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

 

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

 

Sometimes certain images linger in your minds even long after they  have beamed in your eyes. I'm not referring to those typical snapshots-in-time images, but those prudent camouflages of harsh truths that seem to have been lost somewhere in eternity. Seizing such moments, which convey much more than what is portrayed, and which evoke emotions and kindles many a thoughts, takes much more than mere talent.; it calls upon a rare combination of passion, creativity and relentless pursuit. To render such a perfect recipe in the very first attempt deserves nothing short of a standing ovation.

Well, kudos to Aamir Khan on his commendable effort for conveying a thought-provoking message and creating awareness on Dyslexia through his directorial debut "Taare Zameen Par"! Last such widely acclaimed movie which portrayed such similar powerful message was in my opinion "Philadelphia" released in 1993, almost more than a decade into the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While there has not been any dearth of movies with a social message, it is only of late that such serious and somber movies as the Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" have shown scattered proofs of movies' capability of inciting some sensitivity, if not a lasting social change, in a subtle and subterranean way. It is not easy to pick on a artsy movie with a message subject such as the side-tracked Dyslexia and weave it into a simple yet a powerful narrative.

Though an estimated 30 million children, which is about 10% of children in regular classroom, are known to be Dyslexic in India, not many are aware, let alone be sensitive, to this learning and attention disorder. What is worse and painful is the shunning of these Dyslexics as mentally disabled - leading the child to feel dumb and isolated. Who could possible imagine that - Einstein, EdisonDa Vinci - who were once pushed-aside, ridiculed and stigmatized in childhood, would become rare creative geniuses to shape the world through their contributions!

A recent study that traces business acumen to Dyslexia, claims that Dyslexics make for fine entrepreneurs as they were more likely than "normal" counterparts to delegate authority, to excel in oral communication and problem solving, and were twice as likely to own two or more businesses. Charles Schwab of the Investment and Financial Management Service by same name and John Chambers of Cisco are a few of many such successful top notch businessmen. Richard Branson, one of the all-time finest businessmen, once admitted in an interview "I had the worst school report ever. They thought I was a hopeless case because I'm dyslexic, although no-one had heard of it in those days. I was always bottom of the class and I left school at 15...".

Well, in a high-pressure society such as India, where scoring A grades and being in the 95+ percentile count for so much, Dyslexia still carries a heavy penalty. One wonders how our educational system would have possibly graded the likes of Einsteins based on its "long-established" assessment methodology! I hope the movie, which couldn't have been better timed and contextualized, is an eye-opener to all those parents who think that the hurdles are insurmountable.

~ Santosh

 

Drawing upon the Forbes list of most influential individuals, one article in the latest Economic & Political Weekly questions the merits and sphere of influence of these individuals. While raising a valid point that such lists primarily serve the purpose of liasoning individuals from an already established hierarchical structure, the author takes it to extreme in demeriting the influence that such a list has on the society. The article argues that the influence one exerts should be de-linked from the organization that he/she is associated with and that personal influences per se should be measured instead. While this is true to a certain extent, the author seems to seriously downplay the profound influence, both direct and indirect, that iconic symbols such as Indira Nooyi, in her capacity as CEO of Pepsi, if not as an individual, exert in the country's social space.

In a country where women have been facing increasingly violent forms of gender bias, there have been continual attempts to restructure the balance of power between the sexes not just at workplace or at home but in society and in politics. While feminist moments, which have been termed by a leading Indian magazine as one of the 60 revolutions that has shaped India, have had profound influence in making voices of women strong and loud, even symbolism such as an Indian woman making it to the top of business world has done its wee bit in bringing men and women on equal footing.

When we look at the magnitude of the gap between men and women in four critical areas - economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, health and survival - it is disheartening to know that as per the latest World Economic Forum report, India poorly ranks at 114 in a list of 128 countries. Looking at statistics that claim that proportion of self-employed women as percentage of total workforce is little more than 60%, one might mistakingly associate this to entrepreneurial zeal of women, when the truth of the matter is that regular employment opportunities  for women remain next to negligible. It is startling to know that only 18% of people employed in the organized sector are women. 

In a country that lags astronomically far behind with respect to achieving Millennium Developmental Goal  of Gender parity, even such small feats as Indira Nooyi and Sonia Gandhi being ranked as 4th and 13th most powerful women in the world, is a really big deal! Is it worthy to crib if Nooyi has not proactively done much to empower women?

~ Santosh

 

How many times have you been harassed by telemarketing calls at the weirdest of hours asking you if you need a home loan or a credit card? What is so impalpable is how they manage to call you at the most inconvenient time and offer you the most irksome basket of products/services that you hardly perceive as needed. Sometimes one needs to try out the Sienfeld way of responding to these irritant pricks. For me, I have just entered all my contact numbers that I'm even remotely linked to in the National Do Not Call Registry. Hopefully, I don't get bombarded with a series of calls from the service-provider's staff confirming whether I really meant to not be contacted when I opted for this option.

While one learns to patiently deal with these inevitable calls, it is ironical to note that that these marketed services never reach those who are in dire need of them. If we take the banking services in particular, it is shocking to note that the second fastest growing economy in the world has about 240 million unbanked adults as per the reports. Rural lending to total bank lending has shown a steady decline since 1990s. The skewed outreach of our banks becomes evident when one looks at statistics that show that with a mere 19% rural penetration, only 30% of the deposit accounts are in rural areas. What is worse is, where these services are accessible, the poverty penalty is as high as 10%. 

While we acknowledge that there are a number of grassroot changes, such as microfinance, taking place in the countryside, the fundamental question that needs answer is are the rural poor indeed unbankable? To put it the right way, as Nobel Laurette Muhummad Yunus says - "It is not people who are not credit-worthy. It's banks that aren't people worthy". Are the grassroot revolutions, microfinance in particular, a viable solution to poverty - a problem which humiliates and denigrates everything that a human being stands for?

(More on rural banking, agriculture lending and ebanking in the coming posts)

~ Santosh

 

Entrepreneurship seems to have gained its due attention in both the business and academia since the time Nobel prize was conferred to Muhammad Yunus. There have been numerous articles and publications authored especially in the recent past on the Entrepreneurship  discipline, with some going to the extent of arguing on who is an entrepreneur. In particular Social Entrepreneurs and Micro Entrepreneurs seem to occupy much of the the mind-space today.

For me, entrepreneurship has been the single most interesting and exciting subject since last couple of years. In fact it was the pursuit of gaining more insights into this discipline that took me to ISB. However, even after attending the best of lectures on entrepreneurship and interacting with many entrepreneurs, I have not managed to understand of who an entrepreneur is, let alone get a holistic perspective on the subject.

Looking at the informal sector of India, which comprises 90% of the economy, I wonder whether our country is the biggest haven of entrepreneurial spirit. Can the numerous people - like the street hawker, vegetable vendor, road-side food seller, neighborhood kirana store owner - who we interact and carry on small transactions with on a day-to-day basis be termed as entrepreneurs? Would the French economist Jean Baptist  who defined entrepreneur as someone who shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield, qualify a cycle-rickshaw driver as an entrepreneur? (On a side note, as per the ridiculous Delhi law the driver of the rickshaw has to be its owner. So, in fact most of the drivers have made the necessary capital investment of as much as INR 10,000) While these people in our neighborhood seem to have the entrepreneurial spirit of identifying a commercial opportunity – whether a material, product, service, or business – and organize a venture to implement it, I wonder whether they, as Schumpeter calls propagated a"Creative Destruction" of any kind.

Though I'm usually not the one who would get obsessed with definitions, this is one thing that I'm quite not able to let go. It is somewhat gratifying though to see the Nobel Prize winners Phelps and Yunus seem to offer different view of entrepreneurship.

(More on Social Entrepreneurs and Micro-Entrepreneurs in the coming posts)

~ Santosh

 

While on one hand the news of executives of Indian origin - Citi's Pandit, Pepsi's Indra Nooyi, Vodafones' Arun Sarin to name a few - reigning on top of the business world behemoths, says something of our Indian education system, the ghastly news, of perhaps the first incident of its kind in the country, which brought to light a high school student being shot  by his unrepentant classmates, probably speaks otherwise. While this post offers no knee-jerk reaction to the latter, it makes an attempt to bring forth the dual side of Indian higher education system's achievements vis-a-vis that of from other parts of the world.

The feats of Indian engineers and business professionals abroad speaks enough of our highly acclaimed higher education system. On a lighter note, it is interesting to note that our IIT engineers have made appearances in the Dilbert cartoons. However, when these feats are put on a wider spectrum, irreconcilable diverse points of view come to light. As soon as one ferrets through some of the statistics of post graduates from our colleges and universities, moribund nature of our quality of research and value system emphasis becomes evident.  

On the numbers front, India's production of 2.5 million graduates each year, trails behind only US and China. On the quality front its a mixed bag with skewed statistics. While IITs, IIMs and ISB have become truly global brands, the quality of many other 300 universities and more than 15000 colleges is questionable to mention the least. What needs pondering is whether the quality of our research, the breadth of our innovations, the number and frequency of entrepreneurial incubations, and the depth of our faculty reached anywhere close to that of Harvard, MIT or Stanford?

If one takes management education itself, with 1400 B-schools in India, we produce almost seven times the number of B-school graduates in UK. If one were to measure the quality of our management education in terms of return on investment and number of graduates managing to get glamorous jobs with top investment banks and consulting firms, then we can definitely pat our back. But if this was the only yard stick then we would have long back been on the much coveted B-school rankings. Sadly for  our Indian B-schools, the rankings take a holistic view of the school and their management professionals.

While we still fight to find a remote mention in these rankings, I wonder whether today's "supposedly" creme de la creme graduates from IIMs and ISB are well equipped with social , environmental and economic perspectives which are required for business success in a competitive and fast changing world.

We have the numbers; We have the talents; Do we have the motivation? (More of Indian B-schools and their social & environmental stewardship in coming posts) 

~ Santosh

 

It was heart-rending to watch media images last evening of two 10-year olds yoked to a plough and laboring in the soggy fields of Bihar. While such brutal images are neither uncommon or unfathomable in a country which has the largest number of working children (115 million) in the world, what is shocking is that it was Union Rural Development Minister's elder brother who employed these young boys. What was even more horrid was how with no self-disgust whatsoever, in fact with a tinge of pride, he justified this remorseless act. According to him since the farm area was waterlogged, neither tractors nor bulls could be used to plough the fields and hence he had no choice but to employ the children. As far as the Minister's response goes, let us not even venture into what political spin he managed to give and escape the brunt. What an irony that he is democratically elected to shape the development of our rural masses!

While on one hand, the global attention from countries, international development agencies and MNCs to the child labor has mandated stricter actions from and controls on our end, I wonder how domestic labor such as this which rarely come to light, be subverted. It took US government's notification on imported goods, made using child labor,  to finally wake us up. The concerned Ministry and Export Promotion Council decided that the five child-labor sensitive sectors - carpets, handicraft, gems & jewelery, sports goods and apparel - would be required to conduct external social audit in a transparent manner. The audits apparently would be open for examination by anyone who is interested. I'm not sure if this auditing of child labor practices would in any way go beyond papers. I wonder whether such act of banning child labor is mere treating of a symptom or this is in fact the panacea to break the vicious intergenerational cycle of poverty.

For now, I'm not sure if the concerned take any remote actions against the Minister's brother following the FIR lodged under the Child Labor Prevention Act. However, I'm quite sure that in the public mind space this is just one of those short-lived imageries that would get masked by the greener cricket field ones flashed by the media.  

Just another flash in the pan??

~ Santosh

 

If we were to conduct a poll to find out top 10 words that one instantly associates when they hear "India", then I bet "corruption" is one that would inevitably make it to the list.  Everyone of us have our share of seemingly never ending stories - some annoying, many frustrating and a few rib-tickling ones - from our own encounters with corruption. Term it as a societal norm, but we have been living, some of us rather conveniently, with corruption. But whenever we Indians are confronted with being corrupt we quickly defend and blame it on the culture that we inherit and cannot perhaps influence or change. 

Of course the evidence of widely cited corruption can be traced back to 300 BC, when Kautilya in his work Arthashastra (The Science of Wealth), India's classical political text, wrote "Just as it is impossible to know when a swimming fish is drinking water, so it is impossible to find out when a government servant is stealing money". But is this nature of we getting defensive by seeking solace in the inherited culture excusable? Can we safely distance ourself by blaming the elected politicians and administration as the culprits?  Well, even they seem to have an excuse for being part of the system. Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister for most of 1970s, when asked about the widely prevailing corruption in India remarked "What can we do about it? It is a global phenomenon".

Some may dismiss this as a casual remark. But for me it seems to reflect the sad reality that corruption has been accepted as a necessary evil. What is more concerning is that this is the image that we have been portraying over years to the rest of the world. Do we even care how much this would tarnish our "Incredible India" image? India consistently ranks among the worst countries in annual "Transparecy Index" of corruption conducted by a non-profit group in Germany. With a Corruption Perception Index of 3.5, India ranks 72 among 180 countries, sharing its rank with China and Brazil. But, as per the Bribe Payer's Index, India ranks 1 making it the number 1 bribe payer in the world.

The WorldBank group recently released a project report that benchmarks the regulatory cost of doing business in 178 economies. While Singapore ranks top, India is ranked 120. While not contemplating on whether this rank is something to be complacent with, I would like to bring to your notice one disclaimer in the report which says -  "It is assumed that all information is readily available to the entrepreneur, that there has been no prior contact with officials and that all government and non -government entities involved in the process function without corruption". I wonder whether our ranks would have got any better if "corruption" was factored in.

~Santosh

 

I would be surprised if any of you are aware of what December 3rd is observed as. Well, admittedly even I was not aware until I stumbled upon a article in the Economic Times that showcased a Bangalore based BPO whose whooping 80% of workforce is disabled. You guessed it right - today is "International day for disabled" - a decision taken by UN 14 years back.

Well, I would not blame one for not remembering this day given the plethora of other seemingly more important days, such as Valentine's day, that we can hardly afford to forget.  A 13 year old girl brilliantly articulates this situation and her aspirations in a Pakistani Daily - "We are not aiming to be heroes. This is not a competition or a war. We are just asking for our basic rights as per the UN charter and legislation to enforce it. We want integration, equal treatment and opportunities in all walks of life; we are not looking for sympathy either. Every one remembers days like Valentines and Halloween, while the day of disabled people, which is a national responsibility, seems to hold importance only for the ones who are directly affected".  

While acknowledging the multitude of issues that the disabled face, the challenges of employability is what I am most concerned about. While corporates, especially in the IT and ITES sector, are doing their wee-bit to proactively hire disabled, this still seems to me a small drop in the ocean. However, one interesting trend observed of late is the the corporate segment, BPO firms in particular, hiring disabled not because it's a CSR mandate, but because it makes business sense. While the average attrition rate in a BPO firm is staggering 40%, those firms that have significant proportion of disabled claim an attrition rate of near 0%. There are claims that even the productivity of a disabled is higher. It is indeed commendable to see firms such as EnAble India and AccessAbility play their part in placing the disabled in the organized sector. 

There is no doubt that much needs to be done to include the 10% of the society that is excluded - a section for whom air travel, bus journey and even accessing public buildings is still a distant dream. You may want to peruse an interesting three-fold approach called "APT" proposed on IndianEconomy blog

On a parting thought, here are some coffee-table trivia - 
 - Beethoven, one of the all-time greatest composer, composed some of his best symphonies after he became profoundly deaf
-  Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest scientist, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis when he was 21
- Tom Cruise, amongst the most talented actors in the world, battles with Dyslexia - a learning disability.


~ Santosh


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