Showing posts with label English Editorial. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English Editorial. Show all posts

Boosting Indian R&D and patent filing (The Economic Times)

The figures reveal that nearly eight out of 10 of all patent applications filed in India over the last 13 years were made by researchers abroad. We clearly need to policy-induce innovation here, and Indian corporates must step up patenting and translational research. True, the share of Indian patenting activity has risen steadily and, as per the latest data, is now 30% of the filings. Yet, our innovation ecosystem needs much revamping. Of course, we must raise total R&D expenditure. But it is also important to rid industry of easy pickings by way of steep import protection, inflated project costs and lax regulation, to force it to make money from doing good, globally competitive business. That would compel industry to value R&D.

Research must improve at our 870-odd universities, so that pure research becomes very much a part and parcel of applied research. And the latter then can be gainfully incorporated into translational and industrial research for new products and services. India is now a global platform for research and development (R&D). Multinational corporations (MNCs) have set up over 1,165 R&D centres here. A recent Capgemini study finds that Bengaluru has displaced Tokyo as the most preferred R&D destination for MNCs, even as the local research activity is rapidly moving away from mere cost advantage to value arbitrage when it comes to cutting-edge technologies across myriad domains.

Policy must foster openness and reduce tariff barriers in a time-bound manner. The recent rationalisation of tax treatment of R&D expenditure in the budget is a move in the right direction; but India ranks poorly in the global rankings when it comes to ease of starting a business, resolving insolvency, paying taxes, pupil-teacher ratio at the secondary level, environmental performance or even access to information and communication technology. The relevant parameters for nations that rank high on R&D have been far better, for years. Hence the need for forward-looking economic and technology policies to channel funds into patenting activity and R&D. A miracle could follow.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Shifting faith : Pakistan is caught in the intrigues within the Islamic world

Luv Puri  

In 1979, Pakistan changed the name of its third-largest populated city, Lyallpur, located on the banks of the river, Chenab, in Pakistani Punjab to Faisalabad in honour of the late King Faisal of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Lyallpur was the name given in honour of the then British lieutenant-governor of Punjab, James Broadwood Lyall, in the early 20th century.

The KSA gave money for the construction of the picturesque Faisal mosque in Islamabad, again named in honour of the late king. The relationship between the KSA and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has often been cast in terms of ties between two fraternal Sunni Muslim majority countries. One was the country where Islam was founded and another was created in the name of Islam. So the Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, surprised many by publicly admonishing the KSA leadership for its failure to convene a foreign ministers’ meeting of the KSA-led 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. “If they will not play their role, then I will ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia.”

This was preceded by Pakistan repaying the KSA’s loan of $1 billion (USD) out of $3 billion with China’s help before the maturity period. The reason cited was that the KSA was facing financial difficulties because of the recent decrease in oil exports owing to the ongoing pandemic. The reason didn’t convince many as the KSA has several hundred billions parked in foreign assets and a sovereign wealth fund was established to diversify its investments. The loan to Pakistan was at an interest rate of 3.2 per cent. In addition to this, an old agreement signed between Pakistan and the KSA for the provision of $3.2 billion worth of oil on deferred payments per annum by the KSA was not renewed after May, 2020.

Given the manner in which the two countries have locked themselves in the last few decades, this was a rare instance of criticism of the KSA leadership. The KSA, being one of the financial benefactors, has often shaped political developments in Pakistan. In a deal that was believed to be brokered by the KSA, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was allowed to leave Pakistan by Pervez Musharraf a year after the general had deposed Sharif  in a military coup. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the KSA and Pakistan became the most important frontal allies of the United States of America in its bid to bleed and defeat the Soviet Union. The KSA, along with the US, provided funds to Pakistan’s military to train and arm the mujahideen in Afghanistan. In fact, as is widely known, some KSA nationals, including Osama bin Laden, had fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen. After the retreat of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the local groups it supported in Afghanistan, the victorious mujahideen coalesced to form the Taliban and took advantage of the political vacuum. Only the KSA, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan recognized the Taliban leadership when they took power in Afghanistan.

The relationship has other aspects. Pakistani troops have been deployed in the KSA at various critical moments, including the Gulf war in 1991, as part of a strategy to deter any potential Iraqi attack. The KSA had helped Pakistan to weather international sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests in the form of a “four-year deferred oil financing facility worth roughly $3.4 billion”. Although the KSA, officially, is a non-nuclear-weapons state, its public commitment hinges on whether or not its regional foe, Iran, acquires the nuclear bomb. It is widely believed that nuclear-armed Pakistan may be one of the countries that will enable the KSA to acquire nuclear capability.

Pakistan’s singular obsession with raising the Kashmir issue and the KSA’s desire to remain equidistant from the Indo-Pak rivalry seem to be the trigger behind Qureshi’s outburst. That may not be all. In the last year or so, Pakistan’s foreign policy has put itself in the cross hairs of the renewed rivalry between the KSA and Turkey. This rivalry has its roots in the four-centuries’ old Arab-Ottoman animosity as the Ottomans had colonized vast tracts of present-day Middle East. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, has lavished praise on the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and encouraged Pakistan’s State media to broadcast the famous Turkish show, Ertugrul, and dub it in Urdu. Khan stated that in contrast to Hollywood and Bollywood, Turkish television shows are more in conformity with Islamic and family values. Musharraf used to refer to Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, as his role model. Atatürk, the polar opposite of Erdogan, secularized the country’s polity with an iron hand.

The KSA-Turkey animosity has acquired topical salience in the last few years. Turkey’s decision to deploy more troops in Qatar, which was facing a blockage from the KSA, exacerbated the tensions between the KSA and Turkey. In July 2020, Erdogan visited Qatar to further cement the strategic relationship between the two countries.  The KSA and Turkey are following divergent foreign policy goals in many places. For instance, in Libya, Turkey is backing Libya’s Government of National Accord to push back Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which is supported by the KSA. The tensions had become more apparent after the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the KSA’s Istanbul consulate in 2018. The facts presented by the Turkish authorities hinted at the direct involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in the killing. A trial had already started in Turkey that accused 20 KSA citizens in absentia; the KSA has declined to extradite them. There is a counter-reaction sweeping within the KSA as the leadership has decided to refer to the Ottoman rule over its territory in the context of colonialism and revise textbooks. In Riyadh, a sign bearing the name of the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, was reportedly removed from one of the main streets.

The global challenge to the KSA’s leadership in the Muslim world is at play. In December 2019, Erdogan along with the former Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had taken the initiative to organize an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur. This initiative was seen by the KSA monarchy as a threat to replace the Jeddah-headquartered OIC, which is under Saudi Arabia’s de facto leadership. In a statement, the OIC secretary-general, Yousef al-Othaimeen, had said, “It is not in the interest of an Islamic nation to hold summits and meetings outside the framework of the (OIC), especially at this time when the world is witnessing multiple conflicts.” Although Malaysia and Turkey supported the position of Khan on Jammu and Kashmir-related issues in the context of the developments after August 5, 2019, the KSA leadership convinced Pakistan’s prime minister not to attend the summit. The deference is not unexpected. Apart from financial support, at least 2.6 million Pakistani nationals of all professional classes work in the KSA and they are the biggest source of remittances to Pakistan.

At a time of a grand contestation taking place between the two big powers of the Islamic world, Pakistan faces a choice between the KSA, which is expected to invest $20 billion in Pakistan as part of a memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries in February 2019, or join hands with Turkey, the KSA’s arch rival in the Muslim world.

Courtesy - DH


What That @#$%! Nixon Can Teach Us

Much has been made of Winston Churchill’s racial contempt for Indians, whom he described as ‘a beastly people’, which would shape his policy of denying Indians emergency food supplies during the 1943 Bengal famine. But not having to bear the crooked cross of colonialism, racism in the US political leadership (beyond the systemic, historical one against African-Americans) has usually received benign desi neglect. With the latest declassified trove of White House tapes exposing his bigotry against Indians, former US President Richard Nixon posthumously hogs the Racist Leader of the Month title.

Nixon is heard describing Indians as ‘pathetic’, ‘repulsive’ and finding it a surprise ‘how they reproduce’. This is pathological racism. As with Churchill, this personal hatred would also be translated into policy. Calling Indira Gandhi a ‘bitch’ in a private conversation declassified by the US State Department in 2005 is one thing.

But was his refusal to let the US intervene in the massacre in East Pakistan in 1971 really quite another? And yet, it is more noteworthy, more ‘honest,’ for the US — the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, specifically — to (grudgingly) release more of these Nixon tapes.

It is hard to imagine the Indian establishment doing anything remotely similar that ‘exposes’ a past leader in such a light. Indians also tend to protect themselves from charges of their own racism by using the shield of racist victimhood.

Nixon’s expletives made 50 years ago won’t curdle US-India relations today. What it should do is make us aware of all that was real — and much else that is real — and make us less thin-skinned in our condemnations, whether such noxious comments come from past world leaders or present homegrown ones.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Prepare To Deliver The Covid Vaccine

The Covid-19 vaccine will be available sooner or later. The time to begin rolling out the logistics for its distribution and administration to about 60-70% of the population is now. An expert panel led by NITI Aayog’s Vinod Paul is on the job. It must develop a model that has complete buy-in from the states, draws on existing capacities utilised for large immunisation schemes, such as the measles-rubella vaccine administered to 405 million children and the Mission Indradhanush campaign for 90% immunisation coverage of all children. The elimination of smallpox in the 1970s and of polio recently testify to our capacity for mass vaccination.

Identification of recipients and logistics is critical.

Frontline workers in healthcare and security, persons with comorbidities and those above the age of 65 should get priority, roughly 400 million, say experts. Setting up a reliable distribution and delivery network is more complex.

Innovation is key. Such as building on the election network in which 11 million poll workers set up polling stations for 900 million voters in just about six weeks so that no person needs to travel more than two kilometres. For vaccines, temperature-controlled storage, access to syringes and needles, proper disposal of medical waste and trained personnel to administer the vaccine must be factored in. Afoolproof distribution plan is critical to ensure that all persons have access; without it, the number of doses available in country will not matter.

The Paul committee must assess the infrastructural capacity of states for vaccine delivery. The Auxiliary Nurse Midwife-Anganwadi Worker-Accredited Social Health Activist network must be supplemented, training people in each block to serve as auxiliary health workers to administer the vaccine. In developing the plan, the committee must consult widely, invite suggestions. Maintaining the cold chain for the vaccine, if the vaccine calls for it, would mean early procurement and installation of equipment.

The Centre must have oversight and control over delivery, with states implementing the plan under central guidance.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


The worst affected economy

Written by P Chidambaram 

Finally, the fake narrative that was peddled by the government through 2019-20, and even thereafter, has been exploded by the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Those are indeed harsh words in a column but the realities are harsher, the disdain of an uncaring government is so provocative, and the suffering of the people is so enormous that one is compelled to use harsh words. The intention is not to cause offence but to sound a loud wake-up call to those who are in power and those who support those in power.

The provisional estimates of GDP for the quarter April-June 2020 (Q1 of 2020-21), released by the CSO, tell us a grim tale. GDP in the first quarter has declined by a whopping 23.9 per cent. That means, about one quarter of the gross domestic output as on June 30, 2019, has been wiped out in the last 12 months. Note that when output is lost, the jobs that produce that output are lost, the income that those jobs provide are lost, and the families that depend on those incomes suffer. According to estimates made by the CMIE, between the economic slowdown and the pandemic, at its peak, 121 million jobs were lost. These included regular salaried jobs, casual jobs, and self-employment. If you wish to do a reality check, just look around or ask questions of other households in your street or neighbourhood.

At 23.9 per cent, India is the worst affected major economy (among the G-20) in the period April-June, 2020 (source: IMF).

Don’t Blame God

The only sector that has grown is Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing at 3.4 per cent. The Finance Minister who blamed an ‘Act of God’ for the decline should actually be grateful to the farmers and the gods who blessed the farmers. Every other sector of the economy has declined sharply, some precipitously. Manufacturing is down 39.3 per cent; Construction by 50.3 per cent; and Trade, Hotels, Transport and Communications by 47.0 per cent.

The estimates did not come as a surprise to any one who has closely observed the Indian economy. What we have is an economic tragedy. It was foretold by many economists, most recently by the RBI in its Annual Report released last week. Look at the salient conclusions of the RBI:

– High frequency indicators that have arrived so far point to retrenchment in activity that is unprecedented in history;

– the total stimulus package (liquidity and fiscal measures) for G20 countries averaged 12.1 per cent of GDP (5.1 per cent of GDP for EMEs and 19.8 per cent of GDP for AEs). India’s fiscal stimulus was about 1.7 per cent;

– the shock to consumption is severe, and it will take quite some time to mend and regain the pre-Covid-19 momentum; and

– a majority of respondents (in an RBI survey) reported pessimism relating to the general economic situation, employment, inflation and income.

Slide Predates Pandemic

The Indian situation is different from other countries’ because our economic slide started long before the first case of Covid-19 was identified. Our slide started with demonetisation. For eight successive quarters in 2018-19 and 2019-20, GDP growth declined every quarter, from a high of 8.2 per cent to a low of 3.1 per cent. This point was made a zillion times, but the government pretended that India was the ‘fastest growing economy in the world’! And in a barren desert without any sign of water, the Finance Minister and the Chief Economic Adviser saw green shoots!

We are still in a dark tunnel. Many economists believe that we can find our way out of it, even at this stage, if the government took the fiscal measures necessary to arrest the slide, boost demand/consumption, and, consequently, revive production and jobs. The key is expenditure — government and private consumption expenditure. It does not matter how much is spent under which head as long the money is found and spent. The government can find the money from many sources — disinvestment, more borrowing by relaxing the limits under the FRBM Act; using the generous funds to fight the pandemic promised by the IMF, World Bank Group, ADB and others (USD 6.5 billion); and, as a last resort, monetising part of the deficit.

Three Bold Moves

Part of the money must be transferred in cash to the poor; part should be used for government capital expenditure in infrastructure; part used to bridge the GST compensation gap; and part used for re-capitalising banks and enabling them to lend. Once there is an indication of revival of demand, private corporates, that are cash-rich and have de-leveraged, will invest and produce.

The next bold move should be to use the mountain of food grain to put food in the homes of poor families and to pay wages-in-kind to start massive public works. The godowns will be full again soon thanks to the record-breaking harvest expected this year.

The third big move will be to decentralise powers to the states and empower them financially. The Centre should abandon its ill-timed attempt to interfere with agricultural produce marketing, regulate supply of essential commodities, and control district central and urban cooperative banks. One Nation, One Everything is a very bad idea.

My proposals do not factor two unknowns — the course of the pandemic and the intentions of China —because, as I write, they remain unknowns.


A new low for Indian television news

Over the past decade, the quality of Indian television news has sharply dipped. This can be traced to an obsession with ratings; a preference for contentious studio discussions and dilution of balanced reportage; a tendency to sensationalise news; and a broken business model.

But, with its reportage on the Sushant Singh Rajput case, Indian TV news has hit a new low. Here is what should have happened — a prominent actor dies by suicide; the media covers his life and legacy; there is a conversation on mental health; there is due investigation; and there is closure. Instead, here is what has happened — a prominent actor dies by suicide; the media decides that it is not suicide but a product of either a deep-rooted conspiracy by an amorphous Bollywood power elite or an outright murder; conspiracy theories are peddled, reputations tarnished, and every norm of reportage is thrown into the bin; public opinion is manufactured; State agencies either willingly or due to this media-generated pressure enter the field; and citizens remain distracted.

This is not to suggest that a fair probe is not needed. But by acting as investigator, prosecutor, and judge, on flimsy grounds, TV news has been irresponsible. Today, they have found one target; tomorrow, it could be someone else. There is no easy solution. Self-regulation isn’t working. But State-regulation could lead to control, which is not desirable. Finding a balance and reining in TV news is now essential to protect individual liberties, prevent mob justice, and have a civilised discourse — all of which are essential in a democracy.

Courtesy - Hindustan Times.


India needs an open capital account by 2025

Harsh Gupta Madhusudan

India's 10-year government bond currently trades around 6%, China 3%, and the US less than 1%. The average of the last two annual (2019 and 2018) GDP deflator: India would be around 3.5%, China around 2.5%, the US around 2%. If India’s average weighted sovereign debt yielded 5% instead of 6% say (still more than the Chinese in both nominal and real terms), then over time the government could spend almost 1% of GDP more on railroads, education and healthcare for the same fiscal deficit. In five years, that would be an annual difference of around $50 billion! My guess is that Indian yields will fall even more.

But it is fair to say that right now both nominal and inflation-adjusted yields follow a clear descending order: India, China and US. That also aligns with their broad sovereign ratings, and the general expectation that governments of richer/developed economies can borrow at lower rates. Indeed per capita income is one of the key factors in bond ratings along with inflation, growth, and debt to GDP ratio.

Focusing on per capita income may make sense because for the same GDP, a smaller population could mean more tax intake since a rich country is likely to have a more developed and formalised economy. But then again, a lower per capita income scenario could also mean higher growth. So, it is not very clear cut.

What is perhaps more interesting to explore is that could a larger absolute GDP, irrespective of per capita income, mean lower borrowing costs? Or more technically, could more sovereign debt - especially in local currency - actually reduce borrowing costs? Of course, GDP still matters as the total debt cannot be completely unlinked from the economy’s size. Also, one has to ignore very small states or chronic defaulting ones.

Now this cannot be easily answered by econometrics because there are not too many large states or economies around. In other words, ‘n’ is small. China and India are the only billion plus populations in the world, and no one else comes close. Other ~$3 trillion or more economies such as the US, Japan, Germany, UK or France already have ‘developed economy’ status and hence near zero or negative borrowing costs.

In fact, recent divergence between Indian and Indonesian yields is partially because of this ‘size’ factor (along with the Indonesian over-reliance on foreign denominated debt). Even the gloom and doom about Chinese debt seems a tad overdone as they have created an entirely new debt category between emerging and developed markets in the mind of some money managers!

Before we continue, I want to comment on what being large means in another economic area: trade. Since the West largely followed free trade over the last few decades for geopolitical reasons as much as economic, the relatively mercantilist approach of China came as a shock to many even though all the now-rich countries had also used this strategy earlier. Which is that when you are relatively large, you can use your monopsony power to implement moderate protectionism and industrial policy to get others to invest to access your markets with the surplus being exported -- in effect reshaping global supply chains.

India is now trying the same. Trade policy that may have seemed silly at $1 trillion GDP (2007) seems worth considering at $3 trillion (2021), especially given excess capacity domestically and globally, and may be even more attractive at $5 trillion (say 2025) though one has to be very careful about the crony capture of industrial trade policy mechanisms. Moreover, at some stage it is rational to switch to evangelising free trade yourself. Let us not get ahead of ourselves though.

But this same $1T-$3T-$5T framework also helps us understand why India now needs to gradually give up its old fears about volatile global flows when the capital account is more open and convertible. In any case, without deliberately thinking about it as such, it is the size of the economy and its current state of development that is making India become less open on trade and more open on capital. The latter needs to be strategically accelerated while the former should be dealt with more tactically.

Now pre-corona or around end of FY20, India’s combined sovereign debt was 70-75% of GDP. Say post-corona, that goes to 85-90% and in an effort to reflate our economy since underlying inflationary pressures are low (going by producer price indices), we take this to 90-95% by FY23. To many, this is sacrilege! The NK Singh panel had recommended this number to be 60% (40% for Union, 20% for states, 2.5% fiscal deficit). One can almost hear Viral Acharya complain while he talks about undemocratic fiscal councils! Of course, those were different times: BC or Before Corona.

Not only is Modern Monetary Theory and Average Inflation Targeting being talked about in New York and D.C. (along with Tokyo and, gasp, even Frankfurt), the up phase of the 15-18 year down and up dollar cycle seems to have peaked in 2020 making this decade much easier to approach an open capital account than the last one, though in some ways also trickier.

In any case with say $3.5 trillion combined debt by end of FY23 or $4.5 trillion by FY25 and with no or much fewer capital controls (thanks to continued building up of foreign exchange reserves, which should not be slowed significantly), who would be in a position to hurt our debt markets? The rupee remains floating and India has never defaulted ---who would even dare to break the Reserve Bank of India? Even the Chinese could not if they wanted to during any future tensions -- we will just print or sell more as needed.

With Indian debt finally being pushed into global indices and India more clearly aligning with the West and Japan geopolitically, now is the right time to bravely reimagine what capital account convertibility could do for India. Not only would the gap between our revenue and fiscal deficits fall, Indian industry and consumers would finally have more rational borrowing costs. With due respect to the great Jagdish Bhagwati who has always been more supportive of free trade over free capital, for India -- at least right now -- the opposite is required.

(The author is an investor and co-author of two books: Derivatives (Cambridge), A New Idea of India (Westland). The views are author's own and do not reflect Mint's)

Courtesy - Livemint.


Teachers’ Day: Understanding how teaching became a systemic casualty in India

At its most fundamental, teaching ought to be about a process of intellectual exchange, about transferring ideas from one mind to another. Beyond the problems of poor pay and alarming teacher-student ratio, what stifles the spirit of teaching in India is lack of free thinking and open debate in classrooms.", "articleBody": "
At its most fundamental, teaching ought to be about a process of intellectual exchange, about transferring ideas from one mind to another. 
The India of bygone times, which is promptly repurposed for political interests today, was not only the intellectual wellspring of the world, but comprised a comprehensive “ecosystem” of teaching and learning, as author Sahana Singh has argued.
Ashramas, spread all over the country and attracting scholars from far and wide, were set up by gurus possessing specialised insight in different fields. For a student to be sufficiently enriched, travelling was imperative, as the process of education involved accumulating knowledge from various pockets of the country by not only mastering texts but also observing lived realities.
What, then, happened to this sublime educational infrastructure of ancient India? 
In short, it was brutally dismantled – by the violent debauchery of invading tribes, by the relative complacency of the Mughals in ignoring the intellectual legacy of India, and by the insidiousness of the British in creating an imperial setup of learning catering to colonial interests.

Our unwillingness to transform the education system post independence in 1947 has resulted in the Indian classrooms of today, where students mostly learn from teachers what, rather than how, to think.
Karthik Muralidharan, one of India’s leading policy experts on education, believes that any education system has three main purposes – equipping the students with skills, facilitating their cultural development and socialisation, and sorting – the filtration of students based on their exam performances, which, in the Indian context, relies disproportionately on rote-learning. 
It is this third purpose that the Indian system has become obsessed with, setting off a rat-race where grades have emerged as the be-all and end-all.
The fact that such an obsession cripples students is now common knowledge, an article of hopeless inevitability, to be passed from generation to generation, in keeping with the consequent gulf between education and employability. 
Students, however, are not the only stakeholders within a classroom. 

What of the teachers, and the art of teaching? How have they become a systemic casualty in a country that once held them in the highest regard?
The answer starts with poor pay (often leading to absenteeism) as the first hurdle to teaching in India. Let alone those who are hired on temporary contracts or on a gig-basis, even experienced teachers often rely on private tuitions and coaching centres outside formal institutions to make ends meet or earn a dignified salary. Teachers who make a fortune in some of the elite schools and universities represent a minuscule minority of the masses.

Then there is the alarming teacher-student ratio, which makes it impossible for a single teacher to take into account the needs of every single student in the class. As a matter of course, the teacher ends up concentrating on those who appear to pay attention, while the system dismisses the rest as shirkers.
Compounding the first two problems is the dearth of proper training schemes for teachers, which means that under-qualified staff are hired frequently, and sometimes, even among considerably qualified academicians, there is little understanding of how to connect with students without spoon-feeding them.
But, above all, is the underlying dynamic of interaction that stifles the spirit of teaching in India by discouraging free thinking and open debate. 
This dynamic is built around the conception of the teacher as the key constituent of a monologue, not a conversation. 
Most classes, be it in primary school or universities, are built around the teacher lecturing for close to an hour, to be interjected only occasionally, summarising information that is already ensconced in hastily drawn reading lists belonging to inadequately engineered syllabi. 

The impact is the creation of a power structure where the teacher assumes a position of almost uncontestable authority. Instead of being an enabler to the learning process, the teacher indoctrinates, unable to factor in the multiple requirements that a class full of varyingly competent students would naturally demand.

Such a problem becomes even more complicated in institutions where students lack foundational literacy and numeracy (a massive issue in India), and are consistently playing catch up with a teacher who is obliged to complete the syllabi.

As a result, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration – the skills most vital for our current times- cannot flourish in Indian classrooms because teachers are dispossessed of the environment within which to unleash these attributes.

By reducing teaching to a one-way-street policed by the need to optimise grades, Indian education leaves no room for the kind of back and forth debates and discussions that are necessary for constructing the personalities of students. 
While it is true that India has produced several outstanding teachers, who have become role models and guiding lights for their students, it is also true that such exceptional men and women remain outliers, and it is only through addressing systemic issues that they can become the norm. 

The key to unlocking learning in India is to make education – as in ancient India – a symbiotic process, one driven by intellectual exchange, and not the reductive mechanisation of skills that has run rampant for so long. 
Once the focus of teaching is transformed, there should be a manifold increase in great teachers in India, who would finally come to excel because of the system, and not in spite of it.
(Priyam Marik is a freelance journalist writing on politics, culture, and sport)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Courtesy - DH

377 anniversary is a chance to celebrate the happy gay stories

A few years ago at the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai, I was asked on stage, “When will we have the happy gay story?” I was there talking about my own novel, Don’t Let Him Know, where one of the characters is a gay man who hides his sexuality and gets married to a woman, not exactly a “happy gay story”.

I don’t remember what I mumbled in response but the question stayed with me. The 2018 Supreme Court verdict that decriminalised homosexuality had not yet happened. But I cannot pretend that the verdict, landmark as it was, ushered in some Rainbow Ram Rajya. Even today I hear of young men, regulars at gay parties, who get married and unfriend their gay friends on Facebook overnight. Two school friends from a suburban town not far from Kolkata, consumed pesticide and killed themselves. They were close friends, said the family. One wrote the other’s name all over his journal but no one said the g-word. In the middle of the lockdown, I heard of queer friends of friends who killed themselves or tried to do so. Even the luckiest among us bear the scars of not fitting in and they run deep. For many of us chosen families offered solace that biological families could not, and the pandemic has torn many apart from those support systems.

Yet it is worth remembering that we’ve come further than many of us ever imagined we would in our lifetimes. Apurva Asrani, the award-winning editor/writer of films like Aligarh, recently tweeted about the joy of buying a home together with his partner. Not so long ago they had to pretend to be cousins to rent in a city like Mumbai where landlords only wanted “family” types. Even their parents had to play along in this charade.

Asrani says he was amazed by all the support he got for that innocuous new home tweet, even from those whose political ideology was at odds with his. The fact is when people think of heterosexual lives they imagine family vacations, the first home, Diwali shopping. When they think of homosexual lives people think about sex, not two men’s names together on a nameplate. Gay families tend to be invisible. Not that sex isn’t important, but it’s not the sum total of any life.

The Section 377 verdict finally gave us the chance to celebrate queer lives beyond the stereotypes of the mincing comic, the angst-ridden victim, the wistful lover pining in silence. We’ve come a long way from the faux-gay jokes of Dostana to the family rom-com Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and the wedding-planner in Made in Heaven, a man who is unapologetically gay yet not defined by his sexuality. The verdict also freed companies who wanted to do right by their LGBTQ employees but felt circumscribed by Section 377 being the law of the land. Parmesh Shahani, the author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Workplace, told me once that while traumatic LGBTQ experiences in the workplace are all too common, there were also stories of “hope and possibility” like the parents who come to an LGBTQ job fair to check out whether a company is queer-friendly enough or the company that does not just hire transgenders but also tries to find them housing because many landlords won’t rent to them.

On the second anniversary of the fall of Section 377, especially in a year as bleak as this, it feels all the more important to hold on to these stories of hope. India, in some ways, has been lucky. As the response to Asrani’s tweet showed, the 377 verdict came as a relief to many opinion-makers, left, right and centre, who saw criminalisation of homosexuality as an embarrassing throwback that undermined their own self-image of India as a modern state in a global liberal economy.

The danger is with increased and more assertive gay visibility also comes homophobia as Mark Gevisser shows in his new book The Pink Line. That has yielded political dividends in ultra nationalist projects as far afield as Russia and Uganda, with gay rights becoming a convenient excuse to target the European Union or the United States for imposing their own “liberal globalised commodity culture” and values on sovereign nations, pilloried as a new kind of cultural colonialism. Of course the irony is the anti-gay laws themselves were also the bequest of those same European states. All this to show that the path from decriminalisation to acceptance in a post-377 India will not necessarily be easy.

But on this day, the anniversary of a ruling where a Supreme Court judge said history owed LGBT Indians an apology for the ignominy and ostracism they suffered, it’s also okay to just pause, breathe and remember that gay stories too deserve happy endings.

Courtesy - TOI


A new dimension: On India-U.S.-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral

In what will be seen as a significant shift of the government’s posture towards the India-U.S.-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral (Quad), Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat stated on Thursday that India believes the Quad would be a “good mechanism” to “ensure Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) in the Indian Ocean and surrounding oceans including the Indo-Pacific. Unless he misspoke, the suggestion is that India is now prepared to join Quad military patrols, which marks a departure from its earlier reticence and public statements by the leadership. The Indian Navy has not taken part in any joint patrols outside of the Indian Ocean, and even within it, held its first one, with France, only recently. In terms of the engagement with the Quad, India has not yet formally announced a decision to include Australia in the annual Malabar exercises with the U.S. and Japan, although it is expected to do so. However, the move from conducting exercises together to joint operations would take time, something that makes the CDS’s assertion significant. It is easy to surmise that his contention that the Quad operations are needed to ensure there is no “fear of any other nation singularly trying to dominate the oceans”, is a veiled reference to China. It is also clear that the LAC tensions and clashes, as well as the PLA’s refusal to implement border agreements, have convinced New Delhi that new strategies will be required to deal with Beijing. While India continues to engage China diplomatically, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have spoken of the importance of a resolution through talks, there is no doubt that an outcome of the tensions will be a strengthening of India’s ties with global powers such as the U.S., as well as formations like the Quad. An indication of this is the government’s plans to host a ministerial-level meeting of the Quad in the next month, possibly when the India-US “2+2” meet of Foreign and Defence Ministers is held.

While India considers its options, it is necessary to remember some of the reasons for its reticence in terms of militarising the Quad in any way. Prime Minister Modi said in 2018 that India sees the Indo-Pacific as a “geographical concept”, not a “strategy or a club of limited members”, and it would be important to know whether that formulation has changed. India is the only Quad member not already tied in a treaty alliance with the others, and Mr. Jaishankar’s statement that India would never be part of any “alliance system” would run counter to what the CDS suggests. Finally, India is the only country in the Quad that shares a land boundary with China, and it is unclear how the militarisation of the Quad in Indo-Pacific waters would alleviate the territorial threat it faces. If, however, New Delhi’s view of its Quad engagement has shifted, clarity and an expansion of Gen. Rawat’s statement are essential.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Appropriate strategy: On India banning more China apps

The blocking of a hundred more Chinese mobile applications suggests that the Indian government, not for the first time in recent months, wants to make it amply clear that it will not shy away from leveraging its position as a massive market for technology in dealing with potentially dangerous geopolitical issues. Since June, when border tensions between India and China turned ugly, the government has till now stepped in thrice to block many Chinese applications in one go. In the latest such decision, on Wednesday, it blocked 118 apps, including the widely popular gaming app, PUBG, as well as WeChat Work and Baidu, owing to these being “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of State and public order”. Over 200 Chinese apps, which were accessed by millions of Indian users, have been blocked in all till date. The decision has been taken based on several complaints, a press release said, of these apps “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India”. It could be argued that loss of access to the Indian market will sharply affect the ambitions of the Internet giants emerging from China, but it remains to be seen if this tech-side intervention is effective as a counter in a geopolitical fight. Also, how far can India go to keep the Chinese players, who are well entrenched in the global tech supply chain, off the Indian market without prejudicing its own growth?

It is difficult to argue against decisions that are taken on the plank of national security, especially one arrived at by invoking the government’s power under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, a section upheld by the courts previously. But it would be well argued that the Indian approach should have followed due process, where the focus was on ensuring compliance with the law. Instead, the Indian response to complaints has been to straight away block these apps en masse. Meanwhile, millions of Indians who were engaging with these platforms, some gainfully, have to scramble for alternatives. To add to this, the data protection law, a dire need in this age, is not yet there. All this does not bode well for a country with aspirations of global leadership of tech, an industry which thrives on global networks and rules. Ironically, China, which for years has unleashed widespread censorship of information and kept apps from outside off its Internet, has found a rare chance to take the moral high ground. It has criticised India’s move, accusing it of “abusing the concept of national security”. The last thing India needs is to be compared with China as far as its Internet regulation goes. It certainly needs a more considered approach to tech regulation.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Blind spot

On September 3, The New York Times published an extraordinary article that detailed Richard Nixon’s loathing of Indians, especially Indian women. Its author, Gary Bass, who had earlier written The Blood Telegram, a book-length critique of US diplomacy during the 1971 war, based his piece on tapes recently declassified by Nixon’s presidential archive. In them, Nixon is heard saying at various times that Indian women are the most unattractive women in the world, that they are sexless, that they turn him off and there’s a particularly entertaining bit where he wonders how Indians reproduce at all, given how repulsive their women are. 

What are we to make of these revelations? The first thing to be said is that they shouldn’t be a great surprise. Tapes released more than 20 years ago established that Nixon was an equal-opportunity bigot. He was energetically anti-Semitic, for example. He used to complain that Washington “is full of Jews”, that “[m]ost Jews are disloyal” and that “...generally speaking, you can’t trust the b*****ds.” He was also racist and the tapes brim over with casual prejudice about minorities. 

Perhaps the more interesting revelation is Henry Kissinger’s complicity in Nixon’s bigotry, given the fact that Kissinger is Jewish and had been at the receiving end of Nazi racism himself. Annoyed by the assistance offered by Indira Gandhi to Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan in June 1971, Kissinger described Indians variously as “a scavenging people”, as “masters of subtle flattery”, as a people whose “...great skill is to suck up...” It’s fascinating how fluently Kissinger uses the stock phrases WASPs once used to disparage Jews (subtle, flatterers) to denigrate Indians. This great practitioner of realpolitik was happy to use second-hand colonial clichés about sub-continental types to characterize desis. So if Indians were clever suck-ups, Pakistanis were a “fine people but... primitive in their mental structure”.

To students of diplomacy, the lesson of Nixon and Kissinger’s loathing of India and Indians might be that personal chemistry (or the lack of it) can seriously shape policy. Nixon’s generalizations about Indians and Indian women in particular, were based on a sample of one. He hated Indians because he loathed Indira Gandhi; she wound him up to a point where he became incoherent with rage. This was only partly because India’s tilt towards the Soviet Union and hostility towards Pakistan got in the way of Nixon’s strategic objectives. He also just hated her. Which might explain why someone as peculiar-looking as Nixon would even venture a view on the ugliness of other people. Say what you like about Indira Gandhi’s politics, in the looks department she was Rita Hayworth to his W.C. Fields.  

Bass has a marvellous story about the origin of this detestation. After losing to Kennedy in 1960, Nixon was in the political wilderness for the best part of a decade. He ran for governor in California and lost. In 1967, when he was plotting a comeback, he called on the Indian prime minister in Delhi. Twenty minutes into their meeting, a visibly bored Indira Gandhi asked an aide in Hindi when her ordeal was going to end. According to Bass, “Nixon had not gotten the precise meaning, but he sure caught the tone”.

To be fair to Nixon, he wasn’t alone in his dislike of her. Ten years earlier, when Indira Gandhi had accompanied her father to Kennedy’s White House, Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a ladies lunch for her. It didn’t go well. Indira wanted to be by her father’s side listening in on affairs of State and the First Lady resented that. In an interview recorded in 1964 but published much later, she didn’t hold back: “She liked to be in with the men. And she is a real prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don’t like her a bit. It always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon”.  

Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Nixon disliked Indira Gandhi for getting above herself, for not being ‘womanly’ enough. By the time Indira attended that unsuccessful ladies luncheon, she had already served as the President of the Indian National Congress. Given that Jacqueline was happy to admit that “I get all my opinions from my husband” and that her avowed purpose in life was to “...become the kind of wife that you can see that your husband wants,” it isn’t hard to see why she disliked the ambitious dynast she was hosting. It is to Indira Gandhi’s credit that she was detested for being herself by two people as different as Richard Nixon and Jacqueline Kennedy. She was also in good company. In the same set of interviews, the former First Lady called Martin Luther King a “phony”.

Outrage apart, the sobering lesson of Bass’s revelations is how peripheral India was to American calculations in 1971 and how peripheral it remains today. Nixon might have loathed India and Indira but he loathed them in passing. India wasn’t important enough to be detested for its own sake. Nixon’s attitude towards the Bangladesh war was shaped by his strategic focus on China. Since Yahya Khan was helping him with the Chinese, he tilted towards Pakistan. China had to be reckoned with; India wasn’t important enough economically, politically or militarily to matter in itself. It was a sideshow in a great game being played out elsewhere. 

This is India’s geopolitical tragedy. It is consistently cast by the great powers as an attendant lord, who, in Eliot’s words, will do to “swell a progress, start a scene or two”. In its own mind, though, India is, if not Hamlet, at least a considerable player. There is no way of reconciling the roles India reads for and the roles it is cast in. India was a passing annoyance in 1971 because Nixon was trying to make up to China. Half a century later, India is of passing interest to Donald Trump because he’s reversing the United States of America out of the relationship with China that Nixon pioneered.

The growing belief that this phase in the US-China relationship has given India a ticket to the top table in the shape of the Quad is a happy delusion generated by comfortable think tanks. The US, Japan and Australia are amongst the three most affluent nations on earth. There is a solidarity and camaraderie about being rich together that draws wealthy countries into club-like alliances. In the looser frame of the Quad, India’s designated role is that of the poor relation who might do the heavy lifting that the others can’t or won’t do. The truth is that as far as our borders with China are concerned, our circumstances haven’t changed since Nehru: we’re still on our own. 

More generally, it’s harder than ever to see Nixon’s prejudices and profanities as relics of some bygone era. Nearly 50 years after electing one bigoted, profane and misogynistic president, Americans elected another one. If Trump’s private conversations were taped and transcribed, they’d be unprintable. America might have changed but given Trump, it’s hard to believe, with Martin Luther King, that the arc of America’s history bends towards justice. It seems, instead, to zigzag between high piety and rank prejudice. If Trump takes the next election, it’s going to be a very long zag.

Courtesy - The Telegraph


India’s app ban as painful acupuncture

Mao Zedong is passé in China today, but some of his aphorisms still ring true. To be attacked by the enemy is a good thing, he said, because it means that you are doing something to hurt him.

At a press briefing, the spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry criticised India’s decision to ban 200-odd Chinese apps, and linked the ban with US urging of similar action by other countries.

She proceeded to lecture India on observing the principles of a market economy, and the wrongheadedness of harming the interests of Indian citizens as well as Chinese businesses, and reminded India of its ancient association with China, the value of Independence and steering clear of US guile.

She even quoted Tagore and threw in the popularity in China of the Hindi movie Dangal for good measure. But not for once did she mention the border tensions.

What this means is that India must persist with its low-level economic action against China, and use not just access to India’s market but also the example that Indian action vis-à-vis China could set for other countries, to put pressure on China.

This is not to say that India should rule out use of reciprocal military action in case of Chinese transgression of India’s territorial sovereignty.

But that is not the only means of responding to Chinese tactics. Beijing is capable of adopting varied pressure tactics and making Chinese businesses hurt is one way of making China’s leaders understand that these would not subdue India into meek acceptance of China’s unilateral strong-arm measures across the Line of Actual Control (LoAC).

China should abandon its policy of not settling the LoAC, even refusing to exchange maps to delineate on the ground the perceptions of both countries, which would constitute the basis for negotiated settlement of the border.

New Delhi must raise in appropriate fora Pakistan’s deafening silence on China’s religious persecution of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang — praying five times a day or growing a beard is considered dangerous signs of Islamic radicalism. It would send the right signal to both China and Pakistan.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


The RBI — Physician, Heal Thyself

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), in its annual report, has rightly emphasised the role of public investment in infrastructure in reviving growth and crowding in private investment. It has also suggested some methods to finance such investment. One is foreign direct investment (FDI). It suggests Railways as an ideal candidate.

Why foreigners would want to invest in a loss-making enterprise is a question that is neither asked nor answered. The Railways should hive off suburban transport as a separate entity with a series of joint ventures with the state governments and municipal corporations governing the towns where suburban trains operate and receive massive amounts of subsidy. The rest of the Railways could then be structured to operate efficient cargo and passenger services. Then, perhaps, rail could qualify for FDI.

Privatisation of ports under an independent regulator is another mechanism suggested to raise resources for investment in infrastructure. Monetisation of assets in steel, power, coal and land is also advocated.

Such measures would make sense, except for their effect of channelling available private capital into transfer of existing assets than into creation of fresh assets. Fresh asset creation is what an economy in a slump requires.

The government should borrow and spend on infrastructure, and, on a vastly more expansive scale, channel foreign capital desperately seeking higher returns than what bond markets in the developed world offer into fully articulated projects from the infrastructure pipeline identified by the NITI Aayog. The National Investment and Infrastructure Fund must raise its game in this regard. RBI also suggests developing the debt market.

Further, ‘(t)here is also a need for expanded footprints for specialised NBFCs classified as Infrastructure Finance Companies’. Presumably, these IFCs would raise funds from the bond market and lend to infrastructure projects. Why should the bond markets not directly fund the infrastructure projects? In any case, India needs a functional bond market.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


To boost growth, build resilience

The monsoon brings not just welcome rain, but also floods, avoidable ones in towns and unmanaged ones wreaking havoc elsewhere. The loss of life, livelihoods and property presents an economic drain on the system and tightens the stranglehold of poverty. This year, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated and complicated the situation. This is a cost that a developing country such as India can ill afford. As we focus on reviving the economy, the focus must be on investing in building resilient infrastructure.

Building better must be the cornerstone of this effort. This will require planning and putting in place infrastructure that is resilient and adaptive to changes in the climate that have already taken place. It will also require taking measures that can minimise the adverse impact of these climatic changes.

For instance, the intensity of rainfall has increased due to climate change, making flooding a regular occurrence. What is required are efforts that will minimise the possibility of floods — the solutions will vary from afforestation efforts, reviving wetlands, building infrastructure that can withstand these changes, and so on. It is critical to ensure that local circumstances and science are taken on board while identifying solutions. Any effort to build resilient infrastructure must involve planners, scientists, experts and every level of government, besides popular involvement, must be part of this exercise. At the same time, it is critical to ensure the implementation of rules and regulations, as well as ensuring that the infrastructure, particularly in urban areas, is maintained properly.

As India works to revive its economy, building resilient infrastructure can be an important avenue for investment and growth, to break the annual cycle of loss of life and property.
Courtesy - The Economic Times.

India’s labour laws call for reform

The government assured parliament’s standing committee on labour that state-level changes in labour laws that diluted labour welfare would be struck down. At the same time, India’s labour laws are antiquated — some mandate water being made available in earthen pots — besides being too numerous, making compliance a burden.

Laws need to change, to make the labour market flexible, remove artificial bias towards capital-intensity and, at the same time, retain attraction for global brands that are ever more mindful of investor and consumer preference for ESG-compliance. ESG stands, of course, for Environmental, Social and Governance concerns.

In the US, investment that specifically targets ESG compliance has been shooting up — it grew 38% from 2016 to $12 trillion in 2017, out of a total assets under management of $46 trillion, and the share of ESG has only been rising since. Business Roundtable, comprising the top CEOs of America, declared a formal shift from treating shareholders as the primary beneficiary of corporate achievement to all stakeholders, and has, in the wake of the anti-racism protests, endorsed police reform. Business responds, of course, to the concerns of shareholders, consumers and employees. These concerns are pushing climate change, labour norms, corporate governance and the positive impact companies can play in social life to the top of corporate concerns. This sets the mood for allocation of funds in much of the developed world. India would shoot itself in the foot if, at this juncture, it seeks to attract investment into supply chains moving out of China by offering suppression of labour rights as the chief attraction. The trick is to build flexibility into labour markets while upholding labour norms that enable decent work.

Japan and South Korea have grown into manufacturing powerhouses on par with Germany and France, and all have workforces that are heavily unionised. Their employers and unions have learnt to collaborate in using unions to raise productivity and cushion the harshness of bad times. They offer lessons for India’s labour reforms.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.

Digitising the state : The Indian Express Editorial

Written by Manish Sabharwal , Deepak Phatak 
In a 2015 visit to Silicon Valley — the first by an Indian Prime Minister to the US West Coast since the semiconductor revolution in the 1970s — PM Modi suggested that “digital platforms were advancing citizen empowerment and democracy that once drew their strength from constitutions”. COVID demonstrated how one element of Digital India — Aadhaar enabled Direct Benefit Transfer — facilitated quick and targeted action. But COVID also demonstrated how large parts of the Indian state continue to resist, underinvest in, and delay digitisation. We make the case that the three-phase transition to mandatory digital payments, accounting, and transactions for government proposed by the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) under a new project and law called DATA (Digital Accountability and Transparency Act) uses the COVID policy window for an empowering, elegant, and overdue reform with delightful consequences.

The Union budget grew from Rs 197 crore in 1947 to Rs 30 lakh crore last year and total government expenditure may be higher than Rs 70 lakh crore. But the form and manner of keeping accounts have more or less remained unchanged since Independence; manual transactions and manual payments often lead to manually entered data at different stages in different databases on different systems. This makes data unreliable, violates the principle of “single source of truth” and sabotages transparency and good governance. DATA recognises that digitally empowered citizens require digital public utilities that not only provide e-services but make all government revenue and expenditure data electronic, machine-readable, granular, comprehensive, purpose linked, non-repudiable, reliable, accessible and searchable.

A challenge for DATA is that government “computerisation” has often mechanised manual processes rather than “re-engineered processes”. This has created siloed IT systems with disparate databases that lack modern data sharing protocols for organic linking like APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and breed valid concerns of fiscal data being incomparable (as basic as salary expenditure across states), obscure (large expenditures booked under omnibus head called other), non-traceable (actual expenditure against temporary advances drawn or funds drawn on contingent bills), and misclassification (grants in aid as capital expenditure and bookings under suspense heads). But data underlies all transactional, accounting, and payment information and a national framework and dictionary to consistently and accurately capture, record, report, publish and analyse data both vertically and horizontally across government is now possible. DATA has many other upsides; recognising off-budget transactions (the last Union budget took steps towards this fiscal transparency and consolidation), business continuity (electronic records cannot be lost or misplaced like files or paper records), and an incontrovertible audit trail. Most importantly, it will enable Parliament and legislatures to draw “assurance” that each rupee due to the government has been collected, and each rupee has been spent for the purpose it was allocated.

The start point for DATA is mandatory and common data standards for all entities receiving government funds in all forms of funding and the endpoint is a single searchable website to ascertain total government funding by element and entity. But covering the distance between these needs three elements: 100 per cent end-to-end electronic data capture, data governance for standards across all government entities, and technology architecture. The first is clear; all receipts and expenditure transactions including demands, assessment, and invoices should be received, processed, and paid electronically. The second is complex; data standards are rules for describing and recording data elements with precise meanings and semantics that enable integration, sharing, and interoperability. Prescribing data elements for all transactions will ensure standardisation, clarify ambiguity, minimise redundant data, and create protocols for integration across different databases across entities receiving government funds, collecting revenues on behalf of the government, and those discharging core functions on behalf of the government.

The proposed government-wide data standards coupled with real-time data captured end-to-end will enable the use of cognitive intelligence tools like analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, which in turn will support the establishment of budget baselines, detecting anomalies, data-driven project/activity costing, performance comparisons across departments and agencies, and benchmarking. The third element of technology architecture must ensure that all IT government systems should conform to a prescribed open architecture framework (for instance, IndEA) while ensuring robust security and maintaining privacy.

A citizen-centric view of a single source of truth encompassing every rupee of public money would make the 299 remarkable people who wrote India’s Constitution proud of this 21st-century citizen empowerment innovation. Recurring operations will require a Data Governance Authority and the proposed three-year timeline is doable; one year for standard-setting by the data governance authority, two years to ministries/departments of the Government of India and states, and three years to all other recipients of government money such as local and autonomous bodies. A big gift to this project could be a 12-month mandatory deadline for all government payments to go digital; bad behaviour currently costs the RBI Rs 4,000 crore in bank agency commissions because many parts of the government do not use the RBI’s free e-kuber system.

A wonderful new book Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India by Arun Mohan Sukumar chronicles a lesser-known political project that began on August 15 1947; the Indian state’s undertaking to influence how citizens thought about technology and its place in society. He suggests that Madan Mohan Malviya’s 1916 dissent note as a member of the Indian Industrial Commission seeded the Indian state’s interest in technology and drew a blueprint for India’s modernisation. India’s current gap between the digitisation of the private sector and government often reflects the 1972 Dandekar Committee recommendation that no entity install a computer without first “justifying” its use to employees and their trade unions. This means our rights as consumers are higher than our rights as citizens. But 100 years after Pandit Malviya’s forceful note, the digitisation of the Indian state proposed by the government and CAG imagines a giant leap in empowering our citizens.

Sabharwal and Phatak are with TeamLease Services and IIT Bombay respectively

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

The Fallacy Of Rankings : The Indian Express Editorial

Written by Chandrachur Singh 

The onset of a fresh academic session coincides with the release of institutional rankings. Meant primarily to guide and assist prospective students in choosing from among the best institutions and the courses offered by them, the ranking system comes off as an innovative attempt at quantifying excellence.

With 30,000 institutions of different types and standards, the Indian Higher Education System (IHES) is the world’s third-largest system. The need to map institutional unevenness and the inherent qualitative disparities in standards make rankings significant. This explains the importance of the MHRD-led National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). The other system of ranking that has got traction is the India Today rankings. However, when read in conjunction with each other, they produce conflating results.

For example, the NIRF for 2020-21 in the colleges’ category declares Miranda House as the best college, assigning Lady Shri Ram College and Hindu College second and third positions respectively, while the India Today rankings declare Hindu College as the best college for arts and science and the second-best college for commerce following Shri Ram College of Commerce. It is interesting to note that Miranda House does not have a commerce department and despite being ranked behind Hindu College as per India Today rankings, it gets the coveted top position in the NIRF rankings. While such confusion accrues on account of divergent weightage accorded to parameters, all the rankings end up assigning the top positions to a few select institutions.

According to the declared methodology (2019) in the college category, the NIRF allocates 40 per cent weightage to teaching-learning outcomes, which is derived from a mathematical calculation of student strength, students-teacher ratio, permanent/temporary appointments, number of PhD holders in faculty positions as well as financial resource utilisation. It accords 10 points to outreach and diversity quotients, another 15 and 25 per cent to research output and graduation outcomes respectively, and 10 points to perceptions amongst employers and academic peers.

However, I would argue that despite being based on a strong methodological platform, the NIRF rankings fail in accomplishing the mandate of segregating the chaff from the wheat. This is because the so-called top colleges top the charts largely on account of archaic perceptions, triggering the best intakes, which makes them score high on academic parameters. The student strength or the faculty-students ratio is not something these colleges can do much about. Being government-funded, they are bound to admit all those who make it past their declared cut-off marks.

The same is true of the diversity quotient. None of these colleges has any say in designing any policy parameter that would encourage or discourage students’ recruitments from varied backgrounds. In terms of resource use, most of the resources are rigidly fixed and even the slightest deviations attract penal action. The appointments and promotions of faculty members are controlled by their respective affiliating universities, and entirely independent of any merit-based distributive mechanism. The point is that the existing regulatory mechanisms of the IHES do not allow any flexibility to develop innovative pedagogy or outreach and diversity formulae on their own. All they need to do is to stick to the government-set policy directions and feel lucky if it rains.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find almost the same set of colleges topping the charts. They do well because they have a feeder cadre of the best. The application of a ranking methodology designed for an open and dynamic system when applied to a closed one only ends up conflating and confounding realities. It is not to say that the so-called top colleges in India do not have the drive or the capabilities to excel independently. But for a real assessment, they would need to be freed from inherent structural rigidities and be brought at par with each other.

The writer teaches Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

Who is caring for children? : The Indian Express Editorial

Written by Ameeta Mulla Wattal
“March 20, 2020, has been a turning point in my life. All that I valued, the human touch, tangible connections, programmes, engagements, get-togethers, festivals and assemblies seem to have lost all meaning. In fact, I think I have grown up very fast as compared to any other generation of my age. Today, more than ever, I feel triggered, flooded and overwhelmed by this situation. The question that wells up in my mind is what happened to yesterday? What will happen today? How will I step into tomorrow? My dreams have been replaced by stress, anxiety and uncertainty.”

This cry of help came from an adolescent in school, who was unable to cope. The coronavirus apocalypse has been devastating for adults, but adolescents have been impacted by it in a much greater manner.

Between the ages of 13 to 17, teens and tweens have increased developmental motivation that makes it hard to isolate them. The hormonal changes during puberty combined with adolescent dynamics make them highly attuned to social status and peer groups.

Caught in a vacuum, at a time when they were ready to launch themselves, many teens are wading through complicated emotions. They have had to adjust to online learning, isolated from their friends, and eliminate meaningful events from their calendars. They mourn the loss of school groups, sports and informal get-togethers. The ritual of going to class and hanging out with people who they have grown up with, even if they have not been close friends, seems over.

Till now, the majority of children were in a vacation mode, but the reality of not going back to school has suddenly dawned upon them because the pandemic shows no signs of abatement. Levels of frustration, nervousness and disconnection have become much greater. A nostalgia of events pre-March has become intense.

A lot of adolescents hope to get back so they can have a little time to officially close the book on their lives in school. Due to this pandemic, children are afraid of venturing outside their homes. Suddenly, their safety and security has been threatened and challenged from multiple angles.

The more common stressors that teens are facing are loved ones becoming ill, non-stop pandemic news, family economics with their parents losing jobs, loss of traditional milestones in their school activities that are significant rites of passage, fear of catching a flight, visiting a grocery store or even going to a dentist. All these have impacted their mental health.

Adolescence is a state of major transition. It’s when they start finding their identity, their sense of self from their peer group. If at this crucial period, they are caught up in processing a range of very intense emotions from fear and anger to sadness and grief, the result can lead to a chronic anxiety disorder.

Different teens are having different reactions. For introverted adolescents, the current situation is giving them a sense of calm or relief. The extroverts, whose energy is recharged by communication, are devastated by the quarantine.

It is very important to be on the lookout for warning signs of depression, which range from emotional changes, feelings of despair and emptiness, mental changes, difficulty in focusing and thinking, physical changes including eating habits, weight and sleeping patterns. It is imperative that we take very seriously, actions of self-harm or even words that may lead to it.

Disorders have emerged affecting mood swings, behaviour and sleeping patterns due to the excessive use of technology. This 24-hour rhythm has now become the new norm, and has broken up the space between waking and sleep.

Parents are trying to balance their own work and the remote-learning schedules of their children, trying to find ways to help them cope. Parents have to acknowledge the anxieties of their children and have an open and honest discussion about the struggles they are facing, but with a level of reassurance.

Adolescents watch adults for psychological cues. If parents are calm, the children, in turn, will be more confident of their wellbeing. What may seem trivial to an adult may be very important to a teen or a tween. Dismissing or minimising their feelings is not the best approach: Parents must show compassion and validate their concerns because they will not get the moments they are missing back. The citation ceremonies, farewells, annual days, school carnivals, all of these make up the sights, sounds, feelings and fragrances of the growing-up years. It is their participation and reaction to these that will make them the adults of tomorrow.

Schools and the homes have changed roles. The online teaching model has to be embedded with an emotional compass more than anything else as mental health issues have already pinnacled and the domino effect is going to be felt across time. Social-emotional learning will help children to cope and prevent arousal symptoms and strong negative emotions. Capsules of meditation, yoga, motivational conversations will help to deconstruct the conflict that children are facing. Identifying their areas of stress, detachment and confusion should become an integral part of the teaching-learning experience.

In the immediate now, and forever, we must stop worrying about the learning gaps, but think about how our children will cope with anxiety, uncertainty and change. Can our children breathe, meditate, relax, experience tenderness, trust, and do they know if they have a self to find? If what is being taught in school and at home is not connected with the child’s happiness, survival and sanity, then, who is caring for our children?

The writer is principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

Quid without a quo : The Indian Express Editorial

India’s trade agreement with China was one-sided to begin with.
Written by Bibek Debroy 

Bilateral agreements are an outcome of negotiations. To get something you want, you yield on others. There is quid pro quo and reciprocity. Thanks to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), since 1948, reciprocity has been built into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Gains and losses needn’t always be defined in narrow economic terms — the quid and the quo can be strategic. However, a quid without the quo doesn’t sound rational. Outside the then socialist bloc, India was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This happened on January 1, 1950. Pakistan followed a few days later. India followed through, in October 1954, with a trade agreement with PRC, apparently based on “equality and mutual benefit”. At least, that’s what the preamble to the agreement said. This trade agreement over-rode many historical rights India possessed (trade missions/trading posts) in Tibet. They were signed away. Therefore, for the benefit to be mutual and not unilateral, India must have gained something. This was a narrow trade agreement. Unlike contemporary times, there was no talk of cross-border labour or capital movements. The gains could have been trade, or non-trade.

In any such trade agreement, while negotiating, negotiators try to identify products where their country has a comparative advantage, though comparative advantage is necessarily dynamic and changes over time. I try to get market access for items where my country is competitive and try to bargain and prevent market access for items where my country is relatively uncompetitive. This is the principle behind trade negotiations. As broad heads, China was allowed to export — cereals, machinery, minerals, silk and silk piece-goods, animal products, paper and stationery, chemicals, oils, and miscellaneous items. India was allowed to export — grams, rice, pulses, kyanite, unmanufactured tobacco, raw materials and unmanufactured ores, wood and timber, hides and skins, chemicals, vehicles, and miscellaneous items. At that time, both countries were planning to industrialise, China with a first five-year plan in 1953, India with a first five-year plan in 1951. That being the case, you would expect industrialisation aspirations, and moving away from agriculture, to be reflected in items either side was trying to push. If you look at those broad heads, this is not the impression you get. For example, India would export wood and timber, but China would export paper and stationery. China would export machinery, but India would export raw materials and unmanufactured ores. That is, barring chemicals and vehicles, India would remain a primary produce exporter to China, a continuing trend this trade agreement contributed to. However, China’s exports would be broad-based and have manufacturing items.

So far, I have stuck to broad heads and these are heads as mentioned in the trade agreement. Those weren’t days when trade negotiators followed harmonised customs nomenclatures with digits pinning down items. Such physical descriptions sufficed. Let’s look at sub-heads, under those broad heads.

Under paper and stationery, we find newsprint, mechanical pulp-free printing paper, packing paper, stencil paper, blotting paper, fountain pens, pencils, ink, printing ink, and numbering machines. At that time, India had a strong domestic base in producing all these. Indeed, when Article XVIII of GATT was amended in 1954 to introduce Article XVIIIB, justifying quantitative restrictions (QRs) on imports on the balance of payments grounds, one of the eight items India imposed QRs on was fountain pens. China’s fountain pen manufacturing base in Shanghai, other than Hero, is of later vintage. The Shanghai Hero Pen Company traced its antecedents back to 1931. That is when the Wolff Pen Manufacturing Company was founded, renamed Shanghai Hero Pen Company later. Companies like Jinhao didn’t exist then. Given India’s fountain pen and ink base, it was a bit strange that in 1954, it was pre-decided that China would have a comparative advantage in exporting fountain pens and ink and India would not. To reiterate, we clamped down on imports of fountain pens from the rest of the world, allowed them specifically for China and didn’t wish to export our own to China. If Hero pens became ubiquitous in later decades, that wasn’t only due to smuggling through Nepal. Those were legitimate imports. This is only an example to illustrate the broader point about a biased trade agreement.

Trade is not based on narrow notions of comparative advantage. A country can simultaneously export and import the same item. However, if an item figures in one country’s list and not on the other’s, that suggests an odd kind of preference. In market access schedules, items specifically mentioned are important. What’s dumped into a “miscellaneous” basket is relatively insignificant. If you scrutinise the schedules, you will find non-manufacturing items in China’s miscellaneous list, but many manufactured items in India’s miscellaneous list (light engineering, plastic manufactures, cement, agricultural implements, paper). By any yardstick, the 1954 agreement was one-sided. Today, any negotiator who agreed to this would be hauled over coal. Nor, since GATT was already been established in 1948, could one claim that India lacked in relative negotiating capacity.

I mentioned the quid pro quo gains of trade or non-trade. Obviously, there were no trade gains. One gave away and received little in return. Non-trade gains are also dubious. “Equality and mutual benefit” was picked up from the trade agreement and incorporated into Panchsheel later in the same year.

The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

Courtesy - The Indian Express.
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