Friday, May 26

Reservations/Quotas and the "Meaning of Merit"

Madhukar shukla wriets in Alternative Perspective

If you are reading this posting on the blog or on a mail, then perhaps 90% chances are that you are against the "reservations" on the ground that it dilutes the "merit".This, perhaps, is less indicative of the popularity of the "merit-cause", and more of the the fact that the Indian blogger community/netizens represents a self-reinforcing socio-politically isolated section on the other side of the digital divide.In a democratic set-up, one is naturally entitled to have his/her own viewpoint... So this posting has nothing to do with being "for" or "against" the reservations... To each his own!This posting is about some simple facts which somehow are never quoted/known in MSM - and about which few Indian bloggers ever bother to check/find-out... ...and to explore that if "merit" is the issue, then what does "merit" mean in the urban-centric visible India.So if you happen to be one who is agitated and angered about the additional 27.5%reservations/quota in the "temples of higher education" (e.g., IITs, IIMs) - and how it dilutes the "merit"... Then please be honest - and answer in Yes/NoDid you know that...
? 1. The announcement by Minister for HRD, Arjun Singh, that "government is considering reservations in all educational institution" was based on the 104th Constitutional Amendment Bill, passed by the Lower House of Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) on Dec 21st, 2005, by 379-to-1 votes (381 present, one abstained). Yes / No?
? 2. It was also passed by the Rajya Sabha by 172-to-2 votes.Yes / No?
? 3. The Bill was signed by the President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, on Jan 20th, 2006 - thereby making it the 93rd Constitution Amendment Act, 2005, to be enacted upon by the incumbent government.Yes / No?
? 4. There is no Mandal-I or II!!! (as projected by the media)... The proposal for this Amendment was based on Indian Consitution, and came from the recommendations of Mandal Commission - which was formed in 1978, during Janta Party regime, and submitted its report in 1978-79.Yes / No?
? 5.According to findings of the Mandal Commission, in India there are (or were at that time) more than 3,000 OBC castes that constitute about 52% population of India (see the figures below)- these are in addition of 16% SCs and 8% STs. Together - SCs, STs & OBCs - constitute 76% of India's population.

. Yes / No?
? 6. Besides the reservations, the Mandal Commission also recommended a number of other things - about which neither the media nor the "pro-merit" citizens are either aware, or willing to "protest" about, e.g.:- radical alteration in production relations through progressive land reforms- special educational facilities to upgrade the cultural environment of the students, with special emphasis on vocational training- separate coaching facilities for students aspiring to enter technical and professional institutions- creation of adequate facilities for improving the skills of village artisans- subsidised loans for setting up small-scale industries- the setting up of a separate chain of financial and technical bodies to assist OBC enterpreneurs. - increasing the seats in institutes of higher education to accommodate the "reserved" candidates", etc...Yes / No?
? 7. According to the Mandal Commision recommendations, the increase in reservations should be only along with the increase in the seats in the institute, i.e., the "reservations" should not have an adverse impact on regular non-reserved category. For instance, IIM-C and IIT-Kharagpur have already decided to increase the seatsYes / No?
? 8. Notwithstanding the claims that the increase in seats to accommodate the "reserved" candidates, requires enhancement of educational infrastructure (hostels, faculty) - which it is claimed will strech the capabilities of the institutes and impact their "quality" - the professional institutes (IIMs, XLRI, IITs, etc.) have continued to increase their seats over last 4-5 years.Yes / No?
? 9. Large number of Indian Institutes of higher education charge (or used to charge, till the Supreme clamped down) "capitation fee" - i.e., allowing a "quota" for those who can pay. Similarily, there are "reserved" seats for foreign nationals, who pay higher fee in $s, even if they don't meet the criteria of "merit".... But no protest/"candle-march" ever happened against this "dilution of merit".Yes / No?
? 10. The four Southern States - Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra - have had around 50% (or more) reservations for last 2 to 4 decades in their institutes of higher educations (Tamil Nadu adapted 69% reservations even before Mandal Commission; Kerala had 50% reservations since 1970s, etc.). These reservations/quota cover some of the prestigious universities like Anna, Tiruchi, Bharthidasan, Osmania, etc. (This, apparently, has not diluted the "merit" coming out from these "temple of higher learning").Yes / No?
? 11. In 2005, in Tamil Nadu (which has 69% reservations for BC and MBCs since 1960s), the first 14 ranks in the admissions to the 12 state government medical colleges, went to the OBCs... In fact, among the top 400, only 31 were from the "forward class", and the Backward and Most-Backward class students qualifed for 952 out of 1,224 seats (78%).Yes / No?
? 13. In old times, the lower classes (shudras) were not allowed to enter the temples, and were even punished to hear the vedas?Yes / No?Now, just in case, one did not know these (or most of these) facts - even though one felt angered by the dilution/pollution of "merit" by the "reservations" - then there is a point to consider:Does "merit" in modern educated urban India mean being totally oblivious and alienated from the current socio-political reality?... and remains confined to proactive action only under threats to "my job, my merit.... my lollipop!"?Or, in other words:Is the anti-reservations sentiment among the educated urban Indians merely a morally justifiable "rang-de-basanti" peg on which one can hang one's sulking tantrums about the loss of monopoly on the traditional turf?

Tuesday, May 23

Punjab's farmer must think smart

Manraj Grewal writes in The Indian Express

Farming is "time-pass", he had said. It has been two years since Malkit Singh of Lehal Kalan village in the Sangrur district of Punjab said this to me but his words still gnaw. They sum up the general mood of despair among the farmers of a state that today shoulders a rural debt of Rs 24,000 crore, the highest in India. With eight months to go for assembly elections in Punjab, this is one statistic every Punjab politician - whether in or out of power - loves to flog. Recently, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh was at pains to tell his largely rural audience at Muktsar that even if all the farmers in the state were to give two years of agri-earnings to the moneylenders, it wouldn?t be able to shrug off the debt. His solution: a generous package from Congress's big daddies at the Centre to write it off.
Poised for polls, it is the mother of all sops that Punjab expects the Captain to swing, in order to garner all those village votes that normally go the Akali way. But would this help? The truth is that even if the CM makes good his promise, it would not really address the full-blown crisis in the now depleting granary of India. There is something rotten in the fields of Punjab and it has a lot to do with government policies. The Green Revolution that had Punjab sowing paddy has today left its water table falling dangerously at the rate of almost a foot every year - at certain places, the farmers have to spend almost a lakh a year on digging new borewells.
The soil too is in poor health. Ask any scientist at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), and he will unspool a long list of nutrients that it lacks. But worse, the Punjabi farmer has lost his sense of enterprise and can-do spirit that had once driven him to grow paddy in an area unsuited for it. Lulled by the comfort of minimum support price (MSP) and assured procurement for wheat and paddy, he got used to the wheat-paddy rotation. So what if the cost of inputs to wrench out a good crop from the soil has more than doubled over the past five years without any accompanying rise in the MSP?
It is not as if this problem has not been acknowledged by the state and academia. When Captain Amarinder cruised to power, he promised to implement, with a Rs 1,280 crore dole from the Centre of course, a plan floated by the former PAU vice-chancellor, S.S. Johl, who advocated giving a compensation to farmers to keep their land fallow instead of cultivating paddy. A year later- in 2003 - the CM unveiled his diversification doctrine, backed by several big corporate names. The doctrine fizzled out in its very first year when some companies refused to lift the crop. Worse, the firms introduced to the farmers by government bodies like Punjab Agro were the ones that defaulted. Some farmers in Machchiwara, for instance, found they were being made to grow maize that was not tested for Punjab. The contracts in English only added to misgivings. And, as always, the government lost interest.
It is not as if there is no hope. Templates of successful farming are waiting to be replicated. Diversification may have turned sour for the masses but a group of farmers near Sirhind are doing it successfully and without any help from the government. And guess how many crops they grow in a year? An impressive four - which include mint, potato and moong dal. Farming, they tell you, has to be run like a business. And no, a small landholding is no deterrent. A retired brigadier fashioned a turmeric machine which has earned him an invite from the Ugandan government. Some potato farmers of Jalandhar have taken to the commodity exchange - Ludhiana Stock Exchange (LSE) reported trading Rs 10.22 crore in April alone. True, unlike the average farmer in Punjab, these farmers are educated. But then there are uneducated ones like Bashir Mohammed of Malerkotla, who is reaping success from vegetables.
The Green Revolution may have sapped the soil of nutrients and water but there are simple and inexpensive antidotes as well. Who hasn't heard of vermicompost and water recharging? All it needs is grassroots awareness - the kind that took place when the state embarked on Green Revolution I. It's here that the government can act as a catalyst. The Punjabi farmer, anyone will tell you, will grow anything if you ensure its sale, preferably direct to the buyer and not to the middle man or commission agent, who has long been bleeding him. Corporates like Reliance India Limited, which has initiated a 'Farm to Fork' project in the state, and Bharti Cellular, now plan to bridge the gap by lifting the produce straight from the farmer, besides setting up processing units.
All this sounds great but what would be better still is to empower the farmer to market on his own. Why not get him to start food processing as well? What we need is an enterprising farmer with a businessman's sangfroid, not a votebank to be milked. As for burgeoning debt, it will take care of itself when farming becomes profitable.

The Legend of Heer- Ranjha

Narinder S. Kapoor

In the tradition of Punjabi Qissa poetry the arrival of Waris Shah was an epoch making event, which changed the status, tone and tenor of Punjabi poetry. More than any other poet, it is Waris Shah alone who made Punjabi language enter every heart and hearth of Punjab. Heer is the supreme achievement not only of the poet but also of Punjabi poetry. Waris Shah is a model poet who inspired and guided generations of Punjabi poets belonging to the medieval as well as modern period. He borrowed the story and plot of the legend of Heer- Ranjha and structured it anew and contrary to early happy endings raised it to the level of tragedy of classic dimensions. The beauty of this epic poem is that it has attracted every critic worth the name and has led to a variety of interpretations and critical approaches. Some have interpreted this poem from a Marxist point of view whereas others have analysed it from the Freudian angle.

Expression of the Punjabi Psyche & Culture
Whatever be the conclusion of the critics, they are unanimous in their verdict that Waris Shah is the first secular poet of Punjab who sang full-throatedly about Punjab and Punjabiat and left a writing which is the soulful passionate expression of the Punjabi psyche, culture and aspirations. This poem can be viewed from the historical, sociological, mystical, artistic and poetic viewpoints.
One thing, about which there is no dispute between Punjabis across the borders, is their love, affection, regard and respect for Waris Shah. One can say that he is the most unique poet ever produced in Punjabi literature. His Heer is so popularly read and recited all over Punjab that people feel proud in owning Waris Shah as their very own bard whose poetry has already survived two centuries of criticism and scrutiny and will stand the test of time in future too.
He has left only one work behind. The immortal Heer, which has enthralled and fascinated generations of listeners and readers, is not only a great literary achievement but also a spiritual testament. The story of Heer and Ranjha had already become a great love-legend in a tradition of high romance and has been written by his predecessors like Damodar and Mukbal. In the hands of Waris this legend was chiselled and distilled in a verse around 1766 AD, which, became the great bard?s poetic destiny.
The poet was so passionately possessed by this work that when he had completed 600 odd stanzas of varying length, he had practically written down Punjab?s heart and soul for all times. After this great achievement, it became a tradition in Punjabi poetry that every budding and aspiring poet had to reproduce, in poetic form, the story of Heer and Ranjha so as to establish his poetic credentials but every poet accepted the superiority and nobility of Waris and adopted him as a model and an ideal.
Though not much is known about his life, historical evidence shows that Waris Shah was born in 1735 AD in a Sayyad family which enjoyed great respect and prestige in the village of Jandiala Sher Khan in the district of Sheikhupura, now in Pakistan. His father?s name was Gulshar Shah. Waris Shah has a acknowledged himself as a disciple of Pir Makhdum of Kasur. Waris Shah?s parents are said to have died in his early years and he must have received his education at the shrine of his preceptor.
Waris give ample proof of his grounding in Islamic lore through Persian and Arabic. He is also well versed in Hindu tradition and folk-lore. His writing clearly shows that the extent of his knowledge is wide indeed, so that whenever he chooses, and he chooses quite often, he gives astonishingly authentic details, for instance about astronomy, medicine, social rites, habits of men and women, clothes, kinds of horses and buffaloes, the items of the dowry etc. What surprises the reader is his range of emotions and feelings.

The Heer by Waris is full of poetic intensity
The Heer by Waris is full of poetic intensity, authenticity, critical faculty, deep and wide observation, wisdom gained through living a full and rich life, critical daring, romantic imagination, poetic vision, artistic excellence and natural grace of perfect execution. No poet can raise poetic grace of love at so passionate and soulful a pitch without a deep by moving personal experience. It is because of this fact that Bhagbhari is cited as the woman who was the passion inspiring Waris to sing his own unfulfilled love through the legend of Heer and Ranjha.
As a bard of high order, his other achievements are his command over language and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the contemporary social scene. Rich vocabulary and his ability to coin new words, a penchant for colourful detail, similes, metaphors, phrases and aphorisms, distinguished Waris Shah?s style. Language by expanding its appeal and by digging deep into its natural, fresh, apt and befitting expressions. Waris Shah is at his best when he describes the scenes of separation, details of beauty, graces of nature, human feelings and sentiments. His witty, humorous, satirical and sarcastic musings and phrases full of poetic beauty have become quotations in Punjabi lexicon.
As a man of great wisdom, understanding and experience, Waris delves deep while analysing his characters. Except for Heer and Ranjha he has made everybody else a butt of ridicule and criticism. He exposed the hypocrisy of the priests, the Balnath sect of yogis, besides being critical of the caste system and the cunning of men and women. Follies and foibles of social life are also focused upon.

High Romance and Tragedy
An overriding reason for the acceptance of his version of the legend of Heer and Ranjha has been his success in bringing the story closer to his vision of life and reality. He is the first poet to see the unique conjunction of high romance and tragedy in it. He had the insight and perception to see the Heer-Ranjha story as an eternal and ever fresh analogue of immutable love. That is why his poem ha attracted variant readings and interpretations and still has not lot its freshness and fragrance. By using the metre Baint, Waris has opened a new way of reciting his poem. What really gives strength and vitality of Waris?s style is the use of the folk-idioms.
He turns the every day language into a verse of beauty and splendour. No wonder his language, though two centuries old, comes close to our pulse even today and evokes an authentic response. A certain degree of stark realism has prevented if from becoming dated. The known and popular fold sayings and aphorisms are skillfully woven into the fabric of his verse. Not only this, Waris?s own style also lends it seek to epigrams and allusions. His in-depth understanding of life enables him to survey the vast expanse of human behaviour and sermonise on the affairs of life. It is because of these sterling qualities of a master artist that he still translates our deepest emotions and dreams. All those who wish to enjoy him, should search for him in his Heer. The experience will not only be rewarding but also enriching.

Monday, May 22

The Punjab crisis

Punjab has seen many troubles right from the 18th Century to modern times but the state seems to be pulling itself together, says Ramachandra Guha in an article published in The Hindu last year.

I first visited Punjab in the summer of 1973, to play a cricket match in Patiala. Later that same year occurred an event of some significance in the history of Punjab and India. In October 1973 the Working Committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal met at the great Gurdwara in Anandpur Sahib, and asked the Government of India to hand over Chandigarh to Punjab; to also hand over other Punjabi-speaking areas presently with other states; and to increase the proportion of Sikhs in the Army. It criticised the "foreign policy of India framed by the Congress Party" as "worthless, hopeless and highly detrimental to the interests of the Country, the Nation and the Mankind at large". Asking for a recasting of the Indian Constitution on "real federal principles", it said that "in this new Punjab and in other States the Centre's interference would be restricted to defence, foreign relations, currency, and general administration; all other departments would be in the jurisdiction of Punjab (and other states) which would be fully entitled to frame own laws on these subjects for administration".
Some of these claims were new; but their substance went back several decades, to the division of India by religion in 1947. In this division the Sikhs had suffered most of all. They lost millions of lives, millions of acres of land they had made fertile in the "Canal Colonies", and some very sacred shrines, left behind in what was now Pakistan. Through the 1950s, the intrepid Master Tara Singh led the Akalis in the struggle for a Punjab suba, a separate, Punjabi-speaking and Sikh-dominated state that could compensate for the traumas of Partition. The State was finally granted in 1966, but its extent was not what was hoped for; nor, indeed, were its powers. Thus the Anantpur Sahib resolution, which sought to make real the promise of states' autonomy merely hinted at by the Indian Constitution.
These demands, for a deeper and more genuine federalism, were unexceptionable. But at other places the Anantpur Sahib Resolution was amendable to more radical, and perhaps more dangerous, interpretations. The preamble spoke of the Akali Dal as "the very embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of the Sikh Nation". The "political goal of the panth" was defined as "the pre-eminence of the Khalsa", with the "fundamental policy" of the Akali Dal being the "realisation of this birth-right of the Khalsa through creation of congenial environmental and a political set-up".
1973 was not perhaps the best time to make these demands, with Mrs. Indira Gandhi riding high on the wave of a war recently won, and the Centre more powerful than ever before. Its powers were increased still further with the Emergency, when the movers of the Anantpur Sahib Resolution were put in jail. But in 1977 the Emergency was lifted, elections called, and Congress party comprehensively trounced. In this new political environment the claims of the Akalis were renewed, and indeed intensified. An Akali conference of October 1978 compared the 30 years of Congress rule to the bad old days of Mughal imperialism. But now that the Congress was out of power, said the Akalis, it was time for a "progressive decentralisation of powers". The demands of the Anantpur Sahib Resolution were revived, and new ones added; such as a redistribution of river waters to favour Punjab, an international airport at Amritsar, and a broadcasting station at the Golden Temple itself.
Towards the end of 1978 the Akalis launched an agitation to fulfil the demands of the Anantpur Sahib Resolution. However, outside their fold there were radicals who thought that nothing less than true independence, as in a separate "Sikh Nation", would satisfy the panth. The call from Khalistan was issued from outside India by the likes of Ganga Singh Dhillon in Washington and Jagajit Singh Chauhan in London. But it also found some takers within Punjab, notably a hitherto obscure preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale. With his entry into the fray commenced some very troubled times indeed.
Troubles, of course, were not new to Punjab or the Punjabis. There were the religious wars of the 18th Century; then the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 19th Century. Early in the 20th Century the province was an epicentre of the anti-colonial struggle. Then came the 1940s, with Partition and the communal conflagration that accompanied it. Several decades of relative peace ensued, to be broken now by the decade of the 1980s, when much blood was spilt, some of it innocent, and all of it bad.
`The Punjab crisis'
What was called the "Punjab crisis" spawned much excellent reportage and several good books. Older readers will be familiar with it all, but for the benefit of those born after 1980, let me flag the most basic facts. What started as a political rivalry between the Congress and the Akalis soon degenerated into conflict between a section of the Hindus and a section of Sikhs. This led, on the one hand, to a series of communal killings; and, on the other, to an increasing alienation of Sikhs from the Government of India. Among the many low points of a dishonest decade three in particular must be mentioned: the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army in June 1984; the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards on the last day of October 1984; and the revenge killings of innocent Sikhs which followed.
The first and last of these events recruited many fresh recruits to the separatist cause. The latter part of the 1980s, therefore, saw a reign of terror in the Punjab countryside: jointly imposed by the Khalistanis, who intimidated and sometimes killed those who did not fall in line; and by the police, who in their search for the insurgents cared little for legal procedure or for the rights of ordinary citizens.
For close on 15 years, the news from Punjab was unredeemingly grim. It seemed that the war between state and citizen would never end; or, if it would, only after the creation of a separate Sikh Nation of Khalistan. But finally the violence dimmed and, in time, stopped. The Punjabi set aside his sectarian grievances, and sought instead to better his economic lot.
In the first week of March, I revisited Punjab after a gap of 32 years. Travelling through the State, and talking to a wide cross-section of people, it was hard to fathom that this was the same place from which one would get news only of killings, and more killings. Khalistan was forgotten; why, even the demand for Chandigarh to be transferred to Punjab was not being made anymore. Identity was still important; but not so much a religious identity as a regional, cross-national one. In Patiala, I met an articulate Maharani who was seeking to build bridges with the Pakistani part of Punjab-by sending teams of cricket-playing children, and receiving some in return. In Amritsar, I met a radical intellectual who had helped host a series of talks by a progressive Punjabi novelist from Lahore. Meanwhile, a spate of fresh investments suggested that things were very stable indeed. There were signs everywhere of new schools, colleges, factories, even a spanking new "heritage village" on the highway that sought to recreate, in museumised form, the "traditional" culture of the Punjabi.
There remains much that is wrong with the state of Punjab. The future of agriculture is threatened by a falling water table. There is discrimination according to caste, and according to gender-female infanticide being particularly high. But these are problems that afflict the rest of the country too, to be resolved, here as well as there, by patient social reform and purposive government action. The crucial thing is that in political terms Punjab is at peace with itself and with India. That is more, much more, than one dared hope for in 1985 or 1995.

Friday, May 5

Hope for Primary Education

As the state abdicated its responsibility to provide primary education a glimmer of hope has shone through thanks to corporate sector coming forward to fulfill its social obligation. The dismal primary education scene in Punjab has got the attention of a family with Ludhiana roots-Mittal brothers. In a strong signal for other corporate groups the Mittals -Rakesh, Sunil and Rajan - have pledged Rs 200 crore from their personal wealth to set up primary schools in villages across the country.
Beginning with Ludhiana a few hundred primary schools will be opened up in the next 18 to 24 months all over the country. Bharti enterprises is already talking with panchayats in Ludhiana and around to get the land or appropriate buildings to set up the schools.
The initiative, to be carried out through the Bharti Foundation, will provide mid-day meals, uniforms and one computer will be provided at no cost to each student. The students will have to pay Rs 10 a month to learn at the schools. This "nominal" charge is also to be returned in the form of scholarships. Special focus would be given to disabled children and girls. The schools would be up to class V and state board curriculum would be followed. This would also provide employment to the women in the village who would be engaged to prepare the mid-day meal scheme.
Every Bharti school will house 75 to 150 students in a one-, two- or three-room setup for which land is to be donated or leased out at lower prices by village panchayats. Bharti's partners and suppliers like Warburg Pincus and IBM have also pledged $1 million each to the foundation. The foundation, which will focus mainly on spreading education in villages and small towns, has 13-member governing board headed by BE CMD Sunil Mittal. The bulk of Rs 200 crore has come from BE promoters including its vice chairman Rakesh Mittal and JMD Rajan Mittal. The board includes other prominent industrialists like Sunil Kant Munjal, chairman of Hero Corporate Services and Analjit Singh, chairman of Max India.