It was a hot afternoon. There was the usual power cut for two hours. The generator assured power only for the major plug points into one of which I had connected my lap top. I was frantic to complete the analysis of data that had come in from our grassroots partners. As I looked through the data I found that most of the fields had been left unfilled. In fields which had been filled the data appeared to be vague or incomplete. I finally gave up trying to sift through the information and called one of the project managers of the NGOs we were partnering with asking him why the data was of such poor quality. “ Madam… there was so much of information to collect and fill in - almost 5000 profiles…” he offered by way of an explanation. Was the time line then unrealistic I wondered? No- because it was information that was over due by a month and if they had not been able to complete collection and entry of data even one month beyond timeline that they had agreed upon then there was something that was wrong with the attitude..
Reflecting upon this I wonder if this attitude of compromising on quality of anything because of the quantity handled is a nation wide malady?
Let us take for example the quality of education in the state of Tamil Nadu. If you look at the enrollment data you can see that the figures are very high but a survey done on the quality of education ASER 2010 showed that attainments in terms of basic literacy and numeracy skills among students was really low. Then what about the high marks being scored in the public examinations we might wonder? But the question is what do the students who score those high marks actually know about the subjects in which they have scored those subjects? If the system itself is geared to camouflage attainment of quality then it is really a self defeating attitude!
Take the case of air travel. Today most major airports are as bad as railway stations. Unfortunately, one cannot jump into a plane as easily as one can on a train. There are a lot of procedures like check in, security check , boarding etc to be followed. Most of this requires assistance of airline staff. I have seen a steady deterioration of service even in private airlines over the last decade that I have been travelling by air. Is it again a case of inability handle quantity?
As a country that has a huge population I think quantity is something that one cannot do away with. Whether it is education, health, travel or anything one has to be prepared to handle large numbers. Human resource in a country like ours is never a constraint. Even non profits which cannot assure good salaries have a “ huge battalion” in terms of field staff. Governments are all supposedly over staffed and the number of doctors must be equally high as also teachers. So why are we unable to handle numbers?
Are we overworked or overburdened when it comes to handling numbers? This is not always so. I think somewhere there is the feeling that larger the quantity the less likely a person would be to notice quality. I remember a scene from a Jaspal Bhatti serial called flop show in the early 1990s where one of the characters who owns a sweet shop asks his assistant to mix the rotten potatoes with the good ones while making the filling for the samosas - “ we make hundreds of samosas in a day and so who will notice if some samosas are bad and people fall sick after eating them?” But methodologically speaking if an entire population of samosas is bad then any representative sample would also show up sufficiently large numbers of bad samosas. So, we try to hide that by manipulating the methods of what defines a good or a bad samosa. Exactly what is happening with teachers giving 100% marks to all students and we have large number of students who get 100% marks!
Is excellence in delivering anything such a challenge? I don’t think quantity is the issue. We would do this even if we had to deal with half the numbers . If the census of India can complete a mammoth task like the counting of every Indian within one year then obviously it is possible to deal with numbers. If we can develop electronic systems to count votes cast in an election and declare a winner within a matter of days then definitely quantity is not a problem if we really come to it.
Somewhere I think it is the importance we attach to what we do. Census is obviously important as also election results. But quality in terms of health care delivery may not seem to be as important to doctors and other health care personnel. Similarly providing quality education may not figure much in the list of priorities for many teachers.
And so why am I blaming a poorly paid project manager in a small NGO in some obscure village of a district in Tamil nadu for the poor quality of data? I guess I should learn some clever way to camouflage it or push it up – and there ends my headache!!