Wednesday, May 31, 2006

At long last, Kalam gets going...

President APJ Abdul Kalam has returned the office-of-profit bill to the Parliament for reconsideration. Kalam seems to finally have woken up to his duties as the President of India.

The office-of-profit issue: Jaya Bachchan
The Constitution of India bars the Members of Parliament from holding "offices-of-profit". The usefulness of this law is debatable in itself, but let's not go into that. I think this law had by and large been ignored, until very recently. Many MPs were in various organizations and while they may not have been drawing a salary, these posts would legally be classed as offices-of-profit. They would of course be enjoying perks of these positions.
The matter came into the forefront when Jaya Bachchan of the Samajwadi Party was reported to the Election Commission by someone in the Congress for being the Chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Corporation, a post that as a reputed actress, she is fully qualified to hold, but the position of course also includes cabinet rank perks. After its investigations, the Election Commission recommended her disqualification as a member of the Rajya Sabha and after consulting legal experts, the President accepted the recommendation on March 17. Jaya had challenged it in the Supreme Court, but her petition was dismissed.

Quoting from an article on the net, under Article 103 of the Constitution, ``if any question arises as to whether a Member of either House of Parliament has become subject to any of the disqualifications mentioned in Article 102, the question shall be referred for the decision of the President and his decision shall be final. Before giving any decision on any such question, the President shall obtain the opinion of the Election Commission and shall act according to such opinion."

The office-of-profit issue: "some animals are more equal than others"
Comically enough, it turned out that many MPs held offices of profit, including the Speaker of Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, and Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful woman (person?) of India. Sonia, the president of the Congress Party who had in a political masterstroke declined to be the Prime Minister was a member of the Lok Sabha as also the chairperson of the National Advisory Council, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust and Jawahar Bhavan Trust; and was a member of a horde of other organizations. She resigned from all these and her Lok Sabha seat on and around March 23. This was immediately hailed by the Congress sycophants as yet another example of her sacrifices. She promptly stood for by-elections from her constituency and was re-elected to the Lok Sabha within seven weeks of her resignation.

Backdoor bill
Sonia Gandhi "sacrifices", but what about the Speaker, and the other important MPs from the Congress Party and its allies? A bill exempting 46 posts that these members held (and even those held by some prominent MPs in the opposition) from the purview of the office of profit was introduced into the Parliament on May 15 and was passed on May 16.

Yesterday, this bill was returned to the Parliament for reconsideration by President Kalam.

The President of India
The President of India has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on almost every occasion. The exception is of course inviting a party to form the government after elections, and this is especially relevant when no party gets a clear majority in the Parliament. Similarly, when a government loses confidence of the Parliament, he can decide whether to dissolve the Lok Sabha and call for elections, or to invite another party to form the government. The President can also return a bill or ordinance to the Parliament or the goverment, respectively, for reconsideration, but is constitutionally bound to sign it if it is sent back to him. Hence returning such a document has more of a symbolic value, but it creates news in the country and this is a way the President can register his dissent in an important issue. The President can also demand an explanation from the Prime Minister issues, and again this makes news. The late former President KR Narayanan has been one of the few Presidents in recent times (certainly since I have been following politics) who had used these nominal powers to the maximum. The Vajpayee government had recommended the dismissal of a State government on two occasions, and on both occasions President Narayanan had returned these recommendations for reconsideration causing considerable public debate, and consequently the government had not dared to send them back to him. Narayanan also crossed swords with the government on the Gujarat riots (as he later claimed after retirement) and a perhaps unwarranted banquet speech during Bill Clinton's visit. In my opinion KR Narayanan set new standards of responsibility for the office of the President of India.

President Kalam
Most parties wanted a second term for President Narayanan, but for obvious reasons the Vajpayee government didn't. It looked like there would be a confrontation for the election of the 11th President of India, when Vajpayee came up with his trump card-- APJ Abdul Kalam's name was proposed.
Kalam was associated with ISRO and DRDO (later as DRDO Director), and also served as the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Indian government. He has been associated with the development of the Satellite Launch Vehicle. It was during his directorship that DRDO's Agni and Prithvi missiles were developed. And it was during his tenure as Principal Scientific Advisor, that the Pokhran tests were carried out. He has also received the Padma Bhushan (1981), Padma Vibhushan (1990) and the highest Indian civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (1997). He was already a popular figure, and with his autobiography, Wings of Fire (1999), he became even more popular. Thus, apart from a token candidate from the communist parties, Kalam was elected unopposed as the President of India in 2002.
President Kalam continues to enjoy widespread popularity in the country especially because of his insistence on interacting with children and younger people and motivating them on all available opportunities.

Failure of President Kalam
However praiseworthy his striving to nurture the minds of young citizens may be, he has seemed to be failing in his responsiblities as the President of India. Last year, the Bihar electoral results did not give a majority to Railway Minister Lalu Yadav's Janata Dal, and there seemed to be an impasse with no political party or coalition having majority. Buta Singh as the Governer of Bihar recommended dissolution of the unconvened Assembly and imposition of President's Rule until fresh elections were held. President Kalam was in Russia at that time (almost exactly a year ago), and apparently was woken up in the middle of the night and asked to sign the order at the recommendation of the Cabinet. Unlike his predecessor whose actions I have discussed above, he did not even ask to wait until morning, much less seek legal advice. The Supreme Court later ruled that this dissolution had been illegal. There is an excellent article on this by my favourite columnist, MJ Akbar (unfortunately this article is not archived in Asian Age where MJ Akbar originally published this).

Concluding Remarks: the Office-of-Profit Bill and President Kalam
The issue of the office of profit is really trivial, and shows nothing more than the hypocrisy of the political class. Why shouldn't certain MPs hold offices especially the ones they have expertise in, like Jaya Bachchan in Film Development, Dr. Kasturirangan as advisor to the ISRO, or Sonia Gandhi as the chairperson of the National Advisory Council? The way it was handled shows the petty vindictiveness of Sonia towards the Bachchans. But the issue in itself certainly isn't worth the ruckus it has created. Nevertheless, by returning the office of profit bill for reconsideration, President Kalam has shown that he has finally become aware of the responsibilities of the office of the President of India.

Tivia on "Dr." Kalam
When Kalam's candidature was announced, one of his former colleagues had anonymously remarked that he was "a scientist among politicians, and a politician among scientists". On different occasions recently, I had quoted this remark to two extremely senior Indian scientists (Physics and Engineering, respectively) who would be in the know about Kalam, and they mentioned that this comment would be very fitting. One of them in fact expressed doubts about his actual scientific contribution (not his managerial contribution though) in the high profile projects he has been associated with. This person also expressed resentment that although Kalam doesn't hold a PhD, he makes absolutely no effort to correct all and sundry calling him "Dr. Kalam" (Kalam has indeed been conferred numerous honorary doctorates, but these cannot be used and he certainly should know that). I had heard this (that he doesn't have a PhD) before in the context that after he retired as the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Indian government, he wanted a professorship at the IISc, but they could (did?) not give it to him because he did not have a PhD... also reported in
this article. If it was only this reason, I don't think it was the right thing to do, but having heard the opinions of the scientists I mentioned above, there might well be proper reasons pertaining to actual scientific competence. I would add however, that Kalam and "Balki" are supposedly quite close and "Balki" certainly is a very respected and comptent scientist at IISc.


Meeting an old friend

I met Ramesh after 6 1/2 years! The last I had met him was in Berne in October 1999. I had gone to Zurich for a conference, and afterwards took a train to Berne and spent the weekend with him.

I had seen the poster announcing the symposium in IMBA on si/miRNA, and Ramesh's name as a speaker quite a while ago. Since we haven't really been in touch, I googled for his email address last week and thereby discovered that he was joining EMBL Grenoble as a group leader!!!! Wowowowowow!!! I knew he had been doing very well and I had seen (although I am ashamed to admit, not read) his paper in Science and also that this was judged the best paper of that year by the RNA society (I think). But this was terrific. As far as I know he is the first of my friends and contemporaries to get such a job. Well ok, Uma did join NCBS as a group leader last year, nevertheless this is EMBL (albeit Grenoble, not Heidelberg)! And Ramesh will be the only Indian group leader (and the only other Asian group leader other than Asifa Akhtar who is Pakistani) in EMBL and its outstations. Of course I also found his email address and dashed off an email.

The conference was yesterday and today (well given the time now, it was day-before-yesterday and yesterday :-)), and Ramesh's was the first talk after the Plenary Lecture (Steve Cohen), and was one of the two best ones (not counting Javier's but he was the host and I didn't attend his), the other was Antonio Giraldez whom I used to know at EMBL.

It was great catching up with him. I did know about his French wife (Emilie -sp?) and that they had a daughter (Alina? Elina?) who is now 18 months. They will be moving from Basel to Grenoble in the beginning of July. That's exciting. Yesterday we didn't really get much time to talk, but today we had lunch (with other people and so talking in English) and dinner (I gatecrashed into their conference dinner at our cafeteria) and soon afterwards we came to the pub opposite my building (he's been put up in the Mercure-Biedermeier hotel nearby) and chatted until 12:30am.

Ramesh used to be one of the funniest guys I've known, and he still retains his excellent sense of humour. He's lost more hair, and surprising has a lot of grey hair, but still looks the same. He seems to have lost the mallu touch in his accent when he speaks English, but retains it completely when he speaks Hindi. It was really great to talk about old times, catch up, and speculate about the future.


Monday, May 29, 2006

Reservation Politics: an interview with Arjun Singh

Arjun Singh seems to have an obstinate determination that only he knows what is the best in the reservation issue. Logic and sense don't seem to work with him as evidenced in an interview with Karan Thapar (via DynamiX notes, a community blog that I chanced upon today). [Check the post of May 17, 2006 for the background]

Excerpts (actually, most of it) :

Parliament has decided, so it will happen

Karan Thapar:Most of the people would accept that steps are necessary to help the OBCs gain greater access to higher education. The real question is: Why do you believe that reservations is the best way of doing this?
Arjun Singh: I wouldn't like to say much more on this because these are decisions that are taken not by individuals alone. And in this case, the entire Parliament of this country - almost with rare unanimity - has decided to take this decision.
Karan Thapar: Except that Parliament is not infallible. In the Emergency, when it amended the Constitution, it was clearly wrong, it had to reverse its own amendments. So, the question arises: Why does Parliament believe that the reservation is the right way of helping the OBCs?
Arjun Singh: Nobody is infallible. But Parliament is Supreme and at least I, as a Member of Parliament, cannot but accept the supremacy of Parliament.
Karan Thapar: No doubt Parliament is supreme, but the Constitutional amendment that gives you your authorities actually enabling amendment, it is not a compulsory requirement. Secondly, the language of the amendment does not talk about reservations, the language talks about any provision by law for advancement of socially and educationally backward classes. So, you could have chosen anything other than reservations, why reservations?
Arjun Singh: Because as I said, that was the 'will and desire of the Parliament'.

No matter what data you show, he won't believe it

Karan Thapar: In which case, lets ask a few basic questions. We are talking about the reservations for the OBCs in particular. Do you know what percentage of the Indian population is OBC? Mandal puts it at 52 per cent, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) at 32 per cent, the National Family and Health Survey at 29.8 per cent, which is the correct figure?
Arjun Singh: I think that should be decided by people who are more knowledgeable. But the point is that the OBCs form a fairly sizeable percentage of our population.
Karan Thapar: No doubt, but the reason why it is important to know 'what percentage' they form is that if you are going to have reservations for them, then you must know what percentage of the population they are, otherwise you don't know whether they are already adequately catered to in higher educational institutions or not.
Arjun Singh: That is obvious - they are not.
Karan Thapar: Why is it obvious?
Arjun Singh: Obvious because it is something which we all see.
Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that the NSSO, which is a government appointed body, has actually in its research in 1999 - which is the most latest research shown - that 23.5 per cent of all university seats are already with the OBCs. And that is just 8.5 per cent less than what the NSSO believes is the OBC share of the population. So, for a difference of 8 per cent, would reservations be the right way of making up the difference?
Arjun Singh: I wouldn't like to go behind all this because, as I said, Parliament has taken a view and it has taken a decision, I am a servant of Parliament and I will only implement.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely, Parliament has taken a view, I grant it. But what people question is the simple fact - Is there a need for reservations? If you don't know what percentage of the country is OBC and if, furthermore, the NSSO is correct in pointing out that already 23.5 per cent of the college seats are with the OBC, then you don't have a case in terms of need.
Arjun Singh: College seats, I don't know.
Karan Thapar: According to the NSSO - which is a government appointed body - 23.5 per cent of the college seats are already with the OBCs.
Arjun Singh: What do you mean by college seats?
Karan Thapar: University seats, seats of higher education.
Arjun Singh: Well, I don't know I have not come across that so far.
Karan Thapar: So, when critics say to you that you don't have a case for reservation in terms of need, what do you say to them?
Arjun Singh: I have said what I had to say and the point is that that is not an issue for us to now debate.
Karan Thapar: You mean the chapter is now closed?
Arjun Singh: The decision has been taken.
Karan Thapar: Regardless of whether there is a need or not, the decision is taken and it is a closed chapter.
Arjun Singh: So far as I can see, it is a closed chapter and that is why I have to implement what all Parliament has said.

Karan Thapar: Minister, it is not just in terms of 'need' that your critics question the decision to have reservation for OBCs in higher education. More importantly, they question whether reservations themselves are efficacious and can work.
For example, a study done by the IITs themselves shows that 50 per cent of the IIT seats for the SCs and STs remain vacant, and for the remaining 50 per cent, 25 per cent are the candidates who even after six years fail to get their degrees. So, clearly, in their case, reservations are not working.
Arjun Singh: I would only say that on this issue, it would not be correct to go by all these figures that have been paraded.
Karan Thapar: You mean the IIT figures themselves could be dubious?
Arjun Singh: Not dubious, but I think that is not the last word.
Karan Thapar: All right, maybe the IIT may not be the last word, let me then quote to you the report of the Parliamentary Committee on the welfare for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes - that is a Parliamentary body.
It says, that looking at the Delhi University, between 1995 and 2000, just half the seats for under-graduates at the Scheduled Castes level and just one-third of the seats for under-graduates at the Scheduled Tribes level were filled. All the others went empty, unfilled. So, again, even in Delhi University, reservations are not working.
Arjun Singh: If they are not working, it does not mean that for that reason we don't need them. There must be some other reason why they are not working and that can be certainly probed and examined. But to say that for this reason, 'no reservations need to be done' is not correct.
Karan Thapar: Fifty years after the reservations were made, statistics show, according to The Hindustan Times, that overall in India, only 16 per cent of the places in higher education are occupied by SCs and STs. The quota is 22.5 per cent, which means that only two-thirds of the quota is occupied. One-third is going waste, it is being denied to other people.
Arjun Singh: As I said, the kind of figures that have been brought out, in my perception, do not reflect the realities. Realities are something much more and, of course, there is an element of prejudice also.
Karan Thapar: But these are figures that come from a Parliamentary Committee. It can't be prejudiced; they are your own colleagues.
Arjun Singh: Parliamentary Committee has given the figures, but as to why this has not happened, that is a different matter.
Karan Thapar: I put it to you that you don't have a case for reservations in terms of need, you don't have a case for reservations in terms of their efficacy, why then, are you insisting on extending them to the OBCs?
Arjun Singh: I don't want to use that word, but I think that your argument is basically fallacious.
Karan Thapar: But it is based on all the facts available in the public domain.
Arjun Singh: Those are facts that need to be gone into with more care. What lies behind those facts, why this has not happened, that is also a fact.

Jawaharlal Nehru and reservation

Karan Thapar: Let me quote to you Jawaharlal Nehru, a man whom you personally admire enormously. On the 27th of June 1961 wrote to the Chief Ministers of the day as follows: I dislike any kind of reservations. If we go in for any kind of reservations on communal and caste basis, we will swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. The moment we encourage the second-rate, we are lost. And then he adds pointedly: This way lies not only folly, but also disaster. What do you say to Jawaharlal Nehru today?
Arjun Singh: Jawaharlal Nehru was a great man in his own right and not only me, but everyone in India accept his view.
Karan Thapar: But you are just about to ignore his advice.
Arjun Singh: No. Are you aware that it was Jawaharlal Nehru who introduced the first amendment regarding OBCs?

Karan Thapar: Yes, and I am talking about Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, when clearly he had changed his position, he said, “I dislike any kind of reservations”.
Arjun Singh: I don't think one could take Panditji's position at any point of time and then overlook what he had himself initiated.
Karan Thapar: Am I then to understand that regardless of the case that is made against reservations in terms of need, regardless of the case that has been made against reservations in terms of efficacy, regardless of the case that has been made against reservations in terms of Jawaharlal Nehru, you remain committed to extending reservations to the OBCs.
Arjun Singh: I said because that is the will of Parliament. And I think that common decisions that are taken by Parliament have to be honoured.

Logistics in the increase in the number of seats

Karan Thapar: One way forward would be to increase the total number of seats.
Arjun Singh: Yes, definitely.
Karan Thapar: But the problem is that, as the Times of India points out, we are talking of an increase of perhaps as much as 53 per cent. Given the constraints you have in terms of faculty and infrastructure, won't that order of increase dilute the quality of education?
Arjun Singh: I would only make one humble request, don't go by The Times of India and The Hindustan Times about faculty and infrastructure, because they are trying to focus on an argument which they have made.
Karan Thapar: All right, I will not go by The Times of India, let me instead go by Sukhdev Thorat, the Chairman of the UGC. He points out that today, at higher education levels - that is all universities, IITs and IIMs - there is already a 1.2 lakh vacancy number. Forty per cent of these are in teaching staff, which the IIT faculty themselves point out that they have shortages of up to 30 per cent. Given those two constraint, can you increase the number of seats?
Arjun Singh: That can be addressed and that shortage can be taken care of.
Karan Thapar: But it can't be taken care of in one swoop, it will take several years to do it.
Arjun Singh: I don't know whether it can be taken care of straightway or in stages, that is a subject to be decided.

"Creamy layer" and children of beneficiaries

Karan Thapar: The CPM says that if the reservations for the OBCs are to happen, then what is called the ‘creamy layer’ should be excluded. How do you react to that?
Arjun Singh: The ‘creamy layer’ issue has already been taken care of by the Supreme Court.
Karan Thapar: That was vis-a-vis jobs in employment, what about at the university level, should they be excluded there as well because you are suggesting that the answer is yes?
Arjun Singh: That could be possible.
Karan Thapar: It could be possible that the ‘creamy layer’ is excluded from reservations for OBCs in higher education?
Arjun Singh: It could be, but I don't know whether it would happen actually.
Karan Thapar: Many people say that if reservations for OBCs in higher education happen, then the children of beneficiaries should not be entitled to claim the same benefit.
Arjun Singh: Why?
Karan Thapar: So that there is always a shrinking base and the rate doesn't proliferate.
Arjun Singh: I don't think that that is a very logical way of looking at it.
Karan Thapar: Is that not acceptable to you?
Arjun Singh: No, it is not the logical way of looking at it.
Karan Thapar: So, with the possible exception of the creamy layer exclusion, reservation for OBCs in higher education will be almost identical to the existing reservations for SC/STs?
Arjun Singh: Except for the percentage.
Karan Thapar: Except for the percentage.
Arjun Singh: Yes.
Karan Thapar: So, in every other way, they will be identical.
Arjun Singh: Yes, in every other way.

Jumping the gun or fall guy?

Karan Thapar: Mr Arjun Singh, on the 5th of April when you first indicated that the Government was considering reservation for OBCs in higher education, was the Prime Minister in agreement that this was the right thing to do?
Arjun Singh: I think, there is a very motivated propaganda on this issue. Providing reservation to OBCs was in the public domain right from December 2005, when Parliament passed the enabling resolution.
Karan Thapar: Quite true. But had the Prime Minister specifically agreed on or before 5th of April to the idea?
Arjun Singh: Well, I am telling you it was already there. A whole Act was made, the Constitution was amended and the Prime Minister was fully aware of what this is going to mean. Actually, he had a meeting in which OBC leaders were called to convince them that this would give them the desired advantage. And they should, therefore, support this resolution. And at that meeting, he himself talked to them. Now, how do you say that he was unaware?
Karan Thapar: But were you at all aware that the Prime Minister might be in agreement with what was about to happen but might not wish it disclosed publicly at that point of time? Were you aware of that?
Arjun Singh: It was already there in public domain, that's what I am trying to tell you.
Karan Thapar: Then answer this to me. Why are members of the PMO telling journalists that Prime Minister was not consulted and that you jumped the gun?
Arjun Singh: Well, I don't know which member of the PMO you are talking about unless you name him.
Karan Thapar: Is there a conspiracy to make you the Fall Guy?
Arjun Singh: Well, I don't know whether there is one or there is not. But Fall Guys are not made in this way. And I am only doing what was manifestly clear to every one, was cleared by the party and the Prime Minister. There is no question of any personal agenda.
Karan Thapar: They say that, in fact, you brought up this issue to embarrass the Prime Minister.
Arjun Singh: Why should I embarrass the Prime Minister? I am with him. I am part of his team.
Karan Thapar: They say that you have a lingering, forgive the word, jealousy because Sonia Gandhi chose Manmohan Singh and not you as Prime Minister.
Arjun Singh: Well, that is canard which is below contempt. Only that person can say this who doesn't know what kind of respect and regard I hold for Sonia Gandhi. She is the leader. Whatever she decides is acceptable to me.
Karan Thapar: They also say that you brought this issue up because you felt that the Prime Minister had been eating into your portfolio. Part of it had gone to Renuka Chaudhury and, in fact, your new deputy minister Purandar Sridevi had taken over certain parts. This was your way of getting back.
Arjun Singh: No one was taking over any part. This is a decision which the Prime Minister makes as to who has to have what portfolio. And he asked Mrs Renuka Devi to take it and he cleared it with me first.
Karan Thapar: So there is no animus on your part?
Arjun Singh: Absolutely not.
Karan Thapar: They say that you did this because you resented the Prime Minister's popular image in the country, that this was your way of embroiling him in a dispute that will make him look not like a modern reformer but like an old-fashioned, family-hold politician instead.
Arjun Singh: Well, the Tammany Hall political stage is over. He is our Prime Minister and every decision he has taken is in the full consent with his Cabinet and I don't think there can be any blame on him.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ohrwurm and Jethu's Songs

There is a word in German, that probably doesn't have an equivalent in English: Ohrwurm (literal translation: "ear worm"). It describes a condition where a song or melody sticks in the head and refuses to get out, and one has to hum/whistle it over and over all day long.

My aunt, "Jethima" had been visiting me last weekend and she had brought a few cds of my uncle's ("Jethu"'s) songs that they have released, unfortunately after his death.Jethu had been a diligent collector and later singer and teacher of folk songs from the North Bengal-Assam regions, particularly the ones sung in the tea gardens, but he had seldom recorded his songs. There used to be one gamaphone record when we were kids, but the era of gamaphone records passed, so did the record. As a result, I don't remember when I had heard Jethu's songs last, although of course I do remember some of the beautiful melodies. The cd revived those memories and some of these melodies, the jhumur songs have been going in my head all the while, in fact I must have heard the cd some 15 times during the weekend. The one that has been a real Ohrwurm since the last few days isn't on the website, but two other favourite jumurs are there, albeit in not-so-great recordings (later recordings when he was quite old, and in the case of the second case with chorus and too much orchestra) here and here. It is a pity I don't know whether or how I can load mp3s onto the blog, otherwise I'd upload my favourite ones from the cd here.

Something I had not realized when I was a kid was how beautiful some of the lyrics of some of these songs are. They talk mostly of sadness and the social conditions, but sometimes also of romance and flirting within that. The dialect is from North Bengal, or Assam, or a mixture between these two or even mixed with that of the Chotanagpur area from where coolies used to go to work in the tea gardens up there. And so I can't understand most of it. I have emailed Jethima asking her if she could send me the lyrics when she gets back to Shantiniketan, and I hope she does.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Homophobia at the UN

I get these email newsletters from ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association). They often have interesting political information. I guess at some point I should become a member and really think of doing something, attending their conferences when they are held in Europe or the like. But I'm, after all, me, and my to-do list is as boundless as my procrastination.

Anyway, I just saw this newsletter saying that ILGA and a German LGBT organization had requested observer status at the UN, and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)’s Committee on Non-governmental organizations rejected both applications on the same ground, proposed and supported by Iran and Sudan respectively: neither organization had "succeeded in proving it had taking sufficient measures to prevent or fight paedophilia". What an absurd and atrocious contention!

Quoting from the ILGA website:
Votes to reject LSVD and ILGA’s Europe’s applications on a proposal of Iran went as follows:
- 9 in favor (Cameroon, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Iran, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Senegal, Sudan and Zimbabwe)
- 7 against (Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Peru, Romania and the United States)
- 2 abstentions (India and Turkey)
- 1 member not present (Cuba)

I am happy to see that India abstained. Given the homophobic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, I guess they couldn't have directly supported the two organizations. But I wish they would. Imagine if both India and Turkey had voted against the proposal...

Quoting again,

Germany stressed that the accusation of paedophilia was absurd against an NGO such as ILGA Europe which enjoys consultative status with the Council of Europe, receives project funding from the European Union and has spoken to the OSCE on human rights defenders.

I am happy to see India again being included in the following:

In general statements before the vote and explanations of position, the representatives of Germany, France, Chile, Romania, India and Peru, noting that during the session, applications of two NGOs addressing the same issue had been rejected, expressed concern that there seemed to be a discriminatory trend. “As homosexuality was a delicate issue, a constructive dialogue between the Committee and the NGO would have been welcome” they noted.

The article from the ILGA website can be found here.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Reservation" or Affirmative Action in India

A large number of students, especially medical students, are protesting against the government's proposed policy of increasing the number of reserved seats in educational institutes to 50%. These protests are really muted compared to those in 1990 against the implementation of similar recommendations of the Mandal Commission. One of the reasons of the fall of the then government is often attributed to their obstinacy in implementing these recommendations (although I don't think that is true... the BJP withdrew external support from the government after Advani was arrested in UP). Now we have a repeat perfomance 16 years later. The government, at least the minister for Human Resources Development, Arjun Singh, appears adamant about implementing the plan. Something tells me that this time it will get through and the government will survive.

An important goal of Independent India was to ensure social justice. Several sections of the Hindu society in India-- the so-called lower castes-- had been exploited by other social classes since centuries. The ills of the caste system urgently needed to be rectified and the Constitution of India rightly ensured that 22.5% seats in educational institutions and government jobs would be reserved for backward classes, 15% for the Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes. The original idea was retain this reservation for a particular time frame after which it would conceivably be not necessary any more. What has happened instead is that vote-bank politics has taken over. No political party, not even BJP can think of touching reservation after 59 years of independence, rather the number of reserved seats seems to go up. Meritocracy can go to hell.

Problems with the Concept
What has been seriously lacking is social upliftment at primary levels. They don't build enough schools, establish scholarships and nurture conditions and motivations to actually make the weaker sections of the society reach to the levels where they would actually be able to compete with the others. I think is very rare that a person who hasn't been able get far enough because of caste conditions would be helped by having seats reserved at the highest institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institute of Science. Instead, what we see is people getting in through the "backdoor", "cheating" other deserving candidates who are not good enough, but most likely their parents have availed of reservation before them, as their own children after them, despite of course their not really requiring it. The so-called "creamy layer", already advantaged already socially ahead, seems to be the only beneficiary.

A Few Personal Experiences
I do add a caveat here. There was a guy, A, who had joined our department at the IISc via the reserved category, who was probably the hardest working among our group and ended up doing excellent work. I guess the avenues he opened up in their lab are still being utilized by his former supervisor to provide projects to the latter's current students. I doubt whether the guy in question would have got in had he applied through the open category... he just wasn't street smart enough to have been likely to clear the interviews. A certainly deserved to be in. On the other hand, there was also S, who had joined the same lab as me, but through the reserved category. He was really stupid, didn't know the basics and I have no idea how he expected to complete a PhD on his own-- he certainly didn't deserve one. At the end he couldn't cope and was persuaded to leave. S shouldn't have been taken in in the first place.
There is also a member of the faculty of the IISc who was taken in through the reserved category. He had done his PhD there, I believe, and had done very well in his postdoctoral research and apparently has several patents and good publications. He was one of the most enterprising faculty member, and consulted with several private firms, something that wasn't done as often as it should have been in Indian science at that time. He certainly deserved to there. But I bet he would have easily got in with out reservation... in fact honestly I am not sure whether he did get in through the reserved category.
On the other hand, there used to be so many incompetent members of the technical staff at our department in Pune University. They did nothing, and couldn't be told to do anything either. A rather naive professor who became the Head of the department for a while got into a tiff with one of these people and she promptly reported it to their SC/ST union as a castist issue. The professor of course had to back down, and I believe has left the university since then.

The Politics
Much as I hate to use the phrase, reservation has become the "holy cow" in Indian politics.

The minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, announced that another 27% of the seats would be reserved in institutes (and government jobs too?) for what is being called "Other Backward Castes" (OBCs)... bringing the total number of reserved seats to a ridiculous 49.5%. Apparently the parliament had passed a bill to approve of reservation for OBCs- as I said, this is the holy cow of Indian politics and no political party dares to oppose it. Arjun Singh had a double (or even triple) aggenda. First he announced this just before the elections in 5 states, and the Election Commission made a serious objection because the model code of conduct applied to the Central Government as there were so many states in the process of elections. Arjun Singh initially responded rather belligerently but then backed down. It is also being murmured that he jumped the gun with his announcement. That the prime minisiter was not properly consulted before the announcement. But Manmohan Singh or even Sonia Gandhi cannot overrule this as this is of course the holy cow. Manmohan Singh appears to be more and more a lame duck anyway.

Conspiracy Theory
Considering that the VP Singh government suffered terribly because of Mandal, one could go for the conspiracy theory where Arjun Singh's way go getting back at not being made the prime minister would be to make sure that caste politics kills Manmohan Singh's government. The government cannot back down from reservation now, but staying put would increase protests as it is doing now. The protests during Mandal were terrible and prolonged. I wonder what will happen now. Arjun Singh will of course become the darling of the pro-reservationists, and Manmohan Singh will be increasingly exposed as ineffective or lame duck. His own policies are being challenged.
I do wonder whether Rahul Gandhi might step in as the champion of sensiblity. This would be a good chance for him.

Solution Proposed by the Government
Manmohan Singh proposes to increase the seats of institutes by a wopping 53% to ensure that the total number of seats for the open category remains same. The concept of 49.5% reservation is a terrible one, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen in the first place. But if the protests fail, I guess this is the minimum that should offered. Seats should be increased, or more institutes should be built anyway, by how feasible and realistic such a proposal would be is yet to be seen. How could the IITs, for example, suddenly decide to take in 53% more students? The infrastructure-- hostels, facilities, equipment, faculty, staff, administration and procedures etc-- needs to be taken care of first, and then an increase in intake could be possible. And what about research institutes? IISc of course has a plan to expand in 2008 coinciding with the centenary. But if a lab requires two PhD students, how can they take in three? One would have to conceive a MASSIVE increase in budget, much more than a mere 53%. Would that be possible? I can't see all this happening before a couple of years or even half a decade. Would the 49.5% reservation wait until that? Arjun Singh's belligerence doesn't indicate so.

Concluding Thoughts
While I was growing up, we used to move a lot because of my father's transferable job that took us to various parts of India. Consequently, I studied in Kendriya Vidyalayas, a chain of schools all over the country, meant mainly for children of people in the armed forces, but also for people like me. Since most people in the armed forces whether senior or junior officers, whatever their social class or caste, are transferred quite frequently, the best option for them is to have their children in these schools for the ease of changing schools without disrupting curricula too much. This meant my classmates and friends came from all walks of life, from all parts of the country, spoke all kinds of languages, followed different religions and had different food habits. Who cared whether you were different-- everyone was different. No one knew who was from a lower caste or social class. Yes, some students were indeed weaker in studies and it is possible that they came from socially or economically weaker classes, but our teachers encouraged us to help them with their studies, and we often did so. Reservation and castes did not matter, and I, and I bet most others, were completely unaware of that. Until school ended, and we had to compete for seats in higher educational institutes and jobs, and we came across reservation. Now we knew who got in through these undeserving back-door channels. People who deserved to get in, but did not because of these non-meritorious criteria were obviously held grudges.

Why doesn't the politcal class of these six decades not build up a system like our Kendriya Vidyalayas where caste or social class doesn't matter. Why don't they create conditions at the very grassroots to empower weaker sections, to improve their basic education and opportunities so that reserving seats at higher levels is not required any more.
Obviously the political parties would not be able to milk votes from differences if differences do not exist.
UPDATES: This post may have been a bit one-sided. Check out an interesting suggestion and other sides of the story here.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

yet another beginning...

I have already had two previous attempts at maintaining a blog. Here's a third one. Would I bet on whether it survives after the first few posts? No way. But doesn't this go against my self-proclaimed incorrigible optimism? Perhaps, but remember, whenever I make that claim, I also hasten to add that I am also a realist at the same time. Let me explain. I have seen my blogging disappear after a few weeks or maybe a few months. So while my incorrigible optimism leads me to create yet another blog, my realism forces me to be skeptical (I don't know why I prefer a "k" over a "c" in this word) about its long term future. But let's see, I'll give it a chance.

The reason I lose interest in my blogs and create a new one is that I lose interest with something in it. My first one was very anonymous in the beginning and I used to refer to people as B. or S. or K. or the like, and sometimes confused myself. Noone of course ever read it because I didn't tell anyone about it. Later on, I did start using names. There were quite a few things happening and these called for verbal diarrhoea, but I didn't have time... and it seemed unfair that I ignore these important parts of my life (like almost falling in love and a 2-week trip to Greece) in the blog. And then of course the most important character in the story, Mr. Procrastination comes to play and the blog kinda dies. It can, of course, be revived, but for some reason I don't feel like it. I feel like making a fresh start.

The second attempt was not only anonymous, but was "pseudonymous". It was supposed to be my writing practice. It took advantage of the possibility of multiple blogs under the same account on this website, and had three blogs. The first one would be a diary; the second really a writing practice, with my attempts at writing, jotting down notes, character sketches etc; and the third and the most successful one was a e-scrapbook, where I used to collect interesting news items from various websites. This set died again because of the infamous Mr. P., although as I mentioned, the scrapbook went on for quite a while. The reason even the scrapbook died (or more appropriately, fell into coma) was I was bored of copy-pasting the news items and finding and inserting the appropriate html code for hiding most of the text in the main blog. I also kinda got disenchanted with the pseudonymity and the pointlessness of the pseudonymity.

I will probably still have this a bit anonymous, but lets see. I'm also planning a few different sections here. One will be this one, the diary. I will probably also have the scrapbook and the creative writing sections, though of course the latter would probably be hidden. And most importantly, in light of my impending visit to Paris, I'll have a travelogue. I will probably add visitors (HC/CS and otherwise) to it too. And this time I'll be a bit less timid about giving my blog out to people, especially on the internet.

Let's see how it works out.