Monday, August 28, 2006

jobs for the time-wasters

There are so many unnecessary jobs in India, and so many of them are paid for by the government, that I thought I'd suggest some useful jobs that aren't being done at present as alternatives.

(1) Queue minders -

Duties: Stands alongside queues at railway stations, prepaid taxi counters, MTNL etc. and ensures that nobody jumps the queue.

Purpose: self-explanatory

Special skills needed: Strong sense of outrage and excellent cursing abilities

Ideally suited for: Old ladies - As demonstrated in China, old ladies are perfect for this job, as well as for spying on their neighbors. Nobody dares push and shove or insult them -- lest they actually motivate the mute crowd to actually DO something. Many of them have collected a vast array of choice insults to use on the culprits. And it puts their general tendency to annoy others to a useful purpose.

(2) Crossing guards -

Duties: Gathers pedestrians at busy crossing points, like bus stops, and stops traffic for them to cross en masse. (Already being done informally with limited effectiveness).

Purpose: Prevent the stress migraines I get trying to dodge the people darting across the road. Oh, and also save lives.

Special skills: Fearless disdain for death and/or invulnerability/imperviousness to vehicular homicide

Ideally suited for: Convicted drunk drivers, flyover-happy MLAs and anyone who owns or drives a Qualis or Sumo. The close proximity to violent death might encourage these characters to mend their ways. Or maybe they'd just die.

Friday, August 25, 2006

knocking down buildings

As Delhi prepares to seal, and potentially demolish, buildings that are zoned as residential and being used illegally for commercial purposes, I have to say the city's leaders are going to a lot of trouble and expense without considering the impact of their actions. Can anybody deny that if Delhi went out and sealed all the businesses operating in space not authorized for commercial use, the city's GDP would drop 20 or 30 percent? They'd be better off sealing the properties that DO have licenses.

So what should be done? Look the other way (again)? Legalize the illegal properties? Yes and no. What is needed is a full analysis of the properties in question to determine which ones have become de facto commercial areas (e.g. South Ex - who would buy a residence on the main road between South Ex part I and part II? Street noise and traffic would soon drive you insane) and identify areas that are still primarily residential but have "nuisance" commercial activity going on. Once that is done, you need a list of properties that divides the illegal buildings into three (or more) categories, including (1) suited for commercial use (2) in need of renovation for commercial use and (3) unsuited for commercial use. Those buildings that are suited for commercial use can then be converted in exchange for a hefty fee to the relevant authority. Those that need renovation would be shuttered until renovations are complete and they pay the same hefty fee, and those that are unsuited for commercial use would be closed down and converted to residences.

Maybe this is oversimplifying, but it strikes me as common sense, and far more sensible than sealing and knocking down buildings before making a plan as to what will happen to the space in the future.

racism in the air?

In light of my recent trip to the US, flown of course on KLM/Northwest because the airline has a direct flight to Detroit, Shailaja and I noted that the KLM crew was rude and sarcastic in dealing with several Indian passengers. At the time, I figured they'd had a long day or week in Delhi--I know I had. But now I'm starting to wonder. Yes, we all know India's airline ettiquette is a little different from Europe's or America's--e.g. here it's totally kosher to press your call button immediately and ask for something like a glass of water or cotton wool when the staff is trying to deal with getting everybody on board. And some behaviors, like trying to clamber through the 3 inches between the seat and the drinks cart, are just plain annoying.

Still, one has to ask if this is another Hair-raising instance of double standard for brown folks, with the stews deciding to teach their habitually unruly passengers a lesson. What say you all -- Are the international carriers racial profilers, or just plain racist? One friend, for instance, claims he NEVER gets the obligatory "buh-BYE."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

why india needs caning

In Jaipur, a group of thugs reportedly grabbed a Sikh boy who had defended a classmate from sexual harassment and cut off his hair. (US readers: the tenets of the Sikh religion require them to refrain from cutting their hair or trimming their beards, wear turbans and carry a small dagger). Now the Jaipuris are calling for the arrest of the louts for what amounts to a hate crime.

My question is - Where is the outrage over garden variety sexual harassment? It happens every minute of every day in every Indian city.

bad taste

A new restaurant called "Hitler's Cross" opened in Mumbai, according to reports. The height of bad taste, the restaurant claims to be "just a place to relax and enjoy good food." A joke? If so, not a good one. And in the city run by Bal Thackeray, a self-professed admirer of the little dictator, maybe not a joke at all. The only good thing that could come of this is that it may gather the knickerwallas and Shiv Seniaks in one place so that the good people of Mumbai can avoid them or excoriate them with withering satire or, as Woody Allen recommends, pelt them with stones.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

this rampart is rising

In many nations, class barriers to college are growing.

By Rana Foroohar

Newsweek International

Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - When students take to the streets, they're usually united against something like war or racism. But when Indian students took to the streets last May they had a different cause. These were children of the wealthy upper castes out to stop a plan to reserve more university places for their peers from poor and lower-caste backgrounds. This was youth versus youth, and they were fighting for the status quo.

Resistance to social-leveling campaigns in higher education isn't limited to India. When a top French Grande Ecole—alma mater of presidents and prime ministers—began giving preferential treatment to poor students, there was an outcry from the upper classes. In Britain, there are fears that efforts by top-tier universities to recruit more students from state secondary schools will dumb down the ivory tower. These controversies say something important about the state of academia: for all the pious attacks on injustice that emanate from universities, the class gap is growing from the United States to Britain, parts of Continental Europe and Asia. The reasons are myriad: state-controlled systems that artificially limit the number of university places, admissions procedures that favor the privately educated, falling financial aid and failing public secondary schools.

The bottom line is that the worldwide boom in higher education is not, in many cases, broadening its reach among the poorest. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have university degrees is rising across the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and exceeds 20 percent in 18 of them. But in nations like Japan and the United States, where education costs are skyrocketing, the typical student comes from a much wealthier background than in the past. At Tokyo University, which has traditionally educated an economically diverse population, nearly half the parents of undergraduates now have incomes higher than $82,500 (well above the national average of about $57,500 for men in their 50s). In the United States, the percentage of students with families making more than $150,000 a year has been rising steadily for over a decade, to nearly 17 percent, while the proportion of those with a family income of $49,000 or less has been declining. A 2003 study of the 146 most selective U.S. colleges found that only 3 percent of students came from the poorest quartile of families, while 74 percent came from the richest.

By some accounts, the class divide is perhaps most pronounced in Europe. The slotting of children into vocational or university tracks continues to limit the upward mobility of many poor kids at an early age. Meanwhile, the relative lack of funding, particularly compared with the United States, means fewer new university slots to accommodate growth in demand. Today, only about a third of all secondary-school grads in the European Union go on to university, and working-class kids are highly underrepresented, especially at elite institutions. In the U.K., where Tony Blair's New Labour Party has made socioeconomic diversity in top schools a key priority, a recent survey found that the share of spots at Oxford that go to state schoolkids (in other words, not rich private-school grads) has fallen 5 percent since 2001.

Politicians and educators everywhere are looking for ways to fix the imbalance. But there's a lingering fear that easing the way for poor kids will bring down the quality of education and, thus, national competitiveness. "My honest opinion is that it is going to be a disaster," says P. V. Indiresan, former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), about the proposed quota system. "No. 1, it introduces a new social tension which we never had in the IIT system before. No. 2, you need certain institutions in a country where you are able to stream the very best talent available. Once you get students of a lower caliber, there will be enormous pressure to reduce to the standard of instruction."

Business leaders second this sentiment, and not only in India. Almost everywhere outside the United States, where affirmative action has long been the status quo, there is resistance to changing admissions to favor the less advantaged. When Richard Descoings, the head of France's prestigious Sciences Po Paris, began aggressively recruiting kids from lower-class backgrounds in 2001, critics lamented the end of blind égalité and privileged students worried that the degree would be devalued. "There were eternal debates on whether this program fit in with the principles of the French Republic," says Descoings, "but nobody asked whether or not it was effective."

In fact, it was; this past summer, the first class of 15 pioneers from poorer suburbs graduated from Sciences Po with respectable results, some near the top of the class. Elsewhere, there's also plenty of evidence that, given a chance, kids from lower-income backgrounds can do just as well or better than others. In the U.K., for example, Sir Peter Lampl, head of the Sutton Trust, an education nonprofit, says that if admissions were based purely on A-level test results, two thirds of students at Oxbridge would come from state rather than private secondary schools. In reality, only about half of them do. "Many poor kids don't have the confidence" to apply to top schools, particularly since graduating secondary school students must apply before they see their test results, says Lampl. And while private secondary academies advise students on how to maximize their chances of admission, even how to target specific departments at certain schools, state-school pupils are left to their own devices. The result, says Lampl, is that top-tier universities in Britain are excluding some 3,000 qualified state-school students every year.
That has major economic implications, given that the wage premium on a top-tier degree has never been higher. According to a number of studies, if going to college increases your earning power, then going to a top university increases it exponentially. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that graduates of top schools in the United States typically earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their lives than similarly accomplished graduates of state universities. Depending on the country, a person with a university degree can command anywhere from 25 to 120 percent more than one without.

Finances are a further burden for the nonrich. As numbers of college applicants rise, costly prep classes, which can run $50 or more per hour, are becoming de rigueur. In the United States, while the absolute amount of aid to university students is up, financial aid is being replaced by merit aid, which favors the middle and upper classes. In Europe, where universities are still tax-supported and practically tuition-free for everyone, the poor get no leg up on the rich, who already have every advantage.

That something must be done is obvious to most nations. Basically, the combination of aging societies and rising demand for tech-savvy workers mean that most rich nations face an emerging shortage of educated labor, one that can't possibly be filled by the wealthy alone. Some solutions are, of course, country-specific. Europeans need to modernize and, to some extent, privatize their university systems so they can better respond to the needs of the market. More flexibility is key; while the United States and Scandinavia offer all kinds of two-year or associate's degree programs, in many parts of Europe and Asia four-year degree courses are the only option. But in Norway, for example, a modular system allows students to balance school with work or family commitments. They can finish courses in their own time, acquiring certificates for specific skills over a period of months, or a year, which can eventually be combined into a degree.

Perhaps the best way to equalize university education is to improve secondary schools in poor regions. In India, the rate of absenteeism in state schools is 25 percent—and that's for teachers. "Poor but talented kids tend to go to impoverished high schools, where parents, teachers and other students are just less interested in learning," says Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation. "What they need is to be around peers who have big dreams—that will allow them to work up to their potential."

In Britain, educators are trying to cultivate those dreams with a new program in which top universities would help identify talented students as young as 11, and help them stay on track to reach elite colleges. The ethos is reflected in Oxford's new recruiting slogan: "It's not where you're from—it's where you want to go." As the need for knowledge workers grows, it will clearly be more and more important for poor kids, as well as rich ones, to go all the way to the top.

With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi, Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

sexing up science

Western educators and industrialists team up to boost engineering's appeal.

By Mac Margolis and Karla Bruning

Newsweek International

Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - With his unkempt hair, halogen smile and soft spot for Tamil poetry, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is not your ordinary national figurehead. The diminutive 74-year-old Indian president seems more like a self-help guru than India's leading technocrat. Though his job in this parliamentary nation is largely ceremonial, Kalam, a newspaper boy turned aeronautical engineer who stewarded India's guided-missile program, has made it his mission to raise his country to glory through scientific scholarship. He travels from school to school, exhorting students to hit the books and excel at science. If they do, he promises, India will be a fully developed nation by 2020. His mantra: "Dream, dream, dream."

By all indications, the budding scientists of India—and elsewhere in the developing world—have taken that advice to heart. Enrollment is soaring at engineering and technical schools throughout Asia. India claims to produce more than 300,000 engineers a year—three times the number in the United States. By some estimates, China turns out twice as many engineers as India, while South Korea produces nearly as many engineers as the United States with one sixth the population. Skeptics say the numbers are exaggerated. But even discounting for official hype and inconsistent academic standards, it's hard to miss the new geography. Legions of engineers from Asia's emerging-market nations are vying for—and winning—contracts, customers and patents in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. According to a recent report by Booz Allen Hamilton and Nasscom, India's IT-industry trade group, the offshore engineering industry is expected to surge from between $10 billion and $15 billion today to between $150 billion and $225 billion in 2020. India alone is poised to grab a quarter of the market.

And that's exactly why educators in the wealthiest countries are losing sleep. True, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany—the three engineering titans—still lead the way in technological innovation. A recent study by Duke University showed that while developing countries often inflate the numbers of science scholars, the United States still employs nearly a third of the world's science and engineering researchers, publishes 35 percent of science and engineering articles and generates 40 percent of research and development spending. But in middle and high schools, where the spark of scientific curiosity begins, the majority of students can't be bothered to take advanced math or physics. Enrollment in university engineering programs is stagnating; the dropout rate for graduate engineering students is a whopping 45 percent. "We have a choice: do we want Britain to become a theme park or a hub of business activity?" James Dyson, the British inventor cum entrepreneur, wrote recently in The Sunday Times. "We are on course to shuffle into a sort of residential home for retired great powers."

Now Western educators are shifting their focus from what went wrong with engineering to how to fix it. They are most troubled not by the shortfall of new scientists but by their plummeting caliber of scholarship. Even those who make it through engineering school are not always well prepared; the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis says it often has to retrain science graduates in the company laboratory.

Some institutions are trying to present students with more real-world challenges early on. In planning its curriculum, Dyson's new School of Design Innovation—scheduled to open in Bath, England, in 2008—has teamed up with companies like Rolls-Royce and Airbus to work practical design and innovation problems into the coursework. Other schools are drafting students into community service. Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering dispatched one group of undergraduates to Indonesia to help shrimp fishermen devastated by the 2004 tsunami by building a manually operated aerator for hatchery ponds. Duke junior Lee Pearson spent a month in Uganda for a clean-water project, using a clothes iron to seal water samples and building an incubator out of cardboard and Styrofoam.

Being in the field "teaches you to be flexible and ruthlessly creative," says Pearson. Indeed, Richard K. Miller, president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which graduated its first class in May, says it's crucial to get students to think "outside the box" and work in teams. "Our future doesn't depend on producing more engineers than China. [We] need more innovators," he says. "Engineering is about invention." A number of Olin graduates have parlayed classroom projects into award-winning business plans. One student, in partnership with his grandfather, launched an inter-national company that designs, manufactures and sells supportive seating for meditation.

At younger levels, industries are going out of their way to make engineering—and its components, math and science—more appealing. The Society for Women Engineers recently launched "Wow! That's Engineering?" a high-tech hands-on program that invites middle-school students to play games with gravity, motion and sound. The campaign is aimed especially at young girls, who traditionally have been conditioned to think of math and science as guy stuff—one of the reasons, perhaps, that only 11 percent of working engineers in the United States are women. Another program, "FMA Live! Where Science Rocks," sponsored by Honeywell Hometown Solutions and NASA, sends troupes of hip-hop artists and other professional entertainers into U.S. high schools and colleges across the United States to stage "interactive" skits and demonstrations of basic physics. (FMA stands for Isaac Newton's second law of motion: force equals mass times acceleration.) One routine launches a hapless school administrator across a stage in a futuristic hover chair to collide with a giant cream pie—all in the name of showing the laws of action and reaction. Is it education or show business? "Our culture has changed profoundly," says Tom Buckmaster, president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions. "We have to think of students as you would potential customers, and discover what turns them on."

Behind the hocus-pocus is the conviction that engineering has long had a bad rap. "The misperception of science and engineering jobs as geeky, dirty and dull puts off young people from a bright, exciting and profitable future," says Dyson. That's a stark contrast to the developing world, where science and technology are considered the keys to progress. "When I go to Seoul or Hong Kong, I see signs everywhere for nanotechnology, biotech labs and IT firms," says Florence Hudson, a space engineer and vice president of marketing for IBM. "The developing world's students are hungry for technology. We are not."

Whatever helps break down that resistance, say the experts, is worth trying. "It's an incredibly sexy time to be an engineer," says Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. "Think of the problems science has to solve, like global warming, public transportation, communicable diseases. Yet we still do not have a cadre of professionals prepared to solve them." Engineering's toughest challenge may be to reinvent itself—and the work has just begun.

With William Underhill in London, Jason Overdorf in New Delhi and Corinna Emundts in Berlin

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

boxing: as bad as freelance journalism

Reports that India's boxers--including women's world champion Merykom--received expired checks as reward for recent (and long past) victories got me thinking. Maybe these guys have it as bad as freelance journalists. According to the papers, the sports ministry is "embarrassed" by the snafu.

The kids who are waiting to get paid are doubtless even more upset.

Monday, August 14, 2006

everybody's doing it

Another drunk woman decided to visit the prime minister's residence last night, this time to complain about the recent long power cuts to hit Delhi. Once again, however, the pesky security personnel managed to stop her before she was even able to say Hi, as last months gatecrashers from Jaipur apparently wanted to do.

To me, this is just one more testament to the poor quality of Delhi's nightlife. Goes to show also that Manmohan is too damn nice. You don't see anybody showing up on Sonia or Lalu's doorstep, though those visits seem more glamorous and amusing, respectively. Manmohan gets no respect.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

my geek side

FedEx just arrived with a special delivery from VC-impressario Ramanan Raghavendran (who I hereby out as a geek to the nth power--using a geek metaphor no less). Yes, it was the complete works of Iain M. Banks, the sci-fi writers' sci-fi writer, or maybe even the sci-fi writers' sci-fi writers' sci-fi writer. I will not resurface for several months....

Saturday, August 05, 2006

lady in the water

Just when you thought "The Village" was the dumbest script ever, good ol' Night comes out and tops it. Yes, kids, "The Lady in the Water" is the dumbest movie in history. Moreover, it is pretentious at the same time. I was so stunned that I stayed for the whole thing. And I kept thinking, "Night broke up with Disney for this! For this!" The only good thing about it was the unintentional comedy of Night's role as the unrecognized genius who's writing a political treatise called "The Cookbook." Clearly, this is how he envisions himself after nobody recognized the brilliance of "The Village." It almost makes me want to watch the (unintentionally) hilarious beginning of "Lady" again, to see the little stick figures of "man" and the water creatures and hear the inane story of how "man" has always fought wars.

No, I said "almost." I said "almost." Stop! No, please, stoooopppppppp!

looking at the numbers

In a continuing effort to clean up the cutting room floor over here, I'm giving you some of my notes below on (again) education quotas. I've drawn heavily from an article by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, who is also quoted from a brief telephone interview, which appeared in Economic & Political Weekly.

Check out also today's Indian Express for the page 1 story confirming Deshpande's argument that "merit" has been fetishized beyond reason in India's hyper-competitive admissions process.

Here's my stuff:

...To be sure, there are some legitimate reasons for concern about a scheme that proposes such a dramatic expansion of the quota system. Business leaders have argued that a program they characterize as a wholesale abandonment of merit-based education will undermine India's present advantage in software and engineering, stifling its rise as a “knowledge-process outsourcing” hub--only to draw criticism from activists who charge that these statements themselves suggest their authors have not abandoned outdated opinions of the lower castes. Others have drawn attention to endemic problems in the primary and secondary education system, where vast disparities exist between top private schools and execrable government-run institutions where teacher absenteeism runs as high as 25% and only half the teachers are actively involved in teaching when they are at work, according to a World Bank study. With these conditions, and a dropout rate that is perhaps as high as 50% among the OBCs targeted by the program, say critics, where will the students for the reserved university seats come from? Still other critics say the program will benefit the so-called “creamy layer” of OBCs, who were not terribly burdened by the caste system and have already achieved better than average economic status, while doing nothing to help other underpriviledged groups, such as the Muslim minority and the rural poor.

“It [quotas] is ok for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” says Amulya Ganguli, a senior journalist who has written extensively on the debate. “Because they were historically discriminated against. Nobody ever complained about reservations for them, because it was widely recognized that they had suffered immensely. But the OBC thing showed the false lines of this system. Now they want reservations in [employment in] the private sector also, which would have ruined any economic progress India is making. Then the private sector would emulate the public sector [sinking into greater and greater losses due to inefficiency].”

In all the talk of merit and the almost-mythical “rich OBC,” however, one thing that has received little attention are the very real numbers that demonstrate the extent to which upper caste Hindus—which make up only a small fraction of the population—dominate higher education and professional fields. According to calculations based on the National Sample Survey Organization's 55th round survey of 1999-2000, SC/STs, OBCs and Muslims are far less likely to achieve college and graduate degrees than upper caste Hindus. Only a little more than 1% of rural SC/STs and Muslims and 2% of OBCs are college graduates, compared with 5% of upper caste Hindus. In urban India, only 11% of STs, 5% of SCs, 6% of Muslims and 9% of OBCs are college graduates, while more than 25% of upper caste Hindus have college degrees. To look at it another way, a comparison of each group's share of the nation's college graduates with its share of the over-20 population shows that upper caste Hindus' share of graduates is twice their share of the over-20 population in rural areas and one-and-a-half times their share of the over-20 population in urban areas. Meanwhile, urban SCs' share of graduates is only 30% of their share in the over-20 population, and urban Muslims' share of graduates is only 39% of their share in the over-20 population.

Though it would be wrong to say that the lower castes are poor and upper castes are rich, this disparity in education does result in notable differences in prosperity and power. People of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (the most disadvantaged group) are—as has long been accepted as fact—far more likely to live below the poverty line. Contrary to a similarly entrenched belief, however, the first attempt to measure poverty of the Other Backward Classes (the 55th sample survey mentioned above) suggests that the OBCs live in conditions more similar to the SC/STs than commonly believed. The 1999-2000 statistics show that In rural India, 34 per cent of the OBCs fall below the poverty line compared to 51 per cent of Scheduled Tribes and 43 per cent of Scheduled Castes but only 24 per cent of ``Others''. Similarly, only 6% of OBCs were among the top two categories in monthly per capita expenditures, a figure much closer to the 3 per cent for both the Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Castes than to the 12 per cent for the ``Others''. In urban India, the resemblance of the OBCs to the STs and SCs is more pronounced, and it holds at both ends of the class spectrum. Roughly 43 per cent of both Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are below the urban poverty line compared to 36 per cent of the OBCs and only 21 per cent of the ``Others''. At the other end, 6 per cent of the Scheduled Tribes, 2 per cent of the Scheduled Castes, and less than 4 per cent of the OBCs are to be found in the top two urban expenditure classes compared to 12 per cent of the ``Others''. (Note: this survey foolishly lumped all minorities, including Muslims, which are also underpriviledged, under the rubric “Others”).

And I blab on...