Friday, March 26, 2010

Lingering Thoughts about Caste Systems in India

There are a few reasons why I am writing about caste systems; I have encountered socio-economic classifications in the U.S. but the idea of caste systems in India fascinates me. Much of my thinking is related and the subjects do have intersections of similarity; much like the different dialects that I mentioned before, the caste systems vary depending on the region, religion, even neighborhood.

Wikipedia gives a short explanation of caste systems in India where there are four general classifications,

Brahmins: the teachers, scholars and priests,

Kshatriyas: Kings and warriors,

Vaishyas: Agriculturists and traders,

Shudras: Service providers, Artisans.

During the British Raj, the caste system was much more clearly defined and was used for a census. They believed the factors of your caste were occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability.

This week I read the book White Tiger, where the main character is constantly working to break out of his lower level caste. His personality is not considered, his skills, his interests- he is classified as a low level caste and is to remain there. In an underlined humorous manner, the book describes how caste systems work. Here is a good description of what I am talking about:

While sitting at lunch, my colleague Sharayu explained to me the flow of respect in India and how it works within the caste systems:

Shorter à Taller,Thinnerà Fatter, YoungeràOlder

This explanation would be more relevant for day-to-day interactions then an overall system. I have witnessed that respect is not generally a two way street: the giver of respect does not receive respect and this theory is not questioned. This is relevant in many of the school and family environments I work with. In addition to academics, kids are trained to be disciplined and respect their elders but these elders (teachers, administrators, parents, etc) are not expected to return the respect.

Caste systems are also important for arranged marriages. Modern marriage arrangements do exist these days but for those families that believe in traditional arranged marriages, factors may include being from the same community, the same caste system, and astrological signs that are aligned. It is brave to believe that your parents will pick the best partner for you but younger generations put full faith in their elders.

These are just a few thoughts- there will be more to come as I learn more about caste systems in India.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dasra Social Impact

Dasra is a very dynamic organization- they are able and willing to pilot programs such as Village Capital and Social Impact and partner with a variety of companies in the efforts to scale social change. In alignment with their mission to accelerate social growth, Dasra Social Impact is working with organizations that have a wide reach to marginalized communities in several sectors, in urban and rural areas.

I was fortunate enough to sit in on one of the day sessions for the Social Impact week. Each organization has already been established with a track record of success in social impact once they enter the program. The organizations range from for-profit, non-profit, and hybrids but all have a social impact aspect in their business plans. By participating in Dasra Social Impact, the businesses receive financial and management training in hopes that they will have a larger social impact and have the option to expand.

Dasra provides many tools that the entrepreneurs are able to implement in their own organizations, such as first hand knowledge from successful professionals in the field. Presenting the first day was Marc Manara from the Acumen Fund, who currently heads the Water and Agriculture portfolios and led the Pulse Project, a co-created program with Google. The focus of the presentation was taking a pulse of the organization to see how you are or are not meeting the goals that you have set forth for your organization.

Venture philanthropy for non-profits is not widely practiced but Dasra is revolutionizing the idea that social impact has a larger return than profit. The next section of Dasra Social Impact starts April 30th, where I will hopefully be attending and will follow up on the work being done and the progress of the entrepreneurs in the program.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

APS in Zirakpur

This week I made my way up to Punjab to visit a friend's family located in Zirakpur outside of Chandigarh. Paramjit Kaur Sodhi and Jagtar Singh Sodhi started G.S. Memorial Public High School 7 years ago in memory of Paramjit's father. In terms of the schools that I have seen in the APS, this school had great facilities and offered interesting classes, that include gardening, cooking or home science, science labs, and computer classes. The library actually has a librarian - an accomplishment in its own and over 3000 books. There is a functioning science lab with models and tools for the kids. The fees structure would place it in the middle of the spectrum of the APS sector. G.S. Memorial is luckily enough to have the property and space to build such a large facility. They put this space to use by using their back grounds for performances, building large classrooms, and testing rooms for their students and surrounding students. Another plus is that all of their teachers are certified. Overall, a great experience with G.S. Memorial- hopefully more visits will follow where I will be able to interview the students, teachers and parents.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dasra's Village Capital

Mumbai. I spent my Saturday at Dasra’s Village Capital. The day was dedicated to the Village Capital Presentations where each person gave a 20 minute presentation and had 15 minutes of questioning regarding their business plans.

The presentations were similar to what we saw at ISB’s Global Social Venture Competition. ( I found it interesting how these relate and differ from the business plans that I saw at ISB. The major difference is that there was actually a Private School Correspondent part of Dasra’s competition. They find the importance and social impact that education has. Most of the judges on ISB’s panel were not seeing the long-term impact that the education plans would have on the general population.

Here is a short preview of the companies that are taking part in Dasra's Village Capital pilot:

Jabeen Jambughodawala for Dharohar Craft (Sahaj Trust): Goal is to have a pro-woman brand by empowering the women to create handicrafts and have an outlet to take their handicrafts to and directly sell to market- there will be franchisee option for the future. The program also includes training and assistance in creating a marketing plan for their products. They hope to have 2500 women involved in the program by 2015.

Naveen Krishna of Rickshaw Bank: Rickshaw Bank ( The basics of the plan are to provide financing to the drivers (costs something like Rs 12,350 to own a rickshaw) and in two years of the project, the driver should have ownership of her very own rickshaw. Rickshaw Bank has a lot to offer on social impact aspect of this business. They connect drivers to banks and set up savings, train them on driving and running a business, send their kids to school etc. Rickshaw Bank is currently in 12 cities in India and in 2010 they hope to be in 10 cities with 500 drivers.

Praveen Kumar of Ushodaya High School: I have had the opportunity to visit Ushodaya on a few occasions being that it located in Hyderabad. It is an English medium school but teaches multiple languages, has college prep and placement for former students, all teachers are certified, and there are extra study hours after school, which eliminates the need for tuitions. The plan calls for funding that would support the expansion or building of new property, tech and innovation included in the curriculum, and building on services offered. The social impact has a large effect by educating the students and their parents, providing job placement and building up their community.

Uday Kagul of Milati: Similar idea to Dharohar Craft but offers a different variety of handicrafts and is open to men and women from several geographic locations. The store would also include a restaurant or coffee shop of some kind. The social impact is buying directly from the producers themselves. Works with many NGO's - wants to reach rural economics through a non-profit enterprise

Rajesh Shah of Sabras Processing and Marketing: Has 26 Salt Producers, that search for and produce salt currently in a region called Gujarat. This region produces 70% of India's salt and most of these salt producers only get 1-8% of the final realized price. Rajesh is also a risk taker; if people are not able bring capital to the table, Rajesh would allow the producer to bring salt and he would match with funds. In the future he hopes to help producers by investing in products like the roller for compaction, salt cultivator and solar panels.

Also, met Juli Huang of Artemisia who is based in Mumbai. ( They work to support and leverage socially aware business entrepreneurs. She has done work with GMC, ISFC and even one the competitors, Rickshaw Bank. The idea of social business came up in our conversation- it seems to be the direction that most businesses should or are heading. This is especially important for India because lending funds will only go so far if the entrepreneurs are only concerned with making money or have no understanding of finances. I am excited to learn more about Artemisia and the work they are doing.

World Language (and a Head Bob)

HYDERABAD. I’ve come to understand what Wikipedia calls a world language, “a language spoken internationally, which is learned by many people as a second language.” But it’s not quite as crisp as a ‘language spoken internationally,’ it is more a way of understanding.

After a month of careening around India with a mixture of wonderful and awful experiences, I’ve found that even when I can’t understand someone’s language that we eventually figure out a way to understand one another.

Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist journeyed through the desert and came to the same conclusion. Language barriers could not stop him because he was beginning to understand a world language. The Alchemist understood that we are all human and at some level can relate to one another.

In my day-to-day interactions with the rickshaw drivers of Hyderabad—who generally cannot speak or read English or for that matter read a map—we eventually understand each other and I miraculously end up where I needed to go.

The low cost schools I’m working with are “English Medium,” meaning that they intend to use English as the primary language for instruction. Most of the time it is not at a conversational level. Interacting with these schools requires a good deal of give and take between the teachers, the parents and the students; it is necessary for us all to put conversation in a context that is easy to understand.

India is so diverse. Each state has their own regional language. In addition to different dialects, much of Indian conversation is done non-verbally through body language. There is an infamous head bob that is used to show understanding or confirmation in a conversation. This can be confusing because in America that response would generally represent “no”, not “yes” or “I understand”.

I now believe that no matter the circumstance, person, or place, there is a way to understand one another. We are much more similar then first believed. It is just a matter of recognizing and respecting differences and coming to an understanding, and that may as simple as a little bobble-head and a smile.

The School Choice Debate in India

HYDERABAD. After three weeks with Gray Matters Capital, I realized that I landed in India at a very dynamic time of education reform—a very different version than is occurring in the US—perhaps not really reform, but a rapid evolution of a multi-provider system of education with 500 million eager customers.

The soup of conversation surrounding government schools and private schools is as rich as masala.Vinod Raina asks “Nowhere in the world has universal elementary education been achieved through private schools — how can India be an exception?”

Within the last few years there has been a rise of what is called Affordable Private schools, which can range from Rs 100- 600 or $2-13 a month (what is considered affordable is a debate within itself). According to Credit Suisse, something like 950,000 of the schools in India are funded and ran by the government, while the other 75,000 are aided private schools recognized and unrecognized private schools. There are 90 million students in the 75,000 private schools and 129 million in public schools.

Government ran schools, what we call public schools in the US, are extremely dysfunctional. In many areas, parents only send their kids to government schools if they absolutely cannot afford a low cost private school. One of the unfortunate factors is that the teachers are actually qualified (attended University and training) but are not accountable, they are paid big salaries and can come to school not teach because they have job security for life.

The government just passed the Right to Education Act and believes that all children ages 6-14 deserve an education (the quality of education is not mentioned). The issue is that they are attempting to make education mostly government ran or at least strictly enforced. Three years after the act has passed, private schools will be forced to admit 25 percent of students from within their neighborhoods and the government will reimburse them for the amount of the kids. Advocates of the government ran schools would say that this is their promotion of common school integration. The government is very bureaucratic and not efficient enough to pass funds on in a timely matter to their own schools, let alone to a school with low importance to them.

My views of the public-private debate have been influenced by my own education. I attended public schools K-12 and attended a private university. My education in the US gives me some hope for public education and what it offers many socio-economic groups but also value what a small private institution can offer. I am not nearly as hopeful about government run education in India.

At one government school in Delhi, the headmistress was enthusiastic, but had to battle the bureaucracy of the government daily: a 20% shortage of teachers, chronic absenteeism of the teachers she had, a locked library because the government has not replaced the librarian, a deteriorating infrastructure, and the classrooms look like jails. Teachers in government institutions have obligations within the government and community. They will leave for a period of time to fulfill these duties rather then actually be present in the classroom.

Much of my time in Hyderabad has been spent in the APS. Although the facilities are much smaller then government ran school properties and do not leave me necessarily optimistic, there is much more to be excited about. These schools are willing to be rated by Gray Matters Capital and M-CRIL. In return, they can access services like management training, capacity building, teacher training, curriculum building, English training, or finance training by companies like the Indian School Finance Company. The teachers are actually present in the classroom, the kids are learning multiple languages, and interacting with one another rather then only reading and copying from a textbook.

Regarding both government run schools, Parth Shah, President of the Centre of Civil Society puts it best, “Fund students, not schools!” Families should have the choice of schools for their children. Dr. Shah asks the question, “Does the ownership of the school relate to the quality?” CCS would like to create a scholarship system, so that instead of the 25 percent of government sponsored kids attend the private schools, 75 percent of the other poor students would have similar choices. The CCS would call this the Right to Education of Choice, and would be a way to create quality education for all.

If the government were truly concerned about providing quality education for everyone from ages 6-14, then they would work to provide that regardless of who owned the schools. Also, if they were to look at the long-term social impact for their country, they would see that friendly competition between government schools and private schools would only improve the education and the strength of the future generations.