Monday, 27 April 2015

Removing shut down time for shops will make cities safer

Safety is important. 

There have been a lot of analysis on what makes cities safe or rather what can make cities safe. Increase in the number of police personnel, stricter punishments, better collection and use of data about criminals and criminal activities, economic progress have been some areas that have been tried as solutions and have been partially successful. 

There is no one way of making cities safer and hence a combination of different ideas is needed. India has a poor police to citizens ratio. The justice system is so backlogged right now that even those who get caught roam around free for years before any action, if any, is taken against them. There are multiple ways in which governments are trying to reduce crime. A lot of these are either heavily debated or involve a lot of privacy issues or are just too expensive. 

Wouldn't it be better to prevent crimes from happening apart from having an efficient consequence system? Citizens would prefer no thefts instead of all thieves getting caught and punished, wouldn't they?

There is one way, the effect of which has not been documented, which will help the economy, improve the culture of the city and help reduce crime. 

Do away with the law which forces shops/restaurants to shut down after a particular time. 

Almost every state has a Shops and Establishment Act. A list of states which have this Act can be found here. This Act gives State governments power to decide the opening and closing time for shops/restaurants in that state. 

If we take the example of Bombay Shops and Establishments Act, 1948 then we can see that it clearly specifies the exact time at which commercial shops, restaurants and theatres can open and shut. The Act also makes it very clear that the state government or the local government can appoint inspectors to make sure that the law is followed. 

It is interesting to note it is NOT the duty of the local police neither is it under their jurisdiction to shut down shops at night unless it is officially notified by the state government. Although it is very common to see a police van come to the shops late in the night asking the shop to shut down. 

How will changing this law make cities safer?

Kate Painter and David P. Farrington of Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge wrote a research paper titled 'The  Dudley Project'. It correlates the drop in crime rate with improved street lighting. Research shows how, all other variables being the same, an area which is well lit will have a low crime rate than an area which is not well lit. It also shows how an area's crime rate will reduce even when the only intervention introduced is proper street lighting. This happens because more people hang outside because of proper lighting and the presence of more people outside is a deterrent to criminals. 

Indian streets are not always well lit and even if they were, why would people want to hang outside late in the night if they have nothing to do? We need to give people an incentive to stay out late in the night. Shopping or eating out can be those incentives. 

Recently, Inspector General of Police in Gandhinagar, Gujarat gave the following statement in Times of India:

“I don't see it (closing the shops) as an action that can prevent crimes..........When we have a safe state's tag, we have to ensure safety . It wouldn't be attained by shutting the shops. More people on the street would actually work as deterrent." 

If shops and restaurants remain open late in the night, more people will move around the city at night and in turn act as deterrents to crime. Police patrolling works on the same principle. If police cars are moving around an area at night or even stationed at regular intervals around the city then they act as a deterrent to criminals. 

It also helps traffic congestions because when you increase the possible working hours of an establishment, then the traffic will be spread out over a longer period of time and so average traffic will reduce. People who can go late, will go late and hence peak hour traffic will reduce. There are also people who believes that keeping bars open all throughout the night actually reduce the instances of drunk driving and drunken behaviour because 'last call' generally makes people binge drink rather rather than their usual responsible drinking and in turn leads to more accidents/incidents.

It also gives businesses freedom to choose their timings and in turn decide whether staying open till late in the night or even all night is a profitable option. There have also been allegations of "police's misbehaviour while shutting the shops and favouritism for a few who are allowed to keep the shops open till late for more business."  

So if shops staying open till late in the night can help the economy, reduce the possibility of police misbehaviour and make the cities slightly more safe, why aren't we allowing it? 

Friday, 24 April 2015

What should teachers teach?

Being a teacher is a very important job. There are a lot of areas where teachers have to tread carefully.

Teachers have to decide which mistakes they should let students make and which they should help them avoid. There is a very thin line which the teachers have to walk here and it is very easy to think that teachers should make sure students don't make mistakes. The fact is, mistakes teach more than lessons do. 

Similarly, opinions about things are also something that develops through experiences. Young students are very impressionable. Teachers and parents are two sets of people whom they see as their knowledge bases. So any opinion by these two sets has more weight than say a newspaper report. 

Thus, teachers should always remember Uncle Ben's famous last words from Spider Man "With great power, comes great responsibility". 

Having an opinion or having the ability to form an informed opinion is a very important skill. Teachers sometimes teach opinions and forget that they have to instead teach how to form opinions. Its not because teachers are evil but its because our education system just tests us on whether we remember the opinions of great people instead of testing if we can formulate our own opinions. Teachers teach this way because students are tested this way.

So ideally, what should a teacher teach?

The most important and primary skill that every teacher should teach is the difference between a fact and an opinion. That's half the battle won. If the student can do that then she/he takes the first step towards learning how to form an opinion. 

Second thing that teachers should teach is how an informed opinion is one that is backed by facts. An opinion without any backing is still an opinion but to convince someone to accept your opinion, you need to have facts which back it up. Similarly, students should be taught how when they encounter any opinion, they should look for and then verify the facts that the opinion is based on. If the facts hold up, the opinion is credible otherwise it is not. This will help the kids figure out which opinions they should rely on and which ones they should not rely on. At this point, teachers should also explain to the students how the legitimacy of an opinion does not depend on the age/sex/religion/position of the person giving that opinion and so credibility does not stem from there. 

Thirdly and this is probably one of the most important, teacher should teach students how to entertain two or more opinions at the same time without accepting or rejecting them immediately. It will teach the kids how opinions cannot be right or wrong and that everyone looks at things differently. Students should be told how opinions are formed over time and are heavily influenced by experiences so they should not judge someone just on their opinion. It will make students more tolerant towards people whose opinion they do not like.

Lastly, teachers should teach ways in which students can express a dissenting opinion without being overtly rude or loud. It is completely alright to not agree with someone's views and it is also absolutely fine to tell them that you disagree but the manner in which you express that showcases your personality. 

A person's value in the society is determined by his/her opinions and hence the importance of this skill. It is our opinions that show the world who we really are and what we believe. Having an opinion and basing your actions on it is what makes us free. 

Ofcourse there are multiple ways of teaching the above in class and it would be foolish to prescribe a specific way of doing this but there is little debate on whether this should be taught to students or not. Come to think of it, this should be done by parents/mentors as well. 

As someone wise very clearly said "A teacher's job is to teach the students how to learn and not what to learn."

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Wealth Gap v Opportunity Gap : Which one should we try and fix?

India is a land of contradictions. 

We have the most number of millionaires in the world and also have the most number of poor people. We have the most number of doctors and engineers and also the most number of illiterate people.

Inequality is present in every form in India. The extent of the wealth gap is not a disputable fact any more as several research papers and newspaper articles have rightly proven.

Unequal distribution of wealth is a very dangerous thing. It can lead to civil unrest and also block the development of the country. It is for this reason that everyone takes this very seriously and they are right in doing so.

The problem begins when people try to bridge the wealth gap by using the misguided Robin Hood concept i.e. to take from the rich and give to the poor. Someone very aptly said that sometimes we get so engrossed in figuring out how to best distribute the money that we have that we forget to concentrate on generating that money.

It is impossible to create a world where everyone has the same wealth and even if it was possible, it would not morally right to do so. Why should people who work hard not have more wealth than the people who don't work as hard? Wealth should be the reward for hard work.

Here we are assuming that the justice system works well and that anyone using illegal means to earn wealth is reprimanded. Questions about the efficiency of the justice system should be dealt with separately.

What we should really focus on is the opportunity gap. Due to multiple reasons, a lot of citizens in the country do not get the chance to compete. Levelling the playing field is different. We first need to make sure that everyone has access to a field.

Giving people opportunities does not mean reservations. Actually reservations are possibly the most inefficient way of giving people opportunities as India has found out over the last couple of decades.

Lets take education for example: On an average, a student who is from a low income family and studies in a government school will not do as well as a student from an affluent family who studies in a high end private school. It has little to do with their family incomes. This difference in results is because is difference in the opportunities that both type of students get from their education. If you give every child an excellent education then the comparison would give you different results.

This can partially be attributed to the fact that students from affluent families sometimes don't have that burning need to succeed because they have a fall back option while students from low income families know that they need to make the most of every opportunity they get because of the sheer lack of opportunities. Hence, if both are given equal opportunities, it is very possible that the student from a low income family will do better than others.

Ofcourse this is not true in each and every case but there are a lot of examples of this out there to prove that this is not just theory.

Once the opportunity gap is closed, the achievement gap will close as well and slowly but surely that will lead to the wealth gap narrowing down.

This will be without doing anything negative to the people who already have the resources. Giving more opportunities to people who don't have them will not take away the opportunities from people who already have them. We merely need to give access to the field to everyone, they will level it themselves through sheer perseverance.

This, apart from the fact that the wealth gap cannot be closed in any other way without harming honest hard working people, is why we should focus on fixing the opportunity gap.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Deworming Students to improve Student Outcomes

What if you could improve health and learning outcomes of children around the world for less than half a dollar a year? 

Deworming is one way this is possible. 

More than 33% of the world population suffers from worm infection. It is commonly found among children. Deworming is a safe and inexpensive way of getting rid of this infection. It is a simple procedure which involves giving the children two single dose tablets. Deworming targets diseases caused by parasitic worms. These worms live in the human gut and absorb key nutrients (including iron). It can also lead to other diseases like anaemia. 

Worm infections might not have immediate acute consequences but in the long run they do a lot of damage. Studies done in Kenya and South America confirmed that children with worm infections perform poorly in learning ability tests. Its effect on attendance is even more significant. It has been seen that some infected children attend only half as many days of school as their unaffected classmates. Deworming can benefit children's learning, substantially increase primary school attendance and significantly increase a child's ability to learn in school. In a study by Kevin Croke of the Harvard School of Public Health tracked children for 7-8 years after a mass deworming program. He found that keeping all the other variables the same, dewormed children had higher test scores in literacy and numeracy than the non-treated children. He concluded that the difference in outcome was because of the deworming and not because of any other variable. 

The good thing about deworming is that the medication, if given to students who don’t have worm infection, has no harmful effects. It means that we can do a deworming drive in a large area or maybe say a school, without having to test each and every child for the disease first. 

In a country like India where sanitation is still a major issue and more than half the country’s population defecates in the open, infections like these are very common. We cannot let easily preventable diseases slow down the development of our children. Especially when the solution is both accessible and inexpensive. 

Deworming is not just simple, it is also very inexpensive. At less than half a dollar per kid per year, it is probably one of the most economically viable medicine that we know as of now. This half a dollar includes the cost of procuring the medicines, distributing them and training given to the volunteers in its administration. According to World Health Organisation, children in high risk areas should be dewormed once every six months!

 In fact, the World Health Organisation encourages schools to take this up as a school wide process. It has created a step by step guide which explains how schools should go about the entire procedure of deworming. Poverty Action Lab has been doing mass deworming in schools and have dewormed more than 90 million children. You can find their report here

There are a lot of organisations, both government and non-government, which are working towards improving health and sanitation situations in India. Maybe deworming is something that can be done easily and effectively by them. Ofcourse, like any medicine or solution, deworming comes with its own set of critics. So it can’t be called a universally accepted solution as of yet.  But as of now, a lot of people are calling it a ‘best buy’ for improving both education and health.