On jazzy airports and bullet trains

May 28, 2014

The logic of JC Kumarappa’s argument, in his ‘The Economy of Permanence’, still holds good (nationalised or not) in the era of jazzy airports and bullet trains: 

‘There has been a lot of talk recently about ‘Nationalising’ the Airways. These airways, at present, are not within the reach of the villagers. They do not need them nor are they likely to use them. So Government control now will mean the Government will spend its money and thought in making ‘the Airways’ easily available to the ‘haves’ while other ‘haves’ will provide the service. Aerodromes may have to be constructed and various roads, etc. provided. For this, these private bodies would like to exploit the Government resources and obtain their assistance under the plea of Government control or ‘Nationalisation’. The funds available to the Government should be earmarked for the provision of facilities for the masses and hence we cannot divert them for the betterment of airways. Let private enterprises go on as they have done. Some ‘haves’ will exploit other ‘haves’ and later on when village based National Government comes into existence we shall have time enough to consider ‘Nationalisation’ of such services.’

– Economy of Permanence, JC Kumarappa

Isolation of the poor

May 28, 2014

I didn’t expect to come across this sharp observation, when I started reading ‘The Montessori Method’ by Mari Montessori:

Such spectacles of extreme brutality are possible here at the very gate of a cosmopolitan city, the mother of civilisation and queen of the fine arts, because of a new fact which was unknown to past centuries, namely, the isolation of the masses of the poor. 

In the Middle Ages, leprosy was isolated: the Catholics isolated the Hebrews in the Ghetto; but poverty was never considered a peril and aninfamy so great that it must be isolated. The homes of the poor were scattered among those of the rich and the contrast between these was a commonplace in literature up to our own times. Indeed, when I was a child in school, teachers, for the purpose of moral education, frequently resorted to the illustration of the kind princess who sends help to the poor cottage next door, or of the good children from the great house who carry food to the sick woman in the neighbouring attic.

To-day all this would be as unreal and artificial as a fairy tale. The poor may no longer learn from their more fortunate neighbours lessons in courtesy and good breeding, they no longer have the hope of help from them in cases of extreme need. We have herded them together far from us, without the walls, leaving them to learn of each other, in the abandon of desperation, the cruel lessons of brutality and vice. Anyone in whom the social conscience is awake must see that we have thus created infected regions that threaten with deadly peril the city which, wishing to make all beautiful and shining according to an aesthetic and aristocratic ideal, has thrust without its walls whatever is ugly or diseased. 

A Beautiful Tree

May 28, 2014

‘A Beautiful Tree’ by Dharampal, led me to this intriguing story about Andrew Bell and his Madras System.

Most of us think, we owe our education system to the British. But I was completely surprised to learn that the Madras System, which was inspired by what Bell saw in the late-18th Century India and his experiments in a Madras Asylum,sowed the seeds for the dramatic improvement in education standards in England in the first half of 19th Century, along with Joseph Lancaster who had modified Bell’s system.

From a mere 40,000 students attending school in Britain in 1792, the number increased to 21,44,377 in 1851.

In contrast, one-third of the boys (but hardly any girls), surprisingly belonging to a wide variety of castes, went through the native primary schools, in Madras Presidency in 1820s.

It is, however, the Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data which presents a kind of revelation. The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in India, till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born amongst the Hindoos, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite. The actual situation which is revealed was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamilspeaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

But the decay had started setting in much earlier with the advent of the British and got worse over the next century. The situation was similar in Bengal, Punjab and elsewhere. The quality of content taught in schools can be subjected to scrutiny and debate, but, these schools, at the minimum, ensured basic literacy and arithmetic.

Macaulay and others, whatever were their intentions – not all of them were nefarious, seem to have only led to the reversal of the gap between UK and India.

Most of these arguments had been put forth by others earlier, especially some of Gandhi’s associates, based on the reports of the early English administrators. Dharampal has developed on that work by meticulously going through the old archives and piecing together the whole story.

I am usually a skeptic, when it comes to grandiose claims about our past glory. But going through this book, and all the supporting archives that have been published in detail in the annexures, and glimpsing through a couple of other books which had been published much before this one, my skepticism has definitely been shelved for now.

I will be curious to read any criticism of Dharampal’s work. Interestingly, a strong criticism is already in the book, in the form of the decade long debate between Sir Philip Hartog and Gandhi.