Saturday, September 8, 2012

Increasing Insurance coverage - catch them young!

Why should one insure? Well, as the name suggests, its an insurance against a particular peril covered under the insurance policy and provides, to the insured or his family a benefit coverage in case of any eventuality. We all do insurance in some form or the other. While the informal
insurance is our savings, social networks and kinship where we lean on others for assistance, the formal insurance means taking an insurance policy. The various segments where insurance cover is provided include life, health, personal accidents, fire and motor among others.
In the life sector, the extent of insurance cover is measured by sum insured which in turn depends on the nature and extent of cover and the sum assured determines the premium chargeable. Higher the sum assured, higher would be the premium. There are 3 broad and totally inter-related measures:
1.Insurance penetration – this means insurance premium as a percent of GDP. It is 4.1% in India last year and come has a long way from being around 2% in the year 2000 when the insurance sector got opened up in India. The world average in this regard is 3.1%. Given the saving habits of Indians and the younger age group bulge, it is however felt that India can reach a penetration level of 5.5-6% in next 5 years.
2. Sum assured as multiples of premium – this shows the intensity of insurance and shows, how much a person is willing to get a sum assured which is primarily determined by his capacity to pay the premium. The higher the sum assured, the higher will be the premium.
3. Level of protection in the country is also determined by the sum assured as a percent of GDP. Higher the sum insured, higher is the level of protections in the country. This is discussed in detail below.
The sum assured as a percent of premium collected shows, in a way, how people treat insurance products. On the one side of the spectrum is base policies providing life coverage at its minimum. The premium is low and the sum assured is low. An example is that of social security policies such as Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana and Janashree Bima Yojana. The premium is only Rs 200 pa and the maximum coverage is Rs 75000 in case of accidental death. On the other hand, we have life coverage which are in the multiples of millions and the premium also increases.
Lets look at sum assured as number of times of premium collected over the years..
LIC is obviously lower because it has social security policies. The sum assured as percent of premium collected is increasing, albeit slowly and it’s a sign of a maturing life market.
However, the sum assured as a percent of GDP in India is only 55% ( sum assured can cover only 55% of the GDP) whereas the world’s average is about 150% and some of the mature countries have more than 200%.In that sense, we have a long way to go to improve per policy sum assured. While penetration (insurance premium as percent of GDP) at 4.1% looks healthy, it can be increased. The saving habits in India, despite being decelerated a bit in recent past is still at a healthy 32% of GDP. What is worrisome however, is the fact that most of it is being invested in gold and real estate and the extent of household savings in insurance is only 17%. This needs to be improved and a conscious effort needs to be made to channelize people's savings into Insurace.
One way to improve sum assured (and insurance penetration) is to concentrate on younger generation. They will have a longer contributory span (a life policy of 25 years old versus 45 years old). Let’s look at what’s happening in LIC.
The average age of LIC’s policyholders is: This average age of 37 years is not very high considering that life insurance is a long term contract and the average in respect of in-force policies for a grown up and matured company like LIC, is bound to increase.However, the average age of LIC’s policyholders (risk weighted Sum Assured) in respect of New Business for the last five years is also worked out as and shown in the right side table. It is clear from the data that the average age of new business policyholder is not high and showing stagnation from last 3 years. Increase in New business average risk weighted age during last 5 years from 30 to 32 may be attributed to the higher saving capacity among older people. Following data which shows the NB policies sold for the last 3 years (not risk weighted) gives us some more insights: The table conveys that selling of new policies to the people below aged 35 years is constantly increasing from 47.28% of the total policies sold by LIC in 2009-10 to 53.66% in FY 2011-12. At present LIC is selling more than half of the policies to the people aged 35 years and below, which is a good indicator of the efforts taken by the corporation to be relevant for the young generation in changing business environment.
India has a demographic advantage with >50% of people in less than 30 age group. With increasing awareness about the insurance, the need to have an insurance cover is increasing. The average age of starting a job in India is between 23-25 years and it is here that we need to concentrate and have them insurance cover at the earliest. Its a win win situation as they get an insurance cover with a lower premium (because of their age, health profile being better) and the levels of protection improves in the country.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

My experiments with horse riding & making sense of horses!

I learnt horse-riding, for the first time, as a part of mandatory training during the foundation course of IAS in Mussoorie Academy from 1991-93. It used to be extremely hilarious when we all struggled during those days and how some of the officers invented all sorts of excuses to avoid attending those training classes. When one of the officers, out of sheer fearful frustration asked the trainer in the Academy as to why should one be learning horse-riding, the reply was that one can control (administer) the District very effectively if one knows how to control a horse! And prompt came the retort that in that case, the riding instructor should be running the country!! There’s a saying, “A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves-strong, powerful, beautiful-and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence”. The riding in the Academy was very user-friendly as most of the horses were well trained and all one needed to do was to balance oneself on the horse properly and the horse used to take care of the rest as they were trained to follow the horse in front and voice commands from the trainer. In that sense, the horse-rider had little control. It was enjoyable experience and gave all of us a sense of confidence. Even till day, not a single get-together of our batch mates passes off without discussing some interesting incidents of those horse-riding days.
Thanks to a friend, I took up horse riding after a gap of almost 20 years. We were having lunch one day when he informed that he has been horse-riding now for about six months and why shouldn’t I join him. It was an interesting offer. Of course, I have put on weight, rather sumptuously since the last time I rode and my instant thought was whether the horse can carry my weight! Well, i was not willing to take into consideration the age factor and whether my nerves can still be agile enough to take up horse riding. However, the comforting factor was sitting right in front of me, my dear friend with all his weight (his girth certainly is bigger than mine) and his age (well, he might not be colouring his hair)! And I went to Army Polo and Riding Club, Naraina along with him.
The riding here is very different from what I had supposedly learnt in my Academy days. The horses are bigger & independent and don’t go by the common voice command of the trainer. One has to take charge. I started slowly and was doing walking and a bit of trotting in first few days. Basic gaits of the horse include (1) Walk – a slow, flat footed gait with four beats, about 3-4 miles per hour. Walking is good to warm up the horse’s muscle before hard work; (2) the trot – the trot is a two beat gait in which the diagonal (opposite corners) front and hind legs move and hit the ground together as a pair. It has suspension meaning that there’s part of the time when the horse is off the ground. This is what gives the trot its bounce. The trot is about 6 miles per hour. Trotting is a good exercise for both horse and rider. The rider can ride posting, sitting or balancing in a two-point position. A good rider can do all three. The trot is the least tiring for the horse and they can cover long distances while trotting;(3) The canter – the canter is a three beat gait with suspension. The canter is a medium gait, about 8-10 miles per hour. The rider usually sits up tall in the saddle when cantering and should keep his seat deep and relaxed to follow the rolling movements of the horse’s back; (4) the Gallop – the gallop is a horse’s natural speed gait. It’s very much like a canter speeded up. The gallop has four beats instead of three and the suspension is longer. The horse pushes off harder, reaches farther with his legs and stays up in the air longer between strides than he does in the canter. I gradually moved to canter in my third week and have been doing cantering regularly since then mixing it with trot.
Horse riding, especially the way, we manage horses tells so much about the personality of the rider. One can easily make out when one is frightened by the manner one sits on the horse or rides. Its interesting how the same horse behaves differently with different riders depending upon the comfort level of the rider. Horses, I feel, are extremely intelligent and can make out in an instant about the experience, knowledge and comfort level of the rider within first few minutes and behaves accordingly. There are two categories in horses – ones which are like children and are naughty. When they find that the rider is new or not comfortable, they literally take him for a ride and try and unnerve him in every possible manner. They will skip, buck, canter on their own or will refuse to move. Basically they decide what they want to do. The second category is those horses which are matured and act like one. Once they observe the uncomforting newness of the rider, they treat him with care and try and give him confidence. They just give the impression of being an indulgent parent. I would like to mention a particular horse in this category of APRC – Alibaba. He is the first preference of any new comer and is a must for anybody entry in the world of riding in APRC. Likewise, there are few horses who are very disciplined and will take care of their riders especially if one is new. One such horse is “Romeo” and it’s almost hilarious how most of the kids keep requesting for Romeo every morning!
The riding hours are from 6-6.40 am in the first batch and 6.50-7.30 am in the second batch. It means getting up at 5 am and setting out by 5.30am. I have an advantage as my house falls in the way of my friend’s route who graciously picks me up in the mornings. The fact that i have to get up early , this implied that i started sleeping in time and which meant cutting down on social gatherings and social drinking. It has in a way brought so much of discipline in life and a time has come when friends have stopped inviting me for late evening gatherings knowing well where my priorities would be! I started as being a guest of my friend as i wasn’t sure initially whether I would continue with this adventure beyond first few sessions. But once i started cantering, I realised the feeling of freedom.
The feeling, when the horse is rhythmically cantering with his full glory, is that of being in control of almost the entire world (now I realise why riding is compulsory in IAS Academy). As they say “horses lend us the wings we lack”. I am reminded of an Arabian proverb, “The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears”. There’s nothing in the world which i feel can describe this feeling of sheer sense of completeness, with droplets of sweat making their way from the sides of one’s helmet, that wheezing sound of the wind as one is riding through the sky. It almost makes riding synonymous with freedom. As they say, a canter is the cure of every evil. One forgets all worries, tensions and all the routine pre-occupations and its one of the best forms of meditation in that sense. The saying “A horse in the wind, a perfect symphony” that way perfectly describes the exact feeling of a rider in control. I am now almost hooked to riding and have got a membership of APRC. Beryl Markham very rightly had said that “A lovely horse is always an experience... It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words”.It’s not as if everybody has a safe riding. There are occasions when there have been falls and one of them was a bit fatal one. Horse sense is the basis of horsemanship. This is the ability of a person to understand horse and even to think like a horse. The better one understands horses, the more one can enjoy them and a better rider he will be. Horses are large and powerful animals but they are also timid and easily frightened. Isn’t this quality like a child? As Josephine Dermot Robinson said once “Horses and children have a lot of the good sense there is in the world”. Most horses are gentle and obedient if they are handled properly. Horses are among the most forgiving animals. There are certain rules such as that we should praise them often and punish them very seldom. Gentle treatment will gain horse’s respect. Harsh and cruel treatment makes him fear us. We should also never stand directly being or in front of a horse. A frightened horse may kick or run over us and i have seen somebody actually getting kicked once. Another interesting fact i was told was that horse should never be hand fed. Fingers may be mistaken for treats and be eaten. I smile every time I think of this warning.
I have since been observing and discussing “Horse sense” with other fellow riders. The following describe what’s meant by horse sense:
Fearful – horses are big and powerful but fearful creatures. If they are frightened, they will run away from whatever scares them. They are normally scared by loud noises, and things that move suddenly move towards them. If one acts frightened, his horse becomes more frightened as he feels that something must be wrong if his rider is frightened.
Habit and training- horses don’t know they are powerful, bigger and stronger. Otherwise, they would realise that they needn’t obey us! We should always handle horses using the same rewards and punishment they are used to.
Reward and Punishment – horses learn how to obey commands and to do or not to do certain things by connecting them with pleasant (reward) or unpleasant (punishment) feelings. A horse can pay attention to a reward or punishment for a maximum of about 3 seconds. It means that the pleasant or unpleasant feelings must come immediately after the horse has done something deserving it. Rewards are not always feed, carrots or apples. They can also be kind words & petting. Punishment, likewise, can also be a harsh, sharp voice or not allowing him to do what he wishes to do otherwise. Reward & punishment should fit the situation and must be fair. If he doesn’t know why he is being punished, he will look for ways to get away from a rider who hurts. I am reminded of a saying “ If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question or asked the question wrong”.Horsemanship includes how to adjust one’s stirrups, mounting a horse and dismounting, sitting positions, holding reins, aids (natural – hands, voice, legs and weight and artificial – crops, spurs and whips) and how to use them. I have tried the ‘voice’ aids with my horse and it really works. They seem to listen to you and respond. My friend who is a Keraliate speaks to his horses in ‘malyali english’ and it’s at time a really hilarious sight. But it seems to work and all horses seem to getting used to that type of communication!
I have just begun this journey and realise that i have a long way to go. It brings in discipline, all the ingredients of management training and ultimately, makes one a better human being. I am loving it and intending to make it a long term affair! I have made some wonderful friends, both human beings and horses and am learning horse sense finally! As someone once said “ ask me to show you poetry in motion and i will show you a horse”.

So, are you Feeling down? Saddle up buddy!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Bancassurance - concept and issues

“Bancassurance” is not a term defined in Insurance laws in India. It broadly refers to sale of Insurance products by Banks (Bank + Insurance= Bancassurance). This was initially introduced in nineties in Europe and later spread to other countries. As Insurance business deals with monies received from policyholders against future promise of claims maturity or settlement, it is highly regulated and Bancassurance is no exception.

There are 3 models of Bancassurance in Europe:
(i) Straight contractual relation between a Bank & an Insurance co.for the distribution of their products.
(ii) Banks & Insurance cos form a specified Joint Venture (JV) which markets insurance products;
(iii) An Insurance co. is promoted by a Bank which has an exclusive distribution right to distribute its products.

Banks were prohibited to have any relation with Insurance cos. In USA & Canada. Laws were changed in USA in 1999 and Banks are slowly getting into Insurance space though not significantly.

The Indian life insurance market has been witnessing a slowdown post certain regulatory changes by IRDA since September 2010. However,the fundamentals for growth remain strong. Over the next decade, India will be one of the fastest growing life insurance markets in the world, with a compound annual growth rate of around 15 to 18 per cent and will account for around 10 per cent of global growth in gross written premiums. It is expected to grow from the fifth to the third largest life insurance market in Asia by 2020.

Bancassurance, is defined earlier is the insurance distribution model where insurance products are sold through bank branch network. The presence of several banking groups as promoters of insurance companies is of great significance to this model. With a network of over 80,000 branches spread across the length and breadth of the country, banks have the necessary potential to make bancassurance the most efficient way to achieve financial inclusion in insurance sector also. The bank customers with higher average premium per capita provide quicker means to grow for insurers. The complementary nature of insurance products towards the bank advances (e.g. credit life)provide synergies in operations to the entire financial sector. The ease of access to bank customers reduces servicing costs, contributes to lower lapsation of insurance policies and hence lower costs to the economy.

IRDA vide its notification dated 16.10.2002 on licensing of Corporate Agent authorized the following entities to become corporate agent which includes:
a) a Banking Company as defined in Clause (4A) of Section 2 of the Companies Act, 1956.
b) a corresponding new bank as defined under clause(d)(a) of sub-section(1) of section 5 of the Banking Companies Act, 1949 (10 of 1949)
c) a regional rural bank established under section 3 of the Regional Rural Banks Act, 1976 (21 of 1976)
d) a co-operative society including a co-operative bank,registered under the Co-operative Societies Act, 1912 or under any law for the registration of co-operative societies.

So far, the Regulator (IRDA) has granted 3261 corporate agency license out of which 266 have been granted to Banks to act as Corporate agents. While Banks have nearly 100,000 branches in the country, only about 15-20% of these branches have been utilized for distribution of Insurance Products.

The distribution channels in various countries is as under:-
As against an overall 8% in India, Bancassurance accounts for 26% in Japan, 27% in Singapore & 68% in here. Bancassurance accounts for 13% of gross premium in life and 2% in non-life as on 31.03.12 in India (IRDA).

While the overall market has stagnated over the last two years (and declined in several product in several pockets), bancassurance has continued to grow (from 19 per cent of new business premium [NBP] in FY 2008 to around 40 per cent in 2012 for private sector players). The share of bancassurance in India for private sector players is now almost as large as some of the other Asian and Western countries (many of which have share of bancassurance close to 50 per cent) and also almost as large as agency channel for private sector players in India (around 45 per cent share of new business premium in FY 12 for private sector players). The role of banks as primary investment counselors is rising. McKinsey proprietary personal financial survey indicates that now 16 per cent of customers choose a bank investment counselor as their primary advisor compared to only 7 per cent in 2007. The importance of Bancassurance thus becomes crucial.

Moreover,unlike other Asian markets, bancassurance economics in India is better compared to the overall industry (operating cost and commission is 15-25 per cent lower for bancassurance channel than overall industry). Further, bancassurance is significant contributor to third party fee income for banks (greater than 75 per cent of third party fee income for banks is through life insurance sales). The bancassurance channel therefore has the potential to be a win-win proposition for both banks and insurers. However, there are several gaps in the bancassurance business model in India driven by leakages in end to end value chain that constrain value capture.

Internationally, it has been observed that insurers with stronger Bancassurance have a faster growth trajectory:In view of the fact that the percentage of insurance business through Bancassurance hasn’t picked up in a manner expected and the fact that only about 15-20% of the Bank branches are being used for Bancassurance purpose, IRDA has come out, recently, with draft guidelines on Bancassurance and the key features are as follows:
i. Zonal Division: The States/UTs and major cities in the country have been divided into three zones based on which the guidelines for tie-ups between banks and insurers have been specified.
a.Zone A (13 States) - Kerala, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh excluding Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu excluding Chennai, West Bengal excluding Kolkata, Karnataka excluding Bangalore, Maharashtra excluding Mumbai, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai.
b. Zone B (9 States) – Rajasthan, Assam, Jharkhand, Haryana excluding Chandigarh, Orissa, Bihar, Punjab excluding Chandigarh, Madhya Padesh, Uttar Pradesh
c. Zone C(Rest of the country) – Lakshadweep, Dadra & Nagra-haveli, Daman & Diu, Andaman &Nicobar, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Pondicherry, Tripura, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Chattisgargh.

ii. Ceiling on number of tie-ups with banks:
No insurers other than the specialized insurer shall tie up with any bancassurance agent in more than nine states/ Union Territories in Zone A (out of 13) and six states/ Union Territories in Zone B (out of 9). There is no such ceiling in Zone C.

iii. Ceiling on number of tie-ups with Insurers:
No bancassurance agent shall tie up with more than one life, one non-life and standalone health insurance company in any of the states in addition to one each specialized Insurance companies.

These are draft guidelines and not yet formal. However, given the fact that the tie-up between an Insurance Company and a Bank, invariably has been on pan-India basis in almost all cases, the proposal of IRDA in restricting operations of such a tie-up on geographical basis (9 out of 13 in Zone A and 6 out of 9 in Zone B ) is causing apprehensions in their mind. The problems in slow take off in bancassurance, apart from being a teething one, are structural in nature and solution lies in sorting out those issues. Some of these issues are in (i) product offering where many partnerships lack basic /priority end to end practices in product development and marketing including availability of simple products, adequate bundles (>3) of core banking and insurance products and joint product development; (ii) Lead generation and sales conversion which has multiple hurdles. For most banks esp Public Sector Banks, the lead generation mechanism depends either on customer walk-ins or the frontline’s relation with the customer who often face capacity constraint. Private sector & foreign Banks generate leads effectively through their outbound sales force, analytics and alternate channels. The sales coversion process also suffers from several pitfalls as only 50-60% of the leads generated are actually converted. (iii) then there are several leakages in the Bancassurance channel post the log-in as much as 30% between log-in and policy issuance, the main cause being frontline’s inability to collect all relevant documents. (iv) there also are leakages, post sales service and persistency management.

To conclude,creating a focused program with close involvement of both Banks and Insurers can help make the model a win-win for both and capture full value from the partnership.

ps.I have taken inputs from the later report of Mckinsey & co, Financial Institutions Group on "Capturing the full value of bancassurance through end to end integration"

These are my personal views and no part of this blog can be quoted without my specific approval

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Are we turning into a voyeuristic society?

Seeing the kind of news coverage, both in print and electronic media, I often wonder whether we are turning out to be a society of inconsiderate voyeurs?

Are we driven too much by “page 3” kind of news? Is the trend of ‘peeping into the lives of so-called glamorous newsmakers and celebrities becoming more of a habit? Are serious social issues (current affairs, policy issues and other such issues which affect all of us) been a thing of the past? Has cheap sensationalization of irrelevant and useless newsfeeds have become the order of the day?

Notice some of the news items appeared recently...

1. I was reading today’s Times of India (Sunday Times, New Delhi – late city edition, dated May 20th) was distressed to see the news coverage on Luke vs Zohal controversy occupying the top half of first page, entire 2nd page and most of the 3rd page. While those of you not aware of this “news of such national importance”, its about how an non-playing, never heard of IPL player of Australian origin Luke tried to molest Zohal, an allegedly American model and her manhandled her “fiancée” at 5 am in the morning at the top star hotel in the capital. A Delhi court on Saturday had granted bail to Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) player Luke Pomersbach who was arrested earlier for allegedly molesting her.

Not only this, you open any channel these days and you would notice Zohail all over. Wonder would it be the same coverage if any poor middle ages woman been molested somewhere and her fiancée /husband beaten up which incidentally keeps happening in almost various parts of the country with amazing regularity.

2. We are all aware of the Aarushi murder case and how it continues to grab the headlines in both print and electronic media even after four year. It's intriguing, if only in a forgettable voyeuristic way. A double-murder with both a teenage girl and the family's domestic help winding up dead. And the needle of suspicion being on the parents of the girl, .with an angle of likely sex-sleaze, parents discovering about it and involved in her killing not being able to accept such ‘socially unacceptable behaviour and so on. So why has the 'nation' been held captive by the Aarushi (and, yes Hemraj) case, four years on? What's so different about this murder that it involves candlelight vigils and 24/ 7 invasive news coverage? I wonder whether would we still know Aarushi's name if she lived in some remote non-descript village or came from a poor family? Are we going to be held hostage to society's (and our TV channels') relentless interest in the fate of this family? Is it not being voyeuristic?

3. It’s more like a chase of one’s own tail. A self-righteous, delusional Anna, ably exploiting the willing media sets out to stigmatise politics and in a way, ills of Indian democracy and the media, both electronic and print, salivating the situation and becoming a cheerleader of the slanging match. I have covered this issues in my blog elsewhere.

4. The Bhanwari Devi case reads like a B-grade sexploitation flick. A beautiful woman with a bevy of powerful lovers, sexual blackmail and political intrigue, culminating in a gruesome murder. Lost in the gory details, however, is Bhanwari herself. She is hardly the ideal victim, a  midwife with vaulting ambitions, willing to trade her body for money and status. More femme fatale than bharatiya naari, her death perhaps evokes more voyeurism and the manner in which a 'helpless woman belonging to a 'particular community' (& thereby being branded easliy by media) is being exploited by the system and somewhere she became a willing victim. There will be no candlelight vigils or rallies at India Gate if in the end her killers go free. Much as we pretend otherwise, there are tens of thousands of Bhanwari Devis in India. Poor women who leverage the only asset they possess to get ahead, unwilling to accept the paltry cards life has dealt them. Sexual exploitation is a routine part of life for many Dalit women – Bhanwari may have just been trying to even the terms of exchange. As a Tehelka story notes: One aspect of the Bhanwari scandal points to the political subjugation of women. Visram Meena of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation says often some women are transferred to remote areas and made to arrive at a compromise (to prevent the transfer) through various representatives. Once the woman gets caught in this mess, she falls victim to the very people she’d trusted to help her out.

5. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, resigned recently as the spokesman of the Congress party, after a video purportedly showing him having sex with a woman was distributed on YouTube and other websites. The former spokesman and prominent lawyer, Singhvi, said the video was fake and strongly denied news reports that he had offered to help the woman become a judge.

6. We still haven’t forgotten Jessica Lal murder case . Infact, a movie “nobody killed Jessica” cashed rich on the story .

7. Further, the case of princess Diana and the media sympathy and the public sympathy that follows continues despite it being more than a decade old issue.

Why do we, as a society, obsessed with such news, which at best, can be classified as individual crimes and when, crimes in each of these categories keep happening in plenty all over the country and with amazing regularity.? Why does media highlight cases involving glamorous victims who are often rich and from bigger cities?

They call it the Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS) in the US. The young, upper-middle class story gets spun into a tragic (TRP-grabbing) tale that exposes the horrors of our society, while those further down the socio-economic ladder are relegated to 'crime-in-brief' columns, if at all.

The question is why is there so much coverage of such news items, which otherwise, have little relevance and doesn’t also address the basic issues involved in them? Is it because people like to read such news or is it because its all media driven and people get what comes their way? Either way, the fact remains that we are all voyeuristic, deriving our little pleasures by watching voyeuristically in the gory details of such cases.

I guess It wasn't always like this. As society's fixation on celebrities turned to obsession, media became more willing to abandon common decency in exchange for “a juicy news”. But can we blame the media alone? They are only providing what people want. Whats tragic is that in this process, the ethical and journalistic standards have come down and so is the overall credibility of newspapers as well as electronic media. I remember growing up reading Times of India with so much of respect (early eighties) and where it has brought itself now!

I am not getting into the right of free speech guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution and whether citizen’s right of freedom of free speech is or should be available to institutions like media or the ongoing case of SIRECL vs SEBI in Supreme Court. Likewise, I am not commenting on the controversial “Print and Electronic Media Standards and regulation Bill 2012” or the IT (intermediaries guidelines) Rules 2011. There also is a fact that “paid news”, corporate cronyism ,libellous insinuation, blatant violation of privacy and all kind of subjectivities masquerading as journalistic objectivity threatens to unseat the moral high media claims to be clinging on for a long time. Also, most of the bigger media houses are now owned by big corporate, dictating thereby the kind of news and the kink it will have, that get published.

What I am incensed is at the aberration and trivialization in media where titbits of the flippant and the sensational get preference over stories of impinging social and economic reality that are crying to be told and will make a difference in the lives of people if told. There is a growing mismatch and disjuncture between journalism as a socially powerful calling and what’s turning out to be trivialization of real issues to accommodate the voyeuristic taste. Things do need to change and we are all responsible to act mature if it has to happen.

While the yellow journalism often becomes an area for stories that have the potential of scoops, it is the tendency of national dailies and electronic media to turn into yellow journalism that, according to me, is causing a stinking decay in the media standards, both in English and vernacular press.

Is it an Indian phenomenon or a disease spread world over and its varying degree needs to be debated. However, the point remains that serious policy issues of social relevance are gettting neglected as a result of media's and general public's obsession with voyeurism and it has to stop.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I am against corruption. I am also against Anna and his ways..

I am going to take a stand on the issue of corruption, not many are in favour of. I have had very animated discussion whenever I have expressed my views which are against the common views. I was almost scared during August- September 2011 when the movement against corruption was at its peak as being singled out and almost made to look like someone supporting the corruption. However, its not so. I am totally against corruption and I am in favour of tackling the issue by understanding why it exists and what should be done to curb the menace. Policing, to me, is not an answer. It will only create yet another layer of corruption and nepotism.

Corruption is a of the worst ills of the society. In a country like India, where we take pride in almost any defeat and where the population growth, more as a result of, to use Malthusian phrase, lack of ‘preventive measures’ leads almost 98% of the population to lead in general sense of depravity and always competing for those ‘limited resources’ be it jobs, education, comforts, road space, space in life etc and almost everything, corruption has crept in all walks of life like a shadow. Nothing gets done routinely and timely on its own and one necessarily has to grease the other side who is in a position of authority or decider in order to get things done seems to be the firm belief and almost rightly so. From the smallest of things like getting your child admitted to a school to getting your passport made/renewed, everything revolves around “connections” and “bribe”. And it truly sucks.

I would think that except for those at the top end of the population spectrum constituting less than one percent of the population, everybody is affected with this malaise and has been a victim of it in varying degrees at some point in life. Almost everybody who I have met has an unpleasant personal experience to share.

It is in this regard that Anna’s “India Against Corruption” movement came as a much required relief and brought with it a great hope for all the Indians. It was thus no surprise that there was an instantaneous outpour of emotions and response from a common man when the movement staged its demonstration in August in Delhi. It literally caught the imagination of everybody who has suffered at some point or the other and was ably supported by media-both print and more so by the electronic media by publicising the event 24/7 during its entire duration. The response was unprecedented. Ramlila Maidan, the venue seemed to be a sea of people from all walks of life and it was almost as if anybody who had suffered the wrath the bribery wanted to be present there to show solidarity with the movement against corruption. The response, so huge and unimaginable, caught the organisers (of India Against Corruption) by total surprise.

And this to me was the beginning of the fall of this movement. People’s anger and ire which was instantaneous and which was against corruption, was taken as a symbol of individual grandiose and popularity of those leading the movement. The movement, which was supposed to have been a faceless mass movement – where the sheer force of the masses and the pressure it brings along with could have unshackled any system out of its lethargy and systemic rot, became an exercise of individual glorification of few individuals where they started treating themselves as mass heroes and others with utter contempt. It almost has come to an extent that they have assumed upon themselves the role of being the “sole representatives” on the issue of corruption. Everybody has to necessarily speak their language (basically agree with whatever they say and whichever way they say) and any differing or dissenting voice on the methodology, issues and processes is treated with such hatred that such a voice is almost ostracized and boycotted. Such differing voices are almost made to sound like villains. Its “either Anna way or no other way” or “either Anna way or you are corrupt” philosophy that these individuals manning the “India Against Corruption” have adopted that has taken the steam off the movement. This group is just not willing to listen to any other version of “Lokpal Bill”. Whatever they say is “patthar ki lakeer”! As a result, some of the saner voices , including Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey have distanced themselves from the so called movement. This is not all, some of the core committee members of IAC including Rajendra Singh, the Raman Magsaysay award winner have distanced themselves from the movement. Does that make them corrupt? The problem lies somewhere else.

Key proponents of IAC, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi have made it look as if their version of “Jan Lokpal Bill” (whats the difference between ‘jan’ and ‘lok’ ?) will be the panacea of all corruption and all the ills that come along with. And thats how they have been projecting throughout. The basic issue is whether it will be the panacea of all corruption? The greatest damage, the trio (Anna, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi) have done is that they are exploiting people’s anger and frustration against corruption, by giving them false and unrealistic hope of the Bill being the solution to contain all the corruption. It will not be the case and nobody knows better than the trio. Worst still is the likely blame they are going to attribute on the bureaucracy and the delivery system on the failure rather than addressing the basic issue of corruption. The problem of corruption lies elsewhere and no amount of policing can contain it. We are ingenious enough to devise newer methods to overcome provisions of any legal provisions.
The answer to me lies in (i) having systemic improvements in delivery mechanisms of the services in a manner that minimizes human interface. The online facilitation of services which does not require any human interface can bring in lot of transparency and thereby minimize corruption. Also (ii) a major answer lies within each of us. As they say, it takes two to clap. Corruption exists because there is a giver, however forced or unwilling. Can we go on justifying corruption on the compulsions of our circumstances? If we all decide to follow rules and be mentally ready to pay the fine/penalties if we flout them, half the battle is won. How many of us look for short cuts whenever we jump the traffic signals and happily bribe the traffic constable for over-speeding, or violation of rules? There might be delays or unnecessary delays initially but if all of us decide to be a part of this cleansing drive, things will ultimately fall in place.
It’s very easy to look elsewhere and blame everything on politicians and babus but is it that simple? Is Politics or Babudom the only breeds that are corrupt? Is there no corruption in corporate sector, among NGOs and in formal and informal sector? If we are talking about removing corruption and holding people accountable, why not talk of all such sectors ? Its like this – we don’t want to talk about ourselves and our acts of omission and commission whenever we are a party to corruption when it suit us but we would like to blame politicians and bureaucracy for all our ills. They are the favorite and most easily available targets waiting to be whipped. Is it fair? Is it not closing our eyes to the reality? I remember when somebody asked Anna as to why he doesnt contest an election, his answer was that he will never win because voters can be purchased. Now, my question is, where lies the answer? Are politicians alone to be blamed? It's much more deep rooted and we cant take as easy route out by blaming everything on politicians. Why arent we willing to look into the societal dynamics and the complex Malthusian perspective on deprivation and resulting desire to seek a short cut in everything we do?

Kiran Bedi mocking politicians
The sort of adulation and hero-worship that the troika got, it perhaps has got into their head. A situation came that nobody should question their own credentials. Well, it’s a well established principle of leadership that the best leadership is the one which leads by his/her own example. And here, cases of improprieties and corrupt practices against some of these members of troika and those closely associated are blatantly ignored by them and infact laughed over. Such arrogance against the truth can only bring them down- there’s no other way and its happening. Everytime I saw it on television the way Anna said "inquilab zindabad" or "bharat Mata ki jai", I got scared..there was so much violence and threat in the tone. What was so gandhian about it? Or the way Kiran Bedi mocked politicians on stage in Ramlila Maidan. The entire issue got so trivialized in the process.

What's Gandhian about it?

The IAC movement has always prided itself in advocating a transparent system in whatever we do in public. I really wonder why one of the IAC members, Mufti Shamum Kazmi, was thrown out of the IAC when he was recording the proceedings of the IAC ? where’s the internal transparency gone? I wonder why this issue has not been raised in the press? Somehow, the majority of media has been subdued to subjugation with the self perceived belief that they have taken up the right cause however illogical or autocratic it might be. In any case, media goes by TRP ratings and all said and done, Anna makes news and sells.

The movement, with its new found popularity , has ventured into newer areas of reforms such as electoral practices. It has also taken up, riding on its popularity, some of the most ridiculous issue such as alcoholism etc. This is totally weird and a complete digression from the very purpose for which people had identified themselves with the drive against corruption.

Anna, as also the media, revels in giving the impression that he is a Gandhian. Anna, basically has been, in my opinion, a village simpleton with very simplistic views on life. For him, everything seems to be black and white. I remember having him as chief guest in one of our functions in Vijaywada in early 2000 when I was Municipal Commissioner. He is a man of principles and lives a simple life.

But I feel, exposure to media and instant stardom and publicity has had its debilitating affect on him and he seems to have lost his sense of balance. Notice some of his recent statements – that somebody

who consumes alcohol should be asked to give it up and if he doesn’t, he should be tied to an electric pole and flogged!! Or that Singhavi “should be hanged if found guilty”. There are umpteen examples of his autocratic violent utterances. Wonder whether Anna+Talibanish statements = Gandhi ? or merely, wearing khadi kurta dhoti and a Gandhian cap make anybody Gandhian? The rate at which Anna is going, the day is not far off unfortunately when he will be a totally discredited figure. His comments regarding Ashok Singhavi that he should be hanged if he is indeed the person in a controversial CD, represents yet another instance of Anna letting his tongue loose, with complete disregard for propriety or good sense. Such remarks , as pointed out in Mail Today, betray Anna as a man with a medieval mindset and narrow vision who has through accident or force of circumstances, been catapulted to the national stage. Somebody needs to tell him that leading an austere existence and seeking
change alone is not enough to qualify as a Gandhian. He is surrounded by sycophants who are using him as a ladder to climb on their own personal glories and gains and he needs to realise how he is being used (abused) by those surrounding him. It’s a pity that Anna doesn’t realise that showing his intemperate side will soon leave him with few options or supporters. The movement off late has become media driven and hardly a people’s movement. The movement, in its last few phases, has become a huntin
g ground of lampoon elements and hooligans who, drunk on “people’s power” and alcohol, go around menacingly on bikes, without helmets and flouting all saner rules. Time for authorities to act tough and time for people to realise whether their frustrations are being used by selected few for their very selfish motives.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A good read is better than Lagavulin!- enjoying "Sea of Poppies"

The real test to judge the quality of a novel, I feel, is when we start living in the characters and the theme while reading it and when we actually slow down the speed at which we read as it progresses while never leaving it, for the fear that it will end soon! It brings characters and situations alive and develops its themes without ever being cute, clever, wordy or pretentious.
I don’t claim myself to be well read so far as fiction is concerned but I must also confess that I have got into the habit of reading ‘good’ fiction, based on the recommendations by friends or book reviews. That’s how I came to read ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh. I wouldn’t have read on my own but it was strongly recommended, perhaps, knowing that my roots are in Bihar and that I may like the theme.
And it turns out to be one of the best novels I have ever read so far. Amitav Ghosh makes it look so real- the characters, places, theme, language and the historical perspective that one often wonders whether it actually never happened. Its richly textured and minutely researched. For like the opium that forms its subject, the narrative becomes increasingly powerful and addictive as it takes hold. I remember telling my father that I would like to visit Ghazipur (the novel describes an opium factory in Ghazipur, being managed by the Britishers in mid nineteenth century) and he informed that there’s actually an opium factory existing in Ghazipur! Amitav is brilliant in capturing the history, feudal structure as prevalent in eastern part of India, language (Bhojpuri), excellent usage of simple and yet very effective English ( “guilty vividness”, ‘a lamb’s wool sky”) and all the while maintaining the basic theme of the story in a very gripping manner. I almost cried the way he describes the relation between Deeti and her six year old daughter Kabutari esp. when Deeti meets Kabutari, for the last time and the way Kabutari tells her “hamre khatir churi lelaiya?” (please get bangles for me).
I enjoyed this particular paragraph thoroughly when ladies, on board of Ibis, are discussing about how they make pickles – “It was astonishing, for example, to discover that in making mango-achar, some were accustomed to using fallen fruit while others would use none that were not freshly picked; no less was it surprising to learn that Heeru included heeng among the pickling spices and that Sarju omitted so essential an ingredient as kalonji. Each woman had always practised her own method in the belief that none other could possibly exist: it was bewildering at first, then funny, then exciting, to discover that the recipes varied with every household, family and village, and that each was considered unquestionable by its adherents.”
Or when he describes the mixed emotions of Paulette (Putli or Pagli) towards Zacchary as she washes her clothes ”It was not unusual for Paulette, when going through her washing, to come upon a shirt, banyan, or pair of trowsers that she recognized as Zachary’s. Almost unconsciously, she would slip these garments to the bottom of her pile, saving them for the last. When she came to them, depending on her mood, she would sometimes subject them to an angry scrubbing, even beating them upon the deck-planks, with all the vigour of a washerwoman at a dhobi-ghat. But there were times also when she would linger over their collars and cuffs and seams, going to great lengths to scrub them clean. It was in this fashion that she was cleaning a shirt of his one day".
Sea of Poppies is bathed in rich vernacular. The usage of Bhojpuri is just perfect. I have never stayed in Bihar but have heard my parents speaking it while conversing it our relatives. Words such as “...” are sweet and near perfect in expressing the emotions of characters. I also never knew that little couplets in Bhojpuri can be so erotic. Notice this one

“...uthle ba chhati ke jobanwa,

Piya ke khelawna re hoi....”

(‘her budding breasts are ready, to be her lover’s toys’)


“aag mor lagal ba,

are sagaro badania...

tas-mas choli karai,

barhala johanawa” ..”

(i’m on fire, my body burns, my choli strains, against my waking breasts”)

Ghosh also makes powerful psychological observations such as “power made its bearers act in inexplicable ways –no matter what” or when we kill people (or export opium to China and wage a war against its protection in the name of free trade) we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. it is the pretence of virtue that will never be forgiven by the history” .

Ghosh has turned out a novel of intoxicating stuff, sombre brilliance, offering an amazing blend of sympathy (kabutari, Deeti, Neel) and cynicism, irony and joviality. Sea of poppies is the first in 'Ibis triology', a great narrative that gently unfolds the history and I am already onto "River of smoke", the second in the series.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hidden Biases & how it affects us

How many of us comment sarcastically and critically on the driving skills whenever we see a woman driving a car?
How instantly, we bring a doll as a gift for a girl child and a car for a boy!
Engineering!...hmmm, my son will be and daughter will be a Doctor!
How many of the boys visit their kitchen ?

We do most of these instantly, without even thinking as something which comes so natural. These are unconscious or automatic biases which all of us have in us, in some form or the other and in varying degrees. Most of us like to deny their presence and have this 'not me' syndrome.The ability to quickly and automatically categorize people is a fundamental quality of the human mind. Categories give order to life, and every day, we group other people into categories based on social and other characteristics. This is the foundation of stereotypes, prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination.
Social scientists believe children begin to acquire prejudices and stereotypes as toddlers. Many studies have shown that as early as age 3, children pick up terms of racial prejudice without really understanding their significance.
People will embrace anecdotes that reinforce their biases, but disregard experience that contradicts them. The statement "Some of my best friends are _____" captures this tendency to allow some exceptions without changing our bias.
Mass media routinely take advantage of stereotypes as shorthand to paint a mood, scene or character. Nothing can explain it better than the hype created by the media around the "Anna campaign". It literally whipped up the pent up frustations of the middle class.
Biases and behavior
A growing number of studies show a link between hidden biases and actual behavior. In other words, hidden biases can reveal themselves in action, especially when a person's efforts to control behavior consciously flags under stress, distraction, relaxation or competition.
Studies have found, for example, that school teachers clearly telegraph prejudices, so much so that some researchers believe children of color and white children in the same classroom effectively receive different educations. The other side of biases is a complex (inferiority). I remember how as a student of a 'Government School', we always had a complex when we compared ourselves with those studying in 'Public Schools' (private schools) and this did affect our interactions in public debates etc. Its a different thing that we competed equally well (in fact better) in competitive exams but the bias remained. Remember the recent gyan of Sri Sri Ravi shankar wherein he mentioned that 'Government schools' are breeding grounds for naxalism!
Experiments are being conducted to determine whether a strong hidden bias in someone results in more discriminatory behavior. But we can learn something from even the first studies:
• Those who showed greater levels of implicit prejudice toward, or stereotypes of, black or gay people were more unfriendly toward them.
• Subjects who had a stronger hidden race bias had more activity in a part of the brain known to be responsible for emotional learning when shown black faces than when shown white faces.
Studies indicate that African American teenagers are aware they are stigmatized as being intellectually inferior and that they go to school bearing what psychologist Claude Steele has called a "burden of suspicion." Such a burden can affect their attitudes and achievement.
Similarly, studies found that when college women are reminded their group is considered bad at math, their performance may fulfill this prophecy.
Scientific research has demonstrated that biases thought to be absent or extinguished remain as "mental residue" in most of us. Studies show people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes. Do we all have a bias (most of us will deny though) that students belonging to 'weaker sections' are laggards and basically 'inferior'! This is one of the hidden (well, may not be as much) which seems to be only getting stronger with time. It may have nothing to do with the actual intelligence or performance of such students (they may actually be 'superior') but the bias emanates from the fact that there is 'reservation' for them and thus a green channel while others struggle and thus a negative prejudice.
Have you also noticed how most of the Indians continue to mental slaves of the white skin! - whether its Private airlines in India or star Hotels, it is appalling how some of these staff will continue to fish out favours (jumping the queue or attending to them while the lesser mortals of others (Indians) wait. Some may say its 'athithi devo bhava' but is it so? Think about it. Its a clear case of reverse racial bias!Leading to discrimination?
It is possible unconscious prejudices and stereotypes may also affect court jury deliberations and other daily tasks requiring judgments of human character.
People who argue that prejudice is not a big problem today are, ironically, demonstrating the problem of unconscious prejudice. Because these prejudices are outside our awareness, they can indeed be denied.
Learned at an early age
The first step may be to admit biases are learned early and are counter to our commitment to just treatment.
In such an environment, different views are welcomed, punishment is not harsh or capricious, and these children generally think of people positively and carry a sense of goodwill and even affection.
'Feeling' unconscious bias
Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created "Project Implicit" to develop Hidden Bias Tests — called Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, in the academic world — to measure unconscious bias. Hidden Bias Tests measure unconscious, or automatic, biases. A stereotype is an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth and based on images in mass media, or reputations passed on by parents, peers and other members of society. Stereotypes can be positive or negative. A prejudice is an opinion, prejudgment or attitude. Prejudices are often accompanied by ignorance, fear or hatred.
But there is another aspect of the very experience of taking a test of hidden bias that may be helpful. Many test takers can "feel" their hidden prejudices as they perform the tests. We would like to believe that when a person has a conscious commitment to change, the very act of discovering one's hidden biases can propel one to act to correct for it. It may not be possible to avoid the automatic stereotype or prejudice, but it is certainly possible to consciously rectify it.
It can be easy to reject the results of the tests as "not me" when you first encounter them. But that's the easy path. To ask where these biases come from, what they mean, and what we can do about them is the harder task.
Recognizing that the problem is in many others — as well as in ourselves — should motivate us all to try both to understand and to act.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Head in the cloud & social isolation- random thoughts

I was going through the latest edition of “Time” magazine (dated March 12, 2012) and was struck by two unrelated articles. One was on “your head is in the cloud” by Paul (the author of “Origins”) and the other one is “living alone is the new Norm” by Klinenberg. There is then a third issue which is fast gaining menacing proportion and that is 'web or net addiction'. All these three issues sort of highlight the growing role of the web in our lives and how it has been shaping our social psyche.
While the life truly seems to have become so much easier with the “Google search engine” and with the advent of smart phones, we are increasingly outsourcing our memory to such tools and are somehow very sure that the information will be instantly and continuously available. And this is changing our cognitive habits. While the horizon of the information spectrum and the speed with which it’s available is really welcome, I do think that somewhere, it is hampering our natural ability to think and this also is affecting our memory and retention power. I still recall how, we, as a kid used to remember the flags of the countries, their capital, currencies, languages and so on. Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, based on her experiments has concluded that when we don’t know the answer, we tend to think not of the answer but where we can find the nearest web connection instead of the subject of the question itself. It is also a fact that we don’t remember information as well if we are sure to find it again easily when compared with the situation when it might become unavailable. We get conditioned in being lazy mentally that we don’t encode the information internally. While, some may argue that what’s the need to store things in mind and burden it over things which are otherwise available outside our system, the other side of it is that mind has certain capacity to retain and keep churning information based on competitive selectivity and keeping it idle or not using it to its capacity rusts it prematurely. So, what is it? Is it we turning into a cyborg or this symbiosis with digital devices is just a variant of transactive memory where humans are being replaced with digital engines.
However, one can’t Google context. Skills like critical thinking and analysis are native to human mind and can’t be outsourced beyond a point. As Daniel Willingham, a professor at University of Virginia puts “factual knowledge must precede skills”. It’s strange how, with the advent of “Facebook” etc, we have got so used to the virtual world and virtual friends that it’s almost like a vacuum when one is suddenly deprived of an internet or web accessibility. We are forgetting to go out and mingle and feel fresh air. That way, the web addiction, is also affecting our physical health adversely. It has affected our interpersonal skills and our ability to deal with people, especially among the young. The number of friends, one has on Facebook is taken as a sign of one’s popularity and it doesn’t matter how many of them are actually friends and meet regularly. The question is whether advent of web –socialising has actually diminished the social bonding and thus reduced the quality of life?
A related issue, though, not so apparent in terms of its interconnectivity to web based outsourcing of our knowledge skills is solitary living. As per 2011 census, nearly 33 million Americans which is about 28% of its households, live alone. And the percentage is as high as 47% in Sweden and 34% in Britain. India also has about 5% of its folks living alone. Does the rise of soloists signals the ultimate atomization of the modern world. Robert D Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone”, published in 2000, has argued that social splintering has diminished the quality of life in US. More recently, in “The Lonely American” Harvard psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds & Richard S Schwartz opine that “increased aloneness” and “the movement towards greater social isolation” are damaging health and happiness. Interestingly, there’s little evidence that rise of living alone is making people lonely. Its the quality of social interaction that determines loneliness – the “feel alone” rather than “live alone” phenomenon. Klinenberg, a professor at New York University concludes in his study that most singletons are not lonely souls. For those, who live alone by choice, it serves a purpose – pursue individual freedom, personal control and self realization. I still remember my answer vividly when asked for the reason as to why I preferred to go on a 12 weeks sabbatical to LSE (a paid one of course) which was “for introspection and self realization”! In the age of digital media and ever expanding social networks, living alone offer time and space for restorative solitude.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A heritage walk in Chandni Chowk - Mirza Ghalib's haveli, the first building of St Stephens' College & more

I have always been intrigued by Chandni Chowk and its galiyan right from my childhood. Its strange how we dont visit any of the historical sites in our own cities thinking we can anyway do that anytime. And all this while, we arrange these visits for our guests and loved ones. I visited Qutub Minar last when I was in Primary school. I have been to the Chandni Chowk number of times when I was in school but I haven't really seen it from the eye of a tourist. Visiting Chandni Chowk thus has been one of my priorities since I came back to Delhi and I finally got a chance last Sunday (Jan 29, 2012) when I took a heritage walk, along with Sai Prasad, a friend from Andhra Pradesh who is also posted now in Delhi. We followed "Delhi - 14 historic walks" by "Swapna Liddle" a westland publication as our guide. I always would have thought that it would be a long walk and would be tiresome. But, it turned out to be a very pleasant and a memorable one. The entire heritage route, as suggested by Liddle took a little more than two hours (plus whatever time we spent in Gulzar’s haveli).
The route and landmarks along with is :
Jama Masjid (North gate) – Indrapastha Girls School - Chah Rahat – Digambar Jain Naya Mandir – Meru Mandir – Shsih Mahal (St Stephens college) – Kinari Bazaar – Naughara – Parathe Waali Gali – Ballimaran – Gulzar’s Haveli - Town Hall
Let’s quickly go through each of them.
1. Jama Masjid- Its the most important and prominent landmark of Shahjahanabad. This congregational mosque was built on a natural rise called “Bhojla Pahar”. It represents the high point in Mughal architecture.
2. Indraprastha Girls school – founded in 1904, it was one of the first schools for the girls in Delhi. The school was in a Haveli and part of the school today too is housed in the same Haveli while a new building has come up by the side of it for the school. Take immediate right narrow lane to go to Chah Rahat.
3. Chah Rahat – its the “well with the Persian wheel” which supplied water to the Jama Masjid. A Persian inscription on the top of the well is intact though the well is now locked.
4. Digambar Jain Naya Mandir- as we go north of Chah rahat, one crosses through the gateway of Kucha Ustad Hamid, turning left and walking through bazaar Gulian and then taking the second left turn, one reaches the Naya Mandir. I was surprised to learn that Jains were important merchants and bankers during the empire time. This particular temple was built in 1807 ( and still called “new”). As one goes along further, there’s Meru Mandir. This was built in mid eighteenth century and its worth a visit inside. Infact, at the time of our visit, it was very crowded.
5. Shish Mahal – As one goes further and turn left and walks through Katra Kushal Rai, one comes across a Haveli on the left “Shish Mahal”. This is where St. Stephens’ college had its beginning in 1881. I almost didn’t believe and went inside. It’s just like any other four storeyed haveli.
6. Kinari Bazaar- Katra Kushal Rai ends up in Kinari bazaar. As the name suggests, this is known for the “Kinari work”. It was Sunday and early morning and not many shops were opened though we could catch a glimpse of the colourful Kinari Bazaar. This is a slightly wider lane and one sees lots of foreigner tourists enjoying their visit to this part in rickshaws.
7. Parathe wali gali - Kinari Bazaar continues in a north-westerly direction until it meets up with two other lanes, forming a tri-junction. On the right is Parathe wali gali. This is famous for its roadside eateries serving deep fried parathas (breads) with an unusual variety of fillings. It was my first and I was a bit disappointed as it is a small lane having just about 6-8 Parantha shops ( I was expecting it to be a bigger lane with number of shops). Interestingly, all these shops proudly highlight “fifth generation shop” ! I stopped by and observed one of the shops. They have huge variety of Paranthas and one can have possibly all kind of stuffed paranthas.
8. Ballimaran- On the left is the road called Maliwara. Take this and walk on it for a while. It will intersect with Nai Sadak or ‘new road’, build in the 1860s. On the other side is Ballimaran. There is an interesting controversy about the name Ballimaran. Most say it refers to the makers of ‘ballis’ or oars. However, a letter from Ghalib suggests that the word might actually have been ‘Billimaran’, referring to the killers of cats! (who else but Ghalib!!) . More than cats or oars however, Ballimaran has been known historically for its hakims or doctors of the system of medicine called Yunani. The best-known family of hakims in Ballimaran is the Sharif Khani family, whose members were physicians to the Mughal emperors.
9. Mirza Ghalib’s Haveli -

As one makes way up Ballimaran, there’s a lane (next to mosque) called Gali Qasim Jan on the left. in Gali Qasim Jan, the third building on the left is one of the first important buildings ie the haveli of Mirza Ghalib . It is entered through a semicircular arch made out of brick, and there is a small memorial inside it. There was a controversy last year when most of the newspapers highlighted how the haveli was being rented out for “parties” where alcohol etc was served freely. We all felt outraged at that time. Thankfully, the expose had an impact and there seems to have been sincere attempts to restore the dignity to the haveli. There are details of the life history of Mirza Ghalib and also some of his most famous couplets. This house belonged to one of the hakims, and he lived here towards the end of his life. Only a small part of the house—much modified, is the memorial. The remaining part of the house is still a private residence.
The visit to the Haveli was the best part of this visit.
One comes out on the main road which joins the main road towards the Town hall . As one walks down towards the Red Fort on this main road, there are heritage buildings on both sides of the road and most of them house Banks.

I came across folks selling old coins. We just stopped by and it was amazing, I mean their collection. Coins dating back to Akbar, and modern day coins right from 1913! I bought a set of five coins - 1913, 1925, 1939, 1943 and 1959.

I will strongly recommend this trip to all those wishing to explore Chandni Chowk and its beauty in leisure and at a speed when every thing is observable and enjoyable.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Indian ranks 73rd out of 74 countries- PISA findings - time to take stock of ailing education system and come out of denial mode

So many Indians taking up jobs in US and Europe especially since late eighties and dominating certain sectors such as IT & medicine , given an impression that the education system in India has finally come of age. A stage came when Obama actually had to take a public stand on the issue of outsourcing urging companies in US to go in for in-sourcing within the country. Most of us in Indian cities take great pride in our elementary education system and we all love to think that children in India are exceptionally good in Mathematics and science subjects. It's a sort of self styled image that's been created over the years.
I was thus taken aback when I came across recently about OECD'S PISA study showing India at the bottom of 74 countries (at 73th rank marginally above Kyrgyztan) while evaluating the performance of elementary education. Let's see what PISA is all about?
OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment(PISA) PISA is an international study which began in the year 2000. It aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries/economies. Since the year 2000 over 70 countries and economies have participated in PISA. The PISA tests are carried out every three years (2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009). There were 65 countries initially in 2009 exams and India along with 9 other countries agreed to participate in the exam in 2010 taking the number to 74 countries.
PISA assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society. In all cycles, the domains of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy are covered not merely in terms of mastery of the school curriculum, but in terms of important knowledge and skills needed in adult life.
A very informative video on PISA is available on youtube. It points out that PISA is less interested in knowing whether a student can repeat what’s been taught in the class – like parrots. Rather, the survey is designed to find out whether students can use the reading skills to make sense of the information for eg in a newspaper, government forms or instruction manuals. In it, individual student is not graded on how well he has performed. Instead, the site says that PISA results are analysed and extrapolated at the national level. Many countries now set national goals and benchmarks based on the performance in PISA test. PISA considers an education system successful only when all students from all backgrounds perform well in the test. It examines the characteristics of the successful results of a country – are teachers paid more, do schools decide their own curriculum, class size and so on and once the profile of a successful system emerges, it can be used by other countries for their education system. PISA is not about achieving high scores.
India's participation and findings
India decided to undertake PISA evaluation in 2010. The Ministry of HRD decided that about 16000 children in Tamilnadu and Himachal Pradesh ( the two States considered best in the country) would take the examination. The PISA 2009+ results, which are both official and are beyond gain-saying, are unspeakably bad. They confirm the worst of what anyone has been saying about the levels of learning in India elementary education. The shocking findings are:
In reading, of the 74 regions participating in PISA 2009 or 2009+, these two states beat out only Kyrgyzstan.
In mathematics, of the 74 regions participating the two states finished again, second and third to last, again beating only Kyrgyzstan.
In science, the results were even worse, Himachal Pradesh came in dead last, behind Kyrgyzstan, while Tamil Nadu inched ahead to finish 72nd of 74.
But just coming in last (if we can dismiss as a relevant comparator for India a tiny Central Asian state) does not convey the enormity of how bad these results were, as not only was India last, it as far, far, behind its aspirations, both at the bottom and at the top levels of performance.
PISA expresses the levels of performance in two ways, an overall index number and the
fraction of students achieving various “levels” of achievement. The PISA index numbers for each subject are scaled so that the typical OECD student is at 500 and the standard deviation across OECD students is 100.
The testing of thousands of students allows the results to present not only the average but also the worst (5th percentile) and best (95th percentile) students do in each country/region. PISA also classifies student performance into “levels” that represent different degrees of mastery of the material. I wish to quote a comparative study undertaken by Lant Pritchett :
Table 1 compares India’s performance to three groups of countries. The economic
Superstars have successfully completed the transition from poor to rich economies in just two generations – Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea (China’s only results are just for the city of Shanghai, which are the highest scores of any region tested, but this is too a-typical to really be comparable) and India aspires to their sustained success economically.
The current superpowers are represented by the USA and the OECD average reflects India’s aspirations as a superpower. The rising powers are represented by the BRIC countries of Russia and Brazil which reflect the rise of the emerging markets. Compared to the economic superstars India is almost unfathomably far behind. The TN/HP average 15-year-old is over 200 points behind. If a typical grade gain is 40 points a year Indian eighth graders are at the level of Korea third graders in their mathematics mastery. In fact, the average TN/HP child is 40 to 50 points behind the worst students in the economic superstars.
Equally worrisome is that the best performers in TN/HP – the top 5 percent who India will need in science and technology to complete globally – were almost 100 points behind the average child in Singapore and 83 points behind the average Korean – and a staggering 250 points behind the best in the best.
As the current superpowers are behind the East Asian economic superstars in learning performance, the distance to India is not quite as far, but still the average TN/HP child is right at the level of the worst OECD or American students (only 1.5 or 7.5 points ahead).
Indians often deride America’s schools but the average child placed in an American school would be among the weakest students. Indians might have believed, with President Obama, that American schools were under threat from India, but the best TN/HP students are 24 points behind the average American 15 year old. Even among other “developing” nations that make up the BRICs India lags – from Russia by almost as much as the USA and only for Brazil, which like the rest of Latin America is infamous for lagging education performance does India even come close – and then not even that close.
So? what's the takeaway?
There are some very important general findings that emerge from the PISA evalutation such as: 1. Girls do better than boys in reading skills in every country that participated; in OECD countries, they did exceptionally well than boys almost equivalent to an extra year in school;
2. There is no major difference between boys and girls in how they perform in science;
3. Boys generally do better than girls in mathematics
4. Early tracking is not generally good for overall better performance and need not be encouraged; it also encourages greater inequalities among the students esp those from disadvantaged group
5. Given the opportunity and support, all children have the potential to excel
6. Home background has a major role in the student’s success in school. If there are no books at home and if children don’t see their parents reading, they will be less inclined to read
7. It’s not the number of teacher but the quality of teachers that determines the performance of children in schools
8. A country doesn’t have to be wealthy to be able to provide high quality of education to its students (Shanghai and Poland are the examples)
9. Country’s performance in PISA does change overtime. Chile, Poland, Germany etc have shown improvement between 2000 and 2009
10. Successful education system make education a priority .
Whats required in India is first and foremost, come out of the denial mode and acknowledge that something is seriously lacking in our elementary & secondary education policy. The general findings as mentioned above are extremely important. It's not just about certain schools and certain students belonging to certain strata doing well. It's about complete overhaul of the elementary & secondary education which makes education more relevant in our everyday life. It's time we realise this.

For the purpose of census, a person aged 7 & above who can read and write in any language is considered as literate. The country has made very impressive progress in terms of spreading the education and increasing the literacy levels in the country over the years.

What's now required in emphasis on the quality of education and that will make a difference. Quality education is not just the right of privileged few and a sincere policy intervention in this direction will automatically improve the intended learnings and this is the takeaway from the PISA findings.