Posts tagged policy

What is the purpose of education? A discussion in the context of India

Coming a day before Guru Purnima – an important Hindu and Buddhist occasion to acknowledge the importance of your teacher in your life – this post is quite apt in its timing. Recently, some public figures in India made statements that made me quite uneasy. These comments were to the following effect:

IndianSchoolSome of these statements were taken out of context (see below). However, these statements got me thinking. What IS the purpose of education anyways? and is English really a culprit?

A brief Google search leads me to the following “goals”:

  • To prepare children for citizenship
  • To cultivate a skilled workforce
  • To teach cultural literacy
  • To help students become critical thinkers
  • To help students compete in a global marketplace

Yes, education is supposed to attain these goals. However, I believe the primary function of education is to achieve two objectives:

  • Make a man capable of asking questions
  • Impart him the ability to seek answers

Everything else is secondary and arises from the satisfaction of these two objectives. Is nation-building the most important task of education? It is, in terms of policy. But from the point of view of the student, it definitely is not. The purpose of education is simply to make the student aware of the world around him and give him the ability to go beyond what is already known through his own synthesis. This may include asking questions about how the country is being run and what crop to plant in a given season to finding cures for cancer. In terms of policy, education is supposed to create responsible, patriotic citizens with a love for the country and awareness of its civil structure. Sadly, it is true that the Indian education system has failed even from a policy perspective.

In addition, I believe that India, today and over the past, has also failed miserably in satisfying the primary  objectives of education. Hence, we have hundreds of thousands of students graduating our colleges, but hardly a fifth of them being actually employable. Our failed education system is the reason why only 1 or 2 Indian universities (out of 11,000!!)  end up being recognized among the top 200 in the world, and why Indian high-school students fail to make a mark in any international test of learning performance.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be distilled wisdom of the ages.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be the distilled wisdom of the ages.

Why has it failed? In my opinion, one of the culprits, relevant in the context of this post and Guru Purnima, is the belief that Gurus and elders should be respected, never questioned and obeyed faithfully – because they know best! One of the popular shlokas recited by every school student goes like this:

Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshat Param Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namah

 

 

— (Skanda Purana, Guru Gita by Sage Vyasa)

which equates the teacher to the all powerful trinity of Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The Guru is the supreme God. The student should worship and pray to him with all his heart.

Even today, rote learning and marks and grades are given more value than imparting “real education”. The priorities and the purpose of education, sadly, is not clear.

A system based on adherence to Guru’s teachings, on faith in elders and scriptures or that based on rote learning can never foster critical thinking, unless the Guru himself encourages such behavior. Even the first objective of education has not been satisfied by the Indian education system!

But lets assume that that objective is indeed satisfied. You don’t need English to gain the ability to ask questions. Traditionally, we have had great thinkers who have tackled serious questions on philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, physics etc., without the knowledge of English. So, yes, for the first objective, English is not needed.

But what about the second objective? The thinkers and scientists of yore – Patanjali, Kanad, Aryabhatta, Susruta – did remarkable things. But they could only succeed because they knew the prevalent language of their day – Sanskrit. Just like that, if you don’t know English today, you can ask all the questions you want but you will be extremely limited in your ability to seek answers.

That too depends on the field. If you want answers related to philosophical questions, sure, India has more literature on that than any nation on the planet. However, you will never know what Plato said or what Popperian science is or how philosophy is being reinterpreted in the light of neurological discoveries. If you want to get into political science, you might learn the teachings of Chanakya and views of our eminent freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak on how the government should be run, but you will not know how Magna Carta came into existence, why democracy is the prevalent political system of today and how United Nations operates. If you want to know about science, forget about it if you don’t know English.

Percentage of people who speak English in each country of the earth (2013)

Thus, I argue that in today’s world English is the most important, if not the ONLY means to achieve progress. Now someone might say, “Hey, China manages to progress without English! South Korea and Japan do it! Why should WE bow before the Western world?” Well, that’s a fallacious argument in the first place. China educates its people in Mandarin, but the people who hack into computers of the NSA or those who build turbines and design massive buildings cannot do it without learning more from books or from the Internet which are English-based systems. They may translate those books into Chinese, but that cannot argue against the fact that English is the absolute medium for information transfer today.

History is witness to the fact that civilizations have progressed only with the influx and exchange of new ideas. Civilizations that failed to encourage new thoughts and failed to encourage sharing of ideas ended up as closed and insulated, and finally perished. If we end up keeping our children from English, espousing regional languages over English for the sake of nationalism and place a priority on the study of our ancient scriptures over modern scientific knowledge, then we risk cultural stagnation.

I should make it clear that I am not suggesting regional languages should be thrown in the back…it is absolutely important to know your roots and your culture to be a responsible citizen of the country. This is just an argument for why English should not be thrown in the back.

Finally, about the statement that English ends up corrupting our minds…well, as usual, it was twisted by the media. The context of that statement was different (see video below, starting at 6:10), but I still have issues with some statements in that speech, which I will leave for discussion on another day.

 

 

 

 

 

Independence Day special: Why India shouldn’t have existed

An artistic rendition of the Indian flag

Today, as we celebrate our 66th Independence Day, it’s important to note that India is an unlikely country, a nation that should not have existed!

India is the oldest continuous human civilization in the history of this world. Our history dates back to ~4000 years BCE and some of the traditions established in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (eg: Lord Pashupati who is now Lord Shiva) are still being followed 6000 years hence. On the other hand, other civilizations (excluding the Chinese) such as the Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, Roman, Greek civilizations collapsed, only to remain alive in buried artwork and erected monuments. The other great historical civilization – the Chinese – despite having to experience frequent wars, has enjoyed a relatively high level of stability over the past six thousand years. Most of the fighting in China has been internal and very few external conquerors like Genghis Khan tried to claim China. On the other hand, the Indian civilization has sustained despite centuries of warfare and attacks.  the history of India is peppered with foreign invasions – from Alexander, the Great to the British.

And India hasn’t needed foreigners to attack the country…we have been fighting a lot amongst ourselves for the past six thousand years. Here’s a list of some of the major kingdoms who have ruled different parts of India over the past six thousand years. The following information has been gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on History of India:

  • ~1000 BCE: The 16 Mahajanapadas of the Vedic period –  KasiKosalaAngaMagadhaVajjiMallaChediVatsaKuruPanchalaMatsyaSurasenaAssakaAvantiGandhara, and Kamboja
  • ~500 BCE: Consolidated 4 kingdoms around the time of Gautam Buddha – Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala, and Magadha
  • 322-185 BCE: The largest empire in the history of India – The Maurya Empire
  • 230 BCE – 300 CE: The Middle Kingdoms of India – Sunga, Satvahana, Kharavela, Kushan, Chola, Pandyan, Gupta, Chalukya
  • 700 CE – 1200 CE: The late Middle Kingdoms – Vijaynagara, Chalukya, Rashtrakita, Sena, Pratihara, Hoysala
  • 1200 CE – 1800 CE: The Islamic Sultanate – Khilji, Sultan, Thuglaq, Mughal, Tipu Sultan, Nizam, Shahi (Islamic), Maratha, Rajput, Sikh (non-Islamic)
  • 1800 CE – 1961 CE: The Western rulers – British, Portuguese, French

 

And despite all this infighting we continue to thrive as a nation. And it’s not just infighting between kingdoms. India has 30 officially recognized languages and 1652 dialects. We have people from three human races – Caucasian, Dravidian, Mongol – living in our country. We have people from almost all major religion living in India. Indians are also divided by an intricate caste system – we have several dozen castes and sub-castes in India. Each state, each linguistic group, each caste, each region has its own cuisine. Some people argue that the human diversity in India is only comparable to the continent of Africa!

Different colors, same feeling

We fight a lot and there is no reason India should have existed given such diversity and infighting, but still we have managed to stick together for the past 6000 years. Why? What makes us special than all the other empires that could not withstand the test of time, despite a large homogeneity? I think the following may be some of the reasons:

1) Common cultural experience

There are 1.6 billion Indians today, some of them far away from their lands, like me. However, all of us – whether we are from South India or North-East India or North India – are bound by a common cultural experience. India has been overwhelmingly Hindu. Today, 85% of Indians are Hindu who share deities, mythological stories, customs and traditions. We have all been told of the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the whole world is a family! Hinduism believes in multiplicity of gods and beliefs and thus has offered refuge to any and every religious belief that entered its land. Even Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains had Hindu ancestors at some point or their religions are closely associated with Hinduism. This creates an unparalleled cultural history, an experience which no other nation on this planet can boast of!

2) Caste system

From its establishment in the early post-Christ years, Islam has grown to become the second largest religion in the world! It has spread from all over the Middle East to Northern Africa to Central Asia to Southeast Asia. However, despite being ruled for 600 years, India couldnt become an Islamic state. Why? People might find some explanations in having large-hearted Mughal rulers like Akbar, whose Sufi leanings helped patch up relations between Hindus and Muslims, or resistance in the form of local Hindu rulers like the Rana Pratap and Shivaji Maharaj. However, an important factor that may have contributed here is the caste system. Members of the lower castes may have been predisposed to convert to Islam in the medieval ages, just like Buddhism. However, the caste relations among communities were so strong that once a religion was associated with a particular strata, the other castes wouldn’t want to embrace it. Even now, there are castes among Muslims and Christians. Despite it being an overall bane for India, the caste system may have unwittingly contributed to keeping India Hindu over the middle ages, thus keeping our cultural memory intact.

Times of India front page on 15 August, 1947

3) Partition

I really think the partition of India was one of the best things that happened to this country. The extremist Muslims of the Muslim League, who couldnt bear to live in a multi-cultural society, who were filled with hatred and were prepared to go to any lengths to split Pakistan from India went to Pakistan, while the moderate Muslims, who realized the fallacy in the Muslim League approach, decided to stay and contribute to India. When the Indian National Congress approved the partition plan, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (the Frontier Gandhi), an opponent of the partition, famously told the INC, “You have thrown us to the wolves!”. Moderate Muslims like Zakir Hussain, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Abul Kalam Azad chose to stay in India. Since the foundation of Pakistan was based on extremism and hate, no wonder the nation had had to suffer such a tumultuous, unstable leadership.

4) Language-based states

For the first time since the Maurya empire 2000 years ago, India in 1947 extended from the Indus river to Myanmar. Some 450 million souls in the 1950s were looking forward with hope. Most of the newly created countries in the past 50 years have suffered extremism and anarchy post Independence – take a look at our conjoint twin Pakistan! India thrived, and one of the primary reasons was a stroke of genius by our founding fathers, especially Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar! The Constitution of India was a remarkable document, which allowed each linguistic group to have its own identity and its own kingdom. The states were allowed to thrive as semi-independent entities – each given a charge of their own fortunes and fates. This remarkable division may have stopped several more decades of infighting between linguistic groups.

The chaotic democracy in India offers voice to thousands of ethnic and community interest groups in the country.

5) Democracy

The Emergency of 1975 as well as the mini-uprising post Anna Hazare’s unceremonious arrest in 2011demonstrated the enormous importance Indians place in democracy. Despite the pitfalls of the system, despite corruption, democracy is a thread that binds every Indian together now. The value we place in democracy has increased many folds over since the advent of the Internet, with government’s efforts to curb Internet freedom and the ease of propagation of information and ease of organizing over the web. The four pillars of our democracy – Legislative, Executive, Judiciary and Press – have severe endemic problems, but there are enough good people at every level in the system to keep it running efficiently. The role of NGOs – the 5th pillar of our democracy – has been crucial in this regard. Representation of the common man wouldn’t have been possible in absence of a democratic society.

 

Today, as we celebrate the 66th Independence Day, India is fraught with problems. The problems are compounded by an ever-burgeoning population, limited resources, climate change and destruction of our natural heritage. We cannot rest on the laurels of our past successes. Today, we are proud of our country because our ancestors strove to leave a country fit for their future generations to live. The challenges of this generation are enormous, but we must also strive to leave our children and our grandchildren a better India.

 

Happy Independence Day!

India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 3

Seven steps to energy stability

Read Part1 here

Read Part2 here

Over the last two weeks (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), I reviewed various sources of energy which form the backbone of India’s energy policy. However, what remains to be discussed is where do we go from here? Our country has millions and millions of poor. While cutting back on energy use to stem India’s environmental degradation, we also have to think about lifting these millions out of poverty, providing the children of India a better life with better opportunities. How do we balance economic development with environmental conservation? In this part, I will lay out salient features that, I think, should be an integral part of India’s energy policy.

 

Slums like this in Mumbai have little access to electricity. People survive and run their businesses with stolen electricity, frequently in connivance with officials. (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

1) We need to increase access to energy

Out of the 1.6 billion people in India, 400 million have little or no access to electricity. How can we educate people, teach them computers, provide them good health and good food, make them better-informed citizens without electricity? We need to get out of the medieval age and fast. The 21st century is no place for laggards. India’s energy requirements are supposed to double by 2035. I feel that without (atleast a few) visionary and honest people in state and central power boards, this is a very tall order to achieve. The fact that the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Coal ends up being embroiled in so major corruption cases (Adarsh scam/Coal mining scam) does not give much confidence.

2) Reducing transmission losses and power thefts

According to Central Vigilance Commission, as high as 50% of the generated power never reaches the customers, due to theft and transmission losses. Shockingly, 30% of the loss occurs as theft in connivance with Electricity Board employees. Central and State governments have tried various measures – from using smart meters to awareness campaigns to increasing degree of punishment. But thieves rarely get caught. One solution to this conundrum is massively privatizing the electricity sector (currently at 21% of total capacity). Experience suggests that privatization of utilities (eg: telephone) significantly reduces corruption in that sector. In addition, technological innovations like Smart Meters can help alleviate the theft of electricity.

3) Reducing reliance on fossil fuels

This goes without saying. NGOs all over the world are campaigning governments to go green but in India, the voice is quite subdued. India contributes 4% of world’s CO2 emissions and is the world’s THIRD LARGEST emitter. In March 2010, India’s energy mix consisted of 53% coal, 23% hydroelectricity, 11% natural gas, 3% nuclear, and 10% renewable-energy sources. India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change aimed to bring up the renewables to 15% by 2020, however, that is too low.  We need to satisfy at least a quarter of our energy needs through renewable sources. Government subsidies and private sector investments are needed in the renewables sector if we are to make a mark in this market around the world. Nuclear energy is a good option but needs to be used with great care, especially given our cultural history of “Chalta hai” attitude, bribery of pollution control board officials and lax implementation of punishments.

 

Energy research and innovation is crucial to energy independence. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

4) More money for R&D

India spends abysmally low on research on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. US, for example, spent an average of $3.6 billion on energy research between 1993 and 2006. That’s just federal money. Hundreds of private enterprises likely will have added a few more billions to that amount.  On the other hand, India’s budgetary allocation for ENTIRE higher education in its 2002-2007 five year plan was around $800 million!!!

It is unlikely that India will match this amount in the near future, but the government as well as the private enterprises in India should be spending more on focused research on biofuels, increasing fuel economy, making our coal plants cleaner, making our nuclear plants safer, solar energy and wind energy. Almost all of the innovations in these fields come from the perceived leaders – US, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK.

5) Local energy to reduce costs and transmission losses

The Gujarat government initiated an excellent project for tapping solar energy – they put solar panels on the Narmada river canal. Not only does that provide solar energy to the farms nearby thereby reducing transmission losses, but it also prevents loss of 90 lakh litre of water from the canal due to evaporation annually. Similarly, asking buildings to harvest rainwater, mandatory installation of solar panels, using biogas for heating/cooking should be encouraged through active policy making.

6) Learn from experiences of states

It is important to realize that the Central Government can only do so much. Experiences in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have shown that efforts of each state in this field can serve as a learning experience for other states. Gujarat’s expertise in Solar and TN’s expertise in wind can be transferred to other states. Plus, each state is different in geographical and socioeconomic aspects. Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states, for example, can afford to focus on hydro-electricity. MP, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan need to focus on solar and wind. Nuclear power is dangerous in Gujarat, which lies on the intersection of two tectonic plates, however, can be effectively implemented where probability of earthquakes and density of people are low.

7) A collaborative effort between government, private sector and common man

In Pune, many new buildings come with installed solar panels. If we mass market such panels (as well as mass produce instead of importing from China), we can get the cost of solar significantly down. At the same time, big companies like ONGC, Reliance, Adani must be made to spend more on alternative, non-polluting energy. Offsetting carbon is just one way to alleviate problems created due to pollution. These companies need to make their installations greener and need to contribute more towards bringing down our energy costs through non-polluting means. Programs like Centre for Science and Environment’s Green Rating Program should be implemented with more gusto. These companies should also be made to contribute more towards conservation of our forest-lands.

Once the government efforts are aided by the private sector as well as the common man, India can effectively move towards forgetting the days of load shedding and burgeoning energy deficits. We will be superbly positioned to satisfy our energy needs as well as take care of our environment. Let’s hope such a day comes soon!!

Do you have any more suggestions? Let us hear them in the comments!!

Read Part1 here

Read Part2 here

 

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