Tagged: Education

University Town Experience


The last couple of days I have been walking around Evanston town which is some 20 KMs from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The famous Northwestern University is located in Evanston, and one of my family members graduated from the University just yesterday. It gave me an opportunity to spend some serious time around town, see the university, and talk to a number of strangers who were visiting for the graduation commencement ceremony of their wards.

Evanston (which I was visiting for the second time) is a pleasant small and tranquil town, the serenity of which is only broken by student crowds which dominates the Evanston scene at every corner. I would, however, hasten to add that the crowds were subtly tuned with no outward interference to the normal affairs of the society in general. I guess this is mostly due to the exclusive nature of the university, which is private and rather quiet on its own, though it has several world-class departments and famous faculty. Its Kellogg business school is world renowned, and I was thoroughly impressed with its LEED 5 certified state-of-the-art new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan. Apparently, this new building which was inaugurated formally only 3 months ago seems to have drawn attention from potential MBA candidates! Almost every other building on the NW campus seems to portray an old-world charm, I was sure many buildings are in fact more than 100 years old. The way modernity merges with that old-world campus can only be discerned when one walks around the campus and witnesses the intermingling of technology in an unobtrusive manner.

The commencement ceremony was held at the Ryan Field football stadium on the campus in a professional, well-organized manner. It was a 2.5 hour function, and graduated 996 graduates of management from the Kellogg school – that was a huge crowd of students, and it was heartening to see the truly global nature of the school with students from many, many countries receiving their degrees. It clearly demonstrated that the U.S. still remains as the education and intellectual capital of the world, and still attracts the best and the brightest from around the world. Hopefully, this trend will continue to the mutual benefit of the global student community and the universities, and continues to produce huge benefit for the American economy. I am sure President Trump has already realized this fact, and that can only be good for the U.S.

Evanston has several interesting restaurants. I tried out the Tapas Barcelona Spanish restaurant, which was pretty good. All portions were a bit small but the paella portion was of good size. The Chianti wine selection was good, though they had mostly Spanish wines. I am in the process of checking out couple of other restaurants.

Lake Michigan is beautiful, and today I took many pictures of it from the first floor of the new Kellogg building as well as from the lake’s shore. It is almost like a sea with waterline disappearing over the horizon, huge and calm, with its enormity only broken by the occasional speed boats and water scooters. It gives a sense of calm to the visitors and the walkers along its long coast line.

One of the things that I like generally in the U.S. is walking into an enormous Wal-Mart or supermarket like Trader’s Joe or Whole Foods, and start shopping for things that I love to eat – like fruits and nuts for example, and pick up excellent wines on the cheap (compared to Singapore). Walking along the long aisles, and reading the labels could take up well over an hour, before I end up collecting the stuff that I would like to buy. It gives pleasure that I could buy a lot more for the same amount of money!

I noticed that the roads were broken in many parts of Evanston, and apparently this is the case in most towns. Infrastructure needs to be fixed and it is no wonder that the President is pushing for a spend of USD 1 Trillion, America needs it as most of its infrastructure is at least 5 to 6 decades old. Even the airports are dated, with modern facilities lacking in many of them.

All in all, I had a great time in Evanston and Northwestern University. I liked what I saw, and came to know a lot more than I did. That’s good news!

Enjoy your weekend folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

16th June 2017

India needs Free Internet


More than any other country on this planet, I would say that India needs free access to the internet to help it leapfrog to the next stage of its already large economy (the Indian GDP just surpassed that of the U.K.). In order to sustain its economic growth, remove system inefficiencies, open up new opportunities for entrepreneurs and alleviate poverty levels, India needs to subsidize access to the internet for citizens earning less than USD 10 per day.

That figure is a mind-boggling 500M people in my estimate, mostly based in rural towns, and villages. Even large cities have huge populations of people with no access to electricity, or even potable water. Given this situation, is it not laughable that I am suggesting internet as a free (or almost free) utility for the people to use ?

No, it is not a matter to be sniffed at. Given that tablets are now available at less than USD 50 (though not great looking), access to the internet utility becomes the major constraint for those masses of people who are at the fringe of the Indian economy which is still slated to grow @ 7.5% or more this year. The key enabler for these people is going to be knowledge and application of knowledge to their vocations and school learning. And, how is India going to deliver knowledge and actionable learning to the masses when its educational infrastructure is so weak ? How is India going to develop its intellectual capabilities beyond the IITs ? There are many questions but it is unquestionable that people provided with opportunities at the right times in their lives make it to a successful life later in their lives. Opportunity is critical and the Indian economy would not be in a position to deliver opportunities to the roughly 10M people coming into its workforce every year, most of them waiting for a job. That is close to 1M people every month!

Facebook and Google are opening up the airwaves in India by offering WiFi access in railway stations and other public places. While their goals are not entirely philanthropic, such initiatives by private corporations have to be commended when the national resources are tight to deploy access throughout the rural areas of India. I believe that India stands to benefit in a huge manner when all its villages and rural population are connected via satellite-based internet. Already 400M Indians are connected to the internet via their mobile phones.

India is not only a huge consumer market which is becoming more knowledgeable about the products the people wish to consume. It is also a melting pot for all kinds of experimentation that companies would like to pursue in the interest of testing their offerings. India is also an entrepreneurial nation of youngsters rushing to launch their new ideas or adaptation of ideas which have worked elsewhere. Given that the government is pushing the idea of a “Digital India”, it is not surprising that the population is warming up quickly towards the concept of all time and real time connectivity to test ideas, consume products, evaluate anything and everything. This is nothing short of a revolution in the making.

The good thing about India is that there is space for everyone. With its English-speaking workforce and modern orientation, India will become the third largest economy of the world by 2030, if not by 2025. It is critical that India offers opportunities to its aspiring people via the concept of free internet. Such an offering can even be positioned as free for 3 years, followed by USD 1 per month thereafter, for segments of the population which has an annual per capita income of USD 2,000 or less. For people earning above this figure upto a cap of USD 5,000 per capita, the rate could be fixed at USD 3 per month. People outside this cap would have to pay the commercial price. Such a subsidy scheme would go a long way in facilitating internet access to the teeming millions of Indians, transforming the country towards a Digital India.

I do hope this happens for the benefit of all Indians.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

11th June 2017

 

 

Social Disadvantage and Meritocracy


Of late, I have been encountering some interesting and poignant articles on the above rather complex topic. The relevance of this topic comes up time and again during wide-ranging discussions with intellectual friends that I am fortunate to have.

Again, this is not the first time I am touching upon this sensitive area as it pertains to India. I have always been sensitive to the socially disadvantaged sections of the Indian Society. I was given an education on the same by one of my engineering school classmates, who was from what we call in India as “lower caste” – a caste that successive Indian Governments have categorized for special treatment due to centuries of penury and depravement. When I see poor people in Singapore (!) who need three meals everyday to be provided by charity, I am reminded of those sections of the society who do not have three meals in India. Disclosure: I try to work at the Willing Hearts Charity and contribute in cooking/packing meals during weekends, as I believe money does not solve everything, and our personal time commitment is called for.

While I never had a superiority complex within myself during my school days, I was kind of different from many others in my network as my father was a lawyer and author, who was open to fresh perspectives and ideas, and treated everyone equal when they arrived in his office. There was no special treatment for anyone, and neither did he indulge me. He asked me to read complicated texts much beyond my age, and always insisted that I should be good in English writing, and be sympathetic to the poor on the streets and not despise them.

I learnt from my secondary school days that Jesuit Fathers who taught me (I was lucky) treated all students in the same manner – there was no preference because some students practiced Christianity. My primary school days were also very good as I was in a Catholic School which inculcated values and equal treatment of everyone. This does not mean that I changed over from Hinduism to Christianity – I just liked the structure that Christianity put in place as compared to the unstructured Hinduism, though I have to say that Hinduism perpetuated an openness and creativity due its amorphous existence. Well, this is becoming a discussion on religions, which it is not!

Let us get back to casteism and the perpetuation of the same in Indian society. Unfortunately the Caste System exists even today in India, and people belonging to different castes and even sub-castes get treated differently by the powers that be. Vote bank politics is the cause of many of the ills plaguing the society, and the perpetuations of the caste system is a direct result of the same.

In my opinion, meritocracy has no relationship to the caste system. It is a surprising derivation to most of my friends, who beg to differ. My perspective is as follows: the presence of merit is uneven in any society. There are excellent students in lower castes of the Indian Society (as is often proven via results from competitive exams), there may be more excellent students in the “upper” castes due to the conducive environment provided to them by their established family background and systems. The concentration of merit is surely uneven, and given the proper learning and supportive environment, no one should be surprised if students belonging to lower castes outperform students coming from upper castes.

But it is not about the caste system – the very analysis of caste-based performance in everything ranging from academic excellence to business to economics to politics is ruinous as has been evidenced by over six decades of India’s existence. It is critical to support the lower rungs of “untouchables” who were led by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s to enter Hindu Temples. Many of these untouchables still continue in their old profession even 90 years after Mahatma Gandhi “touched” them. Less than 10% of these lowest rung of society has climbed to higher levels with regard to standing in society. Should we be ashamed? Yes, of course. Democracy is supposed to do far better. Is there a caste system in the U.S. or the U.K.? Why do we have one in India?

However, for the lower castes which have matched the upper castes in their economic performance, measured in terms of GDP per Capita, the government need not continue to provide support. These lower castes should hold their heads high and march along with the upper castes towards contributing to the economic predominance of India in the coming years, and should not let votebank politics dictate terms to them. A similar advice is applicable to the upper castes – no upper caste is superior to any other caste or person coming from any kind of background. People are created equal. We should get this into our “hard” heads. Unless we mingle with everyone in a casteless society (like what you see in the Silicon Valley – would anyone even mention India’s Caste System when setting up a company and recruiting professionals in the Valley?), India cannot progress towards an egalitarian society.

I would like to repeat that the economically disadvantaged sections of the society, the “untouchables”, the lowest rungs of the society – these are people who need everyone’s support to climb the ladder. Let us not knock off this ladder.

Government should re-engineer the society; every eligible individaul who is economically disadvantaged should be given limited entitlements for a period of time so that he or she can upgrade himself or herself. And, this starts with compulsory education for ALL.

THINK DIFFERENTLY! India is rising to the top of the world’s pecking order, and we need to rise ourselves!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th August 2016

Hygiene and Health


I debated about how I should name this blog post. Should it have been “Toilets, Hygiene and Health”? Or, should it just be “The Indian Toilet Situation”?

There was a recent case in South India (Tamil Nadu State) when a girl child aged 9 years died due to kidney troubles caused by holding off nature’s call for whole days at school. The school spared only 10 minutes for recess between classes and they had just 10 toilets for some 400 students. Girls are disadvantaged when there is not enough time to cater to nature’s call (as do boys but at least they have urinals though no one knows their situation). When the concerned girl complained of pains, doctors diagnosed problems with her kidneys.

Such situations are not uncommon in India where public toilets are in very short supply. The most disheartening thing is that young boys and girls in schools who are the future generation, suffer in a most humiliating manner when they cannot even get access or time to fulfil their most pressing need from a physiological point of view. Government and school administrations should be embarrassed.

Despite the call of the current Indian Prime Minister to build more toilets, there has been no perceptible improvement on the ground. India operates on a federal structure which means that it is not necessary that a State Government should heed the call of the Central Government. The only way is persuasion or defeating the ruling party at the next hustings.

It is time for the people who pay taxes to demand proper hygiene and toilet infrastructure services from the government and public schools and public office buildings. It is the government which has to serve the needs of the people, rather than the other way around. The argument that there are not enough receipts against needed expenses won’t fly as the budgeting process is flawed if it cannot cater to the fundamental needs of the citizens.

According to Centre for Water Resources & Management, India, only 47% of India’s population have access to toilet facilities. And only 36% of these toilets have septic tanks. Given that there are a number of toilet innovations from a variety of private companies in India, it is imperative for the government to buy and install these toilet facilities according to a set formula for population access in both rural and urban areas. While the government now collects a cess related to this program, it is difficult to see the results.

Enter the private corporations of India. Even if the top 50 listed companies of India direct 50% of their CSR budgets towards toilet building (which the government can match Rupee for Rupee), India’s toilet problem can be solved in flat 12 months. Eco and Bio toilets are available today at prices ranging from INR 18,000 to INR 30,000 and the prices will come down if demand is established.

I do not know what we are waiting for. But I do know that children, their personal hygiene and health are getting affected every day in schools, and we have to do something very urgently on a war-footing to solve this problem. Many of us have some discretionary monies available for charity, why don’t we contribute to this magnanimous purpose instead of other kinds of donations? It is proven that if the donor can see and feel the result of his/her donation, he or she will contribute more and continuously.

Time to change the toilet situation in India. Let us follow Prime Minister Modi’s vision but not the slow-moving government machinery. Let us leverage India’s phenomenal private enterprise to solve this problem.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th August 2016

Overstepping Zeal


The recent incident of a 14-year old student being handcuffed by the police in Irving, Texas, U.S., for bringing a digital clock to the school yet again demonstrates the overzealousness of law enforcement officials in the U.S. This incident also shows that the School involved (MacArthur High School) did not follow procedures, or logic, though they claim they did. They did not even inform the father of the student before the police was called in for investigating the matter.

What did the police do ? They promptly profiled Ahmed Mohamed racially and determined that the device he built was a threat to the School because it could have been a “bomb”.

There are many learning points in this whole episode.

One is that the teacher who reported the matter did not use simple logic. He or she knows the concerned student, and probably knows that he is a builder of scientific things.

The engineering teacher who appreciated Ahmed should have informed the other teachers and the school administration that Ahmed has built a digital clock and would like to show it off to the class. He did not and told Ahmed not to tell the other teachers about the clock.

The other angle is that the parents of Ahmed should have known that he was taking the clock in a briefcase to the School. Shouldn’t they have informed the class teacher that he is bringing his new contraption to the School, and that he should be given some demo time, for instance ? Even this basic thing did not happen, and for this I have to only blame the parents. They know what Ahmed was doing or building anyway.

The School should have known that it was just a digital clock – where was the engineering teacher who knew that ? Did he go absconding ? Why report to the Police when they could have determined what it was in the first place and could have also told Ahmed to inform them in advance in future ? Why couldn’t the School have a conversation with the parents, who they obviously knew ?

The Police action is no surprise at all – most police officers in the U.S. seem to think that everyone is a criminal unless proven otherwise. And, they seem to believe in tough enforcement without delving deep, and make symbolic communication like handcuffing 14-year olds, so that the society will learn to reform itself.

High-handedness is no good in a democratic civil society. Overzealousness to arrest and prosecute people with the only fear of getting shot by the criminal is not acceptable in a civil society, because every one has his/her right to be heard and a right to life. The U.S. law enforcement needs urgent fixing. I was shocked to read that in 2015 till date, 834 people have been shot and killed by U.S. police officers (as per a report that I read in Guardian).

Racial profiling of minority communities such as Muslims in the U.S. who are already in a state of siege has to be challenged. Not every one is a criminal or a terrorist just because he or she comes from a minority community.

Well, if you put all facts together, it is clear that all parties to this episode have messed up, and exacerbated an antagonism which already exists in the American society. While most things about the U.S. are good or all right, on this one factor the U.S. has not achieved freedom for its citizens. The whole world is witnessing dramatic incidents like these which only continue to spoil the image of the U.S. in the eyes of the world.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

19th September 2015

English Language – It is very Phunny


Courtesy: Shyam, my IIM-B Classmate

Some words have different meanings and yet they’re spelled the same.
A cricket is an insect, to play it – it’s a game.
On every hand, in every land, it’s thoroughly agreed,
The English language to explain, is very hard indeed.
Some people say that you’re dear, yet dear is far from cheap.
A jumper is a thing to wear, yet a jumper has to leap.
It’s very clear, it’s very queer, and, pray who to blame
For different meanings to some words pronounced and spelled the same?
A little journey is a trip, a trip is when you fall.
It doesn’t mean you have to dance whene’er you hold a ball.
Now here’s a thing that puzzles me: musicians of good taste
Will very often form a band – I’ve one around my waist!
You spin a top, go for a spin, or spin a yarn maybe –
Yet every spin’s a different spin, as you can plainly see.
Now here’s a most peculiar thing, ’twas told me as a joke –
A dumb man wouldn’t speak a word, yet seized a wheel and spoke!
A door may often be ajar, but give the door a slam
And then your nerves receive a jar – and then there’s jars of jam.
You’ve heard, of course, of traffic jams, and jams you give your thumbs.
And adders, too, one is a snake, the other adds up sums.
A policeman is a copper, it’s nickname (impolite!)
Yet a copper in the kitchen is an article you light.
On every hand, in every land, it’s thoroughly agreed,
The English language to explain is very hard indeed!
Now note the words and pronunciation
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
And only Scotsmen call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
and here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And do and go, and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive –
I’d mastered it when I was five.
(Author Unknown)

Courtesy: Shyam, my IIM-B Classmate

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
14th Sep 2013

India Story – A Big Questionmark ?


The India Shining Story seems to be coming unstuck.

Never mind, it was anyway not brilliantly shining at any point in time. Achieving a GDP growth rate of over 8% for a few years should not please anyone, as the uplifting of the rural poor is not complete. Healthcare and Primary Education are in a state of mess. Infrastructure is debilitating. Just one look at China, anyone with some intelligence will realize that a Communist Dictatorship can achieve much more in resolving peoples’ problems and lifting the country out of its poverty than does the world’s most populous democracy.

What gives ?

The system of government does not seem to be the determining factor in achieving economic growth. If we take that factor out of the equation, then things become clearer to an observer. Or else, we will be unnecessarily attributing the success of China to its authoritarian government, and praising India for achieving even a modest rate of growth as the result of sustained democracy.

That would be hogwash.

What exactly drives a country towards a better economic performance and an achievement-oriented mindset ? What are the factors behind success in the world scene – be it a social power or an economic power for a country ? What drives things and people ? What attracts investors ?

There is only one answer, and I do not have any doubt about this answer.

What is it ?

It is EDUCATION. India invests less than 1.5% of its annual budget on Primary Education – a developed country invests typically double that figure, sometimes even 4%. China invests a much higher figure on education overall.

Look at the results. Not even one Indian University is in the Top 200 institutions in the world in any survey – a few Indian Institutes of Technology are there in the Top 100 but way behind the leading Asian Universities from Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The status of Primary Education in India is nothing short of pathetic. No proper schools for more than half of the primary school going children, no proper facilities and in most cases, no teachers.

And, what does the government do ? Just make tall promises and in most instances, just ignore the problem. What did India learn from the Asian Economic miracle and Asian Educational successes ? Nothing, it seems. India did not learn anything either from the West or the East when it comes to quality of education.

How can this situation be changed rapidly given that investments in education take a long time to produce results ?

By bringing foreign universities and institutions into India since Indian school systems and universities have failed their cause and the people of India. Accept the failure and get in the experts to fix the system. Even the Indian system of educational accreditation was riddled with corruption.

India needs to invest at least 3 to 4% of its annual budget on education and reduce its defence expenditure. Healthcare also needs massive investments given the status of Government-run Hospitals, but that is a separate discussion ! Something like USD 50 to 70B of annual investments in educational infrastructure and quality is called for.

Private investments are required, and the Public-Private Partnership model will produce a better quality result than the government of India itself.

Serious and urgent discussions are required in this sphere to arrest the decline and reverse the trend.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
22nd June 2013