Friday, October 14, 2011

Government doing some good in India

Everyone here constantly complains about the government and its corruption. To me, it seems as if they are doing some good things despite the complaints.

School support and rules:
Scool used to be mandatory to Grade Five and now it is mandatory to Grade Eight. Moreover, all kids in school get a free meal at lunch, which is important to some. There are also some 'incentives' for parents. Pretty well everyone we talk to seems to support these initiatives.

Government school kids all wear sky blue uniforms and we see them all over the place. We visited a village school with our gentle and quiet-spoken host Raj near our tented resort in Nimaj. The day started with a school assembly where the kids chanted to the goddess of learning, whereafter the kids went to their classrooms. They sat at long desks in dim classrooms. The teachers were all men and there were some posters and maps around the sparse classroom. In the principal's office, there were three Acer computers under covers and a paltry collection of books. For what it's worth, all the kids we see going to and fro to school seem very happy. Like everybody else here they smile at us a lot, and wave and shout.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the cost for university is fairly accessible at $50-100 according to our guide in Varanasi. However business education is more expensive, as explained by Harnam our driver, who says the fees for his daughter in undergrad business administration are $500 and will go to $1000 when she continues to her MBA.

Government work in rural areas:
One member of each family is given 100 days of government work a year. According to our driver, this has been transformative for the villagers, lifting them out of poverty. When we toured the village near Shahpura, the houses looked very poor; however, when you peeked inside the courtyard, things looked a lot more prosperous. Our guide had talked with these villagers and they told him that their annual income was about $4,000 dollars. As he put it, this is 'saving income'; i.e. since you grow your own food and barter a few things with other villagers, you have more money than you need for subsistence. One can see that many people spend this disposable income on a motorcycle!
On the other hand, our guide in Chhatra Sagar, from a much richer class, complained that the work was all make-work and not much to India's benefit in the end.

Land Ownership
Land ownership in India is restricted to 18 hectares. So explained Sat Sungh, the Rajah owner of our hotel in Shahpura. On the other hand Harman told us that this guy owned 850 hectares. Hmm. It seems that this rule is an 'Indian rule' (rather like the rule that you have to wear a helmet on a motorcycle in some places - yeah, right). Apparently you can set up a co-operative of family members to own land, because a co-operative can own unlimited amounts of land. Sat had lamented to us that he'd spent a day of looking through dusty old land records, to make sure everything was in order for when his only daughter came to inherit. Methinks he might be searching for ways to dipsy-doodle around that rule for another generation.

Havelis to Hotels
As well as restricting land ownership, the government has put pressure on the rich property owners to repair crumbling palaces and haveli (mansions) and turn them into historic hotels. They have also encouraged this by providing significant loans to support the work. This has saved many gorgeous buildings from disintegration - not to mention providing a pretty cool tourist experience for us!

Affirmative Action
And lastly, there have been efforts to support upward mobility by the lower castes through affirmative action with regards to entrance marks for various university programs and professions. Controversial just as it is at home.
However, in discussions here, it's not long before a reference to caste appears. Despite assurances that the caste system is dying out (and it probably is, though slowly), on my brief brush with Indian culture, I suspect affirmative action would be required to break the spiral of caste lock-in.

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