absurd and inane

absurd and inane

I was shocked beyond words when I read that a Chief Minister who is also an aspirant to the post of Prime Minister chose to link malnutrition in his state to vegetarianism and figure-conscious girls! And I quote him: “Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian state. And secondly, Gujarat is also a middle-class state. The middle-class is more beauty-conscious than health-conscious – that is a challenge. If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they’ll have a fight. She’ll tell her mother, ‘I won’t drink milk. I’ll get fat‘. I wish this was the case Mr Chief Minister but sadly it is not.

The Human Development Report of 2011 states that Gujarat is the worst among the high per-capita states in the country in fighting malnutrition. The state is placed even below Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam. That the CM of such a state chooses to trivialise the issue of malnutrition is appalling, distressing and totally unacceptable. Malnutrition is not a lifestyle issue in India but a terrible failure of all concerned and something we that should make our heads hang in shame. The Gujarat statistics are nothing to be proud of: 41% children underweight, 55% women anemic! That the CM wants the world to believe that this is due to vegetarianism or beauty consciousness is sickening.

5000 children die every day of malnutrition! They are all under 5 and in no way beauty or figure conscious. The 415 underweight children of the state do not have the luxury of refusing a glass of milk. They never get any!

No Chief Minister or any other political or administrative person has the right to pooh pooh malnutrition. Malnutrition is undoubtedly something every self respecting Indian should be ashamed of.

I am pained by the high cut offs…

I am pained by the high cut offs…

 At the recently held convocation of IIT Bombay the Prime Minsiter said that “his heart is pained” by the high cut-offs for college admissions. “We are placing limits on opportunities for our youth,” he said. I agree one hundred per cent!

Yet there is another statistics I wish our honourable PM also looked. I am referring to the abysmally low figure needed to pass an examination, and particularly the class XII Boards. It is just thirty three percent! You will be surprised to know that in some Government schools the curriculum is not completed because as I was candidly told by a school principal: all they need is 33% we cover 40% of the curriculum. I was to say the least speechless. So you need over 90% to accede to a good and affordable university education but all you need is 33% to pass your secondary school examination.

The equation is skewed and incomprehensible. The only ‘logical’ explanation seems to be that is that University education is not for the poor. Le me elucidate. A first generation learner is often the child of poor illiterate or semi literate parents. She or he has no option but to study in a state run school. The state run school often offers second class education and with the no fail policy till class VII the child goes from class to class till class VIII! Then many of them muddle through and can manage a secondary school certificate with 33%. Not an impossible task as she/he is a master at learning by rote and has access to a plethora of badly written guide books that do the job. Now armed with the precious certificate the student does not have many options is she or he wants to go for further studies. The 90%+ institutions are closed to her. The private institutions are out of their reach. Study aboard is an impossibility. The student may get admission in an evening course or a correspondence or distance course but these are of little value.

33% does not even give you the possibility to apply for a job as most of them ask a minimum of 50%. Your parents who do not comprehend the meaning and importance of marks are baffled at the fact that the education they gave you at great sacrifice and with great hope is not opening the doors they hoped for. What is so frustating is that that majority of these kids CAN do well if given the chance. For the past 12 years a few hours at pwhy has enabled many of these kids to get marks in the 70s and even 80s. But even those are not enough to get a good college education.

So Mr Prime Minister you should only be pained at the cut off marks for admission in higher education institutions but shocked at the abysmally low pass marks your system adheres to. I know that everyone in the country cannot aspire to higher education but the very Right to Education that you have given to all the children of India should at least help them break the cycle of poverty in which they were born. And talking of shocking figures why is it that this very RTE stops at the age of 14 when a child is nowhere finishing his school even if he or she is bright and talented. So 14 is another figure that should pain you. Your system does not even grant her/him the right to complete school. Moreover with the poor quality of education offered this fourteen year  old has few doors open to her/him.

Your speech sounds very rosy and hopeful when you state: Our government has opened new IITs, new IIMs and new institutions for teaching and research in the sciences. We have increased investment in school education. We have increased scholarships for the disadvantaged sections of our society. We have set up new institutions in different parts of the country so that our children can get the best education available closer home. The ground reality is something else! The new IIMs and IITs are again for the the chosen few.

As stated earlier, higher education is not for everyone. But at the same time opportunities should be given to one and all. At present the school education we are giving is worthless. It cannot give any job opportunity. In some countries skill are imparted at an early stage and students can opt for a school leaving format that introduces the candidate to the work environment whilst still in school. The Bac en Alternance offered in France has the student working for part of the week and studying in school for the remaining days. So a student interested in catering would be working in a kitchen for 3 days and studying for the remaining 3. Once he or she has passed the final examination the student can apply for a apprenticeship in the chosen field and work her/his way up. A wide range of options are open to her/him. Skills like plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, beautician, stitching and tailoring etc should be introduced early so that at the end of school the student is ready for employment. Unless some such option is created education in India will remain useless and futile.

So there many statistics that should disturb anyone who holds the interest of children at heart, specially the PM.

memento mori

memento mori

 I just finished reading Stolen Lives by Malika Oufkir. I came to know about her book quite inadvertently as I was sharing some memories of Morocco with a friend. I actually was talking about the baby elephant that my father, then Ambassador of India, had shipped for the King’s daughter Lalla Amina. This friend told me that this incident was part of the book written by Malika Oufkir. The name rung a bell as she was one of the playmates of the Princess and as did spend many week ends at her palace, Malika was one of the little girls I too played with.

It took me some time to get a copy of the book but I eventually did. The first pages were very much part of my life and brought memories rushing, memories I had. It was also sad to know that the baby elephant had to be shot as he did not get used to the local keeper and attacked him. But it was the rest of the book that was a real shock. When we left Rabat I must have been 8 and Malika 7. For some years our lives seemed on track but when she was 19 everything changed for her. Her father was involved in a plot and assassinated and she and her mother and siblings were locked away for almost 20 years in the most inhuman conditions. She and her family survived because of the indomitable grit of this 19 year old. She fought all odds and mounted a daring escape that eventually brought their plight to the world and the first step to freedom.

Reading her story was not easy and that for more reasons than one. First and foremost there was an immense sense of guilt at having had a privileged life while someone I shared happy and merry moments with had to go through pure hell. I know there was nothing I could have done but still it made me sad. Then I also felt a sense of betrayal as my parents and I had fond memories of the royal family and knowing that one of them could put children through such hurt – Malika’s little brother was just 3 when they were put away. I also felt tremendous respect for this woman who had been robbed of her best years and still had the courage to share her story and reclaim her life back. My life suddenly paled compared to hers and my admiration for someone I had known just as a shadow to a princess. I somehow wished I had known more of her.

I tried to find a picture from those days but could not find one with her. I am sure that if I rummage through the umpteen packets filled with sepia memories I will find some. However I did find one of Rabat and stared at the little girl I was. Strangely just looking at the picture brought so many more memories, some worth sharing. That is when the words memento mori came to my mind. These are the words a Roman general asked a slave to repeat to him as he walked during a victory parade. I guess the best translation would be remember you too will die and the best explanation that nothing lasts forever. There is a lot of wisdom in this and a lot to learn. But to me, at this instant they took another connotation: remember you will die, and with you will die all your memories unless I wrote them down. And I do not mean just happy memories or the ones that make you look good. If I have to be honest then even the darker ones have to be written.

This blog is not the right place to do so so I will write about the anou before pwhy in a blog I have decided to call memento mori.

India @ 65!

India @ 65!

Yesterday Ankit, Praveen and Geeta, 3 secondary school students went to an activist lawyer to voice their concern about the state of education in their school. It was truly an ah ha moment for us. The children complained about the overcrowded classes (140 to 160 kids in some cases), the ensuing lack of seating space and the inability to study. Some of the classes not having desks at all, children have to cart gunny backs from home in their already weighty school bags! No fans, no bulbs and more of the same make these schools look like one out of a Dickens novel! India @ 65 is not a great place for kids.

The irony is that on the previous day our PM had in his Iday speech lauded our achievements and called for celebration. In my humble away I would like to rebut some of the statements made in that speech. However before doing so I must agree to one statement our PM made: We would achieve independence in the true sense only when we are able to banish poverty, illiteracy, hunger and backwardness from our country. This is true in every sense of the word but what is also true is that we are miles away from that day. All we need is to scratch the veneer to see the cracks.

The PM goes on to state: It is good that we have a big stock of food grains because of the hard work of our farmer brothers and sisters, and availability of food grains is not a problem for us. Yes Mr Prime Minister, but what about the 5000 children that die every day in your India and the millions of tons of grains that rot in different parts of the country? Is it not time you did something about it!

You state that our children are the biggest strength of our country. If our children are provided with good education and are healthy, then our future would be bright. I cannot but agree with you. But please take off the blinkers other force on you and look with you heart and the state of children in your country. In your capital city nursery children are made to study on desks made for class XII children and many children brave the bitter cold, lashing rain and scorching heat under tents as their ‘schools’ have no buildings! And what quality of teaching can kids get when 160 are stuffed in a class! It is a matter of extreme sadness that your speech on the occasion of our 65th I Day should still need to mention state that now we will focus on improving the quality of education. Does it take four generations of Indians to reach the hallowed moment when one would start talking of quality education.

That the Right to Education took six decades to be enshrined in our Constitution is a sad reflection of the place we give our children. At the time when they need us the most they are sadly not vote banks. My I make a humble suggestion? Maybe the first step to take to improve the quality of education would be to increase the pass percentage from the ridiculous 33% to 50%? I know it is important to have good looking statistics to meet international approval but tell me what the future is for a young Indian who has secured his XIIth with a mere 33% when even the jobs your government advertises require a minimum of 50%? And I am not even beginning to go into the 90+% needed to enter the hallowed portals of higher education in institutions that the poor can afford. The rich have many options but what about the poor? 

You mention the spectre of malnutrition. You also state that the process of making the ICDS more effective is in its last stages and will be completed in the next 1 or 2 months. May I remind you that the ICDS was initiated in October 1975. Had it been implemented honestly no Indian under the age of 37 should have been malnourished. Does it take almost 4 decades in our country to get a sound programme functioning properly. You must be aware of the fact that very recently food meant for ICDS creches was hijacked and sold as cattle folder lining greedy pockets. How many generations will it take to ensure that no child sleeps hungry in the country you lead!

You talk of a National Rural Health Mission will be converted into a National Health Mission which would cover all villages and towns in the country. But may I draw attention to an news item that appeared in the national press a day after you spoke stating that India has 76% shortfall in Government doctors! India @ 65 is unhealthy and the scheme for distribution of free medicines through Government hospitals and health centres you propose will be yet again a great source of enrichment for wily predators.

Recently a ward boy and a OT staffer tended to accident patients and courtesy a rabid press were punished and lost their employment. But Sir if we are short of 70% of trained doctors then someone has to fill the gap till the government gets its act together. I too was outraged at the number of quacks operating in the slums when I began my work a decade ago. It did not take me long to understand that something was better than nothing and that these half baked doctors where playing a crucial role!

 You state  that you . This is indeed laudable but why is it that I like many older citizens feel weary that this too will go the way many laudable schemes have gone, the ICDS being one of them.

You say that  people belonging to the economically weaker sections would be given relief on interest for housing loans of less than Rs. 5 lakh under a new scheme for housing the urban poor.  Many schemes have come and gone without much ado and the poor in urban India still live in unacceptable conditions. I so wish you could just take time and do what old rulers did: walk the streets incognito. Then maybe you would see for yourself how people in your city live. It is to their credit that they have not lost their grit and spirit, like little Radha who manages to steer her fractured body and brittle bones in the dark pit she lives in without having forgotten to smile.

You also state that  recently the Cabinet has approved the Mars Orbiter Mission. Under this Mission, our spaceship will go near Mars and collect important scientific information. This spaceship to Mars will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology. I love my country and am proud of its achievements but please tell me whether the scientific information you collect around Mars will be change the deadly statistics of 5000 children dying every day of malnutrition.

You say that your Government has paid special attention to the welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities, women and other weaker sections. If you say so but from what I know the plight of these section of society is to say the least shocking. Every day some new aberrations comes to light but nothing changes.

You state that your commitment to make the work of the Government and administration transparent and accountable stands. Sadly the past years has seen the word corruption declined in every imaginable way. From scams where the numbers are mind boggling to the likes of me when anything beyond 6 zeros is chimera, to the tiny amounts taken by low ranked officials corruption has become a way of life. I will need a herculean effort to tackle the Hydra called Corruption.

You end with saying: It will be our endeavour that in the coming time, still more people help us in tasks like removal of poverty, illiteracy and inequality. It is a sad statement after 65 years of freedom. My mother chose to get married late because she did not want to give life to a slave child. She kept her promise and I was born a free Indian. Then why do I feel a slave in many ways and why do I feel that I have let my freedom loving mother down.

Happy independence day

Happy independence day

Happy Independence Day! It is our 65th Independence Day and we should have a lot to be proud of. But do we. Sixty five years is three generations and that is a long time by any standards. Certainly enough time to honour and redeem all sacrifice made by those who fought for the very independence we seem to take for granted. Kamala’s (my mother) family was one of those who have up everything to ensure that we would be born in free India. They had dreams, dreams that I had the privilege to share. They dreamt of a hunger free land, of a land that would give the most enabling environment to their children, a land that would prosper and grow, a land that would respect values and traditions. Their dreams were so well enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution which secured all its citizens justice, liverty, equality and fraternity.

Justice social and economic, Liberty of thought belief and faith, Equality of status! One does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that none of these have been respected. Today, 65 years after independence millions sleep hungry, more than 5000 children die every day of malnutrition, there is scant respect for belief or faith; invisible and impregnable walls are erected between the rich and the poor. Corruption is rampant. Those who have the power have lost the ability to use it well. Whilst the children of India waited more than 60 years to get their right to education, bills that seek to increase the goodies meant for those in power are passed in minutes. Though more than 3 children die every minute because of lack of food, grains rot in the open across the land. Food meant for the poor children is hijacked and sold as cattle fodder. Caste divides remain ugly and respect for our brethren has vanished.  India @ 65 is not pretty.

Kamala my mother wanted her child to be born in free India. She was 32 when I was born in free India. I guess what motivated her to prefer life as an old maid to life as a mother of a slave child was a dream. A dream that saw her child thriving in a country that enshrined the values the likes of her sacrificed their lives for. Today in my seventh decade I cannot but hang my hand in shame as we have failed our freedom fighters in every which way possible. Can my tiny effort be even considered as a step in the right direction.

The India my mom dreamt of was one where children would receive good education and aspire to wonderful morrows. How can I begin to tell her that this is far from reality. The children of India have been let down hook line and sinker by one and all.

Last week I came to know of the shocking reality of the state of schools in XXIst century India. As a tribute to the one who gave me a free life I need to cast my apprehensions and start taking pro active steps in the right direction. Sitting in the comfort zone of pwhy is not acceptable any more. My voice needs to become the voice of my kids. So I am taking a few of them to an activist lawyer so that they can share their angst and perhaps be heard.

The tragedy of our country is that those who have a voice and can make a difference remain silent and ataxic. It is time this changed or else the Independence we all pretend to celebrate once a year, will all be in vain.

It is time we took ownership of our Independence.

Happy Independence Day!