1. Researchers find new butterfly species
A group of lepidopterists have added a species to the expanding list of butterflies in India. The discovery of the species Nacaduba sinhala ramaswamii Sadasivan, 2021 in the Agasthyamalais in the Western Ghats a decade ago has now found place in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.
The new taxon of Lycaenid butterflies belonging to the Nacaduba genus had been first sighted by a team comprising Kalesh Sadasivan and Baiju K. representing the Travancore Nature History Society, Rahul Khot of the Bombay Natural History Society, and Ramasamy Naicker from Theni. Line Blues are small butterflies belonging to the subfamily Lycaenidae and their distribution ranges from India and Sri Lanka to the whole of southeastern Asia, Australia and Samoa.
It is the first time that a butterfly species was discovered by an all-Indian research team from the Western Ghats.
Zoological Survey of India (ZSI)
The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) was launched in 1916. It is India’s apex organization on animal taxonomy and has significantly contributed in knowledge on fauna of the country.
- Its genesis began as Museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1814-1875) and Zoological Section of the Indian Museum (1875-1916) in Kolkata.
- Founder director of ZSI was Thomas Nelson Annadale, who joined the Indian Museum as a deputy superintendent and was later promoted to the position of the superintendent.
- Initially, the ZSI had eight regional centres across India. At present, it has 16 regional centres spread across the country. Its headquarters are at Kolkata.
- Due to its contribution, one member of the Zoological Survey of India is included in the teams that go for expeditions in Antarctica.
- To promote the survey, exploration, research and documentation on various aspects of animal taxonomy in the Indian subcontinent. It also seeks advancement of knowledge on animal taxonomy.
- It has been declared as the designated repository for the National Zoological Collection as per section 39 of the National Biodiversity Act, 2002
- Study of the fauna of states, of conservation areas, of important ecosystems. Status survey of endangered species, fauna of India and ecological Studies & Environmental impact assessments.
- ZSI publishes Red Data Book on Indian Animals. It was first published in 1983 and is similar to Red Data Book published by IUCN.
2. Covishield shelf life extended to 9 months, shows document
DGCI expands prescribed term of six months
India’s drug regulator has allowed the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to be used for up to nine months from its manufacture date, as opposed to the prescribed six months, according to a document reviewed by the news agency Reuters. A source confirmed this.
The approval, given to a licensed version of the drug made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and exported to dozens of countries, could help health authorities minimise vaccine wastage and better plan their inoculation programmes. Some African countries have only until the middle of next month to use up more than a million doses of the vaccine — branded Covishield by SII — if the shelf life is not extended.
“You are permitted to apply the shelf life of 9 months to unlabelled vials available on hand,” Drugs Controller General of India V.G. Somani, wrote late last month in reply to a request from the SII. AstraZeneca said in a statement last week that its product could be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions for at least six months. The World Health Organization website also gives the shelf life of Covishield and the South Korean-made AstraZeneca shot as six months.
Reuters has reviewed Mr. Somani’s approval, which has been communicated to some African countries, but could not determine if his recommendation applied to unused vials. Each vial typically contains five millilitre of vaccine, or 10 doses.
A source, with direct knowledge of the matter but not authorised to discuss it publicly, said the approval was given based on data submitted by the SII. The source did not specify what kind of data was shared by the company, the world’s biggest vaccine maker.
3. Jaishankar says India backs Afghan-Taliban dialogue
Minister calls for ‘double peace’ at Heart of Asia meet
Calling for a “double peace” both inside Afghanistan and in the region, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said India supports the Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN), in a rare direct reference to the Taliban at the 9th Heart of Asia conference in Tajikistan.
Mr. Jaishankar attended the meet along with Foreign Ministers of 15 countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Central Asian states.
“India has been supportive of all the efforts being made to accelerate the dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, including intra-Afghan negotiations,” the Minister said and referred to his participation in the inaugural virtual session of the Doha talks in September 2020.
‘Engage in good faith’
“If the peace process is to be successful, then it is necessary to ensure that the negotiating parties continue to engage in good faith, with a serious commitment towards reaching a political solution,” he added. India has not in the past referred directly to the Taliban, and the government has not opened any public engagement with the militant group.
Mr. Jaishankar said India views the escalation in violence against civilians in and the “continued involvement of foreign fighters” in Afghanistan with “grave concern” and pushed for Heart of Asia members to ensure a permanent ceasefire.
Speaking at the same conference, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan “fears that any space gained by ISIS and Al-Qaeda could accentuate the threat of terrorism,” and cautioned against the role of “spoilers”, both “within and outside Afghanistan”.
In a departure from the recent past, however, Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Qureshi were present for each other’s speeches during the conference, unlike previous boycotts by the two sides at a number of conferences since 2019.
However, despite speculation over an ongoing India-Pakistan peace process and a back-channel dialogue, Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Qureshi did not make any public contact during the day-long conference, and were seen avoiding eye contact during the joint photo opportunity they both participated in.
Speaking at the conference in Dushanbe, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke to both foreign ministers in separate meetings, thanked neighbouring countries for their support.
He also lauded a number of regional connectivity initiatives including India’s air corridor programme and Chabahar port project, as well as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
The Taliban (spelt alternatively as Taleban) is an Islamic fundamentalist political and military organisation operating in Afghanistan. They have dominated Afghan polity for quite some time and feature regularly in international affairs.
Who are the Taliban?
The Taliban is a Sunni fundamentalist organisation that is involved in Afghan politics. It is also a military group that is involved in an insurgency against the currently elected government in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban controlled almost three-quarters of the country from 1996 to 2001 and was notorious for their strict implementation of the Sharia or Islamic law there.
- The period saw widespread abuse of human rights, especially targeted against women.
- The current head of the Taliban is Hibatullah Akhundzada.
- Mullah Omar is regarded as the founder of the Taliban. He died in 2013.
- The Taliban officially refers to itself as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’.
- The word ‘Taliban’ in Pashto means ‘students’.
Taliban – Origins
Background of the origins of the Taliban – Events that led to the rising in power of the Taliban
The Saur Revolution in Afghanistan (April 27) in 1978 installed a communist party in power there.
- This government introduced many reforms for modernisation and hence was considered too radical by some.
- Rural areas and the traditional power structures were unhappy with the new scheme of things and this led to anti-government protests in many places.
- There were divisions even within the government.
- The USSR intervened in Afghanistan wanting to place a communist ally in government there.
- In December 1979, the Soviet Army was deployed in Kabul (February 15). They orchestrated a coup killing the ruling President Hafizullah Amin.
- The Soviets installed their ally, Babrak Karmal as the President of Afghanistan.
- The USA and other western countries saw this as Soviet invasion.
- A bitter war was fought between Soviet troops and the insurgent groups called Mujahideen. While the cities and towns were under Soviet control, the rural parts were under the control of the Mujahideen.
- The Mujahideen were persistent in their fight against the USSR and were also supported by the USA, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They were given training and weapons.
- The citizens of Afghanistan suffered the most in this protracted war. Many civilians lost their lives and homes. Afghan refugees poured into countries like Pakistan, Iran and even India.
- The Soviets withdrew troops in 1989 after nine long years and at the cost of the lives of 20 lakh Afghans civilians.
- Now, the government of Afghanistan had to fight the Mujahideen alone.
- The insurgents took control of Kabul in 1992. There was a bloody civil war as the Mujahideen themselves were divided into various factions all vying for power.
- In 1994, a group of students seized control of the city of Kandahar and started a battle for power to control the entire country. They were called the Taliban. They were Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, many of them were trained in camps in Pakistan where they were refugees.
- In 1995, the Taliban captured the province of Herat and in 1996, Kabul.
- By 1998, almost the entire country was under the control of the Taliban.
- Some of the Mujahideen warlords fled to the north of the country and joined the Northern Alliance who were fighting the Taliban.
Afghanistan under the Taliban regime
Initially, when they came to power, the people of Afghanistan generally welcomed the Taliban. This is because they seemed to offer stability in a country wracked by long and bloody civil wars.
- The Taliban’s promise was to restore peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and enforce Sharia in the country.
- Afghans were tired of the fighting between the Soviets and the Mujahideen and welcomed the Taliban, who were successful initially in weeding out corruption and removing lawlessness.
- The Taliban introduced their interpretation of Islamic law, which meant that several rights were suspended for people, especially women and children.
- They endorsed Sharia mixed with the Pashtun tribal code.
- Women were required to wear burqas covering their whole bodies including faces; men had to grow beards.
- Women could not go out of the house without a male family member accompanying them. They could not work outside.
- The Taliban discouraged girls from going to school, and at one point, banned girls above the age of eight to go to school.
- Public executions were held for those accused of murder and adultery. Amputations were also done for those accused of stealing.
- They banned television, music, kite-flying, cinema, photography, painting, etc. Women were barred from attending sports events or playing them.
- People, especially women faced public floggings for any perceived wrongs.
- The Taliban is also accused of carrying out massacres against civilians, especially ethnic or religious minority groups. Thousands were killed, women raped and people are still unaccounted for.
- Needless to say, they did not believe in democracy.
- The Taliban was much criticised for blowing up the 1500-year old Buddha statues of Bamiyan because they were idols.
Taliban – International Relations
- Only three countries recognised the Taliban while they were in power namely, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They are believed to have been receiving funds from both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
- After the 9/11 attacks on the US, the Taliban drew focus from all over the globe.
- It was accused of sheltering Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda, who were blamed for the 9/11 attacks.
- In fact, the US intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven and a base to operate in the country.
- Pakistan officially broke off diplomatic ties with the organisation after 9/11. However, many top leaders of the Taliban are said to have escaped to Quetta in Pakistan, from where they were controlling the organisation.
- The Taliban were removed from power in October 2001 by a coalition of forces led by the USA and several other countries (including NATO nations).
- In December 2001, a new interim government was placed in Afghanistan headed by Hamid Karzai.
- The country gradually started reconstruction work after long years of bitter battles and underdevelopment.
- However, the Taliban was reorganised by its leader Mullah Omar after its defeat, who launched an insurgency against the Afghan government.
- It wages war in the form of suicide attacks, ambushes and guerilla raids and turncoat killings against the coalition forces.
- Slowly through the second half of the 2000s, civilian killings rose in number.
Currently, the Taliban are in talks with the USA, who are eager to withdraw from the country.
India’s Relations with the Taliban
India has never recognised the Taliban while they were in power. In 1999, an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked and landed in Kandahar, and it was suspected that the Taliban supported the hijackers. India also supported a key anti-Taliban group, the Northern Alliance. Following the backdrop of the peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in 2019, the Taliban has sought positive relations with India. To this effect, the Taliban have reiterated the Kashmir is an internal matter for India and will not seek to interfere in the matters of other nations.
4. China cuts Hong Kong’s elected seats
Beijing tightens control over the city after sweeping changes to its electoral system were approved
China’s legislature on Tuesday formally approved sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that will see a sharply reduced share of directly elected representatives and a tightening of Beijing’s control in the Special Administrative Region (SAR).
The changes, first announced earlier this month at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, were on Tuesday passed by the 167 members of the NPC Standing Committee. President Xi Jinping signed orders to promulgate the amended annexes to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the constitution that has governed the SAR under the “one country, two systems” model since its return to China in 1997, official media reported.
The amendments mark the biggest changes to Hong Kong’s political system since the handover, and reduce the share of directly elected representatives in its Legislative Council (LegCo). While previously 35 of its 70 members were directly elected, that number has been reduced by 15.
Now, Hongkongers will only be able to directly vote for 20 representatives while the size of LegCo has been expanded to 90, thereby drastically reducing the share of elected representatives. The 70 others will be broadly chosen from pro-establishment bodies. A 1,200-member Election Committee that chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has been expanded by 300 members, and will include Hong Kong’s representative to the NPC, the Communist Party-controlled legislature in Beijing. It will also choose 40 members of LegCo, while the remaining 30 will be chosen by what are called functional constituencies, representing a range of industry, trade and other interest groups.
The other big change is the setting up of a Candidate Eligibility Review Committee “for reviewing and confirming the eligibility of candidates” and a “Committee for Safeguarding National Security” that “will make findings as to whether a candidate for Election Committee member or for the office of Chief Executive meets the legal requirements”. There will be no scope for legally challenging the findings. District councillors, who are directly elected, will no longer have a place either in the Election Committee or in LegCo. In 2019, the pro-democracy opposition swept district elections in Hong Kong, following which they controlled 90% of the seats. Now, the district councillors will only be involved with local-level civic issues without representation in government.
Erosion of autonomy
Pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have seen the political changes, as well as last year’s national security law that punishes “subversion” as the most significant changes in the “one country, two systems” model and as dramatically eroding the autonomy enjoyed by the SAR previously. The changes have also all but ended any prospect of realising the demands of the 2019 protest movement for universal suffrage and direct elections to choose the Chief Executive.
The 2019 protests were seen by Beijing as a direct challenge to its authority. Zhang Yong, deputy head of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee, told the official Xinhua news agency the changes, including for a candidate review committee, were “to ensure ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’ and prevent anti-China, destabilising elements from entering the body of power of the HKSAR.” “It fixes the loopholes in the electoral system and ensures patriots administer Hong Kong,” he said. “Whoever elected to administer must be patriots. This is a fundamental premise of any political system and electoral system in any country and region.”
Hong Kong-China Mainland Issue
Background of Hongkong Issue
- Until 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by Britain as a colony but then returned to China. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, it has some autonomy, and its people more rights.
- The bill was withdrawn in September but demonstrations continue and now demand full democracy and an inquiry into police actions.
- Clashes between police and activists have become increasingly violent, with police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers and throwing petrol bombs.
- The extradition bill which triggered the first protest was introduced in April. It would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances.
- Opponents said this risked exposing Hongkongers to unfair trials and violent treatment. They also argued the bill would give China greater influence over Hong Kong and could be used to target activists and journalists.
- Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. After weeks of protests, leader Carrie Lam eventually said the bill would be suspended indefinitely.
How did the protests escalate?
- Protesters feared the bill could be revived, so demonstrations continued, calling for it to be withdrawn completely.
- By then clashes between police and protesters had become more frequent and violent.
- In September, the bill was finally withdrawn, but protesters said this was “too little, too late”.
- On 1 October, while China was celebrating 70 years of Communist Party rule, Hong Kong experienced one of its most “violent and chaotic days”.
- In November, a standoff between police and students barricaded on the campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University became another defining moment.
- Later that month, the territory held local council elections that were seen as a barometer of public opinion.
- The vote saw a landslide victory for the pro-democracy movement, with 17 of the 18 councils now controlled by pro-democracy councillors.
What do the protesters want?
The cultural and economic differences are widely considered as a primary cause of the conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China The differences between Hong Kong people and mainlanders, such as language, as well as the significant growth in number of mainland visitors, have caused tension.
Some protesters have adopted the motto: “Five demands, not one less!” These are:
- For the protests not to be characterised as a “riot”
- Amnesty for arrested protesters
- An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality
- Implementation of complete universal suffrage The fifth demand, the withdrawal of the bill, has already been met. Protests supporting the Hong Kong movement have spread across the globe, with rallies taking place in the UK, France, US, Canada and Australia.
- In many cases, people supporting the demonstrators were confronted by pro-Beijing rallies. Chinese president Xi Jinping has warned against separatism, saying any attempt to divide China would end in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder”.
What is Hong Kong’s status?
- It was a British colony for more than 150 years – part of it, Hong Kong island, was ceded to the UK after a war in 1842. Later, China also leased the rest of Hong Kong – the New Territories – to the British for 99 years.
- It became a busy trading port, and its economy took off in the 1950s as it became a manufacturing hub.
- The territory was also popular with migrants and dissidents fleeing instability, poverty or persecution in mainland China.
- Then, in the early 1980s, as the deadline for the 99-year-lease approached, Britain and China began talks on the future of Hong Kong – with the communist government in China arguing that all of Hong Kong should be returned to Chinese rule.
- The two sides signed a treaty in 1984 that would see Hong Kong return to China in 1997, under the principle of “one country, two systems”.
- This meant that while becoming part of one country with China, Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for 50 years.
- As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system and borders, and rights including freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of the press are protected.
- For example, it is one of the few places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing.
- It has its own judiciary and a separate legal system from mainland China. Those rights include freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
- But those freedoms – the Basic Law – expire in 2047 and it is not clear what Hong Kong’s status will then be.
- As a likely consequence of ongoing border tensions with China, India waded into the controversy over the new Chinese security law in Hong Kong, stating that it hoped the “relevant parties” would address the concerns “properly, seriously and objectively”.
- China’s parliament passed a national security legislation for Hong Kong, which would override local laws and give sweeping powers to security agencies. It allows for a new national security agency, which will not be under the jurisdiction of the local government.
- Further, the law provides for Chinese mainland authorities to have jurisdiction in cases involving foreign countries or involving national security. It also allows for the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to be punishable by up to life imprisonment.
- The new legislation comes after Hong Kong has been rocked by anti-Beijing protests since June 2019, with citizens angry over the rising influence of China, contrary to the ‘one country, two systems’ concept” adopted when China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
- India’s statement was made not by the foreign ministry in Delhi, but by its representative at the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
- Its 1 st time India will taking stand over One China Policy for making diplomatic pressure on China.
5. Editorial-1: India does not shine when only some gleam
A new architecture of economic growth, which begins from the ground, is required to create better lives for the majority
Several lucky Indians have taken their vaccine shots and flown abroad. With relief, they are getting back to their own normal lives. A year ago, all Indians were startled to be locked in. And shocked too that millions had to break out of the Lakshman Rekha for shelter, food, and even water to drink. The novel coronavirus pandemic had exposed the precariousness of their lives. Relief was rushed for them, and vows taken that when the pandemic passes, we must “build back better”, and create a new, more resilient, and more just economy.
In the country’s march to a $5 trillion economy, the Indian government and its advisers are keen to recover the many lost quarters of GDP growth. Have they lost sight of how poorly India’s economic growth has been serving its citizens? A Union Minister pooh-poohed the Global Hunger Index which places India 94 amongst 107 countries (https://bit.ly/2Pil6NO). International observers are wrong, he said, because Indians are very kind people, who even give sweets to a dog when she delivers her puppies, and such kind people would never ever allow a human being to go hungry.
The WHR-20 Happiness Report released in March 2021 by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network compares citizens’ own perceptions of their well-being in 153 countries. According to the report, Indian citizens are amongst the least happy in the world: India ranks a very low 144th. Perhaps the Minister will say that Indian citizens themselves do not know what is happening in India.
Inequities have widened
Like aerodynamic stress-tests reveal structural weaknesses in the designs of aircraft, the pandemic has revealed structural flaws in countries’ economies. According to a report released by the World Bank, while India’s stock markets rose during the pandemic and the very rich became even richer, the number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) is estimated to have increased by 75 million. This accounts for nearly 60% of the global increase in poverty, the report says.
While the rich are beginning to buzz around their global world again, a new architecture of economic growth is required to create better lives for the majority in India. The old global economy was very good for migrant capital, which could move around the world at will, its life made easier by countries vying to attract foreign capital, even bending their environmental and labour regulations to make it easier to do business. The pandemic has revealed that the old economy was not good for migrant workers, however. Their “ease of living” was often sacrificed for capital’s “ease of doing business”.
The Indian economy must grow to create more incomes for its billion-plus citizens. Until the incomes of all rise, India will be a poor country from the perspective of the majority of its citizens, no matter how large its GDP. Moreover, economic growth must no longer be at the cost of the environment. According to global assessments, India ranks 120 out of 122 countries in water quality, and 179 out of 180 in air quality.
Think of new frameworks
India urgently needs a new strategy for growth, founded on new pillars. One is broader progress measures. GDP does not account for vital environmental and social conditions that contribute to human well-being and the sustainability of the planet. These factors are ignored as externalities by economists; they are trampled upon in a rush to grow the economy. Several frameworks are being developed now to measure what really matters including the health of the environment, and the condition of societies (public services, equal access to opportunities, etc.).
Most of these frameworks seek to define universally applicable scorecards. The items measured are given the same weightages in all countries to arrive at a single overall number for each country. This ‘scientific’ approach does enable objective rankings of countries. However, as the Happiness Report explains, this ‘objective’ approach misses the point that happiness and well-being are always ‘subjective’. What matters to people depends also on the conditions of others around them. Wealthy people can be unhappy when they have less wealth than other wealthy people. Moreover, everywhere, fairness, and trust in others and in institutions, contribute greatly to well-being. Therefore, countries in which the spirit of community is high, such as the ‘socialist’ countries of Northern Europe, come on top of well-being rankings even when their per capita incomes are not the highest.
The analysis of sources of well-being leads to the conclusion that the universal solution for improving well-being is for local communities to work together to find their own solutions within their countries, and in their villages and towns. Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the observation that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. Locals know which factors in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals matter the most to them. Therefore, standard global solutions will neither make their conditions better nor make them happier.
Lapsing to the old ways
New ways must be adopted to create a new post-pandemic normal. Sadly, the old ways are returning. The government is back to chasing its $5 trillion GDP target. Wealth creators (large companies and wealthy individuals) are being touted as the solution for growth. Power is being centralised. Governance of the many by a few politically and economically powerful persons may work for a few, stroke-of-the-pen, bold reforms. However, like insufficiently tested vaccines and medicines, the side-effects of these bold solutions can cause great harm to the overall health of the system. The best medical treatments are those that help the system to heal itself. Therefore, communities must be allowed to, and assisted to, find their own solutions to complex problems.
What India and the world need to create a better world, post-pandemic, is a vaccine against indifference to the conditions of those less well off. The backwardness of backward classes is their god-given lot according to the religion of India’s majority. The purpose of their lives is to do the dirty work necessary to keep the upper castes clean. The philosopher Michael J. Sandel says in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? that the ideology of ‘individualism’ — which believes that a person’s successes and failures are entirely that person’s own responsibility — is a disease that has infected societies in the West. It justifies indifference to the conditions of those less well off. It denies that societal conditions are responsible for the difficulties poor people have. It also conveniently hides that societal conditions have contributed substantially to the wealth of those well-off.
When only some shine, India does not shine. The government of India has begun a massive “India@75” campaign to celebrate, in 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. What is the scorecard of progress against which it will report whether India has reached the ‘tryst with destiny’ that it set out to achieve in 1947? The size of its GDP, the numbers of billionaires, the numbers of Indian multinationals, and the reach of its rockets in space? Or the condition of our holy Mother Earth ravaged by economic progress, and the conditions of hundreds of millions of citizens left behind?
6. Editorial-2: Remoteness is no hindrance to academic excellence
Excellence in education depends on the quality of mentorship and not on the size or location of campuses
How many Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) should India have, and what should these institutes try to achieve? In their article, “Too many IITs, unrealistic expectations” (The Hindu, February 20), Philip G. Altbach and Eldho Mathews suggest that there should be between 10 to 12 IITs, that these institutes ought to be situated in big urban areas, and that they should focus on being “crown jewels”.
Excellence in education depends on the quality of mentorship; not on the size or location of campuses. To improve, faculties should be made bigger, and recruitment yardsticks should focus on quality and not quantity.
The core functions of an engineering school are to: guide students along as they inquire and discover their interests in science and engineering; engage students with the interactions between technology, society, economics and the environment; prepare students for working careers as designers and gadget-makers, but also as entrepreneurs; invent new gadgets and discover new science, and enmesh all of these activities with local developmental needs. Overall, education at the higher secondary and college levels is really a nourishment that society produces to meet and bless the intense energies of young adults.
A lack of language and study skills causes some students to falter. Anecdotally, about a quarter of the incoming undergraduates need extra training and confidence-building measures in using the English language. Because the admission system is a testocracy, almost all the incoming students need to be dissuaded away from a mindset that focuses on strategic maximisation of points on multiple choice questions, and instead need to be goaded toward free inquiry and whole-problem tackling. A key problem in most engineering colleges is that the students should not only become skilled engineers but should also train to speak and write clearly.
Helping the new
The solution at many IITs has been to set aside time and resources towards initiating incoming students into college level education. At IIT Mandi in Himachal Pradesh for example, a five-week induction programme gently welcomes them into the academic setting and helps them feel at home. This phase also breaks the ice between students and faculty, making it easy for the students to get in touch with their teachers. This useful programme requires time and mentorship effort from faculty members.
The curriculum at IIT Mandi includes courses from a design and innovation stream, which includes a mandatory socio-technical practicum (https://bit.ly/2PbJpNy). This particular course has seen significant enrolment of visiting international students.
A substantial final year project can be nourishing and fulfilling for anyone completing an academic degree, because it presents an opportunity for focused work bringing together different strands of knowledge and skills on a concrete problem. Sadly, at many IITs, including the “crown jewels”, this final project is no longer mandatory. One of the key reasons for this regression is that the student strength has been increased without an accompanying, proportionate increase in faculty strength.
For all these reasons, and because our faculty salaries are lower than the international norms, it makes sense to hire many more faculty members than we do now. In a labour-surplus country like India, just as Arun Maira has suggested for the economy at large, we should readily use all the skilled labour that we can muster.
Recruitment and retention
Prof. Altbach and Prof. Mathews claim that faculty recruitment is such a big problem; that only around a dozen IITs can be comfortably staffed with world-class faculty. If faculty recruitment was indeed such a big problem, then why would sensible organisations dare to invest in private institutions such as Jio University, Mahindra Ecole Centrale, Shiv Nadar University, Krea University, and SRM University to name a few?
There are two existing problems with recruiting and retaining faculty members; both are self-made, and both can be solved.
The first problem is that not enough faculty members are hired, and that those hired are burdened with additional tasks such as running the canteen, etc. If there is indeed a scarcity of qualified faculty applicants, then would it be reasonable to burden the hired researchers with non-academic responsibilities such as: running the canteen, managing the placement cell, and managing tenders for various campus building works?
The second problem is that of inconsistency and group think in the hiring committees. Typically, recruitment has two stages: shortlisting by the hiring institute, and an interview in front on a panel that consists of mostly professors from outside the hiring institute.
If at the first stage, the shortlisting is done mechanically, then good and sometimes even excellent candidates can be weeded out. In specific, if shortlisting is done on the basis of the number of papers, size of grants won and the like, then those hired may be mediocre, paper-manufacturing mills. A better alternative is possible by reversing the existing two stages in recruitment, and explicitly flagging quality as a merit.
First, the external experts should prepare a short shortlist, and then the local hiring committees should attempt hiring from within this shortlist. The applicants should be required to submit information demonstrating the best aspects of their work. Each applicant should be asked to provide, in addition to their full curriculum vitae, their two best research publications, and their two best pedagogic materials such as a homework assignment or examination. At the first stage, the external professors could prepare a shortlist based solely on the two best publications and sample pedagogic materials. The statistics of outcomes of the external expert assessments can also supply clearer indications, of whether or not there is really a shortage of qualified applicants.
A waning fantasy is that only large companies and organisations can invent new technologies. This belief has been demolished by so many start-ups in the past few decades, that nowadays, even Prime Ministers preach the virtues of a start-up culture. So, why would anyone have low expectations from the smaller IITs, or from small but well-funded private colleges?
According to the Times Higher Education ranking for the last year, the IITs at Ropar (Punjab) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh) are within the top 100 young universities of the world. But even ignoring such superficial rankings, the details are promising — the growth of IIT Mandi for example (https://bit.ly/3dbybAg). This IIT has as international a resident faculty body as any other IIT. In the last year, this IIT was seventh in the Atal innovativeness ranking; an IIT Mandi project that developed a landslide warning system won the SKOCH award.
Remoteness is not a hindrance to excellence. Cornell University is located in the heart of rural New England, and has been excellent from even before the Internet age. And Cornell has a thriving start-up scene, even though the campus is not surrounded by industries. Japan’s newest world class University, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, is in the most remote corner within its territory, Okinawa island. In the coming post-COVID-19 future, remoteness that is hand-in-hand with connectedness may even attract start-ups.
7. Editorial-3: A road to progress
For women dairy farmers, cooperatives and unions are a pathway to financial stability
The achievements of women dairy farmers in contributing to India’s ‘White Revolution’ are perhaps the greatest cause for celebrating the Women’s History Month in March. That this has happened despite around a majority of dairy farmers owning only small landholdings — typically households with two to five cows — is also a testament to the success of the dairy cooperatives models that were at the heart of Operation Flood.
The approach made it possible to enhance backward and forward linkages in the dairy value chain, paving the way for freeing small farmers from the clutches of middlemen, and guaranteed minimum procurement price for milk. A study by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) indicates that 93% of women farmers who receive training alongside financial support succeed in their ventures, compared to the 57% success rate of those who receive financial aid alone. Institutionalising such inputs, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) now organises farmer’s orientation programmes across the country, under which women farmers are trained in scientific best practices on animal health, fodder quality, clean milk production, and accounts management.
According to latest data, there are more than 1,90,000 dairy cooperative societies across the country, with approximately 6 million women members. A study conducted on Women Dairy Cooperative Society (WDCS) members across Rajasthan showed that with the income generated through dairying, 31% of the women had converted their mud houses to cement structures, while 39% had constructed concrete sheds for their cattle. Importantly, women-led cooperatives also provide fertile ground for grooming women from rural areas for leadership positions. In many instances, this becomes the first step for women in breaking free from traditional practices.
This was amply demonstrated through the testimonials of women dairy farmers highlighted by the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying on the International Women’s Day earlier this month. Among the many stories that stood out, it was heartening to hear the account of Prem Bai from Rajasthan who never had access to education or formal employment but experienced a life transformation after she became a member of the Bhilwara Milk Union. She is now the main breadwinner in her family and recently bought 25 acres of land with the income she earned through dairy farming.
Another major challenge in this sector is information asymmetry among farmers. Statistics indicate that small and marginal farmers have access to only 50-70% of the resources that large and medium farmers have. Once again, the presence of collectives in the form of cooperatives and milk unions plays a significant role in enhancing the knowledge and bargaining power of women.
Recent years have seen the rise of women-led dairy unions and companies. To this end, the NDDB has played a proactive role in setting up women-led producer enterprises like Shreeja Mahila Milk Producer Company, which was started with 24 women and now has more than 90,000 members, with an annual turnover of approximately ₹450 crore.
Last year, Amul Dairy released a list of 10 women dairy farmers who became millionaires by selling milk to the company. For instance, Navalben Dalsangbhai Chaudhary from Vadgam earned almost ₹88 lakh by selling 2,21,595 kg of milk in 2019-20, and Malvi Kanuben from Dhanera earned about ₹74 lakh by selling 2,50,745 kg of milk. Innovation in organisational structures has also spurred consistent growth in this sector.
These testimonials of individual women dairy farmers are all the more remarkable for the fact that many of them have not had a formal education, but through the process of dairying and working with larger collectives, such as milk unions and cooperatives, they have mastered the nuances of finance and marketing.