India's Future: Is Private School For The Masses Possible?

As the world's largest democracy goes to the polls for national elections, a closer look at India's struggle to improve its schools through privatization. Even for the poor.

Children go to school on a rickshaw in Lucknow, India
Children go to school on a rickshaw in Lucknow, India
Julien Bouissou

LUCKNOW — Armal Ali lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Lucknow, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The 11 members of his family live together in a small windowless concrete cube. He spends his days sitting cross-legged in front of a weaving loom, embroidering saris famous all over the country for their golden threads. In this area, however, these long cloths are mostly known for damaging the eyesight and the backs of those who make them.

As he toils, Ali dreams of a different life for his 9-year-old daughter, Ousma. “Not so much,” he says, “but at least that she sits behind a desk, for example, with a lot of light around her.” He would also like for her to speak English, like “the people in suits and ties on television that talk all day long about money.”

But when he became ill, his daughter had to leave the private school where she studied, as the family could no longer pay for her tuition. At the same time, she could not go to a free, public school because the two that used to exist in the neighborhood had to be relocated a long time ago to bigger buildings, away from the slums.

Rich or poor, more and more Indians are having to pay to go to school. The proportion of children in private school went from 27.8% three years ago to 33% now. In rural areas, it rose from 16.3% to 29% in eight years.

Improvized private schools spring up in tiny living rooms, sometimes even in the streets. Though they are forced closed when it rains, it is still better than a classroom without a teacher, as is too often the case in public schools, where teachers are absent one day out of five on average.

This figure, and others, illustrates the education crisis that numerous researchers say is compromising the country's development. Half of India’s 1.28 billion inhabitants are under age 25.

A study by Indian NGO Pratham shows that although 96% of children are registered in school (the free daily meal plays an important part in that number), they are not learning much. After three years, 60% of them still cannot read, except for maybe their own names. Four years ago, that number was 54%.

The 2010 Right to Education Act requires every child aged between 6 and 14 to go to school, but there is no legislation about what must be taught.

Even the poor choose private schools

So what makes a good school in the underprivileged rural areas of Uttar Pradesh? First of all, its proximity to the road. That enables teachers to travel by car — and quickly, should a last-minute inspection be announced. Still, this “luxury” is far from common. In one of the small villages of the Sitapur district, the primary school in deserted, except for dogs and cattle. One of the building’s annexes is used to store hay, and the teacher warms himself in the sunlight, reading the newspaper, his feet on a chair, while the few pupils serve him tea.

Ali Ahmad is a teaching assistant, and as such his work consists mostly of looking after the children. He earns the equivalent of $55 a month, 10 times less than a tenured teacher, and without the job security. “The teacher doesn’t come very often because he lives in the city, far from here. So that leaves me to teach,” he explains.

In Uttar Pradesh, primary school teachers enjoy a higher standard of living than most people. And that is exactly were the problem lies. “Such high pay could be counterproductive, attracting the wrong kinds of people,” wrote Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in The Indian Express. They note that the practice is especially bad because performance is not rewarded and children automatically move on to the next grade.

As a result, the parents in this village would rather pay 70 rupees ($1.10) to send their children to the nearest private school, located just a few meters away from their homes. At first, five or six pupils would go there for private tuition with a retired teacher, under a tree. But in just a few years, there were 158 children, who now study under a roof made of random materials. “Here at least we have a timetable,” the head proudly explains. “The kids know beforehand whether they’ll be doing maths or reading, and the teachers are here every day.”

The parents, often illiterate, do not know what their children are learning. Still, for them the words “private school” seem to imply success and give them hope that their children may wind up better off than they. “It must be better than public school, since we’re paying for it,” says one mother.

In Uttar Pradesh, private schools are so successful that they even translate into votes at election time. “The new trend is not to hand out free alcohol anymore, but to build private schools,” one candidate says.

Experts now recommend reforms, such as cutting down the curricula or grouping pupils according to their abilities and not their age.

Since she left her private school, Armal Ali’s daughter, Ousma, has been going to an education center set up by NGO Pratham. There she studies with a small group. In just a few months, she learned how to read and write. Now, she wants to become a teacher.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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