Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Ten Unacceptable Things

October 15, 2009

I wish to begin today a conversation about the possibility of a social movement in South Asia – not, for the moment, a social movement, just a conversation about a possible social movement.

This social movement, if we agree to it and it gets off the ground, would go by a simple name – UNACCEPTABLE.  It would identify the ten things that we agree are unambiguously morally unacceptable in South Asia today and it would start a public conversation about them. It would signal our commitment to strive and eliminate them from our societies.

Let me start with an example that illustrates the kinds of things I have in mind and what I mean by unambiguous. Take the practice of slavery in the West. There came a point in time when the first few voices began to declare it morally unacceptable, an affront to human dignity. From these few voices arose the discourse that transformed the issue first into a public debate and then into a political struggle that finally put an end to the practice. (more…)

On the Poverty of Indian Muslims

May 23, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

Being a Tribute to Dr. G.M. Mehkri 

The 2006 Sachar Committee report on the status of the Muslim community in India found that Muslims were amongst the poorest of the poor in the country.

How do we square that with the fact that up until 1857 Muslims had ruled parts of India for over 800 years? I mention this fact because, in the minds of some people, Muslims had expropriated all the wealth of India during this period and oppressed all the non-Muslims.

India has been independent for a little more than 60 years, so this transformation from being the owners of the land to being the poorest of the poor could not conceivably have occurred during this short period.

So, did the decline of the Muslims occur during the less than hundred years of British rule between 1857 and 1947? If so, how?

I don’t know.  I am writing this post partly to find out and partly to discharge a long-owed debt to Dr. G.M. Mehkri, a remarkable man in my opinion, who I met just once in the mid-1980s and have never forgotten because he had a very unique perspective on this issue.

Dr. Mehkri had a hypothesis that intrigued me. I don’t really know if it would survive a rigorous test but that seems beside the point. What fascinated me was the audacity and innovativeness of his thinking and his ability to communicate the excitement of such thinking to a younger generation. He was the kind of teacher one would have loved to have as a thesis advisor.

Here is the gist of his hypothesis as best as I remember after all these years:

Islam was born as a religion of the desert where land was of little value. The principal forms of property in the early years of Islam were animals (camels, horses, sheep) that are reproducible assets.

When a man died, his property was divided according to the Islamic law of inheritance to all his heirs in certain proportions. With reproducible assets, even if an heir inherited a pair of sheep, he/she could build up a stock again with a reasonable amount of diligence and common sense.

You should already be getting the drift of the story.

When Muslims came to India, they applied the same law of inheritance in a country where the principal form of property was land, which is a non-reproducible asset. You divide up land amongst the heirs and pretty soon (say over two or three generations) the size of a holding becomes uneconomic to farm. The owners have no option but to sell the land and join the category of the landless.

Dr. Mehkri had some extensions to this story:

First, the Hindu inheritance law and joint family institution were adapted to land being the principal form of property. This must have had many other implications but one that was relevant was that the process of inter-generational dilution of property was not the same. In general, Muslims whose land holdings became too small to farm did not sell out to other Muslims but to non-Muslims.

Second, that there were three Muslim trading communities (Bohris, Khojas and Memons, if I remember right) who converted to Islam from Hinduism but retained their old institution of joint property holding. These were the only three communities that remained prosperous amongst the Muslims.

Once again, I don’t know if these hypotheses would be sustained by detailed research but at the level of theory they do highlight the fact that the laws of inheritance have a great bearing on economic outcomes over generations. And this relationship has attracted very little attention.

There are a number of fascinating extensions that came to mind as I pursued the line of thought opened up by Dr. Mehkri. I will write about them in a later post.

To conclude this tribute, I want to return to the reason I raised the possibility that the British period might have a bearing on the phenomenon of Muslim impoverishment. Under the Mughals, all land was the property of the emperor and was subject to tax-farming under the mansabdari system. I doubt that the mansabdars cared whether those from whom they extracted taxes were fellow-religionists or not, just as modern factory owners don’t discriminate amongst their employees on the basis of shared identities. That should take care of the speculation that ordinary Muslims had benefited inordinately from Muslim rule in India.

But more importantly, if there were no ownership of land Dr. Mehkri’s theory would not have applied during that period. It was only under the British that the Permanent Settlements were introduced (beginning with Bengal in 1793) and private ownership of land became a reality with the mansabdars being transformed into lawful owners of their domains. Only after this change could the process of dilution of land holdings of this Mughal elite could have started.

This hypothesis is extended to include the implications of primogeniture in More on the Law of Inheritance.

I wonder if someone would be able to obtain a copy of Dr. Mehkri’s dissertation and delve into this topic in more depth. The details are as follows: Mehkri, G.M.  The Social background of Hindu-Muslim relationship, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bombay. Bombay: Bombay University, 1947, English. National Social Science Documentation Centre (NASSDOC), 35 Feroz Shah Road, New Delhi: 110001, India.

June 2011 Update: The NASSDOC copy is missing. A copy of the thesis has been located in the archives of the Bombay University library. I have not had access to it yet.


Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

March 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries.

The Big Questions

1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?

The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression.

2. Can NGOs fill the gap?

The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only effective solution is reform of the public education system.

3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?

All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance or the callousness of the literate.

4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?

The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person. There is a difference between education and indoctrination.

5. What is the problem with the content?

In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.

6. What is the problem with pedagogy?

The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking. This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution, or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.

7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?

NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.

8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?

NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy, incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models for reform of the public education system.

9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?

The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By 2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.

10. What is the bottom line?

Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance, capacity constraints and income limitations.


  1. International Coalition for Educational Reform in Pakistan.
  2. Elite Dominance and Under-investment in Mass Education (Indian States).
  3. Annual Status of Education Report 2008 (Rural India).
  4. Are NGOs Relevant?
  5. On Philanthropy.
  6. The Subtle Subversion: the State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.
  7. Producing Thinking Minds.
  8. The Problem with the Educated Middle Class.
  9. Technology and Education: Internet; Mobile Phone.
  10. The South Asian Idea.

Dr. Anjum Altaf is a member of the advisory council of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan and a contributor to The South Asian Idea, an experimental e-learning resource for college students in South Asia. Contact:

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Singapore: Evidence from Bollywood

January 14, 2009

Picking up on a story in the New York Times we had suggested a counterintuitive hypothesis about Singapore – that despite the fact that it is considered one of the most successful cities in the world it could have a lot of unhappy citizens whose dissatisfactions were going unregistered and failing to affect its approval ratings.

A reader had asked why, if that were the case, the citizens were not protesting and making their voices heard? We had provided a speculative answer applicable to all cities but kept wondering if there was some real evidence we could bring to support our position.

Such evidence is very hard to find and the frustration was mounting till we had a brainwave – when in doubt, turn to Bollywood. Bollywood captures perfectly the mood and spirit of the times and records the major changes that occur along the way. So, if we were looking for the unhappiness of citizens that does not get captured in measures of urban success, we would have a good chance of finding it in the movies.

Aakar Patel has captured this aspect of Bollywood well in his claim that Indians often discover India through the movies. As late as 1964, the year Nehru died, India made movies in which politicians were noble (e.g., Dilip Kumar’s Leader). By the time of Rajiv Gandhi’s election in 1984, Indian’s believed that India could change but the vile politicians who were standing in the way were the villains of Bollywood. By the turn of the century, the economic optimism generated by Manmohan Singh had led the Indian middle class to disengage from both politics and the state – hence Shahrukh Khan and movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum and Kal Ho Na Ho.

So what did we discover in Bollywood about urban life and the feelings of citizens?

Plenty, it turns out. For example there was the story that when Nehru had given a speech in which he had remarked “I am proud of India”, Guru Dutt asked Sahir to work the line into the refrain of a song. This was the result:

yeh kuuchey, yeh niilaam-ghar dilkashii ke
yeh luTTey huuay karvaan zindagii ke
kahaaN haiN, kahaaN hain, muhaafiz khudii ke
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaan haiN?

these streets, these auction houses of pleasure
these looted caravans of life
where are they, the guardians of self hood?
those who are proud of India, where are they?

This taunt was followed by a harsh indictment of the national leadership:

zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulaao!
yeh kuuchey, yeh galiyaaN, yeh manzar dikhaao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par unko laao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaaN haiN?

go, fetch the leaders of the nation!
show them these streets, these lanes, these sights!
call them, those who are proud of India!
those who are proud of India, where are they?

What was the response to the expressions of these sentiments?

“This mode of filmmaking soon ran into problems. The censor board, now under the control of the Indian government, kicked into gear, reflecting the government’s hyper-sensitivity towards any reference to people’s struggles, particularly in the cause of socialism…. The lyrics of phir subah hogii were considered so radical that two songs from the film were banned for a while.”

One of them was a parody of the famous Iqbal poem saarey jahan se achchhaa Hindostan hamaaraa (our India is better than the rest of the world):

Cheen-o Arab hamaaraa, Hindostan hamaaraa,
rahney ko gahr nahiiN hai, saaraa jahaN hamaaraa!

China and Arabia are ours, so is India
yet we have no home to live in; the whole world is ours!

jitnii bhii bildingeN theeN, seThoN ne baanT lii haiN
fuTpaath Bambaii ke, haiN ashiiyaaN hamaaraa

the wealthy have distributed all the buildings among themselves,
while we are left to take refuge on the footpaths of Bombay.

“These songs reflect a disenchantment of the urban poor with the state. The ban came into effect around the time of the second parliamentary elections and was not repealed till 1966.”

So here we have it: the proclamation of success by the leaders and the elites, the protests of the poor, and the silencing of their voices.

Case closed.

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The material in the text is from the chapter by Ali Mir (Hindi film songs and the progressive aesthetic) in the book Indian Literature and Popular Cinema edited by Heidi RM Pauwels, Routledge, 2008.

South Asia – 1: A Region in Trouble?

December 26, 2008

In this post we present some basic facts about our region so that readers are aware of the challenges that are to be addressed. 

South Asia is home to 25 percent of the world’s population.

Yet, it contains:

  • 50 percent of the world’s poor people
  • 66 percent of the world’s malnourished children
  • 33 percent of the world’s child deaths every year
  • 50 percent of the world’s adult illiterates (over the age of 15)
  • 40 percent of the world’s out-of-school children (ages 6 to 14)

Of South Asia’s population of 1.3 billion, approximately 1 billion (85 percent) are classified as poor surviving on less than $2 per day. Half of the region’s adults are illiterates, half of its children between the ages of 6 and 14 attend no school at all, 40 percent of its primary school children drop out before reaching the 5th grade.

It is no wonder that South Asia is classified as the world’s poorest, most illiterate, and most malnourished region in the world.

Add to this the fact that those who are getting an education are being instructed at the highest teacher-student ratio in the world because of a shortage of schools and a shortage of teachers. Many of those classified as literate are functionally illiterate.

And those, who escape all these handicaps, are disadvantaged by the content of education, which, more often than not, impoverishes rather than enriches the mind.

This birds-eye view would suggest that South Asia is in trouble.

The following questions need to be asked:

  • Is this an acceptable state of affairs?
  • How are these issues being addressed?
  • Are these the most effective ways of addressing these issues?
  • What are the most effective ways of addressing these issues?
  • What are the implications of not addressing these issues?
  • Why do these issues exist in South Asia?
  • Why do these issues persist in South Asia?
  • What are the significant variations within the region?

Over the next few posts, we will structure a discussion around these issues. Hopefully students will take a leading role in providing the answers.

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More Numbers on Poverty and Education

October 11, 2008

I met a person the other day; he had educated his servant’s daughter who was now a physician in Los Angeles. “If everyone did that,” he said, “we could take care of the problems of illiteracy and poverty in our country.”

Right or wrong?

Let us see how we can do a very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the proposition is realistic.

Suppose the population of our South Asian country is 100. (Readers can multiply this by a scale factor to transform the hypothetical example into one that applies to their country. For example, if the population of Bangladesh is 150 million, the scale factor is 1.5 million. Relevant numbers in the example can be multiplied by this factor for the analysis to apply to Bangladesh.)

On average, we know that in South Asia about 25 percent of the population is very poor (below the official poverty line) and another 25 percent is ‘near poor’ (with enough for subsistence but not enough to afford a good education). So that gives us a set 50 people who are poor (from which we will derive the demand for assisted education) and 50 who are not poor (from which we shall derive the supply for assistance in education).

Demand Analysis

We start with a population of 50 poor people. We know that about 40 percent of the population of a South Asian country is comprised of children below the age of 15 years. This reduces our demand pool to 20. Now let us further restrict our need assessment to children between the ages of 5 and 15 and let us assume that this subset is half the size of the set of children below the age of 15. This gives us 10 children whose education requires external assistance. This is our rough estimate of the demand side.

Supply Analysis

We start with a population of 50 non-poor people. Let us assume an average household size of 5. This gives us 10 households in our potential supply pool. Of these we can assume that 6 are not rich enough to afford servants. So we are left with 4 families who are not poor and can afford servants. Now assume that half of these are rich enough to have servants and also have the extra income to afford to spend on educating them. That leaves us with two families. This is our rough estimate of the supply side. 

Matching Demand and Supply

Our rough calculation leaves us with a demand of 10 and a supply of 2. A private household based initiative can take care of 20 percent of the problem. This is significant but not enough to solve the problem of poverty and illiteracy in South Asian countries.

What Have We Done?

Essentially, what we have done is to take a very simplified look at two population distributions. The income distribution tells us the number of poor and rich people in the country. The age distribution tells us the number of people in various age groups. We combine these to arrive at our rough estimates of demand and supply.

A better analysis would use the same two distributions but in a much more careful and sophisticated way.

How the Context Makes a Difference

This analysis was for a country in South Asia and our assumptions reflected that context. The assumptions would be very different if our context had been a country in Scandinavia, for example. We know that both the income distributions and the population pyramids in Scandinavia are radically different from those in South Asia.

A private initiative to take care of the education of poor children could well be feasible in Scandinavia. Of course, as we know, the state has already taken care of the problem there.

Follow up

I would appreciate if readers could check the analysis and let me know if the rough conclusions make sense or not. Let me know if I have made any mistake in the assumptions or calculations.

Readers should also look at the two distributions for various countries and note the essential differences across countries. Comparisons between South Asian and Scandinavian countries should provide much food for thought. Note the key differences and speculate on the main reasons for the differences.

Information on Population Pyramids is available here.

Information on Income Distributions is available here.  Choose a country and then look under Income Distribution. The data show the percentage of total income earned by the richest and poorest sections of the population and also the number of people living below the poverty line.

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Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

October 6, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID.

Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem.

This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one school at a time. I will argue that this will send us off on the wrong track.

Think of it this way. If you go to a physician with fever and rashes, the physician does not treat you for fever and rashes. The fever and rashes are not the disease; they are just the symptoms of a disease. And the disease is unidentified till there is a diagnosis which is the real job of the physician. Only when the underlying cause is identified can the appropriate treatment be prescribed. And this prescription will be very different depending on whether the fever and rashes are due to malaria as opposed to chicken pox.

The social scientist is the physician of the social system and his/her real task in this case is to identify the underlying cause whose symptom is 50 percent illiteracy in Pakistan. Before we begin to address that question we should also clarify that just as illiteracy is not the problem, the 50 percent of the citizens who are illiterate are not the problem. They are not the ones holding back the development and prosperity of the country. Blaming them would be akin to blaming the patients and the victims.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is a grossly mismanaged country. And the ones who have been in charge of mismanaging the country are its literate, not its illiterate, citizens. Let us grant for the moment that it is part of this mismanagement that is manifested in the illiteracy of half the population. So the question we have to ask is why the literate managers have failed to impart literacy to the still illiterate citizens?

The two explanations that one hears all the time are lack of political will and lack of money. But these are not convincing explanations. Why is political will needed to spread literacy? Who in the country is opposing the spread of literacy? Why does political capital need to be expended for this cause? There is no satisfactory answer.

And why is there a lack of money for education? There seems to be a lot of money for everything else from the making of nuclear bombs to buying F-16 planes to building the highest water fountain in the world. Why is it education that is starved for money? Once again there is no satisfactory answer.

The only plausible conclusion seems to be that spreading literacy amongst the illiterate has a very low priority for the literate managers of the country. And so we push back the question further to ask why that priority is so low?

Let me try to present a hypothesis with a few examples. Take the tribal sardars in Balochistan. The population of Balochistan is only 10 million and only half of those are ethnic Baloch. We know that a number of Baloch sardars have earned millions of dollars for the use of natural resources on their lands. So why have the sardars not used this revenue to educate their tribesmen?

When you pose that question almost everyone in Pakistan is quick to inform you that the sardars do not wish to educate or otherwise develop their tribesmen because they want them to remain dependent.

Leaving aside the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan, we can conclude from this that there is at least one type of political-economic system in which the rulers are positively not interested in educating their constituents.

Have I picked an outlier, the only such system of this type in the world ruled by backward tribal sardars? Think again. Recall that in the American South before the Civil War many states had passed laws making it a crime for slaves to learn to read and write and for others to instruct them. The punishments included flogging for slaves and heavy fines for the teachers.

Why was this necessary? Because if the slaves had been able to read the Constitution they would have noted that it began with the statement that all men were born equal and, one presumes, they would have been curious to know why the equality did not apply to them.

So we can begin to believe that there are indeed political-economic systems, especially those based on oppression, where the rulers do not wish the ruled to develop the ability to think and question because that questioning would lead to a questioning of the legitimacy of the systems themselves.

Do you believe that such things just happen by themselves without conscious thought? Once more you will have to think again. Most people in the subcontinent are familiar with the name of Lord Macaulay made famous by his 1837 ‘Minute on Education’. Here is what he said in a remarkable speech in the British Parliament on the Government of India Bill in 1833:

“Are we to keep the people of India ignorant in order that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition? Or do we mean to awaken ambition and provide it with no legitimate vent?”

What happened in India later is a fascinating digression but I will not get into that here. The point to take away is that the decision to educate or not to educate the subjects is a political decision, that education policy is an element in the political calculus, and that there are some political-economic systems, of which I have provided three examples, where the decision of the rulers is not to educate the ruled beyond the minimum that is necessary for the functioning of the system.

Of course, not all systems are like that. Here in the Silicon Valley you have a sub-system that puts a great premium on learning and that even pays you to acquire more knowledge. Why? Because this system is part of a globally competitive environment in which it would die if it didn’t remain ahead of its competition. So, one can conclude that it is the needs of a political-economic system, not good will, that determine its attitudes towards education.

Note that one cannot even generalize from the Silicon Valley sub-system to the US as a whole. You might agree that the US does not really want its citizens to learn more than it feels necessary about the Iraq war, for example. And it does not strongly enough wish the same kind of thinking to be taught in inner city schools as it does in the schools of Palo Alto. Do you attribute that in the richest country of the world to lack of political will or lack of money?

So, here is the first major conclusion: Education is a political issue; political-economic systems are in general inimical to enabling their citizens to think; they enable only as much thinking as is necessary for the survival of the system; and systems differ in how much thinking-power they need to survive.

You can even apply this perspective to attitudes towards the education of women within families if you think of a family as a political-economic system. When we see the issue in this perspective we can understand better why education has such a low priority in Pakistan for the managers of the system. They sense a very low need for innovative thinking that is satisfied by a handful of elite institutions whose teaching methods have never trickled down to the vast majority of schools and colleges. On balance, the dangers posed by critical thinking far outweigh its benefits to the status quo.

Now, of course, there are occasions when populations rebel against this kind of oppression. We can think of the warlords in China, the Tsars in Russia, and the capitalists in Cuba as the equivalents of our Baloch sardars. Their populations under Mao, Lenin, and Castro rebelled against the oppression and were able to win universal literacy for themselves.

But does this stop education from remaining an instrument of politics? No, the politics just moves up to the next level – that of the content that comprises education and literacy. So, the Chinese were made literate with the Little Red Book, the Russians with Marxism-Leninism, and the Cubans with the Socialist Man. The object was to concede the hard-won right of citizens to learn but to ensure that they thought in a particular, state-sanctioned, way. Many would call that indoctrination, not education.

The second major conclusion is that literacy is important but the content of that literacy is even more important. Let me give you an example from closer to home. Ashis Nandy, the leading political psychologist in India, recently got into a lot of trouble for writing an article in which he laid the blame for the ethnic cleansing in Gujarat on its educated middle class. Remember that this ethnic cleansing is alleged to have been incited and encouraged by Narendra Modi, the very literate Chief Minister of the state.

Related to this, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading scholar of ethnic conflict working in Mumbai, asked a very profound question: Why is that the educated middle class is more bigoted than the illiterate masses? And he had a very simple answer: because it is educated.

Think about this. If you take the mind of a child as an empty vessel and make the child literate while filling his or her mind with hate and lies what will you get? You will get a literate young person who is infinitely more dangerous than an illiterate one.

So, if you teach numeric literacy in a school by asking how many kar-sevaks it would take to demolish 7 mosques in 3 days if one kar-sevak can demolish one mosque in two days, you will certainly achieve literacy, but at a very heavy cost to society.

Of course, this political use of education is not confined to India. The curriculum wing of the ministry of education in Pakistan retains very tight control over what is to be taught in public schools in Pakistan. An analysis of the content is available on the web in a report prepared by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. When you see it you will be convinced that this is indeed not education but indoctrination. And, of course, you are quite well aware how some others are being made literate in the well-funded madrassas.

So this is what we mean by the term “beyond literacy”. Education is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves. And thus we have a twin struggle: first to ensure that our citizens obtain their basic human right of education; and second that the education they get enables them to think for themselves.

Once we have diagnosed the problem and placed it in its political context only then can we begin to think how we can get from where we are to where we want to be. The first part is obviously a political struggle. We have to mobilize the citizens to demand their right to a good education – no one is going to give it to them as charity. But this also requires us to see the role of NGOs in a realistic perspective – the arithmetic does not support the conclusion that NGOs on their own can fill the gap left by the omissions of the state.

NGOs are doing a commendable job in changing the life chances of the proportionately very few people they are able to touch. But all the statistics confirm that the overall gap in Pakistan is widening despite the heroic commitment of the NGOs. NGOs need at the same time to act as awareness-raising groups to mobilize citizens around their rights and as pressure groups to force the state to discharge its responsibility to its citizens.

Second, we must contest the struggle over the content of education and the pedagogy of critical thinking, aspects we have ignored to our detriment by allowing ideologues to capture and enfeeble the educational arena since the time of Zia ul Haq. Here again, NGOs have a vital role in the evolution of new content and learning methods that they can experiment with in their institutions. But here we must realize that the conventional approach to improving the quality of education is no longer possible. Quite apart from the opposition of the state and of those who control educational institutions today, there is no way we can get the thousands of trained teachers we need in the schools and colleges spread over the rural areas, the small towns and the secondary cities of Pakistan. We have to think of a way to leapfrog this limitation.

Here we have an opportunity provided by the emergence of technologies that did not exist even a few decades ago. Recall that Ayotallah Khomeini toppled the Shah by using cassette tapes to educate Iranians about the oppression in the country. We may disagree with the political content of this education but here we only want to note the leverage provided by new technology and the weakening of state controls because of it.

Since that time digital technology has made remarkable inroads. The cell phone has now penetrated into the remotest villages and reached amongst the poorest of the citizens. And if you in Silicon Valley continue what you are doing the digital content that would be available on cell phones tomorrow cannot even be imagined today.

It is this democratization of access to information not subject to state control (recall the attempts to ban dish-antennas a few years back) that holds out the biggest hope for the future. It would be technological forces supported by civic action that would be the driving force of this transformation. Our job would be to find the content that would take advantage of these technological opportunities. So the ball is very much in our court.

On our part, we have started a modest initiative to provide content in a thought-provoking format for college students in South Asia. It is still in an experimental stage seeking to find the right mix of content, format and complexity. We hope to turn this into a major e-learning platform grounded in specific nodes in South Asia with the content transferred to local language blogs. I invite you to take a look at this initiative, to provide your inputs, and to participate in the experiment to see if we can really make a difference in the sense that I have outlined in this presentation.

I think we can and I am excited by the challenge. If we pool our strengths – mastery of technology, familiarity with content, and motivation for civic action – we can make our presence felt and make a decisive contribution to the cause of education and liberation in Pakistan.

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See endnote 25 in Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India by Vani K. Barooah and Sriya Iyer, 2004. See also, The Constitutional Mandate and Education, 2005.

What is the Future of the City in South Asia?

October 5, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

This is a very broad and brief overview of the past, present, and possible future of the South Asian city. It raises a number of points each of which can be discussed in much greater depth in future posts depending on the interest of readers.

Any discussion of cities in South Asia has an inspiring point of departure. Almost 5000 years ago, Mohenjodaro was probably the most advanced urban settlement in the world. It had a planned layout with a grid of streets laid out in perfect patterns. Wastewater was disposed through covered drains that lined the streets and were sloped such that the water never stagnated and it was treated before being discharged into the river.

South Asia has rarely been able to provide that level of urban planning and efficiency since. It is worthwhile subject to explore (later) why that might be the case.

Let us fast forward to the South Asian city of the present. It leaves a lot to be desired in terms of livability and urban services; virtually no one would consider these cities unproblematic and it is no wonder that they are thought of only in terms of the problems they pose. Once again, the reasons for this dismal state of affairs need to be explored and we shall do so at another time.

Given what we know of the present, what can we say of the likely future of the city in South Asia?

Many people look at the now developed cities of the West as models and hypothesize that the South Asian city would follow the same trajectory of urban reform. London, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, was an unlivable city with death rates higher than in the surrounding countryside. Dickens captured its degradation for history; Engels did the same for Manchester.

Conditions were more or less the same in all the major cities – Paris, Milan, New York, Philadelphia – all were ravaged by epidemics and unhealthy living conditions. One book that captures the period very well is Naples in the Time of Cholera 1884-1911 by Frank Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Today all these cities are amongst the most attractive places in the world having undergone major urban reforms that transformed them beyond recognition. Will South Asian cities follow the same trajectory with a lag?

We think not for a number of reasons. Very briefly, the urban reform movements in the developed cities of today emerged out a set of peculiar circumstances. First, the state of technological development was such that the easy segregation of rich and poor residents was not feasible. Think of the absence of automobiles and suburbs and bottled water. The list of distinguished citizens who fell victim to disease in these cities at the time included ministers and prime ministers.

Second, and very ironically, experts of the time believed an incorrect theory of disease transmission (the miasma theory), which held that epidemics were spread by foul odors emitted by decaying effluent carried by the air.

The urban reform movements in these cities were therefore led by the elites of the day (physicians, business leaders, etc.) who feared for their lives and businesses. They had the ability to force legislative changes and allocate resources to investments in environmental improvements related to sewerage and sanitation. The impetus for the eradication of slums and the design of wide boulevards in Paris were direct consequences of these peculiar factors.

This set of conditions does not exist any more in the developing cities of South Asia today because of advances in both technology and medical science. Technological advances have allowed the rich to physically segregate themselves from the poor. Thus, instead of improving as a single entity, each South Asian city has split into two – the rich enclaves and the poor slums.

At the same time, the discovery that disease is spread by germs not polluted air has shifted the focus from collective sanitation reforms to protection of the individual through immunization. The rich have thus also isolated themselves from the diseases of the poor. As a result, there is no powerful lobby of influential citizens behind urban reform that benefits the entire city.

So, is the South Asian city doomed to a schizophrenic and split future? Perhaps, but there is a now a new dynamic that portends a possible new trajectory in the years to come.

The new wave of globalization and privatization sweeping the world is structured more around a fierce competition amongst cities than among nation-states. In some respects, Bangalore and Bombay have become more relevant to business than India as a country. And this new competition amongst cities has put a premium on their livability and civic order. This creates a possible new opening for those who have so far been excluded from the benefits of urban life.

The new development mantra is that cities are the ‘engines of growth’. Cities are actually investing money in improving their efficiency, competitiveness and livability. The process is most advanced in East Asia where cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok are investing not only in traditional infrastructure but also in social infrastructure like museums and opera houses to become attractive to global capital and the footloose experts of the knowledge economy. (See an illustration of the ambitions of cities in the new China.)

This points to a possible trajectory for cities in South Asia reflected in the ‘Bombay First’ initiative. But one must be just as cautious in extrapolating casually from East Asia to South Asia as one was in extrapolating from the Europe of the past. For one, most of the cities in East Asia are characterized by much more ethnic homogeneity than is the case in South Asia. For another, migration from rural to urban areas has been strictly controlled in China for decades.

Cities can just as easily become hotbeds of conflict as engines of growth. It is easy to forget the fact that as recently as 50 years ago, there were major urban riots in the US; that there are major issues related to identity politics in a city like Mumbai; and that a rapidly industrializing city like Ahmedabad has been the home of violent ethnic cleansing. Even in China, the experience of Lhasa indicates that matters can be considerably more complex than they appear.

The reasons for these pathologies in South Asian cities can only be understood through a comparative historical analysis. One of the best is included in Sunil Khilnani’s book, The Idea of India (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1997):

Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organized by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity…. The rise in Bombay of a movement like the Shiv Sena should therefore hardly occasion surprise…

Deeper analysis is also needed to understand the nature of recent urban growth and development in the industrialized countries. Many inner cities in the US were, and are, decaying while growth is coming from exurban or edge cities giving rise to new issues in an age of higher energy prices. In Europe, one can see the emergence of new strains in cities like Paris as the percentage of immigrants rises – a trend likely to continue given demographic disparities.

In China, too, a significant proportion of the economic output till very recently was coming from Town and Village Enterprises located away from the big cities. Now, with the easing of migration restrictions to the big cities necessitated by a market-oriented economy, there could be something different in the future. Edward Friedman (Is China a success while India is a failure? World Affairs, Fall 2004) claims that “China’s Calcutta-like poverty is hidden away in the marginalized countryside. In India it has exploded into the cities, a dynamic just beginning in China.”

For all these reasons, it is important to not be complacent about the future prospects of the city in South Asia and to question the premises of the new development mantra. At the same time, it is equally important to think of what might be needed to actually turn the South Asian city into an engine of growth in the globalizing world and to lift its marginalized and excluded citizens out of the poverty that has been their fate for so long.

This is a birds-eye view of the history and prospects of the South Asian city. At this stage it leaves out many issues that need attention and also does not elaborate the politics of the urban reform strategy that is implied by the analysis. The post has also focused only on the major metropolitan cities while issues in secondary cities and small towns are quite distinct. Sunil Khilnani is very perceptive in noting that L.K. Advani’s 1990 ‘padyatra’ focused largely on the smaller new towns for good reason.

Sunil Khilnani provides one of the best entries into the study of the South Asian city. Readers should also refer to the October-November 2008 double issue of Himal magazine that is focused on urban issues and includes snapshots of 15 cities in South Asia.

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Is Poverty the Cause of Illiteracy?

September 6, 2008

In a previous post we had discussed whether illiteracy was the cause of poverty. A number of readers have enquired whether poverty can be the cause of illiteracy. We explore the argument in this post.

At one level the proposition can come across as valid. The poor would not have the income to afford education for their children and would, by necessity, keep the latter out of school. The very poor would need to supplement the household income with the earnings of children giving rise to the prevalence of child labor. The very, very poor would not even have enough to afford the upkeep of their children and be forced to give them up to madrassas providing free care.

This line of thinking would lead one to conclude that countries with widespread poverty would have widespread illiteracy.

How then would one account for the very wide variation in literacy rates across groups that suffered from more or less similar levels of poverty at one time? If readers look up the data they would note that Sri Lanka and Pakistan must have had similar per capita incomes at some point in the past. Yet today Sri Lanka has over 90 percent literacy compared to just about 50 percent in Pakistan.

In India, Kerala has the highest literacy rate while being nowhere close to the richest among the states. So it is clearly not poverty alone that holds back literacy.

The flaw in relating illiteracy to poverty is that there is no overriding necessity for primary education to be available on a fee-for-service basis. Why should parents have to pay for the basic education of their children? Why shouldn’t parents be paid to have their children educated?

Two arguments can be made for this point of view. First, literacy is a fundamental human right and it should be the obligation of the state to make it available on a priority basis out of general revenues. Second, it has long been known that social returns to basic education are very high (i.e., the gains to society from educating its population far exceed the costs of the education because of the increased productivity of labor). Therefore rational societies should invest public resources in educating their citizens.

So the question is why did some societies (East Asian countries, for example) do so and others still don’t?

We can think of an interesting case that can provoke a lot of thinking. Balochistan is the most lightly populated province in Pakistan with about 10 million people. Of these only about half are ethnic Balochis. It is well known that some Balochi tribal chiefs have had an income in the millions of dollars as payment for the use of natural resources extracted from their lands. The question is why have these tribal chiefs not used this income to provide basic education to their followers?

We will let readers answer this question. But one conclusion should be obvious – there is more to illiteracy than just poverty or lack of resources or lack of political will. Surely it should be clear that some societies have an incentive to educate their citizens and others don’t.

The real clues to the continued prevalence of illiteracy would be found in thinking through the incentives. The low political priority to educate citizens in some places is a story waiting to be told.

For the contrary argument, see Is Illiteracy the Cause of Poverty?
See also, Is Overpopulation the Cause of Poverty?

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Corruption and Development

August 22, 2008

Unacceptable levels of poverty continue to prevail in South Asia. In order to understand the nature of this poverty we have to first challenge the popularly held beliefs about its causes.

Just as there are people who believe that illiteracy or overpopulation are the major causes of poverty, there are others who attribute it to corruption and argue that nothing can be done till corruption is eliminated.

There is no doubt that corruption is a pervasive and aggravating phenomenon but even a cursory look at hard data and a comparative analysis should make one skeptical of the assertion that it is a major cause of underdevelopment in South Asia.

China provides one contrary example. The issue of corruption is very high on the political agenda of the Chinese government and people holding very high offices have been executed for related crimes. But despite the corruption the economy has expanded continuously over the past fifteen years at historically unprecedented rates of growth. Today China is considered a major economic power of the future. The concern with corruption stems less from its impact on growth and more from the social discontent it causes which negatively impacts the credibility of the government at home and abroad.

Indonesia is another country where considerable economic development occurred despite very high levels of corruption that are well documented. The country was very much a part of the East Asian miracle whose momentum was broken by the financial crisis in 1997. While the other regional economies have recovered, Indonesia is lagging not because of corruption but because of the political instability that ensued after the fall of the Suharto regime.

The East Asian crisis raises interesting issues related to corruption. Many analysts were quick to attribute the crisis to the high levels of corruption in the regional economies and “crony capitalism” emerged as a popular explanation for what happened.

This may or may not be correct but from our perspective the relevant aspect of the East Asian miracle is the tremendous economic development that took place prior to the crisis. This suggests that significant economic growth is possible despite high levels of corruption. Therefore, we need to continue searching for the causes of the lack of similar dramatic growth in South Asia.

Within South Asia, the Indian economy is doing much better than in the past and the country has begun to be mentioned in the same league as China. Our Indian readers would be able to inform us if the acceleration in the rate of growth is the result of any significant decrease in corruption in the country.

While the Indian economy is charting a steady upward course, the Pakistani economy is continuing its usual roller-coaster pattern. Once again it would be hard to relate these ups and downs to sudden changes in the level of corruption in the country. Bangladesh is rated much worse than Pakistan on the corruption index but its economic performance is not very different.

It would be interesting to compare the levels of corruption in South Asian countries. If they are different, we would like readers to try and explain the likely reasons for the differences. Such an analysis could yield ideas that could contribute to identifying measures that could reduce the prevalence of corruption.

A focused discussion of corruption would benefit from defining it narrowly as the abuse of public office for private gain. This would distinguish it from other criminal acts like fraud, embezzlement, extortion, blackmail, etc., all of which can be committed by private individuals not holding public office.

It would also help to consider separately the phenomena of low- and high-level corruption, respectively. Low-level corruption is what citizens encounter every day and what colors their perception of its importance. The social frustrations caused by having to run around and pay extra money for virtually everything can understandably make it seem the cause of all our problems.

In fact, low-level corruption may not have major negative consequences for economic growth. It constitutes a transfer of money from one pocket to another in a society where many public officials are not paid a living wage and where bureaucratic procedures remain archaic, cumbersome and slow. Its incidence inevitably diminishes with economic growth and modernization as both the need to demand small bribes and the opportunities to manipulate procedures decrease.

In a perverse way one can argue that low-level corruption, while frustrating, could actually be good for growth. The money that would otherwise go into government revenues is siphoned off into private pockets. And we can claim that in South Asia private individuals spend money more sensibly than governments. It is quite likely the government revenues would be used to buy non-productive weapons from abroad to fight non-productive wars with neighbors contributing nothing to the economies and destroying existing assets. Individuals, on the other hand, would be buying goods and services produced in local markets.

High-level corruption (the domain of big people and big businesses playing for big stakes), on the other hand, can have major lasting negative effects if public resources are diverted from economically useful to economically useless activities. But the fact remains that there are economies that have continued to grow even in the face of high-level corruption. Prime ministers have gone to jail in Korea and have been indicted in Japan on charges of corruption. Nevertheless Japan is among the richest countries in the world and Korea has vaulted into the ranks of developed countries within the period of a few decades. (We can assume that there is much less low-level corruption in Japan and Korea.)

These arguments are not intended as a defense of corruption. The world would be a better place without it and it does impose costs on the economy. But the contention that corruption is our biggest problem and we need to eliminate it before meaningful change can occur is not supported by evidence. We need to look beyond the simple answer to figure out what might be holding back South Asian economies from developing at the same rate as those in East Asia.

Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 180 countries.  Following is a sample of some rankings (a higher rank signifies higher level of corruption): Japan 17, Korea 43, China 72, India 72, Thailand 84, Sri Lanka 94, Vietnam 123, Philippines 131, Pakistan 138, Indonesia 143, Bangladesh 162.

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