Renu Pokharna

Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

We don’t need no education

In Education on June 4, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Last year, 12-year old Shreya Sahai dropped out of class and decided to be homeschooled. Not unusual. But she hit a roadblock with The Right to Education Act (RTE) stipulating formal schooling for eight years. When she approached the Delhi High Court, the court dismissed the petition, telling the petitioners to approach the Human Resource Development Ministry to clarify its stand on homeschooling.

There is a reason why a tiny fraction of parents, dissatisfied with the state of formal education in India, didn’t figure in the larger context of the Act. There aren’t many parents who homeschool their children in the country — conservative estimates put the number anywhere between 500 to 1,000 children In many cases, it is disabled children who are homeschooled because the education system is not geared to provide special education to all disabled children.

Homeschooling is “education of school-aged children at home rather than at a school.” Homeschoolers argue that children who are homeschooled are able to learn more, and turn out be more culturally sophisticated and are able to excel in their natural abilities as their learning is more broad, and not just confined to a school environment. Shreya Sahai’s father pointed out that the Delhi region IIT-JEE topper, the 14-year-old Sahal Kaushik, was homeschooled, and that shows homeschooling is not just a fad. The modern-day American homeschooling movement began in 1969 and has now become one of the great populist educational movements of the past century. But it evolved over the years: laws were formed, regulations were put in place, and the state worked with parents who wished to provide home-based education to their kids. In India, it is more of a reaction rather than a well-thought out option.

Whether the RTE Act has scope for such a mode of education, and whether the government can govern such private choices is not what should concern the handful of parents who are agitated about the Act’s focus on “formal schooling.” What should be their concern is whether home-based education, given the lack of any monitoring agency or an organisation that can bring such parents and children together on a platform, is the right choice for their kids.

In 49 out of 50 US states, homeschooling is regulated. According to the Washington State homeschooling law, it is necessary to file a “declaration of intent” and follow certain requirements. Parents who are homeschooling their wards must be deemed qualified to provide home-based instruction by the superintendent of the local school district or complete a parent-qualifying course or meet with a certified teacher for an average of an hour a week. In the UK, since last year, a government report sharply criticised unregulated homeschooling. In Germany, it is altogether banned.

In India, where homeschooling has only recently started gaining some momentum, it does not require any registration, recognition or regulation by any agency or authority. Most parents, who have chosen to homeschool their kids either follow the CBSE curriculum or opt for the respective state board syllabus. Washington State homeschool curriculum also requires parents to include 11 subjects in their curriculum. The home-schooled children are also required to appear for annual testing — standardised or one-on-one assessment with a certified teacher — annually. Similarly, in New Jersey homeschooling is allowed as long as the home-based education is comparable to that provided by a public school.

There are, however, no special requirements that a parent must qualify for to begin homeschooling. But in case there is litigation about whether the education that the parent is giving to his/her ward is equivalent to that of a state school, the onus is on parents to prove their case to a local school superintendent. Besides, in most places where homeschooling is a success, parents who homeschool their children have formed clubs where they meet weekly to discuss curriculum and where their children can socialise and make friends. One criticism against homeschooling has been that it produces social misfits. In India, except in the virtual space — blogs, internet forums — homeschooling parents have not set up such organisations or social clubs. But then, in order for homeschooling to become a successful movement in India, there needs to be some supervision, because after all it boils down to whether those who are educating their wards are qualified enough. It is true that given the quality of our own teachers, the lack of infrastructure to produce quality teachers, dilapidated school buildings, and many private schools promising a good deal but delivering little, parents have the right to decide on the mode of education for their child. But is is homeschooling a viable option in the country today?

The HRD ministry will meet the parents of the homeschoolers soon, and discuss their issues. But lost in this maze of arguments on democracy, freedom of choice and dissatisfaction with the education system, is a simple point: why can’t parents supplement a child’s experience at school with more learning at home? Besides, if parents prefer homeschooling, they must first collaborate with the state to set up regulations so at least the system gets standardised. As it is , enforcing the RTE act will be an administrative nightmare. The option of unregulated homeschooling might be a convenient excuse to unwilling parents or lazy officials. Homeschooling in India is a nascent phenomenon. The inherent danger, as with all trends, is that it can attract many followers simply because it is the next cool thing to do.

That’s where homeschooling is in India today. The desire in a country that is teeming with millions who can brandish degrees is to stand apart. India needs to have to evolve the regulatory mechanisms that exist in other countries where homeschooling has been successful. Besides, even the worst of schools have their advantages. Growing up together teaches a child how to compete, yet work in a team.

Jun 3, 2010. Indian Express

Land, borrow, bank

In Property Rights on June 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

The availability of land for housing, industry, public projects and non-agricultural use has increasingly emerged as an area of conflict in India. With growth — both in patterns of settlement from villages to semi-urban, urban and metropolitan models, and economically in the form of new industrial and service sector enterprises — the supply of land is, quite literally, contested terrain. In particular, the transfer of land from agricultural usage in rural areas for large public and private sector projects has generated enormous distress and conflict. The application of the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act in several situations to take control of land, particularly for the benefit of industry, has also come under vigorous attack.

Official bodies and expert groups have pointed out that large projects in India suffer from time and cost overruns primarily on account of delays in securing the necessary land. Certainly, regardless of whether for a new steel plant, coal mine, expressway, irrigation project, or even township, availability of land is the critical factor which determines the speed of the project’s completion.

Simultaneously, the continuing fragmentation of landholdings in rural India means that over three-fourths of the agricultural plots are now categorised as either small (less than 5 acres) or marginal (less than two and a half acres). Often this tiny holding is the only asset owned by rural families and, even at a subsistence level, provides a few months’ supply of cereals in a good monsoon year. Unskilled in any other profession, these households are traumatised at the prospect of losing even this marginal asset.

Compensation for land acquired by the state, given rural property markets are virtually frozen, is calculated using archaic methods; the methodology used prevents transparent price discovery. The result is that the transaction, though legally correct and often vetted by courts, is seen by the landholder as unfair and biased against him. Government and industry both seem to be on the defensive, unable to evolve policy which is on the one hand just and also ensures speedy access to land for public and private enterprises.

A totally new paradigm in land supply is possible were the government to realise its critical role: first as custodian of the welfare of those who stand to lose their land; and second, as the only facilitator with the necessary legitimacy and power to ensure that economic growth is not hindered because land is unavailable.

What would this recognition achieve? The answer is a change in the government’s stance from a defensive and episodic intervener in land-related disputes to a proactive agent — arranging land for housing, infrastructure and industry, while at the same time guarding the interests of those who make such land available.

How can these seemingly divergent objectives be achieved? This requires two immediate steps. The first would be to legislate the creation of an independent regulator on land issues, with jurisdiction across the country. India has created credible regulatory bodies in the past; this could also take much of the politics out of land supply.

The second part of any legislation would create a land bank authority, on the lines of the NHAI and similar bodies. This — the Land Bank Authority of India — would also have national jurisdiction, and its mandate will be to act as a repository of land required for non-agricultural purposes, above a certain minimum threshold. In other words the LBAI would only handle large land transfers. Once this mechanism is in place, all compulsory land acquisition will end and be replaced by 30-year renewable leases between the landowner and the LBAI on the one hand and the LBAI and the end-user (which may be a public or private entity) on the other. The LBAI in other words would act as an intermediary between the landowner and end-user, protecting the interests of both.

A key feature of the relationship between the landowner and the authority would be the payment of an annual lease rent by the latter to the former. This is where the land regulator comes in. It would fix a one-time premium when the land is banked with the LBAI by the landowner, and assessing a fair, transparently set annual rent by periodically evaluating the revenues generated from the end-use of the land being leased. Thus the landowner whose land is pooled with the LBAI has a long-term stake in the land leased out, with loss of possession being balanced by fixed annual income, besides the upfront premium.

It should easily be possible, following the example of warehouse receipts, to make the lease document between the landowner and the authority a negotiable instrument, enabling the former to raise a loan against it for other productive investment. The entire arrangement becomes one in which the true value of the land is unlocked for the owner over a long period of time, with loss of possession actually triggering a steady income stream.

For end-users, the LBAI would arrange a similar 30-year renewable lease, with provisions to collect the annual rent on behalf of the landowner plus a reasonable service charge, also fixed and revised periodically by the regulator. This would cover the administrative expenses of the agency and make it self-supporting. Both the landowner and the end-user interact only with the land bank authority, assuring each party of a long-term relationship, with the fiduciary aspect being supervised by an independent authority. This irons out the potential conflict between landowners and end-users.

Of course it must be stressed that the creation of this mechanism does not preclude outright sale transactions between landowners and end-users. However, for large infrastructure and industrial projects, this arrangement offers one way out of the present impasse.

The writer, a member of the MP cadre of the IAS, is currently Visiting Fellow at the Indian Institute

of Public Administration , New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.

Jun 1, 2010. Indian Express

Politics make top govt. officers consider quitting

In Bureaucratic Delays, Corruption, Red Tape on June 4, 2010 at 9:13 am

Bangalore: The first government commissioned Civil Services Survey has revealed that, one out of three top officers in Indian Civil Services desire to quit their job. Political interference, harassment, frustration at being unable to contribute and the big money in the private sector were some reasons which is pestering them to leave the job ubder the government, reports Aloke Tikku from Hindustan Times.

4,800 of out 18,000 officers from various central services like Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service, the Indian Foreign Service responded to the questionnaire sent to them. The survey revealed that, the officers faced several problems in their service to their office, political interference being one of them.

“It appears that performance appraisals, posts and transfers, opportunities for deputation, political interference and timely promotion rank very high among the concerns of civil servants,” Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrasekhar acknowledged in his foreword to the report.

Most of the officers feel that their colleagues try to get good posting by pulling strings of favorable authorities. One out of three IAS and every second IPS officers believe this and one in four civil servants believe very few officers maintained integrity at their job.

“Perception of the IAS and IPS officers about the prevalence of unethical practices in their services in highest,” the report, that also recorded the perception among non-IAS officers that the IAS officers keep the best deals for themselves, said.

This survey was commissioned by the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (DARPG) to reach to census of the perception of the men and women who lead India”s Civil Service.The report of the survey conducted last month, where more than 4,800 officers had participated, has been circulated to state governments and central departments such as the Home Ministry.

“The government intends to make this survey an annual practice. This survey would act as a baseline and tell us how the corrective steps taken are perceived,” a DARPG official said.

A senior government official said he wasn’t surprised at most of the findings. “In fact, I expected it to be worse though it is bad enough,” the official said.

May 31, 2010. Silicon India

India’s bureaucracy is ‘the most stifling in the world’

In Bureaucratic Delays, Red Tape on June 4, 2010 at 9:10 am

A new report has confirmed what many Indians have long suspected – their country’s bureaucratic system is one of the most stifling in the world.

The Hong Kong based group, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, surveyed more than 1,300 business executives in 12 Asian countries.

The poll suggested India had the worst levels of excessive red tape.

Yet this seems not to have impeded performance – it has just released another set of strong growth figures.

But for many foreign companies that success is despite rather than because of the system they face, the report says.

There has so far been no response to the report from the civil service.

Bureaucracy and corruption

The report ranks bureaucracies across Asia on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the worst possible score. India scored 9.41.

Frequent promises to reform the bureaucracy, the report says, have come to nothing, mainly because the civil service is a power centre in its own right.

Starting a business in India is incredibly hard, and enforcing contracts can be nigh on impossible.

There is a strong link, the report says, between bureaucracy and corruption – and a widely held belief that bureaucrats are selfish and highly insensitive to the needs of the people they are supposed to help.

None of this will come as any surprise to most Indians, or to many within the civil service itself.

A recent survey of the Indian bureaucracy found large numbers of civil servants complaining of undue political interference, and a widespread fear that anyone questioning the system would be transferred to obscure postings in bureaucratic backwaters.

Given the level of dissatisfaction among foreign business executives and Indians themselves, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy report poses an interesting question: just how much better could India be doing if it were able to reduce bureaucracy?

One consequence, it believes, is that the inertia generated by a stifling bureaucratic system will, in the medium term, prevent India matching the growth rates of its great Asian rival China.

Jun 3, 2010. BBC

Salads on their platter

In Agriculture on June 2, 2010 at 11:08 am

It’s 8 p.m., dinner time at the Pawar household in Kodit village, on the outskirts of Pune. While his wife is busy making pithla-bhakri, a staple in rural Maharashtra, Sandeep Pawar is giving final touches to his salad—iceberg lettuce, romana and rocula, tossed in the dressing that Pawar has put together with curd, crushed cinnamon, oil and a paste of parsley and basil.

Till about two years ago, Pawar and the nearly 27 families working on a hillside farm in Kodit hadn’t even heard of broccoli. But now, they can rattle off names like rosemary, garlic chives, frisée, red oak leaf, sage, lollo rosso, oregano, and so on, all of which are part of their daily diet.

The story of these families and their transformed palette begins with Marc Cremer, an Indian of German origin, whose company Green Tokri delivers salad vegetables and herbs to chic supermarkets in Pune. But the salads came from Kodit, where Cremer owns 104 acres and which has been his home since 2001. Here, he grew salad leaves on 12 acres, herbs on another acre and had a greenhouse on one-and-a-half acres. And he had 27 families working on his farm—sowing, harvesting, de-weeding and packing. Two years ago, Cremer decided it was time the people who toiled on his farm got a taste of what they were growing.

“It really didn’t take too much convincing,” says Cremer, who calls himself an “80 per cent” organic farmer. “Indians are very adaptable by nature and they don’t mind trying new things. All the villagers needed was some exposure and guidance,” he says.

But this change in the platter did not happen overnight. When the first batch of crop was ready two years ago, Cremer asked his production manager to taste the salad before it went into the market. “It seems he liked the taste and word spread in the farm. After that, whenever the workers wanted the veggies, they were told to just walk in and take them from the farm,” says Cremer.

And then, Cremer and his wife explained the nuances of salad dressing to the workers. Now they even experiment with the salads and the dressing, he says.

Every worker seems to have a favourite salad leaf or herb. Nanda Durgale, who does the job of segregating the salads at the farm, is particularly fond of green oak leaf. “But my children are fond of romana and iceberg lettuce,” she says.

Narsingh Jadhav likes his ‘green butter head’ and ‘bronze butter head’. Equally popular, it seems, are chives, marjoram and thyme among the farm hands.

Cremer now hopes the trend catches on in the rest of the village and people know these exotic salad leaves by their actual names, not just as “colourful leaves”.

May 30, 2010. Indian Express

Water basics

In Agriculture, Progressive Panchayat on June 2, 2010 at 11:06 am

Every drop of water in Nauni, a village perched in the foothills of the rugged Solan mountains, has a sense of purpose. So when it rains, the excess water finds its way through PVC pipes to a giant storage tank, which is then harvested and goes back to the homes and fields of people.

This initiative in water harvesting has helped the 1,000-strong village tide over its perennial water crisis. Ever since the project was launched a year ago, the Nauni panchayat has managed to save 30 lakh litres of water, which now meets the needs of the villagers for more than 10 months a year.

The water harvesting system didn’t involve any great engineering skill; just a traditional knowledge of rainwater collection and storage. Rainwater flowing from the rooftops and the surface is collected and drawn through a 4-inch PVC pipe to a nearby tank filled with soil and charcoal. Here, the water is allowed to remain still for a while and gets filtered before being sent to the main storage tank that has a capacity of 240 litres. From here, the water is taken to storage tanks in every household.

Though the village gets its drinking water supply from Giri Khad, a river that’s barely a few kilometers away, the harvested water is being used for irrigation.

Panchayat pradhan Baldev Thakur, who came up with the idea, says, “Every year, litres of rainwater go waste. If we can store even 30 to 40 per cent of this, we can meet our needs for the entire year.”

The panchayat has now decided to supply its surplus water to Dr Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, located next to Nauni village. “The panchayat’s initiative is commendable and we are also extending them help with crop protection, organic farming, etc,” says University Vice-Chancellor K.R. Dhiman.

The water harvesting system is the latest in Nauni panchayat’s list of achievements. It had earlier come up with an innovative way to recycle household water. The waste water is drawn through an underground drainage system and stored in a treatment tank. This water is later used for cleaning streets and the market area. Every house in Nauni panchayat has a toilet, which has won the panchayat top awards for rural sanitation at the national and state levels.

Thakur, the pradhan, says the village won’t rest on these laurels. They have now embarked on a new initiative to electrify the villages in the panchayat through solar photovoltaic street lights, an energy saving initiative.

May 30, 2010. Indian Express

Rajendra Kumar, bank wale bhaiyya

In Microfinance, Poverty Eradication on June 2, 2010 at 11:05 am

AMRIT Lal gingerly places his index finger on the biometric machine and stares nervously. After a few tense seconds, the machine lets out a long beep and declares, “Grahak ki ungli ka nishaan sweekrit (customer’s finger impression accepted).” Lal smiles toothily.

If it wasn’t for “bank wale bhaiyya” Rajendra Kumar and his biometric machine, Lal, a labourer under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), would have

had to travel 4.5 km to his bank to withdraw this money—Rs 300 for three days’ work under the NREG scheme. But now, he had the money and a shiny receipt too without moving out of his home, all in 15 minutes.

Kumar, a graduate, is a ‘business correspondent’ for Bank of Baroda in gram panchayat Salempur in block Dalmau in Rae Bareli district. He is one of the 50 such business correspondents or BCs that banks like the Bank of Baroda and Punjab National Bank have sent out to the rural parts of Rae Bareli district. These business correspondents, who have been around for the last year and a half, work as mobile banks in places that have none. A UID working paper, From Exclusion to Inclusion with Micropayments, quotes the Reserve Bank of India to say that despite the network of 82,000 bank branches of commercial banks across the country, India’s banks cater to only about 5 per cent of the villages. That’s where business correspondents like Kumar step in.

So every Thursday, Kumar of Delha village checks his biometric machine for batteries and paper, picks up his money bag and sets out in his village. He works out of the house of one of the account holders and people come to him with their smart cards, carry out their transactions and leave with a receipt. The withdrawal limit for one day is Rs 25,000.

Kumar, who handles banking work for BOB in villages Delha and Karori, says that while most villagers have figured out how the biometric machine works, he has steady instructions for the first-timers: “Apne card ee machine maan rakhin rahi. Ab apne haath ki pehli ungli ko is batti wala jagah mein rakho, awaz aayega (card on the machine, finger on the scanner, wait for the beep).”

The BC model has also helped young, educated men like Kumar find jobs for themselves—and, like Kumar says, “earn some respect” too. “Wherever I go, people offer me a chair and serve water and sweets. Today, everyone in these two villages recognises me,” he says.

Kumar has done withdrawals totalling nearly Rs 3.75 lakh in the last one year for 178 account holders in Delha and 191 in Kurori. While PNB and BOB have had these services for the last one year, other banks like State Bank of India and Bank of India have initiated them from January this year.

Kalavati, a widow and an NREGS labourer, is learning the joys of banking. “Earlier, I had to leave my children alone at home and spend nearly Rs 50 to Rs 60 a day to get my money from the bank and even stand in long queues. But now, I can do that at home. Today, I withdrew Rs 500 from the bank but since I had managed to save Rs 50, I also deposited it in my account,” says Kalavati.

In Rae Bareli district, the business correspondent scheme is managed by Integra Microsystems Pvt Limited. Integra not only appoints business correspondents, but also provides the biometric machines and the smart cards. The battery-operated machine runs for four hours on a single charge and Integra supplies the batteries and the paper for the receipts. Correspondents are paid on commission basis, depending on the transactions they carry out every month.

Ashish Kumar Verma of Integra says unemployed graduates from the villages were chosen to be business correspondents. “We asked the villagers to give us options and then we chose the business correspondents. Since the villagers recognise the correspondent and have a level of trust, it is easier for them to handle the work.”

The gram pradhans too are happy with the system. “One of the allegations against gram pradhans is that we withdraw NREG money from others’ accounts. But now, since the machine can only identify the customer’s finger impression, there is no chance of forgery. And now, no one is complaining. In fact, both my wife and I handle our accounts through this system,” says Kamlesh Kumar Yadav, gram pradhan of Delha.

Bank of Baroda GM (UP and Uttarakhand), Subhash C. Ahuja, calls this system another step to bring banking services closer to the rural masses. “As per the guidelines of the Reserve Bank of India, banks have to take steps to make rural banking easier. Since the banks cannot open their branches in every village, the rural business correspondents are a good step.”

The next step, he says, is to “introduce mobile banking, where vans will go door to door, and also a shoppers’ debit card in villages.”

May 30, Indian Express

All about us

In Corruption, Poverty Eradication on June 2, 2010 at 4:17 am

There is a quiet, but deep crisis brewing in the state. Consider this random selection of stories that were also happening as the IPL crisis was distracting us: radioactive scrap yards in the heart of Delhi, arsenic in water in Chattarpur, more than a hundred people dead in storms in Bihar and West Bengal, a public spat between two key financial regulators, Sebi and IRDA, near misses at IGI airport, the role of the Planning Commission in determining poverty lines, and of course the ongoing Naxal crisis. Each of these important stories is a product of a peculiar institutional history and governance deficit. But they all have one crucial thing in common. One core issue at the heart of each story is: does the state have the right kind of human resources to be able to deal with the risks and challenges it faces?

We are surrounded by chemical hazards and much worse, but the state does not have minimal capacity to track them systematically. The storm in Bihar and West Bengal should have been an occasion to test our disaster management agency. But it was present more by its absence. Does it have enough people that really understand complex supply chains? Part of the Sebi- IRDA spat is a tale of turf wars, regulatory capture and indecision. But how much serious technical depth do we have in the financial sector? Is the pool sufficiently large to cope with the risks this sector will pose, let alone the challenges that will be raised by the complicated task of global rebalancing? We may pat ourselves on the back for supposedly coming out of the financial crisis less affected. But luck had as much to do with this escape as financial clairvoyance. Air Traffic Control is perpetually short of the required number of people. And the Planning Commission, despite some able individuals and consultants, is not equipped in terms of human resources to do the one thing it is supposed to do: act as a power-house think tank. In fact, not only has its mandate become fuzzy, its entire staffing structure seems deeply misaligned with the skill set it requires. And the Naxal operations consistently expose the fragility of the state’s human resource capabilities.

The list can go on. How are monopolies of power created within the state because only the Planning Commission claims to have the intellectual wherewithal for complex public-private partnership contracts? If the state allowed this capacity to be more widely distributed it would have a far more healthy internal discussion. How many top class international lawyers can the state mobilise to help it on key international disputes, from the Indus Waters Treaty to climate change? How can panchayats do complex forms of contracting without technical support?

The story of state failure is not simply one of human resources. It involves a lot of things from organisational culture, to political economy and political will. But recruiting patterns in the state are misaligned with its challenges and functions. Sometimes these misalignments are small and hilarious, but also consequential. The number of secretaries in the Government of India who complain that they cannot delegate the simple act of writing a proper letter, because there is no one on their staff who can write a letter they will not have to correct, is alarmingly high. This example is quotidian, and almost comical. But such quotidian trivia takes a toll on the state.

In short, the state lacks a well thought through human resources strategy. This strategy will require the state getting clarity over what its functions are. What are the risks and vulnerabilities it needs to guard us against? Second, it will require some serious projections of human resource needs. There is simply no such analytical assessment within government. The ministry of personnel, itself an example of role misalignment, cannot even give you a proper mapping of what government has, let alone what it might need. Third, it will require a whole new set of recruitment strategies. The biggest failure of government is that it thinks there is a profession called “public service” as opposed to a whole series of specialised competencies. There are some such specialised services, but by and large, recruitment has no bearing on technical competencies that will be required. Fourth, it will of course require a massive change in organisational culture of all kinds: from dismantling existing hierarchies to new forms of delegation.

Governments often have this illusion that employees are infinitely plastic and if need be, can be retrained. You need to get the structure of recruitment right. But it is underestimating three forces. First, the pace of technological change is extraordinary, and unless the state has the resources to internalise this change it will remain far behind. And frankly, with technology you need a bunch of young eager beavers, not staid civil servants. The Indian state is going to be making huge investments in new technologies. It is not clear that there is going to be a corresponding human resources strategy to make technology effective. The capacity of government staff to use technology for enhanced efficiency, let alone mobilising complex forms of knowledge, is seriously in doubt. Second, we are living in a time where the character of risks is deeply complex. Most of those are hidden from us, even when we are suffering from them, because the state cannot even identify them. Third, the state must understand that quality matters, and it must find ways to capture them.

Not all of the state’s human resource needs necessarily require state recruitment; it requires the ability to mobilise. Some solutions are easy. There is absolutely no doubt that the chemical risks we face are now extraordinary. If the state cannot map them, it should not be too difficult to get thousands of engineering and science graduates to spend a few days a year with each pantheist just mapping their environment and assessing risks. It might improve their education as well. Others will require more systemic change. There are some extraordinary people within government. Organisations are path dependent. If government does not use this moment of expansion for getting its recruitment right, we will be stuck with the consequences. One of the central functions of the state is to protect citizens against risk and vulnerability of all kinds. But it needs to make sure that its own lack of human resources is not a source of risk. No wonder we are glued to IPL. Otherwise everything reminds us of the fact that “there but for the grace of God go we”.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

Apr 21, 2010. Indian Express

No short cuts to equality

In Quotas on June 1, 2010 at 4:52 am

It is ironic that the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the RSP, which were at the forefront of the campaign for quotas for OBCs, are now the ones most vehemently opposed to the Women’s Reservation Bill. Does this mean that the under- privileged view the empowerment of other deprived sections as a threat, since it might eat into their share? Or is there more to their opposition to the bill than resistance to empowering their womenfolk, and self interest?

While women’s groups believe that the reservations bill will be a magical key which will open the door for genuine female emancipation, skeptics — including myself — question whether the well-intentioned legislation is the best way available to go about bringing parity between the sexes.

In one aspect at least the bill is retrogressive. Instead of attempting to put women on an equal footing with men, it will actually segregate them for ever. Reserving a third of the seats exclusively for women means that in the future women will be confined to reserved seats, and will be pitted only against other women. Women’s reservations, whether it takes the form of separate queues for tickets or seats in buses and legislatures, is an open acknowledgement of “weaker sex” status. Not an ideal way to bring about women’s emancipation. A more progressive method would be to enforce the rule that all political parties reserve at least 33 per cent of their seats for women. Another downside is that the women’s percentage in legislatures will be permanently capped at 33.

More than for all other quotas, there is a danger in women’s reservations that the creamy layer usurp the bulk of the privileges. If one takes a look at women in key positions in politics today, it is clear that most of them are there because of connections. Of the five most influential women in politics today only two, Sushma Swaraj and Mayawati, have made it on their own steam. Sonia Gandhi became leader of the Congress because she married into the party’s first family. Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar had a smooth and comfortable transition from the IFS to the political arena because she was Babu Jagjivan Ram’s daughter. President Pratibha Patil owes her place in politics to the fact she was the daughter of an influential Congress leader from Maharashtra. Among the central ministers, apart from Ambika Soni and Lakshmi Panabaka, all the others had a powerful male figure to give them a headstart. Kumari Selja and D. Purandeshwari had important political figures as their fathers, Krishna Tirath had a father-in-law in politics and Preneet Kaur her politician husband. Much is made of Agatha Sangma’s elevation as minister at the age of 28, but she owes her good fortune mainly to her father, P.A. Sangma.

JD (U) President Sharad Yadav’s objection to reservations for women is that urban, upper class women — whom he terms par katis, those with hair cut short, will walk away with the lion’s share, and the deserving self-made women from poor, rural backgrounds — such as the JD(U) MP Ashwamedh Devi, who has studied only till the eighth grade — will be left behind. The Congress, in particular, has a preponderance of women MPs from elite backgrounds. An exception is the earnest, dedicated, Meenakshi Natarajan, who came up the hard way. Self-made women are a rarity.

The argument is not that privileged women should not be allowed to stand for election — but should they be given a leg up at the expense of men, who might have struggled much harder to make it?

For the last 13 years, political parties have been talking about the Women’s Reservation Bill, but the bill has never been put to vote. This is because there is a sharp divide between the publicly stated postures of some parties and the actual views of the majority of their male members. The bill, after all, will take away the chances of many male MPs for re-election, and it will also prevent them from retaining the same constituency for more than two terms. (A very important factor for parliamentarians who have spent their lifetime nursing their constituencies.)

This time, however, it will be difficult for the government to retreat. The main opposition parties, the BJP and the CPM, have made it clear that they will support the bill and so have most of the Congress’ allies in the UPA. The two-thirds majority that is required to amend the constitution seems within grasp. The cabinet has cleared the legislation and, more importantly, Sonia Gandhi has put her full weight behind the long-talked about measure. The significance of introducing the bill in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, the centenary of International Women’s Day, cannot be lost on anyone.

Mar 8, 2010. Indian Express

Corruption & irregularities in implementation of NREGA: study

In Corruption, NREGA on June 1, 2010 at 4:45 am

A government-sponsored study on NREGA has found large-scale corruption and irregularities in the implementation of the programme in several states with authorities in some areas “misappropriating” central funds and “threatening” workers to keep their mouth shut.

“There was great fraud in making (of job) cards, muster rolls were not maintained properly, and work was not provided to job seekers sometimes…,” a team of researchers of V V Giri National Labour Institute noted in their draft report suggesting the government to take preventive measures.

The study has found that in many cases, workers performed one day’s job but their attendance was put for 33 days. The workers got money for one day while wages for 32 days were “misappropriated by the people associated with the functioning of NREGS”.

“…..In fact, the workers were threatened to keep their mouths shut. One of them mentioned that NREGS had proved to be a boon for the panchayat and functionaries,” they said in the report. The study, sponsored by Rural Development Ministry, was initiated in September 2008. The research team visited Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
They collected secondary material and also elicited information from different stakeholders like Gram Pradhan and beneficiary workers, besides interviewing implementing agencies and personnel.

The study team found that in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal and Bihar, the job cards were not in the possession of workers but sarpanches and other panchayat functionaries while in many cases job cards were found fudged with fake entries.

“In most of the cases, job cards were found in the possession of Sarpanches or other Panchayat functionaries. In many cases it was found that job cards were fudged and fake entries made,” it said. The report also noted “interpersonal conflicts” among project officers, block development officers and sarpanches, saying this has affected the performance and efficiency of the project officers. “In some places, the Sarpanches were using their political clouts to trouble the POs….In some cases, the BDOs were sore about snatching away of their signatory authority on NREGS cheques,” it noted.

The report suggested monitoring of workers and daily task measurements by “technical specialists”.

“There should be a Monitoring Committee consisting of some members of civil society, along with the panchayat functionaries and beneficiary workers,” it said.

May 23, 2010. Indian Express