Subhabrata’s Weblog

December 3, 2008

Who killed the Indian University?

Filed under: Current Affairs, Opinion, Rant — Tags: , , , , — genomewarrior @ 9:47 am

I was discussing with a friend of mine the other day about the impact of the IIT system on tertiary education in India. My contention was that the IIT system has caused the death of universities in India. He, ofcourse hotly contested the point. According to him, the IITs were a great idea at the time of independence, and have contributed immensely to the growth and development of the country. So I thought a little more about it, and the result of that thinking is the post below.

Now lets see if the Indian Institutes of Technology/Management/Information Technology/Fashion Technology/Drama/Design/what-have-you are really needed in this country and whether they have done more harm than good, as I think they have. It all started with the Indian Institutes of Technology. A result of a young socialist India’s admiration of the Soviet model of education. In fact, the first IIT was established at Kharagpur with help from the Government of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1951. Other IITs followed, Mumbai in 1958, Kanpur and Chennai in 1961, and Delhi in 1963. Currently there are 13 Indian Institutes of Technology in various states in the country all covered under the Institutes of Technology Act of 1961 that declare these Institutions as Institutes of National Importance. The stated need for setting up the IIT system was to produce the scientists and engineers that a newly independent India needed for its development. It seems interesting that the decision makers deemed it necessary to create Institutes of National Importance like the IITs to impart education that could easily have been imparted simply by upgrading the existing universities to the status of Institutions of National Importance. The psychology behind the building of big Institutions with lofty ideals and huge amounts of public money as symbols of national pride is a distinguishing feature of socialist societies. Take the example of Mao Tse Tung’s destruction of the city of Beijing to build huge factories inside the city – his personal idea of, and a tribute to a worker’s paradise. In our case, we destroyed the University system by our own idea of socialized education. To really understand the basic evil of the Soviet system of higher education we have to realize that their society was based on collective ownership. The State owned everything, including your life. You individual growth and development as a person was essentially anti-state. An individual was simply a cog in the State machinery, everyone had his place in the society. You were not supposed to “think” as an individual, you were supposed to “do”. This led to their creation of highly specialized schools and universities dedicated to narrow disciplines — Institute of Mathematics, Institute of Genetics, Institute of Physical Research, the Medical Academies, and the list goes on and on. A highly centralized government controlled system put in place with the sole purpose of creating higly efficient workers for the country. This practice, of course created technically competent people, who were experts in their field of work — the Russian mathematicians and physicists for example, but did that system work? Were these people anything more than well programmed robots who were not good at anything but what they were trained for? I would be interested to know the real statistics. But their immediate success in the Soviet society was visible to everyone. They had great scientists, excellent engineers, efficient workers, but no philosophers, no independent artists, or film makers, or writers. But the quality of their engineers was probably what impressed Jawaharlal Nehru the most. He, after all had the responsibility of bringing India up to speed on development and infrastructure post independence. So the idea of setting up a series of engineering schools must have sounded good to him, and he went ahead and built the first series of IITs – Kharagpur, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Madras. There is no doubt that at the time of Independence there was an urgent need for skilled technical manpower in order for India to build itself, and there was a very real need for the Government to focus on technical education. There is also no doubt about the fact that, given the stringent selection criteria, the IITs got the best students in the country who after graduation went on to lead successful professional lives. Given the socialist bent of mind, our leaders, possibly forgetting the original thoughts that went into the setting up of IITs started establishing other specialized Institutes and the Indian Institutes of Management, National Institute of Design, National Institute of Fashion Technology followed over the years. In parallel, the University system of this country went from bad to worse. Bad management, lack of funds, archaic rules, politics, all contributed to the rot. This asymmetry also led to an asymmetric perception of college education among the media and the public in general. In a country and at a time when good jobs were few, not getting into an IIT meant you were a failure even before you started.

From the Universities’ standpoint, the problems were compounded by the fact that in addition to the policy of establishing specialized undergraduate schools the Government also set up specialized research Institutes directly under the control of funding agencies. So we had the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, The Department of Atomic Energy, The Department of Biotechnology, The Department of Science and Technology, all funding agencies under various ministries running a bunch of their own Institutes specializing in narrow research domains. One would agree that there are research problems that need coordinated effort of many people, and substantial financial inputs. Setting up small Institutes dedicated to specific questions of importance is in itself not a bad idea. So where is the problem? The problem lies in the fact that these institutes are not connected to universities. They are far better funded than university departments, and thus have excellent research facilities, but the scientists who work there are not required to teach. Most of them being situated away from universities, their scientists and students have limited interaction with people from other disciplines. There is little exchange of ideas and views in the free flowing manner that is at the heart of innovative research. The result? Our entire scientific establishment is engaged in a “me too” research program where the really radical and original ideas come from the west and we simply fill in the gaps. The lack of innovation in science is evident in the example of the use of Zebrafish as a genetic model system for biological research. Zebrafish, a native of the Ganges needed George Streisinger of the University of Oregon to be studied in detail and be used as a genetic model. Our experience with research on medicinal plants is another example. In the humanities, we need a William Dalrymple to teach us about the history of the Deccan, or Delhi. There are many economic and social factors involved this sad sate of affairs, but one of the most prominent of these factors is the utter lack of a vibrant univerisity system fostering unfettered interaction and exchange of ideas among people of widely disparate interests and expertise. All this affects another important part of the higher education system of the country – Graduate School. We are creating more PhDs than any other country in the world with the possible exception of China, but are our PhDs really worth the title of “Doctor of Philosophy”? I am not sure. Are our research institutes producing loads of doctorates who are nothing but highly trained technicians or are we producing leaders and thinkers who can cross boundaries of discipline and think creatively? I think our policy makers need to ask this question to themselves.

So what is the result of this long policy of specialization and fragmentation? Our leaders would have us believe that our country is progressing and India is shining because we have a huge pool of English speaking individuals who can program a computer and run a PCR reaction. What they will not admit even to themselves is that all this lopsided development comes at a price. In mundane terms, this preference for quantity over quality has led to a huge workforce trained in a specific skill set and completely dependent on a certain set of industries in order to remain employed. In a deeper sense, this has led to the slow, but definite dilution of the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of the country. We seem to be well on the path to becoming a country of unthinking automatons who do as they are told, trapped in our own little intellectual boxes. We seem to have forgotten our own historical contribution to higher education by way of inventing the model of multidisciplinary university system with Taxila. The path of higher education chosen at the infancy of the Indian republic has without doubt helped India reach a position of strength in the world. But everything has to evolve, what may have been relevant earlier may loose its relevance with time as society advances. For the country to really move forward, there is a need to rethink and reform the higher education system. We need to bring the University back! Unfortunately the government seems to think otherwise. They have gone ahead and established a bunch of more IITs taking the total to 13 (and 6 more planned). And as if that was not enough, they have started a chain of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research! It seems we did not have enough university departments good enough to teach basic sciences to undergraduates. As I have mentioned earlier, specialized institutes, a misplaced and misguided priority in the first place, has now largely lost relevance in today’s society where people with new and “unconventional” combination of skill sets are often the drivers of progress. This country needs well rounded individuals who, while being trained in a particular discipline, are at the same time aware of their society and open to exchange of ideas.

In my “ideal” education and research policy, I would first increase funding to Universities and at the same time bring about changes in their academic and administrative structure. Over time, the universities will be run by academics who are also proven administrators. I would expect these institutions to be run in a democratic fashion with no interference from outside. Ultimately, funding to universities will be based on their performance. The Indian Institutes of technology will  be upgraded to the level of central universities and be treated as such. National laboratories and Institutes will be attached to universities with scientists having the option to teach if they so wish. I would ofcourse encourage researchers to teach undergraduates, which would mean that the academic staff of the universities will be of two kinds — research scientists, who choose not to teach in the class room but take graduate students for research work, and faculty, who choose to teach along with doing their research. The latter will ofcourse be more difficult but I would wish to make it more rewarding too. I would encourage private sector participation in higher education and research with tax benefits to corporates and private individuals who choose to support academic research in purely non-applied fields like history, philosophy, art or the basic sciences. Setting up of private universities will be encouraged subject to their satisfying stringent criteria (I will talk about higher education as an industry sector in a later post) to ensure quality. The idea is to turn universities into centers of knowledge rather than just degree granting bodies, places where knowledge is not only disseminated, but also generated, where students and teachers alike benefit from their mutual interactions without boundaries or restrictions. Universities in my “ideal” society will be as sensitive to social change as they will be drivers of that change.

It is high time the policy makers stopped and did a serious analysis of the higher education and research system in this country. The whole system needs to be reformed if we want to graduate (no pun intended) from being a “developing country” to being a “developed country” in the real sense of the term.


December 2, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks – A Layman’s Analysis

Filed under: Current Affairs, News, Politics — Tags: , , — genomewarrior @ 3:28 am

So I start my blog. And sadly, my first posting is about a most unfortunate incident. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Like everyone else seems to be doing, let me post my own take on the whole thing.

I am not sure if the terrorists really planned the operation the way it actually unfolded. It would be such a waste of effort to just kill a few hundred people and then die yourselves. The more interesting alternative would be to rig a high profile, high value, but extremely soft target like the Taj or Oberoi with explosives, take a few hundred hostages and prolong the media circus to maximum effect while you negotiate with the Government for whatever demands you may choose to talk about. If spectacular killing was the motive, they could have let the explosives go after some time into the siege. They did not. The terrorists, it would seem were not prepared to make martyrs of themselves on this mission. Instead they ended up in a gunfight with the security forces in all the positions they intended to take. The police, barring the initial confusion did seem to act on time to prevent the complete takeover of the hotels.

The intelligence failures to anticipate the attack, the initial police confusion, the fact that a handful of terrorists held back the nation’s most elite commandos for more than 60 hours (presumably because, in addition to the presence of civilians, the commandos it seems did not have the plans of the hotel and hence were hamstrung in their efforts to search the terrorists out) will be discussed and dissected at length in the media and in government circles for quite some time now. But once the dust settles down and the city starts to heal like it always does, one would like to go over the entire episode and wonder whether we’ll ever learn.

Mumbai’s vulnerability and the need for a rapid response protocol:

Mumbai is a high risk city, the risk is built into it actually. It is the country’s financial capital, mostly concentrated on a small island, with some of the highest population densities in the world and great social and economic disparity in the population. Mumbai as a system is bound to undergo periodic catastrophes at regular intervals. The political scenario in India and the world simply adds to an already toxic mixture. Considering this, and the fact that Mumbai has faced such incidents (with more devastating results) in the past, it is unfortunate the the State and Central Governments still have not come up with a rapid reaction system for the city. The fact that there seemed to be delays and a complete absence of coherence in the police reaction to the event is obvious when one looks at the news reports. The political establishment also became paralyzed during the initial hours of the incident. This, in itself does not question the competence of the police force or the administration in any way. It just shows what happens when one does not have a reaction plan that is automatic. The force and the administration has to train for years to get it working like clockwork in the event of a terrorist attack or any other calamity. The fact that after so many such incidents – riots, bomb blasts, floods, Mumbai still does not have a rapid reaction system in place is the most tragic aspect of the entire incident. The Indian Prime Minister’s announcement that a new anti-terrorist force will be set up sounds good, but in itself is not the solution. What is required is an systemic reform of public services in India’s cities so that all parts of the administration can react in a co-ordinated manner to any kind of catastrophic event, be it a bomb blast, a terrorist attack or a natural calamity. The key aspect of these reforms would be increased communication and co-ordination between different branches of the administration like the police services, the hospitals, the political establishment, press, and citizens. There would be clear guidelines regarding the specific roles for each component of the society. The role of the press is critical in all this, they should be given complete freedom to cover events like these, but at the same time the press itself should be responsible in reporting news. The system should also be flexible enough so that it can adapt to different kinds of events without freezing up.

The role of the electronic media and the need for more responsible behaviour:

I have already spoken of the role of the press in such situations. Let me elaborate a bit more on that point. The television media gave blanket coverage to the entire incident in Mumbai with cameras rolling 24 hours throughout the operation. The airwaves were flooded with images of the burning Taj Mahal hotel. I even saw senior journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai reporting live from the scene. Now all that is good, but does it help? Did the media act professionally? Was the coverage meant to inform the people or was it meant to sensationalize the incident? I think, the media coverage added more confusion and misinformation. The coverage was skewed, it was jingoistic and absolutely unprofessional. Rajdeep would have done better to stay in the studio and co-ordinate with field reporters. His job as a senior journalist should have been to synthesize and analyze the fragmented inputs from the reporters on the ground and present them to the public in a balanced manner. It was the same sad situation in all news channels. If one wanted a sober reporting of what was going on in Mumbai, one needed to turn to BBC or CNN or MSNBC which were taking the feeds from the Indian networks but whose analysis and style of reporting was much more balanced. While in this country we had senior reporters hyperventilating on camera with a range of histrionics that would have done a Hindi movie mother proud. If you can’t handle your emotions, you should not be a journalist. Period! On top of being shabby in its quality, the reporting was amazingly skewed. We never knew about the the people who died in CST, or the Cama Hospital. The jingoism was ridiculous to say the least, Taj Mahal hotel is a landmark, but so is CST (I would think that CST Station represented the idea of Mumbai more than the Taj), the attacks were less devastating than the 1992-1993 riots or the subsequent bomb blasts, yet the press decided to call it the 9/11 of India and hype it far beyond its real impact. The role of the press in these situations should be to inform. They are not here to “sell” news. The press enjoys enormous freedom in this country, but with enormous freedom comes enormous responsibility. Freedom of the press is an amazing thing, and we in India should be proud of the fact that we have such a vibrant press. However, the television media in this country is in a depressingly bad shape. Not a single news channel is is worth the name. It is so bad that its sickening. The television media in India is characterized by garish sets,  loud music, a complete lack of presentation skills in the presenters, absolutely no respect for language, total incomprehension about issues, no homework on the part of the journalists covering incidents, overall incompetence and complete lack of judgment regarding what is and what is not news. This will have to change. The press has to be more responsible in choosing its reporters. Media companies should get their reporters trained properly before allowing them on air. They should realize that they are not here to sell news, their job is the disseminate news. They are not here to entertain, they are here to inform. Journalists have to take their positions seriously, be more honest in reporting.

The political fallout and the need for pragmatism:

The political fallout of the incident is already obvious. We have already started flogging our traditional goat – Pakistan. We have already started talking about strengthening our anti-terror laws. And we have already replaced our Home Minister. The finger pointing at Pakistan is obvious – we have a rather unfortunate history with them, their civil society tacitly supports extremists, their government has sponsored terrorism against India and the country has been a training ground for Islamist terrorists operating all over the world. The question is, in the present context, was the Government of Pakistan responsible for the terror attacks in Mumbai? In order to address this question, we need to ask whether they had a motive. Pakistan has recently come out of years of dictatorial rule, its economy is in pretty bad shape, their co-operation with the USA in their war on terror means that the Government is diverting a significant proportion of its national economy in an armed struggle against insurgents along its northern border with Afghanistan. The lowering of military deployment on its border with India, the result of years of negotiations and confidence building measures was a much needed respite to its already strained armed forces, letting them concentrate on one front instead of two. The democratic government of a nuclear Pakistan needs desperately to earn global legitimacy and trust if it wants to progress as a coherent national entity. In today’s trade based society, Pakistan is better off with a prosperous and secure India (and vice-versa), than in a state of tension with it. Both sides have been working very hard towards that goal. this incident would of course put a break on the rate of normalization of ties between the two countries, to the detriment of both as well as to the cause of peace a stability in the region. Given the information coming out of preliminary investigations even as the events unfolded in Mumbai, it seem would seem as though the terrorists were trained in Pakistan and came from there. If that is true, even if the Pakistan government may not have known about it or supported it in any way, they have a moral responsibility to assume. A sovereign country that lets its territory be used for activities against the sovereignty of another country morally looses its own right to sovereignty. In the case of Pakistan, the elected government is new and has a big task to undo years of anti-India sentiments in both its population as well as in its military and civilian administration. The offer to send an ISI officer to co-operate in the investigation is a good first step, but not nearly enough. They have to do more to rebuild the fragile trust that had taken years to build in the first place. They should seriously consider measures like extraditions of known terrorists based and operating from their territory, military action to dismantle terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and elsewhere, toning down anti-India sentiments in its media, to name a few. India should undertake complementary measures here. The most important thing to be done now, is not to let this incident stop the progress of normalization of ties with Pakistan. If that happens, as it looks to be happening, the terrorists would have gained at least one of their objectives. The governments of India and Pakistan should be firm at this time not against each other, but against the forces within their own countries that want to derail the peace process between the two countries. The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to tighten anti-terror laws has be taken seriously. Given the tense situation in the country and the fact that a lot of people want the government to act (they have no idea as to the nature of the action though), it is likely that any policy measure the government takes might be of the knee-jerk kind. We already had a draconian anti-terror law in this country. That did not really help in cutting down terrorism, it only led to human rights violations. One only has to look at 8 years of George Bush’s administration the US to understand the effects of knee-jerk policy. I am afraid that we will be seeing something of that sort (except the lets-go-and-bomb-the-hell-out-of-a-sovereign-nation part) in this country in the coming months, including the possible curtailment of civil rights of ordinary citizens. I fervently hope I am proven wrong.

Final words:

Ultimately, terrorism is a global phenomenon, and all sides in this conflict have very real reasons for being angry, whether we choose to see the other’s point or not. Conflict is an integral part of human nature and all one can do is change the nature of conflict. All efforts to suppress the conflict itself will be counterproductive. We cannot stop people from having opinions, we can only provide systems where tention and pressure can be released without causing too much damage to the society as a whole.  We need farsightedness and pragmatism on the part of the government and a systems approach towards anti-terror policy in order to have a chance at lasting peace, or atleast a minimization of damage due to terrorist acts.  Question is, are we up to the task?

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