Tuesday, 31 July 2012

In the company of hypocrites

 He is a  short  sunburnt  gentleman,  a  farmer of the  fields!
A  landlord with  servants at his beck and call, but now has
Been   promoted, to manage an organisation,  with the  tact
And  skill he  is renowned to  have in the field! And he sets
Up a coterie of  acolytes to  report on comings and goings!

One he calls his toadstool while another, his footstool, the
Other,   “my  man,”  the  fourth   becomes  a  masseur,the
Fifth  his  errands  boy!  He   grants   statuses   and  titles
According  to  the  level  of   flattery  they  accord  to him!
All  hang  on  to his  words like their lives  depend on him!

 He's  the  very image of  benevolence, in  his  hands holding
  A holy-book,   all  the  while,  showering  prayer‘n’ blessing,
 As  he  plots and   schemes, the downfall of those that don’t
 Fawn  and   defer  to   him!   For  such,  is  the heart of him,
 Who  feels good with  flatterers of  all kinds all around  him!

But, alas, those  that fawn  and bow  might  not true be,
For all   their  loyalty  and   servitude  might   forced be!
While   they bow  down  in  servitude,  and  humility they
Might be laughing at a man who thought himself a great
Veritable  Lord! But, alas! all treat him as a jester great!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

What is it that makes Stamps rare? A glimpse of rare Indian Bodhisattva and Japanese Mount Fuji Deer Stamps!

One of the thrills of being a collector of stamps stems from the belief that you might be having stamps that are rare in your collection! Misprints or defective prints make stamps rare, especially if the defects go undetected and the defective stamps go into circulation. One example of such a stamp is given below:

     IMG_0005                             IMG_0006
The defect is obvious in the above pictures of stamps belonging to the early fifties. The stamp on the left shows an image of Buddha with his left hand held out, placed over his left knee, while the stamp on the right shows Buddha with his right hand placed over his right knee. One of the two stamps is clearly an error.
Stamps become rare as they age. Thus the older the stamps, the rarer will they be. They are also an important source of History, as they might carry important information about a particular era. The following pictures are of Japanese stamps dating from the period of 1922 to 1937:

 IMG_0008                                   IMG_0009
Both stamps seem to be similar except for the colour used. While one is printed in blue ink, the other is printed in brown paint. The price of both stamps is the same, but what distinguishes them is the choice of colour! Three stamps featuring a design of Mount Fuji were issued between 1922 and 1937 and became known as the Fuji Deer stamps.

Progressivism in Education

After having served for about two decades in schools based on traditional concepts, it came as a process of unlearning for me when I recently joined a prestigious school that labels itself as a progressive school. What added to my confusion was that everything that I had learned as a teacher and an administrator was that there is much more to the imparting of education than what is being done in the traditional schools. What I feel best explained about what happens in progressive schools might best be explained in the story about Albert Einstein who was once confronted by his history teacher for not having memorised the facts and figures of the battle of Waterloo, and how many soldiers had been killed. Einstein explained to his teacher that he did not believe that learning of facts and figures was education, because in any case these could be found in textbooks. What he wanted to learn was why the soldiers were trying to kill each other. Learning of ideas was what education meant according to him! This is perhaps what distinguishes the progressive schools from the traditional schools. The learning of ideas understanding of concepts, distinct from memorising of facts and figures is what puts progressive schools in a place of their own. The idea is that teachers try not to impose their ideas and themselves on the learners, rather they try to create an environment where the learners get to discover important ideas and concepts themselves! This would mean that the learners would not be dependant on spoon-feeding, rote memorisation or mugging. Progressive Education attempts to create an environment for students whereby they set out on a journey of discovery. What is learned through self-discovery remains forever in the minds of students rather than what is learnt through rote-memorisation! The C.B.S.E’s introduction of C.C.E. is no doubt an attempt to break away from  the rather straight jacketed approach of imparting education, although the challenge is to implement C.C.E. effectively in classes where there are more than thirty students! Collating data relating to C.C.E. however becomes mere paper work where more time is spent in writing down marks and grades than in teaching the students!
Progressive schools on the whole try to address the issue of the problem where, in John Dewey’s words, “The centre of gravity is outside the child”. This is a core issue which progressivism in education tries to address-make the educational process as learner- centric as possible! Education per se in not about the teacher imposing his or her knowledge on to the learner like Einstein’s History teacher was trying to do, rather it is about allowing the learner to learn at his own pace, and learn things through discovery. This, however does not mean that the teacher just stands an aloof spectator, mutely watching while the students learn to walk out of the maze using the trial and error method. It is not about the laissez-faire approach, rather it is about giving the student the optimum lee-way to explore the world himself through own eyes, and not the borrowed eyes of his or her teacher! The progressive  system of education thus appreciates the unique individuality of each student, the fact that each student has a unique perception of the world, and that each student has a different level of understanding. In view of such diversity and uniqueness, it is clear that their cannot be any single teaching method or yardstick to measure the quantum of learning taking place in each student. So then, progressivism in education is all about experimenting with different styles of teaching, it is about exploring new methods, it is about constantly adjusting and re-adjusting it is about bringing in a “wow effect” in the process of learning.
Unfortunately there are very few progressive schools in this country which are progressive in the true sense. This, perhaps is because of two factors: first and foremost is its acceptance by the society. Are parents willing to collaborate in the process of education? Are parents willing to spend an extra hour with their children, participating with them in their journey of discovery, doing projects with them, taking them out on nature walks, visiting ancient monuments to help them understand more about history? The answer, is no. Operation Head-Start was launched in the United States of America in the seventies, and one of its main assumptions was that there would be an active collaboration between the parents and the educational institutions in matters pertaining to the successful education of their wards. The project was aimed at the students especially hailing from the weaker sections of the society. Head-Start might not have been a roaring success, but then an analysis of the programme does  point towards an improved Emotional Quotient of students whose parents had actively participated in the programme.The programme also attempted to boost the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of the students, and find ways to motivate them. Head-start was however for economically disadvantaged students and assumed that ninety percent of the students in schools under this programme would be from this section of the society.  A few common conclusions that progressive schools share with the Head-Start programme are, an understanding of the need to motivate students, working on their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and an active collaboration between parents students, and teachers. Another reason why there are such few progressive schools in India is because of the extra-time that students and teachers might have to spend in school. The eight to two timing might be scaled up to add one our to the schedule. Moreover, stay-backs for both teachers and students might not add to their popularity in India. Teachers in progressive schools should also learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, to avoid to make a direct approach to the answer and to allow students to play an active role in the quest for answers. It is for these reasons expressed above that we don’t have so many progressive schools in India. It is very difficult for teachers coming from traditional school backgrounds to accept a process of, “unlearning” and to launch themselves on an entirely different, experiential approach towards the imparting of education.

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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Whither to, F.D.Is.?


The recent uproar in response to the President of America suggesting that India has not done enough to create a suitable environment for Foreign Direct Investments in many areas was but natural considering the rather volatile nature of the country’s economy, raising of petrol prices, rollbacks and  an announcement of a rise of diesel prices! The devaluation of the rupee against the dollar are all indications of  the condition of the economy. There are fears that opening up the retail sector to more F.D.Is. would affect the indigenous retail outlets. Local traders fear that larger retail outlet corporations would bite into their business, and edge them out of the trade. The announcement of the Government in January to open all doors to foreign investors in the retail sector caused a hue and cry following which it was announced that the foreign investors would have to buy a thirty percentage of their products from the local retail market.

The past five years have seen the coming and going of various large retail outlets in the country. Subhiksha, a local entity  entered the scene with a lot of fanfare, but then went out like a damp squib! Reliance Fresh outlets disappeared from various important cities in U.P. perhaps because the local fruit vendors and vegetable sellers felt threatened and insecure. The retail market is, however, a very volatile market with retail outlets trying to shave off prices of various products in order to woo customers. In many cases, it is the consumer who turns out to be the winner as in this war of retail outlets, he has better choice in terms of range of products and prices. Allowing more foreign direct investment in the form of collaborations between foreign companies and their Indian counterparts will clearly benefit the end user, the customer who can continue to be pampered for choice. It is true however that producers of farm products and dairy products who sold their products in the local vegetable markets might not benefit too much in the war in procurement prices, as retail outlets are forces to shave prices in order to pass on the benefits to their customers.

It is however difficult to imagine how large retail outlets will  be able to penetrate rural markets in the near future. Vishal, Reliance Fresh and More have quite a good presence in the rural areas all over Northern India.  Exclusive retail outlets found in the metros will not be village bound as their products imported from all over the world are too costly. One example is Le Marche which is no doubt the result of a partnership between a foreign retail outlet and an Indian organisation. I can’t imagine the setting up of a Le Marche retail outlet in a village in Haryana or U.P.! The Bharti-Walmart partnership resulting in the Easy Day brand of retail outlets is doing quite well with prices of commodities being reasonable and within the reach of the common man. I have however seen the arrival of different retail outlets where I live and their quietly shifting shop or closing down completely. Subhiksha came and went away. SRS came but shifted to another part of the city ( Gurgaon ). More, another retail outlet has shifted, sales were dropping and people preferred to go to the local shop-keeper.

Today, I am forced to visit Le-Marche regularly in order to buy Gluten free products for one of my children who suffers from wheat allergy. No other outlet provides gluten free flour. Who knows that perhaps with the coming of more foreign collaborations through F.D.Is. it might be possible to get gluten free products at a cheaper price?

In most metros, where there is a lack of space for the local vegetable market, it makes greater sense to have well designed and accessible retail outlets which also provide a suitable ambiance, air-conditioning and parking facilities. What makes retail outlets a must in urban areas and metros is that where both parents are working parents, it becomes convenient for them to grab some stuff from the retail outlet on the way back home from work. Shopping for provisions from the local market takes time, where you would often have to navigate through narrow lanes and often visit different shops for different products.

It is clear that the fears of increasing F.D.Is. in the retail sector will not affect the indigenous retail sector to a great deal, because, the indigenous retail sector is even today, a strong entity and has a hold which cannot be shaken, at least in the rural and semi-urban areas. In the NCR region to which I belong to, I still notice that people prefer to visit the local provision store and the vegetable market  for monthly stock fresh vegetables and fruits. When Big Bazaar came to Gurgaon many years back, it had a novelty factor. A large number of people thronged the store just to have a look, and not because they wanted to buy anything. Today, only those people visit the store to purchase provisions to last the month (The parking fees of fifty rupees is a deterrent for the casual visitor). Most of the larger retail outlets cater to specific segments of the society. Thus it is most unlikely that people belonging to the middle class will go to an exclusive retail outlet for day to day purchases. The retail outlets that are thriving today belong to indigenous brands, and it is perhaps in this area that there might be some cause for concern in the whole matter. I however feel very strongly that these indigenous entities have no cause for concern because they still have a good hold on consumers coming from the middle class, and this might not be a target audience that can be easily wooed away by more expensive imported products.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen who will benefit from the further opening of the retail sector to foreign investment. The further flow of foreign funds is always a welcome trend at far as propping the economy is concerned. Whether the common man will benefit from this partnership needs to be considered. A mechanism protecting the interests of the local retail market needs to be found. Ultimately, it should be a partnership that benefits everyone.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Are we serious about climate change apropos the 2012 Rio+20 Summit?

As an educationist, a teacher and a human being, I ask myself why should I be concerned about climate change? A lesson in English that I taught to class eleventh students in  titled: The Ailing Planet:the Green Movement’s Role by Nani Palkhivala describes the deteriorating “health of the earth” it traces the beginning of the Green Movement. Nani Palkhivala goes on to describe the shift from, “the mechanistic view to a Holistic and ecological view of the world.” The lesson describes how the concept of “sustainable development” was popularised in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment. Sustainable development is defined as, "Development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."  Climate change is the result of the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources, uncontrolled cutting of trees, unplanned construction of dams, population explosion, filling up of wetlands, water bodies for construction of buildings and settlements, and of course pollution resulting from burning of fossil fuels. While no doubt, introduction of green fuels like C.N.G. and L.P.G. might have reduced the amount of pollution in Delhi, the question remains whether it has not come too late? The phasing out of C.F.Cs. in refrigerants might have come too late as the damage has already been done to the Ozone layer! Unmitigated cutting of trees has lead to a shrinking forest cover. The Ridge Forest area in Delhi, the so called lungs of the capital is now denuded and not what it once was! In the NCR region, unsustainable development is taking place in real estate, with the result that infrastructure is not able to keep pace! Frequent instances of water shortage and power failure have become common. Today, whenever I journey out of the old Gurgaon City, I am surprised to see that instead of  streams, ponds, trees, and forests there are only shells of new multi-story buildings coming up. Trees have the ability of a sponge to soak up the excess carbon in the environment but then we have cut them down to make way for high-rises to accommodate a burgeoning population! The Algae in ponds and lakes too have the ability to soak up the excess carbon, but then we have dried them up too!
Climate Change has become a run away train sliding down-hill without any brakes! A documentary film titled, “An Inconvenient Truth”  portrays a grim scenario of what would happen if climate change is not arrested! The melting of the polar Ice-caps, receding glaciers  means that low-lying islands and coastal areas will be inundated with water from high tides  and a rising  seawater level. Imagine losing the valuable Mangroves in the Sundarbans of India or perhaps even the disappearance of the Islands of Kiribati, Maldives and Seychelles! Yet another extract from the lesson in the class twelve supplementary reader of the C.B.S.E.Titled: Journey to the End of the Earth by Tishani Doshi reads, “ Climate change is one of the most hotly contested environmental debates of our time. Will the West Antarctic ice sheet melt entirely? Will the Gulf Stream ocean current be disrupted? Will it be the end of the world as we know it?” One possible answer to these queries is provided by the English movie titled, “Water-World”. In this movie, the only dry land is situated at the North Pole,and the rest of the world has become submerged under water, and people have taken up to living on floating platforms, and boats, and people fight for a handful of dry soil!
The recent climate summit which concluded in Rio in the month of June was dubbed the Rio+20 Climate summit because it came twenty years after the the first United Nations Earth Summit which had taken place in the Brazilian Capital. The recently concluded climate however has been termed a hopeless failure by various organisations especially Non-Governmental organisations. The goals of the first Earth Summit to control Greenhouse gas emissions,  protection of eco-systems and biodiversity, and the prevention of desertification have not been achieved in the past two decades. This is perhaps what has made the Rio+20 Summit a damp squib! The 58 page document titled: “The Future We Want” focuses on the concepts of “sustainable development” and “green economy” but then fails short of the ideals ideas and goals enshrined in the final document of the first Earth Summit which took place twenty years ago! There seems, however to be an implied sense of helplessness in the document which  suggests that the onus of conserving and protecting the climate rests on the shoulders of not just Governments, but also on Non-Governmental Organisations, and the Private Sector. The lack of the will to make specific commitments by heads of various countries at the summit has meant that the Rio+20 was just a token display of concern for climate change by various Governments all over the world! Someone I know who works in the petroleum industry once told me that the amount of crude oil consumed was an indicator of a Nation’s  economic progress! It means that industrial progress or development is retrogressive in terms of the health of the Environment because more industries and more vehicles results in the burning of even more fossil fuel. This in turn results in more green house gases results in greater global warming! The Rio+20 Summit seems to have highlighted the ironical situation where any effort to address environmental issues, pollution and climate change depends on the wishes of the Corporate Elite! Ultimately, it all boils down to the harsh fact that  steps to control pollution will not be undertaken if they are costly!

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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Schools should strive to instill values related to concern for the Environment and love for Mother Nature in their students!


No school curriculum is complete without an inculcation of awareness about environment related issues, and a respect for Mother Nature. Environmental Sciences, an important subject in the lower classes might be part of the school curriculum, but the reality is that scant attention is given to it in the senior classes in a large number of schools!  E.V.S. as a formal subject at the twelfth ISC board level has been discontinued. At the lower levels, it will now be more of an activity based subject. The implications of this decision has meant that the subject no longer receives the importance that it had as a formal subject in schools running under the  I.C.S.E. board guidelines. In C.B.S.E. based schools also, E.V.S. is taught till class five. But then, inculcation of respect for the environment and nature should be the most important focus of every school curriculum and even if it is not taught as a formal subject like E.V.S. 


Today, more than ever, there is a great need to make our young students aware and sensitive about important environment related issues, and concerns regarding global warming, pollution, and the benefits of recycling, garbage disposal, and love for Mother Nature. Some schools have separate dustbins labelled biodegradable   and Non-biodegradable waste. The garbage containers are coloured green and blue respectively. While this is a positive step towards making students aware about the need to segregated waste, it might also be a good idea to have a third container labelled, Toxic waste, or E-waste. Even if these dustbins are never filled, it is important to have them around even if they are unfilled so that they can stand out as important reminders of the problems we face with regard to disposal of toxic waste. Toxic waste and E-waste are usually those products which can’t be recycled by the local recycler, and they need special treatment. Discarded Lead-Acid batteries, mobile phones,  discarded P.C.B. boards, electronic equipment, cathode ray tube, and so on contain hazardous and toxic materials including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and so on, which if not handled appropriately will leach into the ground water making it highly toxic. A school in which I have worked organises Activity Days based on the theme of recycling waste into useful decoration items. This is an important activity which explores various ways in which useful objects can be made from discarded objects. A visit to the Rock Garden in Chandigarh will definitely make students aware about inventive ways of recycling waste materials. The sale of greeting cards made from recycled paper and decoration items made from papier-mâché will motivate students to learn about the importance of recycling paper.


It is only when you take the children into the lap of Nature that you will be able to make them learn to appreciate and respect Mother Nature. Alas, forests have receded, and instead of trees we have concrete jungles, but we can at least,   bring Nature to the schools! Planting of trees, having a horticulture division, planting of rare plants and herbs, having a zoo, planting of fruit trees encouraging students to bring their pets, will all instil respect for Nature. Sale of herbal, decorative and exotic plants grown by the horticulture club of the school will help encourage students to appreciate the valuable gifts of Mother Nature, and learn more about plant life, and the importance of conserving them. Government schools in Delhi are encouraged to set up Eco-Clubs, and they even receive a grant from the Directorate of Education. This is a positive step taken by the Government of Delhi, and in many cases, the Eco-Club activities form an important part of the school activity. Some of the activities of the Eco-Club include Horticulture, Skits, exhibitions, tree-plantations drives, and waste management activities. In most cases, these activities provide a refreshing change for the students and their teachers! Excursions to Game Reserves, National Forests, Nature Walks, and painting competitions based on Nature will instil respect and appreciation for Nature in students.

If our purpose of educating children is to build character, then I guess the best way to do this is by teaching students to respect and appreciate Nature and to learn to protect the Environment. It is the small things that we teach in school that finally make up a whole picture. When you teach a child not to burn garbage, and to segregate Bio-Degradable waste from Non-Bio-Degradable Waste,  you are  training the child to become a  more responsible adult, an adult a better human being, a person with a better character.