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(Khaleej Times dated 15 May, 2023)

I come from a culture and country, India, where academic qualifications define a person and his social standing. An individual’s worth is often distilled into a few certificates that are believed to either propel or retard their careers. It is so in many other parts of the world too.

Years of rigorous cramming and enormous expenses culminate in academic outcomes that range between the stellar and the mediocre, and yet, when graduates walk out of their alma maters, they don’t feel all set to launch into their dream futures. There is a yawning gap between the knowledge they have accumulated and the demands of the workplace; between the students’ bona fide aspirations and the endgame; between what they want to learn and what they are taught.

This disparity in ‘what is’ and ‘what needs to be’ in our educational system and our notions surrounding it is made apparent to me by a frequent pronouncement my students make in my writing classes. ‘We hate school. They don’t teach us what we want to learn. We go there only for our friends.’

It is difficult to dispute them, for I have been watching over the years how students are getting less and less equipped to fulfil the real-world needs and have been force-fitted into straightjackets that constrain knowledge and education. The stress on gaining academic excellence in subjects that will have no future use has deprived them of opportunities to build skill sets that are becoming indispensable to carving fulfilling careers.

The fact that most students trudge through their school and college years to notch up numbers and credentials that only partially fulfil job requirements begs the questionis it time for us to ditch academic degrees in favour of informal education that will give rise to a generation of unique innovators? Will the emergence of technology and therefore access to specific knowledge bases outside of premium institutions make us more willing to accept core skills as a prerequisite than degrees?

Let us accept it without pretentionsour schools and colleges don’t have a foolproof setting that provide our children with an environment that sync with their individual capabilities and learning tendencies. Neither does our formal educational system provide them with challenges at a very individual level, where they can assess their capabilities and evolve into what they truly want to become.

They are stuffed with information that are often redundant to their future needs for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. In the many years that I have been a children’s mentor in the informal sector, I have seen an acute shortage of originality in students. Their curiosity is stifled by an overload of pedagogics and the opportunity for experimentation is almost down to zilch.

We are at the cusp of huge paradigm shifts in the kind of intellectual resources that the world needs to keep mankind evolving positively. This transition to a new set-up cannot be successfully accomplished by saddling our children with irrelevant knowledge that precludes essential skills from its itinerary.

It may be argued that in a job market that still values degrees and pins them as prerequisites, it is impossible for us to jettison degrees from our resumes. This, however, may not be as true as it used to be a few years ago. Companies are now willing to discard their old screening methods and take a relook at candidatures based on hands-on job requirements. There is increasing awareness of how the bespoke skills that candidates bring to their workstations will improve the company’s bottom lines than their degrees (that may not have made them job ready). The inflated degree syndrome of the past is slowly fading out.

There is an abundance of talent floating outside our universities that if harnessed can be utilized purposefully for our collective growth. The potential is such that we are currently witnessing the emergence of a parallel educational universe that nurtures skills, and prepares a new, efficient employable generation. Online courses, digitized learning, and private internships are paving the way for a new climate of skill gathering based on individual interests and passions. New turfs are being built to cater expertise to a fast-paced and tech-driven world. But are we ready yet to embrace these new ways to competence and career building?

Researchers, governments, and policy makers will have to revise curriculums to suit our emerging needs. Companies will have to drop their fixation with degrees and endorse ingenuity as qualification. And we, as consumers of knowledge, must shed our resistance to informal methods of learning and accept them as equally efficacious as traditional education. Only then will schools stop being boring and irrelevant to kids, and universities cease to churn out degree-holders with little practical skills.

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(Khaleej Times dated 9 April, 2023)

Happiness, one would agree, is a chimerical concept hotly pursued by people without a clue about how to accomplish it. All human endeavours are directed towards this one goal of attaining eternal happiness and a sense of well-being, and clearly, it doesn’t fall to everyone’s lot.

When the global happiness index report was released a few weeks ago, enumerating the national average life evaluation of countries in the world, it was a given to me that the United Arab Emirates would feature among the top 25 or thereabouts, not based on historicals but on my real-life experience as a long-time resident.

The UAE ranked 26th with impressive scores on almost all parameters deduced from specific well-being measurements, which often make little sense to a commoner. But ask a person if she is generally happy in the external circumstances that she currently lives in and see if the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ or a dismal ‘no’, and you will know if she genuinely belongs in the happiness zone of life. To me, this is the most authentic way to gauge satisfaction, and it would be near impossible for us to find a person living in the UAE to answer that question in the negative.

The ranking aside, there are no two ways about the high levels of happiness that citizens and residents in the UAE enjoy, and the reasons can be given in a flurry, each one competing for primacy. For starters, this is a country that gave most of its expatriates a positive jumpstart in life. The word ‘abundance’ became a reality to us, thanks to a tax-free income structure and a work environment that aided growth and long-term prosperity. Even the smallest denominator on the social ladder here will admit that their life flourished and its quality improved phenomenally with their relocation to this country.

It is a place that is built on multicultural values that allows people of nearly 200 nationalities to co-exist in love, peace and harmony, permitting them to follow their faith without disruption or discord. The heterogeneous fabric of the UAE allows freedom to make life choices, and only a few countries in the index report have excelled it in this regard.

For the most part, no political or social turmoil that rocks other parts of the world affects the peace of the people here. It is almost as if we are insulated from all the ills of the world, including crimes of the meanest kind. I know instances of people leaving their wallet or phone in places like the metro train or food courts and retrieving them without a Dirham lost. Where else in the world but here can one walk on the streets in the middle of the night without the fear of being mugged or stalked? Rules that are laid out are followed to a tee by people, not by force but of their own volition. It is an ecosystem of good living where citizens and residents are acutely conscious of their responsibilities and have pledged not to topple the apple cart by misdemeanour of any sort.

One could endlessly extol the virtues of living in a place like the UAE, but what makes it all a perfect amalgam of happiness is the manner in which the government of UAE has put happiness of its people on priority as an operational objective. It’s creation of a Ministry of Happiness in 2016 is a pointer towards the responsibility it has undertaken to ‘align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction.’

Only when rulers and authorities insist on building a nation based on its people’s skills, security and satisfaction can it be called effective and empowering. A country can be labelled as successful only when its people are happy uniformly, which is not to say there will be no social and economic discrepancies, but if there are sustained positive emotions that support and drive the lives of a people, then it is a paradise on a planet that is increasingly struggling to find reasons to smile. Seen in that light, to all who have pitched their tent in the UAE, life here is a blessed sanctuary.

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(Khaleej Times dated 27 March, 2023)

It might sound like ‘unsophisticated’ taste, but, for me, the Ukay-Ukay stores that are tucked in the markets of Dubai hold great interest. To the uninitiated, these are tiny outlets that overflow with secondhand stuff —mostly garments brought from various parts of the world, and sold at throwaway prices.

The word ‘secondhand’ might evoke both suspicion and loathing in high-end customers, but stores like Ukay-Ukay are the genesis of what is now an evolving trend: upcycled fashion. Having been fed with lessons of recycle, reuse, reduce for eons now, and loaded with sustainability sermons that at times sound like platitudes, I have found the concept of reselling used clothes only to be an extension of the flea market where everything that can be used again is sold.

Upcycling is where new fashion is recreated by repurposing textiles and clothing, not by breaking them down into components and making a new product from scratch but by redesigning existing material into newer styles. It gives the concept of putting old things back into purpose a whole new meaning, if one ignores the concerns of taking hand-me-downs and worn material that once belonged to someone else.

In the long parleys we have had on ‘environmental sustainability’ as the sole course of action we could take to make future life on earth possible, we have tended to gloss over little things that matter. We have stared at the big picture for far too long, often without a clear goal plan.

To laymen, the technical terms that define sustainability mean little; what will inspire them to take legitimate action are initiatives that are recognisable in their everyday scheme of things. Speak of carbon management, green energy, energy efficiency, circular economy, conservation, and watch them raise a brow, nod and walk away in partial or no understanding of how grave the crisis we are currently going through is. They need to be spoken to in a language that they can translate into positive action, which is how we can stall the degeneration of our planet. It is in this context that I find the concept of upcycled fashion intriguing and positively implementable.

Fashion brands across the world have now adopted upcycling in a major way and are creating luxury couture from existing materials. And believe it or not, Gen Z is becoming increasingly conscious and responsible in their fashion choices and is giving sustainability a leg up by opting for outfits that have been made from so-called trash.

Refurbished fashion might sound like trivial theory but scratch the surface and one will know that the amount of textile that goes into landfills are as humongous as plastic, and most fabrics contain non-biodegradable elements like polyester, acrylic, elastane and PVC which will choke the earth for hundreds of years. As common citizens, dumping fabric might be the biggest disservice (after indiscriminate plastic use) we might be doing to our planet and to our future generations.

That our clothes can denude the earth is a thought that makes me want to take the upcycling initiatives around the world seriously. Perhaps it is time for us to chuck fast fashion where we discard clothes we consider out of vogue and adopt more accountable ways of lending our wardrobe for future use in some part of the world. It is estimated that upcycling could reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry by up to 30 per cent.

It is an initiative that not just big brands and fashion houses alone can assume; it is a pledge that we must take in our individual capacities to make sure that the clothes we no longer wear go to a place where they will be revived in a new form.

It is not going to be easy to establish a system and machinery that will smoothly transfer all unwanted clothing into the upcycle chain. It is a process that will require earnest investment and planning by those who see the scope in it. It warrants a commitment from us to not buy more than what we need, and to not dump that which we do not require in recycling bins where they will get mutilated and be rendered beyond use.

The first step we could take with our limited capacities would be to accept that secondhand clothing is not lowbrow; and to create an ecosystem where pre-owned items could be exchanged, handed down or bought without shame. Local designers and tailoring houses could start soliciting old but quality clothes and fashioning new ensembles out of them.

For starters, I am considering pulling out a huge stack of new, unused dupattas, shawls and stoles and looking for ways to upcycle them. Given our entrenched biases, it won’t be easy to find takers, but I am going to have a crack at some rehashed regalia next.

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