Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fresh Blood

"Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life." - Vivekananda

"I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think." - Socrates

If a faculty member like me lives longer than average, it might be due to the fact that we are injected with fresh blood every year :-) A new academic session begins. The campus welcomes new batch of students. All the undergrads are accompanied by their guardians. They too are moving around with their wards in market, in welcome session of the Dept.s, interacting with faculty members etc. The postgrads get settled easily as they already have hostel experience, an experience to stay away from home, taking care of themselves.

A part of our exercise in the Dept. welcome function was to interact with guardians of unndergrads - to remind them and us that the job is not finished yet. Stepping into IIT is a big step but only a step. It is important how the facilities, infrastructure, opportunities provided are put to use. Student, faculty, guardian need to act together to get the best out of it. 

The students may have a reason why they tend to lose grip over the situation once they are here. In this interaction, guardians were telling their pre IIT-JEE routine which used to be study, study and study; from early morning to late night ... with only one goal - to clear IIT-JEE. It is so tough an exam., most of them are not sure to 'crack' it and plan anything beyond IIT-JEE or set a higher goal. Once they clear the examination which they saw as a hurdle, for which they were asked to sacrifice their interest in sports, music, novel, travel - all that make life so beautiful, they feel an urge to make the most out of life. The pre IIT JEE days made them live in a high pressure, tense environment. Clearing the exam.  makes them believe that 'the goal has been achieved'. It is time to enjoy life and cry full volume "Jeene do, jeene do, bachpan to gaya ", to break the chain of bondage (not literally!) and breathe free, to go out and bathe in sunshine. The movie "3 Idiots" actually depicts the pressure situation to enter IIT and not what exists inside. Just regular attending of class and even fifty percent of the IIT-JEE preparation effort is more than enough to get a very, very good score here. This leaves another fifty percent or more for breathing purpose :-) but the students tend to overdo with their new found freedom and overplay the sense of security associated with being into IIT.

The IIT-JEE success may have another effect on young minds. The society looks at them with reverence. The junior students in the school or locality treat them as hero, asks advice from them. The guardians find that they now have special place in the larger family and relation. The fame, the glory associated, may make one desire that the euphoria continues as long as possible. Why not given the sacrifice made? And then comes the harsh landing. In IIT, you are competing with the very best. Gone are those MCQ mode preparation where correct answer is before you as one of the choices ... which you have to circle ... certain amount of intelligent guess or back calculation could be used as a trick in some cases. Now all questions are subjective type. Having good teachers in class who do not struggle with subjects, make lot of material covered every week with comfortable ease. Students who are yet to get rid of the hang over of the IIT-JEE success, is deceived by high self-esteem. Before the feet are set on ground, exam.s start knocking at door. And, I repeat, these are no more MCQ exam.s.

What next? It is but natural that someone who was worshiped few months before as hero, to find it difficult to accept poor performance, tell that to guardians. He starts disliking teachers and the subjects. And it starts its own vicious loop. Isn't IIT doing anything about it? Besides sensitizing students and guardians from the day they step into IIT system, there is Student Welfare Group volunteers (Link) who work under the guidance of professionals of Counselling Centre. Language could be an issue with many students. For them there is an initiative called Communique (Link) which provides a bouquet of soft skills. Gymkhana website advertizes various societies (Link) which helps a new comer to make friends and share both joys and sorrows. The other welcome function I attended for freshers, talked about this support system. The Vice President of Students Gymkhana, the highest position as student representative, started his speech giving emphasis on academics. He himself scored 9+ in many semesters and thus leads by example. The Prof.-in-Charge of sports profusely quoted Vivekananda and emphasized on all round development of character, that sports and games teach one team spirit, share and care, and most importantly how to accept defeat gracefully. Dean, SA talked about how to become responsible and asked students to make 'real' friends and not just 'virtual' friends on internet, hooked to computers. One point is to be noted here. In general, our students are cautious, careful and handle themselves very well. These words of advice are to those few who may get carried away by IIT-JEE success. We would like all students to reach their true potential and excel in life, make themselves and all of us proud.

The third introduction I attended was attended by 500+ UG freshers who are joining NSS program. This mostly talked about NSS activties. In each of these introductions, I tried to say that IIT-JEE success is past and it is a new beginning - one has to take fresh guard and be focused from day one to play a useful innings (in cricketing language).

[Added on July 30, 2012: It is worth noting what parents of an achiever say, for whom today's newspaper runs headlines like "India goes gaga over Gagan" (Times of India), the first medal winner for the country in London Olympics. The reporter asked the father Sri B. S. Narang what he would like to say his son at this moment. "Now, I will tell him to prepare for the next event, 'aur jeetna hai abhi' (There is more to win.)" Father was referring to upcoming events and advising son not to lose focus. Another news channel quotes him as "If he calls me, I will congratulate him and tell him to do well in the next two events. He still has two more events left on August 3 and 6 (50m Rifle 3-Position & 50m Rifle prone). He should concentrate on those two events". Earlier, the father told Gagan's teacher (shooting coach), "In the range (shooting range), you are the dad (father)". And this comes from the mother of our hero on pressure that comes from parents, "When he left for London, we just wished him 'All the best' and told him to give his best shot." (Link  Link)]

What went through my own mind when I cleared IIT-JEE? Suffice is to say that what I wrote above is not fiction. As soon as I heard that I cleared the exam. (I was never sure. Link ) from a friend, a sense of relief descended, that my father wouldn't be worried if I spent little more time on organization work (Link) with whom I was associated since Class III, and I was passionately attached to its activities. My father did enough to make me feel that there was still a long way to go. The hero-worship was curtailed. I understood that a good academic performance can give me more room and confidence to pursue extra-academic interest and live a fuller life. The lowest semester score I got was 9.28. The highest was what could be maximum i.e. 10. Every afternoon I played soccer and had more time for the organization activities. A balance can definitely be maintained. [Oh yes! I would like to say freshers that I was in N.C.C. and our camp was held in Chhatna, Bankura, and not in Campus. It was an abandoned army post of World War II, no doors or windows, no toillet. We had to face street dogs at night who used to look for the warmth of our blanket.]

I would like to repeat here what I told to a small section of freshers and guardians at the end of Dept. welcome function. Please do not maintain distance with faculty members. This is one of the friendliest campus, may be 'far from metro' character has an ashram like effect, nothing else to do than live with, live within IIT. My request to freshers and guardians not to allow any problem to grow. Share it. Some of the students may feel homesick being out of family environment for the first time. They or any student are welcome to visit us any evening during 5:30-7:30 PM. It could be just plain adda, knowing each other. Or it could be helping to work out a plan for future, if non-existent. It could be a discussion on how to excel in IIT life. We owe our existence to you. You inject fresh bloods into us every year, keep us live and strong. The job we do to evaluate your performance in a subject is another and a specific role. Your assessment will be no different from us if you yourself objectively evaluate your own answer-script. Let that role not undermine a bigger role, part superceeding the whole.

This post is not complete if I do not acknowledge the fact that we too learn a lot from our young students and it is not that we are here only to 'teach' them. In yesterday's NSS introduction, I gave the example of a fresher in last year's NSS camp. There was one student volunteer who was the best among the roti makers and served kitchen everyday. In NSS, IIT Kharagpur Camp, part of the kitchen responsibility is taken up by young students themselves. Even after three hours of laborious physical work of road laying, (Link) he used to join the kitchen team and start making roti for fellow NSS volunteers. During the final day feedback session, he talked about his motivation, "I used think that I am serving those who are serving the nation." Let me, before calling myself a teacher, imbibe this spirit which my student has taught me. Let me feel in my thoughts and deeds, "I am serving those who are to serve nation"; As new academic session begins, let me remind myself that I belong to that institute which is "dedicated to the service of the nation."

Updated on Aug. 26, 2012

The following excerpts from New Indian Express (Link1  Link2) are self-explanatory and shows where we fail to act. The student, parents, teachers, friend circle, relatives need to cooperate with each other as the student acclimatizes with new environment, new system. It is a sad story of a boy named Vadithya Nehru. His farm worker father, Vadithya Ramana was inspired by then Prime Minister, Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru who visited their village during inauguration of Nagarjunsagar dam and named him Nehru. 

Despite struggling to make ends meet as a farm labourer, Ramana somehow managed to save money for Nehru’s education.
He wanted the boy to be an engineer. “I saved money for his studies and whenever he asked for more, I arranged it somehow,” says Ramana, sitting under the shade of a tree outside the Osmania General Hospital mortuary.
The suicide of Vadithya Nehru (20), a student of Indian Institue of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, on Thursday is a reminder that the real test begins after the students enter the hallowed portals of premier institutions.
Despite scoring an All- India rank of 6193 in the general category, Nehru found the course challenging and performed poorly in his first and second semester EE examinations, following which his admission was terminated.
Educationists blame the objective-type pattern of questions for lowering the IIT-JEE threshold. “The trend of multiple choice questions has led to corporate colleges adapting a package form of education where students have to rote the answers. Even the standards of question papers have changed as now there are repetitions, a feature which was uncommon in the tests a few years ago. The IIT faculty I meet now say the quality of students from AP has gone down as students expect notes and ready-made answers rather than thinking creatively,” educationist Chukka Ramaiah said, who was credited with the earliest coaching institute in the city for IIT aspirants.
The decision of letting a student go should be preceded by counselling and getting them prepared to explore available options. “Students have to realise that academics is not the be-all and end-all of their lives. In IITs, it is a crowd of toppers of respective schools but students have to realize that there can only be one topper in a given stream. As their sense of self-worth and selfesteem is linked to their academic performance, failing expectations often leads to social withdrawal and depression,” student advisor at the Counselling Cell of IIT-H Madhu Chadda said. She added that a majority of students from rural areas not having requisite language skills hinders their progress.
IIT-K is a big thing anywhere, but in Narlaga tanda, it was huge. The boy was seen as something special even in childhood. Says his childhood friend Muni, “He always spoke of getting a big job and returning to Narlaga to do something. Maybe we expected too much from him.”

IBNLive reports today (Link) how IIT Kanpur tried to help all such students. Except Nehru all twenty three availed the service.

Fate being a cruel tease, it came to light Saturday that Vadithya Nehru, the IIT-Kanpur student who took his own life Thursday upon being rusticated by his institute, would have been reinstated if only he had asked to be.
 The dean of student affairs at IIT-Kanpur, A K Ghose, told Express on the telephone that Nehru had been one of 24 students who were struck from the rolls for failing to show a satisfactory performance in their first year.  All of them volunteered for counselling and sought readmission.  And they were readmitted with corrective recommendatons.  All except Nehru.
 Ghose said, “We give a chance to terminated students to apply again to resume their courses.  All the terminated students came back with their parents and applied for readmission.  We gave them counselling and recommended yoga classes to them.  They are all back in class, except Nehru.  I don’t know what happened to him. His brother came to campus and took him away.

Monday, July 2, 2012

When Dust Settles

The row related to IIT-JEE (Link) seem to be over. The debate unfolded many important points - the social imbalance, social inclusion, the state of education in rural India, the innate ability, the influence of money (coaching) making less affluent ineligible i.e. taking the eligibility criterion one more step closer to the fundamental - the coached student is no doubt more eligible for a competitive exam like IIT-JEE, but what about the eligibility (affordability) to get the coaching? The condition of cheap Govt. education is not uniform all across and appear to be many order below the standard asked for. Is it then money, affordability that make somebody more equal and eligible? Should it be so for public funded institutions which aims at the greatest good of its stakeholders i.e., benefit of masses and not classes? That is, should a public funded centre of excellence serve excellence spread out in the mass and not in the class? Why cannot IIT like institutions be made in private sector even after 65 years of independence? And everybody seems to know what IIT lacks and what is to be done. But they do not do that or there is something more fundamental that does not meet the eye. Though I find in talk-shows of television one such person, probably retired or made to retire, doling out prescription with a stamp of authority (academicians no match to them). This is not to ask people to stop debating, rather widening the discussion to include things beyond IIT and more fundamental to education and nation-building. We suddenly started talking about ills of rural education when IIT-JEE was linked to it. Why didn't we discuss it earlier? Shall we stop worrying about it if delinked from IIT JEE?

Invitation to comment on draft National Youth Policy 2012 for next 10 years is available here (Link). The last page of this 30 page draft gives the mailing address. Why doesn't nation discuss this and debate; participate to make our youth of all section feel being cared? The draft nicely portrays plight and need of different sections of the youth. The recent India Today article (Link) on very high rate of suicide amongst Indian youth occurring in more 'developed' states, among high income group who belong to 'educated' class shows all is not well with education and development associated with it. What is missing in education? Let us try to be proactive and not reactive in our response. Let us try to create examples. Later in this post, I shall talk about one Central Government funded project running in 300 centres of Ramakrishna Mission across the country for taking education to the doorstep of the most marginalized. I don't find anything comparable and in public discussion. I wonder why.

Hope, the discussion on social equality and inclusion will not die down and excellence available in villages / slums will be spotted, nurtured, recognized and given equal opportunity to avail the best facilities the nation can provide. I am not necessarily talking about reservation. I am talking about the attention, proactive steps the less privileged (not in terms of ability but opportunity made available) deserves. We NSS faculty of IIT Kharagpur visit nearby villages and slums weekly. If we compare the education and care of those kids and our kids in the campus, we cannot but say that the gap becomes wider in every class starting from Class I not because of the fault of those kids. By the time they reach Class XII, if they reach at all, most drop-out after primary school, next before Class X board exam or after that, the gap has widened to an extent that there is hardly any level playing field. Had they got equal opportunity, many of them could give the IIT-JEE eligible a fair amount of competition and could make themselves eligible.

With speculations about top x percentile, Main, Advanced exam. put to rest, the nation should not lose focus on this primary issue or origin of the debate and take affirmative action. A group of 50-100 capable people can easily adopt one village and work together with Govt. and non-Govt. machinery there to make it a model one, at least make education provided to village children much better than what it is today. The corporate sector may take their CSR initiatives to the grass root and can do even more. The Govt. can aggressively adopt IT-enabled framework to initiate and monitor development activities. Talent spotting at an early age (in Primary School, Sarva Shiksha Kendra) and following them up through various enablers are going to make difference. A few success stories in a village, the whole environment will change, there will be no lack of motivation thereafter.

IIT Kharagpur National Service Scheme (NSS) tries to make students (UG) go through an experience which brings them in direct contact with people in villages and slums and make them aware of the challenges faced by villagers and slum-dwellers. A beginning has been made but a long way to go. The making of a roof (Link) or celebrating Saraswati Puja (worship of goddess of learning) are not enough. The fund made available to the students from NSS is next to nothing. That too does not come in time. Our students forgo their tiffin allowance which they get for their weekly visit to village and use it for development work there which totals only Rs. ten thousand per village. We try to arrange more money if there is some special effort but that too is quite small. The language barrier is a big problem as there are very few students with us who can communicate in local language. Still, the students try their best and language of love is always the best (Link).

I want to sound this post forward looking. Let us not get into endless loop of blaming one another and doing just back of the envelop calculation from XYZ theory to conclude, "Nothing can be done". One project that got my attention in recent times is called Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa (G.A.P.)  (Link) that started one and half year back. I got to know about how it works through regular email updates of Swami Nityasatyananda of Ramakrishna Mission Calcutta Students' Home. I met Swamiji for the first time in a seminar here few years back where he was describing his flood relief experience, the methodology adopted for relief work. He was just returning after a relief work in Midnapur villages. The attitude of service, meticulous planning, execution of plan reminded what Vivekananda told about balanced development of 3'H' as aim of education or measure of all round development - Heart to feel, Head to think, Hand to work. The further we are from this and embrace career-only education, the more we are inviting trouble for ourselves. Let us face the truth and do our bit before the dust settles.

Swamiji's emails talked about the progress of the kids picked up from utterly marginal families living in slums, making life out of garbage dump or so. A glimpse of the background and picture of Swamiji can be found in following Bengali news channel report.

The first three pictures of this post are of celebration of Saraswati Puja in a village where NSS IIT Khargpur works. The rest of the pictures are of G.A.P. shared by Swamiji. It shows living condition in their slum at Agarpara and progresses.

On 30th December, 2011 Maharaj writes, "It has been one year the Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa started and the unconditional love of the holy trio changed our notorious/ hard-to-bear Rohim Molla to a front-desk boy of the class, and it is reflected through the improvement he himself made on his progress report of 2nd standard in his school, which follows as-

(Full Marks/Previous Marks/Present Marks):-

Bengali-(100/59/94); English-(50/26/47); Math- (100/57/100).

Now he doesn’t go to pick garbage and resell them any more ... Rohim busy to complete the home tasks of Netai sir. After all the tough discipline of Netai sir has shown its result. We pray for the continuation of the success of both the teacher and the student."

On January 04, 2012 Maharaj tells, "Every day the little Gadadhars teach us new lessons in different ways. The following are two brief incidents by which we can enhance our own ethics-

First, the story of Ankita, which is the continuation of an earlier mail depicting the success story of her. She is not only a well-known performer in our so called education system but also she is a roll model of divinity. Few months back when she was awarded for her highest attendance,  she politely refused the prize as there was someone else with higher attendance. Similarly after visiting her house repeated times, it was decided that she would be honored for her brilliant academic performance with a solar lantern to help her to study in the evening time. When she was offered the solar lantern, again she politely refused to accept it as the electricity was given to their house 2-3 days back. In spite of her poverty and childishness, she has shown her Excellency and finally boosted up with the award to carry forward it in her forthcoming life also.

Secondly, the story of Najma. The motion of her upliftment resembles that of some supersonic jets. In earlier days Najma used to be quarrelsome, very often cheat but now she hates even to tell the word ‘lie’ ("Mitthya"), rather she tells no more ‘wrong words’ ("Bhul Kotha"). Recently in their singing class, when one of the rids of the harmonium was somehow damaged, their teacher wanted to save them by hiding the original fact and instructed Najma to bring a glue stick by showing some different reason, Najma refused to tell the ‘wrong word’. The teacher became overwhelmed with the reaction of Najma and got the lesson of morality which engraved in her mind for the whole life. Afterwards when Najma was asked the event, she tried to hide her Excellency but everyone was well aware of the real fact and it is decided that she would be awarded to keep her glowing image up. (The picture of Ankita and Najma now and before appear by the side)"

The April 18, 2012 mail says, "In spite of giving anti-pox medicines, two days ago some of our gadadhars were found to have some symptoms of pox. In the middle of the compact schedule of ongoing academic internal assessment yesterday three pupils were surely diagnosed with pox, one of them in a worst condition. At first they were told not to come for few days, but when they told that they have examination next day and moreover considering their environment unprivileged situation we decided to let them come to the ashrama along with others, so that they could have proper guardian, care and love in this weak condition. Najma and Faruk still were in a better position, but Fatema was hard even to look at! She struggled tough only to swallow a mixture of milk and biscuits. Yet when asked whether she wants to go for the examination, the prompt reply was: ‘yes’. Later when maharaj told them to take a good proper bath, she dis agreed and reminded that she has an examination ("Porikkha aache na?!!")! And then the others also insisted to go for the examination. During examination  a special room was arranged for them.

However, when the examination ended they took bath here, and a separate arrangement for diner was made  at vivekanana dham  for three of them. When Fatema was offered to stay at the ashrama at night, she refused because when tomorrow all of his family members will go for work she will have to take the responsibility of her sister’s  child, an infant."

The May 20, 2012 mail tells, "Yes !! Still our little Gadadhars of Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa are
regular in coming on the non-GAP days and Instead of coming at 4 pm now many days they are coming at morning to spend some extra hours from 8am to 4 pm.

Some of their engagements are as follows :

Ankita trained harmonium to her sisters of lower classes
Playing carom after finishing the home task
Washing their garments in a group
Telling stories by siting rounded on the green ground
Talking making video chatting with some of their teachers who now staying abroad
Some time visiting our Homoeopathic dispensary for their health checkup

An interesting matter : After seeing the film, "I Am Kalam", one of our student of class I, Abdul Kalam replying " I am Kalam" when some one asked - What is your name ? May be he can touch the sky, because not so studious Kalam is now very much particular not only about his studies but also his cleanliness."

The June 11, 2012 mail talks about Puja. "Puja Singh, one of our Student of Class I of Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa. You can see her photo (video appears below) nearly one and half years back, when the Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa Starts. Also can see her present photo in the attachment. At that time she is not going to School, now she is a Spirited student who scored 79/100 in Bengali, 40/50 in English and
94/100 in Math in his last School Examination. She is also giving teaching to her mates."

In another June 2012 mail, Maharaj describes the living of Saraswati, "Three of them came today in the morning, Payel, Saraswati and Ankita. ... Saraswti, student of Class IV of Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa told she had some business at home. When inquired, we came to know that she would have to make gudder-packets: 10 rubber gudders in one pouch, 12 such packets stapled, then 12 such stapled bundles in a bigger polythene pouch is to be sealed using wax-candle-flames. This whole job will give her Only Rs.2/-, though the cost of stapler, pins, candles, matches is her own . She is in hurry not only to meet a monthly target of Rs.1000/- of their house rent , but she has to make a bit bigger effort this month to contribute to the Rs.15,000/- dowry demand made by the grooms family before the marriage of her elder sister. Their father left them few years ego and due to illness their mother is not able to do any work other then light household work.

Knowing the hard reality none of us could tell her to study, but she  was told to bring all her materials and her sister Laxmi (also a Class IV student of our Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa) here at the ashrama, so that they would be helped to work in a cool, sound circumference, apart from other noises of their locality."

I shall end this post with June 24, 2012 mail of Maharaj, "When we told Ankita (Student of Class VII - in the picture to right) and Payel (Class VI - in the picture to left) of our Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa to write something which would be read-out at the time of making video in English on Gadadhar Abhyudaya Prakalpa, they wrote it from their own and read it in Bengali. Attaching the original writings in Bengali and also the free translation from where we can feel their dream ..."

All of us experience and feel many facts from our birth till we die. In my life I also want to feel pains, miseries, happiness of others. Of course I didn’t want this since I came into so called worldly consciousness, neither did I thought of this. I used to think of myself only.  Don’t know why , what happened but I wanted to feel those things. Still now I want that and try to do that way. I want to a Doctor. There are many reasons behind it. I am trying to write some of those. Becoming a doctor I want to do good treatment of poor people. I have seen such people that – son is suffering of fever and the mother sitting beside him has nothing to do except helplessly crying as she has no money for the treatment. Not only other people, such incident had occurred many times in my home too. Now such days don’t  come as I come here at the mission. I’ll be a doctor, help poor people in distress, and also help those who want to study but unable to afford it.
-Ankita Dey

I want to do a lot of study. I know that misery and pain accompany our lives. We’ll clean all them. But I want to be a teacher. But would my dream become true? Will we be able to feel the miseries of poor people? I have to go a long distance. We dream of many things. When I’ll grow up, I will help to study those who can’t afford it, free of cost. But can these dreams be fulfilled? We’ll think of our country. Who will believe our words?  Don’t know.  When we see people in sorrow I think one day we were one of them. But when we think of my thoughts I feel a deep pain in my heart: who will understand our  feelings.
-Payel Das

The G.A.P. is targeted towards children between 5-12 years of age. The one and half year's care for children of one slum shows what is possible with love and care. Can a society which calls itself civilized remain aloof and think that Ankitas and Payels, Rohims and Kalams should not dream? I am not sure if Ankitas will be able qualify in medical entrance examination given the hardship they face and they will be pitted against highly coached students of affluent family, but I am sure that they will be better than many other doctors in serving the nation if given an opportunity and do more public good. Isn't that the aim of public funded institutions, the question I posed in the first paragraph? Let us try to give some of our time, may be as little as one hour per week, to reach out to them. Our smallest contributions too get counted. We have a responsibility. Let us believe in ourselves and work together towards an inclusive society.