Thursday, August 15, 2013

Are we really free?

“If you can only visit one country in your life, my goodness, it should be India—it is an astonishingly spectacular place to visit. There is no place that has the depth of culture that India has” begins the successful hedge fund manager, Jim Rogers, in his interview to Mint.

Then he undertakes a systematic fact based decimation of India’s economic chances this century. Describing it as a terrible place to do business in with a muddling government (mindless controls leading to corruption, terrible governance), colluding big enterprise (except software most "big business is built on government relationships", no big global brands), poor infrastructure ("way behind China"), and a dysfunctional education system ("50% Indian kids don’t complete class 12"). He laments, at the very least India should have been one of the great agricultural and tourism economies of the world (it has the place, the soil, the weather, the history, the culture) and is full of bright entrepreneurial people (“Oxford and Cambridge can fill up all their seats” with Indians - even paying ones). BUT it is ruled by “absurd oligarchs” who have deprived it of its rightful place in the world.

Cheery stuff for an independence-day reading. But I think its true. If you are reading this you are already of some privilege. A drum-beating nationalist may not like the tone, and might want to skip the rest. Yes, we could reference Congo and Pakistan and feel good. But a mother who really wants the best for her child, wants to know the truth of how her child is doing. Patriots who really care about the real health of their land, must consider getting out of the new Starbucks (or wherever else the hang out) and smell the real coffee outside. Time to brew new stuff.

“A Horrible Place”

Ang Lee who made Life of Pi said, “in some ways, India is a horrible place”. Unless you are amongst the fortunate few, it is indeed a horrible place to be a child (40% are malnourished, 50% cant read properly even at 10 years, 60% are abused in some way, and almost 10% die before 5 years of age), a horrible place to be a woman (914 sex-ratio; 2 million a year are killed from feticide, neglect or assault), and inarguably the filthiest place (53%/600 plus million Indians – most of them mobile phone owners - defecate in the open; its more than the next  18 countries combined). To add, though in comparison it seems embarrassingly inconsequential, it is also one of the worst places to do business in (World Bank Ranks India No. 132 and Singapore No.1). And I have not even talked about the crippling downside of India’s fervent religiosity.

Till we are rid of this, are we really free?

Green, Orange, Black

What Mr. Rogers and Mr. Lee seem to miss, as most people analysing India do, is to specify which India they are talking about. There is no one India, but  “India 1, India 2, and India 3”, as the retailer Kishore Biyani once declared. Yes the categorization in to three classes - privileged, emergent, and downtrodden - is obvious, but what is noteworthy are the details and what it means. Since I work with children and schools, it’s easier for me to do the thinking and math in terms of India’s 300 million odd children of school going age. I will call the these Green, Orange, and Black.
  • Green: India has 10 million green children (just 3%) who are the lucky ones who go to the 5000 odd very premium/international schools or “good DPS clones” and most populate the top 50 cities in India.
  • Orange (or Saffron if you like): India has a 100 million orange children (about 30%) who mostly live in “small-town” (100k+ population is "small") or they are the aspiring class in the metros. They go to the 80-100,000 odd faceless “regular” schools (recognized, private, functional, English-medium) of India. In this category what the parents do seems to be less important than what they think: have aspiration for their children!
  • Black: Is India’s woe and shame. The soot of inaction has now covered the white. Here lie the 200 million children (almost 70%) children who will never get a real chance to move up. The majority inhabits India’s million government schools, consumes its poisonous mid-day meals, and waits for teachers that never come. Irrespective of where you draw the official poverty line (silly argument!), about half of them do not get their basic daily caloric food requirements, and the other half is not that much better off. Even they are rapidly shifting out of government schools to India's 200,000 odd unregulated “tin-shed” private schools. As once Punjab Government Minister once told us: “Even beggars who stop you on the street, want your influence to get their children in to a private school”.
Mr. Rogers and his ilk were lured in by Green India and discovered its just 3% deep. Mr. Lee is probably describing the world of Black India, though not only. The former world does not care for the latter; in fact it cannot see it. But maybe the Orange India got missed somewhere. This is perhaps the real hope for India this century - a potentially raging force of 100 million young aspirers who will become the guts of India over the next two decades. It’s got the basics, its got the hunger, it has the opportunity. But will Orange rise?

Gandhi, Gujarat…

I am pessimistic on most days. One, some of the worst practices in India (eg female foeticide, child abuse) are not in poverty ridden Black India, but in Orange India and are covered up lie-fully everyday. A force cannot rise when its roots are rotting. Two, they will need leadership to look up to and there is none. Not from green certainly. It is too preoccupied with itself, and too risk averse to do anything that will endanger its false sense of security. Many of next level politicians who are orange themselves are too busy turning green, at the cost of others. There is no Joe DiMaggio, is there?

When I was in school in the 80s, like many others I grew up believing that Russia was a great power and equal to America. In the 90s when I ended up living and working in Russia. I uncovered that lie – factory-by-factory, pothole-by-pothole, transaction-by-transaction, person-by-person. (I still love Russia, it was where I had my first own home and my daughter was born, but I no longer admire it. Its unhealed from the corrupt, bankrupt, incompetent, and murderous, legacy of the Soviet Union)

The Gandhi family is like the Russia we grew up thinking of. It was a great name and one we thought could only do good. The descent from Nehru to Vadra has been so steep and sickening that even the most sinister ghost story could not have predicted it. Armsgate, Phonegate, Landgate they seem to stop at nothing. A dim-witted and self-obsessed people, with an unmatched legacy and opportunity, have facilitated the loot of a continent on their watch. The end is near no doubt, but the 50 year rule from Indira to Sonia will be remembered as and era of darkness, making real Naipaul’s blackest metaphors about his forefathers' land.

Gujarat had once answered India’s call and offered her most revered son; and to many it seems will provide the answer again. But Modi is no Gandhi. Some may even consider him closer to the other famous Gujarati, Jinnah, who they say divided the land instead of uniting it. But are we so desperate for action that anyone who will do anything is acceptable now? Maybe. A rich Kerela Muslim businessman I happened to meet was sounding fed up with things, so I tentatively probed on Modi. ‘What to do’, he said, ‘only dictatorship will work’.

Jaya: Rise of the Orange

This morning I met Jaya. She is 24 and she works in an alternate medicine hospital in a small town in South India. She has brought her parents over from Belgaum,Karnataka, where she grew up, so they can be with her and “not worry’. Her father is a security guard in the same hospital. 

Jaya has a bachelors in computer applications, manages the entire back office, the network, the front office, a staff in double digits, and the cash box as well. Speaks and writes English fluently. She can also converse in Marathi, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam. She makes Rs. 13,500 a month. She is saving to do her Masters, fee is a concern; will only marry after she has taken care of her parents needs. Her younger sister married a richer boy she met up in the college she was doing a BBA (business) degree, then they immigrated to Australia. “They can help” I suggest. “Yes” she smiles, “but why ask? Better to do on your own, no?”.

Jaya makes me optimistic about the future. I also think she will be free someday, and perhaps make us too.

Gandhi returned to India in 1915. It’s going to be a hundred years now and its time for another to show up. Will someone come eastwards again, or will she rise from within? 

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  1. Great post Ashish,

    While we're cataloguing the horrors, let's not forget the environmental ones. Yale/Columbia's study ( ranks India 125 (out of 132) overall. On the sub-index of Environment Health/Air (effects on human health), India's rank is 132 - dead last.

    One might think that, at least in terms of the air they breathe, the Green/Orange/Black groups of children in your article would be on a level playing field.

    Not so, of course. The "Green" children, if they don't already, will soon live in homes with "Level 5" air filtration systems, and be whisked to and from school in cars with similarly impressive equipment.

    Schools in Delhi/NCR, Bombay and other major metros will move toward indoor sports grounds or balloon-covered outdoor soccer fields (a la Beijing).

    People like Jaya are a ray of hope. But for every Jaya that remains in India, 5 Jayas/Jayants, sick of the system and not wanting to become "lower or upper servants" of the 25 or so family conglomerates that form the Indian ruling class, will vote with their feet - and move to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and of course the USA and UK, while it's still possible to breathe clean air in those places.


  2. Hey, is it just me, or does Ashish resemble Kannan Mohan, the lead vocalist of Agnee?

  3. Great writing style... and yes I agree with almost every thing you have said. I still remain an optimist and I am sure that in the next two/three elections we would have sorted out our political system and then progress would follow.

  4. Great Post Ashish. Very insightful.

    And I agree the future is bright. I have never felt more optimistic in my 17 years as a teacher than I do now. This despite what the numbers might say. I think that Education has been 'the focus' of this decade and will be so for the next hundred years. Never, have I seen, on the ground, an upsurge to help improve 'what happens in the classrooms'. Even in government schools.

    My wife has been a government teacher for 13 years now. And I have seen in the 4 schools she worked, how most of the teachers pitched in to touch the lives of the 'black' India. Be it the Learning Enhancement Programme (LEP), CCE, National Green Corp (NGC), Adolescence Education, AIDS awareness programs, Health Programs, Life Skills or as simple as the daily assembly.

    I do not know if the schools I have seen are an exception, but it has been so. And so with the mid-day meal too. I have had it along with children in these schools and it is good. The children also get to eat 2 eggs in a week. Books to read. Uniform to wear. All which they cannot otherwise afford. They work in the field, help in household chores, support the family, and come to school to study. And they score well. I can also vouch for the children's better social skills.

    I am reminded of the story "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley. And I think there have been more 'Star Throwers' in this century than ever, each making difference for the ones in their care. And one day, not far from now, education will be renewed and the Orange will rise, and the Black will turn White.

    My belief comes from my daughter who is from Orange India and my wife who works for Black India and the fact that I work in an enterprise whose mission is to 'Renew Education in India'.

  5. Hi Ashish, I would like to know if you would assist children with special needs through Xseed.