Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One Rose by Crazy Joe on his Cactus throne -- On running the Cactus Rose 100M race

It was a weekend fraught with challenges. It was a weekend lit up in camaraderie and bon homie. It was a weekend when we didnt sleep. It was a weekend when emotions ran amok. It was a weekend of running up hills and through thorny Sotol bushes. It was a weekend when a crew of one score and a few more picnicked in the cold of a Central Texas November. It was a weekend when the campfire crackled, the wine sparkled, the guitar strummed, even as rumps were on fire and folks walked as though they had been horse-riding for 3 days. It was the weekend we ran the Cactus Rose 100miler, in Bandera, Texas. (Believe it or not, that previous link to Bandera on Wikipedia, lists Joe Prusaitis as race director for the annual Bandera 100K -- one of the toughest Ultramarathons!)

This is supposed to be a tough race. I'll just quote Joe from his website --
A nasty rugged self-supported trail run: No Whiners, Wimps, or Wusses We give Bonus Points for Blood, Cuts, Scrapes, & Puke. I have made an attempt to create an event that required the least amount of volunteers as possible. A sort of Self-Serve setup of aid stations and support systems. Drop bags, this is what this one is all about... your skill in providing for yourself, in your own drop bags at each station. You bring it, you clean it up, you take it home. Its all yours. But on Sunday at 5pm, I'll tear down the stations and close the race, so if you leave anything behind, its gone.

This race was a breeze. Simply because of our crew. They worked hard for over 2 weeks, figured out the logistics of pacing and feeding the runners, feeding themselves and the pacers -- all we had to do was provide occasional inputs, and prepare our drop bags. The crew was 25 strong. They did everything. We had a tent at one point in the race that we were to go by 8 times (it was sort of the center of 25-mile loop shaped like an 8). We had a veritable restaurant set up over there. Let me just say that the menu included -- dal-chaval, puliyogare, bisibelebath, pulav, dahi, cheese-sandwich, date-rolls, watermelons, orange juice among a few other items; you can imagine the rest.

The four runners, Ganesh, Gaurav, Santhosh and myself, along with Santhosh's parents and Roopa went over on Friday afternoon. We met Joe, picked up our packets, listened to the briefing and the confusion at the Crossroads/Equestrian aidstation (there were four ways to enter and four ways to exit, and depending on the loop and the direction you were entering, you had to pick the correct way to exit) and packed our drop bags. Then we drove around and dropped off all our bags. Pitched the tent at Equestrian that was to be used by the crew the following day. We also met a lot of other runners. A good number of them were Hill Country Trail Runners and we chatted around a bit. By the time we got back to our ranch, we were ready to drop off. Hogged on the food prepared by Santhosh's mom and promptly did drop off.

The next day started in some confusion with Ganesh first having gone missing, and then subsequently discovered being down. Sorting out all confusions and ablutions, we got to the race line couple of minutes late. Picked up a chip tied to an ankle strap and there werent too many folks milling around. Joe was chatting with us, and I asked him when was the race starting. Joe promptly pointed to the clock (it was at 6 minutes) and said everyone else started a little while ago, and we probably should get going ourselves. In retrospect, the late start helped us go a little slow on the first loop. Everyone else had sped off.

The three of us, Gaurav, Santhosh and myself, ran together. Start to finish. Another reason for why it was not too hard mentally. We were trying really hard to go slow. Couple of days ago, I had talked to the legendary Ann Trason, and asked her for advice, and she said, the first 25 miles go as slow as you can ever go, and then further slow down. We tried. We failed. Mile 25 came around in 6hr:15min. That was at 25hr speed! Joe laughed at us. Then he said, we'll probably naturally slow down, since the sun was starting to beat hard by then.

The second loop had its direction reversed. The sun was scorching by now. We had water refill and drop bags every 5miles. Besides that I was carrying two handhelds. Between miles 30 and 35 (the toughest section of the course, with Sky Island Hill and the Three Sisters, damn loose rocks and Sotol fields), a section that we took nearly 2 hours to negotiate, I ran out of water (2 bottles) in an hour and a half, and was desperately thirsty when I got into Equestrian. Life moved at a fairly quick clip from 35 to 45 on the Nachos loop, and soon we were back at the Lodge, clocking mile 50. The second loop had taken 7hr:15min. The clock was at 13hr:30min.

The third loop was fairly long. The first 5 miles we ran a bit and got to the Equestrian. We were in good enough shape and so we refused pacers at mile 55, and decided we'll do the Nachos loop and be back at mile 65 and pick up pacers. At mile 60 at Nachos, both Gaurav and Santhosh were having trouble. Santhosh had achilles issues and Gaurav's right ankle was hurting. We walked a good way back through Ice Cream Hill and got into Equestrian and picked up Naresh and Arun, our pacers until mile 75. Those 10miles went slow, in the night. I was feeling quite good and was trying to power the hills. Soon a gorgeous yellow crescent moon rose above the Bandera hills (on Cairns Climb) promptly bringing into mind Keats' description of Chapman's Homer.
On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

-- John Keats

Silent, upon a peak in Bandera. It really was a special moon, although it might have been made dearer by 70miles of dust on our bodies and brain. Unfortunately no one took a picture of that moon. Although, Gaurav did stop on top of Cairns Climb and entertained Melissa with his thoughts on the moon (Melissa was returning on her 4th loop -- about 3miles and an aidstation break ahead of us, she eventually finished 2nd among the girls). We had taken a good 10hours plus to run loop 3. The clock screamed 23hr:37min. We were still a good 2 and 1/2 hour ahead of the 75mile cutoff, so that was not an issue.

Here, I did my goof-up for the race. Used the restroom, and also used wet wipes. Apparently (and I honestly had no idea), wet wipes are wet because they are soaked in some form of alcohol! My freshly chafed derrière was like dry oil-soaked twigs to a sacrificial fire. Promptly, even before I could finish swearing the long phrases that involuntarily came out of my mouth (cant repeat them here on a family forum), the rump was ablaze. I got back to the Lodge drop bags area, and found that the other two boys were handling different problems of their own. They were both fast asleep. I think they were hurting too. Joyce, the ever-minstering-angel, came and gave them black coffee and some form of Ibuprofen. That woke them up, and we trudged out of the aid station into the night, beginning the last loop.

Here, we swapped Arun for Bharath, and the never-tiring Naresh continued to pace us. These next 10miles seemed like they would never end. With a new and literal meaning to ass-on-fire, I was barely hobbling along. My legs and muscles were fine, but swear 'pon-my-ass, I would be damned if I could run. We met Joe at Boyles, and I told him we were not gonna make it in 25hours. He laughed and said keep the spirits up and I'll meet yall at the finish. We trudged along, even as Naresh went back and forth between us. The sun had risen and it was a beautiful foggy day. We couldnt see the sun, but the effect of the light was sufficient to wake us all up. We got into Equestrian and mile 85 and I promptly caught Janice.

Janice and Gabe had adopted the Equestrian station and were there helping everyone. I asked Janice if she had the Desitin still, and she brought it out. Applied it liberally, changed shorts, and had some food, and within 5minutes, the fire had been doused. I could actually walk. This Desitin is a cream used on diaper-rashes for babies. Pretty potent stuff, wonder how the babies feel.

The next 15miles went pretty easy. We had new pacers. Murali and Mihir from 85 to 90; Salil, Chirag and Priyavadan from 90 to 95; Salil, Priyavadan, Chirag, Vijay, and Santhosh's dad from 95 to 100; and of course the never-tiring Naresh through all that. Naresh ran 35 miles with us, through the deathly miles of the night and on the morning after. Sang a goodish bit with Salil and made my way slowly back to the Lodge. Got almost to the finish line, waited a bit for the other boys to get there, we had walked the mat together for 100miles, so we had to finish together. Then we ran in together and saw all our crew. Ganesh joined us and ran in. The bloo team was done. The clock screamed 34hr:03min. We had managed another over 10hours loop.

Finally, our loop breakdown looked like this --
Loop1-- mile25 06hr:15min
Loop2-- mile50 13hr:30min
Loop3-- mile75 23hr:37min
Loop4-- mile100 34hr:03min

Ganesh had a rather heroic story of his own. He had run alone the first 55 miles, and had developed bad blisters. Spent the next 25miles bursting them and running, even as they worsened. He had missed the mile75 cutoff, and had stopped at mile80. It was an incredible effort in face of those blisters. He couldnt walk for many days after that. Both Gaurav and Santhosh were hobbling too, but didnt have any major injuries. I was feeling fine, a little drained and sleepy, but no injuries, no limps. All through the run I was waiting for those low points everyone had talked about, and they never came.

I know this race went easy and well for me for just one reason. Our crew and the food they provided -- satiating our nutrition needs both physical and mental. After the first 55miles, we continuously fed off the energy of our crew, and the race was a breeze. I've said this before, but I'll repeat myself. Blessed are we to be running these hills and terrain and these distances, but to be cheered and crewed by multitudes of Asha crowd is very heaven. This race has to be dedicated to the best crew in the world!

Photo links:
We picked up our buckles, chatted around with other finishers. It had been a tough race. 50 runners started and 20 finished. Full results can be found here.

All through the race, we kept bumping into other runners -- the best part of having a loop race with directions reversed every alternate loop. For the better part of three loops we were close to Diana. There were times when we moved with her. Then there were times when we reached aid stations right after she did. Then it became times when we reached aid stations just as she was leaving. By end of loop 3 we saw her half a mile into her 4th loop, while we still had half a mile to get to the Lodge. Then we never saw her again until the finish. Apart from Diana, we regularly bumped into all the usual suspects, Henry, Robert, Allen, Melissa, and Roger and Fagan while they were still in the race. Joe had a special award for the four of us for doing what he's called the Indian Slam!
  • BigHorn 50M (I did the Devil's Backbone 50M) in June
  • Pikes Peak Double (Ascent on Saturday; Marathon on Sunday) in August
  • Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (about 47miles) in September
  • Cactus Rose 100M in November
Oh, I have to explain the title of this post. Following Joe's label of the Indian Slam, I had adapted the story of the rings poem from Lord of the Rings, to be used as our Team Poem. Without any ado, here it is:
Three races for the running four under their belts,
Settled and the results set in their halls of stone,
Not for wimps and whiners doomed to die,
One Rose by crazy Joe on his Cactus throne
In the Land of Bandera where the Shadows lie.
One race to rule them all, One race to find them,
One race to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Bandera where the Shadows lie.

We all picked up our awards, as Joe talked about Asha, and some others talked about the team spirit and the sheer number of the turnout. As some runner phrased it, we had brought our own village at the Equestrian. It was a weekend worthy of the trail-running community's and Asha camaraderie and team-spirit.

The World was Young, the Mountains Green -- or Why the Dwarves Chose to Live in Darksome Holes

These days, the writing of heroic fantasy has become a mass-production industry; scarcely a week goes by without an author inventing a brave new world and subsequently being acclaimed as "the true inheritor of Tolkien's mantle", or some such. Unfortunately, fantastic settings alone do not an epic make, and 90% of new fantasy writing is crap - the same generic swords and sorcery, thud and blunder, repeated ad nauseam.

Tolkien is different. His imaginary homelands are not just names on the (by now obligatory) frontispiece map, they're countries, with rich histories and vibrant cultures; his invented tongues are not meaningless agglomerations of random syllables, they're carefully designed showcases of the linguist's art, with comprehensive lexica and detailed etymologies; his many invented beings are not cardboard cutout monsters, they're creatures who live and breathe and walk the pages of his books as convincingly as do his human heroes and heroines. The suspension of disbelief in Tolkien is total.

And then there's his verse. Tolkien's verse has genuine poetic merit, and it's not in the least bit self-conscious; when his characters break into song (which, mind you, occurs fairly often in his books), it always seems the perfectly natural thing to do. Today's poem is an excellent example: in "The Fellowship of the Ring" (the first volume of "The Lord of the Rings"), the eponymous fellowship are forced to detour through the dark and deserted Dwarven mines of Moria. One of the party asks why the Dwarves chose to live in such darksome holes; in reply, Gimli, the lone representative of that race in the Fellowship, half sings, half chants a poem describing the glory of the Dwarven kingdom in the Elder Days... at the end of the recital, the reader is left with the realization that the story of Moria couldn't have been told any other way: mere prose is simply too dry to communicate the wonder and the beauty that was Khazad-dum.

As always with Tolkien, the form reinforces the content to marvellous effect: the language is intentionally archaic, the alliteration pronounced (but never obtrusive), the sense of nostalgia and loss almost palpable. Notice how Gimli never explicitly states just what it was that caused Moria's abandonment: his reticence seems to imply that the events being recounted occurred at a great remove from the here and now; this in turn enhances the mystery, the vague undercurrent of dread that runs through the poem (and especially through the last stanza). This lack of particularity might be annoying in what is ostensibly a historical tale, but this is definitely one of those cases where less is more: a straightforward cataloguing of facts could never hope to capture the audience's attention the way Gimli's hypnotically beautiful couplets do.

And beautiful they certainly are: Tolkien's feel for the English language, for the music of words and the perfection of images, is flawless. It's a pity that his poetic output was (by and large) limited to within the confines of his invented universe (wide though they were); he could easily have been this century's successor to Kipling and Tennyson, so perfect is his verse, so effortless his prosody...
The World was Young, the Mountains Green

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.

The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin's Day.

A king he was on carven throne
In many-pillared halls of stone
With golden roof and silver floor,
And runes of power upon the door.
The light of sun and star and moon
In shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
There shone for ever fair and bright.

There hammer on the anvil smote,
There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;
The delver mined, the mason built.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
And metal wrought like fishes' mail,
Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in hoard.

Unwearied then were Durin's folk;
Beneath the mountains music woke:
The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,
And at the gates the trumpets rang.

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge's fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin's halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dum.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

-- J. R. R. Tolkien

P.S.: Some stuff in the initial funda isnt mine, thanks to Amit, a friend of mine.

Education culminating in Employment -- an analysis by Dr. Vinod Raina

An extremely well-researched analysis on the National Curriculum Framework proposition to integrating work and education, by Dr. Vinod Raina. Dr. Raina runs the Bharatiya Gyan Vigyan Samiti and is very involved in the national CABE committee as well as in efforts to bring about changes in legislation to ensure Right to Education. This article analyzes the history of liberal and vocational education with a critical eye. Read the whole thing, its well worth many a dekko.

As an after read, check out this essay by Amartya Sen on Tagore, titled Tagore and his India, contrasting and bringing out the philosophical differences in Tagore's and Gandhi's thinking.

Integrating Work and Education

Interest in linking and integrating work with education appears to have been rekindled by the National Curriculum Framework 2005 since it not only contains a whole section devoted to it, but also had a focus group that prepared a separate report on the subject (called FGR hereafter).

One says rekindled because active interest in this area has dwindled over the years, but for stray references to Gandhi’s views on the subject and his nai talim. There could be various reasons for that, but the major one seems to be the misplaced but growing fascination of curriculum framers in the past decade or two to address the question of ‘knowledge explosion’, demanding an increasing addition of fairly meaningless and disjointed facts from ‘thrust areas’ in the curriculum, mostly tested through memory-based examination systems. Though never clearly stated, such mindless approach to curriculum framing has operated with an inherent bias as to what constitutes legitimate knowledge. What is ignored in curriculum frameworks and resulting syllabi must therefore not be worth teaching, would be the obvious conclusion of persons who finally get down to writing textbooks. Work related knowledge of the majority of Indian population has therefore been continuously delegitimised, notwithstanding Gandhian exhortations to the contrary.

Though the attempt of the NCF2005 to regenerate interest in this critical area needs to be welcomed, it would appear that the subject has not been analysed in the kind of depth and range that would be necessary if the objective was to ensure implementation, rather than one more academic essay for future researchers to comment upon. The FGR and its summary in the main part of NCF2005 rightly attempts to distinguish between vocational education and work-centered education but in my opinion, one needs to examine the issue in a much more multi-dimensional manner in order to arrive at strategies that may facilitate implementation. These other dimensions would include, in addition to the pedagogic issue, the historical debate between liberal and work based education, links between labour and education, locating within dominant political ideologies, and the human and institutional requirements to implement a work-based mass education system.

Liberal and Vocational education

The familiar conflict between liberal and vocational education stems from the concept of streaming, whereby liberal education is seen as a vehicle for mobility into ‘high culture’ and prestige, and vocational education as a means that assigns working class, dalit and minority youth to a narrowly “practical school experience, limiting their educational access to mobility, and stigmatizing them as incapable of learning anything worthwhile, ‘academic’ subjects and skills”[1]. Many educationists and philosophers have, in recent times, however questioned the apparent dichotomy between liberal and vocational education[2]. Richard Pring, for example has argued for a broadening and reformulating of the liberal ideal so as to embrace the idea of vocational relevance, along with practical intelligence, personal development and social and community relevance[3]. Similarly, Christopher Winch has developed a detailed and rich conception of vocational education, embracing concerns about ‘moral and spiritual well-being’ alongside notions of economic and political goods[4].

Pring’s approach could be called more pedagogic since he disbelieves the perceived diametrical opposition between liberal and vocational education. In particular, he questions that:

“the vocational, properly taught, cannot itself be liberating –a way into those forms of knowledge through which a person is freed from ignorance, and opened to new imaginings, new possibilities: the craftsman who finds aesthetic delight in the objects of his craft, the technician who sees the science behind the artifact, the reflective teacher making theoretical sense of practice”. (Pring, 1995)

The concern to reconcile vocation with education is however old, and runs across various ideological streams, though for differing reasons, as we shall presently discuss. Going with Proudhon that “the work a man did was something to be proud of, it was what gave interest, value and dignity to his life’, Smith extended the idea thus:

“An education that was divorced from the world of work, that is, an education that was bookish and grammar-schoolish in conception, was valueless from the point of view of ordinary working class children. Of course, an education that went too far in the other direction, which brought up children merely to be the fodder for factories, was equally unacceptable. What was required was an education which could equip a child for the work-place but would also give him a degree of independence in the labour market.”[5]

It is customary, and rightly so, to invoke Gandhi when vocation and work are prefixed to education in India. Henry Fagg [6] in his slim volume has tried to locate Gandhi’s ideas of nai talim within the politics and issues that prevailed in 1937 when Gandhi, at the ripe age of 67, made his radical proposals for mass education that he thought were appropriate for India. It has remained a matter of debate whether Gandhi advocated work-based education as a means of self-support in order to circumvent his disappointment regarding the inability of the state to fund universal education, or as a pedagogic necessity, or both. His plea for adequate finances for universal education was met with a response that if at all, the way out was to utilize revenues from liquor sales. That meant he had to either give up his stand on prohibition, or his plea for universal education with state support, which he expressed quite plainly: “the cruellest irony of the new reforms lies in the fact that we are left with nothing but liquor revenue to fall back upon, in order to give our children education”[7].This seems to have led Gandhi to propose a national system of education that would be self-sufficient, rather than solely dependent on state funding thus:

“but as a nation we are so backward in education that we cannot hope to fulfill our obligations to the nation in this respect in a given time during this generation, if the programme is to depend on money. I have therefore made bold, even at the risk of losing all reputation for constructive ability, to suggest that education should be self-supporting …. I would therefore begin the child’s education by teaching it a useful handicraft and enabling it to produce from the moment it begins training. Thus every school can be made self-supporting, the condition being that the State take over the manufacture of these schools”[8].

His enthusiasm for self-support was expressed more forcefully after Narhari Parikh, a teacher at the Harijan Ashram at Sabarmati provided figures in defense of self-supported education from his school. This led Gandhi to assert that:

“Public schools must be frauds and teachers idiots, if they cannot become self-supporting” and, “corporate labour should be, say after the first year of the course, worth one anna per hour. Thus for twenty-six working days of four hours per day, each child will have earned Rs. 6-8 per month….We should be intellectual bankrupts, if we cannot direct the energy of our children so as to get from them, after a year’s training, one anna worth of marketable labour per hour”.

That he clearly saw links between education and vocation in terms of alleviating unemployment is clear from his answer to a questioner: “you impart education and simultaneously cut at the roots of unemployment”[9].

The self-sufficiency argument of Gandhi strongly suggests that he was professing an income generating vocational education. It is well known that one of his dissenters to this approach was none other than Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore considered the emphasis on vocation and training in Gandhi’s formulations deeply reductionist, asserting that the purpose of education was liberative rather than merely vocational. He in particular took exception to Gandhi’s emphasis on weaving education around the Charkha. The two engaged in a fascinating public debate on these issues.[10]

Gandhi of course did stress on the pedagogic importance of linking work to education, pleading for a system that considered work as a starting point to delve into history, geography, technology and science, exemplified by his famous passage about the use of takli to learn not only about spinning, but the history and geography of cotton, history and technology of the spinning wheel and so on, thus anticipating the ideas of Pring, Winch etc. many years earlier. He also stressed on the nurturing of the ‘cooperative’ and ‘peaceful’ values in children, when work was the basis of learning, rather than mindless rote learning. Above all, he pleaded for an education that would integrate the head, heart and the hand.

In an article written in May 1937 entitled ‘Intellectual Development or Dissipation?’, Gandhi developed the central premise that ‘Man is neither mere intellect nor the gross animal body, nor the heart and soul alone. A proper and harmonious combination of all the three is required for the making of the whole man and constitutes the true economics of education’. He then gave the outline of his vision of an alternative pedagogy:

“As against this, take the case of a child in whom the education of the heart is attended from the very beginning. Supposing he is set to some useful occupation like spinning, carpentry, agriculture etc., for his education and in that connection is given a thorough and comprehensive knowledge relating to the theory of the various operations that he is to perform and the use and construction of tools that he would be wielding. He would not only develop a fine, healthy body but also a sound, vigorous intellect that is not merely academic but is firmly rooted in and is tested from day to day by experience. His intellectual education would include knowledge of mathematics and the various sciences that are useful for an intelligent and efficient exercise of his avocation. If to this is added literature by way of recreation, it would give him a perfect well-balanced, all round education in which the intellect, the body and the spirit have all full play and develop together into a natural, harmonious whole”[11].

It would appear that Gandhi was trying to do many things through his radical suggestions linking work with education. Along with deeply philosophical perceptions regarding the purpose of education, he seems to have been trying to solve practical problems like funding for education and unemployment. It does become somewhat difficult to separate the philosophical and the instrumentalist in his formulations. The Tagore-Gandhi exchange aptly highlights the contested nature of the subject (missing in the NCF2005 and the FGR), since it provides insights to the resistance to the concept of work-based education even at the time of an emotionally charged atmosphere, conducive to do something new, during India’s independence. The intellectual and practical resistance to his views must have been considerable that in spite of his unquestionable stature, nai talim did not find favour for incorporation into mainstream education and was experimented as a non-state alternative. Identifying such resistances would seem to be vitally important in forging an implementational strategy sixty years later, in an India that is radically less conducive to Gandhi’s thinking. It is important to point out that the repeated reference in the FGR to the ‘Brahamanical mindset’ as the single most dominant resistance to Gandhian ideas may in fact be quite wrong. Because it would imply as if the dalits and low-castes saw merit in Gandhian ideas, and were opposed by the ruling high-castes. The situation in fact is quite the opposite.

Ideology and work-based education

Where as pedagogical considerations constitute issues internal to the educational discourse, mass education never is independent of external factors; political ideology being the most prominent. The NCF2005 states up front that it has deliberately side-stepped such issues in order not to indulge in ‘blame game’. Where as the merit of such a stance has been debated in relation to the history textbooks controversy, the absence of such an engagement in relation to work and education is very surprising, since work and labour are deeply political categories, and an absence of such engagement can lead to fairly erroneous conclusions.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in the FGR that the deprived, marginalized, dalit and toiling masses have a common enemy that is resisting vocationalised education, namely the Brahaminical elites. This evades the issue that one of the strongest opposition to vocational/ised education has in fact come from the dalits. This has to do with the very notion of the ‘worker’, and the historical social formations around work. Without reference to that, statements regarding the political left can also become misleading, as they have in the FGR, when it universlises Gandhi’s approach by stating that ‘similar experiments have been done in erstwhile U.S.S.R and other socialist countries’.

Let us consider vocationalisation in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries first. Gandhi’s vision of education was intrinsically located in the realities of rural India, as was his system of governance and essential production. At the forefront therefore to him was the carpenter, the blacksmith, the potter, the artisan, the handicraft maker, the agricultural labourer and so on. When he talked of vocationalising, he clearly had work related to such professions in mind. For the emerging Soviet Union of the 1920’s, education was intrinsically related to the creation of a massive industrial workforce. The rural artisan and peasant, very dear to Tolstoy (who greatly influenced Gandhi’s views in many ways)), was seen as a transitory phenomenon by the end of 1920’s (Anatoli Lunacharsky, who was charged by Lenin to put into place the Soviet education system stated around 1925 that Tolstoy’s artisan-based education might be allowed to continue for sometime, till it was replaced by industrial worker-based education). The development paradigm was rooted in massive industrialisation and collective farming, to replace household production and feudal agriculture. Work-based education, either through labour schools or polytechnics was therefore not related to handicraft but big industry. More importantly, the motivation was not merely pedagogic, it was deeply political. Class struggle being intrinsic to the Marxist thesis, creating class consciousness amongst the workers was integral to the Soviet education, and was simply called propaganda education. Treating such work-based education in the same manner as nai-talim can therefore be quite misleading, the political visions and developmental outcomes being very different.

It might be pertinent to refer to the US around the beginning of the 20th century here. Philanthropists worried about the problems of poor youth started small vocational programs outside the public schools around 1880’s. Between 1890 and 1910, vocational education in the narrow sense of job preparation attracted the support of a diverse range of social and economic interests. The National Association of Manufacturers was a strong advocate, pushing for schooling that would prepare workers for factories and workshops. After initial hesitation, labour unions supported and participated in these efforts. As is evident, the nature of vocational/ised education is deeply entrenched within the political ideology that promotes it, in particular the development paradigm under which it operates. For a class struggle-based industrial workforce of the erstwhile Soviet Union, work-based education is deeply ideological; for the capitalist US industry of the early 20th century, it is mostly vocational education to prepare a disciplined workforce; and for Gandhi it was deeply linked to his ideal of India that would live mostly in villages, and produce locally in a manner that was harmonious with nature.

To put it simply, the nation was clearly divided, rightly or wrongly, regarding such a future at the time of independence. As protagonists of the modern industrial India, the Governments that came in right after independence embarked on an industrial paradigm to which Gandhi’s nai talim seemed irrelevant. Rightly or wrongly again, it has to be conceded that that was the dominant political consensus of the times. Amongst the major dissenters of the Gandhian paradigm, then and now, are people for whom, perhaps, Gandhi was most concerned about, the dalits. Not only did they have his term for them, harijans, removed from the political lexicon, they have been vociferous in opposing any dilution of the liberating nature of Enlightenment values, in particular in the area of education. Spearheaded by the Columbia and London School of Economics trained economist, and barrister of law, Grey’s Inn, London decorated lawyer, the ‘untouchable’ Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the dalit vision of development, education and human rights are firmly entrenched in the modernization paradigm, far removed from that of Gandhi.

The dalit aversion to anything based on traditional vocation should hardly be surprising. Given that the caste system is entrenched in the hierarchy of vocations, most of the artisanal castes being at the bottom of the hierarchy, relating them to education is viewed as a means of maintaining caste distinctions rather than obliterating them through liberal education. Vocation based education is tantamount to caste based education from this viewpoint.

I firmly believe that the major challenge to bring in work-based education in India would not be so much pedagogic, or formulation of policies. It is a political challenge; a negotiation with the liberal, left and the dalit points of view, in order to establish that work-based education can be progressive and emancipatory, both in a class and caste sense. The strong reaction of a section of left intellectuals and academics to the inclusion of local knowledge (artisanal or agricultural work would by definition derive from local knowledge systems) in the teaching-learning process, as proposed by the NCF2005 clearly indicates that the sites of resistance to work-based education are deeply ideological, and are not confined merely to the self-interests of the middle-class that views the dominant liberal system of education as conducive to their vocations.

The case for work-based education: Labour and Education

Sixty years onwards from the time of independence, we have the advantage of looking back how the system of education has proceeded, which formulations have been validated, and which have turned out to be flawed. To do so we could pose the question sharply: Has the predominantly liberal mode of education that the state opted for at the time of independence acted favourably to reduce inequalities amongst class, caste, gender and minorities; and has it transformed a majority of country’s population to creative, productive and secure citizens? The answer has to be a resounding no[12].

A few figures should help to support the answer. Even though the literacy rate has increased from around 21% at the time of independence, from a total population of around three hundred millions, to around 68% in 2001, out of a total population of around a billion, the absolute number of illiterates is greater than the population at the time of independence. This is of course related to the gross inadequacy of the school system. Where as it was constitutionally mandated that all children up to fourteen years of age should have received eight years of education by 1960, the situation in 2004 was that out of 21 crore children in the age-group 6-14, more than half, around 12 crore were never enrolled or dropped off by class eight, making a mockery of the constitutional mandates, which now includes the Right to Education for the 6-14 year olds guaranteed by the 86th amendment of 2002.

The progression beyond class 8 has been dismal. Only around 2.2 crore children are in classes 10 and 12, which reduces to half, 1.1 crores, in classes 11 and 12. Those in higher education number around a crore, most of them pursuing an utterly aimless undergraduate ‘liberal’ education degree in colleges that have been reduced to mediocre haunts. The degree of exclusion by class eight is staggering, particularly the drop off rate of 52%. Where as the non-enrolment of over three crore children could be attributable to lack of access, the non-retention of around nine crore children, and the lack of adequate achievement of those who do remain in schools must surely have to do with the education that is transacted. Two attributes suggest themselves, that the education is uninteresting for children and it is irrelevant to their lives.

Creating interest is clearly a question of pedagogy; how to make teaching-learning more fun and less drudgery. Relevance is deeply developmental; requiring weaving education around the social, cultural and productive realities of a child, while empowering her to ‘liberate’ herself from the exigencies of her birth, experiences and social/economic constraints. Quite clearly, livelihood considerations are related to education. An ‘educated’ unemployed is a serious problem, in as much it underscores the fact that the nation has invested in a person, without making him/her a productive citizen. The normal undergraduate and even post-graduate program would seem to be producing a large number of such unemployable youth. But the question could be asked: is that because jobs are not available or ‘suitably’ educated persons are not available for specific jobs?

That requires a scan of the labour profile of the country. In spite of the emphasis on industrialization in the initial five-year plans after independence, that could have created a large industrial proletariat, the labour force in the formal sector in India has remained abysmally low. In the decade and a half since the liberalization and privatization phase of the Indian economy, beginning 1991, where as the growth rate might is touching 8% per anum, it is accompanied by a decrease in formal employment, from 282.45 million in 1997 to 269.83 in 2003[13]. The decrease is most prominent in the public sector, from 195.59 millions to 184.49 millions, but evident too in the much hyped private sector, from 86.86millions to 85.34 millions in the said period. Unorganized labour however increased from 354 million to 390 million in the corresponding period, demonstrating clearly where the employment growth potential has been.

There is however a significant factor crucially linked to education within this employment scenario, which is the phenomenal growth of the service sector. The net decrease in formal employment is largely due to the decline in employment in the manufacturing/industrial sector, compensated by the increase in the service sector. This is also reflected in the disaggregated economic growth rates in the 10th plan period (2002-2006): the total growth rate was 7%, agriculture increased by a dismal 1.8%, industry by 8% and services by 8.9%.

The skewed nature of such development is evident from the fact that the sector that employs the largest labour namely agriculture is least productive economically, and the one that employs the least number of people, namely services, is the most productive.

What are the implications of this for vocational/ised education? It should remain undisputed that as far as integrating knowledge from non-organised areas of production, be that agriculture, artisanship, medicinal plants, forestry, construction, local water systems etc., are concerned, teaching-learning materials up to class 8 or 10 ought to be prepared in such a manner that they relate to the social, economic and cultural lives of the children, a majority of whom come from families of such backgrounds. The consequent relevance and identity of the school to the lives of the children, along with pedagogic methods that are interesting to the child might go a long way in arresting the massive drop-out rates, 52%, up to class 8.

The major question would be about purposeful streaming after class 10 and 12. It is evident that the existing undergraduate degree, in terms of quality, is neither a tonic for the mind, nor suitable for learning productive skills. The question is, if the vocational stream is to be enlarged at the 10+ and 12+ stages, along with improving the quality of the under and post graduate degrees, which directions should it take? The decline in the agricultural and industrial sectors and an increase in the service sector requires that we address this issue, in educational terms, with a fresh mind. The growth of the IT related service sector – call centers, outsourcing; and management related service sector require vocational programmes quite different from those pursued at existing ITI’s. Unfortunately, most of the educational needs in these areas are met today through the mushrooming of unregulated commercial fly-by-night shops, masquerading as private educational institutions; even as ‘universities’ as happened in Chattisgarh, where 52 such set-ups were granted university status, till the Supreme Court intervened. That is because the state has not responded to such vocational needs.

This of course doesn’t imply that vocational courses related to artisanship and agriculture are not required. One might in fact argue that if school education reflected the knowledge base of these sectors, that might provide an additional input to make these areas of production, where maximum labour is involved, more robust and active. However, one can also not overlook the over all constraints imposed by the developmental path the country unfortunately seems to be pursuing, which is higher growth rates with less employment.

Two things seem to be clear from these arguments. One that the hope that a very large part of the rural population would be proletarised as industrial workforce has remained a myth sixty years after independence, confirming Gandhi’s prophecy that India is essentially a nation of rural dwellers. Second, that instead of strengthening the rural economy, or creating manufacturing potential, hence employment, close to rural areas (as township manufacture in China has), India has stumbled on to the service sector, including IT related, as a major source of economy. Educational planning has however remained mute to such changes, and continues to blunder on with drop outs at lower stages and redundant degrees at higher stages, in a completely haphazard manner, benefiting dubious commercial education by default.

It has also to be recognized that the expansion of the service sector has given rise to aspirations, imposing educational demands that can be at complete variance with pedagogic principles. Take for example language. Crucial to the national system of education, as envisioned by Gandhi, elaborated by the Kothari Commission, and substantiated by researches all over the World, the use of local languages, if not mother tongue, in the formative years of formal education is critical to the creative growth of a child. Aspirations of parents and society at large for children, particularly in order to get a foothold in the IT related service sector is however pushing for increasing use of English as medium of instruction from the pre-primary level. Dalit organisations too favour learning in English as emancipatory, leading to dignity within the society. Can vocational/ised education remain immune to such demands? Learning English would in fact appear to be a major form of vocational education today!

Implementing work-based education

It is not as if NCF2005 is the first policy document favouring vocational/ised education. The Kothari Commission report and the National Policy on Education 1986, and its revised version of 1992 have already stated much of what NCF2005 contains. The question one may ask is: what have been the constraints on implementation?

Firstly, it is perhaps conceptual. Work-based education has mostly been interpreted as vocational education; a policy to create a separate vocational stream. Accordingly, we have seen the opening up of vocational education schools, or the addition of vocational education facilities in existing higher secondary schools. An overarching National Council for Vocational Education has also been set up, at Bhopal. Open schooling has also embraced the vocational stream, with the National Institute for Open Schooling (NIOS) and some state open schools offering a variety of courses.

It would appear that the National Knowledge Commission set up by the current UPA government in June 2005 has also been examining the question of production and work related knowledge in some detail. At a recent consultation on school education and literacy organized by the Commission, the Vice-Chairman of the Commission informed that their survey revealed that existing vocational institutions all together provide courses related to 80 vocations, most of them related to the formal sector. However, the Commission was reported to have compiled an exhaustive list of vocations covering both the formal and informal sectors, identifying 3000 vocations! So even at the level of streamed vocational education, a massive task awaits, in preparing courses in areas encompassing handicrafts, artisanship and other rural work.

This is quite different from integrating knowledge from areas of production, particularly from unorganized areas, into the mainstream liberal education. Evidently, such a task remains unattended. Will the publication of NCF2005 spur it on? Not unless attention is paid to the constraining factors. School books are made by the NCERT and state bodies like the SCERT’s/SIE’s/Boards. The faculties at these institutions and other textbook writers have mostly subject backgrounds, including from the Education discipline. It is obvious that they normally have no background, experience, knowledge, ability and hence inclination, to look beyond their subject areas (most of them also have no experience of having worked with school children, particularly rural). So in spite of what the policies might say, there are no matching institutional and human capacities to translate them into action; this has happened in the past and is likely to happen after the NCF2005.

In the first year after the NCF2005 when the NCERT has begun to write fresh books, I have formally participated in the effort as a member of a committee that is monitoring the new drafts. As a consequence, one gets an opportunity to read all the book drafts and interact with the writing groups. However one sees a great deal of resistance and throwing up of hands when it is pointed out to the writer groups how ‘knowledge from below’ could be incorporated, or generated from the children and teachers. The common responses are: ‘we don’t know how to do so; it is dangerous since the information is not validated; it will dilute the subject matter; that is not science/mathematics/history, or whatever’!

A mindset that considers codified liberal education as the only valid knowledge is unlikely to create teaching-learning material that incorporates knowledge from work. In contrast, while we were making textbooks in Eklavya for use in the government schools of Madhya Pradesh, not only were the rural school teachers (most of them also being farmers and artisans) participating in the process, but we would involve a carpenter, mason, farmer or other artisans wherever required. That is how chapters on leather tanning, bidi making, folk forms of mathematics, panchayat functioning, land, soil, and crops and so forth were written. Unless a similar process is initiated within the state owned textbook writing institutions, or people with such experience and understanding are involved in large numbers, rather than only cut and dry subject experts, implementation will not take place. The most evident example from the recent NCERT books is the class 3 mathematics book that has attempted to incorporate algorithms of folk mathematics, made possible because people behind it had worked in that area before, and believe in such integration. The class 6 mathematics book is however devoid of any such effort, possibly because its writers do not believe in the policy, no matter whether it is the NCF2005 or the Kothari Commission, or do not have the capacity to do so. The resulting approach, across the classes is therefore very uneven. But if that can be ironed out over the years, particularly in state level textbooks covering nearly 97% children is schools, it would be stupendous. That however would require a massive overhaul of the institutions responsible for textbook writing, teacher trainings and examinations. That, and not just writing policy, is the major challenge!

[1] Allen Graubard; Could Vocational Education be Progressive, Radical Teacher, Spring 2004, Center for Critical Education Inc.
[2] Judith Suissa; Vocational Education: a social anarchist perspective, Policy Futures in Education, Vol 2, No. 1, 2004
[3] Richad Pring; Closing the Gap: liberal education and vocational preparation, Hodder and Stoughton, 1995, (in Judith Suissa, ibid)
[4] C. Winch; Education, Work and Social Capital; Towards a new conception of vocational education, Routledge, London, 2000
[5] M.Smith: The Libertarians and Education, George Allen and Unwin, 1983
[6] Henry Fagg; A Study of Gandhi’s Basic Education, National Book Trust, 2002
[7] Harijan 5:222, in Fagg, ibid
[8] Harijan 5:197, in Fagg, ibid
[9] Harijan 5:261, in Fagg, ibid
[10] Sabysachi Bhattacharya; The Poet and the Mahatma, National Book Trust
[11] Harijan; 5:104, in Fagg ibid
[12] Vinod Raina; Where do children go after class eight?, Seminar, July 2006
[13] Vinod Raina, ibid

Lament for Boromir

The Lament for Boromir is very poignant. The most interesting part of this poem is that Legolas composes the second verse, and Aragorn composes the first and the third stanzas; while, Tolkien believes that in his plot, Legolas is a better poet than Aragorn, and brings that out in the imagery of the verses. The second stanza is far more poetically dense in terms of expression, poetic depth, even construction as opposed to the stanzas 1 and 3. Talk about getting into the character and writing in the moment!!

Through Rohan over fen and field where the long grass grows
The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes.
'What news from the West, O wandering wind, do you bring to me tonight?
Have you seen Boromir the Tall by moon or by starlight?'
'I saw him ride over seven streams, over waters wide and grey;
I saw him walk in empty lands, until he passed away
Into the shadows of the North. I saw him then no more.
The North Wind may have heard the horn of the son of Denethor.'
'O Boromir! From the high walls westward I looked afar,
But you came not from the empty lands where no men are.'

From the mouths ofthe Sea the South Wind flies,from the sandhills andthe stones;
The wailing of the gulls it bears, and at the gate it moans.
'What news from the South, O sighing wind, do you bring to me at eve?
Where now is Boromir the fair? He tarries and I grieve.'
'Ask not of me where he doth dwell --- so many bones there lie
On the white shores and the dark shores under the stormy sky;
So many have passed down Anduin to find the flowing Sea.
Ask of the North Wind news of them the North Wind sends to me!'
'O Boromir! Beyond the gate the seaward road runs south,
But you came not with the wailing gulls from the grey sea's mouth.'

From the Gate of Kings the North Wind rides, and past the roaring falls;
And clear and cold about the tower its loud horn calls.
'What news from the North, O mighty wind, do you bring to me today?
What news of Boromir the Bold? For he is long away.'
'Beneath Amon Hen I heard his cry. There many foes he fought.
His cloven shield, his broken sword, they to the water brought.
His head so proud, his face so fair, his limbs they laid to rest;
And Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, bore him upon its breast.'
'O Boromir! The Tower of Gaurd shall ever northward gaze
To Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, until the end of days.'

-- J.R.R. Tolkien

Monday, November 12, 2007

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is one of the few well-intentioned schemes to come out of the current UPA government. The NREGS guarantees 100days of unskilled work per family for every family that is below the poverty line. Now, lets not even go into how BPL classifications are calculated or the absurdity and lack of context to the BPL surveys. There are many points about this scheme which are at a macro level wrong --
  1. As one of the recipients of this scheme famously said "Are our tummies on vacation the remaining 265 days?" What is the rationale behind 100 days per one member of family?
  2. Providing work that required unskilled labor is essentially a welfare scheme. It is not promoting the skill sets of that targeted population. Its the classic case of "give them fish, rather than teach them to fish". Potentially the same money can be spent at every Panchayat level to provide training in skills that will lead the population towards economic independence and dignity.
  3. As many social audits across the districts where the scheme is being implemented show, the muster rolls are largely fudged, corruption accounts for a huge drain on this money, and a very small percentage of the money actually trickles down to the intended recipient. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi, when he was the Prime Minister, famously admitted that only 15% of government spending manages to reach the recipient. The rest is wastage. A similar Employment Guarantee Scheme tried out in Maharashtra in 1976 had already fallen victim to this atrocious Public Distribution System. In fact, the Indian government does not have any evidence of being capable of properly implementing any social welfare scheme.
Given all these obvious issues, the question then is if not NREGS, then what? The problem is not restricted to unskilled work, and then neither is the solution. Clearly the solution needs to be autonomous, small, and needs to come from the bottom, from the folks who need the money. The government needs to stop dictating lives and stop interfering. The policies that restrict our manufacturing sector from matching the growth in the services sector need to go. Agriculture has to be supported, or the farmers transitioning from agriculture into manufacturing or services need to be provided the skills to do that (again, allow private enterprise, and it will come about organically, instead of some governmental masterminding). National budgets need to spend less on defence and instead pour some funds into Education (at all levels). And in the middle of all this, the right folks will get the right skills and will be able to get their right to livelihood.

A possible counter-argument of course is that while all this is happening, people are starving. Maybe a combination of some scheme with a larger solution in tow is probably what is recommended. However, the government seems intent on earning hearsay goodwill (read votes, and support of left-parties) by implementing only the welfare schemes, and the bureaucracy is happy to implement the scheme with its 85% drain on many crores of rupees!

The Agrarian Crisis of India Shining

India is rapidly developing. Services sector is booming. Our GDP is increasing at 9%. We are cutting nuclear deals with USA. Our youth have the credit to buy German and Japanese cars and motorcycles. Our farmers do not have the credit to buy seeds. We are cutting deals with Monsanto and undercutting our farmers. Over 60% of our economy is reliant on agriculture. Agriculture sector is in a serious crisis. India is ready for a massive collapse.

Thats the story of two different Indias. If you really think about it, everything about India is pluralistic. Agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable. Like education, the country needs to subsidize and support its agrarian sector. Particularly a country who's excess of 50% economy is agrarian and excess of 70% of the population are farmers. However, as the policies of the past decade unfold, we are seeing a continued spread of farmer suicides across the country.

P. Sainath has written extensively on this crisis. Click here to follow the link to indiatogether.org and scroll down along the right column to read Sainath's reports on the crisis in
  • Andhra Pradesh (Anantpur and other nearby areas)
  • Kerala (Wyanad)
  • Maharashtra (Vidarbha)
I'll add more details to this post when I have more time.

Right to Education

Education as a fundamental right cannot be denied in any democratic society. It is the duty of the Government to provide for and guarantee this fundamental right. The Right to Education Bill (RTE) provides a unified framework for enacting the 86th amendment of the Indian constitution, which guarantees this right to all it’s citizens. In 2006, the Indian Government decided to drop the long pending RTE Bill and pass it on to the State Governments as a model bill.

Many NGOs and people's movements are actively working towards pushing the government to table the bill once more in the parliament. Here are a few links and a reading list:

Bhopal Gas Disaster Survivors Struggle

Shortly after midnight poison gas leaked from a factory in Bhopal, India, owned by Union Carbide Corporation. There was no warning, none of the plant's safety systems were working. In the city people were sleeping. They woke in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases burning their eyes, noses and mouths. They began retching and coughing up froth streaked with blood. Whole neighbourhoods fled in panic, some were trampled, others convulsed and fell dead. People lost control of their bowels and bladders as they ran. Within hours thousands of dead bodies lay in the streets. Read a survivor's account of "that night". More background here.

All that was back in 1984. The government let the miscreants get away, and also made a deal with Union Carbide as compensation for those who died that night. The survivors today have a fight of a different nature altogether, as they fight the contamination, the water borne handicapping diseases, physical malformations, societal stigma, hunger, poverty -- it never ends. I visited Bhopal in January of 2007 and met with the survivors and visited the contaminated factory site. It was a surreal experience. Folks are obviously in a bad state for resources. The ground water is badly contaminated and there is no other water available except once a week. The governmental promises about pipelines from nearby Kolar river have not been kept. The factory site is dilapidated and lot of chemicals still lie around, and with every rainy season, further deeply get entrenched into the water table of the area.

Despite all this, the Bhopalis will first smile, and then offer you a cup of chai and then ask you "Ab boliyen, kaise aana hua?" I'll add more details and links and stories here when I get more time.

Mehdiganj Water Struggle

Mehdiganj is a village in Uttar Pradesh, around 20 Km from Varanasi. The communities in this village and in the surrounding areas have been facing a server water crisis and are fighting against the unjust practices of the local Coca Cola plant, which is the chief offender in their current water scenario. A few key points which are at the root of this issue are:

1. The ground water level in the area has gone down due to the excessive mining of water by the local Coca Cola plant.

2. The chemical waste let out by the plant into the nearby farms resulted large scale destruction of crops and soil has been damaged as well.

3. The plant has also occupied the local panchayat land and has been found guilty of tax theft.

A detailed website cataloging this struggle is available here.
More links:
Frequently Asked Questions (provides a lot of details and background)
Some documents (legal) relevant to the struggle
Demands of the local community in Mehdiganj