Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chronicles from Central India - 2

Many cities have a main thoroughfare that shapes the city. In Indore, that road is the Agra-Bombay Road (often shortened to AB Road, lending itself to many other interpretations!). Indore is now getting re-defined by the By Pass Road, a four lane, divided road running roughly parallel and to the east of AB Road. The By Pass Road is a major centre of real estate action with literally dozens of gated communities springing up on either side. I am told that not many people live in these communities right now, but a few of them look quite impressive and will be occupied over the next decade as the city fills out. Already, IIT Indore faculty and students and people coming into Indore to work with companies in the industrial area of Pithampur stay there.

Indore reminds me in many ways of Ahmedabad 20-odd years ago. Highways, large construction projects, beautifully maintained compounds but an unkempt and unfinished look outside. Plastic bags litter vacant plots (this is one of the biggest eyesores in India, across the country). Fast-developing new areas like Vijaynagar remind me of the Satellite area of Ahmedabad. The good news is that by the time we left Ahmedabad in 1996, the city was looking much more neat and clean, thanks largely to a drive run by Keshav Varma, then a young and energetic IAS officer, who streamlined the city’s tax collection and then directed the proceeds towards improvement projects.

The By Pass Road is wide and motorable, but is plagued by the same problems we see elsewhere – incomplete flyovers, progressing at a snail’s pace. But I am happy to see that flyovers are being built at major intersection points now rather than after the traffic builds up as was the case of Bangalore in the Outer Ring Road and the elevated road from Hebbal to the airport. Another challenge with the By Pass Road is the lack of illumination – its pitch dark at night with only the headlamps of vehicles to light up the road.

Indore: Education Hub

Indore prides itself as an education hub, and the By Pass is often the best way to reach many of the new educational institutions that have sprung up on either side. I had occasion to visit two of them recently. The Shishukunj International School is regarded as one of the best schools in Indore, and I saw evidence of that when I visited their campus – very nicely designed, good infrastructure, and more than anything else a committed management and teachers. Representatives of the three founding families – the Mehtas, Sethias and Daves – were present on the dais at the graduation ceremony for the Standard XII students. The students were a bright and happy lot, the school choir sang beautifully, and one of the school youngsters sang a tuneful solo song. Both the head boy and head girl gave crisp speeches (the head girl was particularly impressive) – the communication skills of our youngsters are streets ahead of what they were in our time!

Each graduating student (all 150+ of them!) was given a short introduction as s/he marched on to the stage to receive a graduation packet from me or Smt. Mamta Sharma, Chair of the National Commission for Women. Some of the introductions mentioned the student’s career plans – students aspired to be rich businessmen, software technologists, architects, doctors, DJs and even Bollywood stars. I was a little concerned that no one was introduced as a prospective scientists or biotechnologist, but I guess that’s a sign of the times.

The school seems quite successful in emphasizing the right values. I heard several references to empathy, and concern for others, both from the students and from the management. The Principal led the students in taking a solemn oath to contribute to society as well as their alma mater.

There was a lot of poetry and story-telling in the air (many of the teachers who conducted the event spoke lyrically, both in Hindi and English). Clearly, this is a school that provides diverse influences to its students. There could be no better exposure to such diversity than the four panels on successive pillars as I entered the school – tennis star Mahesh Bhupati, actor Prabhu Deva, spiritual guru Osho, and the Sai Baba of Shirdi. I remain intrigued about the choice of these four (maybe there are more panels elsewhere, but these are the four that I saw), and I can only hope that these are intended to inspire the dogged persistence needed to be a top sportsman, the adaptability and flexibility of a contemporary dancer (I am sure all of you have seen some of the incredible moves by Prabhu Deva!), the creativity and openness of Osho, and the spiritual goodness of the Sai Baba (I mentioned these in my talk!).

The School had other creative ways of recognizing and commemorating its students – one of these was a gallery of portraits of the students (made in the Art class, I was told) [see the picture below].

Clearly, since the time we studied in school, high quality school education in India has come a long way. The best schools have everything on offer, from high tech classrooms to a variety of sports and out-of-the-classroom activities to languages and culture. Reflecting growing globalization, Shishukunj also has an international exchange programme.

Contrast with the rest of the Education System

While we must celebrate the existence of schools like Shishukunj, the contrast with the rest of the education system is unbearably sharp. The latest ASER report indicates high enrollments at school (96%+) but disappointing and often declining education outcomes (close to 50% of standard V students can’t read a Standard II text). Government initiatives like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) have clearly achieved some success in getting students into school, but giving a good primary education remains a daunting task. I read about a new proposal to start a Navodaya Vidyalaya (rural, fully residential schools originally conceived by Rajiv Gandhi, and set up in every district) in each block of India – while welcome in itself, we really need to crack the problem of how to provide basic education on a large scale.


But I must give full marks to Indoreites for their warmth and friendliness. Except for a grumpy pharmacist who looked at me suspiciously when I asked him for vitamin C tablets (it turned out that he identified products only by their brand names – when I asked for “Limcee,” his face brightened up!), I have found most people take pride in their city and are happy to welcome outsiders to it.

[The views expressed in this blog are the personal views of the author.]

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