Monday, 22 April 2013

Exercising your Right to NOT Vote

This post is focused on those citizens who do not want to vote. Those who have decided to vote responsibly may please skip reading any further.

Image Courtesy: UNC
So, its that time of 5-year period when leaders, in a role reversal, knock our doors and ask us to vote for a better city, a better state and a better life. For regular voters, this is not an uncommon sight. We have been seeing in since decades and perhaps, will continue to see. These days, the candidates also penetrate the veil through various other channels like the television, radio, social networks, etc. In the US, President Obama spent a billion dollars for his recent election campaign. Elections in India, too, are a mega festival. In a 2009 report, Centre for Media Studies (CMS) said, "The April 16 general election will witness an outlay of something like 100 billion rupees (two billion dollars)".

Electoral Process in India takes at least a month for state assembly elections with the duration increasing further for the General Elections. Karnataka Assembly election will be held in a single phase on May 5 with a total of 4.18 crore voters in Karnataka. A sum of Rs 200 Crores would be spent on conducting elections by the Government. Karnataka Government has also taken up a SVEEP (Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation) plan under which it plans to spend Rs 2.5 lakhs in each constituency to create awareness on enrollment of names in the voters' list. In Bangalore, the effort is being made to increase the percentage of voters to the population from the present 62% to 65%. There are 65 lakhs voters in the city.

Now, we come to the questions we all have been wondering about. Should I vote? If yes, who should I vote for? If not, what should I do with my voter id card? These are the most generic questions we all above the age of 18 face. After all, we are clueless about what is happening in the nation. The colleges and offices keep up so busy, for whatever reason, that we never get to think about the nation. The outsourcing fever is so high in India that we have assumed that the policy making and leadership activities have been outsourced to the 500+ people in the parliament.

It is interesting to note that Right to Vote is not one of our fundamental rights. It is a constitutional right (Article 326 (in Part XV) of the Constitution). Over the last 7 years, I have been wondering if I should exercise this right and the answer that I have got is, "Yes, I should". But then, because our voting process asks us to select one out of the many candidates, I seldom get to know who I should vote for. It bothered me for sometime and I decided to look for more information. I went through the websites of the political parties and all of them made similar promises that they will give us water, power and make our city greener. I looked at the ads on TV as well as Youtube which claimed how, if elected, they can make our lives better. In the past as well, there have been similar promises. While some leaders of some parties have fulfilled those promises, most have not. Now, being a secular person, I even do not want to vote based on religion, caste or community. Even if I did, there are people of all communities in each party.

I started reading about the failure of each party. There were a plenty, a large number of them alleged by the other parties. The performance of a region, district, state or the nation has been more or less in line with the way the world has been performing in general. So, I did not find any major point/reason to vote in one party to power and vote out the others.

As I researched further, I found this interesting Rule 49-O in The Conduct of Elections Rules of India. It says, "If an elector decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark." However, recording such data easily violates the secrecy of the ballot. Before the Electronic voting machine (EVM) were in use, the easiest way to do this would be to stamp on multiple candidate names and thus, giving a null vote, by invalidating the vote. There is even more information about 49-O on the net but this was sufficient.

An argument in favor of provision of neutral voting is that it ensures the individual's freedom to choose whether or not to vote. Russia allows voters to vote "against all" candidates. It has been reported that activist Anna Hazare supports the 'Right Not To Vote'.

Now, I see that some of you might have an answer for the dilemma. We consider all the parties and leaders as capable as the other. Some of us do not think that any one person can make a difference, so different from the other. So, we do not want to vote for one of these. We want to vote for all of them. Of course, there are many others who have perceptions and in some cases reasons, to vote for one leader. Let such people decide who should be the leader.

But then, we MUST vote. We must exercise our right by voting for all (or none) by going to the polling booth and ensuring that our vote is counted. Of course, the easier way to do it is to lie down at home but the objective here is to exercise your right to say, "Look, I am fine with all the leaders and all the parties" because sitting back at home would mean, "I am not fine with these guys". When you are not fine with these guys, it would be very important to define the guys with who you are fine.

This May 5, as Karnataka enters the elections day, lets all ensure that we vote, we vote for one person of our choice or we vote for all of them standing out for our cause. This May 5, lets ensure that Karnataka sets an example for the world through a large voter turnout. This May 5, don't sit back at home, not because you can come out and run the nation, because you have a responsibility. This May 5, lets get together to say whatever we have to say by voting rather than cribbing the next 5 years. This May 5, ensure that your name on the voter list is ticked and your finger nail is inked.

Jai Hind, Jai Karnataka!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Amarjeet Sinha: An India for Everyone - A Path to Inclusive Development

Image Courtesy: Telegraph
Amarjeet Sinha, IAS, is the Principal Secretary (Health and Family Welfare), Government of Bihar. In his latest book, An India for Everyone: A Path to Inclusive Development, the education expert who has played a major role in designing the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the National Rural Health Mission, offers a companion dream to the economic one. I had the opportunity to meet him and listen to him while he addressed a gathering at TERI, Bangalore on 15 April 2013. When I read his thoughts in a couple of articles, I was able to relate them to similar thoughts that I have been having in my mind from quite some time. We all speak about the huge economic divide that the nation is seeing, we all know that education is so important, we all know that child labor has to stop, we all know that the growth should be inclusive but then, we all are clueless about how to bring all that we know into our lives. Administrators like Mr Sinha are taking some interesting initiatives that can go a long way in helping India find some solutions to the problems that she faces. Here are some of his thoughts from the address.

  • India has seen high rates of growth seen since 1991 due to economic growth. However, what holds good for economic growth may not be the right path for human development.
  • What makes a difference between accident of births and living life is qualitative factors like education, healthcare, nutrition, etc.
  • Human development is the supported cause by any advanced nation. Across the world, it has played a major role in determine the trajectory of the nation and its people's growth.
  • We cannot grow away from the public system. Partnerships with private sectors are definitely required, but then, still, the ultimate strength lies in developing our public system.
  • We do not have systems to correct our mistakes in India. A lot of good academic work happens but as far as public systems are concerned, we do not have any strong evidence based research to take appropriate decisions, unlike in the developed nations.
  • When I took the book to Harper Collins, they were glad to take it but they wanted in a perfect shape. My wife was doubtful on who would read it.
  • Completed the draft during the 5 week training programme that was held for IAS officers at a university in Mussorie.
  • Private sector is not the ultimate answer. Developing a good public system is no rocket science. The book argues for crafting a better public system.
  • Brazil 8% of GDP education expenditure, 4.5% healthcare.
  • Critic - How do you guarantee service? The book deals with these questions. While dealing with failures of system, there are exemplary systems in India that others want to adopt. For eg, India's electoral process. We make every effort for such systems. However, for greater issues like say NREGA, we do not make so much effort and pass the buck to the lower offices.
  • The intent is always good but the outcomes are not in line with expectations because our decisions are ideological but not based on evidence based facts.
  • Instead of policy making, our leaders are involving themselves into the executive. That is the main reason why we have lost focus. Community organisations must be seen as a complement to the PRI.
  • The habitations must be seen as units and not the gram panchayats.
  • It is easier to get into the government than to be thrown out. We need to revisit the skills that public servants need. The public service commission has played an important role in this process. Now, we need people with different and better skilled people to manage programs in this world. In the health mission, most states hired health managers at district level and the results are better. In case we had hired people purely based on competitive exams testing one's math and English, we would not have achieved such result.
  • In Rajasthan, Shiksha Karmi project selected local teachers to teach students in some 15% schools where no teachers taught. The gram panchayat selected some people who had education beyond class 7. These people were taught rigorously for a long time. They hired them at Rs 2000. A group of leaders, including some NGOs, said that in case they clear all the 8 levels, all these people will be paid regular salaries. Today, most of them earn regular salaries.
  • Irrespective of the type of Organization, they have to be assessed and accredited.
  • Tamilnadu medical services corporation system is a great example from which all states can adopt from.
  • Number of schools, colleges, students, educators, everything has gone up but the way education is being delivered has remained the same.
  • We can't have mediocrity in training institutions.
  • It is  national shame to have such a high nutrition deficit in India.
  • But then you will not find a single professional who understands nutrition completely. Unless we have a proper nutrition level in the nation, we can not progress in education and healthcare.
  • Clean water, food security, basic public health facilities, basic health practices, barefoot doctor in every village to do the 4 above. 18 months mandatory course for all doctors. This was done by China.
  • We are far ahead in advanced medicine in India but we don't have basic expertise on basic medicine.
  • Janani Suraksha Yojana.
  • Public health and hygiene is the most important factor for any city or nation, we have to fight for water and sanitation instead of fighting for antibiotics.
  • We should not only have an economic advisory council but also human development advisory council that advises the PM on bettering our human development index.
  • Departments have to come with clear outcomes and analyse their performance at the end of the year.
  • The development as the best contraceptive - article in business standard.
  • We can be far ahead in the BRIC category in case we implement some basic changes in our system. A little increase in healthcare expenditure can make a huge difference in the quality of life.
  • Public systems ought to be strengthened.
  • RSBY Rashtriya Swastha Bhima Yojana - insurance company model. Claims ratio varies from 30% to 600% in some districts. Thus, the premiums shoot up next year and people can not pay the premiums.
  • Yashasvini - group of hospitals give services at fixed costs and a major portion of it is contributed by the government.
  • Between 1949 and 1979, China worked with a single belief to grow. Austerity was the most important thing, nobody could buy a car, wear a steel buckle belt, etc. The single mindedness helped them take a strong growth path.
  • Thailand has achieved a phenomenal improvement in healthcare by appointing community level healthcare experts.

Often, 2-3 questions on education, economy have been going around in my head.

Several NGOs claim that at Rs 2000 per head, they can make a person literate over a period of one year. We are not speaking about education, we are speaking about literacy. After all, when the Government speaks about education levels in the nation, they speak about literacy and not education. So, when 25% of our population is illiterate, the cost of reaching 100% literacy would be Rs 50,000 Crores (Rs 2000 x 25 Crore people) against the center's Education Budget of Rs 65,000 Crores and aggregate State Budget expenditure of Rs 5 Lac Crores. Why don't we make this one time expenditure and get rid of the drama behind education and literacy? Why should we increase literacy at 1% every year and wait till 2050 for 100% literacy? In fact, if our aim is to be 100% literate by 2050, we don't need to make any effort. After all, children are going to school, at least up to such standard that we can stamp them as literate and the illiterate adults will die of old age by 2050. If somebody is really serious, they should aim at reaching 100% literacy by 2015, not 2050. Its not a rocket science.

We all speak about changes in the education delivery system. I'm a strong believer in chalk and board system of teaching. I have been thinking on this from a longtime. If we try to copy the systems that advanced nations have implemented, they have clearly failed. Europe has an unemployment rate of 25%. US grows at 1%, though they spend a billion dollars on election campaigns. In the name of bringing technology to education, we have only helped companies like Apple, Google to hoard billions of dollars while websites like Wikipedia do not have funds. Education has been almost equaled to google. I read an article recently that said, I hate schools but I love education. We ought to understand that exposing children to computers even before their brains grow can only make them brainless. Gosh, whoever invented computers and mobile phones saying they will save our time, he would kill himself seeing what happened to his inventions, if he were alive today.

We all speak about human development. One of the biggest gauges of it is happiness. Should we rather go the Bhutan way, which tops the happiness index? They do not do anything, they just live life. What kind of race are we into? The world tell us that we have to buy an apartment and a car and we start running behind them. The economy makes it even more difficult with each passing day to buy these and thus, the unending struggle to grab those papers printed by the Government goes on. Sometime we sound philosophical while we look at this hysterical life.

I put up a couple of questions to Mr Sinha and he did his best to answer them. An important point that he made, which I completely believe in, is, "Good nurses and teachers are irreplaceable." Of course, they are not.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Story of a Torn Shirt...

On the morning of 8 June 2010, I got a call from the HR of HDFC Bank. He told me that I have been selected for the job I applied for. On being asked when I can start, I was excited to tell him today, this moment. To be honest, I was not prepared to join right then as I had come from my hometown to Bangalore for a couple of days just to while around some time. I had not carried any formal clothing with me. Yet, I wore a black shirt, which was supposed to be a party wear along with the best possible trouser for the occasion, a quadra clothing, as the others were jeans. Even more disgusting was the fact that I did not have shoes and thus, I wore a pair of sandals. In this shape, I presented myself before the HR at 11AM asking him to give me my offer letter. A pitch black shirt, a brownish trouser, a pair of haphazard sandals and a sky blue tie. Undoubtedly, he was shocked.

"What is this?", he asked.

"I know its not what you call formal wear. But then, honestly, I'm on a vacation right now and all my clothes are at my hometown", I said.

"Can't you buy a new pair? Do you think you can walk into a bank like this?", he seemed really angry now.

I stood silent.

"Before we discuss any further, I want you to dress up appropriately. I can't send you to meet your boss in this shape and take a stinker from him. Please come back when you are ready", he said and walked away.

Definitely, I was not so dumb that I would not have thought of buying a set of clothes on such an important day. But then, the truth was, I did not have any money to buy anything. I had been going through a tough time financially and there was no money in my bank account. I had also quit my job at ICICI Bank about 5 months back and whatever bit of savings I had was already exhausted. I was at the peak of helplessness. In fact, I had been living helplessly from a long time. Life had been pushing too hard on me and I had been trying to be even harder.

I was so broke that day that I just walked out of the premises of the bank with no hope. I had already been taking help from my friends and did not want to ask them again. There was a conflict in my mind. Those days were so hard. I feel a jerk in me as I remember them even today. From Richmond Road, I started walking towards the Richmond Circle. Hopelessly, I had to call a couple of my friends and request them to lend me some money. Two of them transferred Rs 500 each to my account and I was relieved. I went to a Big Bazaar nearby (Shantinagar bus depot) as they sell the cheapest clothing and shoes.

On searching all over the place, I found one shirt within my budget as well as meeting my requirements. A decent white shirt with very light blue lines that could be seen only when you come too close to it. The shirt had a tag of Rs 299 and Big Bazaar offered a discount of 33%, making it available for Rs 199 only. That was perhaps the shirt made for me. I picked it up and went to the billing counter. The very moment, I remembered that I am also required to buy a pair of shoes. I looked around and bought the cheapest possible black shoes. With a bill of Rs 498, I was ready to go. Though I wished to buy a trouser, I didn't dare to. I wanted to sneak in with whatever I had on me right then.

While I started walking towards Richmond road, I started thinking about what was happening with my life. I was so reckless in taking taking some decisions. Though I left ICICI Bank with big dreams and hopes to do something better, things did not happen. The last 4-5 months had been terrible and my dependency on others to live my life had shot up.

The shirt in discussion
With a decent face and a broad smile, I peeked in to the HR's cubicle and he was okay, if not happy, to see me. "Push up your tie and unroll your sleeves", he said. From school days, I have been habituated to wear a tie like a scarf and roll the sleeves in two folds. I followed his instruction and moved in to the room along with him. I collected the offer letter, put my signature, got more information about my job, my reporting authority, reporting location, etc. and thus, I was ready to go.

That was the day this shirt came in to my life and from then, every time I wear it, I am reminded of all these incidents. The mere look at the shirt would send shivers down my spine. Today, it mellows me down when I think of those times when I was literally cloth-less.

Today, on 8 April 2013, this shirt completes 34 months of living with me. Even today morning when I wore this shirt, I did remember the memories associated with this shirt. As a matter of coincidence, I wore the same quadra pant to work today. And then, the unfortunate thing happened.

I expressed my tiredness to myself by stretching my hands and moving them behind my head, lifting my body from the chair, performing some kind of a yoga. Then, I leaned forward to stretch in the opposite direction. TRRRKKK. I realized that it was the end of this beautiful cotton shirt that had been with me from such a long time. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had to spend one more hour in the office. I just remained stuck to my chair for the remaining hour.

Thank God, it was the shirt and it was on the back. I was not carrying a jacket. It would have been so helpful. Luckily, I was carrying a bag today. So, I just decided to remain stuck to my chair till everyone leaves and then, wear the bag and move on. I had to extend my time at work for no official reasons and finally, after everybody had left, I adjusted the bag to cover my back and left. I observed that the shirt was slit into two halves against my assumption of a small cut. It was saddening. Though I escaped unnoticed, there was nothing for me to be happy about. If not this shirt, may be, I could have felt like James Bond.

Memories make us attached to things. Losing such things almost risk the loss of memories. The kind of nostalgia I would experience each time I would wear this shirt would not be experienced ever again.