Sunday, June 5, 2016

How and why students in Bihar cheat, and it may not stop soon

More than eight lakh class 10 students of Bihar School Examination Board failed as the pass percentage dropped from 75 to 46 in a year. That it is also the state’s worst performance in nearly two decades mostly slipped under the radar. Patna fared worse than the state’s average. Only 10% students could secure first division marks, down from 21% last year. The percentage of second-division students dropped from 40 to 25. The number of students who registered themselves but did not appear doubled to 30,000. All this did not happen suddenly. The state had to crack down after images of people risking their life and limb by clambering up a multi-storey school building and clinging on window ledges to help their wards cheat last year drew worldwide derision. Mass copying aided by relatives and friends was known. Now its scale and blatancy had shocked the outside world.
Authorities extended the ban on those caught cheating, organised more police teams to deal with ‘helpers’ lurking outside schools, dropped many dodgy centres, installed CCTV cameras in some, and announced exam schedules well in advance.
This was a little like 1996 when an exasperated Patna high court stepped in after Lalu Yadav’s ‘jungle raaj’ had been allowing mass cheating of biblical proportions. Only 12% students passed that year. The executive had other ways to woo its electoral constituencies. Opposition to English was marketed as an anti-elite policy. I had to take the same school-leaving test without English as a mandatory subject. As the court’s grip soon loosened, the success rate climbed back to the 60s and 70s.
A ‘no home centre’ directive that made examinees swap village blocks was a lazy, and clearly ineffective, measure to stop cheating. Family members and well-wishers traveled with examinees and stayed in rented rooms to cook and prepare cheat sheets from popular study aides such as ‘passport’, ‘guess paper’ ‘kunjika’ and atom ‘bomb’. Once questions came out, help was smuggled in.
Students also had mnemonics on hands, and short answers on clipboards. Memory prompts hid under watches and in socks and undergarments. While scraps of paper filled up sacks every evening, some students even took answer-sheets home so that they could write in free time, and deposit them when convenient. Teachers would themselves write answers on the blackboard to make things easy. It was all cleaned up when “flying squads” came calling, with prior intimation of course.
Bored policemen sometime used lathis, and very occasionally, fired warning shots in the air when crowds turned unruly. I remember one such occasion when some scared ‘helpers’  forced their way into a house in our gated community where a wedding was taking place. Cops went in and rounded up a few people. One guy pleaded innocence, but he and others were bundled into a jeep and taken to the local police station. Later, it turned out that he was the groom. He somehow made it to the main ceremony.
After this year’s result, the state’s education minister said fewer successful students was actually good news because it showed the real merit of students, and they would be able to clear the toughest of tests. Days later, an embarrassed government has also had to call some of its class 12 toppers for a re-examination after they looked ridiculously clueless in public about the subjects they had excelled in. When ‘natural cheating’ is curbed, a more organised enterprise always kicks in.
A few years ago, a friend while submitting admission documents at a DU college was scandalised. The clerk pointed to the cut-off list, and returned a candidate from Bihar his mark-sheet. The candidate nonchalantly took out a ‘better’ mark-sheet. He had to run away.  More recently, a cousin at DU had problems with English instructions. He has as part of his Plan B admitted himself to another college back home where “things are easy”.
Bihar has in recent years done better in terms of taking students to government schools. But learning levels remain poor. The state has the worst student-teacher ratio after Uttar Pradesh. Faking degrees to land jobs is rampant. Thousands of teachers hired on contract have been officially found unable to solve questions a fifth-grader would easily do. Teachers overseeing construction, doing election and census assignments only adds to the problem of absenteeism.
In such situations, 1.5 million government school students who mostly learn by rote or do not learnt at all take these make-or-break tests. Boys want degrees to apply for jobs and admissions. Girls in rural areas need them to qualify for decent marriage proposals. One cannot afford not to be a ‘Matric Pass.’ Cheating on these memory-testing exams kill creativity and logical reasoning, but families feel compelled to help, often climbing for the ultimate enabling act that corralled international headlines last year.
Poor learning is not unique to state education in Bihar. Only 55.32% class 10 students passed in Chhattisgarh last week. Haryana fared worse. Last year, more than half of Madhya Pradesh students failed. We must shift from rote learning to modern skills-based training as India needs millions of skilled people. Buxar has fared the worst in Bihar with a pass percentage of only 27. We must identify and monitor such districts. Families have to realise that children will not learn unless their help in cheating stops.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Ek Tha Lokpal: Why a corruption watchdog eludes India 30 months after Parliament passed a historic law

On a typically cold winter day in December 2013, a frail-looking Anna Hazare broke his fast as Parliament ended years of dithering and passed a law to appoint a watchdog for punishing corrupt lawmakers and bureaucrats. As the 76-year-old Gandhian activist accepted a glass of coconut water from two children at his native village in Maharashtra, his supporters waved flags in jubilation, and people elsewhere celebrated a law that came after 10 failed attempts in Parliament over the last five decades. Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj spoke eloquently about “an old man who keeps fasting to fight corruption, and appeals to our collective conscience.” That year India was ranked 94th on Transparency International’s global corruption index of 177 countries.
Thirty months later, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 has not been implemented. India is yet to have it first Lokpal. These 30 months include the first two years under Narendra Modi, who became PM with a massive mandate to push growth and fight corruption. His government’s defence is: a search committee could not be formed as there was no leader of opposition (LoP) in Lok Sabha. After it lost a string of state polls, Congress had pushed the Bill before the 2014 national elections to fight the taint of scams, but it slumped to its worst performance, not winning even 55 seats to have an LoP.
The Modi government instead of urgently sorting out the limited issue of LoP introduced a 10-page amendment in December 2014. The matter has moved to a Parliamentary panel. The law required public servants to declare not only their assets and liabilities but also for their spouse. The government is in favour of making only immovable assets of officials public. While in opposition, BJP wanted a strong and independent Lokpal. Now the party is accused of both diluting the law and delaying its enforcement.
The PM believes he is doing fine without a Lokpal. “Corruption had eaten away our country like termites. So if I have stopped so much corruption, there will of course be many who will curse me. Only those who looted the nation are not enthused by this government,” said Modi at a five-hour ‘telethon’ on Saturday, while giving full marks to his two-year-old government. But the delay follows a pattern. The posts of chief information commissioner and central vigilance commissioner remained vacant for over nine months under Modi’s watch, and the government was accused of being afraid of transparency and action against the corrupt.
Modi’s remarks come days after the Supreme Court questioned why his government had not appointed anyone as Lokpal. “What is holding you back? You cannot sit over it,” the court told the government, while seeking to know by July 19 the steps taken for the appointment. The court was hearing a PIL filed by NGO Common Cause that alleged that the government and other parties were dragging feet. The top court had in 2002 asked the government to appoint a Lokpal to “end the headache of a scam every day.”
Hazare was apprehensive when the central law was enacted, and had said it would be meaningless unless implemented and enforced properly. The ‘old man’ recently accused the Modi government of delaying the Lokpal’s appointment, and questioned its intent and credibility to fight corruption. While he continues to make noises, his aides like Kiran Bedi and VK Singh have accepted top government positions. Arvind Kejriwal who oversaw protests in 2011 that forced UPA to introduce a Bill in Parliament has since formed a party, and rules Delhi. Kejriwal passed Delhi’s Lokpal law late last year, but faced charges of weak provisions and no consultations. The law awaits the Centre’s nod. But he also claims to have reduced corruption in his 15-month rule.
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 is not the best law India needs. It applies to states only if they give their consent. Similarly, the requirement of reporting by authorities to the Lokpal on action taken has been removed in the Act passed by Parliament. But a law is always better than no law. The civil society had found the RTI Act weak. It still turned out to be a game changer in india.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Of a President, illegal halts and caste rejigs in Bihar

Varahagiri Venkata Giri was born in a Telugu Brahmin family in Odisha, and I grew up a thousand kilometres away in Bihar. He had no connection with my hometown Dumraon. We never met. In any case, he passed away a little before I came into this world. I often thought what made me wonder about him, India’s fourth President, and not so much about our own Rajendra Prasad.
Linked to my hometown through a dirt track was Ramsar Mathia, a village of 1,000-odd people. Most of them shared VV Giri’s surname. They fondly remembered him on his birth and death anniversaries as if he was one of their own. A village committee with members from six panchayats organised these events. Two-three of these men were our ‘bataidaars’ (share-croppers).
Someone would stand up and speak about his achievements: how he served in Nehru’s cabinet; his tenures as Governor; his work as India’s High Commissioner to Ceylon; how he became Vice-President, acting President and finally President. An ex-MLA from the area would often mention how Giri and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave each other the Bharat Ratna in a span of three years.
They also tried to institutionalise him. A few minutes from Dumraon is Twininganj railway station. It was perhaps named so to honour Sir Twin, a British responsible for pushing indigo cultivation. It became Turiganj like our famous Girls’ Training School was known as Gooltrainee School. Between these two stations, the Giris of Ramsar Mathia built a tiny railway station in 1996. It was named VV Giri Halt. It was illegal, but passenger trains running between Mughalsarai and Patna stopped there.
While Giris elsewhere in the state demanded to be included in the list of other backward castes (OBCs) for more government jobs and college seats, authorities demolished the halt, saying it was illegal and commercially unviable for trains to stop there. Giris kept writing letters to the railway board demanding the halt be rebuilt. Ironically, the ex-President was also a founding member of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. I wonder if he would have appreciated his name being used for such an enterprise.
Giri went to University College, Dublin, where Thomas MacDonagh taught and radicalised him. When he returned from Ireland, he joined the Congress party and the trade union movement. As President, he made 14 state visits to 22 countries. The closest he came to Ramsar Mathia was perhaps when he occupied Raj Bhawan in Lucknow. There still was a distance of some 400 km.
But VV Giri was not the only halt. In the mid-1990s, when Lalu Yadav ruled Bihar, illegal stations—mainly platforms and no shelters—mushroomed under political patronage. During our commute we would crib when passenger trains stopped at Lalu Halt, Rabri Halt, Sarvodaya Halt, Parasia Halt and Dharali Halt. It allowed ticketless travellers to stream in with sacks of vegetables, herds of goats, huge milk containers and large cotton saree-wrapped paneer chunks. Bicycles also travelled, hanging from window bars.
Trains stopped as drivers and guards feared being bashed up. Some express trains also stopped as people would snip off the vacuum hose. Sometimes people would get off, run, finish a chore in one of those houses along tracks, and get back to the seats unapologetically. Because of back-breaking roads and rickety public transport in those days, trains were the only options for small traders and students to reach nearby towns and cities.
When Mamata Banerjee became the railway minister some of these halts were discontinued. Violence over scrapping of these structures was common. There were also numerous smaller stations created legally. Every time the country had a new railway minister, some trains would skip some of these stations. Mobs torched coaches and damaged tracks in protest.
VV Giri Halt was demolished when Lalu became the railway minister. But chief minister Nitish Kumar was to fulfil a bigger demand. Years later, he moved Giris into the OBC list to win over the 25-lakh-strong Brahmin sub-caste after he split with BJP in Bihar in 2013. The structure was gone, but caste rejigs to stay in power has not halted in Bihar.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Congress-mukt Bharat that BJP wants

When Narendra Modi became BJP’s campaign committee chief three years ago, he gave a call for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat.’ Then it was at best treated as a war cry to charge up cadres and wrest power that had eluded BJP for 10 years. Recent electoral reverses in states have prompted some to object to the slogan. They said it was undemocratic to seek to kill robust contests and oppositions. But what the ruling party at the Centre seeks is its own political ascendancy: its governments in state after state. First, wiping out of Congress as a political party is not possible. Second, it is in BJP’s interest that Congress loses power but retains some of its vote.
After Modi became PM in 2014, BJP and its allies have won Haryana, Maharashtra, J&K, Jharkhand and now Assam, and made inroads in vergin territories of Bengal and Kerala. These were mostly states where BJP had direct fights with unpopular Congress regimes. But in between the Modi juggernaut had halted in Delhi because the contest was different: there was a three-term Congress government, but there also was Aam Aadmi Party with a clean slate, hungry to exploit the anti-incumbency.
Congress’ vote share in Delhi came down from 24% to 8%, and AAP’s went up to 54% from 29% for the simple reason most voters willing to ditch Congress preferred a non-BJP option because of social and religious ideologies the two old rivals are seen to represent. In Delhi’s recent municipal bypolls when Congress’ vote share went back to 24%, AAP’s came back to 29%. So in states such as Punjab where AAP has emerged as a third force, BJP would want Congress to stay alive. This will check AAP which is likely to target more and more states where BJP and Congress are in direct fights. The loss in Bihar posed different questions, forcing BJP to to go for a course correction, giving importance to local leaderships and alliances.
But Congress has been performing exactly the way BJP wants it to: retain some votes, but not enough seats. It has shown little intent to regroup and bounce bank. Even when it lost the 2014 national elections badly, it directly ruled 11 states and was part of two state governments. Today the grand old party rules just six states, one UT, and is a small part of an alliance that rules Bihar. This is less than 16% of India. Unless it dramatically improves its show in coming state polls, Congress that leads UPA in Parliament cannot claim natural leadership of any future anti-BJP front.
BJP and its partners rule more than 43% of the country’s population. This brings us to the ‘third front’ question. Non-BJP and non-Congress parties rule the rest 41% of India, but they are sharply divided. Parties like AIDMK and DMK or Left and TMC or SP and BSP are not likely to come under one umbrella to be BJP’s main challengers in 14 state battles going into the next general elections three years from now. It is in this context that the third front idea being pushed by the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar does not hold much promise. Their friend Arvind Kejriwal’s party AAP has already said it will not be part of any such front.
Kejriwal knows his history. All front governments at the Centre proved to be short-lived, toppled by Congress pull-outs. BJP also withdrew support to a government of great contradictions. History tells us any successful large alliance has to have a national player as its anchor. Some rivals may join hands, something that happened in Bihar in 2015, to check BJP in some states.
But every state election brings its own script. A Bihar-like mahagathbandhan is not possible everywhere. While 2017 has UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur going to polls, 2018 has contests lined up in Gujarat,  Karnataka,  Himachal, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. Madhya Pradesh,  Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will go to polls in a final round right before 2019. In some of these states, BJP will face a large alliance of opposition parties. In others, the party would not aim to decimate Congress.
Congress can learn much from BJP that has had its share of disastrous showing. The ‘darkness did go away and the lotus bloomed’ under Vajpayee and Advani after the party got reduced to two seats in Parliament in the 1984 national elections. On the back of even more polarising campaigns under Modi, the lotus is now blossoming. Congress’ Digivijay Singh admitted a surgery was needed for his party to survive the latest poll debacles. But the question is: will the party show the courage to find the right surgeons?

Remembering Dumraon’s Bismillah

It’s heartening that the Narendra Modi government has plans to celebrate the life and music of late Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. The Centre gave him Bharat Ratna 15 years ago and  later instituted a stamp, but the two states—one his janmbhumi and another karmbhumi—did little to honour his memory.
Five-year-old Bismillah had his first audiences at Dumraon, the place where he was born a hundred years ago. Every time he played the Shehnai at Bihariji Temple in Rajgarh — a sprawling campus on which the headquarters of the erstwhile Dumraon Raj in Bihar stand — the tunes mesmerised people, including members of the royal family.
There was a definite touch of brilliance in the boy’s performances, but not everyone would have imagined that he would become a maestro, bringing accolades by single-handedly raising the stature of the ‘obscure wind instrument’ he even then played with élan.
His father Paighambar Bux alias Bachai Miyan, grandfather Rasool Bux, great grandfather Hussain Bux were court musicians of Dumraon Raj. They played in Naqqar Khana.
Bachai and Mitthan initially named him Amiruddin, to rhyme with their first son Shamshuddin’s name. Rasool  exclaimed “Bismillah!” (“In the name of Allah!”) when he saw him. It stuck. My late grandfather, a member of the royal family, would tell me that when Bismillah sang the Bhojpuri ‘chaita’ Ehi matiya me bhulail hamar motiya he rama (It’s in this place that I lost my pearl), the temple priest would reward him a ‘laddoo’.
Born in Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, he spent his childhood playing ‘gilli-danda’ near the famous Chhatiya pond. He went to Urdu School near Naya Talab. He was fond of Dumraon’s daals. He was often accused of shying away from introducing himself as a native of Dumraon once he had made it big as a Shehnai player. It is not true. He would often think of his place of birth. Bismillah wanted to visit Dumraon, but could not.
The kid was taken to Banaras when he was six and lost his mother. He trained under his uncle, Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, a shehnai player attached to Vishwanath Temple.  He and the shehnai were synonyms. He referred to the instrument as his begum after his wife died. He was a Shi’ite Muslim, a symbol of communal harmony.
As Banaras, now known more as Modi’s constituency, became his workplace and Bismillah’s stature rose manifold, not many in Dumraon recognised his contributions towards the Shehnai’s journey from raj darbars and social functions to the realm of classical music worldwide.
Perhaps most people in Dumraon — especially those raised in the feudal environment — could not fathom the meteoric rise of the son of an ordinary person. The Bihar government made several promises to honour him, but did little. Reports of the UP government’s reluctance to settle his hospital expenses were painful.
The Centre now plans yearlong birth centenary celebrations which include performances and special programmes, and may also build memorials for these icons and institute stamps and coins and publish books in their remembrance.
Khaan Saab deserves all this and much more!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Motihari: Tales of a small Bihar that ferries Dilliwallahas

As Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar bond over their common political interests, countless Biharis stream into Delhi for education and jobs, creating a link between two distinct and distant states. Biharis are a strong electoral constituency. Together with migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh, they are known as Poorvanchalis, making up 35% of Delhi’s 13 million voters. The Bihari identity in Delhi has many stereotypes: the khaini-chewing construction worker, the ‘un-cool’ but studious DU student, and the aspiring civil servant of Mukherji Nagar.
Then there is the quintessential autowallah. You speak to any auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi, and you’re likely to be speaking to a Bihari. As it is, that incorrigible slant in the otherwise Khadi boli is unmissable. During my commuting in Delhi, I have been fascinated to see just how many of them are from a single place—Motihari in north Bihar. Next time you travel, just strike up a conversation!
It’s enriching to let people tell their stories. Poor Kalimullah left Motihari’s Mankarwa village and  became an auto driver in Delhi two decades ago. His four uncles came here 10 years before him to take up the same job. When I met him for a second time, he took me to Minto Road, Ananad Vihar, Pandav Nagar and New Delhi railway station to let me meet hundreds of his Motihari colleagues. Unemployed Chandramohan Prasad Yadav of Motihari’s Rajapur left home with friends and landed in Delhi 20 years ago. His uncle Deolal Yadav was already here. His three brothers—Lakhinder, Surinder and Gubri—also became auto-drivers in Delhi.
When I lived in east Delhi, I met hundreds of men from villages in Motihari’s Sugauli who drove auto-rickshaws in Delhi and lived in Trilokpuri. Rajiv Kumar Jha of Motihari’s Kotwa reached Delhi in 2000, started as a driver, but soon owned 20 vehicles and hired 40 drivers. In three years, he managed to get a new house constructed back home. His father and uncle also worked with him. Rajeev bought a house here and sent his kids to an English-medium school. “Maybe, this is the last generation of drivers in our family. We can now switch to “more honourable” jobs,” he told me during a ride from KG Marg to Mayur Vihar.
So how did it all start? Ranglal Rai who came to Delhi from Motihari’s Pipra in 1973 said the first lot came in the early 1950s. A large number of men from areas around Motihari such as Basantpur, Bagahi, Medhiharwa, Chakiya, Dhaka and Kesariya became auto drivers in Delhi. While Vidyananda (Kotwa), Lallan (Kesariya), Raju Pandit (Kotwa) and Alim (Pahadpur) struggled in Delhi, Rakesh Pandey (Belwa) is proud that he married off his sister without any outside help.
Most of these conversations happened during commuting. I met a driver who sang very well. I often called him to pick me up from office. It’s not such a bad idea to unwind after a day’s of hard work in the company of a fellow Bihari, for long a synonym for ‘uncouth’ or ‘uncivilised’. Though such stereotyping is gradually declining. As my friend put it, “Nowadays colleagues are less horrified after listening to my Bhojpuri conversation with my mother over the phone.”
Sometime ago, I was in Motihari on an assignment. Once Mahatma Gandhi’s workplace during the Satyagraha Andolan, the area has seen some of the most gruesome political killings, and remained narcotics smuggling hub. I tried to see the families of some of the drivers I had met in Delhi. I had some phone numbers, so the task was slightly easy. I found Chandramohan’s father, Hira Prasad, himself working as a taxi driver. “I never wished to work in Delhi. There is more money there, but I like it here,” he said.
I also met Ali Imam, a science graduate and once a civil service aspirant, who proudly said that Motihari is where George Orwell was born in 1903. He owned a few vehicles. Not too far, Rajiv’s grandfather, Satyanarayan Jha, also drove an auto-rickshaw. I finally met Kalimullah’s father, Hadish. He proudly showed his house renovated with the money his son sent from Delhi.