Click here to read my article "Virtual Communities, Real Social Change" which was adjudged the best article in a recent contest.  

Private school Education for poor in India is apparently under a crisis. While piecemeal reforms of public education have only repeatedly reinforced its inadequacies on access, enrollment, quality and retention parameters,  even private provisioning does not fair any better. With little or no differentiation, the value-addition of these private institutions to the economically backward is a glaring question mark.

Rationally speaking private schools will only mushroom in places where there is a sizeble catchment. Prior existence of a public school in a region is one market signal to an entrepreneur. So by design there would always remain areas, especially in far-flung tribal lands, where private schooling in the near vicinity will remain a distant possibility. As the numbers indicate, there are 9,50,000 government schools and an estimated 3,00,000 private schools in India (including the thousands of unrecognized private schools which are not recorded in any government registry).However 25% of our villages still have no access to public schools and only 28% of rural children have access to private schools in their own villages.

The quality aspects of private schools have not been as much scrutinized as that of public schools. It is largely been relegated to the market forces in which illiterate and ignorant customer can only make a price-quality inference. A recent survey from a prominent NGO shows that teacher attendance, teaching activity and student attendance, is far superior in private school vis-a-vis a public school, but  the effectiveness of private schools in imparting reading ability to the poorer strata is not significantly better than that of public schools.  It is unemployed youth from the local community, with mostly just secondary education, who join such schools as they cannot find an alternative employment and are unwilling to resort to agriculture.  Drawing a mere 1/5th of the salary of their counterparts in public schools, they are only motivated to take teaching as a short-term career. With the school management making no provision for better equipping teachers through periodic trainings, private schools tend to be worse than some "good" government schools.

It is futile to even discuss about, let alone formally assess, "value education" provided by private schools. Functioning at a subsistence level, entrepreneur has hardly any incentive to innovate. Instead, private schools tend to focus on mechanized education that is commissioned to churn out students who possibly can only fare better on "achievement" tests. Driven mainly by commercial motives, with few exceptions, these private institutions are run to benefit the "servers", rather than the "served".  This brings to question the purpose these privatized industrialized disseminators of information and instruction serve as compared to public schools. All they probably do best is mass produce seemingly intellectually worthwhile, but esthetically equally barren individuals.

If such is the sad state of fee-charging private provisioning of education then what is the role of private sector? What good can "voucher system" be in a world of Hobson's choice? Do we entrust the responsibility on the market to eventually rational out in the long term?  Is it not far too simplistic to believe that increased competition will eventually create exemplar institutions of educational delivery? If private education as a "substitute" of public education is farse mimicry, is it best designed as a "supplementary" channel?


Most of the recent developmental research and discussions on India's economic potential have centered around the "Demographic Dividend"- the booming youth of India and how India could leverage this working-age surplus (47 million working-age surplus by 2020) to emerge as an economic might. Many entrepreneurs and businesses, especially in the knowledge sector industry, have tactfully cashed in on this boom. However whether this surplus could form a potential  "good human capital", given the lackluster skills and resources required to participate in the economy, is questionable.

It is in the midst of the rather unduly focus of the country on the vibrant workforce, that a segment of 55+ age senior citizens as a potential source of skilled manpower, especially in sectors where experience is much sought after and valued,  is not paid as much attention as it deserves. It is estimated that there are 76.6 million people over the age of 60 in the country and this is projected to be no less than 160 million by 2025. As per the Department of Welfare of Disabled and Senior Citizens, 10% of Bangalore population, i.e. 0.5 million, are senior citizens. This is a sizable population and a qualified pool of skill and experience that potential employers could tap into.

One however wonders why this pool has been more or less formally untouched. Is it because of the lack of willingness and enthusiasm of senior citizens to engage in meaningful work, instead preferring to comfortably recline? The answer is that very few have a luxury to retire from the workforce. With the absence of a social security system and apparent trends of nuclear families, a fear of instability and vulnerability with the inherent lack of extended support system, lurks amongst the middle class (which will comprise as much as 41% of population by 2025). So if demand for work exists, albeit latent, why is there an apparent no ready availability of such opportunities? Is it because employers have access to better quality, younger and more dynamic workforce at a cheaper price? When one looks at the plethora of job openings demanding professionals with a minimum of 10-15 year experience, the answer is evident.

If there is demand and supply, then why is it that this market still remains unaddressed? There are only a countable instances-, and  - catering to this market. But why they have remained barely in existence evades my sense and demands attention. Is there an untapped opportunity beckoning an entrepreneur?
(To be continued)


The recent cricket frenzy shows how hysterical India, especially media and urban India, has become when talking on the issues of racism and color prejudice. While I'm least bothered about the fairness of criticism and diversity in the condemnation, I'm particularly worried about how hypocritical we have become while taking moral grounds on issues of discrimination either based on color, race, religion or caste. Why is that the numerous recent hair-raising incidents of caste-based violence come to public notice and disappear like a blip on the screen , and not get the same media space and degree of intellectual engagement like that for Sydney Cricket test?

How many of us have engaged in a reasonable introspection and debate on the following recent issues of systematic violence towards castes from lower in the social hierarchy by those above them?
- Lynching of alleged thieves in Bihar
Killing of a Pardhi couple and the burning of entire community of 300 Pardhi's in Madhya Pradesh
- Disrobing of a woman and her children in public on a falsely alleged theft in Kerala
- Battering to death of a young man suspected of being a cow-lifter in Punjab

Why is that we, both media and intellectual urban India, not introspect  on these incidents of violence that have primarily stemmed from a shared feeling amongst the higher castes to relegate nomadic and de-notified sections? Are we being at sanctimonious worst by refusing to talk about these issues on the same length as that demanded by cricket controversies?
~ Santosh


"Consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife"

This Ogilvy's quote made little sense until a couple of days back when I got the first glimpse of how the superficially similar consumer exhibited a varying gradation of behavior to the same basket of services. It was in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where we were attempting to figure out why a prudently launched educational service of a company, which has had considerable  experience in "dealing" with the rural consumer, had evidently failed to take-off.   

In the three of the villages where the services was piloted it was quite shocking to see one that showed no success whatsoever, other that had some signs of partial success and the last one that had a commendable success story which unfortunately failed to sustain the momentum. Even considerable field analysis has not thrown much light on why the educational service package, which was targeted to improve the learning outcomes of primary school children, has failed to triumph. 

There are many questions that still remain unanswered. What explains the gradation of responses from villages which are not farther than a half-hour distance from each other? Was the service which was priced at a minuscule one rupee a day, not affordable to the consumer?  Was there a lack of monetizable value proposition to children or parents? Was the provider, who is ironically known for its undisputed expertise in servicing the rural, not meeting the expectations? Did the company, who knows the game of promotion better than anyone else in the industry, fail in its task of marketing the services? While some might argue that when services provided for free are per se not received well, it is irrational for an entity such as this to expect favorable responses when the same services are charged for. Does the rural consumer mind like that of a "smart" urban consumer correlate price with quality and value? If so then shouldn't an entity charge premium to help the blindfolded rural consumer realize the potential benefits of such services? 

For now, it looks like this rural consumer is much like a wife who I will probably get to know in a few months time!

~ Santosh


Yesterday's  Economic Times carries an article that brings to light that in the FY07, the actual fertilizer subsidy expense of  $12 billion was double that budgeted by the state. The article goes on to suggest that it's probably time to look at the much talked about organic farming which can potentially lower the subsidy bill to its one-fourth. If this claim is even partially true, then this definitely calls for policy stances favoring organic farming. But, is this one of those tall claims about organic farming's potential?

Many reputed organizations such as CAPSA, UN's subsidiary agency, claim that organic farming can reduce rural poverty. It seems to be an ideal solution for poverty especially in Asia Pacific region because it is labor intensive, uses no chemical and has higher return on investment, with a price premium of 25-30% that it can command. However, with 85% of the organic production in India exported due not so attractive domestic demand, the paradox is, it is mainly the rich farmers who are already producing for export who are benefiting from this booming sector. In a global market where certification is needed to show and guarantee the consumer that the product has been produced in consistency with organic standards, small farmers, who are often denied government's assistance in storing, processing, certifying and exporting their produce, fail to realize the potential benefits of organic farming.

The sad irony however is the need for certification given that most of India's farms are organic by default. Traditional agriculture which dates back to 7500-6500 BC in India has relied on scientific approach to organic farming. The seminal works of Vedic period (1000-600 BC) such as Vrksayurveda and Krishisastra , have a corpus of textual knowledge on organic agriculture practices. Sadly, in the last five decades, with our traditional knowledge and organic practices eroded with the influx of modern practices, small farmers have to pay extra to certify their produce.

The strong proponents of organic farming's potential to cure poverty claim that if the state comes up with a policy that supports these small farmers by say subsidizing the certification cost, then majority of the farming community would switch to organic farming to pocket the extra premium. However, what about those consumers, either below or just above poverty line, who cannot even afford to pay for the subsidized ration? Can those who struggle to pay even 4 Rupees for a Kilogram of Rice be expected to pay for the "organic premium" for the claimed extra health advantage? Would majority of households in the low and low-middle income class categories be able to afford the near 25% rise in her shopping bill?

Well, for now,  it evades my comprehension as to who are the true beneficiaries of organic farming.

~ Santosh


"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works."
- This fictional character Gordon Gekko's address to stockholders in the famous movie Wall Street , still seems to find a good cheering audience, both among the business and the elected representative body, in India. The latest in this avarice seems to be the $1.5 billion Biscuit industry's desperate attempt to double its market share by its brow-raising offer to supply biscuits through government's Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). The industry along with the MPs, who they have evidently have pocketed, are lobbying for serving biscuits instead of the traditional cooked meals under MDMS.

According to these self-proclaimed experts, not only in  the field of nutrition but also in the multifaceted socio-economic development, biscuits are the best meals for the 120 million growing children across the country who are covered under MDMS. It escapes my comprehension as to how company's like ITC, Parle and Britannia are backing baseless statements of MPs that biscuits are a favorite snack of children and that they have a higher recall and acceptance among the intended beneficiaries of the MDMS. How can one, based just on the grounds of couple of corruption cases and reported poor quality of meals, stretch to make claims that cooked meals should be replaced by packaged biscuits? The least one expected from the industry was to lend its mind-space in efficiently managing supply chain and delivery channels. Instead all one can see is the potential atrocity when "greed" and "corruption" join hands. 

It seems that the lobbyists need a primer not only on nutrition but also on the multipurpose objectives of MDMS. As per the Supreme Court order, all states are mandated to provide every child in Government/Government-assisted primary schools with a "prepared meal" instead of "dry rations". The revised norms of NP-NSPE even specify the minimum content of 450 calories, 12 gm of Protein, with adequate quantities of micro-nutrients such as Iron, Folic acid, Vitamin-A, etc.

However, today's most ubiquitous Parle-G Glucose biscuits claim to provide just about 300 calories and protein of less than 5 gm in serving size of 11 biscuits. So, how many biscuits is a child expected to munch in a day and of course without the usual accomplice of a cup of tea or coffee? Is the industry claiming that it would come with a perfect recipe with all the essential nutritional ingredients in magical proportions all within the current average conversion cost of Rs 1.17? Is the industry setting new paradigms for CSR by sacrificing its usual margins? Even if we were to accept the unusual benign nature of the industry, can a biscuit be any distant substitute to a hot cooked meal which can offer the variety to sustain the interest of children?

Today it is the biscuit industry and tomorrow it could well be the packaged food and even confectionery industries vying for the lucrative piece of this Government initiative. Before one tends towards the industry side based on common charges of corruption and health hazards as a result of food not being cooked in hygienic conditions which might be partially true, one needs to carefully consider the sheer impact of cooked meals on aspects such as child nutrition, school attendance and social equity. Firstly, in deprived areas where the child does not even get two square meals a day, these cooked meals are enjoyed as a "festival food".  In areas where hunger is endemic, will one value the assurance of cookies? Secondly,  the socialization value that MDMS brings as children sit together and share a common meal would seem to get eroded if one is given a pack of biscuits instead. (Hope that one is not attempting to to create a "High Tea" gathering here!) Thirdly, the employment opportunities created for the poor women in particular has no place if cookies are to replace cooked meals. (For a detailed analysis read here)

Now on the "corruption" argument front, I wonder how packaged snacks is any less vulnerable. What is needed to minimize corruption in MCDS is an overhaul of our monitory system. The need of the hour is development of appropriate technologies and operational models that will improve the administration of MDMS. Is it too much to expect the industry to partner with the state at operational or management level to ensure delivery of warm healthy meals to vulnerable children without incurring high cost? Who is to defend the right to food of vulnerable groups when MPs decide to leave them in the hands of corporations whose sole objective seems profits?

Thanks to SC-appointed commissioners who have just today slammed the suggestion by MPs' group. Well, now it remains to see if someone will wake up the industry's "conscience"!

~ Santosh 


 A casual glance in to ones wallet and one would wonder where the 50 Paisa and 1 Rupee coins have disappeared. These once ubiquitous coins in the wallets, have today somehow slowly, but definitely, seem to have gotten lost amongst the bunch of bigger, yet lighter currencies, and plastic monies stuffed in their place. Is this any indication that one has graduated from transacting in such smaller currencies? Or is it just that these currencies are much less than their metal value owing to inflation and hence are  economically meaningless?

There is no doubt that there are many gradations of response one could get to these questions. Those 85% of the country's population, who have been just lucky to have gotten their foot on the first rung of development ladder, still transact in these denominations -whether it is buying confectionery, biscuits, shampoo sachet or gutka. However, for those in the higher rungs of the economic growth it is probably deemed shameful to transact in any non-plastic currency let alone such lowly denominations. I might be here accused of discounting those who still keep a bunch of these coins only to fling them occasionally at beggars crowding their cars in the traffic lights, probably not knowing that traffic department in their city has issued a notice forbidding motorists to give to beggars. But, is this act of charity inspired because their hearts are touched by the deprivation in a world of plenty or because they believe in superstitious cleansing of their sins?  

For now, the more important question is what about those poorest of poor in constant hunger and illness fighting for survival every moment? How would Farida Bibi, a landless woman with three-children who dream of food all the time, look at the same one rupee coin? Could the one rupee have saved the 12-year old Kolkatta girl? How would, who died of starvation in Rajasthan, have seen the same currency? Would the skeletal figures lying listlessly, who knew that that death could only be postponed by a few hours with the little food that this could probably buy, glow at the sight of this currency?

However, the same one rupee has been attracting the attention of marketers from financial services to FMCG to telecom to even matrimonial services, to bridge an untapped market. While the effort from the businesses such as HLL in serving the "consumption" class of the poor is commendable, the question is whether this unidimensional approach any enough? What about those who are chronically hungry and lack access to basic amenities and who have never had a purchasing power of any kind? Can the corporates afford to turn a blind to these who struggle to get a foot on the first rung of development ladder?

~ Santosh


Today if one talks of a government school and latest fancy gadgets in the same breath, s/he is best greeted with a scoff, for when one thinks of a typical state-run school, especially in a shanty town or a remote village, s/he does not fail to see the vivid picture of a compound wall shorn of paint, with pigs, dogs and cattle whining their way amidst the scattered garbage to the classrooms, while a bunch of barefoot children squat and slog on the floor, with their bony ankles painfully rubbing against the coarse floor, and pretend to be attentive amidst crumbling buildings with impalpable roofs, windows and blackboards. So who is to blame if  "cutting-edge-technology"  in schools that even lack basic amenities seems satirical so say the least?

While the deplorable state of state-run schools is not to change in the foreseeable future, one must be warned that a hi-tech gadget attached to the school buildings is not a pipe dream. Could you have imagined that under a pilot initiative 680 primary schools in Gujarat and 400 schools in Punjab are today equipped with fingerprint biometric systems for registering attendance? While Gujarat plans to scale it up to 40,000 schools, Rajasthan is floating tenders for the biometrics. At the outset this may seem either nonsensical or a potential massive scam. One might ponder as to what on earth prompted such a move when the best of the private schools in the country don't have such latest systems and still rely on age-old attendance being marked in a registry. But hold on, for this seems to be no short of a well thought out plan to deal with the vexatious school students and teachers.

The potential of a machine that can read finger impressions for not only monitoring but managing school and teacher data seems to have been finally realized. The need for monitoring enrollment, retention and dropout data at school level cannot be emphasized enough in the context of universalization of primary education. Even the seemingly small aberrations in these indicators at a school level has serious repercussions at the national aggregate level given the mandate to meet the MDG goals. So, the pressure at a school administration level to maintain a close to average academic credentials is reasonable. But more often than not this burden and worry obligates one to resort to unwelcome practices. 

Recently, a news daily reported instances of school administration fudging attendance registries to cover up falling attendance rate. When the school knows that the statistics, such as enrollment and attendance rates, have implications on the amount of resources allocated - whether money, infrastructure, teachers or mid-day meals - the administrators crumbling under pressure resort to fudging a few numbers to maximize the share. This cannot be dismissed as a one-off situation. 

Worrying trends show that teachers in state-run schools allow children to come to schools only at meal time, after which they are let off from attending classes, just to show higher authorities that they are handling big classes. While there are cases where the same child appears as a student in more than one school and sometimes in more than in one class in the same school, there are also reported cases where the poor battles with bureaucracy seeking a certificate of non-attendance just so that the child can seek admission to a Bridge Course camp. In fact, it has been found that names of girls who have attained puberty, are found neither in attendance registers nor on the out-of-school children list.

In the wake of such citing, one wonders whether the resources allocated to schools, especially for mid-deal meal schemes, are misappropriated. A rough, back of the envelope calculation gives a glimpse of the potential quantum of misappropriation. Today the estimated expenditure on mid-deal meal scheme, which includes the conversion cost, is Rs. 3 per child per day. So, for the estimated 150 million children enrolled in government primary and secondary schools across the country, even if just 1% attendance is distorted, then over 200 days, the misappropriation would aggregate to a whooping Rs. 90 crores annually!

There is no question that such falsifying of data at school level is a gross violation that has serious consequences at the national level. The absolutely necessity to create structures and processes that encourage the teachers and ensure the school administrators to give correct information cannot be emphasized enough. But, the question is whether hi-tech solutions such as the proposed "Fingerprint Biometric School Attendance System" the holy-grail?

~ Santosh


When Shubra Singh, State Project Commissioner for Rajasthan, made a grave appeal to the REI partners to help the government in setting up toilets, by sponsoring capital and/or operational costs, in the government schools, I was baffled. I wondered if she had gone berserk in bringing up apparently inapt  topic in an ICT forum. As one would expect almost all partners gave their nod with a scoff that was best left to interpretation. I must admit that I was one among those who gracefully ignored the request for I presumed it hardly concerned me , let alone my company. I now realize that I grossly belittled the gravity of the issue that she was attempting to address.I'm ashamed for my blissful ignorance and apathy.

Recently, as I was trying to gain a deeper understanding of reasons for dropouts in primary and secondary schools, I came across shocking observations, both anecdotal and statistical, that trace one of the primary reasons for girl dropouts to lack of toilets in schools. A recent report claims that more than 3 in every 5 schools, which is about 620,000 schools, don't have toilets. The report also found that boys and girls share toilets in every second school at the elementary stage. Let us not even venture into usable condition of the toilets where it exists and add to the already dismal state of infrastructure. At the outset, UNICEF study's claim that sanitation is closely linked to female literacy in India might sound absurd especially given that over 90% of rural people defecate in the open. The bizarre linkage only unfolds when one listens to an 11-year-old girl's woe - "I was always first in the class. I'm very much interested in studies. I want to become a lawyer. But my mother stopped me from going to school after Class V as the middle school I was attending, 5 km from my house, had no toilet. Can someone help me?".

One can hardly dismiss this as one off and an inconsequential case when one realizes that these sentiments are shared by many a girls facing the onset of puberty, and with it the realities of menstruation in a school with no toilet and no hope of privacy other than the shadow of a bush. The impact becomes more substantial given that in rural communities, menstruation itself is so taboo that girls are prohibited from cooking or even banished during their periods. The problems that accompany maturity, like sexual harassment by male teachers and parental pressure to marry, only aggravates the pressure to drop-out.

While buying the case for toilets, one might question how realistic it is to expect a school to have a toilet when more than 700 million people don't have a toilets in their households. But  in a country where 700,000 children die every year due to diarrhea and dehydration caused by poor hygiene, can we choose to ignore? Is this an insurmountable challenge or is it just a lack of political-will? Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, who has successfully championed the cause of sanitation, has responded to this call by constructing more than 6000 toilets through his Sulabh Shauchalaya. What is even more commendable is his design of toilets that can be constructed at as little as 500 Rupees. He has also shown that the waste can be recycled to make gas, electricity and manure. If there are toilets that can be built at such affordable cost, why isn't the government or community taking it up for its schools?

It is incomprehensible to learn that government is still expending money on designing "ideal" toilets on paper. Is the government showing indifference in warning its tourists, on its official "Incredible India" website,  to not venture into public toilet facilities? I'm sometimes dumbstruck on how the same government which can afford a computer lab in a school at an exorbitant price, be not able to fund for a toilet. Is it because even at a higher cost the socio-economic impact of a computer in a school is much more than that of a toilet? Or can the corporates simply be blamed for coaxing the government to put an ICT solution in place of toilets? Is the government dumb or the corporate a con-man? Probably for a young woman in an Indian village who wrote a letter to her husband  "When you come home, do not bring ornaments for me. I would be more pleased if you bring money so we can build a toilet in the house.", a "personal" computer would hardly be the need of the hour.

~ Santosh

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