[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

India’s Education System – What to make out of it?

Friday, April 15th, 2011

There is a group of journalist who blast India’s education system as horrendous while another group hails it as the next best thing for other educators to learn from!

Here is what a recent WSJ article titled “India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire” has this to say:

Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. Government keeps tuition low, which makes schools accessible to more students, but also keeps teacher salaries and budgets low. What’s more, say educators and business leaders, the curriculum in most places is outdated and disconnected from the real world.

Don’t lose heart just yet. A 2008 NYTimes artcile titled “Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy India’s Schools” has this to say:

Despite an improved economy, many Japanese are feeling a sense of insecurity about the nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. That is no longer true, which is why many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country the Japanese see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.

What the heck is an average reader to make out of this?

Mass-produced graduates..

I am not any expert in India’s education, but for my personal interest in the subject and the credential as a product of India’s education system having spent about one half of my life in the classrooms of an average sub-urban public school and corridors of a private engineering college.

My take is India’s education system produces exactly the kind of graduates it is designed to “mass produce”. Since our schools (factories) and classes (production lines) are dealing with minds (of teachers and students) instead of machines, what results is simply a spectrum of output quality – many good ones, some bad ones and rest fall somewhere in between. Given the factory model with prescribed academic syllabus, I do not think any school or any teacher can mint 100% great pupils year after year – even with 100% great teachers.

By the way, did the WSJ article’s author and the HR executives referenced in it all jump straight from heaven? I mean seriously? They all must have went through the same damned Indian educational system and now that they are at the top of the food chain, they are looking down and blaming it?

Don’t mistake my angst for denial. Heck, even the much-adorned American education system is begging for change! So, indeed the Indian education needs wholesale, transformational changes! But that’s not an excuse to write-off the system altogether. Which is why I think both the articles above are somewhat ill-conceived and poorly positioned without context.

An quote by Paul Tosto summarizes my thought perfectly:

Hand-wringing over education seems to be a national pastime…The other guy always seems to be smarter. The other country always has better ideas. Our kids will end up chumps in the global economy unless we do what those guys do, etc.

The WSJ article reflects a narrow authorship and refers to the NASSCOM Assessment of Competence (NAC) employability tests that have been developed the BPO and the IT industry! While those two industries have been a boon for India, by no means they represent rest of India’s economy. Moreover, it is not as if only IITs and IIMs produce the stellar students. The growth engine of India is primarily fueled by the good load of students produced by the average schools and colleges in the last 20-30 years.

A while ago Fortune magazine chronicled the training facility of Infosys in Mysore, India.

..after the job offer, comes the real test: eight hours a day at Mysore studying lines of Java code, attending team-building workshops, and learning to differentiate the do’s of global workplace etiquette from the don’ts.

The sad truth is India’s colleges are not designed to impart employable skills. They exist to provide theoretical knowledge minting “raw” graduates with unparalleled uniformity. Like it or not, every employer has to mold, train and coach them to some extent to make them employable! A talented kid emerging out of India’s system of education is a by-product of that kid’s own commitment to learning, her parents commitment for positive support, the effect of indulgences from societal & peer pressures, and last, likely the least, the formal educational system she was part of.

Ultimately, the problem with India’s education sector is one of a systemic immaturity and solution has to be multi-pronged:

  1. Enrollment at the primary / secondary levels must improve.
  2. Parents and family members must play an active engage in a kid’s off-school learning.
  3. Learning curricula must aim to produce well-rounded graduates retaining certain level of individual character and innate uniqueness. Education must balance art, creativity, music, sports, thinking skills, behavioral, inter-personal skills besides the science, math and language.
  4. Government must privatize the primary / secondary educational services. Not only will that meet the growing population’s demand but will also stabilize quality.
  5. Most importantly, career development programs must start at the middle schools.
    Career development programs should expose the students to wide-range of post-secondary educational opportunties.
  6. Society at large, including corporations and formal/informal industries must actively partner with schools and universities to set right expectations on what’s needed from students after graduation.

It is all easier to list than getting it done. We have decades to go before we can convincingly enroll, educate, graduate and employ India’s younger generation. Until then, start thinking about how we must shift the paradigm and redefine education as we always knew it.

Team India is the World Cup Champions!

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

It is truly a happiest moment for me as well as all the Indians across the World. May this moment be frozen in time. May the billion hearts forever be as joyous as today.

Dhoni – you are a gem of a Captian and you deserve every bit of it. Sachin – You have it now, the boys did it for you, with you.

Team India brought home the lost legacy and nailed its place as the greatest cricket team in the world! They touched the sky!

The team India that made dreams come true!

Try try touch the sky! India

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

This Saturday may be Sachin's most precious day...

Today, India stole from the hands of Pakistan a well-deserved win against a roaring crowd from great country side of Punjab. On a day like this, the people of India love their cricket team to death. (On other occasions of failure, the same players get virtually hunted and verbally beaten, getting psychologically killed!)

Indeed, today was a moment of pride and honor for players and the whole nation. Every single player in the team worked hard for this moment and they won’t go to sleep tonite until they celebrate the heck out of their souls. A world cup Semi Finals is perhaps harder than Finals – more so because it hurts so much to get this far and not make it to Finals. In some sense, the teams fought not to win but for not to lose. You will shed your last pint of blood to escape going through what went on between the ears of Afridi and Aktar in the last few balls of the match.

Reclaim lost legacy and nail it!


In the first innings, the Indian players got burned down by Pak’s impeccable bowling. Yet, the team India rose out of the ashes to stage a spectacular show under the lights.

The Team India rarely gets their act together on a consistent basis. The last two matches will likely go down in history books as great cricket leading up to a world cup finals.

What’s remaining on Saturday is for Team India to show that it can cough up fire out of ash to nail its lost legacy as the world’s best cricket team in the world. Sachin Tendulkar will bet his entire fortune to be frozen in that moment through eternity.

A billion fans will be holding up our torches so the eleven tigers can scale through the darkest, farthest part of the heaven to kill the roaring lions. Go Team India Go! Try try and touch the sky!

Flaws in the hype around Startup Visa Act

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Vivek Wadhwa wrote an article yesterday in BusinessWeek, Startup Visas Could Boost U.S. Entrepreneurship, in support of the proposed Startup Visa Act. The article purports that the Startup Visa bill, if approved, will result in “thousands of new startups”.

After you have read the BusinessWeek article, I suggest you also read Vivek’s brief summary report on skilled immigration statistics.

As outlined in the Business Week article, the summary of the legislation in itself has quite a few conditional clauses. I have to assume the detailed legislation that would go into effect, will have more specific gotchas. I am not sure how they arrived at all the numbers but within the boundaries that they have defined, I do not think we will see thousands of new American jobs – which is the goal of this legislation. It might create a few hundred American jobs, at best. We all can certainly pray for a Yahoo! to emerge out of this.

Note, I agree with his assessment of the immigration limbo (last but one paragraph in the article) on how skilled workers are jailed in the visa system, waiting for permanent residency. In my humble opinion, tying the skilled worker immigration fiasco with the Startup Visa Act is not entirely logical. I find certain flaws in the arguments and assumptions that Vivek is making in support of Startup Visa Act.

First, if an immigrant in the US has a business idea and wants to start a venture around it, they will find a way to do it. If there are legal ownership issues, they will find a resident or citizen partner to work with them. If someone landed in the US yesterday as an immigrant and dreamed up a brilliant idea last night, what they need this morning is money to make it happen! In its absence, they have to work their rear off through the network of known people to fund it. If this individual is passionate and aggressive, she will somehow find and pitch to VCs or enter one of the scores of startup / business plan competitions out there. As long as they can stay in the US legally, they will continue to look for ways to startup their idea. Case in point here: How Archana Patchirajan, who moved to the US only in 2004, launched her idea, founded a company with two other friends and secured funding from BMW.

As a matter of fact, I had gone through the process of forming a business so we could open up a retail franchise (this one) in our town in New Jersey. If things had gone right, we would have created at least 5 American jobs. We didn’t pursue it because the bank insisted a higher proportion of startup funds from our personal savings than we could pull. The accountant, attorney, and the bank executive who helped us didn’t question once about my immigration status – which was, and still is, H1B (very last stage though!).

So, as long as you are a legal immigrant, starting or owning a business in the US is not impossible. There may be a few immigrants who would take advantage of the Startup Visa Act, but it will not magically make thousands of skilled immigrants sprint overnight to Silicon Valley.

Second, the Kauffman report says

…India and China are racing ahead as centers of research and innovation. Further research may confirm what seems likely—that returnees from the United States are increasingly fueling this growth. Our interviews reveal these returnees typically went home because they saw tremendous opportunity in their home countries.

Greatest prospects for skilled labor is elsewhere

I would caution that anecdotal statement is somewhat misleading. Many of my friends have returned to India in last few years. A few of them returned specifically because they didn’t get a green card soon enough and got sick of being stuck with same employer and same job on a H1B visa. But the telling story is: Almost all of them returned to India, because India is the damn land of opportunity at the moment. They find wider range of jobs, faster career growth, better titles, higher pay in some cases, almost the same quality of life as in the US. In essence, they are simply as opportunistic as they were when they came state side. Let’s be clear: not everyone returning to India is starting a company there. I don’t have any research to back up that point but so is the quote above. Some returnees indeed start business there, immediately or eventually, yet the majority of India’s recent entrepreneurial growth is purely organic (read this and this). Internet boom and new media has opened up access to know-how and inspiration for all Indians, while India’s younger generation is doing the heavy lifting by embracing the culture of entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, American is wobbling, majority of industries have negative or stagnated growth, American corporations themselves are betting on their firm’s growth in International markets. For heaven’s sake, Chinese, Brazilians, and Indians are returning to their country because that’s where the greatest hope for the skilled person’s growth and prosperity is. Not because that’s where the next Silicon Valley is.

Third, if the Startup Visa were to “open the flood gates” (it won’t, but glad if I am proved wrong), it will be for the benefit of and because of Silicon Valley’s elite. The legislation’s clause mandates

“The investor must be a qualified venture capitalist, a ‘super angel’ (a U.S. citizen who has made at least two equity investments of at least $50,000 every year for the previous three years), or a qualified government entity.”.

I don’t exactly understand the logic of this restrictive “investor clause” but I suppose it was to prevent misuse. We can speculate what that misuse could be, but, this clause, by design binds and favors the Venture Capital community. That is good if some Venture Capitalist already knows you personally and can’t wait to cut a cheque in your idea’s name. If you don’t know anyone, then take a bus to South By South West (SXSW) or shunt coast to coast looking for business plan competitions.

I suspect quite a few VCs out there know entrepreneurs outside the US that they would like to fund and bring over to Silicon Valley, for good reasons – mentor and hook them up with best of the valley to eventually make a ton of $$$. Indeed, if such a legal framework exists, I would do it too.

One statistic intrigued me the most in Vivek’s Kauffman report.

In 2006, foreign nationals residing in the United States were named as inventors or co-inventors in an astounding 25.6 percent of patent applications filed from the United States, a substantial increase from 7.6 percent in 1998. Foreign nationals also contributed to a majority of some U.S. companies’ patent applications, including Qualcomm—72 percent, Merck— 65 percent, GE—64 percent, and Cisco—60 percent. More than 40 percent of the U.S. government-filed international patent applications had foreign authors. These numbers did not include immigrants who had become citizens at the time of filing.

Vivek asks, “so, why weren’t they becoming U.S. citizens and filing patents as Americans?”. Great question. Once you come into the US in a skilled worker visa category, the queue to the permanent residency and citizenship is enormously long. The irony is the Dream Act, whose primary focus is illegal immigrants, is taking up all the air time leaving no time or will to make the path to citizenship faster for skilled, legal immigrants. I bet very many of them will go on to start or own small (and big) businesses, spurring job creation across America.

No doubt, we need more Start-Ups, Not Bailouts but it largely must come from inside America, not outside. The Startup Visa Act will create American jobs, but it won’t make a dent on the job market or economy. Unless, of course, the Gods answer Vivek’s wish and bless US with another Facebook economy of some sort to spring out of it.

In Praise of Atanu Dey – Deeshaa.org

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Who is Atanu Dey? I know nothing about him personally and the little I know of him is what’s on the “About” page of his website – Deeshaa.org. What I do know is his writings. And what I aspire is to think and write like him.

I have feeble memories of when and how I stumbled upon this guy, must be early 2000s when Rajesh Jain was a dotcom heartthrob. But what a find: Atanu Dey is an authentic citizen of the sort that India sorely needs in millions. He is everything I want to be, but am not – at least not entirely yet.

With an education from more than one Ivy League institution, he could have been cruising now in a senior management job in corporate America but instead, he chose to focus his mind share on India’s development. He is most likely a omnivorous reader but more importantly, a free thinker and articulate writer. We may not agree with all his opinions, but he eloquently writes what he wants to say. I know not the hours he toils to compose his blogs, but I know what he ultimately writes are articles that you won’t find in reputed media. The topics, style and the tone makes me wonder they might as well be editorials for the day in mainstream media. That may sound as an exaggeration, so judge for yourself.

Atanu Dey writes on India's development @ Deeshaa.org

His writings are usually commentary on the state of politics, economy and education – primarily focused on India. But what distinguishes the commentary is its offbeat perspective and depth, which is generally lacking in the blogging community. For many bloggers today, being quick and quirky is more important than being deep and authentic. In that sense, Atanu is either naturally gifted to create a perception of depth or, as I believe, plows through background readings before constructing his arguments. To be fair, I should mention he occasionally throws diatribes that endlessly belabor his own notions.

Ultimately, what makes me return to his blog is that he is an ordinary and responsible citizen with no affiliations but lot of insights on current issues. In many cases, he does outline a vision for solutions too. Some day, he will be recognized in a larger stage for his authenticity and boldness, but until then, as Desh Deepak writes, he will be one of jewels in the overcrowded world of “restless, maverick and quirky Indian bloggers”.

Feeding a billion people every day

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Listening to NPR’s special report yesterday, I was astonished to learn that some of Nebraska’s farmers manage as much as 2500 acres, with help from few humans and monster machines. I hear Nebrasks’s corn belt is booming but I was left to wonder how could just few people farm thousands of acres? I cannot fathom this conquest of agricultural technology – virtually erasing farm labor from the equation. You may also want to know, Twitter too is part of Nebraska’s success story! (more here)

Nebraska's Farming Profits Abound

On the other side of the globe, Indian farmers are struggling to keep up with rising demand on one hand and age-old, labor-intensive agro practices on other. Add to that the dependence on a lackluster monsoon season. For its part, the government of India hasn’t provided the infrastructure support for electricity, irrigation and storage. As much as half of farm foods don’t get to the people and rot even before it reaches its first trading post. This is pathetic and colossal waste of human and natural resources. Consequently, inflation in food prices is at unbearable levels – leaving most Indians to spend all of their income on just feeding the families. Though GDP growth is elevating many out of poverty, many wonder if it is as effective as economic theory suggests.

Such is the state of food production in a country that must feed over billion people every single day. About 250 million of that are adolescents – whose health and nutrition is crucial for the future of India. There is no concerted vision or effort from government or private sectors to address these problems holistically.

India’s problems are manifold and which one is a priority is debatable. In fact, the endless is debates amongst political groups and media is one reason decisions are stalled. I believe the livelihood and as UNICEF attests, the future of the country, rests more on agriculture than on information technology or skyscraper-studded cities. Yet, it appears there is no sense of urgency or apprehension around state of agriculture. No doubt, the decision makers are enjoying a smooth ride on the GDP bullet train. When would they have the time to step back?

Pegging our hopes on India's budding entrepreneurship

There were times when some of India’s leaders had the will, but not all the means to make it happen. Today, there are probably many ways to address this issue within a 10-year timeframe, but a vision, leadership and of course, the will, is obviously missing.

The one ray of hope is the phenomenal power of India’s educated youth. I know they are entrepreneurial (Tarun Khanna, a Harvard Professor claims billions of entrepreneurs here and here!) with the will and capability to take the best from around the world and mix it with the best of India’s past to revolutionize its future. May the almighty bless my wish to come true soon!

PS: Think Change India is a wonderful place to check out and keep track of growth in social entrepreneurship in India, specifically around agriculture.

Let’s (not) go with the flow

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Stumbled [via LazyGeek] upon this music video made by a budding filmmaker from Chennai. I liked it because it cuts across the core problem that I care about. I have written about this before on different occasion [Make this world a better place, Will Idiots revive India?, Thoughts on Education]. The society, schools, and parents in India aren’t doing much to help young children understand and pursue different careers. That is exactly the premise that I would like tackle through the use of every tool and technique we have at our disposal today.

Two days ago, I spent over an hour via Skype talking to about 15 children from the outskirts of Coimbatore, all within the age group of 9-14. As I ask everyone of them, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”, many of them said they want to be a doctor (surprised?) and few said astronaut and few others didn’t know what to say. These are all very smart, articulate kids who can talk about a lot of topics, but have low level of awareness in terms of future career options beyond doctor, engineer, lawyer, scientist and may one or two more.

In my mind, this is a unaddressed space that will have terrible effect (many jobs will go unfilled while these kids grow up only to have unsatisfactory careers in IT or BPO call centers when they could have been a film director or landscape architect or marine biologist or journalist or what not?) but at the same time, this is a great opportunity for folks like you and me to shape their awareness. If we can find ways to provide educational services to these kids, they will sure grow up to be superstars in whatever they are passionate about and skilled in. We just need to open up their minds to it and spread the seeds when they are young.

On a lighter note, the video is titled Lets go with the flow from the perspective of letting the children go with whatever aspirations and desires they have. I titled this post as Le’ts (not) go with the flow from the perspective that most kids are “simply going with the flow of everyone else” by picking doctors, or computer programmer or lawyer or auditor or such namesake careers. By not going with the flow, there is so much else to do in this world, to user their naturals skills, to live a happier life and make a difference to the society!

About a minute into the video…

What’s up cheeenu? What do you want to do?

Engineer ah? Doctor ah? What do you want to be?

Economist ? Biologist ? Rocket Scientist ? Feminist !

Awesome! Just that Feminist part I am not sure what he meant.

Will an Indian compete in Snowboarding in Olympics?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I am not surprised about lack of attention to India’s representation in the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Most Indians aren’t interested in winter games and even amongst those who follow it, there is lesser people who actually play winter sports themselves.

Personally, I actually snowboard. Yep. Many of my Indian friends and family think, it isn’t much different from skiing. But it is not. I never skied so I wouldn’t know which one is harder or better. However, It did take a long time for me be a decent snowboarder, especially since I had not seen snow until I was 21 and started learning snowboarding only when I was about 25 or 26. I can come down the hill in most trails with no issue, but my speed and aesthetics still sucks in steeper trails.

Let me tell you my secret – just do it and don’t give up. Most newbie give up after the first day on snowboard. But the truth is you can really get a hang of it within the 3rd day of learning and rest is just showing up and mastering it.

I have been hitting the slopes at least 2 or 3 times a year for many years now though I only frequent ski resorts in NY area. I have tried out resorts in Colorado, Vermont, and Candada too (Tremblant!). There is no comparison to the quality of snow and the overall boarding experience in Vermont or Canada. The local resorts here are just easier to access but not for great snow.

In all these years, I have seen many people from India in the slopes. Almost all of them ski. However, I am yet to meet another Indian (1st generation Indian like me) who snowboards. I am sure there are many out there, it’s just that I haven’t had a way to connect with them. I continue to go all by myself, year after year. Its a great meditative feeling to snowboard down a long hill all by yourself.

Since the day I picked up boarding, I always wondered if an Indian will ever compete in Snowboarding in Winter Olympics. May be, who knows, someone might be training today for it.

Shiva Keshavan thinks we can do something about winter sports and India. From India’s standpoint, he is a veteran winter Olympian even though he is only in late 20s. He has been participating in Luge, representing India for three Olympics now. While I know nothing about Luge beyond being a spectator, I got to imagine its just as hard as any sport and at least, he finished at a decent spot, unlike his two other counterparts who literally ended up at the bottom of all participants. Sad as it is, I applaud their courage to participate (against the usual odds) and hold India’s flag in Winter Olympics. Let’s not forget that we got to start somewhere to get to the top!

I found just a few blogs or news items on Shiva Keshavan :

A Chance Interview with Indian Olympian Shiva Keshavan (btw, he speaks genuinely and very sensibly)

Kamala Bhatt (who also runs a popular Internet radio show) blogged about Shiva.

Lakshmi Gandhi pieced the ten facts about Shiva’s sojourn to Vancouver.

CNNGoAsia cribs about the beaten Indian team

Comments are closed since I couldn’t keep up with deleting spam. You can reach me at my yahoo at skchary.

Dosas all over 2009

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Krishna Prasad weaves a beautiful look-back satire of 2009, anchored by the deadly masala dosa!

… a truism heard commonly in South Indian kitchens—“Even the best dosa has holes”—comes closest to sounding like wisdom. So, as the year began, the IT brain behind an angelic ambulance service revealed holes, lots and lots of them, in his company’s balancesheet. And, as the year closed, the greatest golfer the solar system has seen seemed to have played with more holes than 18.

Sometimes these things just jump out for me, begging to take a step back, and commend the writer!

Son of the Soil

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

If I am the son, then the soil is town of Coimbatore, India. Technically, I am not an original ‘son of coimbatore soil’ since I was born in Chennai, and moved to Coimbatore when I was about 4 years old. Few people remember exactly what happened before they were 4 and I am certainly not one amongst that few.

I am sure everyone loves their city or town or village where they grew up and I am no exception. Its just that Coimbatore is a city that has more than a few reasons to fall in love; reasons many other cities can only envy of. One thing I am proud of about Coimbatore is respect for others build into the language, as in the Tamil dialect spoken by residents.

If you have never heard of coimbatore and its people, this is probably news to you. The dialect of tamil used in Coimbatore is the (in my humble opinion) most friendliest, considerate and humblest in the entire state of Tamilnadu. This is also the first striking social aspect a visitor would come across. I have heard friends from Chennai feeling overwhelmed when they hear auto drivers and bus conductors addressing them with respect (literally addressing them as brothers or sisters). People in general are also helpful, nice and easy to talk to. Its generally unheard of where visitors were misguided or exploited by general public. Perhaps the inherent attributes of the language builds the right attitude in people. Also, the Tamil spoken in and around Coimbatore city is little polished, when compared to what is spoken in the outskirts and villages around Coimbatore. Tamil movies often showcase the rural dialect as the common “Covai Tamil”. As much as we respect others through the words and actions, people of Coimbatore get offended when outsiders address them with disrespect. With people moving across cities more common, this happens a lot so its not a big deal. Yet, when I visit Chennai, I feel offended when Auto drivers address you the way they normally do. Of course, it is totally unintentional and is a mere localized difference in culture and language, neverthless, it helps to know the values of people from different cities and respect their values. It cannot be denied that disrespectful words (in some dialects) encourage a unfriendly attitude among children and citizens, in general. Of course, there are always exceptions.