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PERSPECTIVE

A Tribune Special
Intellectual and society
Time to redefine their role and responsibility, says Vice-President Hamid Ansari
The debate on the linkage between thought and action, and the moral imperative for action, is a perennial one. Neither exists in isolation. It has been argued that the notion of pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, in contrast with knowledge pursued explicitly for some particular end, is misleading.



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OPED

Teachers need training
Why school education is in a mess
by Amrik Singh
Close on the heels of the fatal ragging case in a medical college in Himachal Pradesh, an 11-year-old girl of a Delhi municipal school died after being made to stand in the sun as part of punishment. And now there is a call for the teacher’s punishment. Ragging is widespread and it looks as if the growing expansion of numbers is generating fresh problems and those are  multiplying one after another.

Javed AbidiOn Record
The disabled also count in the elections: Abidi 
by Syed Ali Ahmed
Javed Abidi, a handicapped with locomotor disability, is a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. He did his masters in journalism from the US. He had filed a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution in the Supreme Court asking it to direct the Centre and the states to implement the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1955.

Javed Abidi

Profile
Sampath: EC with an impeccable record
by Harihar Swarup
Why was Veeravalli Sundaram Sampath, an Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer, chosen for the coveted post of Election Commissioner? There were several big names for the constitutional post. They included Maharashtra Chief Secretary Johnny Joseph, Karnataka Chief Secretary Sudhakar Rao, former Union Power Secretary Anil Razdan and Union Law Secretary T.K. Vishwanathan. How did a dark horse win the race?


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A Tribune Special
Intellectual and society
Time to redefine their role and responsibility, says Vice-President Hamid Ansari

The debate on the linkage between thought and action, and the moral imperative for action, is a perennial one. Neither exists in isolation. It has been argued that the notion of pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, in contrast with knowledge pursued explicitly for some particular end, is misleading.

The intellectual’s responsibility, admittedly, is to think; but thinking in itself is an activity and as such is linked to the activity which is the implementation of thinking; a refusal to see it so is to be morally culpable. The intellectual thus becomes a critical element in the value system of a society.

The intellectual is entrusted with a special responsibility. It necessitates corresponding action. Such an approach would lend credence to Marx’s observation that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Nor was Marx alone in urging a linkage.

“The intellectual”, wrote Vaclav Havel in 1986, “should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity”. By doing so the intelligentsia risks, in Toynbee’s telling phrase, becoming an outcaste, born to be unhappy because its very existence is a reproach to the society concerned.

In a celebrated essay in 1967, Chomsky had asserted that in considering the responsibility of intellectuals “our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology” and to see events in their historical perspective.

The same point was made by Edward Said in his Reith Lectures in 1993 when he urged the contemporary intellectual “to speak the truth to power”, and do so by “carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change”.

At the other end of the spectrum, the intellectual is viewed as a dangerous creature capable of poisoning minds, destabilising order and creating chaos. Paul Johnson, in a selective survey, has questioned the “moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals” and cautioned about “the heartless tyranny of ideas” emanating from them.

Such perceptions have been used to create or sustain closed societies, including some masquerading as open ones. We have enough examples in our own times of dictatorships of the right or the left, and of societies imposing a monopoly of control anchored on race, religion or atavistic claims.

The debate on what the intellectual can and should do, and in what manner, has taken place in most societies. The impulses and imperatives vary, so do the constraints. It is of particular relevance in a society like ours where, to echo Edward Said’s caution, “easy certainties provided us by our background, language, nationality…so often shield us from the reality of others”.

On the basis of the role played by intellectuals in different societies, it is possible to develop a typology. They can be academics, writers, artists or activists. Creativity and courage are the two essential conditions for their public role. There is also a symbiotic relationship between the ideas within a society and its institutions of social sciences.

Nor can external influences or linkages be overlooked. Researchers have spoken of the impact on national perceptions of international “epistemic communities” defined as network of professionals and experts who share normative beliefs, lay claim to policy-relevant knowledge and impact policy perceptions.

Where then do we locate the role and responsibility of the intellectual in contemporary India?

India, it has been said, is a political and economic paradox: a rich-poor nation with a weak-strong state. Persistent centrism, and continuous realignment, is one of its striking features. This has accommodated a wide spectrum of interests, classes, status groups, regions and communities in the political process and development structures.

This accommodation has not always been equitable. The Constitution provides the point of reference; its Preamble is the key to its social, political and economic philosophy and to its core value system. It has been described as a moral document embodying an ethical vision; this compels attention to Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s observation that constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment and has to be cultivated.

On Dr S. Radhakrishnan’s parameters, amongst the primary responsibilities of the intellectual would be to educate society on these values and to assess the extent to which they are being adhered to. An unavoidable concomitant of this would be the necessity of “speaking the truth to power”.

The challenge before the intelligentsia, wrote Rajni Kothari six decades after Radhakrishnan’s lectures, is “to keep alive the flame of hope and resurgence, and to continue offering ideological alternatives to the struggling segments of the mass public.” The role of the intellectual thus becomes integral to the healthy functioning of a society.

The nature of the society in question, and the relationships secreted in its interstices, provides the starting point of analysis. Any critique of the Indian polity would thus involve scrutiny on multiple axes and require threefold examination of the relationship of the state and society, the state and democracy and the polity and the economy. Our quest would focus on the role of the intellectual in the furtherance of this critique.

It would be worthwhile to examine five specific areas, namely, institutions, economic amelioration, corruption, rights and environment.

Institutions

The structure of our polity took shape through intensive debates during the freedom struggle and in the Constituent Assembly. The Constitution bestowed centrality on the state and impacted on the relationship between it and the society.

A good deal of social activity came to be focused on ways and means of impacting state perceptions and activity. Interest groups in society thus came to focus on elections as the first and logical step in this endeavour; the excellent work in this field done by Lokniti has been widely acknowledged.

In the process, however, the democratic functioning of society came to be considered by most as synonymous with the electoral process. Ashish Nandy has termed it ‘psephocracy’. The study of the actual functioning of the institutions received inadequate attention and the wider implications of this for public debate and discussion were, exceptions apart, insufficiently scrutinised by the intellectuals.

Its impression on public perceptions is all too evident today and raises questions about the health of our institutions and the state of governance. There are some exceptions to an otherwise pervasive neglect. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Rajni Kothari, amongst others, are illustrative of these.

Mehta’s critique is on the failure of the state in the removal of inequality. Mehta’s solution lies in correctives to statism through a new politics of redistribution arising out of the policy of economic liberalisation: “What Indian democracy needs is a new sense of the relationship between the public and the private”. He accepts that this will require an extraordinary effort. No blueprint, however, is put forth except the suggestion that the proceeds of disinvestments should be earmarked for poverty alleviation and human resource development.

To Rajni Kothari, democracy “as a system has not been realised in practice” and remains an aspiration. The turbulence in India compels attention to the “deeper psycho-spiritual dimensions of Indian reality”, to societal perspectives rather than political ones. The Indian scene is characterised by a tradition of tolerance of pluralism, dissent and opposition. An unwelcome consequence of it is tolerance of “ambiguity, deprivation and humiliation”.

One aspect of the institutions of democracy pertains to the rule of law. A few years back, a senior law officer of the Government posed a candid question: have the three organs of the state discharged their constitutional obligations and functioned within the limits set forth by the constitution?

His own answer was that the rule of law is “under serious threat” arising out of “cancerous developments eating into the fabric of each institution” and with “each is destroying itself from within”. Others too have spoken of the under-reach of some institutions and over-reach of others, both resulting in disturbing the balance visualised in the Constitution.

There is little or no evidence to suggest that the requisite correctives are underway; nor has any concerted effort been made by public intellectuals to turn the grievance into a movement.

Economic amelioration

These views on institutions, reflective on one plane of a widespread frustration over their demonstrated shortcomings, have not prevented civil society movements led or supported by intellectuals advocating correctives in some areas of social life, and putting some of them in place through changes in the institutional framework.

Consider the processes leading to the enactment of the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, both in 2005. The first has led to the empowerment of the citizen vis-à-vis the state and is unquestionably the first major step towards transparency.

We have, as Aruna Roy put it, “an obligation to those who are denied access to shrinking public spaces” adding that “campaigns have repeatedly demonstrated the power of collective participation to change the direction of governance”.

Public opposition to specific instances of acquisition of agricultural land for SEZs, and the related discussions on approaches to industrialisation, continues to propel the debate about alternate models of development strategy. This has received an impetus in the wake of the global financial crisis.

On a wider canvass, Amartya Sen has stressed the need for “ideas about changing the organisation of society in the long run”. Do we, he enquires, “really need some kind of “new capitalism” rather than an economic system that is not monolithic, draws on a variety of institutions chosen pragmatically, and is based on social values that we can defend ethically?” Should we search for a new capitalism or for a “new world” that would take a different form?’

Corruption

Peter deSouza called corruption “democracy’s inconvenient fact”. The Approach Paper to the 11th Five Year Plan considered corruption “endemic in all spheres”. Corrective movements like Parivartan have based their effort on effective use of the RTI and the mechanism of social audit and Jansunwai have received support of intellectuals and civil society groups; they have produced results in specific cases. This is acknowledged in the Report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission on Ethics in Governance.

The ARC’s specific recommendations would need for implementation political will and focused public support in much greater measure than is forthcoming at present.

Rights

The doctrine of rights has evolved in recent years. A conscious effort, as yet uneven, has been made to give content to concepts of equality and justice. The role of the judiciary, and of the Public Interest Litigation, has contributed substantially to it. The ambit of rights has been amplified by the 1997 judgement of the Supreme Court in Visakha v State of Rajasthan.

The position taken by a wide cross-section of intellectuals on communal, economic or regional issues like the Babri Masjid demolition, the 2002 Gujarat riots, or the more recent happenings in West Bengal on land acquisition, in Orissa and Karnataka on security of minorities and on regional chauvinism and communalism in Maharashtra, are indicative of an awareness that is to be welcomed.

Exploratory efforts have been initiated by the government to put in place a Diversity Index and create an Equal Opportunity Commission. Intellectuals have contributed to both in good measure. Both would need a wider degree of public support to allow these to pass the test of legislative approval.

Environment

Movements to protect and safeguard the environment have an older vintage and fall into two broad categories: micro movements based on result-oriented efforts on specific issues and with wide public participation, and macro movements to influence policy.

The most famous in the first category is the Chipko movement of the early 1970s. Others movements have related to opposition to the construction of major dams and hydel projects and to instances of environmental disasters; examples of these are the Silent Valley, Tehri Dam and Narmada River Valley projects and the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Despite the involvement of activists, large-scale public support on a sustained basis was often lacking and only the movement to oppose the Silent Valley project was successful. On the other hand, grass-root levels efforts in Maharashtra like the Pani Panchayat and Ralegan Sidhi, associated with Anna Hazare, have been more successful.

The instances cited in this very brief survey present a varied picture ranging from frustration to success and to a mix of both. The latter may induce the optimist to advocate, as a hard-nosed realist put it in another context, patient accumulation of partial successes. The intellectual, admittedly, must speak truth to power.

As for the intellectuals’ role and responsibility, most would accept the need to speak truth to power and do so by advocating the correct alternative. In doing so, awareness and analysis of the major and minor premises of proposed approaches becomes unavoidable.

Where do we conclude? The answer is neither easy nor simple. A position nevertheless needs to be taken. The journey, of necessity, is a lonely one. To quote Edward Said, the most indomitable of intellectuals:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so remain within the responsible mainstream; some day you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship. For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalisation of such habits.

Gandhiji would have put the point across in his own way. “I know the path”, he said. “It is straight and narrow. It is like the edge of a sword. I rejoice to walk on it. I weep when I slip.”

Excerpted from the Thirteenth Radhakrishnan Memorial Lecture delivered by the Vice-President of India at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, on April 16, 2009
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Teachers need training
Why school education is in a mess
by Amrik Singh

Close on the heels of the fatal ragging case in a medical college in Himachal Pradesh, an 11-year-old girl of a Delhi municipal school died after being made to stand in the sun as part of punishment. And now there is a call for the teacher’s punishment. Ragging is widespread and it looks as if the growing expansion of numbers is generating fresh problems and those are multiplying one after another.

Clearly, as more and more children join school, the system is becoming overloaded and unmanageable. Since this includes even private schools, the situation is even more difficult. Since the states functions in a typical bureaucratic manner, the problem has become difficult.

There is also another dimension of the problem. While one-third of India is already urbanised, some states have a larger proportion of population in the urban sector. It will be no surprise if one-quarter of the states belong to that category. Delhi is a case in point. To be made to stand in the sun in the highly urbanised setting of Delhi makes the issue all the more public and controversial.

One cannot overlook the disparities of functioning between rural and urban areas. In most states, the expenditure on education is seldom less than 25 per cent of the total. In most cases, it is 30 per cent plus. In certain cases, it is even higher. Are the municipal bodies organised enough for making right appointments?

Where the number of teachers runs into a high figure, the issue of professional management becomes crucial. On average, a primary school consists of three teachers. Sometimes, it is lower or even higher, implying that in most states such problems are not being taken care of. There is no arrangement whatsoever about the training of teachers.

Are all the teachers trained well enough for the job? Do arrangements for proper training even exist? More often than not, inadequacy of arrangements is the rule rather than the exception. Going by the earlier figures, the number of teachers working at the elementary level is a little less than 4 million. This is very high and though this is divided over 25-30 states, some units, particularly the larger ones, have serious shortages to reckon with.

Moreover, most of them enter teaching after completing their +2 course. Generally, there is a one-year training course for these teachers at the local level. But the quality of training is so poor that it has adversely affected the standard of education.

The National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) is a professional body to look after these issues. Set up in 1994, for the first few years, it functioned reasonably well. Much more attention was paid to B.Ed training than to the training of the elementary school teachers. But the needs of the larger number were neglected and the smaller number of teachers was given less professional attention.

The source of most problems is that, in almost every state, things are overcentralised and there is no proper delegation of power. In the rural sector, for example, things are directly controlled by the Department of Education. In the urban sector, these are controlled by the Department most directly.

In the urban sector, these are controlled by the municipal committees or corporations but they are cast in the mould of a government department. Delegation to the local authorities is as good as not there. Thus, while there is overcentralisation of functioning, professinalisation is either poor or weak. Mostly, it is the latter.

Before the British came, schooling was carried on either under the control of temples or mosques. The system which we see today did not exist then. The local community did have a voice in the matter. In any case, extensive use of physical punishment did not exist in the system. Once things became depersonalised, physical punishment of students and such other problems became a part of the overall functioning.

With the spread of the new system, things did not improve. There is an urgent need to decentralise authority in the school system. In such a system, when incidents like what are being currently reported about from different parts of the country become the centre of attention, we are immediately faced with one crucial thing — training and re-training of the teachers.

The touch of the personal element is vital for the right kind of functioning of schools. This is missing at present. Most problems flow from this inability to adjust with the changing times.

The entire system of training and re-training needs to be changed. While training needs some attention, re-training is hardly receiving any attention from the states. The current system of training and re-training needs immediate attention. Otherwise, the situation will continue to deteriorate.

In this connection, one disturbing fact may be mentioned. In 2005, the number of B.Ed training colleges was a little over 3,000. At the moment, it is over 30,000. Does this expansion of 10 times sound logical? Clearly, while elementary school education has been neglected, the B.Ed. training has been undermined and indeed destroyed wantonly. Shady decision-making and underhand operations have almost destroyed the system of teacher education.

Of the two issues under discussion, a distinction might be made between them. Delegation of powers is not likely to be modified so easily. It would mean the Department of Education divesting itself of certain powers in favour of greater democratic control, than what obtains today.

It is common knowledge that the local MLAs are generally opposed to it. The panchayat leaders are not strong enough to assert their right and obligation. Nor is the Department of Education enthusiastic about it.

But when it comes to the training and re-training of teachers, the task is easier. There are other problems which are equally difficult to overcome but there is no internal pressure to oppose it. In the short run, therefore, this job can be done more easily.

And it so happens that the problem of ragging, use of violence in the classroom and lack of sympathy for students are exactly issues which clamour for urgent attention. In a sense, therefore, once those in authority make up their mind, the rest would follow relatively easily.

The writer is a former Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala
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On Record
The disabled also count in the elections: Abidi 
by Syed Ali Ahmed

Javed Abidi, a handicapped with locomotor disability, is a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. He did his masters in journalism from the US. He had filed a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution in the Supreme Court asking it to direct the Centre and the states to implement the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

He had also filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking infrastructure for the disabled to exercise their franchise during elections. To pressurise the authorities concerned, he has created a network at the national level to unite the handicapped to send out a clear a message to political parties that the disabled also count in electoral politics.

In 2004, Javed had contested the Lok Sabha election from New Delhi to create awareness about the problems of the disabled.

Javed, Director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People and Convener of the Disabled Rights Group, spoke to The Sunday Tribune about his future plans.

Excerpts:

Q: What is the purpose of raising the issue of the disabled during the elections?

A: I am seeking proper infrastructure for the handicapped for exercising their franchise. The handicapped people are also citizens. They have equal rights. The right to vote is a fundamental right.

Q:What do you expect from the Centre?

A: There is need for security arrangements for the handicapped, proper furniture, electronic voting machines with Braille, ramp, etc. The handicapped people cannot stand for a long time in the queue. If there are chairs, they can take rest. Revolving chairs should also be there for orthopaedically disabled. A mechanism should be developed to teach the deaf and dumb about voting.

Q: When was the demand for infrastructure for handicapped made first?

A: I had raised this issue first in 1995 when Mr T. N. Seshan was the Chief Election Commissioner. Though I had written to him, he did not bother to respond. We approached the Election Commission last year, but in vain.

Q: How did you convince the authorities to accept your demand?

A: With the help of the Disabled Rights Group activists, I organised a rally at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in 2004, followed by a dharna and fast unto death. When I entered the third day of my fast, my health deteriorated. Following the rigid posture of the Election Commission, my supporters approached the Chief Justice of India with our demands. The then CJI Justice V.N. Khare told them, “tell your convener to call off his hunger strike. We are now seized of the matter.”

Q. How will the message about the infrastructure be conveyed to the handicapped?

A: The State Election Commission should shoulder this responsibility. But the handicapped should also consider participating in the electoral process as a duty.

Politicians understand the language of vote banks. If we can prove that we are also vote banks, they will understand and act accordingly.

Q: How will you organise the disabled?

A: This can be done through our national network. Secondly, if the Congress, the BJP, the CPI, the CPM, the SP, the BSP and others speak at forums regarding our demands, it will work wonders.

Q: Your other demands?

A: There should be a separate Ministry of Disability Affairs. We are Indian nationals. We need attention. At present, the disabled are included in the Ministry of Social Justice and Minorities which is hardly bothered about them. Through a separate ministry, various steps can be taken for the welfare of the disabled and to eradicate disability.

Why do people become blind at a certain age? What are the causes for the birth of disabled children? These questions cannot be addressed without a separate ministry.

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Profile
Sampath: EC with an impeccable record
by Harihar Swarup

Why was Veeravalli Sundaram Sampath, an Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer, chosen for the coveted post of Election Commissioner? There were several big names for the constitutional post. They included Maharashtra Chief Secretary Johnny Joseph, Karnataka Chief Secretary Sudhakar Rao, former Union Power Secretary Anil Razdan and Union Law Secretary T.K. Vishwanathan. How did a dark horse win the race?

Sampath’s impeccable service record and straightforwardness are believed to have gone in his favour. It is said that he is “very close” to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajshekhar Reddy. He had functioned as Principal Finance Secretary to the Andhra Pradesh government before moving to the Centre on deputation in December 2004.

The Chief Minister was impressed by his efficiency and strongly recommended that he be made the Election Commissioner. The track record of Mr Sampath shows that he is not the man who could be influenced. His one-line comment on his appointment was: “ I will do justice to the post”.

Born in Vellore in Tamil Nadu, Sampath was appointed Election Commissioner after Navin Chawla took over as the Chief Election Commissioner in place of N. Gopalaswami who retired on April 20. Chawla will continue as CEC till July 29, 2010, after which S.Y. Quraishi will take over. After his retirement in June 2012, Sampath will become the CEC.

Sampath will continue as the CEC till 2014 when the next general elections are scheduled to be held. An Election Commissioner is appointed for six years from the date on which he assumes office or attains the age of 65.

Sampath, who has another seven months of service left in the IAS, took early retirement to assume the constitutional post. As per rules, it is mandatory that the constitutional authorities should not be in any government service at the time of assumption of office. Sampath’s first assignment at the Centre was in the Department of Land Resources in the Union Ministry of Rural Development. He then moved on as Director-General of the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad.

After a stint at NIRD, he returned to New Delhi as Secretary, Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals. After Anil Razdan’s superannuation, he was appointed the Union Power Secretary.

Until October 1989, there was just one Chief Election Commissioner. In 1989, two Election Commissioners were appointed, but were removed again in January 1990. In 1991, however, Parliament passed a law providing for the appointment of two Election Commissioners. This law was amended and renamed in 1993 as the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Conditions of Service) Amendment Act 1993.

So far, 16 Chief Election Commissioners have held office. Of them, T.N. Seshan and J.M. Lyngdoh have raised the stature of the Commission and established its supremacy as a high constitutional authority. While the office has always been an important one in the conduct of elections, it gained significant public attention during Seshan’s tenure from 1990-1996.

Seshan is widely credited with undertaking a zealous effort to end corruption and manipulation in Indian elections. Though he made significant progress, several politicians attempted to derail these efforts. In particular, the expansion of the Election Commission to include two Election Commissioners (in addition to the Chief Election Commissioner) was seen as a move to curtail the Commission’s 
ability to act aggressively.

During the last few months of his tenure, Gopalaswami became controversial but he held ground firmly and left the Commission with his head held high. It will have to be seen if Navin Chawla, Quraishi and Sampath measure up to their illustrious predecessors.

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