Monday, January 16, 2006

A quick buck, and learning more

A quick buck?

This little story came back to me last evening. It happened some 14 years ago. Dusshera time, and I was spending my holidays with my aunt and uncle in Calcutta. Lots of pujo festivities all around, a great atmosphere in a great and friendly city, and a good bit of rain.

I used to walk around in the evenings, to explore the surroundings. This was along a little road a couple of kilometers from New Alipur (where my aunt and uncle lived). This road gently sloped down, to reach a small trough, and then gently went uphill again. The road (like many roads then in Calcutta) was in a typical state of semi-repair. It was motorable, but only in second or third gear. Anyway, at this trough, the road really didn’t have much tar on it. There were some very large stones covering the potholes there.

One afternoon it rained like it can only rain in Calcutta. A torrent of water filled the streets, and like always, the streets remained flooded. Feeling adventurous, I went out after the rains stopped, and walked by that street. And there was quite a spectacle happening there.

Cars would cautiously descend the street, to reach the trough, by which time the water would be well over knee high. Before the cars could ascend the trough and go up the street again, they would become waterlogged and stall. This was a source of much merriment for all.

But there were a group of intrepid youth, who looked like college students (or who should have been in college), four in all, who were there ready for rescue. They would stand by the side, watch a car sputter and stall, and then rush in to rescue the hapless driver, extricating the car. Typically, the driver would hand out a few currency notes in gratitude, which these guys would happily accept. And all would be well again.

I took the same walk the next day, after the water had receded, and walked by the trough. I noticed that the large stones in the potholes had vanished.

It could be that they had been washed away by the rains. But the stones were so large and heavy that it seemed highly improbable. It could also be that the youth were helping out purely from altruistic reasons (like most Calcuttans would).

Or it could be that the youth (who were probably local) had planned it all and removed the stones. They’d have known that the cars would have no idea how deep the water could become, would hit a deeper pothole, and stall. Then they could rescue the hapless drivers and at the end of the day have a sizeable income. Not a bad day’s work by any means.

I don’t know which reason was true.

Anyway, as I look back, there definitely was a good bit of entrepreneurial energy in those youth. The same entrepreneurial energy you see all around in every corner in India. But did they use their energy to create a little racket of their own, and make a quick buck because of temptation, or because largely the barriers to entry for any legit enterprise were (and largely are) too high and it’s just easier to create these little rackets?


This little story is quite related to my earlier post on teachers and education. Champa Mahila Society (CMS) is this wonderful organization which (amongst other things) has a bunch of schools in the sundarban region in Bengal. The local government school there is in rather terrible shape (in terms of the education imparted). CMS started a program for dropout girls in the area. The girls are provided with food, clothing, education, vocational training and they also enjoy games and cultural activities. The girls in this school absolutely love it there, and so do their parents. The school started off for 30 girls, and now there are close to 150, and the parents want the poor, exhausted, stretched CMS folks to start more of these schools.

The purpose of these schools, as mentioned earlier, is for dropout girls to get back in to school readiness, and then go and join the government school. But here’s what happens. The girls either never leave this school (until they’re older), or the go join the government school, and then drop right out and come back to join this one. Here they have a great learning environment, and learn a ton of stuff. There’s little they gain from being in the government school. The whole situation now has become farcical as little girls some six or seven years old are enrolled in the CMS school by their parents who pass them off as “dropouts”.

Ask them (as my friend Swati did, on her visits there) and they grin sheepishly and say that the girls are not going to learn any thing in the government school, so they might as well be here and learn something.

Six year old dropouts indeed.


Anonymous said...

all about prevention being better than cure and all that... is this a story of hope or one to feel sad about I cannot decide for now...
if this is happening, then the school may do well to extend their scope to not just dropouts (although that is a commendable mission to get interest and faith back in education among drop outs and their parents) but other kids as well...?

Sunil said...

Thanks Charu.....actually, your point has 2 or 3 aspects for it.

It's really impossible for an NGO, which relies on outside money (largely) to sustain itself permanently. But CMS has a great working relationship with the local people (we're talking thousands of people here, spread over many villages), and so local support is increasing. Once the people can afford to pay, they will. It might take years. But CMS also is working to improve the govt schools. Now two of their own volunteer teachers teach part time at the govt school (where the teacher student ratio is about 1:100).

CMS does have multiple other schools.......not just a school for dropouts. Right now, they're stretched to the limit (they are a small group with limited resources), but still handle about 1700 kids spread across many villages, with an excellent teacher student ratio of less than 1:30). An excellent group.

Anonymous said...

am looking at the website as I write this... (teacher student of 1:30 sounds like a dream - you dont see it even in the more expensive private urban schools)

you know, what you have written about people willing to pay for good education, I was thinking the same things when i read your earlier post on accountability - started to comment there a couple of times but left it coz I couldn't think clearly...
I think schools will be forced to deliver if parents take interest and control in their hands - and demand accountability - I know that most parents are poor and illiterate nd generally not bold (for want of a better word) to go out and question - but in instances where they have, I have read about remarkable results.

Azim Premji foundation does this - they take on a project in village only if the community promises to sustain it and keep it running - they help in the initial setting up of the project and then the accountability is both ways...
blah blah

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
As you describe the incident with the stall cars, I shared your suspicion that these people were "ethically challenged." Is that a peculiar trait of Indians or of multi-ethnic societies in general of or all societies? My guess is that people tend to look at life more like a non-cooperative game if more other people do as well and this is more likely if you have some ethnic groups that feel put-upon by society. This was kind of the thesis behind my Finland post of 6 months back.

Sunil said...'re right. It's true with any any thing else. Hold people accountable, and it will work. The problem comes when parents themselves don't know what a school should do, or how they can be involved. They need this education education can't be restricted to children.

Michael.....i remember your Finland post. But i think it's probably more complex an issue than just pressures of a multi-ethnic or mono-ethnic society.......but good points there.