The Delhi University mess

Last year the St Stephen’s College physics department wrote a very clear-minded note on what was wrong with DU’s 4-year undergraduate programme as implemented (even assuming one agreed with the desirability of the programme in principle).  I reproduced that letter on this blog, together with my own impressions.   Many other highly respected people spoke up against the hasty imposition of the programme.   Not one reputable person defended it, as far as I can recall, other than the vice chancellor, Dinesh Singh, himself.   Unfortunately Singh was convinced that no discussion or internal support was needed and his political support was enough.  Now his political support is gone, and he has antagonised almost the entire university.  And the future of tens of thousands of students is unclear.

I’m sure there is a moral in this somewhere.  Everything has a moral, if only one can find it.  Oh right, the moral is don’t politicise universities. 

As for the UGC, the less said the better.  Why did they not take this exact same stand against the programme last year?  What has changed?  We all know the answer. 

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Watching the Modi show

Much has occurred since my last post. I expected that the NDA would win, but I did not anticipate the scale of the win, or that the BJP by itself would get a majority in the Lok Sabha. In retrospect, while various people named in my previous post can be blamed for Narendra Modi not being held accountable for what happened under his watch in 2002, that does not by itself explain the scale of his victory. And I emphatically disagree with those on the left (like Nirmalangshu Mukherji in Kafila) who are trying to somehow delegitimise his win by looking at vote share or localised thuggishness. If those arguments are to be made, they need to be made for every election since independence; and if there were strong-arm tactics for the BJP in UP, there were for the TMC in West Bengal too. And if, like Mukherji, one objects to the result in UP or Bihar, the fact remains that, even without the massive sweep in those two states, the BJP is still the largest party by far. For now, like it or not, Modi is here for at least five years.

So far the signs are mixed. I find it promising that among his first actions, even before being sworn in, was to reach out to our neighbours and invite them. Several news items have called it unprecedented; relatively few have pointed out that Nawaz Sharif invited Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony, but the latter declined. Modi handled it well by calling all SAARC heads and not singling out Pakistan (and not singling out Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa, despite the opprobrium with which he is held in Tamil Nadu). There seemed to be genuine warmth between Modi and Sharif in particular.

On the economic front, Modi has the mandate to bring in reforms and can hopefully over-ride the protectionist instincts of the RSS. At the same time, news items suggest that he will preserve and re-vamp the social programmes of the UPA government such as the MGNREGA. There is cause to be optimistic on some fronts. But how much socially progressive legislation will be enacted is unclear. And there is reason to worry about the environment.

I am also unenthusiastic about Modi’s silence on acts of vandalism that have occurred since his election, or the threats of arrest, and actual arrest. Still, he has only just been sworn in, and it will take time to know what he actually does about these things, and — most importantly, given his past — how he handles communal tensions.

One thing is clear — with this mandate Modi has no excuses like “coalition dharma” to fall back on: he needs to perform, and to provide a clean government. Any minister who attracts scandal needs to be thrown out immediately, not kept on as in the UPA because of the pressure of allies. If he does not perform, the sweep of 2014 (which, even now, did not include most of the south or the east) will not be repeated. But if he does, his party may make inroads into new states.

The reason Modi was elected was not just his own quality, but the quality of his opponents, and the topic of arrest naturally leads to Arvind Kejriwal, at the moment in jail in Delhi for refusing to pay bail in the offence of allegedly defaming Nitin Gadkari of the BJP. As usual, Kejriwal makes an important point: there are thousands of people awaiting trial in jail for petty offences, who have already served more time than their sentence is likely to carry, but are unable to pay bail. This system needs reform. But the AAP is the biggest disappointment of 2014. They came from nowhere in months, got enough seats to form a state government on Delhi, but then remained in protest mode (blocking the streets to demand, of all things, direct control of the Delhi police), and finally resigned on an issue hardly anybody understands (the merits of their preferred Jan Lokpal bill as opposed to the centre’s Lokpal bill). They could have provided a working government in Delhi and used that credibility to persuade voters in other parts of the country that they were a serious alternative. Instead, after reverting to street-fighter mode, they contested over 400 seats and lost nearly all of them.

The Congress can have hope for its future only when the dynasty and the sycophants accompanying it are history. Sonia Gandhi proved herself to be a good leader; her son is not. Party people recognise this but the response is to call for Priyanka to join politics. I do not see much hope for the future.

The main opposition to the BJP in the future is likely to be a coalition of non-BJP, non-Congress parties. The AIADMK, BJD, TMC won sweeping victories in their home states and, put together, are already a much more significant opposition than the Congress in the Lok Sabha. The 2019 elections will be of interest. vIn the meantime, we can only sit back and watch the Modi show.

[edit]There are a few eyebrow-raising ministerial appointments (though it is true that the BJP has very poor bench strength). On the plus side, B S Yeddyurappa — against whom there are corruption allegations — is excluded. On the minus side, Nitin Gadkari — against whom Kejriwal alleged corruption, resulting in jail for Kejriwal, though he was not the first to make these allegations — is rewarded with a jumbo ministry that combines surface transport, shipping and ports. Then there is Smriti Irani for human resource development: a relatively untested politician for a ministry of such importance is an interesting choice, to say the least, but maybe fresh faces are needed in such ministries. But, worst of all, there is Sanjeev Baliyan, riot-accused in Muzaffarnagar just months ago: rewarding him with a ministerial position so soon would tend to confirm the worst fears of minorities in India.

Trepidation

Now that the Indian general elections have come to a close, who’s to blame if a man who presided over a mass-murder in his state, took no action, victimised honest police officials and NGOs, and refuses to express any contrition over it, becomes the next prime minister of India?

There are plenty of people to blame. There is Atal Behari Vajpayee, PM at that time, who was saddened by the riots but not enough to actually take action. There are L K Advani and Jaswant Singh, who did not speak up then and are consumed now by the man that Jairam Ramesh called “Bhasmasura”. There are the corporates like Ratan Tata, Sunil Bharti Mittal and others, who took the man’s free gifts of land and resources and sang his praises in return. There is the media, which has been relentlessly bombarding us not just with the Messiah’s alleged inevitability but with how he would achieve Gujarat-level prosperity for India (never mind that indices suggest Gujarat is not doing much better these days than earlier, and is lagging other industrialised states on most social metrics — it’s the sensex that counts!). The Times of India here literally sold out its front page to the anointed one for weeks before the TN round of elections. Arnab Goswami showed that he can be a kitten when he wants to be one.

But most of all, I think, one has to blame R K Raghavan.

This man (a “family friend”, whom I have met a few times) chaired the Supreme-Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) which found no evidence of wrongdoing against our possible next prime minister. The spectacular shoddiness of his job is exposed in Manoj Mitta’s book “The fiction of fact-finding”. Excerpts here. Dilip D’Souza’s review here. Several other reviews on the net. I intended to write one myself (I bought the book a couple of months ago) but feel it would be redundant at this point.

But, basically, the SIT asked the man all the right questions, then swallowed all his answers even when they were contradicted by the public record, asked no followups, looked at no other evidence. And there is much else. Mitta persuasively argues that fact-finding commissions, SITs, etc, function — probably by design — to bury such cases, not to bring them to justice. (Mitta’s previous book, which I haven’t read, was about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. He cannot be accused of having an agenda.)

Mitta portrays Raghavan as incompetent in his previous investigation of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination (to the extent of allowing a vital piece of evidence, Haribabu’s camera, to be removed from the scene without doing the paperwork or informing his colleagues — the investigators saw the crucial photos for the first time in The Hindu!) But what he did as SIT head seems worse than incompetence.

If Raghavan had done his job as a halfway-competent police officer, this man would not have been able to brush off his past as he has done and we would not be faced with the prospect of a fascist, supremacist prime minister who is comfortable with the mass massacre of thousands if they are of the “wrong” community.

We will know in a few days who our next prime minister will be. As Arun Jaitley remarked, it will be either NDA or an unstable coalition. If the former, well, those who expect development will be disappointed. Those who argued that a history of overseeing the worst riots of the 21st century (with credible evidence of having, at least, condoned the riots) doesn’t matter because we need “development” will have to live with their consciences. And then there are those who actually subscribe to this man’s ideology. I think and hope that they are a minority.

For any women out there planning to buy a new car…

Be aware that Volkswagen
(a) considers you a threat to road safety
(b) considers you dumb.

Just saying.

Deputy consul case: Be afraid of Preet Bharara

After India’s deputy consul general in New York was arrested for allegedly falsifying visa papers to underpay her domestic maid, the government, and the media, arrested in outrage. The consul was handcuffed! In front of her children! She was strip-searched! She was kept in jail with drug offenders! The Indian government swiftly took retaliatory action against US diplomats in India. The maid was smeared freely in the press, declared an absconder, and the US government accused of some nefarious business, especially when it turned out that the maid’s husband and child had been brought to the US.

Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York and the man behind the charges, discusses these allegations and, despite being constrained by his position on the things he is allowed to say, rebuts most of them very nicely here.

Preet Bharara’s name is now familiar to many Indians for his role in this story. But in the US, he is much better known for other things: if you search Google News for current stories, you will find examples like this. Basically, he has successfully targeted many Wall Street executives for insider trading, the latest being SAC Capital’s Michael Steinberg. He has not lost a case yet in prosecuting insider trading, convicting 77 of 77 defendants with ten pending cases. This is clearly a man who does his homework. But because one of those 77 defendants was Rajat Gupta, apparently Bharara is being accused by some in South Block of targeting Indians!

There is no doubt that, in his statement on the consul case, Bharara is saying much less than he knows. The Indian government has behaved in this matter with unbelievable stupidity and arrogance without ascertaining the facts — to the extent of moving the diplomat to the UN office and retrospectively claiming diplomatic immunity (which will be received only if the US State Department accredits her). Now one wonders whether the US values its relations with India sufficiently to go along with this ploy. But the more interesting question, to me, is what else Bharara has up his sleeve (this is after all the third recent case involving just the NY consulate…)

At the end of the day, the way we in India treat domestic help is a scandal, and, increasingly, an international one. The government and the media are right to be angry but have the wrong target.

What to do when the Supreme Court issues a contemptible judgement?

I, like many others, was not paying much attention to the impending Supreme Court verdict in the appeal of the Delhi High Court’s verdict quashing the criminalization of gay sex in Section 377. The Delhi HC’s arguments seemed so common-sensical, and international opinion so strong, that it seemed inconceivable that the Supreme Court would not uphold the verdict. The inconceivable occurred yesterday.

A bench of two judges declared the following in reinstating the ban on gay sex:

  • In its “anxiety” to protect the “so-called rights” of LGBT people, the HC “extensively relied upon the judgments of other jurisdictions”.
  • “The High Court is not at all right in observing that Section 377 IPC obstructs personality development of homosexuals or affects their self-esteem because that observation is solely based on the reports prepared by the academicians.”
  • And most shocking: The HC “overlooked that a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders and in last more than 150 years less than 200 persons have been prosecuted (as per the reported orders) for committing offence under Section 377 IPC.”

Since when did it become OK to discriminate against a group because their numbers are small? Why is a discriminatory law OK if prosecutions under that law are rare? Why “so-called rights” — do LGBT people not have rights? Don’t all courts, all over the world, rely upon judgments in other jurisdictions? And should academicians stop giving advice to courts now?

They conclude that it is the legislature’s job to change the law, if required. This is the same court that just ruled against red beacons on cars for all but a small category of officials (which includes Supreme Court judges!), last year banned sun-film on car windows (nowhere outlawed in the motor vehicle act, which only prescribes the minimum transparency of the windows), mandated CNG fuel in Delhi public transport, banned street food in Delhi… It is not the court’s job to legislate on those things. It is, however, the court’s job to strike down discriminatory legislation.

This judgment will not be looked on kindly by history, nor will its authors Justices Singhvi and Mukhopadhyaya.

The Hindu relapses: or, why N Ram should keep his mouth shut

The Hindu’s brief experiment with professional editing and management has collapsed acrimoniously: editor Siddharth Varadarajan announced his resignation on twitter, the Hindu swiftly came up with its own version, and the Hindu’s supremo N Ram has been freely criticising both Varadarajan and fired CEO Arun Anant in the pages of other newspapers.

Disclosure: as readers of this blog know, I wrote a few opinion articles for The Hindu during Siddharth Varadarajan’s tenure as editor. I don’t know him, or any other senior figure in the Hindu. It happened this way: I had something that I felt was worth saying in a wider medium than this blog; I found Varadarajan’s email address on his own blog; I emailed him directly; and he replied, and after a minimum of correspondence, ran the piece. But I have never met him or corresponded with him on any other matter, and know nothing about the internals of this affair.

I was already an admirer of Varadarajan’s writing in The Hindu and, earlier, the Times of India. And, in my personal opinion, the Hindu’s readability improved immensely under his editorship. There was great diversity of articles (both news and opinion), a significant amount of “breaking news”, and a very sensible editorial line in all cases. And, in particular, he allowed plenty of space for dissent, both in the letters section and in “debate”-style rejoinder sections to previously published opinion pieces.

A bit of history: The Hindu has been the “newspaper of record” of south India for decades, arguably for most of its existence (well over 100 years), and is influential in other parts of India too. Like that other “newspaper of record”, the New York Times, the Hindu is family-owned; but unlike the NYT, it has mostly been family-run and family-edited too. The retirement of G. Kasturi, its longest serving editor, in 1991 prompted some ugly squabbling. Kasturi’s nephew N Ravi took over as editor in 1991, he was displaced by his brother N Ram amidst some acrimony in 2003, and when Ram brought in Siddharth Varadarajan in 2011, Ravi and their cousin Malini Parthasarathy resigned from editorial positions loudly protesting their being sidelined in favour of the “junior” Varadarajan. Now both are back.

The two allegations are mismanagement of the business resulting in falling circulation, employee dissatisfaction etc (which may be more an allegation against Anant), and, in Ram’s words, “editorialisation in the guise of news and manipulation of news coverage” under Varadarajan (while declining to give specific instances). Coming from Ram, this claim is comical.

Ram’s almost decade-long tenure saw the Hindu become almost an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Check out this piece, published on October 2, 2009 (Gandhi Jayanti) on the front page above the fold: written as a news report by Ram himself from Beijing, it waxes poetic about China’s rise, “showcased” by Tiananmen Square (which the world remembers, even today, for other reasons). After breathless and entirely unquestioning coverage of Premier Hu Jintao’s speech, the military review, parade and floats, Ram ends on a romantic note: “As I write, the evening is quite young at Tian’anmen Square.” So, Mr Ram, was this editorialisation in the guise of news, or news in the guise of editorialisation, or both? Who paid for your trip to Beijing to cover this parade? Where were you seated, and at whose invitation?

This is hardly the only example under Ram’s tenure. He consistently praised China to the detriment of, for example, the Tibet cause (take a look at this news item, published in The Hindu, which quotes N Ram, editor of The Hindu, rejecting Tibetan “propaganda”!). He unfailingly toed the line of Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa on the Tamil issue (see this fawning interview). And he almost never published dissenting letters to any of this (see this letters page in response to the Rajapaksa interview). None of which is surprising given his history as a card-carrying Communist and admirer of authoritarian figures. Nor is it surprising that, during Ram’s tenure as editor, the Hindu carried his photograph on more occasions than it had carried photographs of all previous editors during its entire history.

[EDIT Oct 23, 2013: I forgot to mention this supreme example of N Ram’s editorial impartiality.]

So whether or not Siddharth Varadarajan can be accused of editorialising in news selection, Ram is the very last person in the world who can make that accusation with a straight face. And by doing so, rather than merely parting ways with Varadarajan in mutual silence, Ram has merely demeaned himself and his newspaper.

So ends The Hindu’s brief experiment with professional editing and management. Pity. For two years it was actually quite a good newspaper. One bright spot is that Ram is not returning as chief editor — instead, brother Ravi, a relatively colourless figure, returns to the job. I expect that The Hindu will become, if not the red rag that it was in Ram’s time, the bland inoffensive paper that it used to be earlier.

Obaid Siddiqi

Obaid Siddiqi, who founded the Molecular Biology Unit (now Department of Biological Sciences) at TIFR Bombay and NCBS in Bangalore, passed away recently at 81 after a road accident. Here is a long and personal tribute to him by K VijayRaghavan, who succeeded him as director of NCBS and is now secretary, DBT (and is a familiar name on Indian blogs).

IITs, fee hikes, and higher education

Yesterday I was part of a small panel at IIT Madras to discuss “privatisation of higher education” in the context of fee hikes at IIT Madras. The students were exercised at being asked to pay higher fees (after revision, it is Rs 90,000 per year for B.Tech. courses), but told me that I can express my opinion freely and they wanted a free exchange of ideas. Which is what occurred. The other panelists were Prof. Venkatesh Athreya, economist and former HOD at Bharathidasan University (and an IITian himself), and Mr Jimraj Milton, lawyer.

To summarise things very briefly: I felt that the revised fees are a small fraction of the expected salaries for most IIT graduates, and taxpayer money should not be going to subsidise students at India’s most prestigious institutes who will go on to lucrative jobs afterwards. (For example, the highest salary at IIT Madras for a B.Tech. graduate in computer science and engineering in 2011-12 was Rs 68.5 lakhs, and the average was Rs 24.67 lakhs. It varies across disciplines, but the overall average is still Rs 10 lakhs/year for B.Tech. graduates [source]. The revised fees over four years are less than half of this average.) Like the other speakers, I pointed out that the larger scandal is the complete failure to assure reasonable-quality school education. Though coverage has increased in the last decade, quality has not. The planning commission, and the Kakodkar committee, both recommend a scholarship scheme to ensure that any candidate who is selected is financially able to attend the IITs, and the government promises that nobody will be debarred from the IITs for an inability to pay. If these promises are kept (and skepticism of government promises is warranted in this country), I see nothing wrong in the proposals. But even if not, for the more lucrative B.Tech. courses at IITs, getting a loan should not be hard and the student should be able to pay it off quite quickly after graduating.

Prof Athreya’s view was that there is no pressing reason to raise fees, since they cover only a part of the expenses at an IIT and the major part of funding will come from the government in any case. He observed that 65% of tax revenues come from indirect taxes, paid mainly by the working class and poor, and corporate taxes are effectively very low because of various exemptions that corporates are good at negotiating. He also observed that, because of globalisation, corporations who don’t get sweetheart tax deals simply threaten to move elsewhere, and governments around the world cave in to such threats. India’s budget deficit, he argued, should be tackled by improving tax collections from big business, not by asking IIT students to pay fees.

Mr Milton argued that privatisation, in general, was a form of exploiting the poor for the benefit of the rich, and gave several examples (such as electricity, private couriers, primary education) that did not really convince me. Besides, I did not quite see where “privatisation” came in to the picture for the IITs, and said so. I was told the Kakodkar committee argues for “radical privatisation”. I had a look later, and it does not. It quotes some feedback as suggesting “radical privatisation” as one of several options, but what it recommends is simply that IITs move towards raising their operating — i.e. non-plan — expenditure from non-government sources, while plan expenditure will come from the government as before. The topic of the panel discussion, therefore, was perhaps not really appropriate to the pressing issue in the minds of the audience.

Largely, my views remain unchanged, but one important point did come up: what about students who do not choose to do lucrative jobs after studying at IIT, but join the government or work for the social good? And, in particular, what of students who want to do higher studies, such as a master’s or Ph.D. degree, at modest Indian stipends? The return on their expenditure for the B.Tech. degree would be much lower, and if they took a loan, paying it back would be much more challenging. So it seems clear that, in such cases, the fees should be returned to the student (or perhaps fees can be charged at the point of exit, depending on what future career the student is taking up). Anyway, a solution to this point is in the IITs’ own interest, since they are finding it hard to recruit high-quality faculty, and with the expansion of higher education, it is essential to persuade some of the best undergraduate students to go on to higher studies and an academic career.

I wonder how other countries — the US in particular — deal with this. Student debt is beginning to approach crisis proportions in the US. Graduate and postdoc pay is barely enough to subsist on. How are students who have spent heavily on undergraduate education persuaded to continue for higher studies? Or is this one reason why graduate departments and faculty positions in the US are dominated by foreigners?

Finally, my major concern was — why aren’t our private universities better than they are? In an ideal world, a private institute such as BITS would have far exceeded the quality of the IITs by now, and students would be flocking there by preference, and we would not have this debate. But while private universities are mushrooming, the older ones like BITS are still not comparable to the IITs, and the newer ones are largely money-making institutions with mediocre teaching and negligible research output. Prof Athreya observed that private educational institutions should be motivated by philantrophy and not business considerations, and this is not happening [update: he clarifies that one cannot expect pure philantrophy and he has no problem with profit as a motive, but it should not be the only motive]. How can the government encourage it to happen? Or should we depend on the government for quality higher education for the foreseeable future, even as primary education is now dominated in the cities by expensive (and, often, equally profit-driven) private schools?

Much ado over a few valves…

My previous post on Kudankulam got some online and offline feedback. I partly invited criticism with my screwup in claiming that the reports of ZiO-Podolsk corruption were from a single source, a Norwegian NGO (who quoted a Russian agency report that I couldn’t find). I was quickly alerted to the Russian original, which is more credible than a Norwegian NGO. But it is still a single source, which is mystifying to me. A report that is not followed up is like an experiment that is not repeated. Initial media reports are often erroneous and a full picture appears only later. What is the full picture here and why has nobody reported on it? It is mystifying to me, but I don’t buy the conspiracy theory that there is a deliberate international media blackout on this.

Be that as it may, the anti-nuclear activists are trying to link that story to reports that four valves in Kudankulam were found to be defective. The facts that these are part of additional safety features requested by the Indian side, that they were detected in time, that AERB clearance will only be given after full testing, are all unimportant, it seems.

It is good to see the minute concern exhibited over four defective valves in an installation the size of Kudankulam. Can we have the same concern for non-nuclear installations all over the country? Just in the past one month we have seen a fertilizer factory explosion in Texas and a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, both with heavy loss of life. Here in India we have seen numerous disasters over the years, from Bhopal to the Uphaar cinema fire to the Kumbakonam school tragedy to the Mantralaya fire to numerous firework accidents in Sivakasi, and that doesn’t include buses plunging into ravines, trains ramming vehicles at unmanned crossings, brake failures in poorly maintained public buses, and so on. If an iota of the concern for detail exhibited in Kudankulam (both by the NPCIL and by the protestors) were applied elsewhere, we could save thousands of lives a year.