Friday, February 27, 2015

Tales from an education bureaucrat

Today, I attended a panel discussion on education for the masses organized by IIM Calcutta. While a large portion of the discussion revolved around the usual platitudes, I was fascinated by the experiences shared by the articulate Mr. M - senior IAS officer and Principal Secretary of the Govt. of Maharashtra.

Mr. M's talk revolved around 3 major themes
  1. The RTE has done more harm than good with respect to learning outcomes. It focuses on only strengthening the hardware, not the software
  2. The education sector needs de-regulation. Competition is the only way to improve quality
  3. The government just cannot do a good job of teaching in a country as large and complex as ours
During his time in the education ministry, he had felt that the government school teachers were extremely capable. The only thing they lacked - accountability. He felt that one way of improving accountability was frequent assessment and so, he decided to pilot a fortnightly baseline test in government schools (run by corporations and zilla parishads) to measure learning outcomes. 

To begin with, he called a meeting of his block level education officers and asked them to test every single student in select schools on a 20 mark baseline test designed by experts to test literacy in math and language. As bogus reporting is very common in the education sector, he warned the officers to report the data as-is. He also assured them that no action would be taken - no matter what the results were. During the first instance of the testing, the average literacy rate came out to be a mind-boggling 90%! Suspecting rampant bogus reporting, he sent out several verification officers to re-test a few students and compare their scores. His hunch was correct.

So he once again called together the block officers and warned them that anyone caught cheating would be suspended with immediate effect. The baseline test was administered once again. This time, only 18% of students passed as literate (scoring greater than 15/20 on the test). The remaining 82% were either illiterate or semi-literate.

Mr. M diligently continued to administer a variant of this test every fortnight and observed its impact on key metrics. Attendance (of both students and teachers) increased dramatically. Dropouts decreased. And test scores improved. In just 1.5 years after launching this rigorous assessment project, over 90% of the 600,000 students under the scheme passed the test as literate.

Buoyed by the success of this initiative, Mr. M tried to roll it out across all government schools in the state. But he faced intense lobbying from teachers. The teachers union challenged the order in court as being discriminatory - if government school students were to take the test, even private schools should be forced to implement it. The union won the case and a stay order was issued against the initiative on the grounds of it being unconstitutional.

After the panel discussion, I caught up with Mr. M over chai. He seemed like an earnest, well-meaning and exceptionally sharp man open to trying new ideas. He once again reiterated the fact that government should de-regulate education and encourage competition. But his years in the bureaucracy seemed to have dulled his optimism. He said that education doesn't seem high on the agenda of any government. So unless there is sustained lobbying led by powerful groups outside the political ecosystem, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future.

PS: I left the event with mixed feelings. I was encouraged (as I have been on several occasions in the past) by the quality and intent of our IAS officers. But I also felt a sense of helplessness and frustration at where our conversation ended. When will we see such issues being debated on the floor of the Parliament, and not only by a motley group of 20-people at the posh Taj Vivanta?

Friday, January 02, 2015

Anil Kumble - Indian Cricket's MVP

Last month, I was at an event at the Mumbai Literary Fest where Ramachandra Guha made 2 strong (and mildly controversial) assertions
  1. Anil Kumble won India more matches than Sachin Tendulkar
  2. Anil Kumble would have made a better captain than Sourav Ganguly
He put this down to cricket’s caste system whereby bowlers are generally less celebrated than batsmen. While Guha’s statement drew hushed whispers from Sachin’s home audience, I was quite happy with this endorsement of my childhood hero. Growing up, there was just something about Jumbo that drew me to pick this Sportstar poster (left image) to adorn my bedroom wall over the plethora of great Indian batsmen. 

Maybe it was because he came from my home state, Karnataka. Maybe it was because he held a degree in Mechanical Engineering from one of Karnataka’s best engineering colleges, RVCE. Maybe it was because he acted and bowled like a tear-away fast bowler (something Indian cricket fans sorely missed) – glaring at the batsmen and wiping out tails. Maybe it was because he once bowled with a broken jaw.

While the second assertion made above is tougher to verify, I decided to spend some time digging through the data to verify the first assertion.

I looked at all of India’s test victories in the period 1993-2008 in which both Sachin and Kumble played. For each game, I identified the top 3 batsmen and top 3 bowlers in the team who contributed to the victory. For rank-ordering the batsmen, I simply looked at the total number of runs scored in the game (first + second innings). For rank-ordering the bowlers, I assigned 3 points for each top order wicket, 2 points for each wicket-keeper’s/all-rounder’s wicket and 1 point for each tail-ender’s wicket.

I then calculated a cumulative score to assess each player’s value by assigning 3 points for games in which they were the best batsman/bowler, 2 points for games in which they were second-best and 1 point for games in which they were third-best. The assumption made for this scoring system is that scoring runs and taking wickets are both equally critical to success in test cricket (hence the same scale). While one could argue that the 3-2-1 scale itself is arbitrary (i.e the relative importance of a player’s performance is not always linear), I believe it is at least indicative of the importance of a player to the team.

Sachin and Kumble played together in 40 Indian victories – 28 at home and 12 away. Their contribution to the team in these victories is given in the tables below. As per my cumulative score scale, Kumble beats Sachin 90 to 50. Surprisingly, Kumble’s contribution in Away wins is also superior. 

I also did the same analyses for Sachin, Dravid and Kumble. They played together in 29 Test wins. Shockingly, Kumble’s contribution (63) equals that of Sachin and Dravid combined (64)!

I am convinced that Anil Kumble was India’s MVP in the ‘90s and ‘00s. This is not to say that Kumble was a greater player than Sachin. Sachin was the world’s best batsman in his time and would have been the first to be picked in any World XI. Kumble would probably not even make it to a World XI above Warne and Murali.

However, in a country gifted with abundant batting riches but a paucity of quality bowlers, our test team misses King Kumble more than we miss God Sachin. And it is time we recognize his contribution to Indian cricket. 

PS: One could argue that batsmen only get one chance for a mistake while bowlers can make several leading to greater variability in performance, but maybe that only goes to reinforce the importance of good bowlers in tests. Furthermore, one could argue that India’s poor bowling resources gave Kumble more opportunities to pick up wickets. But again, that only reinforces how critical he was to our success.

PPS: In a future blogpost, I will analyse drawn games in which Sachin performed well, but India failed to close out the win due to a poor performance by Kumble and the bowlers.

Backup data and analysis:

Monday, February 28, 2011

Miracalu at Bengaluru

Choice of game

The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru is easily one of India’s best cricket stadiums, so the choice of game was a no-brainer. The atmosphere is always electric, the pitch batsman-friendly and spectator comfort right up there with the best. The new look KSCA administration led by Kumble, Srinath and Venky even managed to up the comfort levels with free refreshments, clean toilets and fancy bucket seating! Of course, the other (more practical) reason for picking Bengaluru was the fact that I only managed to get tickets to the Bengaluru WC games through family contacts!

Team supported

India. Obviously. I was rooting for a close finish, and couldn’t have asked for more.

Key performer(s)

There were several key performers in this match for the ages. Sehwag showed us his entire range of cut shots, most notably the upar cut as christened by the Pepsi ad campaign. The Master composed a masterpiece and treated us to his entire repertoire - the cover drive, the backfoot drive, the lofted straight drive , the flick through midwicket, the nudge to fine leg, the slog sweep over midwicket. I counted him playing only one false shot in his entire innings. Bresnan had a typically workmanlike game. He ran in with energy, bowled good lengths and without anyone noticing, sneaked in a terrific 5-wicket haul. But the player of the day undoubtedly was Andrew Strauss. Straussy combined the brutal pulling of Shane Watson with the rasping cuts of Jayasuriya and the crisp sweeping of his coach, Andy Flower in a career-defining innings.

Star watch

I had a complimentary ticket from the KSCA right below the players’ dressing rooms. So big stars weren’t short in supply in our stand. Ganguly looked dapper and hung out with Dravid before the game. Kumble, Srinath and Venky were busy pleasing their bigwig guests with photo ops. Azim Premji arrived but had to soon leave as he couldn’t find a seat! Kannada film superstar Upendra walked in halfway through the Indian innings and the crowd made space for him. Poor Uppi had a tough time catching the action though as he was incessantly bugged by fans for photos and autographs. Srikkanth arrived with ICC head honcho Haroon Lorgat. Right through their 10 min conversation, Chika did all the talking while Haroon looked on in mild amusement. Even Captain Gopinath from Air Deccan was spotted in our stand.


The home of the UB Group’s Royal Challengers felt more like a popular disc than a cricket game, especially during the Indian innings. The IPL’s influence was clearly seen. How else would you explain loud pop music played mid-over in a WC match. At one point, while Sehwag was on the attack, the systems rather ironically blared “I know you want me, You know I want you..” as Anderson was running in!

The rather unpopular stadium MC however failed to get the crowd on his side. He urged the crowd to watch the screen and do the Stumpy (the WC mascot) dance, but was met with a stony silence. He coaxed us to scream Yahooooo in unison but all he got was a series of booooos! The crowd was happier sticking with the good ol’ South Indian cheer – Jinkalakala Waikalakala, Hoo haa, Hoo haa! Also, what were Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy thinking? Their WC theme song is so fail, it’s not funny.

Blame your equipment moment of the day

Towards the end of his innings, Gambhir went for a full blooded cover drive off Anderson but missed the ball by a mile. What did he do next. Looked unhappily at his bat and asked for a bat change! Nice try, Gauti.

The bouncer barrage

With a middle order comprising of Yuvraj, Yusuf and potentially Raina, India can expect to see many more overs this WC like the innings’ 41st when Bresnan bowled 6 bouncers!

Zak wakes up

It is incredible how many one day games swing in favour of the bowling team during the batting powerplay. This time, it was Zak who suddenly woke up from deep slumber and bowled a terrific spell. These days, he somehow manages to turn it on at just the right moments, in spite of his apparent lack of fitness. He ambles around the ground and looks like a bowling version of that great energy preserver, Ranatunga. My cousin has a theory that Zak is referred to as the attack leader and not strike bowler because well, he doesn’t really look like a strike bowler!

Astonishing statistic of the match

There was only one 3 scored by either team in a total of six hundred and seventy six runs. Crazy. The result of a small Indian ground and a lightning fast outfield.

The twin towers

Chris Tremlett (who was carrying drinks for the visitors) has no place on a cricket field. 6 ft 8 in and rather grave looking, he looked like he belonged more in a rugby scrum. India’s gentle giant, Munaf Patel though was as endearing as ever. While a few lucky kids walked hand in hand with the players on to the field for the national anthems, Munna picked up his escort by the hip and had him dangling by his shoulder. And later in the day, he won a few fans in the crowd through his return catch cum save my face from disfigurement moment.

Once in a lifetime moment of the day

The day had plenty of those once in a lifetime moments. Sachin’s near flawless 100. Strauss’s splendid knock. A tie in a WC match. But for me, the moment that topped all of these was the crowd’s reaction when Bell was called back by Billy Bowden on the UDRS review. How often does one get to see 35,000 grown up men and women shouting “Cheating! Cheating! Cheating!” for one whole minute!

The uninsightful rating system

All through the game, Castrol Cricket had some ridiculous ratings flashed on the giant screen. They kept informing us about the top performers to look out for through a rating index. The funny thing was it was calculated on the basis of performance till that point in the game. Also, they kept informing us about the relative positions of the teams in the game, and these swung like a pendulum! That’s what happens when lukkha engineers over-analyse a sport.

Spectator cheer of the day

The rowdy Indian crowds never fail to disappoint when it comes to interesting cheers (or anti-cheers, as we call it in these parts). A particularly enterprising lot in our stand took to poor old Luke Wright. They kept shouting out ‘Wright Wright’ to him, and when he looked back to acknowledge their cheers, he was greeted with ‘Left Left’!

Marks out of 10

The perfect 10. As my Kannadiga neighbour at the ground described it, it was a miracalu at Bengaluru.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Just back from a wonderfully relaxing and refreshing vacation in Goa. Last weekend was as much fun, hanging out with the gang and watching an IPL game live (I can't believe I actually said that). The weekend before was also spent at a beautiful untouched beach in south Maharashtra where a good friend shot a hungry crab.

I'm soo going to miss these lukkha weekends next year.

Also stumbled upon an interesting address delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005. One para resonates most with me today.

'When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.'

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Animal husbandry

My mom is the dudette. She cycles to work in a sari (she's a doctor), swims 40 laps everyday, teaches my maid servant's 13-year old daughter history, and says and does the most outrageous things.

Recently, she attended the local Mahila Mandal (Women's Club) meeting where the women were giving each other household tips. One said that ginger when dried in the sun is easier to cut. Another offered tips on how to prevent your eyes from watering while cutting onions. When my mom's turn arrived, she began.

"When you have had a tiring day at work, make some tea and sit down at the dining table with your husband. After narrating to him the tough day you have endured, get up and limp towards the kitchen. Bemoan the fact that you have to now wash vessels and cook dinner. Your husband will follow you and offer to help you with the dishes. Gladly accept this. Then start cutting the vegetables. When he has almost finished with the washing, grab hold of a couple of onions and rue the fact that your eyes are soon going to water. He will then offer to help you with the onions!" And so on.

This incident reminded me of my history teacher in school, who had a great sense of humour. Once, he was talking to us about the changing roles of men and women in Indian society. How women now work and how men are expected to help with the housework. Animal husbandry is what he called it!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


A couple of months back, I went to Mahabaleshwar (a beautiful hill station in Maharashtra) with friends. Since we were only doing a weekend trip, we decided to do the ST Bus Darshan, thus saving both money and time. I was a little apprehensive about the rather touristy, not-so-cool ride we had gotten ourselves into. But one look at my guide and I knew that all my fears were unfounded!

Our guide was a replica of the great Dev Anand. He hero-worshipped him so much that he even called himself Dev Anand!

The next 2 hours were pure, unadulterated entertainment.

This is our wonderful first shtop. Enjoy the beauty of the nature in full glory. Yahan aapke liye 1 min photography, 14 min baaki.

Yeh hain Echo Point. Yahan mein jo bhi chillaatha hun, waapas full speed aa jata hain. Dekho. Lights...lllliggghhttts, Sound...sssooundd, Camera...caammeerra, Action...acccttioon, OK Packup...ook ppackuuppp. Let's go!

Angrezi mein blue eyes, brown hair waali ladki ko Kates bulathe hain, isiliye is jagah ka naam hain Kates Point! Titanic ke liye ship nahi chahiye, bas yahan apna haath phyla karo aur mazaa le lo!

Yeh hain, Aurthor (Arthur+Author) Seat Point. Yahan pe Col. Arthur aake poems likhtha tha, isiliye iska naam. Abhi itni sunder dikhthi hain. Par June se October tak yahan itna fog hota hain ki yeh point aapka computer jaise hang ho jata hain!

Boy, Dev Anand was without a shadow of doubt the best tourist guide I have ever had. The rest of Mahabaleshwar was fun too. Nice quaint town with amazing food and views. And the usual dose of typos that are a part of every 'sight-seeing' trip in India!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bombay meri jaan!

I've lived in Bombay for five years now, and I just cannot have enough of the city. What truly sets it apart are the amazing people that live here.


This December, as always, my hostel room was taken over by a bunch of friends and acquaintances during Mood Indigo. This has both its positives and negatives. On the bright side, I always seem to discover a host of new years' gifts during my marathon post-MI room cleaning sessions. This year, Santa had stashed away a nice little gold watch inside one of my shoes. A couple of weeks of inquiries later, I still hadn't located the owner of the watch. So, I decided to gift it to the housekeeping staff on my hostel floor (a good friend of mine). Initially, he refused to accept it, but a little coaxing resulted in him finally taking it. Two days back, I bumped into him in the corridor.

Me: (wave) Kya chal raha hain?
Him: Achcha hun, sir.
(I walk past, and he calls out)
Him: Sir, meine ghadi ko Hall Manager ke office mein jama kar diya. Achcha nahi laga, log kya sochenge.

He had felt uncomfortable wearing the fancy watch. There was no way he was going to jeopardize the trust of his community for a glittering gadget that he had no real use for. No wonder people in the slums do not feel the need for doors in their houses.


My all-time favourite real life incident is a story narrated to me by a friend of mine who is a frequent traveller on the Virar fast, Bombay's most crowded local train.

Once, an old uncle travelling by the Virar fast wanted to get off at Jogeshwari. The problem with that was that the Virar fast does not stop at Jogeshwari. On realizing this, Uncleji pressed the panic button and asked his co-passengers what to do. They comforted him and told him that there was no cause to worry. All fast trains slow down at slow local stations, and they would help him jump off the train. All he had to do was continue running to maintain his momentum. Father Newton would take care of the rest.

So, Jogeshwari arrived and as promised, he was helped off the train. Remarkably for his age, he timed his jump, landing and subsequent jog to perfection. Piece of cake. Now, in Bombay, when you see a fellow Mumbaikar in need of help, the thing to do is to lend a helping hand. On noticing Uncleji running beside the train, the passengers in the next compartment did what comes naturally to them. They pulled him back into the train!

At least you cannot fault their intentions. Beautiful city this is :).