The OLPC in India

I spent the last evening in the American Center near Churchgate, Mumbai, at a presentation on the launch of the “one laptop per child” — OLPC — in India. The event was hosted by a bunch of institutions: Asia Society, Digital Bridge Foundation (created by the Reliance ADA Group), MIT Alumni Association of India, and Consulate General of the US.

I had received an email saying that Prof Negroponte would like to meet with me after the presentation. Negroponte, as most people know, is the founder and chairman of the OLPC project and a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab. The announcement said, “Professor Nicholas Negroponte will discuss the MIT-Media Labs developed XO-laptop which is widely seen as revolutionizing primary education around the world…”

The OLPC’s XO is going to be much in the news. BusinessWeek’s Nandini Lakshman called me on Saturday to chat about the impending launch of OLPC India. She was going to accompany the OLPC team to Khairat, a village close to Mumbai where the XO is being premiered. You can read the details of that project in Nandini’s report in Businessweek: One Laptop Per Child Lands in India.

The presentation by Negroponte was predictable. I had been to one earlier in June last year in Addis Ababa. He speaks of the XO with the conviction, passion and pride of a parent for his favorite child. Outside in the lobby were a couple of XOs, the cute little green machine. First time I handled one and I think it deserves all the praise it gets for its design.

At the too brief question/answer session, I got the chance to point out that “we should keep in mind that India spends, on average, around $5 per student per month, compared to the US which spends around $1,200 per student per month. Even if the per month cost of the laptop is of the order of $10 per student, it represents multiples of the current spending in India.”

I have been following the OLPC story for a while on this blog. I think that technology — especially information and communications technology — presents tools that are going to transform how education is done and what it achieves. It will really be appropriate to call it a revolution and it is just a matter of “when”, not “if.” Tools transform; they change processes, and eventually they change the product. The process of education which has essentially remained unchanged for at least a hundred years is ripe for change, whether or not the current bosses of the system are willing or not.

But I don’t think that the XO is the answer to any of the basic problems that Indian education system faces. Some people just don’t get it: that something can be quite useful and good, and at the same time inappropriate for a given situation.

I have no reason to doubt the glowing reviews that the XO has received. I have no difficulty believing that all else being equal, a child with an XO is better off than one without one. All else being equal, a person with a BMW is better off than a person without a BMW.

Negroponte speaks very eloquently about how children gifted an XO get terribly excited about going to school and learning. So would I. So would the child get excited about going to school if he gets the promise of a much-need mid-day meal. Incentives matter.

But eventually we have to face the fact that if children are not excited about going to school and have to be enticed by promises of goodies, then we have a problem whose genesis lies deep within the system and superficially dealing with the symptoms are bound to be in vain.

Anyway, these people are not doing arithmetic. I am not opposed to the XO. I did the arithmetic and the results indicate that India is too poor to afford the XO. I fail to understand which part of this argument the OLPC people don’t get.

Let me conclude with a story that I found heartbreaking and much as I would like to forget that I read it, I cannot. And pardon me for relaying this unhappy story.

It was in one of the local Mumbai newspapers. I think it was in the Mid-Day about 10 days ago. It said that a security guard had noticed a 12-year old boy hanging about the school gate for a couple of days. He alerted some social workers. They questioned him. He said that he wanted to go to school, and so he was waiting at the gate. They found out that his relatives had brought him to Mumbai from some other town and abandoned him.

He gave them the particulars of his home address and names of his relatives. The social workers decided to get in touch with his relatives but the boy said that they will not want him back, and that anyway he wanted to go to school. The newspaper report then says that somehow the boy gave the social workers a slip and they had no idea where he went.

Imagine yourself at 12 years of age. You see kids your age going to school wearing nice clothes, being cared for by parents, having friends — and you yourself are abandoned in a city and you desperately wish to go to school. I imagined that and it broke my heart.

How could the social workers be so incompetent that they lost the kid? If they had only put him up for a few days and in the newspaper report included contact details, I would have been happy to pay for that kid’s schooling and all other costs. I could easily spare the few thousand rupees it would cost every month. I was furious with the reporter for not doing a better job of recording the social organization which mishandled the case.

I can easily imagine that many other readers of that story would also have stepped forward to help the boy.

Anyway, that story once again underlined a few hard facts to me. Yes, I could help that one boy. But there are tens of millions like him who would love have a decent shot at life. Not only I am too poor to help them all, even our society is too impoverished to help its children. The children have no rights at all. The society mindlessly produces children that it does not have the resources to care for.

In Delhi I saw huge bill-boards that said, “India values its children.” I think they were paid for by the government of Delhi, or maybe by some consumer goods company. The disconnect between the claim and the reality could not have been more jarring.

Heartlessly the society just produces more children without a thought to producing the stuff that these children need — food, shelter, education, and a thousand other things. The government sees these as vote banks — they will grow up to be illiterate and poor and their votes will be bought for a few rupees worth of bribes, or the promise of some reservation or the other. Then these poor will in turn produce more children. The cycle continues. And the writers write opinion pieces on the demographic dividend and the peddlers of laptops say buy millions of our laptops and you will have a great educational system.

Yeah right.

Author: Atanu Dey


11 thoughts on “The OLPC in India”

  1. I feel your anguish.

    Its always darkest before the light.

    The only thing that worries me is: how much longer till we reach the darkest point?


  2. Ars Technica (now owned by Conde Nast) has been covering the OLPC about as good as something can be covered since it’s inception with glowing reviews. They were OLPC apologists while there were delays and problems, and even they’ve gone sour on the whole deal now:

    The OLPC did innovate, the screen, low-power chipset and the social interface are all here to stay and evolve in open source form and commercially. There’s a bigger and better razor right around the corner though, luckily there’s more competition this time too.


  3. I linked this through Twitter, and you should have had about 30 or so clicks. I think your comment registration might have cut off interest in continuing the discussion, though.

    Good stuff.


  4. Atanu,
    I think child labor is the reason for lack of education and above average population growth in India.
    Poor people have the perverse incentive to have a child because they can make the child work for them starting at an early age.
    This happens in cities and villages.
    In cities, maids bring some of their children to work with them. They might some of their other kids to work in a dhaba or a sweatshop of some kind.
    Child labor laws need to be enforced strongly, both employers (yes even aunties who let their maids bring children to work !) and parents should be held accountable.


  5. Atanu,
    Yet again – hit the proverbial nail on its head!
    India has, needless to say, many, many problems. However, in the final analysis, India falls down because she has since a long, long time neglected ALL her children, perpetuating ignorance, bigotry, castism and thereby creating today’s disaster.
    There is no instant solution, no mantra, no extra-terrestrial assistance. WE (the collective) got ourselves into this mess – only WE can get ourselves out.
    Money alone will not resolve this issue.
    Happy 15th August!


  6. Forgot to ask the general readership –
    what happened to the 3Rs (not Rupees)?
    Reading; (w)Riting; (a)Rithmatic.
    For centuries that was the foundation upon which everthing else was built.


  7. Though not topical – still a good quote:

    For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

    – Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994)


  8. I agree that as a society, India does not have enough resources for essential needs – food, shelter, education etc. I would like to point that Kerala also does not have more resources than India and perhaps less resources than few states. But still its record of health, education is much better than other states. I hope if other states learn that from Kerala.


  9. If india and Indians we so concerned about our children or any body in india or the world at large we would not have a Overpopulated country , india bursting to seams is a very conservative statement.


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