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How to respond to a zombie apocalypse

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I thought only my pre-teen nieces would be bothered. But, no. The Center for Disease Control (US) discusses a preparedness plan for the zombie apocalypse:

If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak. CDC would provide technical assistance to cities, states, or international partners dealing with a zombie infestation. This assistance might include consultation, lab testing and analysis, patient management and care, tracking of contacts, and infection control (including isolation and quarantine). It’s likely that an investigation of this scenario would seek to accomplish several goals: determine the cause of the illness, the source of the infection/virus/toxin, learn how it is transmitted and how readily it is spread, how to break the cycle of transmission and thus prevent further cases, and how patients can best be treated. Not only would scientists be working to identify the cause and cure of the zombie outbreak, but CDC and other federal agencies would send medical teams and first responders to help those in affected areas (I will be volunteering the young nameless disease detectives for the field work).

The intent of the article is good, in a way. But as you read it you wonder whether this is the best way to teach kids about medical emergencies. On the other hand, I have used zombies to teach kids the idea of an exponential growth. These are fragments we shore against our ruins.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 29, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Higher education by numbers

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The Chandigarh Tribune has an interesting editorial:

India’s higher education system is the third largest after China and US. India has around 34,000 institutions having about 220 lakh students. For making education a reliable engine of development, the quantitative expansion should be in tandem with quality.

India’s global competitive edge is also constrained by the very low access to higher education. The Gross Enrolment Ratio in the country is only 18 per cent. In South Korea it is 100 per cent. The government has attempted to increase access to education especially by opening it to private sector.

Unfortunately, a large number of private institutions have failed on quality and the bubble has burst because of sub-standard quality of education being provided in these institutes.

For want of employability and quality around 50 per cent private engineering colleges in Andhra Pradesh are on the brink of closure as enrolment ratios have been dismal. In Tamil Nadu private institutions have failed to fill even 50 per cent seats in MCA and MBA programmes. The situation is equally alarming in other states.

Around 50 per cent faculty positions are lying vacant. The teacher-taught ratio is much higher (1:26) against UGC norm of 1:15. In Harvard and Stanford, the ratio is 1:7 and 1:5, respectively. According to UGC around 73 per cent of 1471 colleges and 68 per cent of 111 universities have mediocre or low quality infrastructure. The average number of books per student in an institution’s library in India is only 9.

The Indian population pyramid. The male-female difference is shown in yellow; it is skewed towards males. (Single age data, Census of India, 2011)

The Indian population pyramid. The male-female difference is shown in yellow; it is skewed towards males. (Single age data, Census of India, 2011)

The histogram above should put these numbers into perspective. There are about 80 million Indians in the age range between 18 and 22. If we want to build a technological society like Japan’s or South Korea’s, all of them should go to college. If the teacher-taught ratio is to be 1:15, then we need to hire 5.3 million college teachers. Compare this to 1.5 lakh teachers today: the number of teachers has to be be multiplied by 35 or so. The fraction of the GDP which is spent on higher education will have to go up by a similar factor.

So clearly, this is not going to happen, without a large increase in the GDP itself, to offset this. So India seems to be caught in an illiteracy trap. Not enough money to educate people; not enough educated people to increase the national income. But the trap is not absolute: China has walked out of it. However, it requires a national consensus to begin move towards this ideal.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 24, 2013 at 11:39 am

Health care exercises the president

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ET reports:

Inaugurating a meeting of Ministers of Health and a Session of WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia at Rashtrapati Bhavan, [President of India, Pranab Mukherjee] noted with concern that 46 per cent people in the region lived below poverty line and asked nations to build an environment for quality health.

“It is also a matter of concern that South East Asia Region registers the lowest total expenditure on health as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (3.8 pc) and per capita total expenditure on health as per World Health Statistics 2009,” he said.

As per WHO, India’s total expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP in 2011 is 3.9 per cent. But, government spending on health is less than 2 per cent of GDP and the total came to 3.9 per cent after including private spending.

The President said countries need to strengthen health systems based on primary health care approach while focusing on public health based on domestic resources. He also sought strategic investments in medical education and training and said existing inefficiencies in supply chain and logistic management of drugs and vaccines be addressed.

In fact, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee did show the same concern during his tenure as finance minister: the budgets of 2010, 2011, 2012 did show year-by-year increase in rupees. As a fraction of the annual budget, it has remained almost steady in the last five years at around 2% of the total.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 11, 2013 at 5:02 am

Why too few doctors

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We know we have too few policmen: there are not enough to patrol the streets of our cities. We know we have too few politicians: the only choice we have in the upcoming elections is Hobson’s. Not enough carpenters, trained electricians, skilled labourers of all kinds. We do not have enough doctors either, claims a report in Deccan Herald:

Only 50 to 60 neurologists graduate every year in India, and the country lacks sufficient number of doctors to provide healthcare to its 1.2 billion population, observed Dr Sanjay Singh from the Association of American Epileptologists of Indian origin.

“New York City alone produces more neurologists than the whole of India does,” he said, while speaking at a colloquium on drug resistant epilepsy (DRE) here on Friday.

Why? The pool of skilled professionals is drawn from a population substantially smaller than the whole population of India: most likely just the fraction of the population which has access to good schools. One can estimate this number as follows: there are about 50 good schools in Mumbai, each with a student body of, say, a thousand. That is half a lakh of students in Mumbai. Multiply by about 100 to get the number of such previleged children across the country: 5 million; half the population of New York city.

If every Indian child has access to high-quality education we would probably have about 20,000 neurologists graduating every year. You would probably agree with me, that a nation without schools is a nation without doctors.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Yes, but do you know the right history?

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Some errors in the SSC history textbook for 2013-14

Some errors in the SSC history textbook for 2013-14

Could it be that children learn better if the material is entertaining enough?

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 4, 2013 at 10:53 am

IIT now: a story of bureaucracy and higher education

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That state government bureaucracies spoil working systems of higher education is something that we know very well. An example, but not the only one, is the inability of the Maharashtra government to sort out the mess it created for over a decade. Now it turns out that the central government is equally unable to sort out problems of its own creation. IT reports:

The 63-year-old Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur (IIT-KGP), the country’s oldest, has been headless for almost a year now and the teachers and alumni say its high time a decision is taken on filling the post.

In an unusual step, teachers and alumni staged a hunger strike, silent march and other protests not just in the IIT-KGP campus, but also in Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore.

“We started the protest as it is high time that action is taken. A premier institution like IIT cannot remain without a director for so long,” said Atul Bal, a member of the IIT-Kharagpur Alumni Association.

“There is an acting director, but not all decisions can be taken by him,” Bal told IANS.

IIT Teachers Association general secretary Rajendra Singh said they had to resort to protest as their voice was not being heard.

“We wrote letters to the HRD (human resource development) ministry to take the necessary steps. We even wanted to go to Delhi but we were not given an appointment. One cannot just wait and watch,” he added.

IIT-KGP is the oldest of the now 16 IITs, founded in May 1950. It is also among the best, ranking 30th among Asian universities according to Times Higher Education survey.

ET adds:

The alumni and faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, say they are done waiting. Partha Pratim Chakrabarti, chosen by a HRD ministry-constituted search committee for the position of Director, IIT-Kharagpur, over a year ago is yet to take charge as he awaits clearance by Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). Following a hunger strike by students and faculty members at Kharagpur, the alumni association’s chapters in Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore are taking their protest outside the campus. About 1,200 of IIT-Kharagpur’s alumni based in Delhi took part in a ‘silent march’ at JantarMantar on Saturday.

“The institute has been without a full-time director for over a year and is suffering because action can’t be taken and decisions can’t be made on a number of important programmes,” said ArjunMalhotra, IIT-Kharagpur alumnus and one of the founders of HCL Technologies. He added that he has filed as many as 20 RTIs and received replies from both MHRD as well as IIT but not from the CVC.

It does not seem resonable for the CVC to allow the post of a director to an important institute to go unfilled for a year. Since the tenures of directors are fixed at the time of appointment, the problem could have been anticipated at least a couple of years in advance. Without a director, research program can grind to a halt, appointments of teachers cannot be completed, and the whole institution begins to get demoralized.

If the recent tragic case of mid-day meals to school children is one aspect of government and bureaucracy’s apathy towards education, this is another.

August 14, 2013

An email from the new director revealed that the sole outcome of the functioning of the bureaucracy was to delay matters:

As the newly appointed Director of IIT Kharagpur, it is a great pleasure for me to write to you. I thank all of you for having believed in my capability.

I consider it as a personal as well as professional commitment to improve further the quality of academics and research, infrastructure, faculty and students’ experience and facilities in the campus.

Prof. Partha Pratim Chakrabarti
Director,
IIT Kharagpur

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 21, 2013 at 9:45 am

Mid-day meals: a microcosm of organizational callousness

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DNA took a look at the biggest news since yesterday:

In a tragic incident, 22 children died and at least 27 are admitted to the hospital after eating food from a mid-day meal in a state-run primary school in Bihar’s Saran district on Tuesday. The mid-day meal scheme was introduced by the government to encourage education among the poor by providing free food.

HT reported:

Autopsy reports on 22 children who died this week after eating a school lunch in Bihar confirmed that they were poisoned by insecticide, which was either in the food or cooking oil, a doctor said Thursday.

Something seems to have gone horribly wrong in this case. But the average case is not likely to be very good either. In a single day following this tragedy we also read reports of worms in food served in Amritsar, cooks else where in Bihar fainting after eating their own meals, and over 100 children in Tamil Nadu falling ill after a meal. I suspect that the media massively under-reports such problems (after all the middle class is not dependent on this scheme).

I base this guess on the following report in BS:

The HRD ministry has announced, tad later [sic] in the day one might say, the setting up of a monitoring committee to look into the quality of food supplied. As the official explains, the reason behind the better implementation of the scheme in southern states for instance, is large scale community participation.

“Parents and village elders through School Management Committees should be periodically testing and monitoring the quality of food being served, cooked, checking on hygienic conditions, etc.” In most states, the periodic reviews that are mandatory seldom take place. That apart the government and the Central monitoring mechanisms have also been lax. Repeated incidents of children falling ill due to dead rats, lizards in the ,meals etc. have been reported with alarming frequency across the country with no reaction from the authorities.

At present both the Centre and the state chip in with funds in the ratio of 75:25 [sic]. While Rs 3.49 is given per child in Primary classes per meal per day, it is Rs five for Upper Primary children. These figures although, seem wholly inadequate, are a vast improvement from the Rs 1.68 that was paid as late as 2009 for feeding children in Primary classes.

If Rs. 3 to 5 is spent per child per day, is it likely that the average quality of food is good? Even if the money were well-spent, the quality of food would be far worse than the Indian middle class is used to. So, while poisonous food is a one-shot affair, it is likely that worm-infested food is served much more often than we care to examine. Can we force the system to be a little more caring?

This is what the Chandigarh Tribune has to say:

The programme guidelines clearly mandate quarterly meetings of state-level steering-cum-monitoring committees that are supposed to evaluate the qualitative and safety aspects of mid-day meals being served in the respective districts.

In Bihar, only three such meetings have taken place since 2009. No meeting was held in 2009-2010 and 2010-11; one was held in 2011-12 and two have been held this year.

The situation is the same across the country. The Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry note on MDM review says: “Only 55 meetings of the state screening committees took place in 2012-13 as against 140 that were mandated.”

This is the usual case of a massive failure of the Indian polity. Political parties blame each other and put on a reality show on TV when things get out of hand. But they all have the same vested interest in not making things work. Government employees are coerced into falling in with “irregularities” and corrupt individuals get patronage from political parties. Other petty corruptions thrive under this massively corrupt system.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 18, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Union Budget 2013-2014

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The finance minister, P. Chidambaram, presented the union budget in parliament yesterday. The total expense budgeted is INR 16,65,297.32 crores; a 16.4% increase over the revised budget of 2012-13. INR 10,56,330.70 crores of this is revenue, with taxes coming to INR 8,84,078.32 crores, ie, 53% of the budget. The rest are capital expenses, including a debt of INR 5,42,498.62 crores, which is 32.6% of the budget. This is down from the 34.4% of last year, but not yet at the level of 31% from the year before.

  1. Plan outlay is INR 5,55,322.00 crores, 33.35% of the total budget. This is down from 35% of the budget in the last two years. The difference has gone to various non-plan expenses. Public enterprises are supposed to contribute INR 2,61,055.39 crores to the center’s plan expense, bringing the total available for the plan to INR 8,16,377.39 crores. Of the plan outlay, INR 1,36,254.00 crores (16.7%) will go to states, leaving INR 6,80,123.39 crores with the center for the plan.
    1. Health is allocated INR 32,745.00, which is 1.97% of the budget. This has remained a stable fraction of the budget.
    2. Of this, education is allotted INR 65,869.00 through the ministry of Human Resource Development. This is 3.9% of the budget, down from 4.1% of last year.
    3. The allocation to science and technology has been cut by one third! INR 17,586.79 crores is channeled through three ministries and departments (S&T, DoS and DAE). This is 1.06% of the budget, down from 1.6% of the previous year’s projection. However, it is higher than the actual amount spent on science last year.
    4. All social services put together are allocated INR 1,90,574.66 crores. This is 11.4% of the budget. There is a huge increase in spending on arts and culture, water supply, urban development, and information and publicity. These look like election year spendings, and have come at the expense of long term goods like education and science.
  2. The non-plan budget will be spent more or less as before.
    1. Debt servicing will take up INR 3,70,684 crores (22.2%) of the budget, up by 1% from the previous year. This is also 33.4% of the non-plan outlay. In actual terms, this is INR 54,010 crores more than last year.
    2. Defence is projected to take INR 2,03,672 crores (12.2%) of the budget. This is an increase of INR 25,168 over last year. As always, defence has increased by more than the amount required by inflation.
    3. Petroleum subsidies will take INR 65,000 crores (3.9%) of the budget. This is a massive cut from being 6.8% of the budget last year. These savings have been essentially passed on to non-defence capital expense and to state governments.

If you want to compare this with the last year’s projected budget, you could take a look at the post on the union budget of 2012.

IE noted that this is an election budget:

Presenting his eighth annual Budget in Parliament, P Chidambaram, while increasing the total expenditure (Plan and non-Plan) to R16.65 lakh crore, tried to strike a chord with all major votebanks, doling out sops to women, youth, poor, minorities, disabled, elderly as well as the SCs and the STs.

Besides proposing a public sector bank that would lend mostly to women and their businesses, he also offered to set up a R1,000-crore fund in the wake of a spurt in crimes against them. “We have a collective responsibility to ensure the dignity and safety of women. We stand in solidarity with our girl children and women. And we pledge to do everything possible to empower them and keep them safe and secure,” said Chidamabram.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

March 1, 2013 at 3:23 am

Maharashtra continues downhill

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In recent years Maharashtra has fallen far from the pinnacle of progress which once made it the envy of other states. The slide has been most dangerous in the areas of education and health. Here is a comment on the latest bizarre development by Health India:

The Maharashtra state government today announced that non-allopathic doctors – the homeopaths, unani docs and ayurvedic doctors – will be allowed to practice allopathy or traditional medicine in the state. An ordinance will be issued in this respect next month. The alternative doctors will have to pass a one year course before they can practice though.

The members from the treasury and opposition benches raised the issue saying that this move could alleviate the woes of patients from rural areas. Medical education minister Vijaykumar Gavit announced in the state assembly on Friday that though the existing laws don’t allow such a practice, the state government wished to change the law. He said that the doctors, however, will have to complete a one-year course to practice other streams of medicine. “We want to amend Maharashtra Medical Practitioners Act, 1961, and an ordinance in that respect will be issued by the end of August. After that, doctors from homeopathy, unani and ayurveda would be able undergo a one-year course of pharmacology and start practicing allopathy from next year,” said Gavit.

We think this is a rather bizarre move by the ministry. The principles of allopathy, homeopathy, unani and ayurveda are all very different and to allow docs to practice streams different from their own could be downright dangerous. Doctors have to study for years before they reach the level of expertise that allows them to treat patients and a one year course can not give them that expertise. Also this move might see students who want to practice regular medicine but couldn’t get through medical school opt for alternative courses and then practice regular medicine.

TOI reports how the decision was framed to bypass normal checks and balances:

The minister said in a written reply that the decision to introduce the one-year pharmacology course was made on the advice of the attorney general, who suggested that it could be done by amending the Maharashtra Medical Practitioners Act, 1961. But when it was referred to the state law and judiciary department, it pointed out that a mere amendment to the Act will be of no use as under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956, the assent of the Medical Council of India (MCI) is mandatory.

But a senior official told TOI that the government does not need an approval from the Medical Council of India to start a “certificate course” as the state has the requisite powers under the concurrent list. “Only a degree or a diploma course needs a mandatory approval from the MCI,” the official said.

A state which has stopped caring about education will continue to take the easy path downhill.

Fixing the system

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IBN Live reports on Kapil Sibal’s successful attempt to reserve the IITs for an elite:

The prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have agreed on a compromise formula on the common entrance exam for undergraduate courses after several weeks of face off with the Central Government, particularly HRD Minister Kapil Sibal. At a meeting of IIT Council in New Delhi on Wednesday the directors of all the 15 IITs agreed to implement the new admission format from 2013.

The entire process will consists of two exams – main and advanced – to be held on separate days. While the main exam will be conducted by the CBSE, the advanced exam that is likely to take place about a month after the main exam will be conducted by the IITs. The top 1.5 lakh students from the main exam merit list can take the advanced entrance exam. To be eligible for the IIT merit list the score of the advanced test as well as the condition that the aspirant is in the top 20 percentile of his/her board will be taken into account.

The IIT examination system was perhaps the ultimate meritocratic system that one had in India. It was working, and there was no need to fix it. Mr. Sibal claimed that he had to change it because he wanted to reduce the exam load on school-leaving students. This ostensibly less-demanding system now has two exams instead of one, in addition to a new emphasis on the broken system of state board exams.

Under the old system there were inspiring stories of students from extremely poor families, who passed out of terrible schools, but went on to sit for the exam and get through. Students from barely functioning village schools now have the system stacked against them. Charitable funds which could give a year’s coaching to students in order to place them into a meritocratic elite of the IITs will not have the means to improve whole schools.

Which meaning of the word “fixing” is one supposed to read in this context?

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

June 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm

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