Sunday, September 10, 2006

State No 1

Sorry to disappoint you but this is not the title of David Dhawan’s upcoming movie. Very recently, Himachal Pradesh was adjudged the best state in the whole country on the basis of the progress it has made in the areas of, hold your breath – Primary Education, Primary Health and Fastest Mover state in Consumer Market. When I read it in the newspaper, I almost fainted.

While it may be totally a coincidence that both centre and state is ruled by the same political outfit, it is no coincidence that it is the first two areas where there are gaping holes in what is on the ground. I can’t talk much about the third and last one, because it is quite subjective and there is no absolute minimum which can be established and agreed upon easily.

Most of the government schools, in the region I am working, do not have sufficient teachers, those who are there, are not trained properly and lack motivation to teach students. While the state government has secured the award by piggy-backing an irrational and nonsensical education policy which dictates that every child in primary school will be taken all the way to eighth standard irrespective of performance, it would be very interesting to see how these kids perform at higher education levels. May be, by the time, first set of students come out of such system, government will make another draconian policy to take them all the way to 10+2. Or, by that time, the current government will no longer be there to bear the brunt of such stupid policy.

The least I say about the primary health the better we all will be. The villages where I am working have no support for primary health services. It seems that by combining Irrigation and Public Health department into one, government has assumed that its work is done and now it can sit back and relax and enjoy the rewards. The fact that a tehsil town like Ghumarwin gets brown murky water when it rains, should tell everyone how serious the government is about the health of its citizens. The fact that most of the hand-pumps, installed by IPH department, deliver water with Arsenic speaks volumes about how concerned local government is.

May be the evaluating agency should bother to check facts and try to separate hype from reality. But then, India is famous for its ambiguity – here, what you see doesn’t happen and what no one sees does actually happen.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Simply Simple or Stupid ?

There is a sweet shop right next to Bus Stand. I go there, very often, either to drink lassi or to have morning breakfast (a random mix of samosa, jalebi and chai). The shop is owned by an old man and his early-thirties son. Until this point, I never realized that I don’t know his name!!!

A few days back, one evening, while I was enjoying lassi at his shop, the son started talking to me. He told me that, long time back, he got an offer from police force because he was a good wrestler, but he didn’t join them because his father wanted his only son to look after the shop. So, he deemed it fit to help his father run the business rather than serve the force. Then, he started comparing the two professions – he said that, right now, he can spend his time with his family (an educated wife, a son and a daughter and parents), he has his business with no loans outstanding or anything and he has a well known and fixed schedule (from morning 7:30 AM to 10 PM in night, with a break of 2 hrs during lunch time). He then continued saying that none of this would have been true had he opted for joining police force. He pointed out that, in police force, there is no fixed schedule and job location. Also, one has to unnecessary take wrath from criminals and politicians for doing one’s job.

When he was sharing his thoughts enthusiastically, I was going through a mixed bag of feelings – marveling at the simplicity of this person to the sheer stupidity of his thought process. On one hand, it was very clear that he is an ordinary citizen who is just busy thinking about his family and himself. Though, at the same time, I was getting irritated by such a narrow way of looking at things, where people don’t think of the society, system or the nation they live within, as if everything ends where personal benefit/well-being ends. Reminded me the false cocoon of safety which we all feel we are living in.

I wanted to ask him about what he has thought about the future of his kids, but I just restrained myself, as I didn’t want to rudely snap him out of what he perceives, right now, as the perfect life due to the wisest decision, he ever made. Though, this Sunday, I shall bug him with some tricky questions ;-) Will report later …

Monday, August 14, 2006

Quality of Education

Around a month back, I started teaching English and Computers to the youngsters in the villages. This was after a popular demand from most of the parents (and some youngsters too) that youngsters from the villages lose out due to their weakness in these two areas, which has become almost a necessity in outside world.

Keeping in mind the objective of the trust - quick returns on any effort, I decided to start with people who are either already graduated or doing their graduation. I met quite a few youngsters in each village to figure out what they know and what they want to learn. The mix was quite varied - some are doing computer course in a private institute in Berthin or Ghumarwin, some have done a basic course in computers during 10+2, and some have never studied anything about computers. One common theme was that everyone is weak in English and not just weak but pretty weak. One astonishing fact which I came across during this exercise was the realization how much money parents were spending to get their wards to do a computer course. Most of these courses had taught these youngsters only theory and almost no practical work. Students also, it seems, had decided not to explore anything at their own, and hence when I would ask what was the Operating System of the machine on which you used MS Word, there are no answers. Surprisingly, I also found out that lot of courses are teaching these youngsters MS DOS and WordStar!!!

After collecting all the data, I decided to start two batches - one for computers and one for English speaking. The classes started, and after first couple of days, I realized how weak these youngsters are in English – they don’t know anything about English!!! They have read everything, but just don’t understand and hence remember any of it. So, I spent first week in brushing their knowledge about tenses – how to find the tense, what are the different rules etc. I also covered what are commonly used verbs, what are common English words, what various things (body parts, vegetables, fruits, objects at home & school etc.) are called etc. Meanwhile, I also told them how to practice for English – read newspaper (which I promised them to provide everyday), listen to English news channels on TV, read books or magazines (I offered to bring them some), converse with each other etc.

During the classes I observed few patterns – students will take notes of whatever was discussed in the class. They seemed to be more worried about taking notes than understanding what is being discussed. Most of them will not ask anything despite my continuous assurances and suggestion that they should stop me as and when they don’t understand something. Also, a couple of students will not give any expressions during the entire duration of the class, day after day. I was unable to say whether these people understand anything or not by looking at their face. Like others, they also won’t open their mouth. None of the students ever asked me for newspaper or book or magazine which I had told them about during fist week.

After around 10 days or so, one day I just posed few basic questions to the class, and as I was expecting, there was a dead silence in the room. No one could tell me the answers. So, I started probing into the problem. After around 40 min of probing from various angles, they told me that they don’t study at home. When I asked what they did with their notes no one had any answers. It seems that during their entire schooling, the only thing they did while sitting in a classroom is to take notes. These youngsters are not used to of focusing on understanding what teacher is teaching them; rather their focus is to take notes, because they believe that’s what teaching is all about. Though, in the current scenario, they were not even looking at the notes after going back home. They are also not used to of asking questions in the class, even if they do not understand something.

This reminded me of what I had observed in Kallar School. Exactly the same story, except that here, I was looking at the end product, whereas in the school, the products are still being made. This is the pathetic state of our education system, and so much for the much touted Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, which is being projected by the government as a major step towards bringing literacy in rural and backward areas.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Looking for Snakes

Sometime back, we started a ladies centre in the village. The very first activity taken up was training interested ladies in knitting. This was taken up first, because fortunately we found a teacher - Ms Krishna - to train these ladies. She is from Dangar village, which is around 9 kms away from Kallar. She comes to the centre five days a week - Mon to Fri - and spends five hours daily to take care of 2 batches. After we finalized her as the teacher, we quickly arranged for two knitting machines from Ludhiana through one of Ms Krishna's relatives. Ms Gita, Pradhan of Mahila Mandal of Kotlu Bindariya, offered one of the rooms in her commercial building to run the training classes, that too, free of cost. Since everything fell in place, we decided to start the class as soon as machines come in. Incidentally, when the machines arrived in the centre, none of us were here, so the villagers themselves took care of arranging everything so that the training can start. It did start, albeit on a turbulent note.

We decided to levy a fee of Rs 50/- per month per person towards the training. The idea of this fee was that it would bring only those who are seriously considering utilizing the skill towards creating an additional revenue stream. Also, this would have created a small pool of money, which could have been utilized, later on, by ladies, to buy machines to start their own business. This was our attempt towards micro-financing.

It so happened that when the machines arrived, all sixteen ladies, who got enrolled into the first set, happen to be from Kotlu Bindariya, Lurhani, Baroat and few other villages. Incidentally, somehow, there was no one from Kallar, Mandail, Kotlu Brahmana and Doon villages in the first set. I don't know the exact reasons of it because I have been given different stories, and it is hard for me to figure out what is the truth.

Also, due to the fact that only two machines are there, only 4 people can be taught, each day, which means that a lady gets her turn only after 4 days. So, ladies did some math and came to the conclusion that they are paying Rs. 50/- for being trained for 2.5 hrs for 4-5 days in a month. On top of all this, Ms Gita's decision to take a cut of Rs. 15/- out of Rs. 50/- towards rent charges for her room, added the much needed fuel to the fire.

So, here is the inferno - the centre is running in Kotlu Bindariya village in a room owned by the Mahila Mandal Pradhan of Kotlu Bindariya, who is charging Rs. 15/- towards rent of the room, which she ostensibly has given to the Trust for free. Also, out of the five villages, where we are supposed to work, only Kotlu Bindariya village ladies are getting trained. Additionally, ladies were getting only 4-5 days in a month to learn. Put together, it turned out to be a big problem, which I had to tackle as soon as I landed here.

After speaking to lot of people, I realized few things specific to the problem -

(a) Information about opening of the training centre didn't reach all the five villages.
(b) Ladies didn't know why exactly are they being charged Rs. 50/- per month.
(c) Process of selecting trainees for a batch was not transparent to people.
(d) Ladies suspected that Ms Gita is indulging in some unfair practise by taking a cut of Rs. 15/- and having only her village ladies as trainees.
(e) The (d) above happened because never before have these ladies worked together as equal stakeholders in anything. This was the very first time they were supposed to do it.
(f) There was some reluctance in people to work together also, primarily because they were scared of a change - working together.
(g) No one knew that we are supposed to work only with five villages - Kallar, Mandail, Kotlu Bindariya, Doon and Kotlu Brahmana.

It was amazing to find out how keenly everyone was looking for snakes. While, truely, there were none. Whatever happened was either due to lack of information or due to circumstances. But, yes, as an outsider if you see, you may think there is something fishy out here. The surprising part was that even some of the big-wigs were not willing to sort the problem out because they had conveniently assumed that people are doing this for personal gains. While it is true but only to a very small extent. Allegations were hurled, past experiences (obviously unpleasant ones) were quoted, attitudes were discussed but there was no sign that anyone wants to solve the problem. While exploring this problem, I realised what lack of trust could do to a community. I realized how fragile one's reputation can be just because people, by default, look for snakes, instead of realizing the fact that, just like them, others can make mistakes too.

This reminded me of one of my observations - in India, when two strangers meet, they start their interaction with maximum distrust. In contrast, in USA, when two strangers meet, they start their interaction with maximum trust. I am sure it has something to with our culture, history etc etc, but till date I don't know exactly what it is. In case, you have observed the same and thought about its reason(s), please do share with me.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Publlic Transport

I commute daily between Ghumarwin, where I stay, and Kallar village. Actually, most of the buses go to the tip of the village, a point knows as Kallar Moad (turn/junction for Kallar), where I get down and walk for around a km or so to reach the school. The ladies centre is also just 2 min walk from the school. Sometimes, I have to go to Berthin, a nearby town, to meet someone. If I am going there from Kallar, I will come back to Kallar Moad and then take a bus to Berthin.

There are two ways to reach Berthin from Ghumarwin – one via Nihari and Kalllar Moad and other is via Sunhani. Just after around a km from the Ghumarwin bus stop, as soon as the road cross the over-bridge on the khadd, it bifurcates – one goes to Nihari and another goes to Sunhani. Distance between Berthin and Ghumarwin via Nihari is roughly 16 km and via Sunhani is roughly 11 km. As you can see the distance is roughly 50% more via Nihari.

Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) runs its buses only on primary routes. They have asked private bus operators to run buses on secondary routes to provide good connectivity. Ghumarwin to Berthin, Nihari, Sunhani etc are secondary routes, so one can find only private buses plying on these routes. These private buses are smaller in size, and hence capacity, as compared to full size HRTC buses. Most of the private buses are in very decent condition, they do not bear any semblance to a steel box coming straight out of junkyard, which had been my experience with city bus services in the state of Uttar Pradesh, way back in early 1990s. In fact, you won’t find any damaged seats, non-working windows, broken seat-backs or damaged bumpers. The only thing, you wish was not working in the bus is its music system. As soon the bus starts, music is played at a very high volume and the ceiling mounted speakers can make you go mad, especially if you are standing and traveling. It would have been more tolerable if the music and the system are good, unfortunately, most of the time you would hear nth remix of a song played on a bad music system. The combination is really lethal.

Inconsistency in Fares
The fares between two points are supposedly fixed by HRTC, and these private operators are supposed to comply with it. Though, in practice, there is no fixed fare between two points. Every bus operator charges a fare of its own liking (to the degree that you can call it one’s whim and fancy). Mostly, I commute between Ghumarwin and Kallar Moad, and I have paid fares ranging from Rs. 6/- to Rs. 9/- (mostly either 8 or 9) per trip. Every time I ask the bus conductor, why it is different from the previous trip, he would say this is the fare, the previous trip guy won’t know, or some other story. In some cases, I got another rupee or so back after I lodged my protest, which surprises me, because it tells me that if I protest, I am going to get back some of my money.

As I mentioned before, there are two routes to travel between Ghumarwin and Berthin, and, the distance traveled is significantly different. Though, as I figured out recently, the fare between the two points is same, irrespective of which route you take. I am not sure why it is so, but it might have been done to ensure that buses ply on the longer route as well. Incidentally, most of the time, I have traveled to Berthin via Sunhani route. The other day, I was coming back from Berthin to Ghumarwin via Nihari route. The bus conductor asked me to pay him Rs. 12/-. When I said that the fare is Rs. 10/- which I have always paid on my previous trips, he said that Rs. 10/- is the fare when you take the shorter route (via Sunhani) not when you take the longer route (via Nihari). I told him it doesn’t sound right, but I had to pay him Rs. 12/- It so happened that the very next day I had to go to Berthin again and that day I went via longer route but the bus conductor charged me Rs. 10/- only.

After this, I spoke to some local folks who I know, and they told me that typically, these bus guys charge extra if they realize you are an outsider and not aware of these peculiarities. They advised me to give them exact change, so that they don’t have any mechanism to extract extra money from me.

Always late
These buses never run on time. Apparently, they have a schedule and they are supposed to adhere to it. Though, at a broader perspective you can say that they run on time, because the delay, generally, is not more than 15 min or so, but only at the starting point. Though such a seemingly small delay invariably causes problems because of what happens on the way, as explained below.

Since there are all villages and that too on a hilly terrain, residences are scattered all over the place, amidst green lush fields. There are many kucchha (non metal) roads along the way which lead to another cluster of houses or small villages. Put together, passengers are standing all over the place on the way. Incidentally, for whatever reason, people prefer door pickup than walking down to a nearby designated bus stop. Well, the notion of latter one is totally absent, anyway. While door pickup is indeed convenient, but people do not realize the cost they pay for this convenience - the bus is never able to gather speed due to frequent stopping. On a good day, the bus will stop every 250 m whereas on a normal day it will stop at every 150 m, either to pick up or drop off. This results in spending 40 min to cover a short distance of 13 km (from Ghumarwin to Kallar Moad). Though, after living here for a while, I realize why people don’t have a problem with this system. Time is in plenty; no one is in hurry for anything; everything moves at a snail’s pace; meeting times are not observed (I had meetings where few participants turned up as late as an hour, that too without any apology) etc.

If it is a wedding season (India has few identified time-periods through the year when most of the weddings take place) then it can be really irritating. Lot of these private buses get hired to transport wedding guests, so suddenly you will not find, say, a 2 PM bus plying. If one is waiting for the bus on the way and not at a major stop (say Ghurmarin or Berthin), one is doomed because one has no way of knowing that a specific bus is not plying today. One can keep waiting until it is time for next bus.

Passenger Density
The way passengers are squeezed into these buses, would, probably, put any compacting algorithm to shame. Typically, these buses have seats for around 20-24 people, but you will find at least 50 people in the bus. Best part is that no one is hanging on the foot-board and HP government has banned traveling on top of the buses. Sometimes it is really crazy to find that the bus is waiting at an important stop (say Nihari) to get more passengers even though you will see people standing in the bus.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Disgusting is the word

The schools in HP are closed now-a-days, as summer vacations are going on. Kallar school is also closed. So, we thought, it is a good opportunity to do some renovation work at the school as, right now, there won’t be any disturbance to normal functioning of the school.

The first thing which we thought was to level all the ground around the school so that the school looks tidier and we can have a big ground for sports etc. Right now, the entire school premises is at three different levels. Remember, this is a hilly terrain, where having these levels/steps is very natural. Due to these different levels, there is not optimum usage of the space, whether it is for sports or for having a period or two outside in chilly winters, when any exposure to sun is very soothing and comforting.

Keeping all these things in mind, we asked a JCB contractor to come and meet us so that we can get some estimates from him about the time and cost. So, this gentleman along with his “team” of 3-4 people descended down at school today, that too around 45 min late. Anyway, it was drizzling and we inspected the area along with him and his team. They did some quick calculations and he told me that it would around 100 hrs to complete the work, give or take 10 hrs. When asked, he told me that he has two machines – smaller one at the rate of Rs. 750/- per hour and bigger one at the rate of Rs. 850/- per hour. Then he added very quickly that his bigger machine is brand new and works very fast. So, if we use this machine we can assume that work will be completed in around 90 hrs or so.

While I was doing math in my head to compute the whole amount for the work, he quickly also added that his smaller machine is busy on a long term project so it won’t be available for our work. So, I asked him, “This means, we will have to get the work done by the bigger machine, am I correct?” He quickly responded in affirmative. After this, I asked him, “As per what you said, it would take 90 hrs to complete the work using this machine, am I correct?” This time he fumbled a bit and said, “Sir, let us take the estimate of 100 hrs, we anyway will charge you for the actual time and not the estimated time.” While in theory, I agree with him completely, especially since I come from a software services industry where, generally there are huge variations between estimate and actual, I was pissed off with the cunningness of this guy who, very beautifully, sold his new machine at a higher rate while keeping the estimate same. I didn’t argue any further because I knew the work would not take 100 hrs or 90 hrs for that matter.

After doing the inspection and all this discussion, we came back to the school office for some discussion. I don’t know what because as far as I was concerned, we were finished talking as I had already told him that I would get back to him in few days, about my decision. Anyway, we sat down and he tried to probe me to find out how soon a decision would be made and when he can expect to start the work. After 5 min, he and his team stood up and left the room. I was getting ready for my next meeting, when the main contractor came back to the room and asked my contact number. I gave my cell phone number to him. While he was writing it down in his cell phone address book, he said to me, “Sir, I will give you your share.” The kind of tube-light I am, I just didn’t get the clue and asked him, “Sorry, I didn’t get what you are saying.” He elaborated, “Sir, please get me the work, I will give you your share of money!!!” I was shocked and I told him that I don’t work like this and it won’t be decided on this basis. He looked at me as if I am from a zoo and then said, “Ok, sir, just let me know when you want me to start. Please keep in mind that the work may even take 40-50 hrs if there are not many rocks and stones.” I was shocked – the estimates have tumbled down drastically, almost by 50% !!!. I asked him how come there is such huge variation in estimates, and he explained to me, hurriedly, that if there are some hard rocks it would take more time but if it is mostly soil, it won’t. Before I could say anything more, he left, leaving me standing there dumbfounded.

After he left, I thought about the whole incidence and then it struck me how the whole game works – he jacked up the estimate of work, because he assumed that he would have to give me money to get the work, and he would have got that money out of the institution by giving a higher estimate and higher actual time spent. I was amazed and literally disgusted realizing how the whole thing works.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Residents of Ghumarwin are dependant on municipal water supply for their drinking water needs. Typically, water is supplied two hrs in morning - 6 to 8 AM and then half hour to 45 min in the evening - 5:30 PM onwards. This is apparently more than sufficient for all drinking, cleaning, washing and other needs. There are few handpumps also provided but they are not too many and are used in cases of emergency.

Right now, it is rainy season here, and I observed that the municipal water, supplied now-a-days, is not clean. It has some brownish stuff in it. On inquiring I was told by one of the neighbours that during rainy season, this is the kind of water the entire town gets. On further enquiry, I got to know that the water supply is sourced from a small river (called khadd in local language). The municipal water supply is solely dependant on it. So, in peak summers, when it is reduced to a very thin line of water, water supply gets reduced to just half hour in the morning, with nothing in the evening, or vice-versa.

Yesterday, when I was travelling to Kallar I observed the khadd and the water in it. Due to recent rains, there was quite a lot of water in the khadd but it was all muddy. I thought about it for a moment and suddenly everything became crystal clear in front of my eyes. Due to widespread deforestation and being a hilly terrain, whenever it rains, soil erosion happens. Obviously, all the soil, swept away by water goes into the rivers, and in this case, in the khadd. Considering that the water supply is sourced from this khadd, obviously, the water pumped in this town has all the soil/mud in it. I was amazed to see how a problem, induced by humans, is coming back and biting humans only, though in a different form - deforestation is preventing potable water supply. Never before this, I had ever witnessed nature taking such quick and cruel revenge on human beings.

Something very interesting happened yesterday in the evening - for the very first time, in 3 weeks since I am here, I observed that there was disruption in electricity supply for longer than 5 min, and that too twice within a span of two hours. I was wondering what could be wrong. My thought process started. The very first thing which struck my mind was the fact that Himachal has surplus power which it provides to neighbouring states, primarily Delhi, so how come, it is having power issues. The second thing which came to my head was that Himachal has lots of hydro-power projects and this is rainy season, and just now it rained quite heavily, and yet there is a power problem. Suddenly, a World Bank project report on SJVN (Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam) project flashed in front of my eyes. This hydro-power project is under construction in Rampur region and it takes the water coming out of another already-commissioned hydro power project - Nathpa Jhakri. The report has mentioned the problem of high silt content in the intake waters of Nathpa Jhakri project which would affect its discharged water and hence the intake of SJVN project. Immediately, I realized why the electric supply is having problems. The same muddy water (high silt content) would have travelled to the Nathpa Jhakri project where turbines would have stopped functioning due to high silt content of water, resulting in power supply disruption. So, the deforestation in high hills of Himachal (and elsewhere) is affecting not only the residents of Ghumarwin for drinking water but also the residents of Delhi for power supply, that too in sweltering heat.

As a music to my ears and a confirmation to my theory, today's Chandigarh edition of Times of India had a page 2 story about how Delhi residents faced problems due to additional power outage as Nathpa Jhakri plant in Himachal stopped functioning for 5 hrs due to high silt content in the water.

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