When Good Quality Education Remains a Pipedream

Amidst all sorts of dismal news, this story was such a heart warming read. Little Lakshmi, all of nine years, ran away from home in November, in an effort to study in an ‘English School’.

Luckily for her, it all ended well. She finally got admission in a reputed International School in Bangalore under the RTE act. Which is, of course, wonderful. Of course, she has to travel a long distance, and everything might not be all rosy, but she’s got a chance that she so desperately wanted. And hopefully, this chance will make a huge difference in her life. And seeing her grit, she probably will grab this chance and really soar high.

Having said that, I can’t help wonder if it would have been the case had this case not got media attention. Also, why is the RTE so dependent on private schools? I am all for private schools chipping in, but ‘chipping in’ must be what it is. I can’t help wonder why we can’t have good government schools, so that no child needs to run away, or travel ridiculous distances to reach school. If Lakshmi had a good government school near by, I am sure she wouldn’t have felt the need to run away to a ‘good’ school.

Also, Lakshmi is one among many who yearn for a better education. She was lucky, or more accurately, she tried really hard to change her luck, and succeeded. Many might not, many might not be in a position to, many might not even know that they have the right to something better. And even private schools will have only a certain amount of seats reserved for RTE students. This whole dependency on the private schools would disappear if the government schools are ramped up and made just as lucrative. It makes me wonder why the government seems to be least interested in doing things which will actually make a difference in the long term. That’s it, isn’t it? ‘Long Term’. Why would they be interested in long term benefits when all that matters to them is the shortest of short term ones – the next elections!

All I can really hope for is that good quality education becomes a reality for everyone, and nobody needs to resort to desperate measures to gain access to it.

I am more Indian than you.

When I first came to the UK, I stayed in a bed and breakfast for a month or so. Husband was in India and we wanted to wait till he got here to rent an apartment.

This bed and breakfast was run by a Gujarati family who had emigrated to the UK from Kenya. Their forefathers had emigrated from India long, long ago. One day, I was chatting with him and he said, ‘We are more Indian than you’. I was stunned to hear that. Apparently they believed that they were more Indian than some of us who lived in India because they followed traditions and rituals more than we did. At that time, fresh from India, I found that incredibly funny. Here was a man who has never lived in India, does not visit India much, and yet claims to be more Indian than us.

Just to explain, they had a very traditional lifestyle. His wife wore only saris, and she must have been in her early thirties at the most. The girls in the family were under five, and they would wear only salwar suits. I had never seen such a conservative family in all the years that I lived in India. Most children at that age is allowed to wear frocks or skirts. And even after years of living in the UK, they still had not merged with the mainstream. They lived in a world of their own.

The other day, we were discussing returning back to India. It is one of the most complicated and difficult to resolve issues that we face. When we first came here, I was quite certain that I will always want to be back in India. As we spent time here, and got used to the life here, it got more and more difficult to decide where to settle down. The certainity that was there once, is no longer there. Now we can see pros and cons of life and there and it gets very difficult to decide. So many more factors come into being. Plus the life that we lived in India before we left is definitely not the life we will lead when we go back.

Just as we have moved on, India has too. Even old friends. We cannot just go back and expect everything to be the same. Our friends who chose to stay back would have made other friends, have developed different perspectives, and would be leading a different life(just as we did).

So coming back to the question of ‘Indianness’, if I may call it so. A friend and I were discussing and she said that in so many ways, we are more Indian than people back in India. ‘My daughter knows all her prayers, while people in India don’t even go to temples’. Now, that sounded to me exactly like the Gujarati gentleman we met years ago.

Somebody else mentioned how they were shocked when a child, growing up here claimed that he was ‘British’. To be honest, I wouldn’t  expect anything else. While we still  might be Indians, growing up here, can we really expect our children to feel the same way? While we can educate them about our roots, to expect them to feel the same sort of loyalty or patriotism is not fair, in my opinion. If we choose to live in another country, surely we should have realistic expectations of our children. Is it fair to expect them to be just like you were while you were growing up?

Another friend gave me an example of how one child was brought up so well by her parents that she now knows no English songs and all the Hindi songs. It really makes me wonder how long they will be able to keep her insulated. Surely one day she might pick up a taste for different songs. And why is that bad? Is everything Indian necessarily good? I would not want my child mouthing Munni or Sheila – in any language, for that matter. If we do choose to live in another country, surely we should be in a position to mingle with people there, rather than cling on to our ideas of what our own country people are like?

Even within India, where you are, which part of India you come from will define the way you are. For instance, my cousins who grew up in Kerala are very different in mentality from us, who grew up in a small town. And we are very different from our cousins who grew up in swanky metros. So which part of India do we consider ‘real’ India?  Can we even begin define what is being ‘Indian’? I, for one, sure cannot. Yes, as a parent one parent might consider certain aspects of their culture very important, and might chose to practise it, where ever one might be. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can pick up the good aspects of the culture of the place we choose to live in?

As we discuss all these things, I can’t help wonder why so many of us choose to live abroad when we clearly don’t feel that we fit in? I am proud to be Indian, and at the same time, I don’t feel having non-Indian friends or watching non-Indian TV programmes makes me any less Indian. If anything, I learn from other cultures. I pick up words from other languages, learn of a different way of life.  I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment, with people from different parts of India, I think it was incredibly enriching. I might not be a pure Malayali, as some might say, but I do think the interaction I had growing up, helped me be open to other cultures. A mum(Indian) at Poohi’s school asked me if I had a ‘Tamil’ friends group (she thought I was a Tamilian, for some reason), because they had their regional friends group, and was quite surprised when I said no. I never felt the need to seek out Malayalis and form a ‘group’. I am, thankfully quite happy with meeting people who I gel with – irrespective of where they come from. And I think that is what I would want for my daughter too.

I would want her to be proud of her Indian roots, if we do live abroad, and be comfortable around people from across the globe. To be able to see beyond the colour, race and language divide, like she does now. And the same goes if we go back to India. I would like her to be Indian, rather than a regional person. To be able to absorb the good stuff, leave out what does not work, and be the best you can.

CWG 2010, a grand success..

for our athletes,for Delhi, for our country, as a whole. It was a good 12 days. Glowing reports of sceptics getting converted and India delivering, against all odds. And we are all mighty proud of it.

And now can we please turn to matters that were kept in cold storage until the games were over? I do hope that we have not forgotten the corruption, the money mishandling, the delays, and the general mess that had to be cleaned up at the very last minute.

While we should really be proud of our athletes who did so well, despite the conditions that exist in India, we really need to now turn the focus to the organizers and try to figure out what really went wrong, because clearly lots of things did go wrong. Deadlines were missed, India’s reputation took a banging, and yes things did come together, but surely, it could have been much better. We could have done without all that chaos.

People justify the budget based on the fact that Delhi got such a wonderful infrastructure, the new airport thanks to the CWG. Which is all very good. I just happen to wonder how long this much acclaimed infrastructure will last. If one bridge could collapse, what is the guarantee that more will not? The thought is scary, worrying. More so because when we die, our powers that be are not as bothered as they are when the international attention is focused on them! So if it is not addressed right now, it is more than likely that it will get swept under the carpet and forgotten – completely!

I know a lot of us feel that corruption is a way of life. Several people I have spoken to have mentioned about how, we talk about corruption only when it comes out in the western media. To me, it is not about the western or eastern media. We all know that corruption exists, and more often than not, it gets pushed under the carpet. So when it does come out in the open, I think we all want to grab at that one chance to control it. What is done is done, but by doing an analysis and figuring out how much money has got siphoned off, I really believe, we will be sending a clear message that corruption will not be taken lightly. And that will be a small step in ensuring that a big budget project will not be treated as a money-making exercise by the people in power.

In this case, all’s well, that ends well, does not hold good.  We need to know why we had all those issues cropping up. And if there was no corruption, no money being siphoned off, I am sure our government should have no issues coming out with the numbers, and the explanations for the questions asked.

Edited to add : The govt does seem to be making the right noises –Governement agencies ready to begin CWG probe

Driving to death..

India seems to have got itself the dubious honour being  the world’s road death capital.

I am sure that most of us are not even surprised at it. Apparently, we overtook China in 2006, to become the country with the deadliest roads.

There are so many factors that just add up to these scary statistics, starting from the bottom, the drivers. So many of us on the roads, have licenses that are not properly earned, but ‘procured’. People ‘learn’ to drive/ride as they go. I remember seeing little boys riding their dad’s scooters when we were growing up – people never felt the need to go by the rules and ensure that a child is old and mature enough to handle the vehicle, forget about getting a license the correct way.  Then again,  if you do try to do everything the right way, you could probably forget about reaching your destination, any time in the near future.  One of my cousins was quite a careful and polite driver. A couple of years back, we saw a huge transformation in his driving method, apparently being a nice guy in the traffic does not help.  Every body is in a hurry, every body tries to inch one bit closer when the lights are red, resulting in a big jam when the lights are green. I remember autos squeezing into a tiny bit of space between two massive trucks. God forbid, the trucks move sideways even a bit.

Then of course, there is the issue with the way our ring roads and flyovers are constructed. It almost looks like the planner don’t seem to think ahead. I remember a flyover in Bangalore, which was meant to reduce the traffic congestion on the road, but the entry and exit from the flyover was so bad, that it hardly helped. The congestion just moved from one place to another. Makes me wonder about how these are planned. Almost every high-speed ring road has pedestrians crossing on foot, as it takes their fancy. We cannot even blame them, because they have no other option. There are no underpasses or over head footpath to help them cross, so what option do they have? I remember being scared to death when a family decided to run across the road(a high-speed highway) right in front of our car. Thankfully, the driver managed to swerve and not hit anybody/anything. But the fact that this sort of thing is done and is acceptable is the sad part. Not every body would be as lucky. If the driver could have hit another car, so many things could go wrong, when something like this happens. Apparently it does not make financial sense to build underpasses or walkways. Does that mean that human life is so under-valued that it does not matter if a few people die on the streets?

Do our traffic policemen really fine drivers at all? Most people recount of how they catch you and you are let off with a bribe . They are, apparently, extremely reluctant to fine people the proper way. So how can we really get the people to follow rules when the rules themselves are not properly enforced?

Here, there is a part of a ring road I pass regularly. They had recently added traffic lights after somebody was killed crossing it. Somebody (from here) was lamenting that it took a person to be killed for them to introduce lights there.. I just wished that at least people getting killed on our roads would propel our governments to action to try to manage our roads better..

26/11 – Hope against hope

26/11. The day which shocked us all like never before. Far, far away from India, I sat transfixed, watching the horror unfold in front of me.

Millions across the world did the same, felt the same outrage, came out in different ways to express how they felt…

Outpourings of grief, anger and outrage everywhere..

So many brave people of India, scarificed their lives, saved lives without thinking twice about their own safety..

But did it change anything? Has 26/11 changed anything in reality or are we just waiting for another, more shocking. more horrifying version of 26/11 to happen before we get pushed into action. Have we all gone back to our cozy lives after the initial shock wore off? Have we, in reality forgotten what happened a year back.. Apparently, South Mumbai where most of the attacks took place, had a really low voter turnout – have we as voters forgotten our responsibility too?

Just when I thought it could get no worse, I saw that our govt had spent 31 crores to keep Kasab alive! What a monumental waste of money.We have seen all kinds of tamashas in this trial.  What should have been an open and shut case, has dragged on for a year. What with the Shiv sena threatening the lawyers who were to represent him and all that. Surely, why do these political parties forget that justice is simply being denied by all these unnecessary political dramas? What did it all achieve? Yes, am sure they got some political mileage – but the real cost is the 31 crores and justice that has been delayed for so many victims and their families. Makes you wonder if all the valour with which our forces fought the terrorists were wasted. Makes you wonder if the Ajmal Kasab trial will go the Lieberhaan way and take 17 years  before it is completed?

For a country to be a position to ensure it’s security, from both internal and external elements, one of the key things is to make an effort to reduce the corruption levels. With reports of how Hemant Karkare’s bullet proof vest is missing – it just reinforces the fact that we have corruption at the highest levels. If our government officers and those in the government are not accountable and responsible – what hope do we have to ensuring that our country is safe from terrorists?

While I do understand that countries like America have an intrinsic advantage of geography, but surely, given that we are more vulnerable and our neighbourhood more troubled, we have to go that extra mile. I guess, all we can do is hope (against hope?) that we never see a 26/11 attack again..

Too dangerous to walk?

According to a recent survey by the WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF), Mumbai ranks the highest on the walkability index, while Delhi is a ‘pedestrian-unfriendly city’.

It is quite amazing that in a country where 40% of trips do not involve motor vehicles, our major cities are still so walking unfriendly. Most of our cities do not have well planned for pedestrian crossing or subways.  I remember while driving down a highway, a rather new high-speed highway, suddenly, two people jump onto the road and peacefully cross the road, unaware of how much we had to brake, to slow down. We were amazed at their courage, but then, that is the only way they could cross it. There are hardly any underpasses or bridges to help people cross. So we see people, cattle, and everything else on the so called high-speed roads.

Both husband and I love walking. We used to walk a lot when we were in Bangalore. A couple of years back, in Bangalore during our holiday, we decided to walk to somewhere. We ended up being jostled, pushed and finally hailed an auto – it was just not worth the trouble. For the amount that the population has increased, the pavements seem to have shrunk. Roads have been widened at the cost of pavements for pedestrians.

The other day, I met a young Indian man, who was telling me that he was a planner of roads, motorways here, in the UK. So,  I joked that he is really needed in India, that we need a lot of planning there and he told me, that there was no job for him currently in India. He hopes that in five years time or so, they would understand the need for such intense planning, right now, there was no demand. Stunning, isn’t it? I would have thought that they should be in great demand, with so much of infrastructure work going on.. Or is it just that our authorities prefer unplanned work – makes it easier to commission a new phase of development, when this one cracks? Why plan long term, when short term is more lucrative?

My biggest blessing..

is my little girl..

My daughter gave husband and me a ‘gold star’ each. Mine was for cooking her breakfast, and his was for feeding her 🙂

She gives us so much joy in so many ways, and these little gestures just make me want to gather her up and hug her for ever. We have so many dreams for her, biggest of which would be for her to have a happy fulfilling life, for her to be able to achieve everything that she sets out to do..

Would I have loved her more if she had been a boy? Does the gender make any difference for us parents? I would like to think not. Though, I always wanted a girl, I am sure that if we had a little boy, we would have taken equal joy in his antics, have the same aspirations for him, treat him just the same as we treat her. Why then, do we, as a society, set so much store by the gender of a child?

Though we worship the female form in the form of Durga, Lakshmi , Saraswati, we don’t think twice before aborting a female foetus..

Though we are claim to be more spiritual than the materialistic West, we pray for sons, for purely materialistic reasons..

Though, we are progressing in so many ways, we still have a heavily skewed gender ratio, with illegal gender determination clinics flourishing.

That people still assume that a having a daughter is a ‘sad event’ in one’s life.

Today, is supposed to be Daughter’s Day.  Apparently, sex selective abortions have resulted in ten million women being missing from the Indian population. Where sex determination is not possible, infanticide is practiced. And it is not the rural or poorer strata of society where the gender gap is growing – it is in the richer(and educated) classes that the gender gap is growing. So much for education and awareness.

All I want to hope is that a day will come when a daughter is not a curse, that people will not need to console parents who have daughters. A daughter will not be a liability- just a cherished child. When we just don’t pray to goddesses, but also treat women and girls with the dignity they deserve, not as unwanted members of the society.

A day will come, when son or daughter, we would be equally happy. Son, or daughter, will have the same opportunities. When girls will not be killed even before they are born. When daughter’s days will not be a reminder of how dire the situation of a girl child in India is.

Selective Freedom?

In the heart of our democracy, the parliament, MPs have objected to people  using English to reply to questions ‘despite being fluent in’ Hindi.

This is something that really irritates me. Does a person not have the right to speak in any language that he is comfortable in? Surely there are translators in the Lok Sabha. Why create an issue over language? Is it really democratic to behave this way?

Not just this, talking in Hindi is considered ‘patriotic’ and in English or any other Indian Language is considered ‘unpatriotic’ by many. Why? Is our Indianness so narrow that we define it by one single language? If somebody is comfortable speaking in English(or any other language) and the other person has the means to understand it – what is the issue? I understand if the MP was addressing public who understands only Hindi and he happened to speak in English. But in the parliament? So are we free to talk any language – as far as it is Hindi?

To me, this is as bad as the show of chauvinism by some states in rejecting Hindi totally. Why can’t we just accept the differences we have and learn to live with it.. accept that people may speak different tongues, different dialects, follow different religions.. and still remain as Indian as one can be? Why make such a huge issue of language, when we have so many, many more important and pressing issues to be debated upon?

Edited to add : For more information on the languages that can be used in the Lok Sabha –

Edited to add : This link, thanks to Indyeah, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/minding-our-languages/300936/0. It makes a lot of things clear..

Playing favourites..

The other day, before the Rail budget was announced, we were watching NDTV and the news anchor was telling us how West Bengal is looking forward to the Railway Budget, because ‘traditionally’ , the state from which the rail minister hails, gets a lot of benefits.. new trains, station improvements and all..

Both husband and I were quite surprised to hear about that ‘expectation’. That, it is perfectly acceptable for a Railway Minister to favour the states that they hail from! Why? I mean, it just does not make sense to me. Firstly, why should that expectation be there   and secondly,  why should it be accepted as normal!

Would we be just as happy if the Prime Minister announced some ‘extra’ schemes for the region that he came from? Or if a CEO of a company said that he would hire 50% of his employees from a particular region? Or if a project manager in a company decides to staff his team with people from his area? Won’t we all be appalled and disgusted at that? Then, why is it so acceptable for a Union Railway Minister to favour his/her state?

Isn’t it at odds with the ideas of democracy where every body is equal.. Shouldn’t Union ministers be thinking of the whole of India rather than making sure that their constituencies/states get some benefits from their stint at the centre? If they did want to do some good for their constituencies – surely, there are other ways of going about it.. When in positions  in the Union Government, should the focus not be entire India instead of their home states?

What we learn with pleasure we never forget.

What we learn with pleasure we never forget.
-Alfred Mercier

Scene 1

Friend 1: The syllabus here is so bad. My daughter is learning nothing in school

Me : Is it? She is in nursery, isn’t she?

Friend 1: Yes, and in India, she would be learning spelling and writing and everything.

Me:  But, she is quite young isn’t she? She is not even 4.

Friend 1: All they do is sing and play.. Take them on farm visits – no proper studies! I have brought the syllabus books from India and I teach her in the evenings.

Scene 2

Friend 2 : My daughter is enjoying school a lot here. She used to be terrified of school in India(They just relocated to UK).

Me:  ‘She was just in KG wasn’t she?’

Friend 2: ‘Yes, but they had started teaching them properly. They expected them to start writing and there was a lot of criticism if the children could not do spellings. I find that my daughter picks up things much faster here because she is not under any pressure.’

Me: ‘Oh – that’s a different view. Most people I have spoken to talk about how little is taught here.’

Friend 2:  ‘That was what I used to think too.. Until I saw the difference. Here they encourage imaginative play, let them think, let them grow into their personalities, instead of a fixed syllabus. I think the initial years here are quite good.’

I had been having a lot of discussion earlier, to figure out how much of a difference there is , between the school systems in UK and India. Since we are clear that we do want to go back and live in India – the question just was ‘what was the right time to do so’ . And to be honest, even after all the conversations that I have had, it is still quite a confusing subject for me.

The Advantages of the system here that I hear of is,

  • It is a more relaxed way of learning.
  • Children learn important life skills through the structured ‘play’
  • Children are allowed to develop at their own pace.
  • No tests

And these very points translate into disadvantages

  • It is too relaxed. There is no pressure on the children to excel, no homework
  • Not enough ‘teaching’
  • Children are not ‘pushed enough’
  • no tests – so we can never be sure of how the child is actually performing.

All this just adds to my confusion. I want my daughter to enjoy her childhood. I am not quite sure if forcing her to study is the best way. Isn’t it better for her to get interested in subjects that be forced to ‘learn’ stuff. I hear parents talk about -‘which child likes to study? No child will study unless they are forced to!’ But is that really true? Do we need to be forced to study? Is that getting an education or just learning by rote? Are we missing the point somewhere? Isn’t it better to get the child to actually enjoy studies than make it something to dread and worry about?

It all just makes me wonder about what is the perfect balance? How do we ensure that children get the best possible education, they understand the value of education and at the same time are not under undue pressure to perform and remain competitive in a healthy way?  It is so important to get the balance right, isn’t it? I have heard about children here who get no encouragement from parents though they are brilliant in studies. Apparently teachers sometimes have to convince parents to encourage their children to take up exams. That is another end of the spectrum, I guess. I always hear people saying that children studying in UK  are not ‘pushed’ enough, not forced to study.

When I was growing up, I remember that until I was in Class 3, my mother used to keep an eye on my studies. Then, my brother developed some medical complications so both my parents could not really concentrate on my studies. Surprisingly, that year, I performed so well, that I was given an award for exceptional improvement – an Enid Blyton book which totally made my day – but that is another story for another day 🙂 From an average student, I jumped to being a good student. So I used to joke with my parents that I do better without supervision – and they left me to my devices since then. I was always told that they were around if I needed them for any clarifications – but they wouldn’t check if I did my homework or stuff like that.  And I think I liked it that way. I remember visiting a friend once to find her flanked by both her parents – busy teaching her. And I remember even at that age thinking -‘ I am so lucky that I am allowed to be independant’. And I did well all through.

That did not mean that  I was not competitive. I was fairly competitive. I knew what I wanted. I knew that I had to get into engineering , so I think I had my goals set out – without it anybody pushing me to things. Again, that might have been because of the environment that I was brought up in. Maybe, somebody from a different background might need more active guidance from teachers or parents.

What really worries my these days is how much more parents are competitive about studying, and education, extra curricular activities.. etc. One of my friends was relating to me about how, when she took up Abacus instructor training in India, she found parents forcing children to take up Abacus simply because it had become a ‘status symbol’! They wanted their children to do it – simply because all their relatives and friend’s children were doing it too! Apparently the teachers had talked to the parents quite a few times that their children were not interested in it – but they just refused to listen! While I hope that parents like these are exceptions, isn’t it horrible, that they exist at all? Isn’t it better to put our children in classes or extra-curricular activities that they actually enjoy? And is not perfectly alright, if for some reason the child is not interested in any such activities?

‘Why , why, is there, this big pressure to conform’

Is conforming to what society expects all that important? I wonder how I will react if my daughter comes up and says that she wants to take up something obscure. Something that might not draw the big bucks? Will I then get off my high horse and tell her that all her dreams mean nothing? That what she wants, has no future at all? I certainly hope not.

I have hopes that by the time she grows up, things will change. We will have more opportunities in India, which is beyond performing extremely well in academics. I have hope that performing well in academics is not linked to rote learning. That everything is not judged by parameters of failure or non failure. That the ‘so-called’ professional degrees lose their importance- that they become just another career. That a degree is not assumed to be an ‘education’.

Which is why, Kapil Sibal’s ideas for education – makes me glad. For a change, we have an education minister who is actually talking about policies that make sense, instead of just changing the syllabus to suit their ideology or changing symbols, left right and centre . He talks of having common entrance exam should determine college admissions, plans of getting rid of exams totally, eventually, he talks about foreign investment in education and of increasing opportunities. I am not sure how much will happen in this term – but it makes me happy that somebody has taken notice of children committing suicides because of exam results and the huge pressure that Indian children seem to be under. He talks like someone who has analysed the issues with our education system and wants to make it better!

Education is not the filling of a pail,
but the lighting of a fire.
Wiliam Butler Yeats

I think, that is what we need to remember – to light the fire, not just fill the pail!

PS : Kapil Sibal’s interview in which he details out his plans.