Monday, May 25, 2015

Vice Chancellors & Education Ministers compete to keep India's standards among the lowest

This is a real-life story that should worry us all because it shows how qualified Indians are defeated by our astonishingly inefficient system, in this case a university. This young man (YM) completed his Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) course. On the strength of his provisional certificate, he got a job in Bahrain, but he was told to produce the original quickly. That didn't worry him because he had already applied for the original certificate. However, the University didn't reply for months. Suspecting fraud, his Bahrain employers cancelled his appointment.

The YM went home and applied afresh for his original degree certificate. This time he got it without delay. But it was a certificate that awarded him the B.Com degree instead of the BBA for which he had qualified. He sent a new application for correcting the certificate, told his relatives to follow it up and flew to Qatar where he had applied for a job. He was appointed on condition that he would produce the BBA certificate without delay.

The relatives succeeded in getting a BBA certificate from the University and despatched it to Qatar where the YM presented it to his employers. It was then discovered that the University had merely struck out the term Bachelor of Commerce and scribbled Bachelor of Business Administration in its place; the title of the printed certificate remained Bachelor of Commerce. The Qatar company naturally concluded that its new recruit was a trickster and dismissed him. Two plum jobs lost because of clerical crimes by a university.

It was not an isolated misdemeanor at the University of Calicut in Kerala this year. (This was the only university in the country where the Vice Chancellor was openly boycotted by the students; when he rose to make a speech at any function held in the campus, students would walk out en masse and, when he finished, troop back into the hall). Students who had passed B.Sc (Nursing) were awarded MBBS degrees by the University last month. The authorities blamed computer software for the mess. But everyone knew that it was a "reform" introduced by the Vice Chancellor that caused the muddle; he had abolished a two-stage verification system that existed and put in place an arrangement where there would be no second verification after he had signed a certificate.

The Calicut University scandal surfaced within days of a more astonishing SSLC (class 10) scandal in Kerala that showed how irresponsible a government could get. The Education Minister announced the results -- then quickly admitted that grave mistakes had taken place in formulating them. For the first time in the state's history, the announced results were withdrawn and new results declared. Half a lakh students had their budding careers messed up in the process.

The Minister of course blamed computer software. But, as in the case of Calicut University, the authorities were the ones who malfunctioned, not the machines. The Minister was after two records -- in evaluation speed and in pass percentage. He announced the results 18 days after the exams. That meant teachers evaluating tens of thousands of answer papers in a rush -- estimated at about five minutes per answer paper. The Minister also achieved 97.99 percent passes. Among the tricks employed were out-of-syllabus questions and marks on the basis of "other abilities".

Why did he promote such manipulations? Corruption, said published reports. One report explained that the Government had allowed 700 new Plus Two batches in the new academic year and high SSLC pass rates were necessary to fill these seats. So where is the corruption? Admissions to schools, said the report, involved capitation fees. The Government also opened up avenues for 1500 new teacher jobs, each carrying attractive commission prospects. The system ensures distribution of loot equitably among school managers, ministers and party leaders.

This is happening in Kerala, the state with the country's most enviable educational traditions. In Karnataka, another educationally advanced state, students and parents took to the streets last week over poor scores in PUC results which they attributed to "shoddy evaluation" and "glaring errors". And don't forget the publicly practised art of copying in Bihar. Is it any wonder that not a single Indian university figures in the list of the world's top 200? Expect no improvement in the near future. The overall education budget is down by nearly Rs 14,400 crore. And autonomy, the lifeblood of quality education, is steadily melting away. Development? Make in India? Not a chance if education standards fall this low.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Do our leaders follow the 6 qualities of Kings? Do they avoid the 14 Vices? Are priests pure?

These are frustrating times. True, there are big things that put India on centre stage, such as the Prime Minister's visit to China. But there are also petty things that shame us. We have farmers whose sense of honour makes them commit suicide when they are unable to repay their debts -- and we have a minister in Haryana who calls them "cowards". We have a film star who runs his car over destitutes sleeping on footpaths, killing one -- and his friend condemns footpath sleepers as irresponsible law-breakers. We have a police officer in Delhi who throws a brick at a scooterist because she wouldn't quietly pay him a bribe. He was punished because he was caught on camera. Hundreds of others who see bribe-taking as their birthright escape because their superiors do not care.

It would be a fatal mistake to dismiss these as stray incidents as those in power tend to do. In fact this has nothing to do with who is in power. It is the culture of our times. It is so deeply rooted that even Narendra Modi, for all his determination and iron will, is unable to bring it under control. Consider the case of the IAS whistleblower Ashok Khemka. He was hounded by the Congress Government -- and then, inexplicably, by the BJP Government as well. Obviously things happen behind the scenes, and obviously they cannot be clean things.

For those of us who are mere tax-payers not entitled to know the goings-on behind the scenes, perhaps the only way forward is to dream of the values that once lent glory to our culture -- and hope that one day those values will return to give meaning to our lives. Everyone talks of the greatness of our Vedic past but how many take the trouble to understand the principles that sustained that greatness? Actually it is not difficult to understand those principles and values because they have been spelt out in simple terms by Vyasa in a scene featuring Narada, the sage of the gods. As Narada entered, Yudhishtira and his brothers stood up and bowed low. Then,

"How are you, Yudhishtira?" enquired Narada. "Do you put the six kingly qualities of cleverness, readiness, intelligence in dealing with enemies, memory, knowledge of politics, and devotion to ethics to good use? Are your seven principal officers, the governor of the fort, the commander-in-chief, the chief justice, the chief of police, the royal physician, the political advisor and the chief astrologer loyal to you? Is it your policy to be neutral to strangers and to kings who are neutral to you? Have you good teachers to instruct the princes and army officers in dharma and the various sciences? Is the priest you honour humble, pure, respected, charitable and forgiving?"(P. Lal's translation).

The emphasis, clearly placed by the sage, was on devotion to ethics, loyalty, dharma and familiarity with various sciences. Above all, he underlined the importance of "the priest" being pure and forgiving, as well as humble and respected. How many of our robed priests today -- whatever be the religion they profess -- are humble and respected and forgiving? How many are pure?

Narada did give expression to some values that would shock us today. After asking whether women are protected in Yudhishtira's kingdom, he says, "I hope you trust them with no state secret". There are also the usual paeans to Brahmins as in, "Are wise men and Brahmins respected? You know such respect brings rewards?". Many scholars have argued that sexist and brahminic axioms in the epics are interpolations. But that debate should not divert attention from Narada's projection of kingly duties as an extension of ethics. In the wisest and most important part of his interaction with the Pandavas, he asked: "Do you stay away from all the 14 vices of kings -- hedonism, atheism, anger, rashness, procrastination, not consulting the learned, laziness, nervousness, following only one man's counsel, taking the advice of mercenary friends, abandoning a settled plan, revealing state secrets, financing unproductive projects, and acting on sudden impulses?".

That question encapsulates a vision of politics and civic life at its noblest, a projection of dharmic values no one can disagree with. But how many of those who claim to promote Vedic virtues can face the queries of Narada? How many of our politicians know that they are in fact negating the values they profess? The praja can only hope that our heritage will survive the opportunists who abuse it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Media is attacked -- by Nepalese for just reasons, by our netas to hide their own iniquities

Cheap sensationalised news handling by television has brought shame to India. Not a new development, it was left to Nepal to expose this internationally. Ironically, and in entirely different contexts, many Indian netas also have suddenly found it convenient to blame the media for the problems they face. Aam Aadmi's Arvind Kejriwal has gone to the extent of calling for a public trial of the media. That would be nice. A public trial will bring out the double-standards of selfish politicians as well.

We cannot blame the Nepalese who created a special GoHomeIndianMedia platform to bring unpleasant truths to light. From the time Narendra Modi said that it was from his tweet that Nepal's Prime Minister first knew about the earthquake, our media has been focussing on India and Indian humanitarianism rather than on the catastrophe that had struck the Nepalese people. Locals resented Indian aircraft blocking the Kathmandu airport, Indian journalists taking up helicopter space that could have been better used for relief material, Indian medical teams getting bogged down in their own bureaucracy even as countries like Israel set up field hospitals in no time. They talked of Indian media's "aggressive presence" and its tendency to treat the human tragedy as a public relations exercise for Delhi.

These impressions aired by Nepalese people would not surprise Indian viewers who are continuously appalled by the jingoistic posturings of several of our news channels, especially those noted for their loudness. Shouting is the weapon of the loser, yet some of our channels have shouted themselves into a culture of pre-judgment and opinionated arrogations, giving their targets no chance to put in a world, let alone explain their positions. Perhaps India's social media activists must tell their counterparts in Nepal that Indians too are disgusted with the self-righteous screamings of the channel masters.

While Nepalese displeasure with Indian media is sustainable, India's political leaders suddenly charging the media with all kinds of sins is a very different matter. They attack the media in order to hide their own iniquities.Let us get a basic point clarified. The standards of journalism have gone down in recent years. The media no longer commands the credibility it once did. Journalism also has been eroded by corruption. Some of the big names in the profession have been caught lobbying for vested interests. These are legitimate grounds for attacking the media. But that is not what our politicians are doing. They are attacking because the media does not act as their megaphones, because the media reports things which are inconvenient to this neta or that.

Recall policemen in West Bengal's secretariat telling journalists, "don't loiter around or you will be arrested". It is the duty of journalists to loiter around government offices. But Mamata Bannerji was not interested in people knowing anything about the Saradha scam which the media was reporting. Journalists were barred from courts where the case was being heard and also from CBI and Enforcement Directorate offices. Mamata justified it all by saying that her government was the best in the world (yes, she said that) and that the media was merely indulging in "news pollution".

Prime Minister Modi himself, the recipient of unprecedented, even fawning, media coverage ( no national leader in the past has had his speeches and mega events like the Madison Square Garden spectacle broadcast in full by the channels) said the other day that "the media has taken upon itself the responsibility of spreading lies against me". That's an unkind cut, especially when armies of cyber activists are ever present to demolish Modi critics in various sites.

If there is a prize for intolerance, it must go to Arvind Kejriwal. He and the Aam Aadmi movement were in fact the creation of the media in the early days. But for the enthusiasm with which the media projected his ideas and goals, even condoned his early mistakes, he would never have scored the victory he did in the last elections. But power changed him overnight into just another politician, the party getting splintered by infighting. His chosen faithfuls are now facing charges on their own, ranging from fake university qualifications to misconduct with women associates. Big leader Kejriwal's response to it all is that news channels are biased towards BJP, that opinion polls are rigged, that media outlets take money to peddle news. There is nothing one can say to a man given to such hypocritical imaginations. The only consolation is that he will never again taste another popular victory.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thinking big, China is changing the world order; with mixed priorities, we can but tag along

It is now clear that China is seeking to change the way the world is run. Its two big schemes -- the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, or Belt and Road in short -- are so daring and perceptive that the world is struck yet again by the long-term view of China's strategists. Add to this the concept of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and its runaway success -- and we can see China overtaking America in influence even without getting anywhere near its rival in technology and military might. India is a negligible factor in this new great game though it is in the direct line of fire as indicated by China committing $ 46 billion for power and infrastructure projects in Pakistan. India will remain negligible for the foreseeable future given the confused priorities of our political parties and the absence of a united national will.

The magnitude of China's gain as a result of its new initiatives can be gauged from the way major powers responded to them. Britain ignored the objections of its traditional ally, the US, and joined the AIIB. Germany, France and Italy quickly followed. America's closest allies in Asia-Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, also checked in. So did Iran. Some 46 countries including India were on the founders' register as the deadline closed last month.

The bank will mean a shift away from the west and its institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which have controlled much of the world's affairs till now. This will worry those who look upon China's ambitions with suspicion. Their consolation is that, although the new system will be China-driven, it will, hopefully, not give China the power to ride roughshod over others. All founding members of the bank are shareholders. China will be the largest single shareholder, but it will be in no position to ignore the combined might of the other members. To that extent the structure of the bank may act as a restraining influence on the kind of assertiveness China has shown in many of its bilateral dealings. This position of obligatory reasonableness is what President Xi Jinping probably had in mind when he told the Boao Forum ( yes, China has established a parallel institution to the World Economic Forum of Davos as well) that China would accommodate the interests of others while pursuing its own and offered to sign treaties of friendship and cooperation with all its neighbours.

A similar check will be enforced by the practical compulsions of the belt and the road as well. As China's own documentation says, the belt "focuses on bringing together China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe; and connecting China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean". The maritime road will "go from China's Coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and through the South China Sea to the South Pacific on the other".

The unifying theme is connectivity through massive investment, massive projects and financial integration. The ideas envisaged are globegirdling as well as mindboggling. Consider just one detail. Countries are called upon to provide "unified coordination mechanism for whole-course transportation, increase connectivity of customs clearance, reloading and multimodal transport between countries".

Sixty or more countries may be participants in this gigantic programme. Its primary thrust will come from China and so, perhaps, will the lion's share of infrastructural investment; China has the world's largest accumulation of spare foreign exchange, around $ 4 trillion. However, as in the case of the AIIB, participating countries are not necessarily helpless before a dominant China. Connectivity infrastructure has to be built in the jurisdictions of sovereign countries which can insist on having a say in the approval and execution of projects, not to mention their management. China will have to modulate its involvement accordingly.

China's economy is slowing down and India's is gaining traction. But India will necessarily remain a country that has no option but to go along with China's schemes because India, for all its oratory and primetime showmanship, is lightweight in international politics. It took China 30 years to reach its present high-voltage status; such a short span was enough because the whole billion-strong nation concentrated on development. In our case, the Prime Minister concentrates on development. On the ground his allies concentrate on religions: with patriotic calls to sterilise this group and disenfranchise that. Only one vision can win -- Narendra Modi's or Sakshi Maharaj's.