Explainer: Minimum Support Price (MSP)

There are many misconceptions about MSP, which I had written about in an earlier post. To help my students understand this better, I put together a short explainer on the topic, including some inputs from my colleague.  I’m sharing a link below, in case regular readers of this blog find it useful too.  Please do share your feedback in the comments section below.

MSP Explainer

The deep silence of integrity

There was pin-drop silence in the room.  Occasionally, I could hear someone clearing his throat hesitantly or the scratching of pens and pencils on paper.  We were all afraid to lift our eyes to look around the room or even breathe loudly.

It was a mid-term test and the professor had left us students alone in the room. He had distributed the question papers and said that he had to do something urgent and would be back in twenty minutes.  He said that we should work on our test; he is trusting us not to talk or cheat during the exam.  And then, surprisingly, he simply left.

Maybe he was standing and listening to us right outside the door the whole time.  Maybe he actually had something urgent which needed to be done immediately.  Maybe he was conducting an experiment on whether students would cheat on a test if there was no invigilator in the room.  Or maybe he had simply made a bet with a colleague.

Whatever the case, he left his class of about 40 students alone in the examination hall, for a test which was worth probably 30% of the course grade.  This was a novel experience for me, as a young undergraduate at the University of California, at Berkeley.  Never had any teacher left the class during an exam.

He was gone for about 20 minutes.  To me, it felt like an eternity.  I had never seen a bunch of undergrads observe such pin-drop silence even during the most fascinating lectures.  For the next 20 minutes, I did not hear a single voluntary human sound.  Even the clearing of someone’s throat sounded apologetic and hesitant.  Such was the burden of integrity placed on us, that we complied half out of fear of being accused of cheating, and half out of pride of displaying impeccable integrity.

I contrast this experience of two decades ago with a recent experience.  A group of about 40 newly admitted students sitting for a test worth about 20% of their course grade.  Despite the invigilator repeatedly reminding students to not talk during the test, there is recurrent murmuring.  The invigilator has to leave the room for one minute to facilitate a swap with a professor in another room.  When the professor enters, he finds several students talking. He admonishes them and is forced to change the seat of a student and still the murmuring continues.

When I discussed with students why they cheated, I received startling responses.  One student claimed that he didn’t cheat.  Surprised, I asked him, “You didn’t talk at all in the class?”

He replied, “Yes, I talked but I didn’t cheat.”

“What did you talk about?”

“I asked her about question 6.”

Incredulous, I asked, “Isn’t that cheating?”

“No. I only asked one question.  Cheating is when you copy the whole test. And, she said that she didn’t know the answer.  So I didn’t cheat.”

I almost laughed.  I had to explain that whether it was one question or all, whether he got a useful response or not, his actions constituted cheating.

His response?  “I am from UP.  This is how things are done there.”

Another student offered a variant of this excuse:  “I didn’t know that this is not allowed at Azim Premji University. This is my first test here.”  One student who hadn’t cheated defended others by claiming that it was the invigilator’s responsibility to “snatch away their papers” instead of only telling them to not talk and cheat, thus blaming the invigilator for lack of vigilance.

Of course, the majority of incoming students hadn’t cheat and only a few had. But the fact that many who hadn’t cheated saw cheating as a matter of process compliance and not integrity is both surprising and disheartening.  Today’s students are going to be the professionals of tomorrow. They are going to be the professionals who power the future economy, who go on to become leaders of small and large companies, and in the my university’s case, become development practitioners working to tackle issues of climate change, farmers’ livelihoods, public health and social justice.

In setting up Indian students on an almost maniacal pursuit of high marks, we have taught them that not only must they do ‘whatever it takes’ to get those high marks, but that it is perfectly acceptable to do so.

In our masters program, we have just two years to bring about a dramatic change in the mindset of students who come with such beliefs, to inculcate integrity and commitment, not only through fear of being caught, but by understanding the link between personal integrity and societal outcomes.  We hope to help these students see that moral corruption is not just about the large scams in the newspapers. It is also the traffic cops taking a bribe from motorcyclists without documents; the doctors prescribing procedures we don’t need; and some students cheating in exams in the hope of better jobs.

When comparing this recent experience with that from an un-invigilated test of two decades ago, I can’t help but hope that in the two years we have them, we are able to help students realize that they don’t need an invigilator to stay honest.  And that leading social change is not always about loud raucous speeches, long dharnas and high-visibility innovation; often leading social change starts with personally demonstrating the deep silence of integrity arising from within.

On sustainability

Teaching about development issues can be a dismal enterprise.  The long-simmering structural issues can seem unsurmountable.  And viewing these issues through narrow lenses limits our understanding as well as our imagination of possible solutions.  So it is heartening to see this awesome piece by Harini Nagendra, “The global south is rich in sustainability lessons that students deserve to hear” in Nature.

 

The limited Western view of sustainability is stifling progress, just as the world faces crises over water, climate change, energy and biodiversity. That view also does a disservice to the variety and creativity of thinking and actions on sustainability in societies across the globe. Developing countries face the most acute challenges in this regard, yet they have the widest gaps in knowledge. Solutions that work in one place might fail in another.

And…

Key topics to explore include how communities reshape traditional approaches to grapple with twenty-first-century challenges, how they address gender and caste inequities, and how philosophies and faiths influence people’s attitudes to nature.

An abstract can’t quite do it justice, so read it in full.

Migration for us, not them: A conversation in class

Discussions with students on agrarian distress and migration inevitably turn into “how can we stop migration from rural to urban India”.  In India, one in five rural households have an out-migrant for economic reasons.  About half of these out-migrants send remittances home.  In most cases, these remittances provide an essential life-line to households otherwise suffering from various forms of agrarian or broader rural distress.  Despite this, the idea of wanting to stop migration has taken a firm root in our collective consciousness.

When we say that we want to stop migration, what we are really saying is that we want people to stay where they are – where they were born.  And how narrowly would we define “where they were born”?  Would we require they stay in their own district? Within a 100 km radius of where they were born? Within a 10 km radius?

And whose migration would we want to stop?  Everybody? An IT professional? A construction worker? In my class, emphatically state that I am a migrant to Bangalore.  If all migration was stopped, I wouldn’t be here teaching this class. Many students laugh. Some are silent.

The cognitive dissonance in the class is palpable. The students want to say “we meant stop migration of poor rural people not you” but they realize how elitist that sounds, so there is silence for some time while students process their own thoughts.

How can we subscribe to any argument which says that everyone should remain within 10 km of where they were born?  Imagine how boring the world would be… Creating a dynamic society requires exchange of ideas, of people, of things.  In “no migration” scenario, we would have a pretty boring and stagnant human society.

“We don’t want that”. Then what?  You want to prevent only the rural poor from migrating but are okay with the well-off to migrate?

Some clarifications emerge: Migration for marriage is okay.  Urban-to-urban migration is okay.  Rural-to-rural is okay. But rural-to-urban is not.

Okay, let’s back up. Why do we want to stop migration, anyway? “Because our cities cannot support any more migrants”.

If that’s the case, instead of stopping migration, shouldn’t we improve the capability of our cities to provide for the migrants?  Shouldn’t we develop/improve many more cities to absorb migrants, rather than using our inability as an excuse to stop others?

“But then, who would do farming? Who would produce our food?”  Ah, so now we are saying that we want to stop migration so that we can compel others to grow our food.

But shouldn’t choice of occupation be voluntary? Just because someone’s parents are farmers, must they continue farming?  Are you in the same occupation as your parents? “No”.  So why demand that of farmers’ children?  Shouldn’t they have a choice too?

“But then, who would do farming”? Firstly, all farmers may not leave farming.  Even if they did, in principle, others who are currently in cities could move to rural areas to do farming.  Why not?

“But they will not want to move to rural areas because farming doesn’t pay enough. It is risky. Also there are no good schools or hospitals so they won’t want to live in rural areas”.  So,  shouldn’t we provide essential services like schools and hospitals in rural areas?  Shouldn’t we address systemic issues of agricultural incomes and risk mitigation, instead of forcing those who are currently dealing with the risk to continue to do so for generations to come?

So, let’s ask again: Why do people migrate, leaving aside marriage? “To find jobs. Better schools for their children. Better health care.”  Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to migrate for a better life? How can we tell them that you must stay in your own village/city regardless of how bad the situation is?

Moreover, aren’t we all descendants of the prehistoric people of Africa? Over millennia, they moved north and then east to form the hunter-gatherer peoples of ancient India. More waves of migrants came 3-4000 years ago from modern-day Iran, from eastern-central Europe followed by even more waves of people in recent history.  So, aren’t we all migrants? The only difference is how many generations ago we arrived here.

[This post is an amalgamation of multiple discussions on migrations with students]