Promoting Home-makers to Society-Shapers

Indian middle class is rising. This rise brings with it the comfort of outsourcing household work fairly cheaply. That has left one of the most common profession of the last generation, home-maker, with little left to do once the kids grow up. The increasing popularity of Ekta Kapoor, and daily soap operas in the past 15 years is testimony to this fact.

Meanwhile, the educational infrastructure has shown itself incapable of providing even basic education in a sound manner. While education is free in government schools, the quality of education is often very poor. The major reason for the bad quality is insufficiency of teachers, leading to large class sizes. Indeed, even children attending affluent schools usually complement their learning with tuition and coaching classes.

In the quiet corners of Vadodara, in Gujarat, an NGO has discovered the hidden social potential of housewives, especially in providing education to those who need it most. Pathshala, a brainchild of ex-educator Juin Datta, currently provides school-like education to 130 kids of all age groups. All kids are from families dwelling in footpaths and slums, most of whom are not enrolled in any school. To succeed, Pathshala relies heavily on its army of volunteers which comprises mostly of urban housewives. In a short span of 3 years, it has had commendable impact, leading to the government supporting the initiative by providing premises, transport and food to the students.

There is no surprise that it works! It provides the volunteers a sense of fulfillment and worthiness, with an opportunity to contribute tangibly to the society. My mother is a volunteer in the organisation, and I noticed a clear rise in her self confidence and self-worth post teaching. She is far from the only one. Talking to other volunteers, I realized that most of them were very serious about the endeavor, and went about their work in a professional manner. It works because the volunteers receive in terms of love and gratitude, more than they give. This synergy is what makes the model sustainable.

The important question though is, is this model scalable? If we implement the Pathshala model as it is, there is still scope of doing much more. Majority of the women in cities still do not work. Even in Bangalore, for example, only 25% women work. Even accounting for the fact that most volunteers would likely be over 45 years old, there is still a large number of potential volunteers. One pitfall of the model is higher education, as housewives are generally ill equipped to teach at that level. Nonetheless, for primary and lower secondary education, Pathshala experiment has proven its potential.

The important cog however, in scaling up the solution to its full potential, is technology. There has been a spurt of edu-tech startups in recent times, Khan Academy being the most notable and unique success. By providing free and high quality courses online, and organizing the content in a relevant manner, Khan Academy has 10 million users worldwide already. It can thus play a big role in creating a virtual community of teachers and students, by providing the platform and the necessary tools to students,teachers and parents.

With the use of analytics, it is possible to provide quality and personalized educational content automatically. A teacher remains indispensable however, since they can answer questions immediately, and follow up with the students to ascertain timely learning. Artificially intelligent course assistants are already a reality. While they are yet to be deployed on a large scale in education, it would not take long. The bots obviously cannot replace the humans, they can reduce their workload considerably by responding intelligently and correctly to the standard queries. This helps teachers handle more students at a time.

Here is how it all comes together. The problem with scaling the Pathshala model is not the lack of volunteers, but rather the need for a physical school. This requires considerable investment in terms of time and money for students as well as volunteers. The progress made is thus slow. On the other hand, if one were to use the same model online, one could make considerable gains in efficiency. One volunteer could handle upto 100 students as opposed to a handful. With relevant analytics, we can even find the most effective teacher for every student and match accordingly. It would also help recruit volunteers who prefer avoiding the hassle of moving. For students, not only will they have world-class education at their disposal, they would also have a personal teacher to clarify doubts.

The social potential of the urban housewife is yet to be fully unleashed. With predictable advances in technology, the time might not be that far away. And it could make a radical difference in many lives.



Why India needs Rajan.

One cannot understate the importance of the Chief of the Central Bank. Just look at what Alan Greenspan did to USA and consequently the world. Subramanian Swamy, a BJP leader, in all his wisdom, recently said

« In my opinion, the RBI governor is not apt for our country. His move to increase the interest rates, so as to cut down inflation and stabilize the economy, has backfired and has badly affected the nation,…,All the industries have collapsed and as a result unemployment has increased. In my opinion, he should be removed as early as possible, »

While Swamy is a known BJP leader, his views do not necessarily represent that of his party, but nonetheless, the general mood seems to be that Rajan will not be given an extension due to bad performance.

This, while Raghuram Rajan probably wants another term as RBI chief, as he deems there is more to do. We should not just go by Rajan’s impressive résumé, for as Swamy rightly points out, his international stature and knowledge does not make him automatically fit for the Indian job. The argument usually thrown against foreign coaches who dont understand the Indian team ethos. Just that Rajan is Indian. He studied in IIT and IIM. That is the Indian dream!

Such an important decision for the country deserves more analysis. A good point to start would be the criticism of Rajan offered by Swamy. He claims the unemployment has increased in Rajan’s term as RBI chief. This is factually incorrect (Bureau of Labour statistics, latest quarterly report).  Moreover, loss of jobs is also a failure of the BJP government. The economy of a country is a shared responsibility of the government and the Reserve bank of India. So is Mr. Swamy criticizing his own government too? The other points made by him are no secret. Indeed one of the main goals of Rajan as RBI chief was to contain inflation, and prevent bubbles like the ones observed regularly in US. To that effect, even Swamy agrees that Rajan has been successful. Also, Swamy, and indeed many Indians, do not give enough credit to the soundness of Rajan’s economic knowledge. To claim that he will not understand the economics of a developing economy is to grossly underestimate Rajan’s calibre, his ‘Indian-ness’, and indeed the entire economics community.

While Rajan, admittedly has not done enough to get the economy off troubled waters, there are many reasons (not exhaustive) why he is the most suited for the job:

  • Continuity of Reserve Bank policies – An economy is a complex system. The effects of the policies are seldom well understood, and there is never a clear consensus on the correct action. What is however agreed upon is that a policy must be given time for the market to adapt to it, and rapidly changing policy directions would obfuscate the sources of change due to the policy. 3 years is too small a timescale to judge a policy. What can be objectively evaluated is : whether it has caused a massive crash, or lay into motion an unending recession. Neither of those things happened, so the policy has not yet failed.  Who better to continue the policies to their fruition than the one who implemented them?
  • Protection of the Economy from International Forces – Rajan has been going around the world explaining the need for international financial body to monitor the monetary policies of countries, which at times can be destructive, almost war-like. His stature also helps India push through its views to the international stage, where he also gives his perspective as the Central banker of India. He is thus the best placed economist currently to understand the dynamics of international trade on the economies and plan accordingly.
  • Success as RBI Chief – Rajan has till now succeeded in his modest goals in office. He has successfully curbed inflation. Inflation and growth go together, and this means he has willingly sacrificed some growth, just like China did few years back. By not lowering the interest rates, he has ensured that no major bubbling occurs, and the economy consolidates. By pushing the government, he ensured that the fiscal deficit is kept low, so that we do not entail crippling debts. By pushing the banks, he has ensured that bad loans are brought to books, instead of carrying them over till a crisis happens. Yes, he may have been a little overcautious, but its better to err to the cautious side, once you have seen the American model falling into one crisis after another. To be fair to Rajan, if all goes right, we are doing the hard yards, and when its all in order, we’ll step on the pedal.
  • Long term thinking – I think the essence of the debate really is, should we adopt policies which give us profit in short term but provides a higher risk in the long run (American Model) or instead make long term policies which provide lesser profit in short term, but is solid to make profit for a long time. It is clear what is Rajan’s strategy. Its also natural that this is frustrating BJP who wants to show impressive results after 3 years, and they fear that Rajan might postpone the party.

In short it would be incredibly foolish of India to let go of Raghuram Rajan when he is willing to ably serve the country. If we do, we will lose parity in the Indian economy, and will give a free rein to the government, which will look to gain short term profits at the expense of risking the future. India cannot afford a crisis, unlike USA. Rajan knows all about it.

Above all, if we let go of Rajan now, we can never complain about ‘Brain Drain’ without a sense of irony.