Monday, September 21, 2015

Alternate Undergraduate Education - A proposal

In Tamil Nadu today, we have oversupply of Engineering colleges and seats. Too many seats are lying vacant. But the Arts, Science and Commerce colleges are fewer in number with limited seats for many courses. It is not possible to create Arts/Science/Commerce colleges overnight. The requirements of a University may not make it viable today to open self-financing Arts/Science/Commerce colleges. The land requirement, cost of building, hiring faculty under UGC pay scales etc. mean it is a failed venture even before you start. Plus, education is anyway seen as a not-for-profit venture and hence only fraudulent fellows willing to ride roughshod over the existing laws will enter the field of education. That is what see around us today.

So, on the one hand you have a huge demand for at least select courses in the Arts/Commerce/Science fields, and not enough supply.

Take Vivekandanda College for Men in Chennai. It is an aided institution. The Government of Tamil Nadu pays for the salaries of the faculty members. The Ramakrishna mission undertakes the responsibilities of administration, maintenance of the buildings etc. from its own funds. This is called the "Day College". The same facility is used in the evenings to offer "self-financed" courses. In the Day stream, the annual fees are highly subsidised. For B.Com, the annual fee is Rs 265/- That is all! In the evening course, for B.Com it is between Rs 22,000 to 27,000! That is around 100 times more.

This is understandable. The Day faculty will be different from the Evening faculty and they have to be paid from the fees. I am assuming Vivekananda College may not ask for donations, capitation fee or whatever. Maybe I am naive. I do not know. But around the city, colleges which offer self-financed Evening college charge under the counter as well as over the counter. It could cost a student well over Rs 1.5 lakh for a three-year B.Com course under the self-financed model. To my knowledge, The Government under huge budget pressure has simply stopped aiding Arts & Science Colleges. So any new college built today is left to fend for itself.

For those who cannot pay much and cannot get into one of the Government colleges or the Aided Colleges, there is an alternative. The distance education programs of various Tamil Nadu Universities. Madras University will charge approximately Rs 2,000/- per year for B.Com. Along with various exam fees, mark sheet fees and other such funny things, the total for a three year course would come to around Rs 8,000/- and not more. But the downside? You are left on your own. The contact classes are pitiably hopeless. For a young undergraduate, there is no one to guide him or her. No one to teach the intricacies of the subject.

If you look at the Information Technology revolution in India, it was fronted only by NIIT, Aptech and such training institutions. Organized colleges and university curricula had no clue about the programming languages or the requirements of the market. It was only later that Engineering Colleges stepped into the game. But to this day the Engineering Colleges are failing to teach the necessary IT skills to the students. Students waste most of their time trying to write theory exams and many fail miserably. Unfortunately, with no support from the student/parent community, NIIT, Aptech etc. withered away.

Something similar can be planned for the Science/Commerce streams now. Training academies (not colleges, not universities) can be set up by entrepreneurs. Students join them, get themselves enrolled with the distance education programs of Madras University or similar such, but learn in classrooms daily all the subjects taught by skilled faculty.

You may ask: how can such an institution impart good quality education by charging a lower fees? How can they attract quality faculty by paying them 'fair' salaries when colleges are struggling to do.

I am of the opinion that in the current system, the colleges are highly inefficient. They have large buildings, incur massive expenses, use outdated modes of teaching and are controlled by the affiliating University's archaic rules and UGC's overbearing circulars. They are also localised monopolies with hardly any incentive to innovate. There is no drive to minimise wasteful expenditure and maximise fair profits because at least in paper, they are not supposed to act as profit making centres.

I propose to change all that with my model. Firstly, the institutions I propose will be profit driven. Law cannot stop this (at least for now). They will openly claim to be profit making (like Brilliant Tutorials was, like NIIT was) and will pay taxes on their profits. They will operate from small, short offices and learning spaces. When they hit reasonable numbers, they can create viable campuses. They have to be based within the city, and not in the suburban, unconnected areas. They cannot run buses like the Engineering colleges. Ideal size would be holding 100-150 students at most.

The focus will have to be great teaching. This would mean, identifying great teachers and rewarding them well. Best IIT coaching institutions and IAS coaching academies pay their best teachers good money. Here, the quality can be evaluated. The good ones will demand and will get their pay. Next, they do not have to have the UGC mandated PhDs or NET/SLET nonsense. We just need good teachers. They could just as well be a mere B.Coms to teach B.Com. Heck, they could even be Engineering dropouts to teach B.Com students.

Right from Day 1, this kind of institution will focus on the Internet enabled resources, course videos, information system for better management of the entire course etc. There will be no attendance requirement. You come and learn if you truly want to learn. Or else, you can go to the nearest movie theatre. Of course, you have to pay the monthly fee. You can drop out any time. You can join another similar institution if you do not like this one, any time. Your enrollment with Madras University will remain intact anyway and you can write your exams anyway, if you can prepare on your own.

Because this kind of institution will focus only on teacher costs, keeping other expenses to a bare minimum, it can charge a relatively a lower fee and still make a profit. For example, I guess a decent quality education can be provided for around Rs 25,000/- per year (inclusive of Madras University annual costs) for the B.Com course. Since there is no limit in terms of seats, you can educate thousands of students.

Vivekananda College evening course offers around 540 seats for B.Com, and 50, 70 and such for BBA, BCA etc. and nothing at all in the BA, BSc streams. That is why I am focusing on B.Com. It appears that there is a huge demand for that course. But there could be significant demand for some select BSc courses, BBA/BCA/MBA/MCA etc. in the coming days. As i explained earlier, there is no way regular colleges can be built to offer these courses in the coming years.

Now, who will join these programs? It is the middle class that finds no seats in the best colleges in the city. In a recent interaction with the humanities students of IIT-Madras, I asked them where the Chennai students would have joined if they couldn't get into IIT, they could come up with Stella Maris, MOP Vaishnava, Loyola, MCC and WCC. Only two of them for men (or selective co-ed), the rest women only.

What will the teachers teach here? Take the basic syllabus of Madras University's distance education, clean up the nonsense there, add the best from various other syllabies, make the whole thing contemporaneous, and then teach this. The teachers can focus on all kinds of interesting educational experiments not possible in the traditional colleges. Such students should easily excel in the exams of Madras University and score well.

If the 'academies' do a good job, their students will be preferred over the students from regular colleges in the job market. Once the word spreads around, these academies will be chosen over the traditional colleges.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Banking the unbanked, insuring the uninsured

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been giving a major push to the following schemes:
  1. Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana: A no-frills zero balance bank account
  2. Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana: An accident insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh for an annual premium of Rs 12 (or a monthly premium of Rs 1)
  3. Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Yojana: A life cover of Rs 2 lakh for an annual premium of Rs 330 (or roughly a daily premium of Rs 1)
  4. Atal Pension Yojana: A sort of annuity with a promised return of 9.6% per annum.
Any adult having a bank account is eligible for 2 & 3. For the pension scheme (4), one has to be between 18 and 40 to be eligible. The monthly premium paid is determined based on the pension one opts for (capped at Rs 5,000 a month) and one's age. The monthly pension will be paid once you hit the age of 60. There is also a one-time annuity purchase if one has already hit the age of 60. This gives a guaranteed return of 9.6%.

It is very clear that 2, 3 and 4 are the best possible deals in their respective categories. Though I believe I have sufficient insurance cover, I will be insuring myself and my spouse in 2 & 3.

Modi and BJP PR talk about Jan Dhan as a unique scheme which they introduced. This is incorrect. P Chidambaram had introduced this no-frills account during the UPA rule. It was not promoted that heavily then. It was seen as a drain on their P&L by the Nationalised banks. Now it is promoted heavily, but it is not clear how the common folks see value in this. The Nationalised banks probably still see this as a drain but cannot complain given that the PM has made it his pet scheme. It is quite likely that many banks have registered the same person in their books (after all, it is a zero balance, no-fee account!) and Modi's PR bandwagon is trotting out numbers to show that this scheme is a big success. This is unfortunately part of any politically driven scheme in India.

Despite these PR stunts, I think this package above is a fantastic one. Forcing people to have at least a no-frills account to be eligible for the very attractive accident insurance and life insurance will encourage them to understand and use the banking and the insurance systems in the country. Then, they can slowly be moved to start using these systems better. It appears that some degree of traction has happened with the insurance schemes.

Indian life insurance sector dominated by LIC mostly used to sell endowment and money back policies. Private players pushed unit linked policies (market driven). Risk coverage has not been the priority. Life insurance policies are mainly seen as investment instruments. A senior insurance expert who runs an insurance industry magazine made me see the light a few years back. I was randomly taking whole life policies, unit linked policies and the usual LIC endowment policies. She explained that the best value for money was to go for a pure risk term insurance plan combined with an investment in a mutual fund (or a fixed deposit) instead of investing in any unit linked insurance policy. You get better liquidity, better returns and the best risk coverage. LIC's term insurance plans are the most awful in the country. Today, the best deal you get from a private insurer is around 200 times the premium (for my age ~ 45 yrs). The Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Yojana offers 600 times the premium. Quite unbeatable, but limited to a cover of only 2 lakh Rs.

What is to be appreciated is, for the first time, instead of the usual dole-outs that Indians are so used to, our government is coming up with a scheme which rewards action and initiative on the part of the individual. You enroll, open a no-frills bank account and pay up the premium and only then you will get the benefit. You can't just sit there doing nothing and be compensated for your losses.

One worry however is, whether the insurer will find it breaking even. Finance ministry is providing sovereign guarantees but that is generally not a good idea. One has to also see whether private players will be happy to participate in a scheme like this.

Another problem is bridging the gap between these government schemes and the available market schemes that can help the middle class. The current government schemes are all targeted at the poor mostly.

However, the success of schemes like these may encourage private players to start offering interesting products to the public, to graduate them upwards.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New BC commission needed to fix loopholes

(Published in Times of India, 24 Mar 2015)

New BC commission needed to fix loopholes

By Badri Seshadri

CHENNAI: The judgment by the Supreme Court of India on inclusion of jats in the Central OBC list (Ram Singh & Ors vs Union of India) is a landmark one.

Seen along with Indra Sawhney case judgment, the court has called for a complete overhaul of the reservation system in the country. The most important change will have to happen in Tamil Nadu, the forerunner of the social justice movement in India.

Tamil Nadu is the only state which is in perpetual violation of the Indra Sawhney judgment given by a nine-judge bench.

The judgment says that reservation should be capped at 50% and the creamy layer of any caste group should be excluded from reservation. But Tamil Nadu has 69% reservation and no creamy layer exclusion.

Every year, the state government is challenged in court and every year the government is forced to create additional seats to compensate all those who lose out because of its flawed policies.

The Ram Singh judgment establishes that governments cannot act in an arbitrary manner and should go by data. It restricts governments from rejecting sound advice given to them by commissions set up by them unless there are strong reasons for the same.

Tamil Nadu formed the first Backward Classes Commission under Sattanathan in 1970, which suggested 17% reservation for BCs and 16% for MBCs along with criteria for the removal of creamy layer. The DMK government headed by Karunanidhi clubbed BC and MBC together and offered 31% in total and did away with creamy layer.

A subsequent AIADMK government headed by M G Ramachandran introduced the creamy layer but, after an election defeat in 1980, removed the creamy layer and randomly increased BC reservation to 50%.

In 1982, the second Backward Classes Commission under Ambasankar recommended that reservation for BCs be brought down to 32%, 17 communities moved from FC to BC and 34 communities moved from BC to FC.

The report was not tabled in the assembly and the suggestions were not implemented. Instead of removing any community from the BC list, more and more communities were added.

It took a serious agitation from Ramadoss's Vanniar Sangam to split the 50% BC reservation into 30% for BC and 20% for MBC with vanniars included.

Many other caste groups that do not have the numbers or the political might of vanniars are therefore at a disadvantage. Now, with the Ram Singh judgment, a time has come to challenge the state government's reservation policy. From this judgment, we can glean some directions. First is the need for accurate and current statistics on social, educational and economic backwardness. Second is the need for regular updating of the BC, MBC list with removals and inclusions, as determined by thorough studies that can stand critical scrutiny. Third is, considering not just caste but other social groupings such as, for example, transgenders for the definition of backward classes. I can think of women as a non-caste group that deserves support.

Fourth, an earlier wrong inclusion of a group cannot be used to justify inclusion of a new group on the same principles. This would only mean that wrongly included groups will have to be removed at the earliest.

We need a new Backward Classes Commission in Tamil Nadu to determine which castes and groups should be considered for inclusion or removal from BC and MBC lists. This commission will also have to decide the total quantum of reservation for BC and MBC so as to be in alignment with the Indra Sawhney judgement. This may mean that scheduled caste quota may also have to come down proportionately.

Many castes which are today included under BC may have to be moved to FC and some castes in MBC may have to move to BC. At least some castes in BC may have to move to MBC. This will bring much needed relief to many castes currently squeezed out by dominant castes within their groups.

If the government will not initiate this move, one may have to go knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court soon.

(A co-founder of, the author is managing director of New Horizon Media Private Limited)

Ruckus against books a Dravidian blowback

(Published in Times of India, 10th Mar 2015)

Ruckus against books a Dravidian blowback

Badri Seshadri

Tamil Nadu is a deeply caste-ridden society. A recent, nationwide study found that Tamil Nadu ranks very low in the prevalence of inter-caste marriages. Kerala and Karnataka and even the northern states, often considered to be regressive by Tamils, are ahead.

TN's rural and semi-urban economy is controlled by intermediate castes who dominate the society here. In the villages where feudal values still thrive, dalits continue to live in 'colonies' away from the main settlement which is still largely the exclusive domain of caste Hindus. The practice of untouchability such as the two-tumbler system is common in many villages. Dalits mostly remain landless and are dependent on rural landlords for their survival.

However, thanks to the governmental policy of taking education to everyone, the disadvantaged castes have made the most of the opportunities and have steadily got into government jobs. This upward mobility of some dalits has caused much tension, which time and again erupts into big clashes.

A particularly infamous incident happened in 2013 in Dharmapuri district when Divya, a vanniar girl, married Ilavarasan, a dalit boy. Goaded by his relatives, Divya's father committed suicide. A mob ransacked dalit houses and set them on fire. Divya informed the courts that she would like to separate from Ilavarasan. Soon, Ilavarasan was found dead near railway tracks. The police called it suicide.

It is in this background that we need to look at two important events that have happened in the last three months. Writer Perumal Murugan's novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman) talks of an archaic custom in Tiruchengode where women without children attempt to mix with men in a ritual held during a temple festival, in the hope that this may help them get pregnant.

Organizations belonging to the dominant caste in the region, kongu goundars, went after the writer who, incidentally, belongs to the same caste. The writer was forced to withdraw the book in a meeting mediated by a local government official. The writer who works as a college professor has been transferred to the relatively safe environs of Chennai.

Whether the custom as described in the novel was prevalent or not is not the major issue here. Both in the story and in the real life agitation, the actual issue was caste purity. The temple ritual as narrated by the author allows for men of any caste to copulate with women. Caste purity would be marred if the custom had a historical basis.

A more sinister event happened last month. Puliyur Murugesan, had published a short story collection, 'Balachandran enroru perum enakkundu' (I am also known as Balachandran). One of the stories is quite morbid, narrating the tale of incest in a family and ending with the son, who is confused about his gender, taking revenge on his father.

The caste of the characters - kongu goundar, same as the one in the Perumal Murugan episode - is fairly explicit in the story. Some intellectuals have asked why the writer should identify deviant characters with a caste. One could argue and debate about this but what has happened is that a mob belonging to the caste went to Murugesan's house and beat him up. Now, a case of obscenity and defamation against a community has been slapped against the writer, who has sought anticipatory bail.

What we see from these two incidents is a continuation of the hardening of the stance of middle caste groups against dalits, as in the case of Dharmapuri. Despite claims that Tamil Nadu is Periyar's land and that a casteless and equitable society prevails here, the truth stares at us.

The claims of Dravidian parties ring hollow because Periyar never intended to create a casteless society. His primary goal was to pull down the brahminical power structure and impose a non-brahminical, non-dalit, intermediate caste hold on political and administrative power in the state. He succeeded in this.

Though Dravidar Kazhagam talked about 'saathi maruppu thirumanam' (inter-caste marriage), the numbers were minuscule and made little impact on the state's demography. The Dravidian parties have only helped to maintain rigid caste structures and allocated MLA seats and ministries based on the caste calculus.

PMK was formed when vanniars felt that this political distribution was unfavourable to them. Dalits formed their own parties when they felt that they could never get their true share as long as they remained within the DMK and AIADMK fold. But forming separate political parties has also not helped them. Both Viduthalai Chiruththaikal and Puthiya Thamizhagam, the two big dalit parties, have been marginalized.

In Tamil Nadu, power is held by intermediate castes. The incidents involving the writers show that government officials only seem too willing to support their interests. Mobs belonging to caste groups can beat up a writer and also call upon the police to file cases against him.

Constitutional guarantees on protecting the rights of individuals are given short shrift. It is left to the writer to run from one court to another to save himself. If the writer is a dalit, prospects of getting justice are minimal.

Only a different form of politics, one that does not depend on caste but probably class interests, will usher in a rule of law and uphold freedom of expression. Even if there are disputes, they should be settled in a court of law and not in kangaroo courts organized by bullies. But for that to happen Tamil Nadu's politics should move ahead and become truly progressive. Will it?

(A co-founder of, the author is managing director of New Horizon Media Private Limited)