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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

College, truncated (The Telegraph)

Saikat Majumdar 

The great college dropout act is all set to lose its radical appeal. For generations now, dropping out of college has been the frontier to striking dares, be it incubating start-ups in Silicon Valley, running away to join movies, slouching towards Varanasi to seek hash and a guru. The list, infinitely expandable, is about to die the saddest death an iconoclast can get. It is about to become an icon itself, tamed and domesticated at the shrine. 


Is the traditional college about to die? The murmurs grow stronger each day. Lawrence Wong, the education minister of Singapore, has recently declared that the conventional model of “a fixed period of education and then a fixed period of work” is “no longer relevant today”. He sharpens a tune already in the air. The ‘open loop university’, developed in 2014 by Stanford’s design school as a way of reimagining the college experience, gave students admitted to college six years to use however and whenever they wished to. They could start college whenever they felt they were ready — be it eighteen or twenty-four, pull out after two years, work for a few years, and then loop back into college. No matter where they lived when they were looped out, the students could use the remainder of their six-year college period to re-matriculate in their thirties, forties, or fifties.


College, fragmented, has now found its way to India. The National Education Policy 2020 has introduced its “multiple entry and exit” policy with which a student can enter and exit college at multiple points, with appropriate credits stored in the very instrumentally titled ABC, or Academic Bank of Credit. Even if they begin at the beginning, they can graduate college at the end of one year with a “certificate”, at the end of two years with a “diploma”, at the end of three years with a “Bachelor’s” — although the option best ‘recommended’ by the NEP remains the four-year multidisciplinary programme with a research component.


One who might have just been a college dropout in a former life now looks well-positioned to hold a “certificate” or a “diploma”. In this world, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would forego their iconoclasm, trade it for a certifying taxonomy based on the number of classes they might have waltzed in and out of. In this world, not finishing college will be a challenge — whatever you do, you get a brand. 


But if only Silicon Valley success were the default result of college attrition! School dropouts in India are among the most painful consequences of poverty, and, thanks to the vicious cycle, of lack of education. Early marriage for girls and premature entry into the labour force for both sexes keep our schools far emptier than they should be. But dropouts have been far more contained in higher education, perhaps not surprisingly so as getting access to college education itself requires the crossing of a significant privilege divide in this country. The dropout rate in Indian Institutes of Technology was just 1 per cent, according to figures released in Parliament by the minister of education. And it has been decreasing too — it fell from 2.25 per cent in 2015-16, while for the Indian Institutes of Management, the rate fell from 1.04 per cent in 2015-16 to 1 per cent in 2020. Likewise, the dropout rate in universities went from 7.49 per cent in 2015-16 to 2.82 per cent in 2020. ‘Dropouts’ in these statistics are defined by those who do not complete the full period of study — in the current formulation, three years for general stream courses and four years in some professional streams.


This data will change once the ‘multiple exit options’ is adopted by institutions. Early exits won’t be called ‘dropouts’ anymore; they would leave with their various appellations. But in essence, the percentage of students leaving college after one or two years will inevitably shoot up. What we now call dropouts would, in effect, be legitimized, and a far larger section of students would have very good reasons, even incentives, to take early-exit options.


So can we expect more Bangalore/Gurgaon start-ups, greater glory for incubators and angel investors, bolder actors who’ve escaped the confines of college, liberated sports stars, artists and writers who were choking on the walls of syllabi and lecture halls? No doubt we’ll see some of these. At first glance, it also makes economic sense for poorer students, who might find quicker, more strategized, paths to employment. There might also be students who will, through the ominously titled ABC, bank their credits and return to institutions later in life to add to their qualifications.


But seriously? Don’t we know what will happen to the majority of students? The poorer ones will simply take the early exit options, perhaps the poorer the earlier, while students from more privileged backgrounds stay back and reap the longue durée college experience. Scholarships will be a paltry band-aid as, for students from disadvantaged families, they merely offset the cost of studying but offer no real substitutes to professional income, which students forego as long as they stay in school, funded or not.


Multiple striations of lateral apartheid already lash the higher education landscape in India — from elite institutes of engineering and posh private colleges in metro cities to far-flung places in the country where teachers barely show up and academic sine die is the norm. The new system will institutionalize this apartheid along a new axis: those who’ve had some college, those who’ve had more, and those who’ve had the most. In a deeply stratified country like India, it’s anyone’s guess how the difference will play out, between richer students with a longer trajectory of college, and (often, invariably) poorer ones with shorter trajectories. Returning to college later in life as a non-traditional student — doesn’t that too, more often than not, depend on social and educational privileges already in the community?


Barring a few dedicated professional tracks such as law and medicine, it is almost impossible to predict the relationship between learning acquired in college and the real expanse of one’s working life. What matters in the long run is the experience of college itself, irrespective of course content. A significant part of this experience is the web of social relations one develops while in college, which, in turn, become foundational for future relationships and, indeed, one’s eligibility for them. It’s an open secret that the real value of an Ivy-League education is the membership to an elite club — of a network of alumni that opens doors from the White House to Wall Street and beyond. IITs, IIMs and elite colleges have been serving the same function here in India ever since Independence. 


College, truncated — never mind how we credential the act — will segregate this essential social experience even further, entrenching the position of the ‘longer-educated’ over those who take early leave. The day is not too far away when a group of well-heeled alumni of the full college experience will forge networks and mergers over drinks, casting a moment to remember the name of their sharp but poor classmate from first year who left early to take a job. But the name will slip past all memory. Another round of drinks will be ordered. They will move on.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Ides of March (The Telegraph)

Ruchir Joshi  

Time is a slippery customer. You turn away for a minute and whole swathes of years get consumed. Turning back, you find you are simultaneously not that far away from when you last looked and, yet, in a completely different place. In 2003, we watched helplessly as the American president, George W. Bush, and his ‘team’ managed to force together a ‘coalition’ of countries willing to launch an invasion on Iraq. Just over a year and a half had passed since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York; the retaliatory war in Afghanistan — aiming to cleanse the country of al Qaida and Taliban — was very far from ‘finished’; it did not take a degree in international relations to see that an attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would be a deadly distraction from resolving the mess of Afghanistan and adjacent areas (very much affecting us in India) as well as a long-term disaster that would keep pumping toxic radiation into the political atmosphere of what the United States of America and Europe call the Middle East. As large masses of people protested against the impending invasion in Europe, America and the world over, many opinion columns (including this one) railed against the monumental misstep from which the world still continues to suffer.


The Bush administration’s chief arguments for attacking Iraq were specious and dishonest from the day they were trotted out: Saddam was a cruel dictator oppressing his people like no other in the world (no, there were others who were equally bad: in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia); Saddam was a psychopath who possessed weapons of mass destruction which he was about to deploy at any moment against civilian populations in neighbouring countries (a complete lie — Iraq had no such weapons, and Saddam was far too logically fond of his own skin to launch such weapons and invite destruction, especially when everyone could see the firepower that had been unleashed upon nearby Afghanistan). Whether it was the lust for complete hegemony over a troublesome chunk of the world or the greed for Iraqi oil or both, George Bush and Tony Blair, the British prime minister, supported by Australia, Poland and Spain sent in their armies on March 20, 2003.


What followed was predictable. The ‘war’ was over within a few weeks, the Iraqi military overwhelmed and dismantled in rapid time, with a smugly grinning Bush unfurling a banner on one of his aircraft carriers proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished’. As one saw the coverage of this crude triumphalism, a replying banner unfurled in the minds of many viewers: ‘Hey pal? You’re so tempting fate.’ Upon inspection of suspected sites, it was revealed that Iraq never did possess any chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction. Further revelations showed how various American and British intelligence agencies had knowingly participated in perpetrating fraudulent scare-mongering among their politicians and the general public. The Coalition forces proved completely unequal to containing the various Iraqi factions. A bloody tapestry of civil wars broke out and spilled over the Iraqi borders into Syria and Turkey. Local Islamo-fascist forces metastasized into Daesh aka ISIS, a terrorist outfit that made al Qaida look mild in comparison. Iran’s ruling establishment benefited hugely from this exploded cesspit and strengthened its position domestically and in the region.


Till date, a full 18 years after the launch of the so-called ‘shock and awe’ campaign, American troops are still mired in the quicksands of Afghanistan and Iraq. Among the roll call of the US generals who, one by one, took command of the failing operation in Iraq was one General Lloyd Austin who had won a Silver Star during the initial invasion. As to the name given to the invasion, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, people are still arguing about how to define and put numbers to the body count of Iraqi civilians, with the contesting figures of death being in lakhs — hundreds of thousands — with one survey suggesting over one million violent deaths till the year 2007.  


History is a card-sharp, constantly bamboozling you with concurrent card-shuffling in different places. One of the immediate fall-outs of 9/11 was that it unleashed hate against Muslim populations the world over, also helping cold-eyed operators to put into motion long-desired pogroms against their Muslim minorities. In that sense, the allegedly planned killings of Gujarati Muslims between the late February and May of 2002 can be seen as a direct gift from Osama bin Laden to Hindutva forces in India. By the time the war-hungry politicians in Washington and London were readying the massive ordinance that would kill lakhs of innocents in Iraq and its environs, the first anniversary of Godhra and the violence that began with the torching of the train carriage there had just passed. As with the Bush cabal’s Iraq agenda, you did not need a doctorate in political science from Harvard to see the writing on the wall in Gujarat. The cases against the perpetrators of the 2002 violence against Muslims were either caught up in interminable blockages, the first information reports missing or mis-recorded, or they had been sabotaged by various investigative authorities. The Muslims who had been fire-bombed out of their houses and businesses were still trapped in camps or newly burgeoning ghettos labelled ‘mini-Pakistan’ with no hope of any redressal or compensation. Police officers and civil service officials who produced testimony critical of the state government had been punitively sidelined and disabled. The local media in Gujarat were now operating under a huge pall of fear. Businesses and factories that continued to employ Muslims received threatening calls: ‘We are watching. Why is that Muslim worker still coming to your office?’ The Gujarat Model was by now firmly in place.


Looking back to that moment 18 years ago, the shock and awe come from remembering that there were actually apologists for the Iraq invasion among the liberal left commentariat. Conversely, there is no shock or doubt about this: after Gujarat, any political commentator outside the sanghi camp who had anything but deep dismay and trepidation about Narendra Modi becoming prime minister was either ludicrously naive or writing in some perverse bad faith, allowing the revulsion for the Congress to blind him/her to the much greater danger to the Republic and the Constitution.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Restoring nature (The Telegraph)

Wikimedia Commons

Mahesh Rangarajan   

We live in an Age of Extinction. Halting the extinction of species and protecting the diversity of life are widely seen as the premier environmental challenges of our times.


 In this effort, India is a key arena and the site of new attempts. This may not be evident at first sight for this is a country with over 400 humans to a square kilometre. Over half the land is under the plough or, rather, the tractor.


Over the last half a century, more than five per cent of the landmass has been brought under some form of State protection as park or sanctuary or conservation area. Much larger areas still harbour a rich variety of life forms.


In the recent past, there have also been efforts to go beyond preserving ecosystems to restoring them. Prominent among these are steps to restore populations of wild birds or animals to parts of their former range. In a recent book, Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature, Bahar Dutt catalogues a range of such initiatives. One of the most significant of these initiatives concerns the world’s smallest (and most handsome) wild pigs — the pygmy hog. Over the last quarter of a century, more than 100 of these animals have been bred at a centre near Guwahati and released into three sanctuaries.


Goutam Narayan is a veteran ecologist of the wet grasslands who oversaw and led the project for much of this time. He faced a common question in all such schemes. Is there habitat that can serve as secure home?


The pygmy hog — it has had a precarious existence — had been considered extinct and was even ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s. Much of its extensive grassland home from Assam to Bhutan has been cleared. There are sanctuaries for the state animal of Assam, the greater one-horned rhino, where the small wild pig has found refuge. The rhino was, in conservation parlance, the umbrella species. Reserves created in its name sheltered other lesser-known creatures.


But to make it easier to hunt game or to herd cattle, many managers of grassland light fires before the rains. These may have suited large herbivores that flee the fire and return later. But the fires were fatal to pygmy hogs in many areas.


The return of the pygmy hog has helped us learn much more about the ecology of fire in the grasslands. The answer is not to abolish it but to control it. For the tapestry of life to be complete, it needs mending: the return of even this small mammal is a step in the right direction.


More recently, the debate on the re-introduction of the cheetah has taken a new turn. The last cheetahs vanished — as was shown by Divyabhanusinh — as recently as 1967. The usual narrative places their extinction in 1947 when Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo shot dead three specimens. But possibly the latest records of its sightings were from 1967 and 1968 from Surguja district. At the time of writing, experts from South Africa and Namibia are to arrive shortly to advise on how best to re-introduce a few cheetahs to protected areas of grassland and scrub jungle.


There is here a commonality between the pygmy hog and the cheetah: both are mainly inhabitants of grasslands, not dense forests. This, in itself, makes it worth following through with such efforts.


Nature conservation in India was taken up on a war-footing around half a century ago. The tiger was the poster symbol of a nationwide effort to secure habitats and species. The vanishing tiger and the dwindling forest were the two dimensions to the government effort. Project Tiger was launched in 1973. A year before that, new legislation to protect wildlife was enacted at the Union level. In 1980, the Forest (Conservation) Act was put in place.


Today, over 160,000 square kilometres are under sanctuaries and parks. There are more than 50 tiger reserves. It is not surprising that forests were the centre of attention. Therein lies a problem. Much of

the focus in the British era was on securing forests for timber. The major works, including the great magnum opus by Harry G. Champion and S.K. Seth, saw the country in terms of different forest types.


New research led by Jayashree Ratnam from Bengaluru has re-looked at the records. She also examined pollen samples and other material remains and came to a new conclusion. Much of India — mainly in the Deccan, the Northwest and the North — was not densely forested in historic times. It was grassland and scrub jungle. The ecology and the diversity of these tracts have been much harmed by the expansion of cultivation, human settlements and mining. Their protection and restoration should be a priority.


As with fire in Assam’s grassland sanctuaries, there may be space for some human presence and use. But the study and care of the fauna and the flora of these dry and wet grasslands are the major challenges of our times. The flora and the fauna and the cycles of nature apart, they may be even more crucial as sites of study in times of rapid climate shifts.


There is little doubt that bringing back a locally extinct species can pose challenges at a human and a scientific level. The return of the wolf to the Yellowstone National Park in the United States of America faced strong opposition from ranches adjacent to the park. Labelling the predator “Saddam Hussein of the Animal World”, the ranchers of Wyoming and Montana pledged to shoot them on sight. After extensive dialogue, wolf-recovery teams were put in place for packs that entered private lands. Such initiatives may be even more critical in India where restoration entails the return of large predators. Cheetahs  may prey on domestic livestock and engender conflict.


One key feature of many grasslands, both in semi-arid and high-rainfall zones, is that they are grazing grounds for cattle, goats and sheep. There is much debate on how many livestock are too many. Ecologists often point to overgrazing of the grass and the shrubs; anthropologists record co-habitation of wild plants and animals with pastoralists. The challenge is that exclusive nature protection zones with no extraction of biomass are bound to be rare. However extensive, they will still have wild animals moving in and out and some livestock grazing within. This calls for systems to redress the loss of amenity for the people as well as protection for the predator.


Keeping spaces for nature intact was the key challenge half a century ago. Now restoration may well be a key word. Bringing back stable breeding populations in biologically productive habitats will not be

easy. But it is a challenge worth taking up. Restoration is a small step. Restoring the fabric of nature may unleash new, creative energies.


The author teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Restoring nature (The Telegraph)

Wikimedia Commons

Mahesh Rangarajan  

We live in an Age of Extinction. Halting the extinction of species and protecting the diversity of life are widely seen as the premier environmental challenges of our times.


 In this effort, India is a key arena and the site of new attempts. This may not be evident at first sight for this is a country with over 400 humans to a square kilometre. Over half the land is under the plough or, rather, the tractor.


Over the last half a century, more than five per cent of the landmass has been brought under some form of State protection as park or sanctuary or conservation area. Much larger areas still harbour a rich variety of life forms.


In the recent past, there have also been efforts to go beyond preserving ecosystems to restoring them. Prominent among these are steps to restore populations of wild birds or animals to parts of their former range. In a recent book, Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature, Bahar Dutt catalogues a range of such initiatives. One of the most significant of these initiatives concerns the world’s smallest (and most handsome) wild pigs — the pygmy hog. Over the last quarter of a century, more than 100 of these animals have been bred at a centre near Guwahati and released into three sanctuaries.


Goutam Narayan is a veteran ecologist of the wet grasslands who oversaw and led the project for much of this time. He faced a common question in all such schemes. Is there habitat that can serve as secure home?


The pygmy hog — it has had a precarious existence — had been considered extinct and was even ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s. Much of its extensive grassland home from Assam to Bhutan has been cleared. There are sanctuaries for the state animal of Assam, the greater one-horned rhino, where the small wild pig has found refuge. The rhino was, in conservation parlance, the umbrella species. Reserves created in its name sheltered other lesser-known creatures.


But to make it easier to hunt game or to herd cattle, many managers of grassland light fires before the rains. These may have suited large herbivores that flee the fire and return later. But the fires were fatal to pygmy hogs in many areas.


The return of the pygmy hog has helped us learn much more about the ecology of fire in the grasslands. The answer is not to abolish it but to control it. For the tapestry of life to be complete, it needs mending: the return of even this small mammal is a step in the right direction.


More recently, the debate on the re-introduction of the cheetah has taken a new turn. The last cheetahs vanished — as was shown by Divyabhanusinh — as recently as 1967. The usual narrative places their extinction in 1947 when Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo shot dead three specimens. But possibly the latest records of its sightings were from 1967 and 1968 from Surguja district. At the time of writing, experts from South Africa and Namibia are to arrive shortly to advise on how best to re-introduce a few cheetahs to protected areas of grassland and scrub jungle.


There is here a commonality between the pygmy hog and the cheetah: both are mainly inhabitants of grasslands, not dense forests. This, in itself, makes it worth following through with such efforts.


Nature conservation in India was taken up on a war-footing around half a century ago. The tiger was the poster symbol of a nationwide effort to secure habitats and species. The vanishing tiger and the dwindling forest were the two dimensions to the government effort. Project Tiger was launched in 1973. A year before that, new legislation to protect wildlife was enacted at the Union level. In 1980, the Forest (Conservation) Act was put in place.


Today, over 160,000 square kilometres are under sanctuaries and parks. There are more than 50 tiger reserves. It is not surprising that forests were the centre of attention. Therein lies a problem. Much of

the focus in the British era was on securing forests for timber. The major works, including the great magnum opus by Harry G. Champion and S.K. Seth, saw the country in terms of different forest types.


New research led by Jayashree Ratnam from Bengaluru has re-looked at the records. She also examined pollen samples and other material remains and came to a new conclusion. Much of India — mainly in the Deccan, the Northwest and the North — was not densely forested in historic times. It was grassland and scrub jungle. The ecology and the diversity of these tracts have been much harmed by the expansion of cultivation, human settlements and mining. Their protection and restoration should be a priority.


As with fire in Assam’s grassland sanctuaries, there may be space for some human presence and use. But the study and care of the fauna and the flora of these dry and wet grasslands are the major challenges of our times. The flora and the fauna and the cycles of nature apart, they may be even more crucial as sites of study in times of rapid climate shifts.


There is little doubt that bringing back a locally extinct species can pose challenges at a human and a scientific level. The return of the wolf to the Yellowstone National Park in the United States of America faced strong opposition from ranches adjacent to the park. Labelling the predator “Saddam Hussein of the Animal World”, the ranchers of Wyoming and Montana pledged to shoot them on sight. After extensive dialogue, wolf-recovery teams were put in place for packs that entered private lands. Such initiatives may be even more critical in India where restoration entails the return of large predators. Cheetahs  may prey on domestic livestock and engender conflict.


One key feature of many grasslands, both in semi-arid and high-rainfall zones, is that they are grazing grounds for cattle, goats and sheep. There is much debate on how many livestock are too many. Ecologists often point to overgrazing of the grass and the shrubs; anthropologists record co-habitation of wild plants and animals with pastoralists. The challenge is that exclusive nature protection zones with no extraction of biomass are bound to be rare. However extensive, they will still have wild animals moving in and out and some livestock grazing within. This calls for systems to redress the loss of amenity for the people as well as protection for the predator.


Keeping spaces for nature intact was the key challenge half a century ago. Now restoration may well be a key word. Bringing back stable breeding populations in biologically productive habitats will not be

easy. But it is a challenge worth taking up. Restoration is a small step. Restoring the fabric of nature may unleash new, creative energies.


The author teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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The Midas touch (The Telegraph)

Veda Gallery, Chennai

Gopalkrishna Gandhi  

‘What is happening to Bengal?’ The question is heard often enough now, in these election times. But there is more to it than we might imagine. It does not ask what is happening in Bengal. It asks what is happening to it. And that ‘to’ says it all.


Something, the question implies, is changing Bengal, changing it forever. The Bangla word, paribartan, means change or, in a more immediate sense, a replacement. It had been brought into dramatic play during the elections 10 years ago when Mamata Banerjee wrested power from the Left Front. It is now being deployed in a counter challenge to her decade-old incumbency. The challenge of change is certainly in the Bengal air.


 ‘Who would have thought’, the questioner continues, ‘... that the land of the brightest spiritual luminosity... the highest intellect... tallest science... greatest literature... noblest politics’ would become the site of fractious animosities breaking into a collective din?’



And goes on: ‘Who would have thought that this land of stalwart patriots... of men and women of unsurpassable stature... economists of world class... lawyers of unrivalled ability... political leaders of vision and integrity... administrators of exemplary efficiency... would lurch into... into... this?’


‘Who would have thought that in Vivekananda’s, Tagore’s and Subhas Bose’s Bengal abuse, belligerence and cunning would try to spell the a b c of its culture, its life?’


Who indeed.


Let me state at this point in my reflection that the imminent election in the state is not what this article is about. I am not on the question, ‘Who is going to form the next government in Calcutta?’ The issue that concerns me is: will the quality of the present ‘air’ in Bengal hurt the purity of its lungs, the rhythms of its heart, the delicacy of its soul?


Even as Bengal is a unit, one of 36, comprising the Union of India, it is something of an entity in itself. Does not every province feel that about itself? Of course it does, and is entitled to. But even other parts of India would acknowledge that history has made Bengal the palladium of India’s thinking and feeling mind. And in that distinct role, Bengal is bigger than its worst crisis, greater than its toughest challenge. It has it in its being to withstand all conditions of decay, debilitation and even of death — whether in economic organization, social custom or in the largest theatre of life.


Take the life of agriculture in Bengal — its very life-breath. The province’s peasant-life had, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, become a theatre of distress telescoping into disaster. At the time of the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which, coinciding with the Bengali year, 1176, had come to be known by the chilling name of Chiyattorer Monnontor; anything between 2 and 10 million died of starvation and disease in the province. From the so-called Permanent Settlement of Cornwallis (1793) through to and beyond the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, rural Bengal suffered an unrelieved loss of skill, energy and hope. But did Bengal, as a whole, wither away? It did not. A steadily growing peasants’ movement culminated, post-Independence, in the unveiling of land reforms with the Left Front government of Jyoti Basu launching, in 1978, Operation Barga, which lifted share-croppers from their immiseration to a new life as bargadars. The scheme has not been without problems, controversy. But even its critics recognize it as one of the most successful examples of agrarian intervention not just in India but the world.


The greatly debilitated agrarian ‘air’ that seemed to have doomed the province’s lungs to collapse did not change Bengal. Bengal changed that ‘air’.


Social custom can incubate barbaric practices. Bengal had followed much of India in one such outrageous, hideous practice — sati, the burning of ‘widows’. Many, if not most, of them were very young, child marriage being then the norm. But an enraged and enlightened Rammohan Roy’s counter-flare of opposition shook public and official conscience on the matter as nothing else had, leading to the practice being banned in 1829. That counter-flare of Bengal did not stop there. It spurred a succession of gender-based legislation even in those benighted pre-Independence times — the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856, the Female Infanticide Prevention Act of 1870 and the Age of Consent Act of 1891 followed.



The shaming custom, which spelt nothing less than death for its women, could not singe Bengal; Bengal exorcised it.


The raj’s brazen policy of ‘divide and rule’ saw Bengal physically partitioned by Lord Curzon into East and West in 1905. Did Bengal capitulate? It did not, launching an impassioned movement against the division with a boycotting of British goods and institutions at its core, thereby stunning the raj. Abanindranath Tagore’s great painting made that year of Bangamata, later named Bharat Mata, symbolized the province’s fervent rejection of the division.



With Lord Curzon’s partition being annulled by Lord Hardinge in 1911, the threat to the province’s political integrity was reversed by Bengal.


‘But’, the reader might — ought to — say, ‘the partition did happen, after all.’ Sure, it did.  Bengal could not over-ride the demand for Pakistan based on the Two-Nation Theory proclaimed by the All India Muslim League and several ideologues of a Hindu rashtra. The Radcliffe Line’s eastern flank cut through Bengal in 1947, creating an East and West out of it, once again.


In the white heat of that trauma, a Gujarati named Mohandas, traversed the lengths of what was becoming East Pakistan with the anthropologist, Nirmal Kumar Bose, and a chosen few speaking — and, yes, singing — of the courage of a loner’s conviction in Tagore’s Ekla Chalo Re, and of Hindu-Muslim unity in the Hindi hymn, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram. In the Noakhali village of Paniala, the largely Muslim gathering at his prayer meeting began, demurringly, to disperse as that ode to Ram commenced. Manu, his grand niece thought, quite impromptu, to introduce into its singing a new line — Ishvar Allah Tere Nam. Those who had started to leave returned with a receptive curiosity if not conviction. Some months later, in Calcutta, as post-Partition rioting erupted, he fasted in expiation and by his readiness to die for harmony in Bengal; he stilled the carnage.


Bengal could not stop its partitioning but it drew the poison out of that deep cut.


On January 30, 1948, in New Delhi, as Mohandas sank to the ground with Ram on his lips, his grandniece-in-law, Abha, a daughter of Bengal, reflexively held his head in her hands. Who fell, what held?


In 1971, Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana, identified as a national anthem of free India by Subhas Bose and later so enthroned, was joined by another composition of Tagore’s — Amar Sonar Bangla — as the national anthem of the new nation, Bangladesh. Two scores, one music.


Somnath Hore, the great sculptor, has made an amazing bronze ‘head’ of Tagore. I was working at The Nehru Centre in London in 1995 when Jyoti Basu, the then chief minister of West Bengal and then minister for culture, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, graciously sent it for permanent display there. When I opened the consignment, it seemed to me to be a confusing tangle of scrap. But seeing it a little later, from a certain distance, it stunned me. Tagore was looking at me, in the perfection of his indefinable intensity and calm, his hollowed eyes showing pain and an understanding and an overcoming of that pain. It was the truest Tagore head made in the foundry of art, of Bengal, of conscience, the everlasting a b c.


Bengal can look confused and confusing. But looked at with attention, it confounds confusion.


Bengal alters that which seeks to alter Bengal.


Slowly at times, but surely always.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Positive paradox (The Telegraph)


Asim Ali  

In three of the five states going for polls in the latest round of elections, a Muslim party would be contesting a large chunk of seats as part of a larger secular alliance. In Assam (the Congress-Left-AIUDF alliance) and West Bengal (the Congress-Left-ISF alliance), this represents an entirely new pattern of political configuration, while in Kerala (the Congress-IUML alliance) this is part of the long-established political norm. We are witnessing an interesting paradox of an unprecedented acceptance of autonomous Muslim political parties at the height of the Hindutva dominance of India.


What are the driving forces of the diverse Muslim political parties of India? At the outset, we can point to three fundamental political developments that have structured Muslim party politics over the last two decades.


One, the publication of the Sachar Committee report, which provided the political vocabulary for Muslim parties to launch an attack on their secular competitors. The damning picture of the social and economic backwardness of Muslims under secular regimes constructed the legitimating framework for the organizing of Muslims as a political bloc. It laid the rationale for a separate political identity that could be formed in the modern terms of social justice and derived itself from the constitutional promise of social and economic equality.



Two, the rise of Hindutva as the dominant political force in the country, and the concurrent decline in the political representation of Muslims. While Muslims are rarely, if ever, fielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party, even secular parties have cut down on their tickets to Muslims out of fear of Hindu consolidation. In the most recent instance, the Trinamul Congress has cut down its Muslim candidates by a third from 2016. Hindutva dominance has also created a shared consciousness of oppression among Muslims cutting across regional, caste, class and gender divides. This shared consciousness not just animated the nationwide anti-CAA movement  but has also helped a party like the AIMIM expand its national footprint, as was witnessed in Bihar and Gujarat. However, as the cold-blooded out-turfing of the AIMIM from the electoral arena of Bengal by the ISF has demonstrated, Muslim politics is still largely conducted through a regional idiom by state-based parties.


Three, the weakness of former dominant secular parties has pushed them into a more accommodationist stance with regard to autonomous political parties of the states. It would have been unthinkable a decade back to imagine the staunchly secular Left Front in alliance with a Muslim party in Bengal, or the Congress in Assam allying with the same AIUDF it ruthlessly attacked under Tarun Gogoi.


Within this analytically sprawling category of ‘Muslim parties’, we can draw out three distinct strands of Muslim politics, which can help us understand both the driving force of contemporary Muslim politics as well as gauge its possible future courses.


The first strand of Muslim politics is represented by the mainstream communitarian party which mobilizes on the provision of public goods by being part of the governing regime, exemplified by the Indian Union Muslim League. This form of Muslim politics has been facilitated by the consociationalism of the politics of Kerala, which integrates communitarian parties into two broad coalitions. The IUML has played a critical role in state politics since the formation of the state in 1956, being part of coalition governments of both the Left parties and the Congress. It has, in recent times, consistently won around twenty seats of the state legislature with the help of some additional support base of its allies. The resolute pragmatism of the IUML can be gauged from its stand on continuing with the Congress alliance in the heated post-Babri Masjid phase, despite facing an open rebellion by a faction which blamed the Congress for the demolition of the mosque. The appeal of the IUML thus depends on its bargaining power with the ruling alliance in providing Muslims with representation in all spheres of public life.


The second strand of Muslim politics is represented by the isolationist identity-based party which mobilizes in opposition to the existing political system. The All India United Democratic Front led by Badruddin Ajmal is a good example. The party arose in the aftermath of the Supreme Court order in 2005 overturning the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983. The reversal of this instrument — which lent a layer of legal protection to Bengali Muslims — fuelled the anxieties of this community that the Congress could no longer protect them, either from the violence of Assamese ethno-nationalists or from the harassment of state officials. This type of party builds its popular base by attacking its secular competitor and weaning away their support base. In its first election in 2006, the AIUDF wrested ten Muslim-dominated assembly seats from the Congress.


However, there are limits to this exclusive identity-based mobilization. One, in the absence of coalition partners, the party is susceptible to reverse communal polarization of Hindu votes. The performance of the AIUDF in the 2016 assembly elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections showed a marked downward trajectory as the BJP ascended to pole position on the back of Hindu consolidation. Second, the AIUDF is unable to present itself as a viable party of government that can effectively bargain for public goods on behalf of its constituents. This is particularly important for Muslim-dominated areas of lower Assam which are marred by poverty, lack of educational facilities and under-development. The coalition with the Congress indicates that the AIUDF is attempting a transition from an isolationist identity-based mobilization to an IUML-like political bargaining-based mobilization.


The third strand of Muslim politics is represented by a new class of political parties which have emerged against the backdrop of the Sachar Committee report. These parties’ articulate Muslim identity in terms of socio-economic backwardness, allying with other backward groups, and moving beyond the issues of security and cultural recognition that formed the core of an earlier generation of Muslim parties. The Uttar Pradesh-based Peace Party of India is a quintessential exemplar of this politics, taking birth in 2008 just in the aftermath of the release of the Sachar report. It quickly established a base among the backward Ansari weavers of eastern UP, bagging four seats in the 2012 elections. Its surgeon founder, Mohammad Ayub, blasted secular parties for ignoring the material needs of Muslims since Independence, claiming that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance “avoids even discussing the Justice Sachar Committee report”. Meanwhile, he accused the Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh, of mobilizing Muslims by giving “inflammatory speeches in favour of the Muslims” and provoking them into conflict. However, the eclipse of the Peace Party post 2014 exposes the vulnerability of such parties to extreme communal polarization. Recently, its leadership and support base in UP has been appropriated by the more strident AIMIM.  


The newly formed Indian Secular Front can also be broadly seen as the lagged outcome of this post-Sachar mobilization. The publication of the Sachar Committee report had perhaps the greatest political ramifications in Bengal as it contributed to the decisive shift of the Muslim vote away from the Left Front to the TMC. Despite the careful nurturing of this Muslim vote by Mamata Banerjee, Bengali Muslims continue to lag behind in social and economic indicators compared to Muslims of other states. It is this opening that has been exploited by Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, whose focal point of attack on the TMC government remains the socio-economic backwardness of Muslims. In order to underline its inclusive credentials of social justice, the ISF has given ten out of its 21 seats to backward-caste Hindus and adivasis.


The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which generates the most headlines of any Muslim party, is a hybrid of all these three types of Muslim parties. In its home state of Telangana, it enters a bargaining alliance with the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi; in Parliament and other national forums, it predominantly employs a Sachar Committee-derived vocabulary of social justice; while in its election rallies in greenfield states it often falls back on hot-button identity-based issues to outflank competing secular parties. Being the only Muslim party to nurture national ambitions, it is extremely fleet-footed and aware of different political contexts.


The argument between secular and Muslim parties on the matter of who constitutes the true representatives of Muslim citizens has been encoded in the very foundation of our Republic. After all, the genesis of the Partition lay in the unrelenting refusal of the Congress to legitimize an increasingly separatist Muslim League as the voice and protector of the Muslims of British India. The Congress, notwithstanding its overwhelmingly Hindu leadership, never conceded on its cherished ideological principle of representing Indians of all religions and ethnicities. The newly-found acceptance of autonomous Muslim parties within an enlarged (and more nuanced) secular framework is thus a welcome signal of the maturing of our secular imagination. It couldn’t have come at a more urgent time.


The author is a political columnist and research associate with the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Friday, March 19, 2021

Emerging patterns (The Telegraph)

Paul Krugman   

In 1957, Isaac Asimov published The Naked Sun, a science-fiction novel about a society in which people live on isolated estates, their needs provided by robots, and they interact only by video. The plot hinges on the way this lack of face-to-face contact stunts and warps their personalities.


After a year in which those of us who could worked from home — albeit served by less fortunate humans rather than robots — that sounds about right. But how will we live once the pandemic subsides?


Of course, nobody really knows. But maybe our speculation can be informed by some historical parallels and models.


First, it seems safe to predict that we won’t fully return to the way we used to live and work.


A year of isolation has, in effect, provided remote work with a classic case of infant industry protection, a concept usually associated with international trade policy that was first systematically laid out by none other than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton asserted that there were many industries that could flourish in the young United States of America but couldn’t get off the ground in the face of imports. Given a break from competition, for example through temporary tariffs, these industries could acquire enough experience and technological sophistication to become competitive.


The infant industry argument has always been tricky as a basis for policy — how do you know when it’s valid? And do you trust governments to make that determination? But the pandemic, by temporarily making our former work habits impossible, has clearly made us much better at exploiting the possibilities of remote work, and some of what we used to do — long commutes so we can sit in cubicles, constant flying to meetings of dubious value — won’t be coming back.


If history is any guide, however, much of our old way of working and living will, in fact, return.


Here’s a parallel: what the internet did and didn’t do to the way we read books.


A decade ago, many observers believed that both physical books and the bookstores that sold them were on the verge of extinction. And some of what they predicted came to pass: e-readers took a significant share of the market, and major bookstore chains took a significant financial hit.


But e-books’ popularity plateaued around the middle of the last decade, never coming close to overtaking physical books. And while big chains have suffered, independent bookstores have actually been flourishing.


Why was the reading revolution so limited? The convenience of downloading e-books is obvious. But for many readers this convenience is offset by subtler factors. The experience of reading a physical book is different and, for many, more enjoyable than reading e-ink. And browsing a bookstore is also a different experience from purchasing online. I like to say that online, I can find any book I’m looking for; in fact, I downloaded a copy of The Naked Sun a few hours before writing this article. But what I find in a bookstore, especially a well-curated independent store, are books I wasn’t looking for but end up treasuring.


The remote work revolution will probably play out similarly, but on a much vaster scale.


The advantages of remote work — either from home or, possibly, in small offices located far from dense urban areas — are obvious. Both living and work spaces are much cheaper; commutes are short or non-existent; you no longer need to deal with the expense and discomfort of formal businesswear, at least from the waist down.


The advantages of going back to in-person work will, by contrast, be relatively subtle — the pay-offs from face-to-face communication, the serendipity that can come from unscheduled interactions, the amenities of urban life.


But these subtle advantages are, in fact, what drive the economies of modern cities — and until Covid-19 struck these advantages were feeding a growing economic divergence between large, highly-educated metropolitan areas and the rest of the country. The rise of remote work may dent that trend, but it probably won’t reverse it.


The revival of cities won’t be entirely a pretty process; much of it will probably reflect the preferences of wealthy Americans who want big-city luxuries and glamour. “The main problem with moving to Florida is that you have to live in Florida,” one money manager told Bloomberg. But while cities thrive in part because they cater to the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous — like it or not, their wealth and power do a lot to shape the economy — cities also thrive because a lot of information-sharing and brainstorming takes place over coffee breaks and after-hours beers; Zoom calls aren’t an adequate substitute.


Or as the great Victorian economist, Alfred Marshall, said of his own era’s technology centres: “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air...”


So the best bet is that life and work in, say, 2023 will look a lot like life and work in 2019, but a bit less so. We may commute to the office less than we used to; there may well be a glut of urban office space. But most of us won’t be able to stay very far from the madding crowd.


New York Times News Service.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Snafu season (The Telegraph)

Shiv Visvanathan  

Elections are usually seen as celebrations of democracy, as festivals of plurality that mark Indian culture. But the elections this year feel different — almost eventless — a burlesque of politics enacted as a reflex. Election time this year is eventless as history. All the incidents seem to be borrowed from earlier plots. If you mention violence, experts reply that it is an old habit, tracing its genealogy back to a different era.


The political scripts are also mediocre even if the challenge before us is ominous and devastating. We are facing the irony of an electoral democracy where the regime is destroying the very institutions that made democracy meaningful. In fact, there is a sense of continuity without vision. Probably the best example is the launching of the Central Vista project by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a celebration of monumentality without achievement, which I guess is Narendra Modi’s idea of a Parliament.


Instead of challenging the Haussmannic imperial idea of power present in Lutyens’ Delhi, Modi shows he is native to this imagination of power without responsibility. The elections in various states look like silent movies, without ideas, with each actor semaphoring his intention of holding on to power. One usually holds an election as a review of policy or a rethinking of power. One senses little of this in politics.



There is, as an acute observer told me confidentially, a surreal in the banal. Take Tamil Nadu’s case. The election looks like a revivalist cult centring on V.K. Sasikala and J. Jayalalithaa. It is more a tribute to the two corrupt matriarchs than an assessment of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The struggles seem pitifully local. There is no sense of big issues.


Politics in Bengal looks like a collection of vendettas. The ease with which politicians shift parties makes one wonder if loyalty and commitment are part of politics. Kerala seems more haunted by corruption. The BJP rescues E. Sreedharan from the mothballs of retirement, promising a new technocratic Ram rajya. It is eerie to watch a man with impeccable credentials succumb to the halo of power.


The entire electoral scene is built on the superficial, more a battle of identity and reservation politics than a contest involving serious debate on issues. There is an indifference, a lapse in memory, as if the vaccination was timed for the election, a sense that between vaccine and vote, India is returning to normal. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) pulls off one or two redeeming moments, too little and too late as it hosts a lot of student candidates and not its habitual gerontocratic club. As a friend wryly said, Covid-19 has had an impact at least here, as older people are seen as vulnerable. Frankly one does not see a vibrant India at the elections. It is more a voyeuristic India propping up local issues. The excitement of democracy and the magic of an open polity are sorely missing.


There is a word that soldiers in World War II coined for such a meaningless situation where activity presumes the normal but adds little to the meaning. They coined the word, SNAFU, an acronym that means ‘situation normal, all fouled up’. India conducts its elections as empty rituals over the glorious mess of institutions and governance it has decimated.


I want to highlight a few issues that worry me as an academic and a citizen. The election did not provide time or place to initiate civil society into the election process. There is no alternative to civil society activism given the emptiness of political parties. The Left sounds vacuous, and the Right increasingly pompous. The citizen has to reinvent a politics of ideas and institutions. At a crisis level, it has to immediately rehabilitate the three things that the regime has destroyed — civil society itself, the university as a microcosm of a knowledge society and the environment as a source of livelihood and a vision of diversity and ethics.


The idea of civil society needs to be revived as a source of diversity and plurality, as a nursery for ideas that the marginal and the minority can thrive on. Civil society has the political humus to create alternative imaginations when ideologies and technocracies dry up, becoming aridly repetitive. Civil society must challenge the simulacra of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that the BJP has propped up as its idea of community and civility. When the cadre pretend to be communities, one creates disciplines without normativeness, obedience without a sense of conscience. It is civil society that sustains plurality and the nation state. Civil society offers the fecundity of dissent, which no cadre or clerk can generate. It is in the potentialities of dissent that the Johnny Appleseeds of our future democracy will survive.


Once civil society becomes an organic entity, fertile with plural ideas, the citizen must strive to create a community of playful ideas from the adda to the panchayat to the university. Each is a critical institution that creates the fertility of debate and ideas. The character Amartya Sen called the Argumentative Indian should become a creative figure in all three theatres.


Sadly, the university has been emasculated by this regime while it hides its academic crimes behind the New Education Policy. The policy report turns knowledge into a giant tutorial college that even Macaulay would have loved, a secretariat for clerks when we desperately need new inventions.


The modern university has to be a place of experimentation. One invokes in this context not the current Santiniketan but the original Santiniketan that Rabindranath Tagore, Patrick Geddes and J.C. Bose conceived, a university which could carry out a dialogue of civilizations and disciplines in its search for a livelier holism. Only universities can maintain a dialogue of civilizations to challenge the uniformity of the nation state, which literally cannibalizes citizenship today.


Civil society has to create a new imagination around human rights rather than rest content with the idea of citizenship as it exists. One needs a concept that is more life-giving to the displaced, the defeated and the excluded. India’s silence over the Rohingya reflects the death of a civilization even as the nation state preens itself on its tactical handling of the Myanmar army.


The idea of environment has to be reworked beyond the current notion of nature as a commodity, a resource or a tourist spectacle. Like the Maori and as suggested by many leading scientists, nature must be represented in the Constitution in the full sense of the idea of the sacred and in terms of ecosystemic diversity for issues like livelihood to become legal, cognitive matters and for citizenship to become an inclusive dream of dwelling and hospitality tackling the politics of development and ethnicity.


Civil society in a more participative sense must add to the vitality of institution-building. It must create knowledge panchayats, which debate the issues of science, diversity and livelihood from different perspectives. Citizenship must challenge the obscurities of expertise more creatively while sensing the new uncertainties and complexities of knowledge. The silence around the coronavirus has to be worked into a series of participatory scenarios that make science more meaningful for citizenship. The recent farmers’ strike needs a different response from the regime and the civil society as the future of agriculture extends beyond the fate of any election. Whether in agriculture, education or public health, there is a need to create a science policy, which reworks the relations among knowledge, livelihood and democracy. The alleged ‘benign neglect’ of the farmers’ strike is an obscenity of attitudes democracy must avoid. Civil society through its involvement must atone for the indifference of the regime.


Finally, one has to confront the levels of violence in our society and create institutions that can work creatively around these problems. Sadly, our democracy has lost its sense of civilization and its short-term memory of violence over the last two decades. An information society that specializes in erasure and surveillance is the last thing India needs.


This range of challenges before us shows that elections have turned cosmetic. We need new forms of institution-building where new ideas as alternatives are worked out. A non-violent society needs a satyagrahi in law, science and governance who adds constructive work to protest for democracy to be playful and inventive again. The Stalins, the Mamatas, the Modis, the Amit Shahs add little to the imagination or to the future of Indian democracy. It needs a different set of dreamers with a different quality of conscience. Current politics is too impoverished to provide it. The Party must return to civil society to re-educate itself.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

Age of reckoning (The Telegraph)

Aniruddh Nigam    

In February 2021, Facebook briefly banned all news content in Australia. Australian users were restricted from posting or viewing news content on its platform. The company also deployed tools to scrub its platform of links to content by the Australian press. This unprecedented move sparked a global conversation about the grand narratives of digital sovereignty and big tech. Yet, the issue at the heart of this conflict has escaped deeper scrutiny.


Facebook took the step as a reaction to Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. The Code, among other things, requires large platforms to negotiate commercial terms with Australian news publishers for showing their content and to pay publishers for their content shared on the platform. Facebook opposed this, claiming that the Code misunderstands the relationship between its platform and publishers. Subsequent negotiations have ended the stand-off — the ability to view news content was restored by Facebook in exchange for changes to the law conceded by the Australian government.


 Why did the issue of sharing advertising revenue with news publishers lead to this high-stakes Westphalian drama? One must reckon with the state of the media industry to answer this. Media houses have grappled with an existential economic threat in the last decade, given the costs of producing high quality-journalism. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated this frailty in the Indian context, with many reports of newsroom closures and job losses. In this context, the business model of news, the rationale for revenue sharing and the political facts emerging from this conflict are key to evaluating what this means for the future of news.


Public interest in high-quality journalism arguably makes it a public good, lending to its eternal challenge of developing a sustainable business model. Despite its nature as a public good, asking governments to play a direct role in financing the press is like leaving the sheep in the wolf’s care. Financial control by government strikes at the inherent tension between the State and the press in the liberal democratic set-up given the role of the press in critically examining government policy.


 An alternative is asking readers to pay for news. This, too, is a partial solution at best. Subscriptions create financial barriers to access, excluding large segments of the population. Further, most digital subscriptions are priced outside the common man’s reach, in addition to the practical hassle of obtaining multiple subscriptions. The traditional answer to this conundrum is to rely on advertising. This led to the development of a model where revenue from advertising cross-subsidized the readers who paid only a nominal amount. In doing so, advertising emerged as a way of financing the production of news without relying on government support or burdening readers.


 With the emergence of social media platforms and improvements in targeting algorithms, advertisers have obvious reasons to prefer advertising digitally through advertising services offered by these platforms as opposed to engaging publishers individually. It is here that things get tricky. Publishers say they do not get a fair share of digital advertising revenue generated through their content. This is attributed to the market power of advertising platforms like Facebook and Google that intermediate publisher-advertiser interaction and, together, control nearly 60 per cent of the digital ad market. Publishers state that this makes them unavoidable trading partners, with asymmetrical bargaining power in negotiations, if any, on terms of advertising and revenue sharing.


The central question then becomes: in the digital era, who should pay for news? Governments cannot be trusted to finance the very people who are supposed to criticize them. Readers, largely, cannot afford subscriptions and, in any case, subscription-led models deny access to news to the indigent. Advertising revenues, on the other hand, are not reaching publishers.


The solution proposed by the Australian government is to require platforms like Facebook and Google to agree to terms for sharing advertising revenue with news publishers subject to binding arbitration. In essence, this is intended to ensure that a fair and equitable share of advertising revenue reaches the publisher.


The logos of requiring revenue sharing is that Facebook and Google are unavoidable trading partners and set the terms of digital advertising. This makes it impossible for publishers to negotiate fair terms. The Code creates a structure for negotiations to address this imbalance. This is bolstered by the ethos of requiring revenue sharing, which holds these platforms accountable to their claim of establishing new ‘global public spheres’. As per this argument, the unique position of operating the global public sphere comes with responsibilities, which safeguard public interest. This includes enduring limitations on private profit for the sustenance of an important public good. The pathos is supplied by the narrative of the slow death of print media, emergence of global tech monopolies, and journalism as a central facet of democratic processes.


While some reservations to the Code are well-founded, it would be premature to treat them as fatal flaws. Many, including Facebook, state that the Code misunderstands the impact of platforms, which do not ‘leech’ ad revenue but instead amplify content and increase traffic, benefiting publishers. This is empirically true. At the same time, platforms like Facebook are complex and perform many functions. An appreciation of the distribution-function of social media platforms (which is user-driven and free) should not mean ignoring market failures or asymmetries in their advertising-function (which is provided as a paid service).


Others argue the law only benefits legacy media houses with obsolete business models, preventing new business models from emerging. The business model of legacy media outlets may not sustain in the long run, and a shift towards decentralized freelancer-led models of journalism may be the future. This should not gloss over the fact that legacy media houses currently employ a substantial number of ‘on the ground’ journalists. Worsening economic health of the media industry risks not only job losses for these journalists but also affects journalistic output in this transitional period. To sacrifice the sustainability of high-quality journalism at the altar of a romantic vision of the internet would be to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.


The power imbalance between publishers and platforms is not the only imbalance, which has come to light over the past month. Many describe Facebook’s actions in Australia as the successful ransoming of a sovereign State. When Facebook carried out its threat of disabling access to news content for the citizenry of an entire nation, it arguably crossed the Rubicon in terms of its relationships with sovereign States.


Governments across the world are waking up not just to the tremendous power that platforms wield over people but also to the unsophisticated nature of their own regulatory toolkits. A likely consequence is a cascade of regulations across the world, as governments try to protect themselves from similar reactions by platforms. For many, sovereignty is under direct threat from unaccountable tech platforms that can dictate the well-being of an entire citizenry. Considering the way in which Facebook lashed out at the Australian law, this is not far from the truth.


As governments create laws cutting at the heels of big tech but framed in their constituents’ interest, we are likely to see many more rounds of sparring between these giants. In this, Australia is not alone. There are reports of the Indian prime minister “discuss[ing] the progress” on the Code with his Australian counterpart. The Indian Newspaper Society, an industry body of legacy media houses, has already written to Google seeking 85 per cent of advertising revenue generated from their content.


In many ways, this is an age of reckoning for big tech. Platforms like Facebook may be Goliaths in negotiations with news publishers but we are yet to see if they can stand up to sovereign States with comparable effectiveness. If the source material is anything to go by — in the hierarchy of Biblical giants — the Leviathan far outranks the Goliath. By requiring the operators of the ‘global public sphere’ to pick up some of the tab for production of journalism, the Leviathan is intervening on David’s behalf, as it rightfully should.


The author is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Law and Technology Research (ALTR), Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Emerging patterns (The Telegraph)

Paul Krugman 

In 1957, Isaac Asimov published The Naked Sun, a science-fiction novel about a society in which people live on isolated estates, their needs provided by robots, and they interact only by video. The plot hinges on the way this lack of face-to-face contact stunts and warps their personalities.


After a year in which those of us who could worked from home — albeit served by less fortunate humans rather than robots — that sounds about right. But how will we live once the pandemic subsides?


Of course, nobody really knows. But maybe our speculation can be informed by some historical parallels and models.


First, it seems safe to predict that we won’t fully return to the way we used to live and work.


A year of isolation has, in effect, provided remote work with a classic case of infant industry protection, a concept usually associated with international trade policy that was first systematically laid out by none other than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton asserted that there were many industries that could flourish in the young United States of America but couldn’t get off the ground in the face of imports. Given a break from competition, for example through temporary tariffs, these industries could acquire enough experience and technological sophistication to become competitive.


The infant industry argument has always been tricky as a basis for policy — how do you know when it’s valid? And do you trust governments to make that determination? But the pandemic, by temporarily making our former work habits impossible, has clearly made us much better at exploiting the possibilities of remote work, and some of what we used to do — long commutes so we can sit in cubicles, constant flying to meetings of dubious value — won’t be coming back.


If history is any guide, however, much of our old way of working and living will, in fact, return.


Here’s a parallel: what the internet did and didn’t do to the way we read books.


A decade ago, many observers believed that both physical books and the bookstores that sold them were on the verge of extinction. And some of what they predicted came to pass: e-readers took a significant share of the market, and major bookstore chains took a significant financial hit.


But e-books’ popularity plateaued around the middle of the last decade, never coming close to overtaking physical books. And while big chains have suffered, independent bookstores have actually been flourishing.


Why was the reading revolution so limited? The convenience of downloading e-books is obvious. But for many readers this convenience is offset by subtler factors. The experience of reading a physical book is different and, for many, more enjoyable than reading e-ink. And browsing a bookstore is also a different experience from purchasing online. I like to say that online, I can find any book I’m looking for; in fact, I downloaded a copy of The Naked Sun a few hours before writing this article. But what I find in a bookstore, especially a well-curated independent store, are books I wasn’t looking for but end up treasuring.


The remote work revolution will probably play out similarly, but on a much vaster scale.


The advantages of remote work — either from home or, possibly, in small offices located far from dense urban areas — are obvious. Both living and work spaces are much cheaper; commutes are short or non-existent; you no longer need to deal with the expense and discomfort of formal businesswear, at least from the waist down.


The advantages of going back to in-person work will, by contrast, be relatively subtle — the pay-offs from face-to-face communication, the serendipity that can come from unscheduled interactions, the amenities of urban life.


But these subtle advantages are, in fact, what drive the economies of modern cities — and until Covid-19 struck these advantages were feeding a growing economic divergence between large, highly-educated metropolitan areas and the rest of the country. The rise of remote work may dent that trend, but it probably won’t reverse it.


The revival of cities won’t be entirely a pretty process; much of it will probably reflect the preferences of wealthy Americans who want big-city luxuries and glamour. “The main problem with moving to Florida is that you have to live in Florida,” one money manager told Bloomberg. But while cities thrive in part because they cater to the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous — like it or not, their wealth and power do a lot to shape the economy — cities also thrive because a lot of information-sharing and brainstorming takes place over coffee breaks and after-hours beers; Zoom calls aren’t an adequate substitute.


Or as the great Victorian economist, Alfred Marshall, said of his own era’s technology centres: “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air...”


So the best bet is that life and work in, say, 2023 will look a lot like life and work in 2019, but a bit less so. We may commute to the office less than we used to; there may well be a glut of urban office space. But most of us won’t be able to stay very far from the madding crowd.


New York Times News Service.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Mood enhancer (The Telegraph)

Renu Kohli  

Such has been the recoil of private investment that new plans announced by businesses, which filled media spaces some years ago, have all but disappeared from the landscape. Public pronouncements of infrastructure projects have replaced private ones instead. It has even retreated from our memories how, in the peak years of 2006-2011, planned investment values commonly ranged between Rs 24-28 trillion; these essentially halved in the three years to 2019-20 as per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy database. Public investment proclamations have become the norm, accentuated further in the wake of Covid-19. It is the long slumber of private investment that the government is trying to jolt awake through change in direction, a transformed attitude, and an altogether different view about the respective roles of the public and the private sectors in the economy. Quite likely a response to popular demands for a 1991 moment to break out of the standstill, speculation is intense about the prospects of success of the new narrative.  


The failure of business spending to resume despite numerous helpful measures and reforms in the past years has been glaring. Even before this February’s sharp turn in policies and viewpoint — the preceding specific thrust for domestic industry in response to Covid-19 last year and even the earlier set of measures to boost private enterprise in 2019 — industry and investors alike were urging the government for a 1991-like moment. Such voices or requests only sharpened when the pandemic struck India in what were already-depressed growth conditions. This, argued many, would charge the environment, be the electric spark that lights up the desire to invest.


One can speculate if the visible changes in direction and attitude are due to the lack of choice — binding financial constraints limiting the scope of public investments — or perhaps even the latter’s failure to stem the downslide since 2017-18. Or if this is an explicit choice to seek a different route to push growth, investments and employment, given the constant economic deterioration that has been further worsened by Covid-19. The fact is that the government has responded with some seminal changes and an altered approach towards the role of the private sector in economic progress. The changes can be broadly described as reducing government involvement in production and finance, deregulating factor markets (agriculture and labour), preferential policies for large-scale manufacturing, further liberalization, new infrastructure financing initiatives, fresh redress measures for resolving bad debts, amongst others. The production-linked incentive scheme is the centre piece fitted into the large-scale manufacturing thrust; this is now widened to include 14 industries with Rs 1.97 trillion spread out over five years for scale-acquisition in domestic production for home consumption and exports.  



The transformation in thinking is obvious in some upfront decisions in this year’s budget — outright sale of public assets and non-strategic public enterprises, reducing ownership stakes in others, including strategic ones, sale of two public sector banks. Here, the government’s open embrace of ‘privatization’ against the more guarded ‘disinvestment’ casts aside a long-standing political aversion to the former nomenclature. Arguably, these shifts may have brought clarity about the government’s position on the public versus private sector debate, dispelling investors’ perceptions about ambivalence on this. The government has also withstood the political economy fallout of agriculture marketing reforms last year, holding on and signalling policy stability.


The directional turn is only one side of the effort. The other part is perhaps more important — the accompanying articulation at various public forums, including Parliament. Led by the prime minister, a new mindset has been expressed. This eschews the role of government in production, stressing the domain rightfully belongs to the private sector, which is the central driver of growth, investments and job-creation. It condemns the draining inefficiencies of public enterprises; it censures the bureaucracy for its obstructive and non-specialist character, batting for inclusion of private experts instead while scaling up industries to enhance productivity. Furthermore, there are hectic parleys, other interactions with industry at various levels by key ministers and officials. Ministries are reaching out to note industry’s concerns, seek ideas and proposals, with the active involvement of business bodies. And no less than the prime minister has discussed road maps to the PLI-scheme with top private sector executives.


In short, there is visible qualitative effort to enthuse, elicit response and get the momentum going. Even if interpreted cynically as a desperation to push for growth, a different narrative and active outreach impressing transformation can make businesses feel upbeat. Changes in laws and policies do not always translate into actual plans or investments if the agents do not feel optimistic. We only have to look back five-six years in which structural reforms, such as inflation targeting, GST, IBC, amongst others, failed to inspire private investment; growth decelerated instead and investments remained depressed. Feeling hopeful about the future really matters as that shapes decisions to take the plunge. The longing for a 1991 moment referred precisely to such feelings. Now accorded a valuable, primary place in the economy with attendant changes, positive responses could follow in the future seeing the resounding endorsement of private participants in the last one month.


What then are the chances of changing the private investment trajectory?


It is a critical question weighing on the mind of every stakeholder. Seeking an answer is difficult at this point though. One must weigh, for example, if upbeat mood and sentiments stand alone — can these be decoupled from the demand environment and associated uncertainties? Private agents also look back to look forward for their business decisions. In this instance, if the past was of economic weakening, the prospective course is exceedingly uncertain: there are doubts about the post-pandemic future of some businesses and sectors; the extent to which households and firms may have lost incomes and revenues, or increased savings, and the restoration, longevity and duration of demand and the structural shifts and resource reallocations that may have been triggered.


These are some — but not all — considerations. While there are no clear-cut answers about future investment prospects, it remains obvious that growth must stabilize enduringly in the first round for any meaningful reactions to the new economic narrative. When the pandemic itself is yet to recede in India and elsewhere in the world, lifting the declining trajectory of private investment will be up in the air for a while. Expectations of solid returns to directional change must, therefore, be tempered. The question is if the current mood uplift will endure. The stakes are high.


The author is a macroeconomist.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Age of reckoning (The Telegraph)

Who pays for a free press?


Aniruddh Nigam  

In February 2021, Facebook briefly banned all news content in Australia. Australian users were restricted from posting or viewing news content on its platform. The company also deployed tools to scrub its platform of links to content by the Australian press. This unprecedented move sparked a global conversation about the grand narratives of digital sovereignty and big tech. Yet, the issue at the heart of this conflict has escaped deeper scrutiny.


Facebook took the step as a reaction to Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. The Code, among other things, requires large platforms to negotiate commercial terms with Australian news publishers for showing their content and to pay publishers for their content shared on the platform. Facebook opposed this, claiming that the Code misunderstands the relationship between its platform and publishers. Subsequent negotiations have ended the stand-off — the ability to view news content was restored by Facebook in exchange for changes to the law conceded by the Australian government.


 Why did the issue of sharing advertising revenue with news publishers lead to this high-stakes Westphalian drama? One must reckon with the state of the media industry to answer this. Media houses have grappled with an existential economic threat in the last decade, given the costs of producing high quality-journalism. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated this frailty in the Indian context, with many reports of newsroom closures and job losses. In this context, the business model of news, the rationale for revenue sharing and the political facts emerging from this conflict are key to evaluating what this means for the future of news.


Public interest in high-quality journalism arguably makes it a public good, lending to its eternal challenge of developing a sustainable business model. Despite its nature as a public good, asking governments to play a direct role in financing the press is like leaving the sheep in the wolf’s care. Financial control by government strikes at the inherent tension between the State and the press in the liberal democratic set-up given the role of the press in critically examining government policy.


 An alternative is asking readers to pay for news. This, too, is a partial solution at best. Subscriptions create financial barriers to access, excluding large segments of the population. Further, most digital subscriptions are priced outside the common man’s reach, in addition to the practical hassle of obtaining multiple subscriptions. The traditional answer to this conundrum is to rely on advertising. This led to the development of a model where revenue from advertising cross-subsidized the readers who paid only a nominal amount. In doing so, advertising emerged as a way of financing the production of news without relying on government support or burdening readers.


 With the emergence of social media platforms and improvements in targeting algorithms, advertisers have obvious reasons to prefer advertising digitally through advertising services offered by these platforms as opposed to engaging publishers individually. It is here that things get tricky. Publishers say they do not get a fair share of digital advertising revenue generated through their content. This is attributed to the market power of advertising platforms like Facebook and Google that intermediate publisher-advertiser interaction and, together, control nearly 60 per cent of the digital ad market. Publishers state that this makes them unavoidable trading partners, with asymmetrical bargaining power in negotiations, if any, on terms of advertising and revenue sharing.


The central question then becomes: in the digital era, who should pay for news? Governments cannot be trusted to finance the very people who are supposed to criticize them. Readers, largely, cannot afford subscriptions and, in any case, subscription-led models deny access to news to the indigent. Advertising revenues, on the other hand, are not reaching publishers.


The solution proposed by the Australian government is to require platforms like Facebook and Google to agree to terms for sharing advertising revenue with news publishers subject to binding arbitration. In essence, this is intended to ensure that a fair and equitable share of advertising revenue reaches the publisher.


The logos of requiring revenue sharing is that Facebook and Google are unavoidable trading partners and set the terms of digital advertising. This makes it impossible for publishers to negotiate fair terms. The Code creates a structure for negotiations to address this imbalance. This is bolstered by the ethos of requiring revenue sharing, which holds these platforms accountable to their claim of establishing new ‘global public spheres’. As per this argument, the unique position of operating the global public sphere comes with responsibilities, which safeguard public interest. This includes enduring limitations on private profit for the sustenance of an important public good. The pathos is supplied by the narrative of the slow death of print media, emergence of global tech monopolies, and journalism as a central facet of democratic processes.


While some reservations to the Code are well-founded, it would be premature to treat them as fatal flaws. Many, including Facebook, state that the Code misunderstands the impact of platforms, which do not ‘leech’ ad revenue but instead amplify content and increase traffic, benefiting publishers. This is empirically true. At the same time, platforms like Facebook are complex and perform many functions. An appreciation of the distribution-function of social media platforms (which is user-driven and free) should not mean ignoring market failures or asymmetries in their advertising-function (which is provided as a paid service).


Others argue the law only benefits legacy media houses with obsolete business models, preventing new business models from emerging. The business model of legacy media outlets may not sustain in the long run, and a shift towards decentralized freelancer-led models of journalism may be the future. This should not gloss over the fact that legacy media houses currently employ a substantial number of ‘on the ground’ journalists. Worsening economic health of the media industry risks not only job losses for these journalists but also affects journalistic output in this transitional period. To sacrifice the sustainability of high-quality journalism at the altar of a romantic vision of the internet would be to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.


The power imbalance between publishers and platforms is not the only imbalance, which has come to light over the past month. Many describe Facebook’s actions in Australia as the successful ransoming of a sovereign State. When Facebook carried out its threat of disabling access to news content for the citizenry of an entire nation, it arguably crossed the Rubicon in terms of its relationships with sovereign States.


Governments across the world are waking up not just to the tremendous power that platforms wield over people but also to the unsophisticated nature of their own regulatory toolkits. A likely consequence is a cascade of regulations across the world, as governments try to protect themselves from similar reactions by platforms. For many, sovereignty is under direct threat from unaccountable tech platforms that can dictate the well-being of an entire citizenry. Considering the way in which Facebook lashed out at the Australian law, this is not far from the truth.


As governments create laws cutting at the heels of big tech but framed in their constituents’ interest, we are likely to see many more rounds of sparring between these giants. In this, Australia is not alone. There are reports of the Indian prime minister “discuss[ing] the progress” on the Code with his Australian counterpart. The Indian Newspaper Society, an industry body of legacy media houses, has already written to Google seeking 85 per cent of advertising revenue generated from their content.


In many ways, this is an age of reckoning for big tech. Platforms like Facebook may be Goliaths in negotiations with news publishers but we are yet to see if they can stand up to sovereign States with comparable effectiveness. If the source material is anything to go by — in the hierarchy of Biblical giants — the Leviathan far outranks the Goliath. By requiring the operators of the ‘global public sphere’ to pick up some of the tab for production of journalism, the Leviathan is intervening on David’s behalf, as it rightfully should.


The author is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Law and Technology Research (ALTR), Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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