Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

‘I want to give smartphones to every teacher in government schools’

Digital Empowerment Foundation founder Osama Manzar on what he would do with a billion dollars

Each week, we ask people working in the field of public policy what they would do if they were given a billion dollars to spend on projects. What policy initiatives would they fund, and how would they spend this money?

This week, we spoke to Osama Manzar, founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation.

If you have your own billion-dollar plan, send it to Selected entries will be published online.

Here. Take a billion dollars. So, is that enough money to do anything substantial in public policy in India? Why or why not?

Actually, public policy does not need money. If we want any new public policy, we need sustained advocacy after having identified the public issue, and provide policy options. If there is an existing public policy that needs meticulous implementation then, yes, a financial allocation can be used to partly fund the entire implementation in a particular area or a region or a state.

Incidentally, in India, there are several public policies and they often suffer from bad planning and implementation to make an adequate impact. For example, take the case of Right To Information (RTI). It is a great public policy and it is also something extremely desired and people-driven, yet it has been suffering challenges of adequate implementation.

On the one hand, RTI hasn’t even reached the last woman in a village—beneficiaries of RTI applications is estimated at barely 8 million citizens a year. At the same time, governments and the bureaucracy have relentlessly complained about too many “undesirable RTI applications".

Another public policy that really bothers me a lot for not having been meticulously implemented is right to education (RTE). If I have a chance to look at just one policy and one area of public good that must not be compromised, I would choose 1.4 million government schools in India and ensure they deliver what they are meant for.

Coming to what a billion dollars can do for a chosen public policy. Let me start by looking at what $1 billion means to India. A billion is a 100 crore, which is the population that is yet to be connected to the Internet. A 100 crore dollars converted into Indian currency would somewhere around Rs6,500 crore. Interestingly, if I want this money to be used for connecting the unconnected India, I will have just a dollar, or about Rs65, per person to connect them. Which is not a lot.

However, if I choose to use it for the purpose of RTE, it gives me just about Rs46,000 per school to make all the changes that is desired. So, then the issue is what can Rs46,000 do for a school in a village in India?

What are some areas of public policy that you really care about? Feel free to go as micro as you want.

The one public good that I care about is education. Not because I love education or the system of education, or because I have some extraordinary love for the educational institutions of the country, but because education is the only institutional good that works at the society and community level when people are in their infancy.

I consider the school as a public good. In fact, I consider the most important public good, an unparalleled institution that needs to be looked at to make it work not just as a K12 system but as tutelage for the harmonic growth of the country.

So, what is your billion-dollar public policy idea? Why is it important?

We have about 1.4 million schools in India. This public service more or less employs about 7 million teachers. In fact, ideally, the number of teachers should not be less than 10 million. This public good also provides a public space, tools for education and even food to the children and teachers for at least one meal a day.

Yet, after almost seven decades, we have not been able to make sure that:

• all teachers attend schools regularly

• all children attend schools

• all children complete the full cycle of school

• all teachers certainly teach

• all schools are functional and have everything that has been promised

It is important to note that this is not so much an issue of inadequate public policy as much as one of accountability and a lack of responsibility among stakeholders.

So, my billion-dollar idea is to provide each and every teacher in a government school in India a smartphone enabled with a mandatory app. Let’s call the app Ustaad.

Broadly, what can a billion dollars do for this particular area?

As I mentioned earlier, considering that we have a billion dollars to spend that comes to about Rs46,000 per school of the 1.4 million in the country. It is important that the idea of spending this money must be one-time and not recurring and that it must build a sustainable ecosystem. According to me, broadly, this financial assistance should go to the following two areas:

• responsibility and accountability of the most important stakeholder—the teachers

• each and every school must necessarily be provided with high-bandwidth Internet connectivity

That is where the app will help. But first, let me elaborate how these two alone would make all the difference that is desirable.

We all know that India’s school dropout rate is extreme. Out of all the enrolments that takes place, more than 39% boys and 33% girls, respectively, drop out even before completing elementary levels of schooling. Apart from the fact that poverty and the need for working hands at home may be a hurdle for children going to school, the bigger questions are:

• Are we making our schools work?

• Are teachers actually present in school and do they deliver their actual responsibility of teaching?

This is where Ustaad comes in. Each teacher with Ustaad will have to use the app to share his/her location along with the following:

• a selfie with the classroom in action as soon you enter the class and when you finish and leave the class

• every time you hold meetings with community

• a photo report of all the necessary infrastructure every week—for example, functional toilets for both girls and boys; availability of drinking water; availability of water in the toilets

• midday meal report for quality, quantity and service

• general periodic reporting

Just the regular and accountable presence of the teachers in our schools would make a huge change. However, the use of smartphone and the Ustaad app will have to be made mandatory, qualified by punishment with disincentives for poor use. Gradually, the same smartphone can be used for pushing educational resources and teaching material, making social networks of local stakeholders, etc.

The second part of my idea is connecting each school with high-speed Internet access. This is an extreme necessity as a very low-cost and high-impact infrastructural need of an educational system.

The government already has plans to provide Internet connectivity up to the panchayat level. All I need to do is spend the extra needed to connect this high-speed Internet from the panchayat node to the government school.

Now, give us a sense of how you will spend this money? Be specific if possible.

I would propose to spend money for two ideas:

• First, there is the cost of 7 million mobile handsets for as many teachers. Assuming each at the rate of Rs4,000, that is Rs2,800 crore.

• The rest is plenty for connecting school to panchayat node, ongoing maintenance and management of data, server, app, user support, upgradation and so on.

What outcomes do you hope to see?

The outcomes would be very clearly many, in particular the following:

• teachers would be present in schools

• teachers would spend time in classrooms

• children would be more motivated to go to school

• classroom presence will increase

• dropouts will decrease

• quality of education will become better

• presence of absolute poor children in schools will increase

• larger number of schools will become RTI compliant

• girls’ presence in schools will increase

What if I gave you another billion? Would you keep spending it here?

Yes. I will make use the additional billion to make each and every school wireless Internet enabled and an Internet hub for surrounding communities.

And finally, what if you had to just spend in on yourself? (Be decent.)

I will adopt about 100 villages in different parts of the country and work on holistic development plans. The idea will be to create ‘smart villages’ where people have gainful things to do besides migrate.