Thursday, 24 February 2011

All For The Gold

The sound of drum beats came as a surprise. 

The compartment was moderately full, about a dozen and a half people or more; a few standing. They, too, were a little surprised to hear the drums. When you travel in local trains for a considerable portion of your life, the sound of drums usually indicates one very certain possibility—beggars.  
And quite certainly it was one; a child. They come in various sizes, you see. This particular girl, all of 6 or 7 years, was a performer. And, yes, they come in various specializations, too; singers, dancers, performers and other kinds. 

In a swift motion, she somersaulted in the narrow passage-way; forward, then backward again. Then, twisting her arms, almost like she dislocated it (which I think, she probably did), she spun it around the entire length of her little, frail body; like a skipping rope (remember King Louis, from The Jungle Book?). If there weren't people sitting, she'd probably have done a horse bar, or parallel rings type of stunt-thingy, all in the moving train, mind you. Then of course, came the inevitable—alms. 
I honestly felt sorry for her. A girl of her age could probably put our national gymnastics team to shame, with only street-level training. And there she was, displaying her skills on a local train, begging for alms; where she could very well be India's next gold medallist.
The socio-economic disparity between two people in our country is so wide, almost like a chasm; which unfortunately secures an unjust system too. As I sat in a very comfortable first-class compartment, this realization dawned on me, like it had several times before. But this girl’s story wasn’t about missed opportunities; she obviously didn’t have any. This issue goes much deeper than that.

In the 1980s, when Mrs Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the Sports Ministry came up with the idea of tapping into these talent pools of street performers, circus gymnasts and the likes. There would be benefits for them, training and, well, better chances for India in international events. It is a known fact that several East European nations, like Romania, enroll their children, particularly girls, into gymnastic schools as soon as they learn walking. The intensive training and hard work pays off; two Gold medals in the Olympics and the family’s future would be more or less secure. 
Why did this initiative fail in India?
Come now, I think the answer actually is quite obvious. Bureaucracy.
I think it is extremely stupid that the bureaucracy has so much of a say in the field of sports. Not that I have a problem against it in other walks of life. For one, how on earth can these guys possibly think that they can run the show in sports? You see more officials on the Indian contingent than athletes. I mean, forget transparency and accountability, is it too much to ask for a little decency? 
Knowing these guys, that probably amounts to more than the entire universe. That’s why bribes suffice. And that is why only those who can pay rise to the visible level in national sporting, only to disappear because of lack of training (and in many cases, talent).

One solution is to privatize the sports sector. This is a possible option, especially after the CWG debacle, and the fact that our present athletes (not sports-persons, like cricketers and hockey players) receive pathetic training, poor allowances and no respect. 
I mean, the government would be only too happy to wash its hands off a responsibility; not that I mean this in negative sense. Skilled athletes would do the nation proud, wouldn't they? 
We, as spectators, would be happy; the young children, like the girl in the train, and their families would have a chance to be happy, and well off, while making their country proud at the same time.
What I say here is not an optimistic future that I personally envisage; this is a possibility, and this can work out. And like all problems, this requires rational thought, and most of all, political will.
Political will? I guess, now you could call me a naive optimist.

As for the bureaucrats, I'm pretty sure they'll find some other victim to fleece. Hmm, they should try making that into a sport, right? A bronze for a fraud that’s under ten lacs; silver for ten crores. And a gold for a scam above one lakh crore.

Then, I can be positive that the gold will indeed be ours.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Village Fair

The station road usually remains calm, quiet and somewhat deserted for most of the day; filled with the sound of scattering feet and hushed (or at times, loud) voices during the morning and evening peak hours. Today, however, while walking down the very same road, I thought I'd taken a wrong turn. I looked around, past the crowds (teeming crowds, actually), and apparently, I was still at the station road; the annual 'jatra' or fair had begun—and as it has been for so many years, it was set up at the station road.

The earliest memories I have of the 'jatra' are the ones when I was about seven or eight years old. The 'jatra', or as we preferred calling it 'mela', translated into excitement; we were excited to ride on the carousels, the toy-train, the 'Dragon Boat', a host of other rattly rides; and cheap toys, of course, were a perennial attraction. A personal favourite of our's was the shooting arena. 'Arena' here is a very sophisticated term; in actuality, it was a small stall/kiosk, with many balloons stuck to a canvas and a rattly air-soft rifle to shoot with. When the target's three feet away, and when there's so many of them, accuracy is rather inevitable. But for my seven year old self, hitting a 'bullseye' within three shots (for five rupees, each) was quite an achievement.

Well, now in the present, the 'mela' has still retained its nostalgic charm; replete with the shooting 'arena', and many other small little shops, stalls, kiosks etc. I was here, neither with the intention of visiting the fair, nor for reliving the past; I had some important work. What it was, I'd forgotten for the full minute I stood there, just looking around; the colours, the noise, the voices...

"Three chances for ten rupees!" 
"Necklaces! Bangles! And all kinds of jewelry! Starts at rupees thirty!" 
"Come, see the Magic Show! Tickets for twenty rupees!"
Oh, things have become expensive. But, like always, the fair manages to remain affordable to the common-man.

Another voice distracted my attention; it was a woman's and I'm pretty sure it was a Marathi swear word...something about a pick-pocket. Instinctively, my hand reached my back pocket; yes, it had a bulge; the wallet is safe. I might have to keep walking this way. 
So what? One can't be too safe these days, can they? 
Whether it's the streets of Bruges, or the subway in New York or London, or a fair in some obscure Indian village, there are several 'cultural universals'; the way people behave in groups, religion, faith, prayer, and yes, as this case illustrates, pick-pockets, too.

While walking in a 'mela', it is nigh impossible to resist the temptation of the sheer variety of food on display; from hot, crispy bhajiyas, vada-pavs, to fresh jalebis and many, many other sweet-meats, of various sizes, shapes, colours...and names I haven't even heard of! I vaguely remember tasting some as a child—after my dad convinced me; and in spite of my initial scepticism, I think I'd enjoyed eating them too. Though I confess, I'm not too sure now; maybe, if I finally manage to learn what sweet is what.

As the sunlight faded, the artificial lights lit up the streets, the noise got louder, and the streets got worse, with the public spilling out on the roads, (well, whatever was left of it for motorists to use); Bollywood, it seems, never loses its charm. Somewhere, I heard a Hannah Montana song playing; after a closer look (yes, I was just curious) I realized it's a jingle from some kind of a guitar toy; pink, of course. Also, I could see lots of Spider-man stuff, Ben-10 and Transform-Robots. I won't say that I was cynically amused, because I wasn't; it's just that, globalization has reached well beyond the proverbial shores...and I, for one, am not really complaining.

On my way back (unfortunately, the work I set out for remained unaccomplished) I noticed a lady, presumably on what seemed like a tattoo stall (it was actually a plastic sheet she was sitting on, with xeroxed copies of many designs, and a tattoo machine). She looked at me, flexed her flabby, wrinkled biceps and pointed at one of the photos; a dragon, I think it was. I smiled, shook my head, and resumed walking.
From the sky-walk, I could see the carousels, the giant wheel and the 'Dragon Boat.' I felt a slight nudge against my shoulder; in my mind, almost subconsciously, I heard a woman swearing in Marathi...'pick-pocket'. I felt the bulge in my back pocket; yes, wallet's still there.

One can't be too careful these days, can they?

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Noble Profession

The classrooms across the city and many of its suburbs are set to wear a deserted look. The children, for one, aren't really complaining. Their teachers, on the other hand, are; not complaining, exactly, but are voicing their concerns over the impending census duty. And, they have every right to protest this "national duty", as I shall discuss it in detail in this essay.

For those who're unaware (yes, I believe there are quite a few), the Census of India takes place every 10 years, to not only gauge the increase in the total population, but to also note the changes in the standard of living, birth rate, family patterns etc. And to carry out this mammoth task, the Government of India and the Census Board delegates this work to the local municipal bodies--in over six hundred districts throughout the country--who in turn employ, or rather enlist the services of civic employees, school teachers etc.

So far so good, right? I mean, this is a duty of national significance and not to mention, of great magnitude. And it is the job of government employees to aid the Government in any such undertaking. This is precisely where the authorities make a mistake.
Enlisting civic body employees is not restricted to a handful of them, being sent to every god-forsaken corner of their respective wards; it usually requires a great percentage of the work force to engage in enumeration, often as high as 60-70% of a municipality's full workforce. To add to it, the teachers, in both aided and non-aided schools are roped in for enumeration. This is not the first instance where teachers are compulsorily roped in for such activities--election duty during the Lok Sabha, State elections as well as the municipality are extremely common, and are, at times, carried out for three years in succession. 

So, who bears the brunt of these "national duties"? The students? Yes, of course; but they're not complaining. Nor are they directly facing any of these hardships, other than perhaps a significant delay in the completion of their syllabus. It's the teachers who're directly, and most affected by such "duties". 
In any democratic nation, people's participation in such processes strengthens democracy, firstly; and then, the people as responsible citizens. But, by what right does a democratic nation 'compel' its people to perform such duties? The very fact of the country being a 'democracy', and the 'compulsion' it has on its people is a paradox. But for the government, these duties are 'justified', as they do not consider 'teaching' a valuable profession; all this as India is on the threshold of implementing much-needed reforms in education, including the Right to Education. 

The potential of any nation is calculated by the quality of its youth, more so, the students, especially in primary and secondary school. And the quality of these crucial school years is directly related to the quality of teaching. The point is: reforms in the education sector are incomplete without key policies affecting teachers' well-being. Many, like the government, are of the opinion that teaching is not a challenging, or a productive profession. Such misguided, and callous, remarks sadly illustrate the real 'illiteracy' prevalent in India
With extracurricular duties, like Census enumeration and election duty, both private and public schools teachers are diverted from their school duties, and are even threatened with heavy fines and possible incarceration. The teaching force, thus is stressed from both ends; on one side, they have their official responsibilities in schools, catering to over 60-70 children in each class, along with examinations; on another side, they're coerced into doing these 'national duties'- often during the academic year or even the vacation--whatever little they get. 

I have seen first hand what many teachers (and other enumerators) have to go through, each having to visit about 140-150 households; in one area if lucky, or worse, spread out. Then, there's the language barrier. It's funny how a 'national duty' has its forms printed in the regional language, and requests for these forms in English, or even in Hindi, is laughed off like a humourless joke. To add to their woes, the public who're being enumerated have absolutely no clue about the dates of birth of their spouses, parents etc. and are often very hostile and uncooperative. Even worse is that teachers are paid a pittance, if they're paid at all, that is.
All in the name of national duty.

What I fail to understand is: why doesn't the government employ people, who are currently unemployed, registered in the Employment Exchanges, and, in many cases, are adequately qualified. I often resort to cynicism because of such stark paradoxes: a group of professionals being overburdened, unnecessarily while another group stays unemployed. This is democratic India, I suppose. 

One might say I'm motivated by a personal agenda; my mother's a teacher in a local private school. To that, I say: yes, I am. I know what a teacher has to go through even in regular academic years. Added to that are these duties, and of course, lack of motivation and proper work conditions are a constant issue.

So, is there a solution to this? As always, there is a solution. All that the government and administrative bodies/agencies need is a little creativity, some sensitivity and most importantly, the political will to implement reforms meaningfully for them to make maximum impact. 

Until then, I guess, teaching will remain the "noble" profession that it always has been, in this great nation of ours.