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

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





I wasn't expecting a grandeur and spic-n-span office premises when I was asked to attend "ICT Partners Meet" at Shiksha Sankul in the pink city of Jaipur. Neither was I expecting a state-of-the art conference room with a neat welcome kit - session details, handouts of all the presentations, stationery items and bottled water - on each participant's table. As though the shock wasn't enough, I was left embarrassed when I conveniently entered the meeting room fifteen minutes late assuming that with government officials involved, the meeting couldn't possibly start earlier than half-hour past the scheduled time.

With Shubra Singh's (State Projects Commissioner, Rajasthan)  welcome note, the stage was set perfect for the quarterly Rajasthan Education Initative's  (REI) partners meet. I was blown away by the bureaucrat's impressive mannerism and her near-perfect articulation of the expectations from the meeting. With representatives from the corporate world - CII, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco and IBM - and development organizations such as World Economic Forum, GeSCI and UNICEF, I presumed the stage couldn't have been set more perfect for a landmark public-private partnership. It was only in the meeting that I realized that the REI is one the among only three public-private partnership in education across the world, the other two being education initiatives in Jordan and Egypt.

However as the discussion progressed, the ground realities of this project unearthed. It is disquieting to know that though this initiative has been in existence for two years, there is still no dedicated project management unit to overlook the initiative. Even though this initiative boasts of high-profile core partners such as WEF, GeSCI and CII, it is incomprehensible that it was only in this meeting that it dawned upon everyone that drawing a road map for the initiative would make sense. I wonder whether this is the kind of professional maturity that such organizations bring elsewhere too. I wonder how learnings from Jordan and Egypt's initiatives seemed a far-fetched idea to the core partners.

The co-partners, which incidentally includes HiWEL, seemed to be keen in advancing ones own agenda and were primarily concerned about raising issues of how government inadequacies and bureaucratic processes were delaying ones projects. Many, including me, who were attending this kind of meeting for the first time, didn't know the proceedings of any of the previous meetings. To ones wonderment, none of the private players were aware of any of the others' initiatives. There were only a few ad hoc suggestions made in the air for exploring possible synergies. What was glaring was that there was an evident discord between the co-partner's core competencies and the projects they had taken up as part of their CSR activities. I fail to appreciate why Cisco was involved in PC maintenance training, while Intel and Microsoft were  conducting teacher trainings.  

It was incognizable as to how this initiative could remotely be called a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP). There was neither a perceivable professionalism in strategic planning nor any operational efficiencies that the private partners brought to the table. Though there was no dearth of earnest concerns about  the pathetic educational scenario of the state, all of the players seem to suggest the same old traditional philanthropic route to reforms. The government on the other hand, let alone make an attempt to benchmark itself against other states, was not even cognizant of best practices from other states. Even after two years of existence, it does not seem to realize that it is indeed reinventing the wheels.

There is no doubt that the enormity and complexity of the education in the country demands much more than a sheer lip service from private players. Nobel Laurette Amartya Sen recently called for synergy between industry and teaching community (Read more here). However, until the time public's concern and private player's competency match and converge, such initiatives can be best relegated as another one of those Poor-Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPP).

~ Santosh


Just last week HiWEL installed the first of the four ICT Playground Learning Station Kiosks in Africa. The project was sponsored by the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the Uganda and Indian governments. Click here to read more

Though as an employee, and more so as a stakeholder of HiWEL, I'm elated with this deal on the outset, there is a sense of uneasiness and doubt on whether this innovative technology in the hands of the African children is the need of the hour. Well, since the day I joined HiWEL, I'm yet to be convinced by the claimed relatively immense potential of an ICT intervention vis-a-vis that of a basic infrastructure initiative.

A recent panel at the 15th annual Wharton Africa Business Forum touched upon this very same issue of shortcoming of some of such international aid projects in Africa. The panel brings to light one such ICT initiative from a MNC in Africa that failed as the basic infrastructure requirements needed for this project to work was overlooked by the MNC. Click here to read more on the proceedings of the panel.

Anyways, for now, only the social impact created over time can justify the presence of HiWEL Playground Learning Stations in Africa.

~ Santosh


It is disheartening to see that some of the best technological initiatives intended to bridge the digital divide more often than not lack a sound business model. The closely watched One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) initiative lately seems to have fallen into the same trap. Working for a firm in the same space, I doubt how far the third-party payee model would take OLPC.  I'm curious to know how the best of the technological brains behind this initiative break the basic problem of willingness-to-pay.



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