28 Jul 2011

My third published article

Its 4 in 4 months. Of course, as I mentioned in the previous post, the actual third article I wrote for Tribune was not published in its totality but only some of the sound-bytes I had gathered were used. So here is my third published Op-Ed in which I have compiled the whole page including my own write up, the photograph (of my students in Bulls Eye), the counter argument (by my colleague) and the opinions of the students.

You can read the article here - Coaching Industry - A Parallel Education System

However, the article got pruned down a bit due to space constraints and the end result seems a bit incoherent. Somehow, I feel this particular line from the original draft should not have been removed by the editors -

Many academic trainers in this industry have emerged as the role models for the students and work hard under very stressful schedules in helping them to crack the tough examinations.

Do give your feedback and suggest what other issues I can take up for my future Op-Eds.

Here are links to my previous articles -

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My dad and his cell phone :)

27 Jul 2011

The 'World Class' Debate

Here I am reproducing an article originally written for The Tribune but finally published on a web portal The Viewspaper sometime back.

The Union Minister for Environment, Jairam Ramesh has the knack to remain in the news with his proactive but sometimes provocative take on environmental issues. However, this time he chose an unrelated issue to make the headlines once again. According to this IIT Bombay graduate; the most coveted and sought after seats of learning in India, i.e., IIT’s and IIM’s, lack the world-class faculty as well as research facilities. He believes that these institutes have been able to survive due to the world class students who take admission into these institutions after a grueling selection process.

Before one starts taking sides, it’s important to define the term ‘World Class.’ Going by its dictionary meaning it is to rank amongst the foremost in the world and to meet the international standards of excellence. If one adopts this definition, then Jairam Ramesh is not that wide of the mark as it’s true that in most of the world rankings, these institutes fail to reach the top-notch positions.

However, is it justified to use such objective parameters given the grand divide between the West and the East? To create a world-class research institute, the foremost requirement is a world-class policy formulation and world-class funding for the same. With the meager amount of resources made available to these institutes, how can one expect them to compete with the best in the business?

To add to this, the fact is that these institutes were incepted with the objective of developing a skilled workforce to support the social and economic development of India. Research and development was started much later. Hence, to compare the amount of research done by these institutes with that done by the MIT’s or Harvard’s is again unfair.

Rajesh Behera, an IIT Bombay alumnus, unequivocally attributes his success to the guidance he got from his teachers. According to him, it was their experience and exposure to the international environment that enabled them to find the true potential of the students like him and instilled in them confidence to become world-class.

Taking the example of the Civil Engineering Department of his alma mater, he shows how all the major infrastructural development taking place around Mumbai, in one form or the other, has inputs from the IIT Bombay faculty, from consultancy to actual implementation.

One cannot deny that the faculty of these institutes have to work in a much harder environment than their counterparts in the West. Take the example of the student to teacher ratio which according to an internal study of Union Human Resource Development Ministry is as high as 15:1 in the leading institutes of India as compared to around 5:1 to 7:1 in the leading technical institutes of US, West Europe and even Singapore or Hong Kong for that matter. Moreover, funding at both the project level and at the level of personal compensation to teachers make the situation graver.

The whole issue gathers more importance in the context of the new IIMs and IITs that have opened recently to cater to the ever growing demand for the world-class education in India, a prerequisite to tap India’s demographic dividend.

Swati Gupta, an IIM Indore alumna feels that there is a dearth of world-class faculty in the new IIMs. However, she considers Jairam Ramesh’s statement pretty harsh and feels it’s naive to tag all the professors under the same umbrella.

To quote her, “There is no doubt that there is a visible gap in the style and understanding of the newer faculty as compared to the old professors. While the latter make sure that there is a conceptual clarity before teaching the contextual application, the former at times tend to focus too much on the case method.”

This perspective shatters the belief that the older professors are too rigid and averse to adopt newer world-class methodologies as there is still substance left in the older teaching methodologies.

Overall, it’s important to take into consideration all these contingencies before coming to any concrete conclusion. However, one cannot deny the fact that there is a lot that needs to be done to make the Indian premiere institutes, globally more competitive and this statement of Jairam Ramesh might act as a stimulant for the same.

The following sound-bytes taken from IIT Mumbai faculty members, however, were published in Tribune and attributed to me.

Two senior members of IIT, Bombay, on the condition that their names would be withheld had this to say:

Make it attractive for the best

The profession of teaching and research is not an attractive profession for most young students due to financial reasons. The top talent is not opting for a career in teaching and research. There are perhaps only 25 per cent of faculty members who do research that can be termed “of international standards”. The IITs are far ahead of any university in India in terms of research quantity and quality. The socio-economic conditions must improve in order to create world class universities and institutes. World class institutes did not become world class in 50 years. The top universities in the world have a long tradition and attract talent from all over the world.

The Government must provide autonomy to institutions of higher learning. The UGC and AICTE have failed in managing higher education. There is a lot of corruption in these bodies. Every minister in charge of the Ministry of Human Resource Development tries to change something in IITs to get public attention. They will serve the country better by improving schools and colleges which are in a pathetic condition. Once these improve, there will be better people going in for higher education.

The Chinese invest heavily in higher education and elementary education. They offered 50 per cent of the American salary to the Chinese who were teaching in developed countries. As a result, hundreds of Chinese came back and enriched their universities. There are talented Indians abroad, the MHRD should devise a strategy to encourage good researchers to come back. In developed countries, teaching is a respected profession but in India it is not. One may ask any class in a school and verify this. Hardly any one wants to go in for teaching and research. Creation of world class institutions requires full autonomy, a good pay and a large proportion of people going in for higher education. Until this happens, we cannot have world class institutes.

No roadmap for higher education in the country

In my opinion, the decision to open new IITs without having an adequate number of skilled scientific/technology manpower in the country was, by itself, a wrong decision. It was only motivated by considerations that were non-professional and had to do more with realpolitik in the then ruling class that took the decision. It is slightly irresponsible on the part of the minister to make such statements, instead of helping out the IITs that are already facing far too many difficulties due to the government’s decision of opening IITs in a thoughtless manner.

The IITs have a better faculty than most state universities but that is hardly any consolation given that they have larger funding and better facilities. The entire thing boils down to one moot question.: It is not this government (to which Jairam Ramesh belongs) or that government, but no government in India has the desire to work out a well thought out roadmap for higher education in the country. The late Rajiv Gandhi made an attempt to start something in that direction but it was all lost later. (As told to Vipul Grover)

Image Courtesy:
Star News

22 Jul 2011

Finding My True Self

I don’t know how it all started but I do have a faint idea that it was around the time I entered secondary school. Until then, I had always longed for opportunities to excel in extra-curricular activities. Debating in particular gave me an opportunity to enhance my knowledge beyond text-books.

Then, one day, I started finding it difficult to speak. The words came out with utmost difficulty or with involuntary repetitions and sometimes they just wouldn’t come. Passion became p..p..p..p..passion or sometimes it became just a long pause. In short, I developed an acute case of stuttering.

I began to find excuses not to read aloud in class. Each time a friend or a cousin made fun of my stammering, I grew diffident and insecure. However, my passion for singing was still unaffected by it. As you might know, stuttering is not an impediment to singing. However, with adolescence as my voice cracked, I was politely asked to leave the class choir too.

When I was chosen for a Hindi play because of my consistently good performance in the subject, I could not utter a single dialogue. Though I still participated in events like quizzing and dumb charades, I found myself shying away from limelight.

The two years in senior secondary school were spent studying hard for the engineering entrance examinations and somehow, the speech impediment took a back seat. But when college started, it came back to haunt me.

Reading a self-help book during my first year at college, I suddenly decided to throw it in the dustbin and take matters into my own hands. To get rid of the fear of public speaking, I had to seek occasions when it would be necessary for me to speak. Thus, Panache was born, the first students’ organization of my college. With it was born a new me, one who mustered the courage to stand in front of the class and give the presentation regarding the proposed organization.

As I pushed myself more and more, I was able to devise new ways to tackle the problem and soon I was confidently compering at the freshers’ party and delivering the opening address at a Rotaract event and imitating Inzamam-ul-Haq at a mock press conference while throwing the packed audience into fits of laughter.

It’s not that I stopped stuttering. I just stopped thinking about it and stopped thinking about the derogatory comments by others. Once this burden was gone, I could speak freely.

I have shared this story innumerable times with my students in personality development workshops. We all may have our inhibitions in public speaking due to lack of fluency or due to a speech disorder like mine. Even today, when I have to speak impromptu, I do shiver from within.

However, it’s important to face these fears because as long as we keep hiding from them, we won’t be able to search our true self. I don’t remember when it all started and I don’t even care if it ends in this lifetime or not. I have found my true self.

In the Image:
I, Me and Myself (Shot by - Saurabh Goyal, Location - A beach along East Coast Road, Tamil Nadu)

15 Jul 2011

The King of Dystopia

Originally published at The Mind Blogglers.

Whenever I come across a news report about some new political scam or scandal which is pretty regular these days, I wonder if it is the ignorance of the masses that is allowing the political elite to indulge in such rampant corruption and malfeasance. Is India or even the world at large moving towards the dystopian society envisioned by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four?

In this novel, Orwell had described an Oligarchic dictatorship which borrows its stability from three basic tenets; one of these being - 'Ignorance is Strength'. Through pervasive government surveillance and incessant public mind control, the ruling ‘Party’ is able to subjugate the individual and manipulate humanity, hence strengthening its own domain.

It will be far-fetched to compare the present society with the society projected by Orwell; however the way things are going, the Orwellian conception remains still relevant and is a prism to the ill-fated consequences of a society that lacks democracy and free will.

Born in India as Eric Arthur Blair to a civil servant father in 1903, Orwell found the inspiration for his writings from his own life experiences. These included an early childhood in London, education in a missionary school, policing in Burma, his bohemian lifestyle in Paris, seeing the hardships of economically depressed North England, the participation in the Spanish Civil War and many other experiences which gradually developed in him a “natural hatred towards authority”.

He mentions in his essay Why I Write that “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” evidently triggered by the Spanish Civil War and the increasing influence of Nazism and Fascism.

However, even his debut novel, The Burmese Days which got published in 1934, talks of the travails of a British subject in Burma disillusioned by imperialism and white domination.

It was his political satire, Animal Farm published in 1945 that brought him into limelight and for the first time prosperity in a life, otherwise filled with hardships. In a compact piece of fiction, he targeted the Stalin brand of Communism and was well appreciated in the West. The story revolves around a farm where animals take over control under the leadership of pigs but the leader gradually corrupts the socialist ideals on which their revolution was based.

However, Orwell’s concept of free will was not in consonance with the philosophy of another contemporary author hailed by the West, Ayn Rand. Both are known for their belief in individualism; however, while Rand stands for libertarianism, essentially a capitalist model, Orwell stuck to democratic socialism, a model of the welfare state which can be compared to Gandhian and Nehruvian socialism.

Despite this, several critics, particularly from the Left, accused Orwell of exploiting the street-folk, calling him a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing upper class intellectual posing as a revolutionary. However, Orwell withstood these criticisms and remained true to his convictions till the end of his life.

In his seminal work, Nineteen Eighty Four, published just before his untimely demise in 1950 due to an artery burst in the lungs, he once again brought to the fore the struggle between totalitarianism and an individual’s yearning to break the shackles imposed by it. Like most of his other novels, it had an unhappy ending where the individual finally succumbs to the system.

For this reason, Nineteen Eighty Four is usually categorized as a novel portraying political pessimism. However, it will be wrong to term his writings as pessimistic because Orwell preferred to stick to his conceived dystopian structures in order to make his argument against them stronger. Moreover, to consider it Orwell’s forecast of the probable future will be na├»ve as the author clarified it in a post-publication statement.

Just like the instability portrayed in his writings, Orwell had a rather unstable life. Growing up in the absence of his father, lack of resources in the family, a bitter school life, initial struggle to get his due as a writer, contracting tuberculosis and the subsequent deteriorating health and an unhappy married life, marked the forty seven years of his life.

However, his life did a great service to the literary tradition of that era and continues to inspire even today. According to Orwell, there are four great motives for writing; sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. He was honest enough to mention the first motive though his way of writing and prose was by no means elitist. However, the other dimension of egoism is to be remembered for our work. Orwell’s legacy can be gauged from the simple fact that ‘Orwellian’ is now a byword for any oppressive or manipulative social phenomenon opposed to a free society.

As far as the last two motives go, his later works that in addition to his novels include a number of essays, literary reviews, linguistic articles, anti-war propaganda and other journalistic endeavours in BBC, the Tribune, the Observer and other journals ensured that they served the political purpose and facilitated the historical impulse.

In fact, many of his observations hold a lot of historical significance as they portray how some of the societal structures haven’t changed much in all these years. For example, in his autobiographical essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys" published after his death in 1952, Orwell describes the education he received as "a preparation for a sort of confidence trick," geared entirely towards maximizing his future performance in the admissions exams to leading English public schools such as Eton and Harrow, without any concern for actual knowledge or understanding. The education reforms in India today are also addressing similar problems in our system of education.

As for the final remaining motive, only the man of his genius could make a twelve line poem Romance written during his stay in Burma and based on the negotiations of a foreigner with a local prostitute, seem so aesthetic. Sample it for yourself.

When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.

Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said ‘For twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me.’

She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.

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