Friday, October 31, 2014

Conversation 20: My Own Asia Pivot

Time to make up my mind! By 2015, I wish to complete a very personal 'pivot' to Asia. 

I am one to dream but not set up goals. I like serendipities, chance connections, even drift. And, life has so far been exciting, full of unexpected twists and gifts, full of meeting great people at unexpected places. I have done crazy things and got away, more than once! I have moved from one continent to another, gone back to school and started businesses. I have lived knife's edge as well as creatively and contently, at the same time.

And, now, it is time for me to conjure up my next big thing. 

I went to England exactly 10 years ago because I wanted to have experience. This I certainly have had. Many things changed - I have got wiser by making many mistakes - and I feel prepared now to graduate out of this 'prep' phase and do something significant.

Which, in a way, means doing less things than more. I have lived a life of drift for a while, primarily because the business I started lacked scale and I was trying to do too many things to keep myself afloat. Eventually, I took on a job, somewhat disillusioned, somewhat confused, closest to a mid-life crisis I have ever been (and will hopefully ever be). However, few months into it, and indeed, as I complete all the legacy work (the marking that comes with teaching and some of the commitments I have already made), I feel confident and connected again. This allows me to think beyond the present and to look into the future - and to imagine what I may really want. And, that is clearly to get back to Asia.

It may be a cliched expression, but I feel ready to move to Asia. My sense of preparation comes from my many experiments. I see Asia as a place of excitement and energy, as distinct from the increasingly inward looking societies in the West. My own interests matter too: I want to work in Education and Education Technology, and I can't possibly find a better place than Asia to do this. And, besides, I want to be hands on and build something ground up - Asia is the perfect setting to do this.

My one big issue with this plan is whether to get back to India. The energy in India attracts me. But, in education, India is indeed the world's most difficult place to innovate. The demand is astounding in India, but this is also one of the most conservative in the world: The education sector is plain criminalised, and political interference is rife. While I want to stay engaged in India and work with people who are trying to do good things, I am unsure whether India is the best place to come back to.

Instead, I may look to live in Singapore, or perhaps, Philippines. I see this City-state as the meeting place of all of Asia, particularly India and China. Being there may give me easy access to both, as well as the West which I want to remain connected to, and South-East Asia, the region I feel most affinity with. In that sense, Singapore is at the center of the world as I perceive it. My current work and future aspirations both play out fairly well from Singapore. 

I am older and wiser though, than I was in 2004. I am not packing my bags and leaving like I did then. My approach this time is to consider all the options, and most importantly, decide beforehand what I am going to do.

My current work may indeed be good if I move to India - I spend most time in the country in any case - and I can perhaps do it better if I am based in Singapore. However, I am yet to figure out whether this is for me long term: It is indeed interesting and engaging but my role so far has been pretty transactional and limited in scope. While I would most certainly remain engaged in Education and Education Technology, I am yet to figure out what I shall be doing long term. My interests indeed are in building a 'disruptive' education proposition, in line with my belief that the Facebook of Education industry will perhaps come from India. However, at the same time, education in India is a perfect 'market for lemons', where unscrupulous operators do fairly well, and it is perhaps very difficult to create something which is globally competitive while having the scale.

This is perhaps where South-East Asia holds the key. The education and skills training environment in the region is more mature and Singapore is taking the lead in technological innovation in Education anyway. A model that combines a SE Asia based operating structure with the Indian market may eventually be the disruptive proposition I am after. However, so far, most interventions from Singapore or Malaysia, there were a few, has failed, because they were unable to manage the complexity of the Indian market.

This is exactly the big thing I am after. I wish to break away from mere tinkering that I continue to do. That is the rationale behind my pivot to Asia. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Studying Global Education

I study global education. 

However, I am not one of those who are studying transnational education and the rise and fall of international student mobility. Or, for that matter, not one who believe that the world has become truly flat and the phenomenon global education is about the creation of huge global multinational educational institution(s). 

For me, the study of global education is the quest for an idea, a study in the tension between the idea of unity of all human knowledge and the essentially local nature of all human activities. In a way, my obsession with global education reflects an interest in direct opposition to the globalisers: I use education as a sector where the global-local tension is perhaps the most prominent, and I want to learn the underlying intellectual history of the idea of global education.

This, I acknowledge, means many things, but I believe the essentially technocratic obsession with the 'tools' of global education - institutional partnership, branch campuses, student mobility - is informed by an implicit post-imperial view of the world, the assumption that knowledge is still created in the metropolitan centres and disseminated in the post-colonial societies through these tools, and fails to interrogate sufficiently what global education might be for. And, by limiting itself to this simplistic structure of production and distribution, such discussion fails to see the dynamics of desire as created in these societies, the power equations that such education sustains and consequently the resentment it stirs. 

The celebratory views about transnational businesses in education are equally motivated. Coming out of the global education consultancies, who stand to gain when investments are made in internationalising education, the rallying call for this camp is for dismantling the regulatory barriers that exist in different countries. The proponents of this view, guided by own interests, seek to gloss over many inconvenient facts, such as the apparently burdensome legislative barriers may actually be doing a good job of protecting students and taxpayers from predatory practices, and project only a simplistic view affirming the superiority of metropolitan centres in producing knowledge. Again, the tone of these discussions is mostly technocratic today, limited to the mechanics of global brand expansions, disregarding any nuanced analysis of the impact on the host societies.

My interests are, however, exactly that - what impact does 'global' education have on the host societies? This is closer to the discourse on globalisation itself, indeed, and if we stay within the same paradigm, this will mean some of the host societies becoming overwhelmed by those metropolitan centres of the world who have 'comparative advantages' in knowledge production, save for the regulatory barriers. And, would that be desirable? Or, is the empirical case really the opposite, that the regulatory barriers impoverish, rather than protect, a country's educational system, as the globalisers claim?

Overlapping this discussion around the impact of globalisation, there is the question of the nature of knowledge. We have come to accept, at least for now, that knowledge grows through connecting rather than protecting, and therefore, those barriers should hamper knowledge creation in host societies. However, the empirical case may point to the opposite: That the fetish about the knowledge coming from the developed world hampers, not helps, the independent inquiry in many societies. In fact, this seems to happen more in the societies which has embraced English language, the language of global expansion of education, than those which stayed outside it, but that is perhaps further proof of impoverishment of knowledge activities through connecting.

Further, the final element in my thinking is about the human agency, or the human subversiveness as one may call this, that the students create their own path to knowledge anyway regardless of what the institutional climate may be. That opening up to global education will or will not improve the knowledge climate in a society is somewhat limited discussion because this is informed by a view of the world that ignores any role that the student may play, with or without the aid of information technology. In a society where global education may be prohibited, the student may access global information sources through the Internet; on the other hand, the students' local experience may be intensive enough to keep him interested in local lives and cultures. One is tempted to think that this may even open up along the disciplinary boundaries - scientific and technical disciplines being of the footloose variety and the humanities more connected - but that too is perhaps too prescriptive a view and undermines the students' agency.

So, in summary, I study the culture of global education. My work puts me in the middle of the discussion about global education. However, my questions about the nature of knowledge - is it really a commodity produced at great cost only to be afforded by the developed countries - and a sense of violation - that such assumptions still relegate all other cultures, to one of which I belong, to an inferior status just as in Macaulay's ignorant quip about the Sanskrit and Arabic literature - make me continue to study global education from an independent standpoint from what I do. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Would India Beat China?

The mantra of the new Prime Minister of India is 'Make in India'. His economic policy hinges on getting Indian manufacturing going, to get to the double-digit growth figures that he would need to deliver his promise of 'development'. And, indeed, this is what it should be: India will need to create 10 million non-farm jobs every year at least through the next decade, to absorb the new people entering the workforce productively. Service industries, for all their glamour, do not employ as many people as manufacturing does (at least in theory) and therefore, Mr Modi must steal some of China's thunder and try to make India world's next manufacturing base.

In many ways, this new economic policy is modelled on China. The focus is on investment in infrastructure, reform of labour laws (which means deregulation and reduction of power of the organised labour), making land acquisitions easier for industrial development etc., all the things that China has done with great efficacy over the last thirty years. Even the political model that the Indian middle classes want, as expressed in the complete mandate given to Mr Modi in last May's general elections and subsequent state elections this month, is based on the Chinese - not the quarrelsome democratic model that India built, but an unified strong state backed by an elite business class. Mr Modi could have said, India is the new China, but instead contented himself with the pithy but suggestive 'Make in India'. 

Given the disappointments international investment community has had with India in the last decade, this message may sound like empty rhetoric. India seems to be forever in this catch-up game with China. I once had an English colleague who was greatly optimistic about India, mentioning quite frequently how India's democracy and openness would eventually propel the country ahead of China. As it would happen, last year, I travelled with this colleague first to India, covering seven cities in about two weeks, and then to Shanghai, for a similar tour covering multiple cities: It was poignant when he eventually turned to me, while we were rushing to catch a train in Shanghai Hongqiao Railway station, and said that he was wrong and India might not catch up with China in the next hundred years. The scale and efficiency of China indeed would give that feel to any observer: Just compare the views one sees while approaching to land at Shanghai and Mumbai airports, respectively.

However, there is more than just hope in Mr Modi's strategy. There is a calculation, articulated in the Indian policy circles in the last year or so, that China will eventually become unattractive because of its increasing costs of operation and various acts of intrusive legislation and regulatory assertiveness shown towards international companies. China is also increasingly pursuing leadership in intellectual property, and tinkering with patents in various ways, whereas the Indians have been more benign in that regard. Mr Modi's team hopes that this would make India a very attractive alternative, once and if the infrastructure issues are sorted out.

While one must remember that China was world's pre-eminent economy before Industrial Revolution, and indeed, well into it too, but also that in recent times, it came from behind to establish a lead over India, and eventually on all other economies except United States. The arguments in India is that if with a strong, purposeful state, China could achieve such an astonishing turnaround in the last three decades, India should be able to do it too. And, indeed, India's diversity, which is cited as a problem, is well matched by the diversity of China: It is just that we talk about the latter less. 

However, India has other things to watch out for. 

First, China has a much longer history of strong central government than India: The Indian state in its current form, is a relatively modern entity, while China maintained a more homogenous administration for a longer time in history. So, imposition of a strong central rule may not be easy in India, despite the obvious promise of development. The painful adjustments that one has to make to improve infrastructure or create business friendly environment are harder to do when the basic necessities of daily lives are not available

Second, China's many revolutions and civil wars, while painful to its people, may have shaken the society enough and allowed a kind of social mobility not experienced in India. In fact, India's relatively peaceful continuity in history has created stable structures of power and privilege, which sometimes works against the country. If the theory, advanced by many social scientists, that development happens when the common people can hold the elite to account is correct (historical evidence bears it out), then India is behind China on this count. [One must admit that there may be some noticeable change in the recent years: Narendra Modi is the first outsider to reach the pinnacle of power in India, while one sees the rise of 'princelings' and an entrenched privileged class, in China.]

Third, manufacturing jobs may be leaving China not for the reasons of cost and regulatory intervention, but for the trend that technology-intensive manufacturing moving back near to the consumers. China itself has been losing manufacturing jobs steadily for many years because of factories automating themselves: So, the game is no longer about being cheaper and easier to do business with (notwithstanding the comparison with China, India is a very difficult to do business in - just try forming a company with a foreign director!). 

Fourth, India lacks expertise, more so in manufacturing. It is not just about building factories, but also finding skilled people. The technology-rich manufacturing that one does today requires educated workers, where China certainly trumps India. Even for higher level expertise, China's meritocratic culture is helpful, whereas India's caste-role dictated ideas of work and career often come in the way of professional expertise and practice (Indian coders don't want to code because doing things by hand is considered a lower occupation: They would rather be managers). A revolution in education and training is needed in India before a manufacturing revolution can happen.

In short, India trying to play China's game may not work out, partly because of the bottlenecks in Indian society and economy, and partly because the game is changing. One may want to think India, given its innovativeness, energy and diversity, may be better off taking a different path: Instead of trying to induce foreign manufacturers set up shop in India, one may think in terms of an 'enterprise revolution'. In fact, this is one thing happening in India in abundance already, with the traditional ideas about careers and life breaking down and small businesses are becoming successful (despite all the barriers government throws at them). This may encompass manufacturing, services, research and development, everything: It may generate jobs, and change the views about life and state that India urgently needs. This is where India may truly trump China (though lately China has indeed stolen a march on this front too) and may come to lead the world. One should start thinking about an Ministry to help foster enterprise, and converting the talk of loving small enterprises into action.  

 

  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Education Innovation: Where Is The 'Venturesome' Learner?

One key insight about the process of innovation, provided by Amar Bhide of Tufts University, is that we tend to focus too much on the supply side of innovation, and less on the demand side of it. When we talk about the rise of Silicon Valley, or any such innovation success story, the stories focus usually on the great innovators and entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, incubators and other aspects of the innovation ecosystem: We tend to play down, however, the consumers who tried out those innovations, those early people who ordered on Amazon, tried out Webvan, embraced eBay and Google. The central point of Professor Bhide's argument is that we should go beyond the usual narrow view of the innovation ecosystem. And, this is not about consumer co-creation, or open innovation, which, despite their appeal in management literature, remain quite rare; the point is whether the wider economy is ready to embrace innovation. 

As we prepare for the London event on Education Innovation (see the event details here), this is one question that we may need to pay heed to: While we build an ecosystem for innovation in Education, do we have 'venturesome' learners to sustain such innovation? And, particularly, do we have 'venturesome' learners in the areas where education innovation is most needed, such as India? And, if we don't have them, what policies should be adopted to encourage 'venturesome' educating?

If 'venturesome educating' sounded odd, it is: In education, which is standardised, regulated, fragmented along national boundaries, standardisation, rather than innovation, is the thing to do. In fact, in many ways, innovation is seen as a bad thing - something akin to 'creative accounting' which sounds bad - some kind of global conspiracy to undermine the purity of learning! However, this assumed 'pure' learning is nothing but, in most nations, a failed formula for producing clerks - failed because the clerks are not needed, and failed because it must reject most people to make a few who complete look valuable. These structures of education, standardised and frozen in time, thrive on exclusivity - education is only valuable because most people can't achieve it. 

But there is something else happening in the world. There is a media revolution under way, and this has led to, among other things, a global convergence of aspirations. Now this makes the failure of education even more glaring, because, without the hope afforded by an inclusive and accessible education, and one that really delivers, building democratic societies around middle class prosperity, will fail. Since there is nothing within the current formats of educating, which really still depends on industrial age structures, finding new ways of educating is an urgent necessity. 

It is noticeable that the supply side of such new thinking is coming together. The old institutions are trying out new things, new institutions are being created, there are investors and technologists building newer ways of doing things. However, all these are done with a spirit of 'disruption', that of defying and breaking the old structures - with the expectation that solutions facilitated by global capital will ultimately overwhelm the national systems that are so clearly failing. However, the national systems control the demand side of education, and without this, innovation in education is likely to be limited.

The Indian context is of special interest here. India is the fastest growing markets in the world, and lack of good education is indeed imposing a real strain on a fast modernising economy and accentuating the divide in a deeply stratified society. Yet India remains an unrelenting conservative society as far as education is concerned (some regions of it more than others), essentially carrying on the colonial formula of education and social privilege through a paternalistic regulatory system and traditional formats of middle class life. In this setting, despite rapid expansion of private provision of education, innovation has not happened. Rather, intrusive regulation and dependence on 'black money' in funding education has led to pervasive criminalisation of education, endangering the whole edifice, and over longer term, the 'Indian Dream'.

One way to create the demand for innovative education is to create the sources of funding that sustains the demand for such solutions alongside the innovation. Dependence on national systems of funding, or even private students paying, would invariably impose limits on new ways of doing things. Such innovation may indeed bring its own demands for efficiency along with it - if someone is creating funding for education, they would be keen to reign in costs and ensure effectiveness: Hence, thinking about how to fund the demand side of education innovation may be the start point of any conversation about innovation in education. And, India, above all, provides, as with many other things in education, one great opportunity and its greatest challenge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Making Humanities Relevant: Ideas About Applied Humanities


Humanities subjects are usually derided for their lack of practical application, yet those who studied humanities, like me, would vouch for its ability to inspire curiosity and develop judgement. Compared to many other disciplines where there may be one absolute answer to every question (though the point of education is to discover that there is no such thing), humanities often deal with judgment and opinions, abilities that we most often call upon in solving complex problems. Besides, in a world where the nature of fast evolving – from process-based to creative work – a good humanities education may be enormously helpful in equipping the leaders of the future.

However, this is not to argue that nothing has to change in humanities education, which is often delivered without regard to these changes that I just mentioned, and commonly in resentment to it. The idea I am working on is to design and deliver a humanities programme connecting it better to the goals such as employability (though this is an anathema to the humanities educators) and to develop abilities that are most likely to be needed for careers in business and society, now and in future. The key idea is to bring together the creative power of modern technologies, the nuanced perspectives enabled by good humanities education and disciplined focus of a career-orientated education together. I would like to label this educational approach, at least for now, Applied Humanities.


Graduate Attributes

It is good to start with the end in mind. What kind of graduates an Applied Humanities education as proposed here aim to produce?

The point of a good humanities education should indeed be to produce socially conscious, intellectually engaged, economically productive individuals, who could contribute to make lives better for himself/herself and others around them. Making of such a person depends on three key attributes: A social and ethical  commitment, an intellectual curiosity and an understanding of practical life. 

No education happens in a vacuum and this educational project, too, should be seen in the context of our time. While the above attributes have a ring of timelessness about them – these were worthy educational goals at any point of time in human history – achieving them in the current setting needs special consideration of our circumstances and possible shape of our future. Particularly relevant in this discussion is the rapid evolution of human work, which, tipped by intelligent machines and  global economy, is evolving fast, creating rewards for certain kinds of work but destroying jobs that were mainstay of middle class lives.

With such a backdrop, a graduate may not hope to achieve the life goals stated above without a set of attributes clearly aligned with the current landscape of work and life: That s/he must be creative, that s/he must be entrepreneurial, that s/he must be global and that s/he must be able to learn and progress, must be ensured if any educational endeavour has to achieve its goals.

So, any Applied Humanities curricula must take upon itself these objectives too – of a global, creative, entrepreneurial education enabling the development of lifelong learners – so that they can live a productive and satisfying life, socially, intellectually and economically.  


Degrees to Offer

I want to develop an experimental three-year undergraduate programme, broken into a two-year Applied Humanities education (borrowing the American structure) followed by an year of specialist education for an application area. I want the degrees to be granted to be named in line with the application areas for clear recognition of their value in respective professional fields, rather than ‘Applied Humanities’, which will be an inward-looking terminology not useful for the learners’ careers.

There may be a number of application areas that could be found for a good humanities education. However, considering that these may be offered in developing countries on the cusp of a consumer and media revolution, such an approach may mean undergraduate Honours programmes in areas such as Marketing and Communications, Learning and Development and Multimedia Journalism.  There is anecdotal evidence that this is where humanities graduates mainly land up, not because they were prepared for it but because their humanities education may be most valued by the employers for those roles. In a way, therefore, these areas may represent some sort of path of least resistance for the graduates with an applied humanities education. Besides, these are areas where a rapidly expanding consumer society may also need most of their new workers, and these jobs are often the safest, because of their twin requirements of creativity and persuasion, from the onslaught of automation.


Interdisciplinary Structure

One way to make humanities ‘Applied’ is to break away from the disciplinary boundaries, which may have served well the needs of scholarly inquiry but have created a gulf between the world of work and the world of learning. This may be replaced by a functional focus, offering a structure within which the learner, progressively, will discover the required knowledge within the context of their own motivation and interest.

So, instead of immersing the learner in a sea of information about a given subject area which s/he may not have chosen for himself/herself (a decision is made on learner’s behalf often by their parents), the Applied Humanities curriculum may seek to ‘enculture’ the learner in the humanities, exposing him/her to methods of inquiry, of the lineage of ideas and debates and with the language. Encouraged throughout to learn to learn, the learner should then seek to find one’s own area of development – and hopefully will continue to learn through life.

How The Curriculum May Look

This is indeed a poor men's version of the traditional humanities education, but there are lots of those in the world who come to college without the privilege to seek a 'safe space' for disinterested inquiry. Consigning these souls to lesser pleasures, almost without consideration of their deeper aspirations to lead a productive and happy life, has given humanities the bad name it gets. The idea of Applied Humanities is to seek to redeem this by finding practical significance within the practical business model of an institution, where the curricular discipline may be needed to tend of 'trivial' considerations such as costs. However, one could have a fairly prescriptive structure, covering the essential areas, yet allow a broad inquiry through the design of activities, and this is indeed what any institution seeking to offer Applied Humanities education should do. Keeping these considerations in mind, the above-mentioned undergraduate programmes may have a structure like the one I have speculated on, below: 
Stream/ Subject
Global History and Ideas
Understanding Social Life
Technology and Media
Communication and Leadership
Method of Work & Assessment
Individual and Collaborative
Individual
Collaborative
Collaborative
Year 1
Term 1 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Global History- Pre-Modern
Introduction to Social Inquiry
1. History of Media
2. Movie Making Techniques - Practical
Creative Writing  I – Plot, Structure and Character
Term 2 (13 weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Modern History
Introduction to Economics and Psychology
1. Understanding The Web
2. Movie Editing & Production
Creative Writing II – Writing a Film Script
Term 3 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Man & Society - Introduction to Political Philosophy
Social Research Methods
Film Making Project
Promotion Campaign for The Film Project - Web and Social Media





Year 2
Term 1 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Everyday Ethics
Introduction to Social Psychology
Web & Multimedia Development
Intercultural Communication
Term 2 (13 weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Understanding Religion and Social Behaviour
Psychology of Influence and Persuasion
Understanding Social Media and Developing Social Presence
Great Writer Project - Appreciation of the work of one major modern writer
Term 3 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Asian History and Culture (in Asia)
Behavioral Economics AND
Organisational Behaviour
Creating Integrated Media Campaigns
Leadership Biographies - Analysis of Leadership Skills and Contexts





Year 3 – Specialist Year
Streams   
B Sc (Hons)
Marketing AND Comms
Learning & Development
Multimedia Journalism
Communication (Common)
Term 1 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
1. Business Environment & Strategy
2. Principles of Marketing
1. Organizational Development 2. Innovation and Change Management
1. Understanding Media
2. Principles of Communication
Business Project Placement
Term 2 (13 weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
1. Marketing Planning & Strategy
2. Market Research
3. Marketing Communication
1. Learning Technology Appreciation
2. Assessment Methods and Return on Learning
1. Print and TV Journalism
2. Multimedia Journalism
Business Project Placement
Term 3 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Project Management
Project Management
Project Management
Business Project Placement

 
Teaching Method

In keeping with the stated objective of the curriculum, that it should prepare the learners with forward-looking skills and abilities, the teaching of Applied Humanities should, at all times, encourage learners taking the lead on learning and teachers acting as facilitators and guides. All classes should be of a small size, and learners are to be provided with learning plans and all learning materials beforehand. The interactions in the classroom will presuppose learners’ prior knowledge of a given topic, and are to be constructed around short lectures, demonstrations and learner activities, such as presentations and debates. The assessments will be structured around continuous assessment, based on projects that learners complete or the essays they submit on an ongoing basis. In some papers, there may be a term end examination. Some of the activities and papers could be peer assessed.

Teaching Materials

A combination of textbooks and original texts will be used to cover the subjects mentioned. Learners will be encouraged to read widely and participate in research activities. Online journal use, multimedia assessment submissions and collaborative work (in most cases) should be encouraged.


Project Work

The learners will be expected to submit three major pieces of Project Work, all of which should be mandatory, should be assessed and count towards credit.

In the first year, they would submit a movie, either a documentary or a short feature, by working as a production team and dividing the tasks between themselves, with a tutor acting as a Coach/ Guide and offering Directorial assistance. 

In the second year, the same teams will be expected to work on integrated media campaigns to promote the film project in real life, exploring different channels, securing crowdfunding and distribution deals if needed.

In the third year, the learners will be expected to complete a Business Project through placement, outcomes for which will be pre-agreed with the employers (this will not be an internship making tea).

The Outreach Programme

One feature of this plan for Applied Humanities is to develop an extensive Outreach programme alongside the undergraduate offering, using technology-based communities (facilitated, as often as possible, by undergraduate students), offering the High School students a humanities-based option to develop employability and leadership skills. This will take the form of a two-year long programme of learning great texts, developing argument and presentation skills and engaging in social work, around a membership community, which will be maintained online and offline. This should help spread the message of Applied Humanities around and draw brighter students to pursue this career path.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Independence for Kolkata!

Kolkata is India's third largest city, its former capital and a desperately poor one. It is home for me, and whatever I write about it - and I keep writing about it - is never impartial. I can see, like everyone else, its broken politics, its stilted society, its broken infrastructure: However, if there is one city I would live in if all my wishes are granted, it will be Kolkata. This is indeed more about me than about the City, which has perhaps changed far more than I did, despite my life abroad and all that. However, this is more than nostalgia: I have never been a resident of Kolkata, living all my life in a suburb, and while I went to college in the city, I didn't know the city that well till fairly late in my life. And, this is not about its culture, which most Kokata residents are intensely proud of: While my cultural identity remains irredeemably Bengali and linked to Kolkata, I am also aware of the deep conservatism and class consciousness that pervades the Kolkata society, and caused the city's decline. In fact, the reason I find Kolkata immensely interesting is precisely because of its ability to defy its own cultural limits, to be able to maintain its street culture and not lose it to orthodoxy, to be able to remain free of celebrity-fetish which pervades other lively cities such as Mumbai (one can still roam around in College Street without being reminded, such as in Bandra, which famous bum adorned which seat) - in summary, its ability to renew itself. 

There are times when I have to explain 'Kolkata' to my colleagues and acquaintances: They want to know what is to make of this city other than treating it as a desperate corner of the world to avoid. For most of them, Kolkata is about Mother Teresa and her work: I feel obligated, like almost all other Kolkata residents, to object to this single-dimension description of the City. However, to do so, I avoid the trap of talking about 'famous sons', all those other Nobel Laureates Kolkata has produced, Indian or Foreigner working here: I do so in deference to the City's ability to remain outside the celebrity culture (outside its social clubs). I also avoid the temptation of talking about politics, because being the last bastion of communism to fall or signing up to the current soap opera does not reflect, in my opinion, the matured political persona of this city. Instead, I talk about two data points which, in my opinion, reflect the 'Kolkata Problem': That it is the only major city in the developing world, at this day and age of urbanisation, to have lost population in the last ten years, and that it is the only major Indian city which has an abundant supply of drinkable water to last it for at least the next fifty years. 

Cities lose population when they start dying: The great English industrial cities had all lost population when the age of industrial city was over in the West. And, so did the American cities like Detroit, and the Soviet-era cities in Russia and across Eastern Europe. But this is almost unthinkable in the developing world, where those industrial activities migrated to. Besides, with changing social norms, many people are always trying to escape desperate rural poverty to come to the cities. Seen from that perspective, Rajiv Gandhi's description of Kolkata as a 'dying city' in the 80s, for which he was loathed in the city, seems prescient.

However, Kolkata's decline in population may also be a direct result of conscious policy. A Centre Left government (using the Communist label) ruled the state of West Bengal for over thirty years: Their focus was firmly on the villages, starting with sweeping land reforms, which did help improve the rural income levels. The other part of their policy was industrial activism, which they clung onto as a primary tool to maintain their communist label: However, this meant, for the large part of their rule, a conscious policy of encouraging subsistence agriculture by discouraging private industry. Add to this the extensive welfare programmes afforded by the immediate past central government in Delhi, which channeled a huge sum of money to employment guarantee and other schemes in rural India, and Kolkata's declining population may look like a policy triumph rather than a disaster.

It is, nevertheless, still a disaster. Without resenting the good fortune of the village folks who used to come to the city slums earlier, one must also see that Kolkata as a city is failing to provide them with more opportunities than the handouts they may get staying in their villages. The welfare programmes did not stop people from going to Mumbai or Delhi, and the small cities in India has swelled with people, who often channeled the new-found rural income to the trading points to ensure runaway prosperity. But, nothing of that sort happened in Kolkata: Its once mighty port has declined, not just because of the shallowness of the river but more for its atrocious management and rampant crime; its industry had continued to falter, as its successive governments took on populist positions; and even the creative sectors, once its place of pride, have suffered because of government meddling and rise of a 'Durbur' culture, where the Chief Minister of the State has taken upon herself the role of patron-in-chief and the arbitrator of cultural taste. 

However, the mitigating factor, that Kolkata may be one of most sustainable of India's cities, should add to the perspective of its strategic importance. It is also significant if India's own pivot to Asia, the much talked about India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China corridor has to become a reality. Besides, the creative economy in India, indeed overshadowed by the mighty Bollywood, still owes a lot to Kolkata, often drawing talent and ideas from the city. It still hosts some of India's best schools, and a strong knowledge-based culture. Though the successive governments have done much to meddle in its Higher Education system, destroying the meritocratic culture and the spirit of independent inquiry, the city maintained a vibrant public culture, an activist media community and a good publishing industry.

So, in short, the city is dying, by design or otherwise, and yet it has the potential to come back. However, it can't unless it is freed from the tyranny of the State Government, as the Economist of the Cities, Edward Glaeser, has recommended. It is big with its over 13 million people (and more if one adds the suburbs) and it deserves, just as the other major Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore do, to be freed from the policy priorities of the State Government, which is often working against its interests (or at least being oblivious to its interests). The new Indian government, which has projected a strong pro-industrial, pro-urban, policy priority, should perhaps start here: Finding ways to establish more proactive city governments, which is independent of the state governments that stifle its progress. Indeed, I say this because I love Kolkata and feel dismayed about its decline; but I also say this because it makes abundant sense in the broader aim of India pursuing its path to development. All cities will benefit from such focus on self-government, but Kolkata as a basket case is perhaps the best illustration of the costs of not doing it. 

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