Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No exit -- neither graceful nor partial

The title of this post borrows from my friend and colleague Sunil Mukhi's recent post about an attempt to bridge the gap or dichotomy between universities and research institutes resulting in an artificial separation of teaching and research. It's impossible for me to summarise this discussion with its 60 odd comments so do read it if you feel strongly about this issue. In order to provide yet another forum for people to take potshots at, and to submit my take on this issue, here is a proposal that tries to unify the idea of a university department and the research institutes. The main criticism has always been that this has created in Indian science a set of 'haves' and 'have not' - people who have excellent facilities, whether they work or not and those who have precious little and have to work really hard in difficult and deprived circumstances to do their research. My proposal to close this gap is the following: (please note that this is not a 'finished product' and the point of this post is to get constructive comments to flesh out whatever lacunae may exist in these suggestions) I offer the following proposal that combines the strengths of both the university departments and the research institutes, keeping in view the fact that, as the system exists today, nobody can be fired -- i.e every faculty member is tenured. Every research institute must be part of one or more university departments. Thus a purely physics institute or the physics part of a larger institute would be part of a physics department of some university. Every member of the institute would be a member of the physics department, but, and here is the crucial part, not vice versa . Members of the institute would typically have slight lower teaching responsibilities -- say one course every alternate semester instead of one every semester. (These numbers can be fine-tuned later). Institute affiliation would typically be given to those members of the department who are young active researchers, in order to provide a kind of "breathing space" during which to consolidate their research output and hence their standing in their field. In a few years, typically not more than five, the faculty member would revert to the department and would be expected to participate in whatever teaching and non teaching duties the head of the department assigns. In extremely rare cases, for truly brilliant scientists, the five year limit would be relaxed. However, the very fact that the person is substantially above average would, if anything, be cause to 'expose' him/her to the students in the department and therefore such extensions of the 5 year tenure should be few and far between, if at all. The research institute could (in fact should) continue to be funded by agencies other than UGC as it is now -- say DAE, DoS, etc. However the facilities like the library and computer labs would be available to all members of the department. What are the advantages to the department? There are many. The addition of a reasonably large number of faculty members working in the institute would substantially reduce the teaching load of all members of the department, even if the institute members teach half as much the department members. The facilities of the institute would be fully available to the department members and they would not have to depend on the usually poorly funded and managed central libraries and computer infrastructure of the whole university. Since the department as a whole would now have young active scientists on its payroll, it would over the years develop a significantly high scientific profile. Finally, and most important of all, the existence of an 'upper class' and 'lower class' of scientists (those who have every possible facility and those who have next to nothing) that have bedeviled relations between institutes and universities would be a thing of the past. Any member of the department who is reasonably active would have the possibility of spending upto 5 years in the institute in order to do some unfettered research without the strains of teaching and administrative duties.(Something like a long term sabbatical in the same place). However eventually all members of the institute would revert back to the department thus removing any possibility of creating haves and have-nots. The fact that the institute would be funded by an external agency like the DAE instead of UGC would guarantee to a certain extent that basic facilities for library and computers and laboratories are reasonably well funded. Since all members of the department would be eligible to use these facilities (other than personal laboratories of faculty members) basic support structures for the whole department would be guaranteed. This is very different from the situation existing now in many university departments where even such basic needs for research are not fulfilled. The advantages to institute members are also multi-fold. By virtue of being part of a full-fledged department, the institute members would have access to a larger and more diverse pool of students to choose from. Being part of a university system would allow them a fuller and richer intellectual atmosphere where they would also interact with faculty and students from disciplines far removed from their own. Even in their own department they would be able to interact with people in sub-disciplines very different from their own. Such interactions automatically have the advantage of broadening one's physics perspective. Classes they teach would have say 20-30 students rather than 4-5 which is common in research institutes, leading to a more vigorous discussion of ideas and concepts. They would also have access to a vast array of ancillary facilities that are common in most universities -- playing fields, tennis courts, swimming pool, theatre workshops and other such entertainment options, things which are not viable for smaller establishments like institutes. One issue that usually crops up is whether people in the institutes should get higher salaries. This has always been a sticky issue in India where it is considered 'dashed bad form' to conflate research and other intellectual activities with sordid issues like money. I think this is plain hypocritical. The institutes should offer substantially higher salaries to attract the best minds not only from here but from abroad. Needless to say, the salary will drop when they revert back to the department but I don't see any problem with that. One can look upon it like having spent a sabbatical abroad for some time where invariably one gets paid more than the Indian salary but one eventually returns to one's old job back home with a rupee salary. The point I want to stress here again is that anyone in the department can aspire to this position within the department provided their research output is of high caliber (in fact this would act as an incentive to higher performance). Thus, one has, in one fell swoop demolished the 'caste system' that is believed to permanently confine university and research institutes members to different levels.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are you a top public intellectual?

The simple answer is: depends on how many friends and relatives you can convince, charm, browbeat, bribe into voting for you! Prospect magazine ran an on-line poll to discover the top 100 public intellectuals of the world. The results are most amusing, if not illuminating. The top slot went to Fethullah Gülen (my response exactly, who???). More interestingly, the remaining nine in the top ten were captured by Muslims, to the consternation of the Western world. Some of these are quite distinguished -- like Muhammed Yunus, Orhan Pamuk and Shirin Ebadi (perhaps even Altaz Ahsan) but the rest would probably leave most people flummoxed. Noam Chomsky made it to 11, our very own Amartya Sen to 16 and even Ramachandra Guha makes a cameo appearance at 44, above Ashish Nandy and Sunita Narain. You can take a look at Christopher Hitchen's article on public intellectuals in the same magazine. However, let us return to number 1. Gülen is a Turkish Sufi cleric (yes!) whose followers the Fethullahçi who are known for their discipline, mounted a concerted campaign to vote for their leader. Many of the little known figures in the top 10 also owe it to concerted campaigns, clearly. Which goes to show how online campaigns can be hijacked if you just have the numbers who will take the trouble to click a mouse button. There are some links on the same site which explain the whole process. There is one other such instance that I can recall. The BBC ran an online poll to discover the greatest actor in the last 1000 years (do we know the names of too many actors from, say, 1024 C.E.?). The winner -- Amitabh Bachchan -- see the results here!!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Are Indians more Pavlovian than most?

This is a story about a garbage bin that stands at the corner of our street. Here is a picture of it. But it used not to be like this. At one time it was a fine upright garbage bin on four wheels into which people deposited their trash and the company which collects garbage Neel Metal Fanalca (never mind the weird name) would empty daily. Over time it lost its legs, toppled over till finally the company itself came and delivered the coup de grace by upending it. This is supposed to signify (I am basing this on earlier and similar events) that they would no longer collect garbage from this bin and indeed they have stopped coming to this one (hopefully till it's replaced by another). However, and here comes the rub! What do we see here? Like flowers and coconuts deposited at road side shrines, people continue to present their offerings to the garbage god. That too, when it's clear that the truck has not been clearing this bin. The mound continues to increase on a daily basis. Now, why would they do this? Particularly when there are two more 'working' garbage bins within three minutes walking distance along two perpendicular streets? Are we to conclude that in a classic Pavlovian response, we continue to salivate (sorry, I mean deposit our litter) where we (almost) always have, even though it's no longer cleared? Perhaps there is a simpler reason -- we just don't care.... However, this story has a happy ending!! About a week ago I sent an email to Chennai Corporation complaining about this non-clearance of garbage. Today two gentlemen from the Corporation landed up at my door asking me to show them where the problem was. Within half an hour they had summoned the workers from Neel Metal Fanalca to clear the garbage and set upright the bin until the new one was delivered. What does it prove --- that the citizenry is far more irresponsible than some of the public utility organisations.

The BBC and Child Labour

I am venturing into territory about which I know virtually nothing (well ok, even less than usual). Sometime back, I stumbled upon a BBC Panorama program on a specific instance of child labour in India. (A summary of the program can be found here but the actual program is far more detailed). A BBC reporter (along with an interpreter) in the best tradition of Tehelka (Tehelka is an Indian crusading magazine that specialises in running sting operations complete with hidden camera and microphones to expose corrupt politicians and bureaucrats) visited some garment factories in Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, pretending to be buyers interested in business and complete with spycams to record their visits. What they discovered was that the large British garment chain Primark like may other foreign labels, sub-contracts its work to a factory in Tiruppur Fab and Fashion to manufacture part of its product line which, incidentally, are priced very aggressively in Britain. However, in turn Fab and Fashion sub contracted some of the finer embroidery work and specifically the stitching of sequins on clothes to some families who lived in refugee camps on the outskirts of Tiruppur. Most of this work was done within these families by children, mostly girls, in the 11-14 age group. The reporter also interviewed these girls (again in the guise of a buyer interested in doing business, which I must say I found particularly offensive) who mostly worked from home, and showed him pieces they had embroidered which finally made it to the shelves of Primark in London. (Their openness with this reporter would have devastating consequences as will become clear in the next para). Soon after the BBC showed this story to officials at Primark, Primark reacted, to contain the public relations damage, by immediately and publicly cancelling its full order with Fab and Fashion. The BBC reporter produced some smug and very standard homilies about the curse of child labour in these countries, got some Primark customers to say that they would never countenance child labour and would stop buying merchandise from such companies and ended the program with a self satisfied summary of what he believed was a major blow that he had cast to eradicate this social evil. Unfortunately, my first thought when this program ended was to wonder what happened to the girls and their families. Clearly the immediate, and probably net outcome of this sting operation and the subsequent knee-jerk reaction of Primark, was to squeeze off whatever income was coming their way from Fab and Fashion. Until the next garment manufacturer came along, families such as these would face tough times with no immediate means to compensate for the loss. It's obvious, in the circumstances, that the girls were not going to start going to school just because they had no work. What is more likely is that, and this is probably more true of girls rather than boys, with no alternate income, they would eventually find themselves on the street, to be exploited far worse that anything they had experienced with their previous occupation. The Indian Child Labour Act of 1983 with subsequent modifications in 1993 and 1996, aims to ban employment of children below the age of fourteen years in factories, mines and hazardous employment and to regulate the working conditions of children in other employment. The working conditions of children have been regulated in all employment which are not prohibited under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. The list of occupations and processes where child labour is banned is given here. It's not clear that embroidery and stitching is one of them. Of course, as with many of our forward looking laws, these laws are followed mostly in their breach. However, the law itself takes a pragmatic view of child labour in India. Given its widespread prevalence and its economic dimension, it does not ban it in toto but only in hazardous, dangerous and demeaning occupations, while it tries to regulate it in others. Poor families will always be tempted to put their children to work rather than send then to school, unless they are economically compensated in some way. Virtually every Indian comes in contact with this reality, whether in Udipi restaurants where boys clear up after every customer, or as domestic help, to take just two instances. Nothing I am saying here is of course original! A Google search of 'Child Labour' elicits an enormous number of hits with every aspect dissected in every possible way. My purpose in writing this post is to just highlight the fact that sting operations of the kind that the BBC carried out, with the immediate and fixed purpose of demonstrating its existence and nothing more, do little if anything in ameliorating the child labour problem in India. In particular, as I said earlier, it only serves to squeeze off desperately needed income to poor and destitute families. I began by saying that I am no expert on this, and this post is the result of a gut reaction to a Panorama program on BBC. I would therefore be interested in hearing other opinions, particularly those of experts, (if there are any reading this post!!) on this issue.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A book reading by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh's recent book Sea of Poppies, the first of a trilogy is apparently creating waves all round and he is in Chennai promoting it. Yesterday there was an interactive book reading session at the Taj Coromandal, presided over by Chennai's man for all seasons N. Ram. From what I could figure from the detailed news reports in the Hindu (naturally) it was a pretty high class affair and doubtless all the Chennai glitterati were there. Therefore it was with a bit of trepidation that we decided to go for his second book reading at Landmark bookstore. Never having been to one, I had visions of ladies and gents in their Sunday best keen to be seen in the right places, gate crashing into the tiny corner of the bookstore that was set aside for the reading and subsequent interaction with the public. As it turned out, it was a truly pleasant experience. Amitav landed up at the dot of 6.30pm the scheduled time, and after a quick, no-nonsense, barely one minute introduction by one of the younger members of the staff of Landmark, he began his reading of a couple of passages from his book. This took about ten minutes, at the end of which he invited questions from the audience. That is when it struck me that a large part of the crowd was a serious Eng. Lit. one, people who had actually studied his books as course material and had real questions about his characters, about his subject matter, even about the way he chose names for his characters. There was no pretense, no attempt at attention grabbing, no desire to show off one's knowledge of the genre. Overall a very pleasant, instructive experience, that too in an informal, what I would almost call an academic atmosphere. Amitav, who also came across as unpretentious and self-effacing, has a quaint and low-key sense of humour. At one point he told us that he was horrified when he first heard that one of his books Shadow Lines was actually being used as course material. It reminded him, he told us, of his college days when the only authors considered worth reading were dead ones, most of whom they hated. In another episode, a 14 year old from Kerala wrote to him asking him to send her a picture of her favourite character Tridib (a character from Shadow Lines)!! Overall, an evening well spent. We lined up at the end to get our copies of his book(s) autographed, which he did with unfailing courtesy, meticulously asking and writing down the name of each person in the inscription. We left after picking up a couple of Murakami's that we had been searching for, for some time. Now, that's one author I would really like to meet! The Hindu naturally had no coverage of this event.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

US India Nuclear Agreement and the New York Times

Today, the New York Times, the bastion of liberal thought in the mainstream press, has published an editorial that is not only offensively patronising but outrageous in its mendacity. It begins by admonishing Mr Bush for rushing into a "far-too-generous" nuclear deal with India and advises him to slow down the approval process. Apart from sounding as if the New York Times is in daily contact with Comrade Karat, it makes a few statements which, to put none too fine a point to them, are simply incorrect. Let's look at some of these (Let me clarify that I am no expert on the nuclear deal which seems to have as many interpretations as there are commentators. However, nothing I say here requires me to be an expert).
  • It accuses India of "illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons" The dictionary defines illicit variously as not legally permitted or authorized; unlicensed; unlawful. Whatever be the merits of the nuclear test that India carried out (and in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I think it was one of the more fatuous acts of the BJP Government then in power), nothing that the Indian Government did was unlawful or unauthorised. Even India's worst enemies have not accused her of having a A. Q. Khan kind of network, peddling and buying nuclear secrets and materials. Whatever weapons grade uranium/plutonium India produced was done secretly but not illegally. India has had an exemplary record in non-proliferation of nuclear material and technology even though we are not signatories to the NPT.
  • It goes on to accuse Bush of extracting "no promise from India to stop producing bomb-making material. No promise not to expand its arsenal. And no promise not to resume nuclear testing". I think it is important to remind the Times that no sovereign country would ever agree to make such over-arching promises for perpetuity. What a country can promise is not to divert the nuclear material it buys for its power reactors, to its bomb making program. And I believe India has done exactly that and even opened up its civilian reactors to inspections.
  • "At a minimum, they must insist that international suppliers halt nuclear trade if India tests another nuclear weapon" This apparently is already part of the US India nuclear deal so the Times is harping on a non-sequiter. However, what has always amazed me of the nuclear powers and particularly of the US is that they find nothing wrong in allowing themselves the right to test nuclear weapons at their convenience but are not willing to grant the same right to those outside their self-proclaimed nuclear club. An infantile wish to remain exclusive in the ability to destroy the world many times over.
  • "must insist that India accept the fullest possible monitoring of its civilian nuclear facilities by I.A.E.A. inspectors." Well, excuse me but isn't this exactly what the agreement envisages? Aren't we getting a bit repetitive here, sir?
  • "The United States must ensure that any rule the suppliers’ group adopts for selling technology to India is not weaker than anything already in American law. Otherwise, New Delhi will be able to end run Washington and buy technology and fuel from states — like Russia and France — that are even more eager for the business and even less punctilious than this country." With this one statement, the Times exposes the ugly face of the smug, self-satisfied American riding rough shod over the rest of the world. It condemns not just India but France and Russia (why not China -- oops, sorry they are supposed to sell to Pakistan) as ne'er-do-well's, unprincipled and amoral countries, possessing none of the grand vision, morals and principles of the United States of America. Perhaps journalistic memory is woefully short -- wasn't it the United States which started various unprovoked wars in Iraq, in Vietnam, bombed a few other countries including a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and doesn't it continue to be the only country in the world to have ever used nuclear weapons against a civilian population? Not that the other members of the nuclear club are so innocent, but the US is hardly in any position to preen iself over such issues. What about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and renditions? Do they show up the US as a principled country that follows international law?
The editorial winds up by actually asking Bush to forge closer ties with India but not make the nuclear agreement the centrepiece of the relationship. In other words -- they might bring some business our way so be friends with them - just make sure they don't get too big for their boots.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Violence from the Left and Right

Most Indians are painfully aware of the violence unleashed by the forces of hate from the right. The Narendra Modi Government in Gujarat presided over the genocide of large numbers of Muslims in that state, in 2002. As a result Modi has become a hero for large swathes of the Gujarat public, and has handily won re-election twice over. However, the issue of violence unleashed by the left forces (not including the extreme left -- the Naxalites -- which is in a class all by itself) has not been so well documented. (I see that in 7 lines I have already stepped on the toes of the left and right wing forces, each one equally offended at being clubbed with the other, so one might as well forge ahead). In an article that seems to have escaped the scrutiny of the media in India, Martha Nussbaum has analysed the genesis of recent violence perpetrated by the left parties in India, mostly in their home state of Bengal. Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is a frequent visitor to India and has recently published a book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future which was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by the well known India baiter Pankaj Mishra. The book is a discussion of India's complex experiment with democracy and the roots of the violence that has become endemic in Indian society, despite the country's undeniable success with democracy. While the book is largely about the Hindu right wing and the violence that it has unleashed on the minorities, the article mentioned above has more to do with the violence associated with the left, and particularly in Nandigram and Singur. Nussbaum describes both the successes and failures of the communist movement in India, and particularly compares the experience in the two major Communist ruled states in India, West Bengal and Kerala. One significant aspect is that Stalinism has never been formally repudiated. Describing an amusing anecdote Economist Amartya Sen tells of explaining to his daughter, around 1975, who that mustached man was on the huge posters in Howrah station, Kolkata: “Look at him carefully, Indrani, since you will not see his picture anywhere else in the world any more.” The communist experiment in Kerala has clearly been more successful -- the state leads in almost all Human development indices compared to West Bengal. She points out that despite the failures in health and education, In Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) had one of India’s most savvy politicians. Whatever his failures on health and education, Basu combined a deep commitment to social equality with a canny awareness of the ways in which communism, to work for people, must be tempered by economic realism....One of the state’s current problems is that Bhattacharjee (the present Chief Minister) is a much less able man, a dogmatic, unmoving hedgehog to Basu’s wily fox. After discussing the build up to the Nandigram violence, Nussbaum says As the months went on, things got worse. Although the CPI(M) tried to keep journalists out of the area, there is much evidence by now that armed Party cadres patrolled the villages, engaging in rape, assault, and murder. Opposition villagers were forcibly evicted from their homes, and many remain in temporary camps today, still vulnerable to violence. (Much of this is extensively documented in the report of an investigative People’s Commission published last summer.) In the late fall, things heated up, and numerous clashes were reported, again with Party cadres, not the official police, playing the aggressive role. The state’s high court ordered normalcy restored and refused to hear the government’s objections to the involvement of national forces (both police and investigators) in restoring law and order. Left Front chair Biman Bose scoffed at the court, calling its judgment “unconstitutional”—and was cited for criminal contempt. By now, the nation’s Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter on both sides, at the same time chiding the CPI(M) for wasting people’s time with litigation rather than doing something constructive for the people of Nandigram. By November, violence escalated, again with Party cadres, not officers of the law, taking the aggressive role. Indeed, the police were withdrawn, and the chief minister openly handed the area over to the cadres, stating that he was not just a chief minister, but also a Party person. Graves from these assaults are still being discovered by the central police force. It is alleged that government-controlled hospitals were reluctant to help the victims. Chief Minister Bhattacharjee defended the use of force, saying that the villagers had been “paid back in their own coin.” The issue not only split the left but also disillusioned a large number of left leaning artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom returned their state given awards, though some well meaning individuals who worked with the Government, found it difficult to condemn it. However, one who stands on and looks at these events as an outsider must conclude that the government’s actions are vile and utterly unacceptable. I find one of her positions particularly important - this is the value of (in my words) calling a spade a spade, even if that spade is a friend. Many of us, who have watched with despair the attitudes of some highly respected left wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky predictably and mechanically defending their fellow leftists, will find an echo in her description of the position of such people on such events Not so admirable, by contrast, have been the statements of some leftists to the effect that one should not criticize one’s friends, that solidarity is more important than ethical correctness. One may or may not trace this line to an old Marxist contempt for bourgeois ethics, but it is loathsome whatever its provenance. A particularly fatuous document of this kind was a letter authored by Noam Chomsky, signed by a number of Indian American intellectuals who should know better, and published in the Hindu, a leading national India newspaper, on November 22, 2007. Besides lauding the CPI(M) for “important experiments” for which it deserves no particular credit (such as “local self-government”), the letter reasons that people on the left ought to focus on opposition to the actions of the United States in Iraq, rather than fighting with one another. “This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist,” concludes Chomsky, having asserted, entirely without cause on that date, that things are basically back to normal and that the two sides have reconciled. This is the type of left politics that holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no matter how many rapes and murders that friend has actually perpetrated. And what are the seeds for this breakdown of governance? The seeds of catastrophe lie, no doubt, in the never-sufficiently-de-Stalinized background of this Party, always suspicious of democracy, always used to treating people as agents of class struggle rather than as individual human beings who need specific life prospects if they are to give up their land. This general orientation toward human beings led to a lack of appreciation that an industrial strategy, even if basically correct, needs to focus on what real people are able to do and to be, rather than thinking only in statistical terms. Under Jyoti Basu the party would never have erred in this way, so one must also impute the disaster to inferior, insecure leadership, fearful of genuine debate and transparency. The arrogance of long electoral success contributed further to turn this insecurity into an aggressive strategy for total control of the rural areas. Finally we come to the crucial matter of comparison of his violence with that of Gujarat which is how I started this post. The two are very different and it is important to keep that distinction clear. What happened in Gujarat was genocide, where people who were Muslims were targetted simply because they were Muslims. Nandigram was a case of hideous lawlessness..and a determination to wipe out opposition, but there seems to be no ethnic or genocidal component to them. (Sumit) Sarkar’s comparison to Jallianwala Bagh (where the British, bent on total control, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators) is far more apt, and we might indeed see Bhattacharjee as a first cousin of General Reginald Dyer, unable to accept the reality of a human being who disagrees with him. Whether Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will appreciate this fine distinction of being compared, not to Narendra Modi but to Reginald Dyer is seriously doubtful. On the other hand, given the left's pathological hatred for the Narendra Modi style of right wing politics (one of the few positions where I concur wholly with the left), he might actually prefer to be compared to a strict but completely ruthless military commander.