I have a Dream to Reach all 220 million Children as Soon as it can be Made to Happen: Satish Jha, Chairman, OLPC India Foundation

By Rusen Kumar

MUMBAI: Satish Jha is the chairman of OLPC India Foundation that runs One Laptop per Child program in India. He is a writer, editor, corporate executive, social entrepreneur and enjoys working on initiatives that transform the environment they address. OLPC’s mission in India is to help those children who may not have a proper school or classroom, quality teachers or books, desks and chairs and electricity and blackboard and help them learn the way the best do today and better.

In an exclusive interview with Rusen Kumar, Editor –in- Chief-, INDIACSR, Satish Jha shared his views and mission of the project. He talked about education, education system, government and corporate response towards the OLPCIP, major challenges of the project and social importance of the laptop in educating children.

Satish Jha has big dream for the Laptop program. He said, “I have a dream to reach all 220 million children as soon as it can be made to happen.”

Below is the transcript of the interview.

What is the Mission and aim of the One Laptop Per Child India Project (OLPCIP)?

India has a serious challenge in educating its young citizens who determine its future. 65 years of freedom has not been able to draw the attention of its leaders in understanding one simple fact: Human beings are capable of doing way beyond what they do and it’s a function of the skills and learning they are able to afford as well as their motivation and opportunities.

Learning and skills are the foundations that help human beings to contribute to their society and environment and extend the boundaries of human accomplishments. India has ignored that for 65 years because it did not have the priorities focused on its underprivileged nor did it have the technologies that could help it address the challenges of widespread ignorance.

OLPC has made it possible to address that here and now. OLPC’s mission in India is to help those children who may not have a proper school or classroom, quality teachers or books, desks and chairs and electricity and blackboard and help them learn the way the best do today and better. Because OLPC is about “learning learning” and it can help even the most privileged children learn a lot more effectively. But its designed to address the challenges of learning that the governments have failed to address.

Why such kind of project is required in India?

Because the existing education system does not manage to nurture people with skills beyond very basic manual capabilities. After passing out of 9th grade students cannot write 5 sentences in any language of their preference correctly. India’s education of the underprivileged may meet the bureaucratic criteria of using a tick mark to say they are providing educations. But it does little more than a drop in the ocean would or what nurturing a lion on a lamb’s diet would do. OLPC can help every child discover who s/he may be.

Einstein was not born to rich parents or Nobel laureates and India’s future Einsteins may come from the millions of families the Government has had little time to think about. OLPC can help in that without first making a school building (it works like Shantiniketan of education) or first hiring all the teachers (they do not come off the shelf and take 15 to 20 years to groom and children have no time to wait that long) or without first having electricity or internet (as it takes little power and runs on solar and is a hotspot to connect all other laptops) or without first insisting on addressing hunger and healthcare (because if they live they can learn and begin to address the question of hunger and if they learn they will be better off dealing with healthcare than without it).

India’s children have a future with OLPC a bit like cell phone offered those who could not dream of having a telephone. For it is the cell phone of education as well.

In how many countries One Laptop Per Child Project is going on?

OLPC is being adopted by about one country per month on an average. Today about 50 countries are working with OLPC. Uruguay achieved 100% adoption in 2009 and Peru has done so with one laptop per 2 or 3 children. Rwanda has gone beyond 100,000 despite its budgetary challenges. Australia has adopted 50,000 children in areas where aboriginal population is large.

How is response of government and corporate sector towards the OLPCIP in India?

Everyone loves OLPC when they see it and understand it. But the Government has had little interest in addressing the challenges the poor face beyond putting an ointment on the cancer of ignorance.

A Government that cannot understand that laptops are not made in $10 and has wasted 6 years of India’s children trying to produce them has little hope to offer until its leadership begins to see the future before it takes the next steps.

The corporate sector too is more concerned about how to take credit for doing so much more without addressing the challenges. They want to address the question of ignorance of India’s poor in a few hundred rupees and sometimes find the idea of laptop as a luxury when their own children continue to pay fees over Rs 10,000 per month and in the case of some elite schools they pay more than Rs 2 Lakhs a month.

So it requires a serious change in attitude, vision and strategy to begin appreciating that by not educating the children the way they can, we are not helping ourselves, our businesses, our nation as those who could earn a lakh rupees a month are made to live with a few thousand, those who could pay taxes have to be subsidized instead, those who could make huge contributions to India and the mankind are left at the mercy of the state’s largess. It does not have to be so. And it can be achieved within our existing budget.

What kind of challenges you are facing in implementing the project in India?

The first is that the Government of India’s MHRD has been making policies after policies that simply are designed to benefit certain segments of stakeholders, usually businesses that have the capacity of making MHRD hear them.

Secondly, MHRD becomes a wall when some state governments want to pursue OLPC and request it for budget and MHRD wants them to conform to the schemes that are designed to benefit the vendor and not the students.

Thirdly, by announcing a phantom project like Sakshaat and, later, Aakash the Government has given a wrong signal that something that cannot be done is actually doable. Years after years of failures do not bother the Government because few have interest in educating the underprivileged. The poor have no voice in this system and those making policies for the poor do not understand the challenges of being poor and by throwing a phantom idea like a cheap laptop, MHRD has paralyzed thinking across the nation and every decision maker has been made to behave like a deer in front of flashlight.

Fourthly, MHRD has turned laptop as a surrogate for education. If it looked at OLPC it will realize that OLPC is not just a laptop or a tablet or simply applications or a piece of technology that any laptop or tablet would aspire to have. It has neither experimented with OLPC nor gone to see the experiments in other countries that have succeeded with it, something it routinely does for many other projects.

Fifthly, it has shut out programs after programs from having flexibility for the state governments to experiment within those programs because that may come in the way of the benefits that accrue to the stakeholders for whom the program was designed.

Sixthly, it does not take an outcome oriented approach and prefers to have a checkbox policy. If the boxes are checked, all is well. That is how bureaucracies are made to function. But most advanced countries leave room for innovation and improvement as the program progresses. India’s bureaucracy seems loath to innovation and modifications as the vendors who do not have any interest in any changes in a program usually dictate the purpose of the programs may need.

One can write a book on how the Government of India has chosen not to think about educating its underprivileged, how it becomes a barrier and how it proactively pursues policies that are detrimental to the health of its children and the nation.

Please share about yourself (Satish Jha) and role and responsibility in One Laptop Per Child India Project?

I come from a village in Bihar where no one pays taxes as they do not have the incomes to be taxed on. Bihar’s per capita income in its villages is Rs 6000 per annum or $120 or so. That is among the lowest in the world and it still is touted as an example of “good governance”.

I was lucky to get scholarships from the Governments of Uttar Pradesh and India- Rs 10 for the first 5 years, Rs 50 for the next 4 years and Rs 110 for the last 2. That was a grand sum of Rs 5640 over 11 years or a little less than $1000 over 11 years. I paid back many times over in taxes.

I was lucky to teach at IIPA where mid level IAS officers come for training, to work at ASCI and learn some aspects of management with R K Pachauri, was fortunate enough to be the youngest assistant editor in the national press (Indian Express Group), lucky to have an opportunity to start a daily newspaper for the Indian Express (Jansatta) that achieved a circulation of 100,000 in six months, a record at the time and had the opportunity to lead a formidable newsweekly of its times for The Times of India Group (Dinamaan) as its chief editor. Meanwhile I also got scholarships to study at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, The Kennedy School of Government, the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs, the Institute of Social studies at The Hague, Institute Theseus that became a part of EDHEC, France and all that helped me appreciate various aspects of decision making- from development economics to international affairs, from the government of science to foreign policymaking, from political economy to management.

My experience with Roche as a global technology management leader (what is normally called a CIO now) was a great learning experience and taught me what differentiates the value creating companies from value destroying nations. I was shocked to learn that just 3 companies in Switzerland- Roche, Ciba and Sandoz- had a market value that exceeded India’s GDP. In other words the wealth of 3 companies was more than India’s annual income when India had 300 times the people these 3 companies employed?

Opportunity to lead James Martin & Co where I has an equal shareholder offered lessons in creating vision, strategies, technology plans, strategic plans, selecting technologies and implementing them and I leveraged them for what I naturally liked- using the tools of progress for the development of the underprivileged.

Co-founding DESI Power, Tarahaat.com, Digital Partners India, Baramati Conference etc brought me face to face with the new possibilities to help change India’s villages. Unfortunately, we are always on a learning curve and most of my partners have had their learning curves as well. Often times, it was not possible to keep the pace that we could have had because the toughest job is to bring everyone on the same page. But bailing out Drishtee.com and finding investors to nurture it and e-healthcare Foundation etc was both a frustrating and satisfying experience. From there One Laptop per Child that Nicholas Negroponte made possible was a natural next step.

However, OLPC does not function as a business organization. I left my career and have used up my savings, pension funds and borrowings to keep knocking on every door that I knew or could find to change the way India’s children learn. My goal is to reach every child I can. My ex-wife founded Polio-Plus in India to eradicate Polio and it turned out to be one of the rare successes in India and my commitment was to help eradicate ignorance.

I have a couple of amazing colleagues supporting me in this initiative and together we hope to persuade our leaders to see what they are missing out on and settling for much too little when they can create a whole new world if they begin to get their priorities right.

Millions of children in India are far from school and unable to get proper education (food and health care) particularly in rural area, What kind of opinion you have?

220 Million children in India are being consciously denied education and learning and an opportunity to become who they can become by the blinkered policies of the governments. Be it in the name of we cannot afford it, helplessness about seeing the future, little concern for the poor, inability to understand the poor or technologies that are emerging, being a victim of the rote learning they grew up with that saps creativity and our ability to imagine, the fact is that our education policies have lacked imagination and a drive to help our achievement achieve their potential.

Do you have any target and time frame for the project implementation?

My target is to reach all 220 million children as soon as it can be made to happen. But India is more than just a large country. It’s a complex society, a community of “nations” that are embedded in the 35 states and union territories we have.

We are eager to know more about Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and chairman of the OLPC mission on the One Laptop Per Child Project, particularity in India?

Negroponte is a global leader in imagining what technologies can do and making their development possible. It’s India’s opportunity to learn from his experiences or choose to stay with anyone who has no track record of anything creative. In my opinion, India is not ready yet to even appreciate the way the world is evolving and seems happy following it several generations behind the curve. While the technology leaders of the world are busy imagining what will help the mankind and creating what most of the world will see decades from now, India’s best minds are busy consuming what the world produces, generations behind the consumption curve. The gap between technology consumption and imagining and creating is measurable in several generations. India has chosen to happily stay behind. On technology, India relates to the world as a reader of poems will relate to a poet.

In how many states you want to make presence by project?

We can only go where the Chief Ministers or Education Ministers are able to see far enough. M A Baby of Kerala is an exceptional leader. Manipur, Himachal have had the pioneering chief ministers, the Uttar Pradesh bureaucracy stood up because of our relationships and the Rajasthan Chief Minister personally promised me to take it forward.

I was delighted to meet the Maharashtra Chief Minister who is clearly among a rare a breed of politicians to have a first rate conversation on technology and development issues and I sincerely hope he is able to take the next steps. And so is the chief minister of Gujarat interested in taking it forward. The Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar has been keen on pursuing OLPC for all its children but the chief minister is not in a hurry when it comes to education beyond appointing “teachers” who may not be ready to teach anyone. The Education Minister of West Bengal came to meet me and wanted all 13 million children to learn with OLPC but was new to government and caved in to his Education Secretary’s compulsions and made sad choices instead. So every state should take it up. But we may see some movement to improve education only in the states where the Chief Ministers are real leaders.

How do you measure Social Impact of the project and what has been the impact in the past.

We measure the impact as clearly as you would measure the impact of feeding a hungry. By the smiles on the faces of those who become curious to learn and begin to enjoy learning. By the percentage the rate of drop-outs drop and by the ratio teachers begin to teach rather than be absent. By the impact on the cognitive skills of the learners and the impact on making them critical thinkers and problem solvers.

It will be meaningless to measure their progress in terms of how well they perform on rote learning, how much more they can score in the traditional educational methods. India has hundreds of perfect scorers and hardly any visible creative contributors to the world of knowledge.

Why should the money be invested in XO laptops when IT companies and other are donating the Laptops.

IT companies have to grow up to learn the meaning of innovation, creativity and even computers and what they can do. They follow the industry leaders and work to the assigned task that is way behind the cutting edge work done by the technology and process leaders in the world. The laptops they may donate will be generations behind what OLPC is. OLPC is not just a laptop or a tablet. It’s a learning eco-system. Each and every piece of OLPC is designed from new ground up. There is nothing about it that follows what laptops are.

It is a machine that combines a general purpose computer with all that will make a child or anyone who needs to know the foundation of learning learning.

It is designed on the premise that knowledge is infinite and cannot be crammed up by a child any more. So they must learn how to learn and must know how to use what they learn.

Normal computers are designed to do what they do. OLPC grows with the students. Just last week I saw a news item from another country where OLPC has been successful where children were claiming that their laptops were better than the teachers.

India has to stop, think and evaluate what OLPC is. It has to reach a point where it can begin asking the right questions. As of now those who understand it and can ask the right questions are few and far between.

What challenges do you foresee for the project implementation in after Jaya Lalita is providing free Laptops?

Jayalalitha’s free laptops may be found to be another disaster. What she wanted to do was what OLPC has been suggesting. What she ended up doing is what India’s bureaucracy is able to understand. There is a huge gap between the leader and the implementer.

Jayalalitha’s laptops are the 15” screen laptops made by Lenovo at a price where it cannot do what the students want to do and most likely they will meet the needs of few students.

Tamilnadu was better off starting out with OLPC in grade One. That would have changed the way students learn and the way the future generation of Tamilnadu children may have grown up to be.

What the state has done is more of the same that may have little impact on education or learning after spending all the money that the state may. That money will benefit the vendors more than the students.

I sincerely hope Jayalalitha’s advisers begin to appreciate the difference between a diamond and zircon, between form and substance, between what transforms and what keeps us where we are, between Tamilnadu’s potential and where it is and then they will see the value that OLPC offers that no other existing computer offers to the world of learning. arget is to Reachall 220 million Childn as Soon as it can be Made to Happen: Satish Jha, ChairmanOPC India Foundation



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