Sunday, August 27, 2006

the green devolution

India's population is growing faster than farm output, threatening one of its most prized achievements.

By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek International

Sept. 4, 2006 issue - The Furnace Australia sailed into Chennai last month carrying a load of wheat and, some warned, ill tidings. India's first wheat imports in six years marked a reversal in the march toward "food independence" that the country began in the 1970s. To M. S. Swaminathan, one of the agronomists credited with sparking the so-called Green Revolution, the return of grain imports should be seen as "a wake-up call" for a country that has in recent years taken its ability to feed its people for granted.

Though India's government officially dismissed the return of grain imports as a passing event, Swaminathan and other experts saw it as the latest sign of a long-term decline. The growth rate of grain production has fallen from 1.5 percent before 1995 to 1 percent today, due to a combination of bad management, unpredictable weather and a growing water shortage. Meanwhile, the growth rate for all crops has fallen to 1.25 percent a year, the lowest level since India gained independence in 1947, says Ramesh Chand, acting director of India's National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research. That's too slow to keep pace with a population now growing, according to United Nations estimates, at a rate of 1.5 percent a year. Chand says the threat to India's food independence is manageable, if the government makes the right moves.

These are sobering indicators for the Green Revolution, which was originally inspired by grave threats to the food supply in India. After back-to-back droughts put the country in danger of massive starvation in 1966, a U.S. presidential-advisory commission called for an "effort unprecedented in human history" to raise farm output around the world. And so it did, as scientists produced new strains of rice and wheat that boosted yields by a factor of five, with the help of heavy irrigation and applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In India, an initially well-executed campaign raised grain output from 82 million metric tons in 1960 to 176 million tons in 1990 and cut imports to zero by 2000. That is, until the trend reversed last month.

Now production gains are slowing as the water supply dwindles, overzealous use of fertilizer and pesticides taints the soil and excessive irrigation waterlogs the land along canals in the showpiece states of India's Green Revolution, like the Punjab and Haryana.

Because irrigated land is two and ahalf times more productive than rain-fed land, many of the gains of the Green Revolution were produced by an increase in the area under irrigation. But as India's population and economy grow, water supplies are shrinking. Already, the World Bankestimates, India meets most of its irrigation and household demand by tapping groundwater—a practice that is "no longer sustainable."

Similar threats haunt China and other developing nations that were big beneficiaries of the Green Revolution. China has responded by relaxing its commitment to being completely self-sufficient in the production of food—encouraging farmers to grow more lucrative fruits and vegetables, while importing wheat and soybeans. To free-trade advocates, this approach makes sense—why obsess over "food independence" in an increasingly global free market, if others grow wheat more efficiently than you do? Focus on the goods, agricultural or not, that you grow most efficiently.

Indeed, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called in January for a "second Green Revolution," his concern focused on raising farm incomes, not securing the food supply. He called for a fresh emphasis on fruits, vegetables and new plant varieties that would command higher prices in export markets. He also encouraged measures to harvest rainwater more efficiently, improve the soil and spread the benefits of agricultural technology, including genetically modified seeds.

But the basic position of the Singh government is that India normally produces more grain than it consumes, and soon will again. As for the recent return to imports, officials dismissed it as a procurement snafu: this year, for the first time, India allowed private buyers, including multinationals, to buy wheat directly from farmers. That helped push up prices, and the government responded by refusing to match the prices offered by private buyers. It wound up buying less wheat than usual for the federal program that provides subsidized grain to 150 million poor Indians. When supplies fell short, the government had to turn to imports—temporarily, officials insist.

Critics argue that Singh and his government are missing the big picture. Farm-policy analyst Devinder Sharma complains that "the people who govern this country believe technology is the answer to every problem," and are pushing a second revolution without examining why the first "has collapsed." Chand says the key going forward is to target backward states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, which have done little to modernize their farms, and thus have "huge potential" to reverse the slowdown in output.

One reason for these problems is that over the past decade India, as part of its effort to reduce the state role in the economy, has cut back significantly on investment in farms. Public-sector investment fell from just over 2 percent of agricultural output in 1991 to less than 1.5 percent in 2001. That slashed funds for upgrading Green Revolution technologies and for the extension programs that teach farmers how to make it all work.

By the late 1980s, when the early gains made in rice and wheat had slowed, India attempted to extend its success to pulses (peas and beans) and oilseeds. Though it did manage to produce high-yield seeds, the program failed to supply enough of these seeds to farmers, and poor oversight allowed corrupt traders to pass off ordinary seeds as high-yield hybrids, says Delhi University agricultural economist Usha Tuteja. With its vegetarian tradition India is the world's largest consumer of protein-rich pulses, but now ranks near the bottom in the production of these crops.

Swaminathan urges leaders to focus on what he calls an "evergreen revolution." The goal would be to correct the damage wrought by the first Green Revolution: adoptingnew methods like the use of natural predators instead of chemicals to eliminate pests, and switching to organic fertilizers and more efficient drip irrigation. He also says Singh should promote crops that require less water, including native Indian grains such as finger millet (ragi), pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar).

That's a tough sell for two reasons: these coarse grains, once a staple of regional Indian cuisines, have fallen out of style since the first Green Revolution made wheat cheap and plentiful. So restoring their popularity will take a major marketing push, of the kind governments rarely do well. Second, Singh sees India very differently from the critics, as a nation fighting to attain middle-class comfort, not one at risk of sliding into mass hunger. Watch the future voyages of the Furnace Australia, and whether it is carrying grain to India, for one strong sign of which view is right.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

sexing up science

Western educators and industrialists team up to boost engineering's appeal.

By Mac Margolis and Karla Bruning

Newsweek International

Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - With his unkempt hair, halogen smile and soft spot for Tamil poetry, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is not your ordinary national figurehead. The diminutive 74-year-old Indian president seems more like a self-help guru than India's leading technocrat. Though his job in this parliamentary nation is largely ceremonial, Kalam, a newspaper boy turned aeronautical engineer who stewarded India's guided-missile program, has made it his mission to raise his country to glory through scientific scholarship. He travels from school to school, exhorting students to hit the books and excel at science. If they do, he promises, India will be a fully developed nation by 2020. His mantra: "Dream, dream, dream."

By all indications, the budding scientists of India—and elsewhere in the developing world—have taken that advice to heart. Enrollment is soaring at engineering and technical schools throughout Asia. India claims to produce more than 300,000 engineers a year—three times the number in the United States. By some estimates, China turns out twice as many engineers as India, while South Korea produces nearly as many engineers as the United States with one sixth the population. Skeptics say the numbers are exaggerated. But even discounting for official hype and inconsistent academic standards, it's hard to miss the new geography. Legions of engineers from Asia's emerging-market nations are vying for—and winning—contracts, customers and patents in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. According to a recent report by Booz Allen Hamilton and Nasscom, India's IT-industry trade group, the offshore engineering industry is expected to surge from between $10 billion and $15 billion today to between $150 billion and $225 billion in 2020. India alone is poised to grab a quarter of the market.

And that's exactly why educators in the wealthiest countries are losing sleep. True, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany—the three engineering titans—still lead the way in technological innovation. A recent study by Duke University showed that while developing countries often inflate the numbers of science scholars, the United States still employs nearly a third of the world's science and engineering researchers, publishes 35 percent of science and engineering articles and generates 40 percent of research and development spending. But in middle and high schools, where the spark of scientific curiosity begins, the majority of students can't be bothered to take advanced math or physics. Enrollment in university engineering programs is stagnating; the dropout rate for graduate engineering students is a whopping 45 percent. "We have a choice: do we want Britain to become a theme park or a hub of business activity?" James Dyson, the British inventor cum entrepreneur, wrote recently in The Sunday Times. "We are on course to shuffle into a sort of residential home for retired great powers."

Now Western educators are shifting their focus from what went wrong with engineering to how to fix it. They are most troubled not by the shortfall of new scientists but by their plummeting caliber of scholarship. Even those who make it through engineering school are not always well prepared; the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis says it often has to retrain science graduates in the company laboratory.

Some institutions are trying to present students with more real-world challenges early on. In planning its curriculum, Dyson's new School of Design Innovation—scheduled to open in Bath, England, in 2008—has teamed up with companies like Rolls-Royce and Airbus to work practical design and innovation problems into the coursework. Other schools are drafting students into community service. Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering dispatched one group of undergraduates to Indonesia to help shrimp fishermen devastated by the 2004 tsunami by building a manually operated aerator for hatchery ponds. Duke junior Lee Pearson spent a month in Uganda for a clean-water project, using a clothes iron to seal water samples and building an incubator out of cardboard and Styrofoam.

Being in the field "teaches you to be flexible and ruthlessly creative," says Pearson. Indeed, Richard K. Miller, president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which graduated its first class in May, says it's crucial to get students to think "outside the box" and work in teams. "Our future doesn't depend on producing more engineers than China. [We] need more innovators," he says. "Engineering is about invention." A number of Olin graduates have parlayed classroom projects into award-winning business plans. One student, in partnership with his grandfather, launched an inter-national company that designs, manufactures and sells supportive seating for meditation.

At younger levels, industries are going out of their way to make engineering—and its components, math and science—more appealing. The Society for Women Engineers recently launched "Wow! That's Engineering?" a high-tech hands-on program that invites middle-school students to play games with gravity, motion and sound. The campaign is aimed especially at young girls, who traditionally have been conditioned to think of math and science as guy stuff—one of the reasons, perhaps, that only 11 percent of working engineers in the United States are women. Another program, "FMA Live! Where Science Rocks," sponsored by Honeywell Hometown Solutions and NASA, sends troupes of hip-hop artists and other professional entertainers into U.S. high schools and colleges across the United States to stage "interactive" skits and demonstrations of basic physics. (FMA stands for Isaac Newton's second law of motion: force equals mass times acceleration.) One routine launches a hapless school administrator across a stage in a futuristic hover chair to collide with a giant cream pie—all in the name of showing the laws of action and reaction. Is it education or show business? "Our culture has changed profoundly," says Tom Buckmaster, president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions. "We have to think of students as you would potential customers, and discover what turns them on."

Behind the hocus-pocus is the conviction that engineering has long had a bad rap. "The misperception of science and engineering jobs as geeky, dirty and dull puts off young people from a bright, exciting and profitable future," says Dyson. That's a stark contrast to the developing world, where science and technology are considered the keys to progress. "When I go to Seoul or Hong Kong, I see signs everywhere for nanotechnology, biotech labs and IT firms," says Florence Hudson, a space engineer and vice president of marketing for IBM. "The developing world's students are hungry for technology. We are not."

Whatever helps break down that resistance, say the experts, is worth trying. "It's an incredibly sexy time to be an engineer," says Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. "Think of the problems science has to solve, like global warming, public transportation, communicable diseases. Yet we still do not have a cadre of professionals prepared to solve them." Engineering's toughest challenge may be to reinvent itself—and the work has just begun.

With William Underhill in London, Jason Overdorf in New Delhi and Corinna Emundts in Berlin

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

this rampart is rising

In many nations, class barriers to college are growing.
By Rana Foroohar
Newsweek International

Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - When students take to the streets, they're usually united against something like war or racism. But when Indian students took to the streets last May they had a different cause. These were children of the wealthy upper castes out to stop a plan to reserve more university places for their peers from poor and lower-caste backgrounds. This was youth versus youth, and they were fighting for the status quo.

Resistance to social-leveling campaigns in higher education isn't limited to India. When a top French Grande Ecole—alma mater of presidents and prime ministers—began giving preferential treatment to poor students, there was an outcry from the upper classes. In Britain, there are fears that efforts by top-tier universities to recruit more students from state secondary schools will dumb down the ivory tower. These controversies say something important about the state of academia: for all the pious attacks on injustice that emanate from universities, the class gap is growing from the United States to Britain, parts of Continental Europe and Asia. The reasons are myriad: state-controlled systems that artificially limit the number of university places, admissions procedures that favor the privately educated, falling financial aid and failing public secondary schools.

The bottom line is that the worldwide boom in higher education is not, in many cases, broadening its reach among the poorest. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have university degrees is rising across the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and exceeds 20 percent in 18 of them. But in nations like Japan and the United States, where education costs are skyrocketing, the typical student comes from a much wealthier background than in the past. At Tokyo University, which has traditionally educated an economically diverse population, nearly half the parents of undergraduates now have incomes higher than $82,500 (well above the national average of about $57,500 for men in their 50s). In the United States, the percentage of students with families making more than $150,000 a year has been rising steadily for over a decade, to nearly 17 percent, while the proportion of those with a family income of $49,000 or less has been declining. A 2003 study of the 146 most selective U.S. colleges found that only 3 percent of students came from the poorest quartile of families, while 74 percent came from the richest.

By some accounts, the class divide is perhaps most pronounced in Europe. The slotting of children into vocational or university tracks continues to limit the upward mobility of many poor kids at an early age. Meanwhile, the relative lack of funding, particularly compared with the United States, means fewer new university slots to accommodate growth in demand. Today, only about a third of all secondary-school grads in the European Union go on to university, and working-class kids are highly underrepresented, especially at elite institutions. In the U.K., where Tony Blair's New Labour Party has made socioeconomic diversity in top schools a key priority, a recent survey found that the share of spots at Oxford that go to state schoolkids (in other words, not rich private-school grads) has fallen 5 percent since 2001.

Politicians and educators everywhere are looking for ways to fix the imbalance. But there's a lingering fear that easing the way for poor kids will bring down the quality of education and, thus, national competitiveness. "My honest opinion is that it is going to be a disaster," says P. V. Indiresan, former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), about the proposed quota system. "No. 1, it introduces a new social tension which we never had in the IIT system before. No. 2, you need certain institutions in a country where you are able to stream the very best talent available. Once you get students of a lower caliber, there will be enormous pressure to reduce to the standard of instruction."

Business leaders second this sentiment, and not only in India. Almost everywhere outside the United States, where affirmative action has long been the status quo, there is resistance to changing admissions to favor the less advantaged. When Richard Descoings, the head of France's prestigious Sciences Po Paris, began aggressively recruiting kids from lower-class backgrounds in 2001, critics lamented the end of blind égalité and privileged students worried that the degree would be devalued. "There were eternal debates on whether this program fit in with the principles of the French Republic," says Descoings, "but nobody asked whether or not it was effective."

In fact, it was; this past summer, the first class of 15 pioneers from poorer suburbs graduated from Sciences Po with respectable results, some near the top of the class. Elsewhere, there's also plenty of evidence that, given a chance, kids from lower-income backgrounds can do just as well or better than others. In the U.K., for example, Sir Peter Lampl, head of the Sutton Trust, an education nonprofit, says that if admissions were based purely on A-level test results, two thirds of students at Oxbridge would come from state rather than private secondary schools. In reality, only about half of them do. "Many poor kids don't have the confidence" to apply to top schools, particularly since graduating secondary school students must apply before they see their test results, says Lampl. And while private secondary academies advise students on how to maximize their chances of admission, even how to target specific departments at certain schools, state-school pupils are left to their own devices. The result, says Lampl, is that top-tier universities in Britain are excluding some 3,000 qualified state-school students every year.

That has major economic implications, given that the wage premium on a top-tier degree has never been higher. According to a number of studies, if going to college increases your earning power, then going to a top university increases it exponentially. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that graduates of top schools in the United States typically earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their lives than similarly accomplished graduates of state universities. Depending on the country, a person with a university degree can command anywhere from 25 to 120 percent more than one without.

Finances are a further burden for the nonrich. As numbers of college applicants rise, costly prep classes, which can run $50 or more per hour, are becoming de rigueur. In the United States, while the absolute amount of aid to university students is up, financial aid is being replaced by merit aid, which favors the middle and upper classes. In Europe, where universities are still tax-supported and practically tuition-free for everyone, the poor get no leg up on the rich, who already have every advantage.

That something must be done is obvious to most nations. Basically, the combination of aging societies and rising demand for tech-savvy workers mean that most rich nations face an emerging shortage of educated labor, one that can't possibly be filled by the wealthy alone. Some solutions are, of course, country-specific. Europeans need to modernize and, to some extent, privatize their university systems so they can better respond to the needs of the market. More flexibility is key; while the United States and Scandinavia offer all kinds of two-year or associate's degree programs, in many parts of Europe and Asia four-year degree courses are the only option. But in Norway, for example, a modular system allows students to balance school with work or family commitments. They can finish courses in their own time, acquiring certificates for specific skills over a period of months, or a year, which can eventually be combined into a degree.

Perhaps the best way to equalize university education is to improve secondary schools in poor regions. In India, the rate of absenteeism in state schools is 25 percent—and that's for teachers. "Poor but talented kids tend to go to impoverished high schools, where parents, teachers and other students are just less interested in learning," says Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation. "What they need is to be around peers who have big dreams—that will allow them to work up to their potential."

In Britain, educators are trying to cultivate those dreams with a new program in which top universities would help identify talented students as young as 11, and help them stay on track to reach elite colleges. The ethos is reflected in Oxford's new recruiting slogan: "It's not where you're from—it's where you want to go." As the need for knowledge workers grows, it will clearly be more and more important for poor kids, as well as rich ones, to go all the way to the top.

With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi, Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2006

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

tutors get outsourced

(Business 2.0) August 1, 2006 -- IDEA NO. 6 Services that once required face time can be profitably handled online.

America's education crisis, along with the rise of online video, is turning into another big opportunity for India. Companies like New Delhi-based Educomp are tutoring U.S. high school students in math and science one-on-one via the Internet. Anyone with a PC and a webcam can use the service, and the Indian companies' combined annual revenue is an estimated $10 million. That's a small slice of the $2.3 billion tutoring business, but India's share is growing fast.

Indian companies charge as little as $100 a month for unlimited, real-time, interactive video tutoring. A private face-to-face session in the United States runs as much as $100 an hour. Plus, most of the Indian companies guarantee that their tutors have at least an undergraduate degree in the subject they teach. In the United States, nearly 30 percent of high school math teachers lack a major or minor in the field.

TutorVista, based in Bangalore, recently tapped $2 million from Sequoia Capital and anticipates $10 million more for acquisitions by next year. Chairman K. Ganesh compares the sector to mobile communications: When the right price point is reached, he says, "the market size will increase 10-fold."

But the real opportunity could lie in using online tutoring to leverage other educational services. New Delhi-based Career Launcher has already acquired a U.S. company and begun to roll out bricks-and-mortar tutoring centers just like the ones it operates in Dubai. Seems they have a thing or two to teach American educators.