IIT and the obsession with exclusivity

I came across this article, and this one too, by Prof. P V Indiresan, in the Business Line. One talks about how exclusivity is the USP of the IITs and the other argues that India does not really need any more IITs. I might have been convinced if the esteemed professor had not made such a mess of his arguments. Initially, I wanted to simply rant. Now, I prefer countering each of his arguments with my own counter-arguments. In the meantime, check out this excellent retort by Abi. Ok, on to the real arguments the professor puts forward.

His first argument is that India does not need engineers of the quality the IIT produces simply because the economy expects them to sell soap or analyse stock market trends rather than apply the complex theories of thermodynamics they learn at IIT. He claims that

“Many youngsters struggle to get into an IIT not because they love the knowledge they can obtain there but because IIT education offers entry to lucrative careers. (…) Suppose, we have a similar business school which offers an MBA programme directly the way National Law Schools do. In that case, will not our brightest opt for a direct MBA and discard IIT?”

What the hell? So, the only kind of knowledge that recruiters value are those that an MBA degree can offer? I am sorry, but I don’t agree. Companies and organisations need good mechanical, electrical and electronic engineers just as much as they need good managers. IIT graduates may not pursue engineering in India. They may choose to do an MBA after their B. Tech from IIT. But, that’s their personal choice. What I do with the degree I obtain is my problem. That doesn’t mean that the government should stop offering those degrees. I have a degree in History, another in International Affairs. I am not using either at the moment. Does that mean that I forget what I studied? Or that what I studied is “thrown into the dustbin” as Prof. Indiresan claims? I think not.

His second argument is equally flawed.

“If high incomes can be earned without a university degree, people will mostly bypass college education. I know of the proprietor of a famous chain store in the old days of Madras who refused to let his sons join college for the fear college education will make them too arrogant to be humble before customers.”

Frankly, that’s ridiculous. In addition, his claim that most students play truant and miss classes at the slightest excuse because all they want from college is a degree that will help them be short-listed to superior jobs, is simply unacceptable. He is a teacher. One with several years’ experience. Must he necessarily be so insulting and demeaning of students? Does he imply that students will only join the IITs for their brand value, and nothing else? Those of you who have studied in one of the IITs, please tell me. Can you actually get an IIT degree without putting in some serious effort into your studies? Isn’t that the real difference between IIT and XYZ College? Any new IITs will necessarily have those qualities right?

“Thus, the stark fact is people are not interested in higher education but in good income, better security. If these could be ensured immediately after high school education, few will bother to attend college. Further, most jobs need skill training rather than academic scholarship. If we were to look at history, great economic empires were built not by university scholars but by skilled apprentices. Few of the richest — Gates, Buffet, Mittal, Agarwal — people in the world today will attribute their success to university education.”

I am sorry professor, but I think you have got the whole issue wrong. There can be no such thing as over-expansion of university education. While it is true that primary education must be strengthened to bring it on par with university education in India, to say that university enrolment must not be expanded is stupid and short-sighted. We need qualified engineers, just like we need qualified doctors, lawyers or accountants. To say that engineering education need not be expanded or reformed simply because the market wants good managers is like saying we must not grow wheat because the market demands rice. Stupid. Period.

The second article dazzles the poor reader with lots of scientific theorems, but behind all of it lies a single flawed logic. Because the USP of the IITs is exclusivity, there must necessarily be a shortage. If the shortage is filled, there will not be any difference between an IIT and a street-corner polytechnic. There again Prof. Indiresan seems to have thrown logic out of the window. The presence of half a dozen good B-schools in the US do not diminish the brand value of Harvard. Similarly, as Abi points out, the presence of multiple campuses of the University of California does not make UCLA any less sought-after. So professor, the lay person might be impressed with all the jargon you insist on using in your articles, but beyond the glitz, it seems to me to be a truckload of bad arguments, flawed logic and downright short-sightedness.

The IPL, cheerleaders and cricketing sense

I was pointed to an exemplary article on Washington Post, by a post by Amit Varma. Before you think I am beginning to go crazy, let me explain. The article is exemplary in showcasing American ignorance to the world. What else can I say? Sample this.

“In many corners of the world, cricket is seen as slow-moving and stodgy, a vestige of British colonialism that is a cross between baseball and napping.”

Excuse me, but cricket is truly an international game. We don’t conduct an inter-club tournament and call it the World Series. A cross between baseball and napping? WTF? Also, we don’t create some vague game and insist on calling it football when, to the rest of the world, football is what the Americans choose to call soccer. Ok, forget the language issue, we happen to be a billion in number. And India obsessively follows the fortunes of their national cricket team through the year. One loss, and the nation is depressed. One victory, and it’s euphoric. We don’t really need a bunch on American cheerleaders to bring people back to the game as Wax claims. They never went anywhere in the first place. And yes, Wax also says this of cricket.

“The league is also trying to win fans over to a shortened format of the game that is formally called “Twenty20,” known colloquially as “cricket on crack.” It condenses nearly a week of match play into three hours, with shorter “overs,” which are similar to innings in baseball.”

We shortened overs? When did that happen exactly? And cricket on crack? Are you sure she was not smoking pot when she wrote this? Unless I turned into a frog overnight, cricket’s shorter version was originally the limited overs one-day internationals introduced in the mid-1970s. What the heck is all this shit about condensing a week of play into three hours? It’s not a sudden development is it? The Boxing Day test at the MCG in Melbourne did not have any cheerleaders. It lasted five whole days. And yet, it was filled to capacity every single day, and no thanks to skin-showing American cheerleaders. It was cricket at its pure and simple best.

Wax’s ignorance is not limited to cricket alone. It seems as though she was stoned throughout her trip to India. Consider this.

“The American women’s presence has caused a stir across India, a conservative, Hindu-dominated country where even at the beach, women often shun swimwear in favor of saris, which are made of at least six yards of billowing fabric that covers everything from the neckline to the ankles, sometimes leaving the belly exposed. It’s a country where the top female tennis star, Sania Mirza, who is Muslim, is often criticized for wearing short skirts on the court. Some TV pundits pointed out that the Redskins cheerleaders are showing more skin on the cricket pitch than most Indian men will see before marriage.”

The sari is six yards of billowing fabric that covers everything from neck to ankle? Ask any Indian man. He will tell you that the sari can reveal more than it hides, if the lady in question chooses to reveal it. It is one of the sexiest garments a woman can wear, albeit difficult for the inexperienced. Also, criticism of Sania Mirza is done by a bunch of mostly jobless, religious fundamentalists who deserve no mention or respect. That’s not the opinion of the general public, educated or not.

And these cheerleaders are showing more skin that most men will see before marriage? Are you sure she visited India in 2008? Indian men, and women, are not as prudish as they are made out to be. I have said this before, and I say it again. India is probably the most hypocritical country in the world. Everything from pre-marital sex to homosexuality exists, but away from the public eye. This excellent write-up by Nita sums up the issue quite well.

Frankly, I expected a certain quality from the Washington Post. Next time they get someone to write about India, cricket or anything else for that matter, they must at least try to verify facts. I find the article both judgemental and patronising, apart from being belittling of a game many countries in the world passionately follow. I love cricket. So does my boyfriend. And most other Indian men I know. Cheerleaders or no, they will continue to monopolise the TV remote to watch a vague test match between New Zealand and Kenya on a warm Sunday afternoon. The presence, or lack thereof, of some American women showing skin isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Education, reservations and reform

Here is a brilliant economic analysis of the reservation policy by Atanu Dey on his blog on development. It is, at first glance, very impressive. He uses economic theory, common sense and impeccable argumentation to prove that reservations are untenable. But, all is not right with his reasoning. I can still spot a few weak links in the arguments, though I am no economist.

First, he states, rather unambiguously, that

“Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on this: there is no shortage of jobs for qualified candidates. In fact, there is a shortage of qualified people. The shortage arises from the limited supply of seats in educational institutions. That shortage of seats is mandated by the government. The government mandates the shortage and then assigns itself the power to dictate how the rationing of seats will be done. That rationing is motivated primarily by vote-bank politics.”

First things first, as someone points out in the comments section, there is no real shortage of seats as mandated by the government. In fact, thousands of seats are left vacant at the end of counselling for engineering admissions every year in the state of Tamil Nadu. According to Wikipedia, Tamil Nadu has 40 universities. This page should provide more information on the state of education in Tamil Nadu. According to the statistics given above, the state has over 1000 colleges providing professional education, in addition to 255 engineering colleges, and 13 medical colleges. Admittedly, Tamil Nadu is one of India’s more progressive states, but with good governance and political will, there is no reason why even the BIMARU states must not do as well. Secondly, the question of supply of education is a tricky one. Must all education necessarily lead to a degree? What about companies that recruit graduates of arts and science courses and train them to perform the work expected of them efficiently? One good example would be the TAS, which trains and qualifies young recruits. So, actually speaking, the claim that there is an artificially created shortage of education is a myth.

Dey suggests that higher education must be opened up to private enterprise. I agree. But the point here is, it already is. Sure, there are regulations and processes such as accreditation, but that must remain in order to maintain the quality of education. Then is the emphasis on separating education and testing. I agree again. But, that’s what board exams and university exams are all about right? An autonomous arts and science college under the Madras University is free to decide on its syllabus. It’s free to do what it pleases during the academic year. At the end of the semester, the students are tested on what they were taught during the semester. The exam process is overseen and endorsed by the University which then delivers the degree. What more can be done? I don’t really get the point.

Third, the pricing issue. Privatisation of education and a total absence of control will lead to anarchy. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating the nationalisation of colleges, or complete government control. Far from it. Education is already quite private, to a very large extent. Prices are sky-high. What the government can do is to provide scholarships, grants and stipends to those who deserve it. To contend that private colleges will charge less than government ones because they run their companies better is both ridiculously short-sighted and foolishly optimistic. I am no fan of government control, but this logic simply does not appeal to my brain. Private companies want profit. So will private colleges. In such a situation, how exactly will they agree to offer education at a lower cost than the government?

I can foresee one negative fallout if Dey’s idea were implemented. India will go the way of the United States. While colleges in the US are some of the best in the world, it a fact that many who finish grad school spend half their lives trying to repay their educational loans, pay off home mortgages and rid themselves of debt. And in a country like India, which is trying desperately to improve its enrolment in institutes of higher education, this is a really bad idea. A situation like this will lead to a decline in overall education levels and India’s already abysmal human development indicators will only fall further.

This said, I do agree when Dey says reservations are a terrible idea. Only, my reasons are entirely different from his. I read in the Times of India yesterday that the cutoff marks at the IIT-JEE had been reduced. While I did not exactly understand the logic behind the marking scheme, I also read that there was to be a 10% relaxation for OBC candidates. Suppose I am an OBC candidate. The normal cutoff mark in an entrance exam is 70%. But, I am given a 10% relaxation because I belong to the OBC category. That means I just need 63% to qualify. So, essentially, the government is telling me this, “Since you are underprivileged, and have been oppressed for centuries, we consider you to be less intelligent than your upper-caste counterparts, and hence incapable of scoring the mandatory 70%. We are being generous and giving you a chance despite your questionable intellect.” I am sorry if I am being hyper-sensitive, but I find the attitude both patronising and demeaning. And that’s the reason I am so against this practice of norm-relaxation.

Cheap garments and irresponsible reporting

I have an idea. Let’s take six well-to-do Indian teenagers to London and make them work at street-corner bakeries for a month. Guess what? It’s horrible, they will say. “They make us wake up at 4 in the morning to knead the dough, make the loaf and bake the bread, ready to open shop at 7. As if that’s not enough, they expect us to knead dough and make bread all day. This is how we imagined a sweatshop to be: dirty, smelly – it’s absolutely horrible. It’s my idea of hell.” Think it ridiculous? Then sample this. The Daily Mail UK takes it upon itself to report conditions in garment factories across India. It might have been a hard-hitting revelation on the condition of India’s workers slogging away at garment factories for less than $5 a day. If, and only if they had bothered to check their facts and not make some grossly unacceptable errors in the process.

Many things are wrong with the way the story has been reported by the Mail. For example, they take six, virtually unskilled, teenagers to India from Britain. They make them work in a garment factory and stitch, lo and behold, collars. My mother and aunts have been in the industry for as long as I can remember. I grew up in garment factories run by my aunt and others for nearly 15 years of my life. As far as I know, and my mother corroborates the fact, collars are the most difficult to stitch in shirts or tops. Collar-stitching, or cuff-stitching is never given to an amateur. The articles claims that the tailors are made to stitch a collar a minute. But elsewhere, it claims that a 4000-strong workforce turns out barely 10,000 garments a day. From what I know, two and a half pieces per worker per day is pathetic. No garment factory worth its salt would allow productivity to slip so low. Least of all, the illustrious Shahi Enterprises mentioned. The means one of two things. Either the first statistic is false, or the second.

Next, it claims that the teens were demoted from the position of tailor to a lowlier-paid position of shirt-ironer. First things first, ironing is not an easy ask. It comes under the category of garment-finishing, and is one of the most important things in the garment-making process. Second, finding a competent ironer is no mean task and they are often paid much more than the tailor who makes the garment in the first place.

Finally, the salary levels. They are blatantly made up. In the early 1990s, the average salary of a competent tailor used to be between 250 and 300 rupees a day. In pound terms it amounts to somewhere between three pounds and five pounds at the current exchange rate. Wages have undoubtedly gone up since then. So, the Mail’s claim that workers survive at less than 2 pounds a day is false. If I am the one who is mistaken, then I would like them to substantiate the values with actual figures.

What exactly is the Mail trying to accomplish? Telling the world that the clothes they buy from H&M and Marks&Spencer’s supports human rights abuses in India by forcing workers to work 18-hour days? I am sorry, but no garment factory can sustain 18-hour workdays. It’s practically impossible to force workers to work such long hours six days a week, especially in an industry that is so labour-intensive. In India, labour laws and worker-friendly, sometimes even called draconian by entrepreneurs. Will the workers shut up and agree to being treated like slaves in such a context?

To me, the attitude of the Mail reflects one of two things. 1) Irresponsible reporting without verifying facts and looking at the other side of the picture. 2) An obvious and disgusting attempt to portray Indian workers and factories in a bad light. For the sake of my peace of mind, I am willing to give them the benefit of doubt and assume it’s simply irresponsible reporting.

On moral policing

I came across this link (pdf) on the India Uncut blog a few days ago. Actually, it was more like a few weeks ago. I have been so busy with training, classes and what not that blogging has unfortunately taken a back seat in the past weeks. To cut a long story short, the newspaper projects an innocent murder victim as a “characterless” woman who deserved to be raped, murdered et.al. On a similar note, the Times of India reports that cops dismissed a rape complaint by a woman on the grounds that she was of “loose” character and that numbers of the accused were found on her mobile phone. I am sorry, but I don’t get it. If I have someone’s number on my mobile phone, and if I meet the said person a few times, or get a gift from him, he assumes I consent to have sex with him? What the f***??

Did you know that most of the time, the rapist is a close acquaintance of the victim? It could be a family friend, a relative, or even the husband. Does that mean that women must stay away from all contact with male members of society? This is simply ridiculous. If, as a woman, I fear rape, I must be protected. I must not be victimised and isolated because not being raped is my responsibility. Secondly, the cops in question have no business judging the case. Their job is to file an FIR and arrest the accused. Next, they must produce the accused before a court of law. It’s the court’s job to decide if the accused is guilty or not. The police has no business taking the moral high ground and preaching to a woman how she must behave in her personal life.

This brings me to the question of moral policing. Sunday’s edition of the Anna Nagar Times carried a lead story on a police raid at the Anna Nagar Tower park. The said park is a public park maintained by the Chennai Corporation. The police acted apparently on a complaint by a few “senior citizens” about couples indulging in “inappropriate” behaviour at the park. The police, thrilled to get a complaint like this, promptly swung into action and picked up anyone sitting with a member of the opposite sex and looked under 30 years of age. After “questioning” they released the couples, many of whom turned out to be married, to each other that is. And pray, what is so inappropriate about holding the hand of the man you love in a public place? Why do these esteemed “senior citizens” find it so galling? I am sorry to sound harsh and disrespectful, but if they are so upset by seeing a couple hold hands in public, perhaps they should just stay at home. They have no business harassing people who want spend a few minutes in a public park with their loved ones. Even if the couple are not married, I see no harm in allowing them to spend time together in public. Times are changing. The sooner these people learn to accept it the better. I do accept that they must be treated with deference, but when they begin to assume the role of moral police, I am only tempted to tell them to go to hell.