My friend, Montek Singh Ahluwalia (MSA), Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission that has the responsibility of planning our future, is a very intelligent person. There is abundant evidence of his IQ being sky-high.
Unfortunately, an intelligent person is not necessarily well informed. For example, MSA does not seem to be aware that we have a scientific organisation called the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which also happens to be the oldest research body in India and one of the oldest in the world. It was set up as the Imperial Research Fund Association in 1911. The Director-General of ICMR is also the Secretary of the Department of Health Research in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
The flagship laboratory of ICMR is the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) located in Hyderabad. This institution has from time to time brought out tables of minimum nutritional requirements of Indians. The last publication in this series appeared in 2010 and was titled “National Requirements and Recommended Dietary Allowance for India.” It is used as a reference book all over the world.
According to this publication, the minimum requirements of a moderately active man are 400 gm of cereals, 300 gm of vegetables, 100 gm of fruits, 30 gm of oil, 80 gm of pulses and 40 gm of sugar. In Hyderabad, which is nowhere near the costliest city in the country, the above will cost, as of today, on average, Rs.12.88, 5.22, 2.50, 1.95, 5.60 and 1.52 totalling Rs. 29.67.
MSA has said, even in a submission to the Supreme Court, that if a person spends Rs.32 in an urban area (and Rs. 26 in a rural area) a day on all his requirements, he is not poor. What I have said in the preceding para means that if a person living in an urban area takes care just of his minimum nutritional requirements (with ice cream, cake, laddu and the like totally out of bounds), he would be left with Rs.32 minus Rs.29.67 = Rs.2.33 a day (Rs.69.90 per month or approximately Rs.839 per year) to take care of his requirements of salt and spices, fuel for cooking, house rent, milk, footwear, clothing, transport, education of children, and health care, leave aside any entertainment or even a cup of tea or coffee. Would any reader agree that even for the thriftiest, it is possible to meet the above expenditure with Rs.2.33 a day — Rs.69.90 per month — anywhere in the country? A bus pass for one person for one month in Hyderabad costs Rs.555 (Rs.18.50 a day).
As there is no questioning MSA's intelligence, there is only one conclusion that we can arrive at: that he is unaware of the existence of ICMR, NIN or its publication.
(The writer is a former Vice-Chairman, National Knowledge Commission and Founder-Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. His email ID is firstname.lastname@example.org)
We often hear two contrasting views on the employment scenario. On the one hand, employers cry hoarse about non-availability of talent in the market and, on the other, we hear about millions of youth who are unable to find a well-paid job several years after completing engineering or other professional degrees. A recent survey suggests that over 70 per cent of the engineering graduates in India are unemployable. What ails these graduates or the so-called degree holders? Why are they not suitable for employment?
Let us understand what is meant by suitability for employment. I was transitioning a business process of a large U.K. bank to our office in Chennai during my stint with a large IT company. The process was quite simple. The bank had developed a system for analysing the financial statements of borrowers. The numbers had to be extracted from the statements submitted based on some simple rules and input into the system. The system would process the data and generate the borrower's creditworthiness in the form of a business grade. This business grade was used by the bank's relationship managers to arrive at the credit limit for the borrower or to decide whether to lend him at all.
As part of the transition process, I wanted to know the qualifications and the skill sets of the resources. The bank's project manager told me that some of the resources had completed their tenth grade and most of them were fifth graders. In India, I knew for sure that we would hire very bright commerce and accounting graduates for this process.
This is the big difference. What was being done effortlessly by a fifth grader in the U.K. needed a commerce graduate in India. And, I can't imagine a resource that has passed standard V doing this work in India. It is definitely not the question of thousands of graduates being available in the job market for taking up this job. Corporates will be more than willing to have less qualified resources for doing the job if they can deliver because that would mean a lesser salary burden. We simply cannot train a fifth grader to perform these tasks. In fact, if truth be told, even after hiring some of the brightest minds we barely managed to survive the transition pressures measured by stringent performance criteria.
Does that mean a fifth grader in the U.K. is equivalent to a graduate in India? That is also not true. It is because the Indian education system is inherently flawed due to imperfect delivery of the curricula, an archaic examination system, shortage of skilled teachers, inadequate supplementary reading and the student's inability to correlate theory and practice. “Education does not consist of passing examinations or knowing English or mathematics. It is a mental state,” said Jawaharlal Nehru. In summary, we miserably fail to elevate the thinking capacity and increase the breadth of faculty of the students while imparting education. This failure is deep-rooted and starts right from primary schools and gets compounded at institutes of higher learning.
Of all these issues, I would pick the shortage of quality teachers as the wrecker-in-chief. The reason is quite simple. The teaching profession, barring a few passionate individuals in the IITs, IIMs and some private institutions, is a job for the residual talent in the employment market.
The best engineering talent goes to the U.S. for higher studies and the cream of what remains is hired by the large corporates. After the small and medium enterprises complete the trawling, the leftover is looking for alternative sources of employment. Some of these people park themselves temporarily in teaching professions in private colleges or software training institutes. Over the next few months, they equip themselves with the requisite skills and look for opportunities in the mainstream employment market unless there are compelling reasons to stick to their current job.
There is nothing wrong in this approach because it would be embarrassing for a person to see his students earning two or three times his monthly salary coupled with frequent trips to foreign lands. I may sound blasphemous here, but the reality is we are left with teachers who continue in the teaching profession just because they are not able to find a job elsewhere. It is well-nigh impossible for these resources to inspire the student community in a graduate / postgraduate course. This is a sad and bitter truth confronting the education sector today.
I would also like to touch upon the issue of supplementary reading with a specific example. Gandhiji, during his days in England for his bar-at-law course, meets a person called Fredrick Pincutt. This meeting is sought by Gandhiji himself to ascertain his readiness for practising law. In Pincutt's evaluation, Gandhiji's general reading was very meagre. He says every Indian should know Indian history in detail. He also tells Gandhiji that although this has no connection with the practice of law, he ought to know this because knowledge of the world is a sine qua non for a lawyer. This will help him read a man's character from his face. Pincutt was also surprised that Gandhiji had not read about the First War of Indian Independence. Gandhiji immediately realises the importance of what Pincutt said and humbly accepts that he has not had much supplementary reading.
The reason for highlighting this incident from the Mahatma's autobiography is to emphasise the importance of cultivating the reading habit at a very young age to be successful in life.
I have another anecdote from my U.K. transition experience. We were designing an IT infrastructure to move scanned documents offshore and enable the processing through a workflow system. It was a complex project and we were interacting with a senior software developer to put the design together. He was around 30 and, in my opinion, one of the best software designers that money could buy. Curiosity got the better of me one day and I wanted to know his educational background. He told me that he had completed eighth grade in South Africa and migrated to the U.K. in search of employment. He was working as a courier boy for a year when he underwent software training and built his design skills. I was startled, to say the least. My team of two engineering graduates with three to four years of experience between them was no match for him. There are several such examples I can quote. None of the project managers and senior people that I met during the next two years was a college graduate.
Even after completing the transition, we were struggling to train the floor resources on Management Information (MI) and state-of-the-nation reports. The West had moved forward rapidly in operations management practices and our skill sets were woefully inadequate even for the catch-up work. And we had the floor overflowing with cost and chartered accountants, engineers and management graduates.
I am not trying to build a case for discontinuing our education methodology. Our method of teaching has the highest success percentage in the world in building literacy among people. The West has paid a heavy price for not paying attention to the delivery of education in society. My worry is we are bringing in a kind of under-employment where people do work that is much below the skill sets they are supposed to have. These resources will not be able to go up the corporate ladder and it will be very difficult to give them a career path. Ideally, we would want these graduates to upskill themselves and move up the value chain so that they don't become redundant. The government and society at large have to wake up to the reality that one day an African country might become the world's back office and IT hub and do to us what Bangalore or Chennai did to the western world. Before that, we have to make sure that our education system gets upgraded suitably and can mass produce well-rounded personalities who can take India on the path of glory.
Is it possible that we can ever find the easy way to define poverty? Is poverty about lack of ability or is it of lack of opportunities? Can we quantify poverty and is there a magic number that encapsulates the poverty debate?
Well the planning commission of India is of the opinion that poverty is the lack of cash to be exact of Rs 32/-. Well the planning commission can be so exact because they use a measure that is erroneously based on a price index set up in the 1970s which they interpreted wrongly. In essence the commission is perpetuating an error and even worse believing it. Ever heard of the doctor who made an error in diagnosis and even after knowing that it was an error ended up giving the wrong medicine because he was not ready to check his assumptions . Well the same is the case here.
While you were abroad deliberating on global matters, the Planning Commission filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming that the "poverty line of Rs 25 and Rs 32 (rural and urban areas respectively) ensures the adequacy of private expenditure on food, health and education". The affidavit could not have come at a worse time when food inflation was pushing poor households to the wall even as 60 million tonnes of grain are piling in FCI godowns implying that the government itself is hoarding grain to increase food prices.
The affidavit filed by the Planning Commission in the Supreme Court skirted the two major issues that were raised by the highest court in the country: why there should be a poverty line that determines the BPL "caps" and, a request by the Bench to the Planning Commission to re-consider the poverty line. That the affidavit chose to skirt these two major issues, and chose instead to repeat the stand taken by the Planning Commission in its last affidavit in May 2011 is, we believe, an affront to the poor of this country and also the Supreme Court.
Subsequently, you have gone on defensively to say that the poverty line has no relationship to food subsidy. Yet, all central government allocations for programmes such as PDS, pensions etc are made based on these poverty ratios. Further, after drawing a ridiculously low poverty line you suggest caps on the BPL category as well as a 41 per cent cap on food subsidy which is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps you may explain to the lay public that is spending astronomical amounts on food and health care, what this poverty line is then relevant for, if not subsidies for basic needs.
Your public defense of the affidavit being "factually correct" needs to be examined against some other facts such as India being home to the largest number of hungry people, people without the advantage of education, and the highest maternal and infant mortality deaths in the world. It is also "factually correct" that India is ranked 67th out of 88 countries ranked by IFPRI in the Global Hunger Index and that nearly half of India's children remain under-nourished, twice as many as in sub-Saharan Africa. It also needs to be checked against the fact that the Planning Commission itself has admitted that households at this poverty line are getting 20 per cent less food than they require as per the government's own norms. After years of terming the IMF and the World Bank as the sources of all knowledge for how this country's economy is to be run, you have, we believe misinterpreted the FAO to suggest that the poor need less food than what the Indian government norms state.
Mr Ahluwalia, perhaps you need to reflect more on the fact that during your stewardship of the Planning Commission, India has fallen further behind neighboring and poorer (in terms of per capita income) Bangladesh, in terms of most of the human development indicators.
If Rs 25 for rural areas and 32 for urban areas per capita expenditure was "adequate" then it is not clear to us that why Planning Commission members are paid up to one hundred and fifteen times the amount (not counting the perks of free housing and health care and numerous other benefits that is enjoyed by you and members of the Planning Commission).
We believe that this affidavit is a document, no less historically significant than the "India Shining" campaign that brought the downfall of a previous regime, because it reflected arrogance and contempt for the poor comparable to the views held by the Planning Commission.
Even as we write to you, over the next twenty four hours, close to 3,000 Indian children will die of malnutrition related illness. The current 'revolution' in agriculture has led to nation-wide agrarian distress, and will see 47 farmers committing suicide in India in the next 24 hours. Further, despite your repeated prediction over the last two years on inflation (particularly food inflation) going down, the expertise of the Planning Commission even on that front has been proved wrong. Despite the indisputable intellectual resources at its command the Planning Commission seems to require a reality check; perhaps spending more time in the villages and slums of this country would have achieved that.
The right to food campaign challenges you and all the members of the Planning Commission to live on Rs 25 / Rs 32, a day till such time that you are able to explain to the public in simple words the basis of the statement that this amount is normatively "adequate". If it cannot be explained then the affidavit should be withdrawn or else you should resign.
The Steering group of the Right to Food Campaign:
Anjali Bhardwaj, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey (National Campaign for People's Right to Information), Annie Raja (National Federation for Indian Women), Anuradha Talwar, Gautam Modi and Madhuri Krishnaswamy (New Trade Union Initiative), Arun Gupta and Radha Holla (Breast Feeding Promotion Network of India), Arundhati Dhuru and Ulka Mahajan (National Alliance of People’s Movements), Asha Mishra and Vinod Raina (Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti), Ashok Bharti (National Conference of Dalit Organizations), Colin Gonsalves (Human Rights Law Network), G V Ramanjaneyulu (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture), Kavita Srivastava and Binayak Sen (People’s Union for Civil Liberties), Lali Dhakar, Sarawasti Singh, Shilpa Dey and Radha Raghwal (National Forum for Single Women’s Rights), Mira Shiva and Vandana Prasad (Jan Swasthya Abhiyan), Paul Divakar and Asha Kowtal (National Campaign for
Dalit Human Rights), Prahlad Ray and Anand Malakar (Rashtriya Viklang Manch), Subhash Bhatnagar (National Campaign Committee for Unorganized Sector workers), Jean Drèze and VB Rawat (Former Support group to the Campaign), Harsh Mander.
Representatives of Right to Food (State campaigns):
Veena Shatrugna, M Kodandram and Rama Melkote(Andhra Pradesh), Saito Basumaatary and Sunil Kaul (Assam), Rupesh (Bihar), Gangabhai and Sameer Garg (Chhattisgarh), Sejal Dand and Sumitra Thakkar (Gujarat), Abhay Kumar and Clifton (Karnataka), Balram, Gurjeet Singh and James Herenj (Jharkhand), Sachin Jain (Madhya Pradesh), Mukta Srivastava and Suresh Sawant (Maharashtra), Tarun Bharatiya (Meghalaya), Chingmak Chang (Nagaland) Bidyut Mohanty and Raj Kishore Mishra, Vidhya Das (Orissa), Ashok Khandelwal, Bhanwar Singh and Vijay Lakshmi (Rajasthan), V Suresh (Tamil Nadu), Arundhati Dhuru and Bindu Singh (Uttar Pradesh)
I am writing this price in the beginning of the second decade of the 21st CenturyAD. This piece has been in my mind for some time and I decided to give it a structure before writing . The immediate provocation is the fact that a planet made of crystalline carbon also called Diamond planet has been found near a neutron star in a far away galaxy by our space scientists. My fried asked me if we could take a dumpster and an JCB to it. The other friend remarked if dragging it away with a rocket would do fine.
Well this got me thinking on the following lines. We do not have supersonic aircraft in the civilian sector.The Concorde project scrapped long ago and all the planes just wreckage. NASA has let go of it Shuttle programme and there are no projects to go to moon or mars. Big science with its Saturn rockets, advanced Shuttles seem to be in the line for the breaking ball. What is the attitude that makes Big science seem unnecessary while the latest app in your phone is just too good to be true. It even trims your nose hair.Wow.
The root of this poor attitude seems to lie among policy makers who are not having cold war era contests of bigger and longer, farther and stronger. No Soviets just a bunch of mid income countries struck among declining infrastructure. The outsourced programme of NASA to depend on the workhorse Soyuz and the recent report of a Soyuz falling from the sky are contrasting enough-- efficient budgeting against effective way to reach space.
Beyond the ideas of policy makers, we as individuals are becoming more and more insular and more apt to gaze at our navels in a hypnotic glance. Newer technology is making us insulated from each other not just from society. A whole generation fitted into the tiny and tinier screens of portable music, portable telephones and portable computers. People showing off at the Mall cafes but forgetting that the other person has his own screen. A large gargantuan argus headed monster following friends on the screen but ignoring the immediate surroundings. The friends and people on the internet seem more closer than those next to us, furthering the isolation.
At the heart of this situation is a change in our attitude from Big Social goals to narrow individual achievements. We do not want the Big science that created modern day civilization. Science is an accretive process and we have developed by using old theories and it was a slow process to modern day miracles. The miracles of Chloroform seem tired in todays days of local and specific anaesthesia. The miracle of innoculation seems outdated in the modern day of class 5 antibiotics. But in the movement of science there is accretion leading to todays advancements. We just cannot stop building rockets if we intend to get to Mars or Jupiter in the next 100 or 200 years. We cannot dump technology and expect to build a next generation Saturn Rocket to take us to Mars or even worse face a situation like the movie Armageddon showed of a rogue meteor out to get to earth.
The computing device has changed a lot from the Charles Babbage mechanical calculator to modern day tablet handhelds. With such advancement we should invest more in science that produces the concepts called computers. However we are more concerned with apps that show the nearest movie hall,reminder pads, free audio,free ebooks which are taking us away from the idea of science as a tool of betterment and to the view that technology that relates to our emotions is better.
Image via WikipediaToday was a wonderful summer day in India.Lots of heat, lots of traffic and even more hotheads fighting in the sun. I rode on a bend of the road. I was surprised to see an rickshaw parked on the side and disturbance on the road. The traffic had stopped and there was a hurry as buses and cars were parked. In the middle of the road there was the driver of the rickshaw and another man picking up utensils of steel from the hot road.
The traffic moved on and coming close to the spot we saw a lot of food spilled on the road from large containers - basically large Dabbas. The container of food would have been sufficient to feed a full meal for about 30-35 people.
Crossing the place where the food had fallen off, I thought about whose mistake it was all about. The maker of the food did not do any mistake in the quantity or the quality. The one who packed must have packed it the way he must have done it everyday. Packed it properly so that the food would be edible after an hour.
The one who was taking the food to the waiting people drove the rickshaw mindlessly and the food fell on the street for no one to eat. This was waste created by sheer mindlessness.
My thought strayed to the challenges facing our generation. Particularly the one of having ever dwindling resources that are not sufficient. We are ever the mindless driver carrying useful food and spilling the road with the resources and this is food that is not useful for the present or the future generations.
This is the warning. Mindless waste is not the path to sustainability