July 28, 2010

Visit to India ....continued

Empowered women.

The United States of America, one of the most developed democracies in the world, has yet to elect its first female president, but India has Pratibha Patil for President, and she is not the first woman elected to lead this country; Indira Gandhi the charismatic Prime Minister is remembered worldwide as a visionary and a very shrewd statesman.

That perhaps explains the remarkable female population I see in New Delhi that seems to have infiltrated every aspect of society despite its apparent male dominance. This is true at every level; for example, though it is the 'dhobi' who owns the 'ironing stall', it is his wife who appears to be running the show. The 5 feet nothing woman has borne some eight plus children in the last 15 years, and still flashes the widest smile while limping (due to polio in childhood) door to door collecting clothes for ironing, which she brings back to you at the end of the day neatly ironed by the 'dhobi' who sits put in the stall. However, that is not all she does; she also cooks two meals a day for her family and packs lunch for two of her sons who work on daily wages. It was she who came to me with that charming smile flashing from ear to ear asking me to recommend her sons for permanent jobs somewhere. She blessed me profusely and praised me to the skies making it near impossible for me to refuse her request, and soon after I found myself asking a rich and influential friend to find the 'dhobi's" son a permanent job! Clearly the illiterate, 5 feet nothing woman had done her job well.

Women all around me seem to be at par with the men, be it riding a motorcycle to go to work, or working night shifts at call centers to make good money. Even the construction sites, that are innumerable due to the oncoming commonwealth games, have a fair number of female labor which would shock a foreign visitor. The women appear frail, but manage to balance with ease loads of at least 30 pounds on their heads, some of them carrying an infant tied on their backs!

Well...the power and capability that women of New Delhi possess may be a revelation to any westerner who has grown up on PBS and National Geographic documentaries that have for decades depicted Indian woman as demure and voiceless. That is not how I see them here! Indian women seem to be running the show today in this land known for its practice of 'Sati' and 'dowry deaths', and the world needs to be aware of that.

July 24, 2010

Visit to India ...continued


There are multiple modes of public transport available in New Delhi for a tourist. The recently introduced 'Metro' is fast becoming a popular transport with fares ranging from Rs. 15/- to Rs. 50/- (approximately Rs. 50/- to one US dollar). However, the Metro has not reached all parts of the capital, and there is a lot of construction ongoing in and around the capital as a result of the 'Metro Project'.

Prior to the Metro, DTC buses were the most commonly used public transportation which in the last few months have evolved into 2 types of buses the 'green' and the 'red'. The Green Buses with fares of Rs. 5/-, 10/-, and 15/- for those on a tight budget, and the air conditioned Red Buses with fares of Rs. 15/-, 20/-, and 25/- for those who cannot withstand the extreme temperatures. I will probably not get a chance to travel on either because of friends who send me their cars whenever I need to go out.

The CNG (compressed natural gas) Auto-rickshaw is another intriguing 3 wheel mode of transport where the minimum fare is Rs.35/- ; apparently, the rickshaw driver pretty much decides on how much you will pay despite the existence of a tariff meter.

Then, there are of course the yellow top cabs which run in most places in Delhi, but I am told that even there the cab driver overrides the tariff meter. Besides the yellow tops, there are private taxis that you can rent on an hourly, daily, and or weekly basis. I hired one of those a few days ago at Rs.800/ - for a period of 8 hours. Apparently, this mode of transport is a hot favorite with NRIs (non resident Indian).

Transportation, in the Indian context, is very varied. There is also a sizable population that travels on bicycles, cycle rickshaws, and also bullock carts, and the presence of all of these on the roads affect the travel speed in this capital city. The speed on most of the inner city roads is between 25 - 50 km per hour, though I have to admit that I have yet to experience a speed of more than 40km per hour. In fact, just yesterday I was on the road from 10:30AM to 9:30PM, and the average speed of the car must have been 25 km per hour. Talking about my day on the road yesterday...I witnessed the most interesting interaction between the drivers of two vehicles that were both moving side by side on a packed highway where, if I put my hand out the window, I could touch the outer rim of the auto-rickshaw that was driving alongside! Well, it so happened, that my friend, who was driving me around in Connaught place (the Times Square of New Delhi), was unsure of the route to our next destination and needed directions. Given that the GPS has still not made an in road into the Indian market, and that road maps are an unknown commodity, even at the gas stations, my friend resorted to doing what she always does when in need of directions: she rolls down both the driver window and the passenger side window and within less than 5 seconds an auto-rickshaw draws up on the passenger side, the driver of which is busy talking on a cell phone. My friend then yells out to the driver, who hears her over the din of that bustling neck to neck traffic, and then, through monosyllabic sounds and hand and neck gestures, gives directions to my friend. She, in the meanwhile, is driving and negotiating turns and aggressive drivers like you cannot imagine, and is therefore only able to hear but the first two directions the auto-rickshaw driver gave, so after following those two, she again rolls down the window and has another brief conversation with yet another auto-rickshaw driver, and we finally succeed in getting onto a road that my friend recognizes! This was clearly better than any GPS experience that I had ever had!

July 21, 2010

Visit to India ....continued

Public Hygiene…
Most Indian households are dusted, swept, and mopped everyday, if not twice a day, yet that cleanliness manifests itself only within the confines of individual homes, or so I guess. In East Delhi and NOIDA, the two parts of the city that I have been in so far, there is trash strewn all around especially on the roadsides and any open piece of square footage. The garbage disposal system, if it can be called such, is strange. I am not sure I want to call it archaic, because the Indus Valley civilization had a sophisticated sewage system and even had flush toilets according to ancient texts. However, today, as I see it, household garbage is taken in small plastic bags from households by a hired help who leaves that bag at the first open space that he finds within walking distance. As a result, on my morning walks the putrefying organic waste emanated an overwhelming stench that was so overpowering and pervasive that I could smell it on my clothes every time I came back into the house. As you may have guessed, the morning walks will have to be discontinued while I am in Delhi. Clearly, public hygiene is not a priority; the dichotomy between the public and the private levels of hygiene still has me baffled!

Child Labor….

Child labor is rampant and practiced blatantly in India. On my way from the airport I saw several road construction projects that had young boys working as laborers which caught my attention. In the course of the last week, I find that the daily wages labor force has a very large percentage of underage workers; in fact the driveway of my residence is swept every morning by a young boy who could not be more than twelve years old. All the rag pickers I have seen so far are young children who are obviously malnourished and or emaciated with scant clothing and usually barefoot. Childhood has clearly been taken hostage by poverty...

July 20, 2010

Visit to India

I am currently in India, labeled as one of the fast growing economies in the world, even as the west is in the grip of an extended economic crisis. While on the flight to New Delhi, the capital city, I chatted with a group of American students who were traveling to India for the first time. They were extremely excited at the prospect of touring a nation with ‘so rich and diverse a heritage that is documented by literary texts going back some 3000 years’. They were also curious about an India which has now become ‘the world’s go to country for tech support’. The young tourists could not wait to experience the famous hospitality of Indians who always ‘made time’ for a visitor. Their enthusiasm was so contagious that when the flight landed at the New Delhi airport, I too found myself excited about my next fortnight in New Delhi.


Confusion and lack of clear directives was the impression I got as I waded through the ‘custom check’ and ‘baggage claim’. Collecting my baggage took me close to an hour even though I was surrounded by at least 12 Airport employees who kept asking me if I needed any help, yet they could do nothing about the baggage delay. While waiting for my baggage I kept thinking of the check-in counter at EWR, Newark, where there were but 3 Continental employees directing and guiding passengers at the check in which took us less than 20 minutes.


The flight landed at 8:20 PM and I reached my destination at 11:30 PM. The distance between the airport and the place where I was to stay is about 20 miles but the traffic, both in diversity and density, and its complete disregard for traffic rules made my drive seem endless. I wondered how those American students had fared….

My abode….

The variety of foliage that surrounds this residence is incredible. There are palm trees, deciduous firs, rubber plants, money plants, cacti, jasmines, gardenias, bougainvilleas, crotons, grape vines, guava, pomegranate, and mango trees to name a few. It is a bungalow with high ceilings and covered verandas both in the front and back. This place is like a mini rain forest in a concrete jungle.

to be continued....

July 04, 2010

"Grandes Ecoles" in France - Facing the threat of Social Engineering in Education?

Sarkozy addressing students at Columbia University earlier this year in NYC had the following to say about US higher education "...we admire your university system....equality is not uniformity, it is tailored to the needs of each and everyone...France has to open it's universities to creativity...". He seems to be following up on that stance in the light of current developments in France proposing reforms in its higher education system, specifically its push to diversify the predominantly white "grandes ecoles" which have, for generations, sent forth numerous luminaries in various academic and non academic fields.

The "grandes ecoles", that number about 215 across the country, admit only a few hundred students each year from all over Europe and from other English speaking countries across the world. Of these 200 + institutes, there are a handful of them at the top which are considered the creme de la creme in the group, not very different from our Ivy League Schools in the USA. The "grand ecoles" recruit the top students around the country and internationally every year. However, for those students that don't get recruited, they have to take a two year preparatory course, Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles (CPGE), which culminates in a highly competitive nationwide exam which determines whether a student secures admission to one of the "grand ecoles". In France, "families celebrate acceptance at a "grand ecole more than graduation itself." How different is that from a high school student in the US trying to get into an Ivy League Institute like Princeton or Harvard?

Apparently, being a graduate from one of the "grand ecoles' ensures a life time of opportunities, alongside of lucrative and meaningful employment. The Government of France is now asking these elite institutes to bring in under privileged students who cannot overcome the hurdle of the current entrance exam, which apparently is not geared to the economically and culturally disadvantaged status of the immigrant population. The "grand ecoles" meanwhile, are worried that this 'social engineering' thrust on them may 'dilute' the quality of a "grand ecole" education, something that has been prized by the French for centuries. The government, regardless, is determined to provide an equal opportunity environment at their institutes of higher education including the "grand ecoles".

Why is the French government prodding the "grand ecoles" to make this move? Given that it is a political move, there could be no altruistic agenda for sure. It could perhaps be the realization by the ruling party heads that diversity can no longer be ignored. They fear that a disgruntled immigrant minority with strong feelings of being marginalized may prove a serious threat in France. The riots of 2005 previewed what could be in store if the issue of separatism were not addressed in matters of education and health. The USA is still battling to work out a fair and relevant way to address this, and the passing of the "Dream Act", if it happens that is, may be a major breakthrough in the impasse called the US Immigration Reform Bill, a legislation that has hung ominously over US decision makers in the senate and the congress for the last so many years.

France's proposal to revamp the admission process to the "grand ecoles" seems like a double edged sword; quality is pitched against equal opportunity. The promise of a quality education must stand, as must the right for equal opportunity. How does one strike a balance there without compromising at either end? Why should one have to make a choice?