Sunday, July 26, 2015

Swachh Bharat - Time for govt. bodies to buckle up!

The following article has been written for Niti Central. Pasting it here for reference. 

Very early on, when Swachh Bharat was announced, I had an interesting discussion with a friend on twitter. The claim was that this is just another government programme, probably even an extension of the UPA program – Nirmal Bharat. I countered this by saying that Swachh Bharat is not just about building toilets alone. It is one of the best examples of participatory governance. It is asking the citizens also to start taking responsibility for the cleanliness of their surroundings. We are notorious for spitting on the roads; for throwing waste anywhere and everywhere; for contributing to the shabbiness rather than the cleanliness of public places (bus stands, railway stations, temples etc). Swachh Bharat was therefore a wake-up call to the nation as a whole – start cleaning up.
We have had some fabulous examples of how citizens have taken up the cudgels on behalf of this mission. But before going into them, I would like to discuss a few things about the general apathy from the government (includes all governments – panchayats, municipalities, state government, central government) side.
The TRS government in Telangana is perhaps the only opposition ruled state that has picked up the Swachh Bharat campaign in full earnest. Chief Minister, KCR has spearheaded this campaign for a full three days, setting in motion “Swachh Hyderabad” and “Swacch Telangana” – with time bound action plans (and some innovative thoughts too – for example: two different types of dustbins per home) . The program is still in its nascent stages, and therefore I would like to present a few ideas on some changes that will lead to a cleaner India. This message is generic, and shall apply to many cities, but since I am from Hyderabad, would be citing examples from here itself.

First – our waste disposal systems. We often have overflowing open waste bins – sample the picture below taken near to where I live.
There are a couple of tiffin centers just a few feet away from where this waste is strewn. I need not even get into the harmful health affects this has – it is therefore very important that the citizens are provided with proper bins to dispose of waste in large quantities.
Second – how do we transport this waste? In open trucks and rickshaws, with unbearable stench emanating from them. While travelling in an auto or a bike, I felt really sick many a time. And given the speed at which they run, often the garbage just keep flying out of these vehicles too!
GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) has a few trucks that have a closed door system – it beats me as to why we have to follow these primitive methods in transporting waste? Why can’t we order more such vehicles that don’t cause inconvenience to those using the roads?
Third – small bins on footpaths. The below picture is taken on the long footpath outside “Sultan Ul-Uloom Educational Society”. This a large campus that houses a school, an engineering college etc. They have placed such bins all along the foot path that borders their college wall.
Just on the opposite side of the road, not a single such bin exists – a sore sight to see. One of the institutions that exist on the other side of the road is the Administrative Staff College of India, where even IAS officers are trained!
I am not sure if the GHMC is considering having such bins (if not as many as the college put up, but a tleast few) – but this is a must-have feature on our footpaths (that is, wherever we have footpaths!). Or perhaps one can incentivise such institutions who adopt the footpaths abetting their walls. Whichever way, it is very important that the citizens have access to a bin while walking on footpaths to dispose any waste.
Fourth – open drainages. That such things exist is an abomination. Closing these out must have been on the top priority when the campaign started, but looks like this was not even on the list! Let me post an image of a large open drainage on Raj Bhavan Road (and just a few feet away from a hospital).
And before you accuse me of expecting too much from the government, please refer to the picture below. This picture is right opposite the road – and the drainage is covered from the top! Now, what explains this inconsistency? Baffles me every single time I walk on this road (which is almost daily!).
Or even at residential areas – the below picture is from a household area in the posh Hitech City. If this is the state in Hitech city, can you begin to imagine “low tech” cities?
I must mention here that Swacch Telangana program has a plan to cover all open nalas. Hopefully the municipalities and panchayats take up this with all the seriousness it deserves.
Fifth – our government hospitals. It is such a pity that we don’t maintain basic hygiene at the one place that we must – hospitals! This is perhaps themost rampant evil in this whole campaign, irrespective of a hospital being in a city, town or village! Governments must put in a concerted effort to fix this sickness first!
I was recently talking to a few government school children in AP. There are Swachh Bharat lessons painted on their walls, lest they forget! Children are enthusiastic in replying that they wash their hands before and after eating; wear clean clothes etc, when asked about what does Swachh Bharat mean for them. I was told that the focus on having clean toilets has increased in the last one year.
However, two glaring inadequacies – near total lack of awareness amongst the adult population of villages and the abysmal waste disposal systems – actually if we have such glaring problems in the capital city, what good can we expect in villages?
Another important point I would like to mention is the apathy of the public representatives from the BJP. Given the importance that the Prime Minister attaches to this program, one would assume that the MLAs and MPs from the ruling party would lap this up with full earnest. My MLA is from BJP; my MP is from BJP and is a Union Minister too. Most of the pictures I have pasted in this article are from my constituency. I can paste many more such pictures – a testimony of the pathetic participation in this unique program. Some folks online have argued that this is the responsibility of the municipality concerned. MLAs and MPs are at the forefront in inaugurating works completed by the municipalities – then why not spearhead Swachh Bharat?
When I complained on twitter about my MLA and MP, many folks responded back that their MLAs are doing a good job – which validates my initial argument J – my representatives are simply basking in a victory one year back! Politically also, Swacch Bharat in Hyderabad makes so much sense – we have corporation elections coming up, so imagine the good will that will be generated if you work on this program. But alas!
A discussion on Swachh Bharat is not complete without mentioning the citizen participation so far. Did you ever imagine that Sachin Tendulkar will clean a footpath? Did you ever imagine that a girl from Nagaland will toil to make Varanasi ghats clean? Many stories abound on how retirees have taken up this cause; how doctors have taken up this cause; how even children have taken up this cause!
I have written elsewhere that Swachh Bharat has reached the unreached, in quite some unimaginable ways –
In my view, the call of the duty by the Prime Minister has touched the “responsibility nerve” of people. What else can explain a Sachin Tendulkar, a Priyanka Chopra, a Anil Ambani, a Temsutula Imsong, a bunch of kids in an apartment complex, a batch of retirees, a group of doctors – working towards a common goal?
So while citizens and private institutions have taken this up in full earnest, the same kind of enthusiasm is lacking from public representatives and government bodies. It is time to buckle up, and then clean up!

When articles are based on half-baked information

The following article was written for MyIndMakers. Pasting it here for reference:

I opened the Op-Ed page of The Hindu yesterday to read the headline – “Limiting debate to 500 characters” written by Rohit Dhankar.The article began with a sweeping statement “Twitter style conversations cannot build coherent arguments”, referring to the invitation to discuss the New Education Policy. Many tweets since then have “coherently” demolished many verbose arguments of the piece, but that is not the point I wish to discuss here.
As I continued to read, I was aghast at the poor homework by the author and was distressed that drastic conclusions were reached upon based on poor understanding of the working of the participatory website, I was amused at how easy it is to get published in main stream papers if you merely criticize this government.
Let’s discuss a few arguments in detail, lest this article doesn’t end up with the same rhetoric. One of the fundamental arguments of the author is about the composition of a mysterious group. First, let me paste parts of his argument here – “MyGov declares that the Ministry has formed a group whose objective, it states, is….”. “ The group that has been formed, though, is a mystery — its members are unknown to the very public that is supposed to give its opinions on the new policy.”
The author goes on to insinuate (in a full paragraph) that the “small chosen group” will decide on the policy. This is where the author (and perhaps the editor) should have done some homework. is a participatory website that is a brainchild of the Prime Minister. Ordinary citizens (and not just “eminent” citizens) can now merely login to the site, and share their opinions on various facets of governance. To give this some structure, the site classifies various topics and anyone can go and share their view on the topic of his/her interest. A discussion “group” is created for each topic – just like you have groups on facebook, gmail, yahoo, whatsapp etc. The “group” consists of all those who contribute their ideas. So just like there is a New Education Policy Group, there is also an Incredible India group, a Job Creation group etc.
 This therefore begs the question – What kind of fact checking happens at The Hindu before an article is published? The basic  premise of this article is that a “mysterious group” is running the entire show. Did the editors think that no one will access the site to find the truth?
Next, the author cites the 500 character limit in the comments section, and argues that it is often not possible to limit oneself to such a short limit while putting across views on something as serious as education. I found merit in this argument, and visited the New Education Policy discussion page here. I was aghast at what I found. The 500 character limit is surely there, but you can also upload pdf documents, images etc onto this site. A lot of people have done so, and that is how I knew this. This means that I can type up 5 pages worth of my suggestions, create a pdf file for each page, and then upload it onto this site. Or if I have an argument that is 800 characters long, I can type two different messages.
The author equated the 500 character limit to “partly censored opinion generation” (no I am not kidding, the author actually said that!) Therefore this begs the question – who gets to benefit from this half-baked information? Why should the reader be willfully misled by a premium newspaper like The Hindu?
Now that we have shown you the full facts, let’s move over to the opinions expressed in the article further. “By opening up the narrower issues for public debate through predefined themes and leading questions,…”. The author sums up his arguments thus, in the last paragraph of the article. Please visit the New Education Policy group page here. There are 13 themes under School Education, 20 themes under Higher Education. For brevity sake, I am not pasting the 33 topics here, but I would again strongly urge you to visit the page and think if these are “narrow” topics by any chance? These topics cover a wide range of issues under education, if not the full gamut. It is surprising to note that the author found them “narrow”.
What are the arguments that the author makes to substantiate this claim? Sample this – “For example, in one of the questions, opinion is sought on how technology can be used to ensure real-time availability of teachers. The formulation of the question makes it clear that the issue is not whether technology should be used but how it should be used. If the question concerned the ‘whether’ aspect, it would have opened up issues such as trust, autonomy, responsibility and dignity of teachers, all important factors. But by sticking to the ‘how’ aspect, it has already decided that teachers should be strictly monitored and threatened with punishment.
Anybody remotely familiar with the government schools is very well versed with attendance patterns of the teachers. The author blindly asks the system to “trust” the teachers in being responsible, and not even try to think of penalizing them for transgressions. The author finds fault with the fact that a policy decision of using technology to monitor teachers has already been taken, and the discussion is merely on implementing it. In fact, this is one of his fundamental argument about the MyGov page – “Most questions concern the nitty-gritty of functioning and do not necessarily have much to do with policy.” All I can request is to urge you, the reader to visit the MyGov page and view the topics once again.
Another underlying tone of the article is the offensive manner in which the opinions provided on the group are treated. The author feels that one cannot have “fragemented” views on policy. It has to be “in-depth” only. He also tells us that “Society is being pushed to believe that thinking means throwing in pieces of ideas here and there”. At a few other places, he makes this same point again by choosing different words.
Another example – “While contrasting views are a sign of a healthy democracy, they still need logic and arrangement — in other words, a reasoned argument — if they are to be useful for the purpose of a broad-based discussion on education.”
So, just for fun, I went to the discussion page for the Theme – “New Knowledge, pedagogies and approaches for teaching of Science, Maths and Technology in School Education to improve learning outcomes of Students
At the time of writing this article, the first response on this page is from a user ID “Amnesty International India”. The user uploaded a pdf document here. There is not a single usage of the words - Science, Maths or Technology – in their opinion on Science, Maths and Technology! A couple of opinions I found interesting, given by ordinary folks. Please go through the link for many more suggestions.
The very idea of MyGov is this – if you have only two ideas that you will think will benefit education, please share them with the government. You do not need to be an “intellectual” to reel out ideas on reforms. Anyone who has a stake in education which is practically every citizen must be given opportunity to contribute.
The author also worries about the “lack of consensus”. Which policy in the world has been evolved out of a consensus of all their stake holders?  Not only is the article based on false premises, the author does not give a concrete suggestion towards policy making in education. There is a lot of rhetoric that flows in, like “education for democracy and social justice.”  Of course what is an article without the customary reference to “aligning education with a certain perspective of Indian culture and history. This lays emphasis on enlarging the space in curriculum for Hindu heroes, scriptures and practices”.
Our mainstream media has restricted the debates around education to history in text books and civic values alone. For the first time, the debate has been opened up to encompass various other facets of education. If this causes heart-burn amongst the liberals, so be it. 
PS: The author responded to my two questions on the facts that misled the readers here: