mieville also has a talent for self-explanatory words and names and evocative metaphors.

The only real disappointment in this novel, then, is the ending. When the novel ends, it feels like a waste of material, a waste of all the wonderfully developed characters, the world. What is the purpose of such a rich creation, and such an interesting build-up, if the book simply ends in its middle? There is an entire parallel mystery storyline, about mysterious, horrifically powerful beings tailing Armada, the floating city on which much of the action happens, that really amounts to nothing and has no consequenses at all. Nothing really comes to anything. That is the problem.

YaST2’s Package Manager

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on June 7, 2007

I don’t know much about the internals of SUSE Linux’s Software Management under YaST2. But it’s trivial to see that it is deeply flawed, and that the flaws can be fixed by making a few simple, basic changes.

Integrate the “Installation Source” module with “Software Management”. It is facile to have to switch between two different apps when you’re just trying to install software. The current process is to start Installation Source, specify which sources you want updated, close Installation Source, start Software Management, and the install software. Let’s say that you then want to add a source. You’d have to close Software Management, open Installation Source, add the source and update it, again open Software Management… It’s ridiculously roundabout.

The solution is very simple. Just integrate Installation Sources into Software Management:

  1. Create a pane within Software Management with all of the installation sources.
  2. Add all Installation Source options to a right-click context menu.
  3. For 2. above, make it possible to select multiple sources at a time.
  4. Make it possible to update the packages from any source at any time. Add an “Update Now” button to the context menu.
  5. Make it simple to add a new installation source within Software Management.
  6. Cache the parsed package information so that re-parsing isn’t necessary every time. Re-parse only when an installation source is updated.
  7. Make it possible to view package information (files, etc.) after downloading, without installing the package first.
  8. Do away with the separate installation sources app, or keep it if you wish… doesn’t matter.

These changes alone would massively improve SUSE’s usability to those of us whose major grouch is its package management.

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Posted in Food by Armchair Guy on June 6, 2007

The following recipe can be classified as North Indian, but also resembles the Bengali “Ghugni”.

Puree 3 cloves of garlic, 1 inch of ginger, 1 onion and 1/2 cup water. Add 1 tsp oil to a saucepan (mukudu or kadai), add 1 tsp jeelakarra seeds (cumin) and 1 bay leaf. (It’s best to add just one bay leaf.) When fried, add puree, 1 tsp coriander powder, 1/2 tsp garam masala and fry for 2-3 minutes. Add one can of pre-cooked chick-peas (senagalu, chana), frying until water is almost completely gone from the puree. Dry-fry for another 1 min, stirring constantly (this lets the chana absorb flavours). Add 1 chopped tomato (optional), salt to taste and 1/2 cup water. Cook until gravy is thick.

Optional garnishes (singly or in combination):

  • Finely chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
  • Finely chopped raw onions
  • Juice from a 1/2 to 1 lime, mixed in

If pre-cooked chick peas are not available, the process is longer: you have to soak chick-peas for 4-5 hours, then pressure-cook them in salt water until tender but firm.

Serve with chapattis.

Variation (Chana Chaat)

This can easily be turned into a “chaat” (quick snack) to be eaten by itself.

To the base dish, add juice from 1/2 lime, sprinkle 2 tsp tamarind-date chutney and 2 tsp coriander chutney. Mix 1 1/2 tsp yogurt with 1 1/2 tsp water until smooth and sprinkle over the dish. Next sprinkle finely chopped coriander leaves and finely chopped raw onions. Done!

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I, Robot

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on June 6, 2007

Isaac Asimov was one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. His stories are cerebral and don’t lend themselves to easy film adaptation. So the one movie that was based on his book “I, Robot” should have done justice to his work.

As a movie, I, Robot is not bad. Not great, but not bad. What makes it really bad is that it makes a complete mockery of Asimov’s concepts. The entire body of Asimov’s writing on robots was about robots being no threat to humans. Asimov strove to negate the Frankenstein complex unleashed by Mary Shelley. But the movie takes his concept of the Three Laws of Robotics and completely turns them around. The entire movie is about how robots are a menace.

Very saddening.

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