Thursday, 8 November 2012

An Indian education

Last week I was in Bangalore for a week's training. I'm a policy wonk by background, and that's very much my focus in my job here, but I am also a member of the management board of the UK-Indian joint venture company I work for. Which means, horror of horrors, that I have to show some kind of insight into business matters as well as making earnest statements about evidence-based approaches and public goods.

Most of the time this isn't a problem. I actually quite enjoy switching from policy to business mode, thinking strategically about business issues and spotting where the new opportunities are (clue: in the skills business in India, they are everywhere, but finding the ones that will actually allow you to break even is trickier). Besides, in my line of work the line between business and policy is very blurred: education businesses have to keep public benefits at the heart of what they do or they quickly lose the faith of their customers; conversely, they have to be businesslike or the market will simply eat them alive. So policy affects business, and business affects policy. That's even more the case in India, where training is just taking off and the gold rush is just beginning.

Anyway, I digress. My point was that I was mostly fine tackling business issues, except for one rather important point: numbers.

I don't mean I can't do maths. My maths is actually pretty OK, although algebra beyond x=2y can still sometimes induce mild hysteria if I don't take some deep breaths first. What I struggle with is finance. As soon as those enormous spreadsheets appear on the power point, with lots of months and decimal points and terms like EBIDTA, something tends to switch off in my brain. I know I should follow it. I know the numbers aren't that difficult. But the spreadsheets are just so big. And there are so many columns. And can't we just talk about how policy fails to incentivise enough employers to offer apprenticeships? Please?

So to cut a long story short I decided I needed to find a course on finance for people who will never - god forbid - actually work in the field, but who need to be able to go to a board meeting and talk intelligently about performance against AOP and so on, without being reduced to a quivering pile of jelly. And so it was that I spent last week putting in 11 hour study  days at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

If you want to see how serious India is about business, go to IIMB. I went to a pretty good university and I have some very, very clever friends, but this was some of the best teaching by some of the smartest people I've ever come across. It was intense, it was exhausting, it left me feeling like my eyes were propped open with sandpaper - but god, it was good. And to my enormous astonishment, it also managed to be really, really interesting. I can't say I can now confidently reel off all the principles of financial management, but I am fairly sure that the next time I'm in the board room it'll be with my head a lot higher than before.

Let me just say this again: these people made me find finance interesting. That's rather like managing to convince Ann Coulter that actually, Barack Obama isn't such a bad old stick.

Sitting in classrooms like those at IIMB it's hard to imagine that India isn't following a manifest destiny to become the most successful and largest economy in the world. But the fact is that, on current trends, it isn't. The pockets of superb quality education like IIMB exist in a sea of educational underachievement; the brilliance of the faculty (and some of my fellow students) has to be set against a system where vast numbers complete their education without sufficient capabilities to be employable. India excels at excellence, but it currently fails at adequacy.

In my last post I commented that some of the social patterns in India remind me of some of the damaging trends seen in my own country and in the USA, trends that are associated with high levels of inequality. This strikes me as another one: in all three countries there are pockets of academic brilliance, with truly world class people and incredible results, but swathes of the population are left behind completely. And the problem is that academic brilliance alone isn't enough. Sooner or later all those people will need people who are brilliant in other ways. The people who probably won't ever lecture a room full of businessmen about macroecnomics or create innovations in nanotechnology, but who will make sure the people that do those things live in a world that works - and will do so by achieving high level skills that may lack glamour, but that are sorely needed.

All three countries are committed to developing skills at all levels and to offering opportunities to all. But sometimes I wonder if that's enough. In a world that idolises a privileged minority of celebrities and business leaders, and emphasises material gain as the way to happiness, who'd want to become a hotelier or a plumber? Who'd want to settle for just being an ordinary, successful person? And who, when they realise they'll never earn a seven figure salary or appear in Hello!, wouldn't be tempted to just throw in the towel altogether? Policy commitment to diversity of skills and opportunity may not be enough in the face of a modern culture that sometimes seems geared in entirely the opposite direction.

The more unequal we get, the more aspiration is narrowly defined, the more the middle is hollowed out, and the less liveable our societies become. And that's a challenge India has in common with a lot of places that, superficially at least, it looks nothing like.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Wheels and class

There are many visible indicators of class and wealth in India. You can see it in the way people move, their body language towards each other, the clothes they wear (not just the quality or costliness, but the aesthetics), and in their faces (a browse through the faces on, a brilliant site that facilitates micro loans to needy people in India, will show many people for whom the daily toil of life for millions of Indians adds decades to their appearance). And you can also see it in how they get about.

Transportation may not seem a particularly important marker of class or power, particularly in a country where millions identify themselves as poor by proffering a begging bowl. But as any country's economy develops, the need to move about - and the desire to do so in comfort - grows inexorably, and this puts massive stress on infrastructure and inhabitants. In Delhi, with its crowded roads and might-is-right traffic rules, traffic and transportation are becoming one of the most visible battle lines of class conflict. As the city grows, so does its inequality, and this battle looks set to go for a good while yet.

Take this story, for instance. Gaurav Jain, a 26 year old journalist, researching the lives of cycle rickshaw pullers by doing the job himself, was assaulted by a police officer for 'blocking the road'. Before I say anything else I want to say: kudos to Mr. Jain. Most of the time, Delhi seems to consist of a million or so "important" people and countless millions of others who get ignored. The cycle rickshaw pullers, the street hawkers, the hijras tapping on your car window at the traffic lights. Your average car-driving Delhiwalla barely seems aware of the existence of these people, never mind having such an interest in how they live that they'd be willing to take on a tough and - let's face it - demeaning job in order to understand it.

I don't say this to be critical. Anyone who has lived in a big city will understand that urban survival depends on an ability to act as if you're the only person walking down the street, standing on the train, driving to work. There are just too many people. We can't acknowledge them all. And the ones we do acknowledge tend to be those most like us, the ones to whom we can relate. So in Delhi it's no surprise that the aspiring middle classes pay scant attention to the poor guys slogging their guts out dragging a family of five on the back of their bike for 15 rupees. It's the way things are, and after living here a while you find your blinkers tend to come on pretty quick.

Anyway, back to Mr. Jain's story. Following the attack he went to the local police station to make a complaint, but was ignored. "It's strange how much a person's professional standing or profile can affect the way the law treats him", he said. Quite. Somehow I don't think his rickshaw puller colleagues would find it all that strange.

That the rich and privileged can expect better legal redress than the poor and excluded is no surprise. What was interesting to me was the reason for the attack: "blocking the road". Read: getting in the way of the car drivers, who are far more important than you.

This reminded me of another story that came out a few weeks ago, about the ongoing saga of Delhi's bus lanes and the objections from car users that they are causing delays. The quoted comments in the article lay bare the stark class divide here, and the assumptions made by the privileged about the millions of dispossessed Indians (on whom they depend for everything from domestic cleaning to shoe shining). "People" are being delayed by traffic jams because of the bus lanes, argue campaigners. "How does it matter if a peon reaches his office five minutes before time?" asks one. The apparently radical idea that "people" should also include those who use public transport has to be specifically pointed out by a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology.

It should be obvious that when only 10% of a city's inhabitants drive, yet the streets are already clogged to all hell, public transport has to be at least a part of the solution. But the fact that the bus lanes are fighting for their survival is testament to the disproportionate power held by those 10%. Of course, while they appear to be fighting for their own benefit, if they get what they want it will simply ensure a miserable future for everyone: a city even more gridlocked, fume-choked and cacophonous than it is already.

And this is what worries me most about the emerging battles around Delhi's transportation system. It seems to encapsulate a situation where growing inequality leads to class-based battles that belittle ordinary people and lead to the privileged taking decisions in their narrow benefit, rather than recognising the need for development to work for all, not just the "wealth creators".

The result, it seems to me, is usually a set of outcomes that are worse for everyone.  There are parallels to be made here with the increasingly unequal societies in the UK and the US (among others), which in the past 30 years or so have become massively richer, massively less equitable, and arguably a good deal less happy, healthy and secure. Repeating those patterns in a city the size of the Netherlands - let alone a country of 1.3 billion - is a scary prospect.