Monday, March 28, 2011

Forced Taxation Vs Voluntary Contribution

Silly Question : Among all the people I know who earn well enough to be taxed, how many invest in tax-saving instruments ?

Answer: Nearly all. Even though we all know that doing so, we're essentially avoiding contributing to our respective country's expenditure on welfare. And the richer people are, the more complete I see the incidence of tax-saving.

Knee-jerk Reaction #1: People who earn money are evil traitors >> Stupid answer.
Knee-jerk Reaction #2: Poor people are evil parasites >> Stupider and insidiously more dangerous answer. (implicit approval of systematic genocide, anyone??)

Reasoning : At the present taxation system coupled with economic scenario, at least in countries like India, the average taxpayer ends up losing his/her future financial security if they pay the full taxes. (now don't quote SRK and Tendulkar to me - I'm talking about the AVERAGE taxpayer!). The yearly raising of slabs and provision of sops and subsidies isn't some favor being done by the governments - they have to do that to stave off popular revolt among the income earners.

There is obviously merit in investing in tax-saving instruments that will give you your hard-earned money back after a period of time, possibly with increments, so that when your child grows up, you can set apart the required capital to fund his/her higher education without dooming them to a debt trap, or for that financial emergency where you simply cannot trust your government for instant assistance. Basically, you have to look after yourself and your family first. If this was not so, then every single tax-free investment - be it mutual funds or insurances or anything - would today not have any reason to exist.

Those who say this is a good and logical balance, don't seem to be looking at the extreme end of the ladder. The richest amongst us are the best placed to really help the country, this important role even finds mention in the world's most ancient religious texts. Yet due to this system, they are typically the ones investing the most in tax-saving (esp since gains multiply as you increase the input capital).

Yes, we have our Bill Gates, Buffets and Premjis, but they are a fractional minority compared to the full quantity that has absolutely no plans to loosen their purses. After all, why should they? They became well off in spite of the system - they've had to fight the system for what they've earned, in many cases being forced to sell their souls just in the quest for their family's happiness. Don't expect them to suddenly turn turtle - you wouldn't. Long-term wisdom isn't as prevalent among the rich as we might be tempted to assume. If it was, we wouldn't see the crap going on around in the name of luxury and high-end lifestyle! :P Therefore, the present system, though seemingly in balance, is screwing us all, by endangering the security of the middle levels while having nothing worthwhile from the top levels.

Note : I'll exclude tax-free contributions from this analysis because in that you're just parting with money that is never coming back to you, for the benefit of your expanded group. There is nothing to be thankful about a donation to a legitimate cause being tax-free - that's like getting surprised at getting wet while having a bath. If such donations were taxed, THAT would be illegal and would amount to outright robbery committed by the state (and don't get me started on taxes on private transactions!) plus it would be willful damage to legitimate causes by giving negative incentive to potential helpers.

Revolver Response : FORCED contribution is bad. If you force someone to help someone else, she/he will do whatever it takes to avoid it. It holds true at any scale. Give a kid a chance to help another and he'll do it willingly. Force him to do it and what happens? It's sort of related to the modern discoveries on what really motivates people, see this Talk+Animation video by Dan Pink/RSA for insight. Not only that, by applying force, the person clams up and won't even contribute the little that he/she could easily have without risk to self. Now apply this trend to the entire earning population of a nation and what do you get?

Available Data : Several organizations across the globe, devoted to doing service to ordinary people (aka, what governments should be doing), are operating successfully and even setting milestones, running purely off voluntary no-strings-attached donations. In many cases they're leading the pack in their sectors.
Examples : Wikipedia, Democracy Now, Greenpeace, Mozilla

The example of Wikipedia (I'm actually referring to Wikimedia foundation that runs it alongside a host of other things) is a case in point. It is Humanity's largest ever resource of knowledge, available for free to everybody. It's got more welfare packed in it than any government measure till date, and is totally funded by voluntary contributions, at a barebones budget compared to its closest competitors thanks to a global army of volunteers constituting simple people like you and me. The constituents of Humanity do not pay any taxes to have its greatest Knowledge resource, yet random humans from across the globe sustain it. Those who can, help, of their own volition, without being forced to.

Inference : When you give someone the freedom to help you, they do. Everyone doesn't need to, but if the cause is worth it then nature will make it happen - benefiting the common good for the inevitable prosperity of your own children is a trait embedded in evolution, not needing any external influence. then how many people you know pay their full taxes, again?

Proposal : Open challenge to any Government in the world: Stop this stupid taxation system for a year and open a Paypal account / any avenue by which your citizen, or any netizen, can contribute of his/her own accord towards the development of your country / state / city. I'm not talking about a relief fund for use in emergencies - no surprises for that again - I'm talking actual, run-of-the-mill operations.

Stop the fear-mongering that you won't get anything - because judging by all the adverts and data we are seeing about tax-saving investments, YOU ARE NOT GETTING MUCH FROM DIRECT INCOME TAX ANYWAY, it's costing you 80% of your effort to run after this less than 20% of input, and you are en route to losing whatever you are getting, over the coming years.

Learn from the successes of the open model. Open your mind to the possibility of no-strings-attached funds flowing in like magic, and schools, hospitals, roads, shelters, infrastructures coming up at a scale that you couldn't even imagine before, and then more funds coming in to whatever department's doing the best work. Imagine a country where the anonymous rich voluntarily help the poor out of poverty rather than avoiding them like the plague. Let's see what happens!

Possible middle path : Fine, keep your bloody taxes, we're all going to cheat.. sorry, Invest! our way out of them anyways. But open that Paypal / donation account and mainstream it, trumpet the results and you'll start witnessing a natural flow of goodwill along with greater citizen participation and resultant transparency, of course (Ah, now we know why the babus will oppose this if at all... no scope for bribes in an open volutary model! But we have to chase corruption out anyways, so this can't be a valid excuse). And if you don't want to open up, be prepared to have non-profit NGOs literally replace you. The writing is on the wall.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Accelerated Gnowledge

"If this doesn't blow your mind, then you have no imagination!" - Salman Khan (the global educator, not the actor!)

Exhibit A:

A Meta diagram (or concept map or call it what you like) illustrating the linkage of the concept of acceleration with other concepts. This basically tells you that in order to understand acceleration, it's advisable to understand the concepts of velocity, speed, and rate of change prior.
And then, if you successfully understand acceleration, then you can move ahead to understanding terminal speed, force, acceleration due to gravity.

Exhibit B:
Now go to the address bar of that page, change level=1 to level=0 and what do you get...

You'll have to click-through to see the diagram in full - it's huge!
You can now see all the concepts, right from the very basic, that lead to the one in question, as well as all its offshoots!

The beauty of it : It's all computer-generated, made by stitching together hundreds of simple statements like "A depends on B".

Check out the website:, made and maintained by the lab of Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai, (I've had the good fortune of meeting and interacting with Prof GN and his team behind this recently, more on that later!)

Imagine the potential for education : If enough people collaborate to build this up (it's an open collaboration website - everyone can pitch in with little tid-bits to build up the whole), then we can throw all the linear education models out the window and replace them with an organic mesh like this that will help educate in a much better way. This can be used to formulate much better teaching plans.

Looking forward to a lot of cool stuff emerging here!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inviting you to our school's showcase event : Pratibha, on 17th of March, 5pm onwards!

Update: What an amazing evening!!

Check out the pics from the event here

Check out pics from the making of Pratibha here

This montage, "School Chale Hum" we made was screened at the event on projector, and everybody loved it!

Check out a video slideshow of the event while humming to "Aashaayein Mile Dil Ki" !

Inviting One and All

To a showcase event for our primary english medium school located in Pune. We are a municipal school and the four Teach For India fellows here (and volunteers!) are putting together an event of the sort that our school has never seen earlier - in a nice auditorium and complete with plays, presentations, exhibitions by the students!

PFA the invitation card!

More than audience, volunteers are needed - at as well as before the event! We've done a whole lot of work already including a full fledged dress rehearsal today, but we still need a few good people to be there for critical tasks at backstage or to smoothen things at the changing rooms or to film the event, etc! Please let me or the given contact persons know if if you can help us out! AND PLEASE INFORM BY PHONE - too little time for email and I'll be at the school from morning 7am tomorrow! Do you know a friend who's into event management? Then please forward to him/her!

For a teaser intro to our school and its lovely kids, please check out a video "school chale hum" I've put on (it's still uploading, should be done in half an hour)

Nikhil Sheth
Pune, India
Teach For India Fellow, 2011-13
Find me on: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Google | RangDe

Thursday, March 10, 2011

what a day!

What a day! back from one trip and on to another.. been awake 21 hrs! Went to Raigad with Digital Bridge foundation & Gnowledge Labs, they finally made Ubuntu distro with the software for wikipedia 4 schools embedded (and having a lot more edu stuff too), got the dvd image for it and will be taking it further, co-wrote with the teachers a marathi write-up for the rural school there, the village's first contrib to wikipedia marathi, and got the whole dump of Khan Academy vids from a friend in Gnowledge labs!

Now I have an awesome cocktail of super duper educational stuff -- mind-blowing software and mind-blowing content combined, yay~!

Quick post.. more details later

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Clarification about WFSOE and English and Indan Language Wikipedias

Comment - a little too long so posting here - to a blog post:

First of all, a big thanks for publicizing the Wikipedia For Schools Offline Edition (WFSOE) project. I can't say I started any of it, but I did my best to push it including talking about it, setting up a wiki page for co-ordination among volunteers, contacting the wikipedia community to troubleshoot as I was having problems and directly contacting the developers to try and take the software forward including getting some critical bugs fixed by now.

I would have greatly appreciated it if the author had also posted the link to the main wiki page mentioned in the community email that he is taking inspiration from, as a reference for readers: or http://tinyurl/WFSOE

As a side thought and for a different audience (my relatives who are not on the net), I'd requested the developers and got made ZIM files of wikipedia in the 3 Indian languages I speak - Hindi, Marathi, Gujrati. (Ref: These, with the English 45000+ articles wikipedia dump, are all stored on my portable HDD which I've used to install WFSOE. Unlike what the more well-off folks like to believe, most computers in schools out there don't have working DVD drives or any optical drives at all, and the WFSOE is 2.8 GBs in size, making any CD impossible. (I never quoted a CD myself - an HT article simplified DVD/USB to CD obviously for its layman readers and this blog post seems to have followed suit despite the facts)

USB drive is the best option, though I'd love to get my hands on one with a read-only switch to avoid all the viruses I've encountered on target PCs so far!

In the email I shared with wikipedia community prior to my talk at GNUnify in Pune, I hence mentioned that I also have these English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujrati dumps in case anybody wants to copy these over, in the spirit of sharing that wikipedians are known for. That email was also marked to several of my contacts in Pune (who really has the the time to write customized emails on the same topic for every group of friends these days, huh??) who I assure you do not happen to be school children at all though at one time they most definitely were as was I, and so the GNUnify event was a common place where we could meet up and swap wikpedia dumps!

How that got intertwined with WFSOE is beyond me. Even the wiki-page I set up that describes WFSOE in detail doesn't have anything of the sort on it. I think any person will know right off the bat that those bigger english and indian-language dumps are definitely not meant for use by school children. Why in the world would an NGO spend several months creating the WFSOE otherwise? Whoever would even think about handing the full versions out to kids (or claim that anyone would start a well publicized open initiative to do something so lewd!) would have to be retarded if not criminally careless. So I have no idea how the author connected those dots and even took it forward (and how!) without bothering to check the facts first.

But there is one inter-mixing regarding not kids but their guardians, that shone a light of optimism so bright it made my day-

Where I demonstrated the WFSOE to school teachers/principal, I also showed them the much bigger english one as a possible fallback for the staff in case an article they want isn't there on WFSOE (at present it's pretty sparse and I eagerly await a newer version, seeing that the ZIM format occupies around 1 GB lesser than the original WFSOE, hence making room for over double the number of articles!), and along with that loaded the Hindi and Marathi wikipedias to show them for real that Wikipedia is present in Indian languages as well - a fact they were never aware of.

So then, the staff naturally kept a copy of whatever I had on a staff-access-only computer, from where they'd take it all to their own homes and neighborhoods and to other schools. These things are released for free distribution and any adult has full right to store a copy. The teachers at the schools are MUCH more concerned about the content going to the students than any of us will ever be so I trust their responsibility more than I can trust any self-proclaimed guardian. Besides, I'm not a pessimist and neither is Wikipedia.

Anyways, upon operating the Marathi wikpedia offline, saying that they were impressed would be an understatement. Unwittingly I'd brought them the world's largest electronic offline collection of easily searchable (that engine's a feat of computer engineering - lightning fast and catches everything!) and instantly accessible (almost no lag time even on slower PCs) Marathi language articles loaded with images, inter-links and great formatting that is completely free of cost and without any strings attached. Even more so for the Hindi one twice its size!

Those of us who are regularly on the internet don't realize it so soon, but to the people seeing it and experiencing it for the first time, this was something amazing. There has never been anything like this seen before. They were at it like moths to a flame, and when they reached the article on Shivaji, the response was ecstatic! They then searched for their respective hometowns and on not finding sufficient info somewhere, they immediately told us they want to update it on Wikipedia the next time they get their hands on the internet! This all happened in a village in Raigad district, Maharashtra. Suddenly, by just giving an offline version, we had created potential future Wikipedia Marathi contributors - not some geeks in a metro but teachers in a village! On why they wanted to edit, they told us in a matter-of-fact manner they were grateful to Wikipedia for giving so much content for free and so they felt impelled to give back and make it even better.

Anyways, I digress. We duly told them that these english-full, hindi, marathi versions can be used by them but the WFSOE is meant for school kids. Before us they were themselves sure of that!

So if the blog post I'm long-commenting on is concerned about the impending social catastrophe arising from adult-content wikipedia offline versions (yeah, like it's porno-pedia or something!) being distributed to innocent school children, I'm afraid the author has been blogging up the wrong tree here and my apologies that a mis-read email wasted the author's precious time, though after a review I honestly can't find anything wrong with it. (The email. The blog post - let's not say more!)

Actually, come to think of it, it would make an awesome Indian news channel story -
आज की सनसनी खेज़ खबर! विकिपीडिया ने बाटा विज्ञान के बहाने मासूम बच्चों को अडुल्ट कंटेंट वाली CD ! कौन हैं यह दरिंदे? आखिर क्या चाहते हैं येह लोग ?? क्या इसमें हो सकता है विदेशी हात? देखते रहिये, बकवास खबरें!


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