public good and all that rot

smokescreen asks here:
Surely their vision isn’t blinkered by the bpo sector?!
her question is about the national knowledge commission. a few days ago, the chairman of the commission was advocating the need for taking education to the masses through internet.

there are around 50 million to 81 million users in india, according to different estimates (anyone who logs into the net even once a month is a user), but only around 2.6 million internet connections, as of october last year. even if those connections had doubled since last year (quite impossible, because imrb says growth in internet users has been slow since 2001 in this 2008 report ), what makes the chairman, nkc, think the number of connections could grow twenty times in the next five years (to 100 million connections)? and why does he believe that any of those connections would be owned by members of the masses? would they still be masses if they were doing so well as to afford regular internet connections?

that's a wrong response to the chairman's wisdom. why? it means that you are accepting the chairman's idea of public good: different kinds of education for different classes of people. it means you differ with him only on the means to achieve that end.

would pitroda teach his kids or grandkids through the internet? would he want them not go to exclusive private schools where they probably teach french and horse riding and other neat things, among other things, but admit them into a government run school so that they could be taught through the internet, sometimes, because the teachers don't work most times? no. but he still thinks his project is for the public good. and a lot of people, including the ruling government, seem to trust him. why?

came across this interesting study by a group of american psychologists- here's the outline:
One of the most curious aspects of the 2004 presidential election was the strength and resilience of the belief among many Americans that Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Scholars have suggested that this belief was the result of a campaign of false information and innuendo from the Bush administration. We call this the information environment explanation. Using a technique of “challenge interviews” on a sample of voters who reported believing in a link between Saddam and 9/11, we propose instead a social psychological explanation for the belief in this link. We identify a number of social psychological mechanisms voters use to maintain false beliefs in the face of disconfirming information, and we show that for a subset of voters the main reason to believe in the link was that it made sense of the administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq. We call this inferred justification: for these voters, the fact of the war led to a search for a justification for it, which led them to infer the existence of ties between Iraq and 9/11.
you need to justify nehru's decision to create iits when there were no proper schools in most indian villages, so you come up with a lot of spin now. so, whatever figures one digs up on the state of the internet in india now wouldn't make the slightest dent in the credibility of the chairman, nkc. and when the project fails to take education to the masses through the internet, five years from now, it still wouldn't make any dent in his credibility, because we need to believe he couldn't have been wrong. he was working for the public good.

it doesn't take too much effort, many times, to bring to light the private, sectarian interest in projects pushed through as essential for the public good. but some projects stay so deeply entrenched in the public mind as public good that it's very difficult to dislodge them. that's one major reason why i've always liked the 'real university' series of posts by abi: many of those posts build a strong argument against the elitist mindset of our planners and policy makers. in one of the first posts in the series, abi points out how the much glorified institutions like the iios (iit/iims etc) are inefficient:
Creation of these new institutions is premised on an over-reliance on Indian Institutes -- a phenomenon which is best abbreviated to IIO. As a strategy for positive change IIO is flawed, inefficient, and expensive. From the point of view of nation building, IIO represents an utter bankruptcy of imagination.

The flaws in IIO stem from its smug assumption that, somehow, small institutions training a few thousand students in niche areas are enough to feed the country's immense appetite for skilled manpower. This smugness also makes it callously indifferent to the hunger for knowledge and skills among our millions of students who languish in our universities and colleges.

From an operational viewpoint, IIO has historically been an inefficient strategy. In any academic institution, certain facilities are common: library, lecture halls, laboratories, sports facilities, amphitheatres, and computing and internet infrastructure. The bigger the institution -- the larger the student and faculty population that uses this common infrastructure -- the lower the effective cost per user. With its emphasis on small institutions, IIO has bred inefficiency. A similar argument applies to the student-to-teacher ratio. Currently, IITs operate at about seven students per teacher (going by the 2003 figures from the Rama Rao Committee report). As M.A. Pai points out, this ratio is three times as high in "most US public universities." Clearly, a poor country like ours has every right to expect -- in fact, demand -- that our institutions perform at the highest levels of efficiency. Engineers and managers from our IITs and IIMs would demand no less in the products and services they design, develop or manage!

More important than its inefficiency and narrow vision is the enormous cost of IIO. Just ask yourself this question: if our government is so proud of its IIO strategy, why doesn't it convert all our universities and colleges into Indian Institutes of This and That?

yes, why doesn't the government convert all our universities into Indian Institutes of This and That?

...Let us do some quick math.

The three new IITs, for example, are estimated to cost Rs. 1400 crores per year for the next five years! When fully operational, they will have a student strength of about 14,000 (8000 bachelors, 2000 masters and 4000 doctoral students -- all of which are generous estimates), giving us a price of Rs. 50 lakhs per student. Amortizing this sum over a 20-year period gives us Rs. 2.5 lakhs per student per year. That is just fixed costs alone! Add to it about Rs. 1.5 lakhs per student as annual running expenses, taking the total to over Rs. 4 lakhs per student per year!

To put this number in perspective, if our government were to lavish even a quarter of this amount on every student, it would end up spending Rs. 100,000 crores -- roughly 3 percent of GDP. Put another way, this is eight times India's current expenditure on higher education (0.37 percent of GDP)! Is it any wonder, then, that "IITs for all" is not the favourite slogan for our higher education planners?

there's another question one needs to ask: what kind of minds could've conceived the idea that a miniscule section of the population deserved such irrational largesse? minds steeped in the ideology of caste, in my view. but the answers you might get from the ruling classes would always be couched in modern, democratic rhetoric.


ad24 said...

Hi - I'm an IIT'an from 10 years ago. I agree with most of your comments regarding efficiency etc, with one caveat: There's something to be said about building centers for excellence, about having some places where more attention, more resources can be thrown at students, problems etc.

So my 2c: Do the IIT's/IIM's need to become more efficient? Absolutely. Do they not deserve to exist / expand, or to paraphrase, would India be better off without them? Absolutely not!


Kiran said...

The irony is that Indian job market does not have enough meaty jobs for even those tiny thousands of IITians and IIMians.

kuffir said...


-'Indian job market does not have enough meaty jobs for even those tiny thousands of IITians and IIMians.'

that one line sums up the gist of what i had been trying to say in so many hundred words. eloquent.

kuffir said...


'There's something to be said about building centers for excellence, about having some places where more attention, more resources can be thrown at students, problems etc.'

but what did you wish to say about 'centers of excellence', apart from how to build them?

ad24 said...

"Centers of excellence": The thought is that such centers serve as cores for scholastic / research / economic development. IITs/IIMs/IISc in India have served, inefficiently but still, as such centers.

The model is relatively well-proven in the US, Europe etc. Every MIT, Stanford, Berkeley has the potential works as the core of an ecosystem around which intellectual property, companies, solutions, and ultimately, well-being/ development are improved.

Now you may differ that development and well-being are synonymous. But I'm coming from the pov, that they *should* be synonymous, and in the long run, and very inefficiently, are..

kuffir said...


'IITs/IIMs/IISc in India have served, inefficiently but still, as such centers.'

they have? let me see, i say the sky is a long carpet, and it is, i guess.

SS said...


Many thanks for the detailed response to my comment in the previous post that this one links to, and for the link to your post on the informal sector. May I say this: I do appreciate your sustained and earnest engagement with the issue; my apologies if my comments suggested otherwise. In my line of work, the consequences of the myth are very real, are what I grapple with, whether or not the myth is true.

I'd pointed to Pitroda's letter only to point out the blinkered vision that guides the organized sector as well. I agree with your views on the IITs and IIMs except that I don't think all univwrsities shld becomes IIIOs; it should be the other way round because single-discipline educational institutions have wreaked utter havoc.

You might be interested in this piece by Sukhdeo Thorat and Paul Attttewell that appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly:
The Legacy of Social Exclusion.

It "examines the prevalence of discrimination in the job application process of private sector enterprises in India. The study is based on a field experiment where authors replied to job advertisements in major English dailies sending three applications to each call – as an upper caste Hindu applicant, as a dalit and as a Muslim. Using statistical analysis they assess the data and find that discriminatory processes operate even at the first stage of the application process.
VOL 42 No. 41 October 13 - October 19, 2007

(Requires subscription of course.)

anjal@the-practice.net said...

Dear Sir/Madam,

I take this opportunity to introduce myself; my name is Anjal Raviendran from The PRactice.

I am writing with regard to India’s first full series online comedy show-“Jai Hind”. I am aware that you follow the entertainment industry in India and I would like to bring your attention to Jai Hind which is a comedy show hosted by Sumeet Raghavan (of Sarabhai vs Sarabhai fame) and is purely distributed online. The show recently broke 1 million viewers in a fortnight.

We would like to know if we can share with you updates and information on “Jai Hind” . Currently the show is brought to users in India by Undercover Utopia, a boutique production company of Abhigyan & Mrinal Jha. Abhigyan Jha is best known as the director of the film Sacred Evil, as well as the executive producer, creative director, and script editor of the popular Indian Late Night Show - “Movers and Shakers.”

I hope this is of interest to you and do let me know if you would like to hear more about this show

Kiran said...

Thanks, kuffir. The more I think of this(IIt) the more it looks like a brahminical idea foisted on India's population.

Let me share an insight on IIT administrators and professor as I studied in IIT madras. I joined their Btech program in 1995. That was a time when a major demography change was happening in the student community there. The student community which was previously consisted of mostly and exclusively Tamil brahmins is now majorly of Telugu origin with significant presence of Sudra castes such as Kammas, Kaapus etc.

In almost every induction program I attended there was a lament from the professors how the coaching industry from Andhra Pradesh is killing "natural" talent that is supposed to get in to IIT's. I was too young to grasp the caste slant there. But How evil!

ad24 said...

Most IIT'ans stay back in India, doing various things. http://www.domain-b.com/organisation/Indian_Institutes_Technology/20081219_iitians_stay_back.html


Above links provide some support of my thinking that inefficiently, IIT's provide some service to India as centers of excellence. I could also point to the research that has been and is being done at IIT's, the coursework that the schools have been putting online etc.

I do agree with Kiran's point of view on discrimination at IIT's, and the original point in your writeup. I'm neither a brahmin nor a dalit myself, but I've seen instances of barely veiled (if at all) "preference" on the part of academics, and lived through much crap in and out of my own home state, Bihar.


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