Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Food From The Head

Our prime minister visited The Golden Temple last year for prayer and thanksgiving. This year while laying assorted foundation stones, he also visited the  golden vimana enshrined deity of the Tirupathi Temple. Lends a very nice touch this, the head of a modern nation, recognising the diverse traditions that make up our motley democracy, not being overwhelmed by them  and standing amidst temple officials looking as unruffled and  calm as he always does while attending to the onerous duties of the state.

Of late though, he seems to have  been deeply influenced by  two persons, the chap in a suit with a cigar, who first said "there is no such thing as a free lunch" and his savvy long fingered  nephew Baxbaum who coined the expression "if you think you have someone eating out of your hands, it would be a good idea to count your fingers!" I can attribute no other reason to the prime minister's recent pronouncement except the overwhelming pressure exerted by the aforementioned fellows. I wonder if this could be the much reviled foreign hand after all.   Why else would our Prime Minister chide the Supreme Court for its order that the food which is rotting in the government godowns  be distributed free to the poor? Our dispensers of fair justice must have felt like overambitious schoolboys who had mistakenly turned in completed assignments without being asked for them.

When  the serene sevadar of the Har Mandir  finishes distributing karah prasad (that fragrant, delicious and warm concoction of semolina  brown-roasted in ghee and sugar) into numberless stretched out hands, he has never needed to check if he has lost any fingers at the end of the day. This would be endorsed by all the  karsevaks  at the langar who voluntarily cook for  2000 people every day. The act of providing free food is an every day happening at the countless places of prayer and worship in our country, at innumerable temples and ashrams, where visitors get not only  free lunch, but even have free breakfast and dinner thrown in. In fact, one of the good things about most  religions is that poor feeding is listed as mandatory activity for all practitioners.

So, Manmohanji, dont listen to these two newly arrived economic advisors who  seek to dim your free thinking by  loudly humming the right notes  on policy formulations. They dont even know that in India  we do not own  social security cards with which we can claim our due as citizens.  This is especially true for that 37 percent population which  our new statistics have demarcated as poor.  Should n't be so difficult to identify them.  By now they should all have their own BPL cards ready.
 Please give them the food that will otherwise only decompose in our granaries Manmohanji..
 As a gesture from the state it is not even incumbent upon us to ensure that the food is cooked.
It only needs to be edible.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Teachers in kind

Kapil Sibal as education minister is very different from his predecessor Arjun Singh although both took office with the Abhayahasta Mudra ( why fear when the hand is there)centrestage. Arjun Singh displayed near complete immobility on most issues while his successor Sibal is from the opposite end of the spectrum. In fact, if Arjun singh has been immovable, Kapil Sibal has been virtually  unstoppable.
 First he thundered that there were to be no Class X exams. Moment of relief for stressed parents, super achieving kids and all  those harassed kids whom the system does everything it can to keep out. Time for a change especially as the first set of class X exams were held in 1977.  Ideally over a period of 8 to 10 years, feedbacks need to be collected, tabled and incorporated  towards the better functioning of the system itself. It is very possible this  has been slow and fraught with difficulties. Given the funds alloted for education in our budget, this should not evoke monumental surprise.
Kapil Sibal, however is a man who will not allow any grass to grow under his feet. He wants change and his notion of change is dramatic, and in keeping with generation Y, is  also required to be instantaneous. So change it is! Class X exams are to phased out, made optional and  from  2010 onwards  they will carry no marks, only grades. One year of such a board process has taken place. I am still quite puzzled as to how the awarding of grades instead of marks will alter the quality of education that we provide  and transform it into something truly empowering? Surely as educators we must concern ourselves with the quality of education that we provide? Also perhaps with exactly how this is being dispensed? In the seventies and the eighties, we were educated largely within our schools, both public and state aided. Prodigies who sang and danced received parental support and training largely outside the school. This was also perhaps true of our best  sportspersons. Schooling  now is a very different ballgame. Schools welcome children as part of a programme to initiate them into the workings of social life. They feed the children, teach them to cipher and to sing, involve them in cultural extravaganzas, have all sorts of educative entertainments lined up for them, introduce them to reading and writing and language  and when it is time to really hone  interests and provide some direction for the child, they simply let go.
This is where tuition centres step in as indispensable crutches to higher education.
This year too, despite the abolition of marks, tuition centres, individual and group are chock a block with students in each year of their  senior secondary education. These are not to be confused with coaching centres for entrances to the engineering , medical and technological colleges.  The tuition centres  I speak of are helping  children understand all the  maths, physics, chemistry, economics and commerce  they cannot fathom at school. Meanwhile there are personal tutors for the languages, national and international. So  today's young student studies by rote almost twice as much as my generation did, because they learn the same thing twice over. It is true that the majority of our school teachers are an  overworked and underpaid lot. So if thoughtful parents wish to ease the pressure off regular school teachers and cough up money to tutors and tutorial centres, this gesture of philanthrophic solidarity  must not be tampered with.
 What we  really need to do is to augment the corporate spirit our secondary education has been displaying for some time now.
We could use the occasion of teacher's day to get the  government to announce new schemes to bolster the health of  secondary education. Maybe we could petition Kapil Sibal and request that tuition shops be declared  centres of excellence forthwith. Once this is done, these centres can be authorized   to issue CBSE degrees in the subjects they teach, after a requisite written examination. This will enhance the self-worth of the Tuition Centres and  the tutors therein engaged and enable them to set new benchmarks and aspire to greater  heights. This will also solve the dilemma of  numbers that the CBSE Examination Board annually grapples with, namely the correction of an enormous amount of examination papers at breakneck speed under diverse regulations by anyone who is available. We should also  authorize our schools to issue certificates stating that their students were part of  all school activities, barring specific subjects from nursery to class X or XII, whichever is applicable. This will ensure that  there will be no bad blood between schools and  tuition centres, since now they can officially feed off each other.  Student loyalty, emotional quotient  and commitment to core values  can be deduced by the certificates handed out by the school while their academic potential or its absence can be gauged by the marks issued by the tuition centres.
Ratna Raman