Friday, October 31

The fundamental Right to Education

I have always been fascinated by the sight of the homeless in the United States reading books. And unfortunately the same image came to mind in an Indian context upon reading that the Union Cabinet has cleared the Right to Education bill. It will be introduced in the Parliament this December. If the bill is passed, it would make education a fundamental right in India and the government would be required to provide free education for children between the ages of six to fourteen. Interestingly, even private schools would have to reserve 25 percent of their seats for poor children in the neighborhood for which the Center shall reimburse.

Though the 86th amendment to the Constitution declared education to be a fundamental right, no policy is in place to enforce it. The Constitution also originally required the government to ensure free and compulsory education for all children till the age of 14 years within ten years of adopting the Constitution. The Right to Education bill will finally fulfill that constitutional commitment 47 years after that deadline.

As momentous as the news appears, it would also be a crucial test of Indian politics and policymakers. Ensuring this right would require huge investments in primary education in terms of money and manpower. According to certain estimates it would cost Rs. 12,000 cr annually to implement this policy. With growth rate at almost eight percent this should be a feasible task. But that is only the cost of actually sending all those kids to school. Other costs like bringing the kids to schools through awareness programs, the process of student and teacher recruitment would also need to be considered as recurring costs. The infrastructural investment would be significant, given that the current infrastructure is insufficient to cater to those registered in schools at present.

Implementing the policy would be no easy task. It would require tremendous political will, and even greater grass-root involvement; parental awareness, and strict verification methods. Politically attractive efforts of this magnitude can easily fall into neglect once the initial tide of excitement has passed. It is not letting that excitement die away that would make the policy work.

Apart from the logistical difficulties in implementation, the quality of education is also a matter of concern. Even countries like the US cannot boost of quality primary education for all, and have to come up with policies like No Child Left Behind from time to time. It would be a waste of opportunity if we only stick to the numbers and overlook the quality.

Assuming that most of the children sought to be educated under this policy belong to the less fortunate sections of society, and have a greater chance of dropping out, I think it would be necessary to create a modified curriculum such that basic skills in language and mathematics are developed. While by language I mean the ability to read, write and comprehend efficiently, mathematics refers to basic arithmetic and accounting so that they are able to understand and conduct their own transactions without being cheated by employers. Again I assume that most of these children will stop education at the prescribed 14 years of age and enter the workforce. For those that display scholarship, it would be helpful to provide assistance for further education.

While India has invested significantly in higher education and produces some of the best brains in the world, primary education has been neglected. The new policy would mandate investment in this sector which is essential to sustain out economic growth. It would be interesting to see if there is any private sector participation.

I hope that the bill goes through the Parliament and education becomes a fundamental right in the real sense. And not just a photo-op for NRIs with romanticised visions of India.

Thursday, October 30

Implicit association

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times about people's perception of "foreign" based on skin color. He talks of a study at the Harvard University where the researchers tried to capture the subjects' implicit association when it comes to Obama and his being "fully American." And apparently even avid Obama supporters revealed through the implicit association test that they perceived Obama as more foreign than even Tony Blair.

I went ahead and took the test here and the results did not surprise me. For one I said so in the initial personal information page. With due respect to the researchers and the modellers of this test, I am not sure how this thing worked especially after they had asked me specific questions in the initial questionnaire. Were the test results exclusive of the answers in the questionnaire? Another thing that bothered me was that each time I pressed the wrong key, it showed me that I had done that and I could correct it. I would like to assume that the wrong answer was taken as an indication of my implicit association. If not, then I did not understand the test properly.

Though I took the second test too, the way their result was displayed made it difficult to interpret and compare to the first test.

Anyways the first test results are that I have a "moderate automatic preference for" white people over black, and for Obama over McCain. You go ahead and test your automatic preference.

Monday, October 27

Why I like NYT features

I always enjoy reading the New York Times. They have some of the best op-eds and features you could find in a newspaper. This one today about the man who could spoil your renovation plans is one of them. Not only is Mr. Glass himself very interesting and Newyorkery (my coinage. Look at his picture and you will know what it means), but also in a way a weird example of how one stranger (strictly belonging to the group of 'unelected' strangers) can have so much control over your decisions.

"He has no secretary or associates, no decorations on the wall. For that matter, his office has no Web site, e-mail address or even a computer — especially odd for a modern architect. Mr. Glass, who is 73, does have a telephone, but is rueful about it...
...Thousands of
Manhattan’s most elite co-op dwellers do not break a wall or move a sink without Mr. Glass’s approval."

Saturday, October 25

The Robert Barnett story

A wonderful story!

"In person, Barnett is extremely affable, but he wields that affability as a weapon against any interviewer gauche enough to suggest that working both sides of the political street – and all the angles of a deal – risks at least the appearance of conflict of interest."

Thursday, October 23

From sea to the moon

The Times of India has a very interesting story on the humble beginnings of India's space program. [link]

"Fisherfolk of the village, emotionally attached to the place, particularly the St Mary Magadelene's Church had to be convinced to give up the place. The task fell on a former bishop of Thiruvananthapuram. During a Sunday congregation, he spoke to the villagers about the advantages of a space programme. He then asked if they had any objections if the village was handed over to the space department. The villagers paused only a while, and chorused, "Amen", indicating that they were ready to give up their village. "

Catch 22

Two of United States worst enemies have expressed their preferences for the next US president. While Iran prefers Obama, Al Qaeda should prefer McCain. This puts the United States in a difficult position. The Republican campaign has already accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." Now he is officially friend-apparent of Iran and Ahmedinejad. And even McCain is being recommended by friends of terrorists for President. So no matter who gets to the White House, 'terrorists' and enemies of the United States win!

Update: The endorsement from hell.

Wednesday, October 22

Aitya gharat gharoba?

It raises suspicious when so many Pakistanis go missing in India. My first reaction was the same as the TOI story, it could be a way of infiltration. If so, then the security apparatus in India needs to examine the situation carefully and identify the missing people as soon as possible. This, I think, is important especially in the current environment of insecurity. Official infiltration figures are low, but terrorist activities within India have not gone down. Instead they have spread far beyond the disputed Kashmir region. While these missing persons may have no relation to any terrorising elements, it would be in our interest to have verified it.

But once we keep aside all prejudices and security concerns it is possible to think of alternative reasons for the missing people. In the worst case scenario, many of them might have died while in India. On a more positive note, it is possible that considering the dire economic and political situation Pakistan is in, many of these people simply decided to stay back and make a living in India. With our shared past and physical attributes it is easy to live relatively unnoticed. India does not have very stringent centrally organized rules and procedures for hiring. It is up to the employer to verify and be satisfied of the person he is employing. No national record or database is generated for each person being employed. This I think makes it very easy for illegal immigrants to get work in India. Places like Mumbai absorb hundreds of new workers daily and I do not see a way of identifying the Pakistanis overstaying their visa limits.

It could be either or, or even both. In any case it important to take notice and necessary action. If they are infiltrators the course of action would be fairly straightforward. However, if it is for economic reasons our policymakers could have a good opportunity staring at them. It could be a chance to take a step towards improving relations (specifically economic relations) between the two countries, just like the opening of trade across the LOC is. Security concerns exist and I do not argue that they should be overlooked for symbolic gestures of goodwill and some economic gains. Yet, trust building requires such everyday economic contacts. Increasing the costs of fighting a war, or harming the other country can decrease the likelihood of increased tensions between the two countries.

Only time will tell if the missing Pakistanis bore good news or bad.

Thursday, October 16

Stories in ACT

I have two pieces in the November 2008 issue of Arms Control Today. The first one discusses the 2008 session of the Conference on Disarmament. The second piece looks at potential candidates for Director-General of the IAEA.

Tuesday, October 14

The One

It is good to know that I am not alone in my admiration for Shivraj Patil. And unlike my passive admiration, the Central Association of Private Security Industry and the Association of Private Detectives and Investigators is vocal. It has readily conferred upon Patil the Rashtriya Suraksha Naik award.

Deservedly so. Terror incidents in India have gone down (from 36,000 to 25,000) in the last four and half years, as compared to the years of the NDA rule. So have the causalities in terror incidents by a massive 5000 (from 11000 to 6000.)

"This only goes to prove that the situation had improved and not worsened", said Patil who was conferred the Rashtriya Suraksha Naik award at the conference. [Link]

All you 'power hungry' people know is to criticise. The government has its constraints. It is beyond it's power to do more than what it is doing. It cannot change laws, appoint new people, set up more police stations. That's your job. So stop complaining and start 'policing.'

"Pointing to the limited constraint of manpower, he said there were just 14,000 police stations to guard around 6.5 lakh towns, villages and cities. He suggested adoption of old system of policing whereby the kotwal and police patel collected intelligence and shared with the authorities."

Big deal if the recent spate of attacks in major cities, including the one in Kanpur today, have created an environment of fear incomparable to anytime in my recent memory. Those measly low intensity bombs killed only couple of people here and there. The bomb squads found only a few live bombs spread across the cities' trees, bikes or malls. It did not kill anyone. The alleged culprits are only homegrown "mujaheddin," not the Pakistanis or Osama bin Laden.

What matters is the big picture. NDA - 11,000: UPA - 6,000. NDA - 36,000: UPA - 25,000. UPA wins!!!!!!

Friday, October 10

Russian or US?

The New York Times reports about possible connection of a Russian scientist in providing nuclear assistance to Iran. This comes as part of the IAEA's investigations into Iran's nuclear program. While the IAEA is quoted as clearing the Russian government of any involvement, the Arms Control Wonk by bringing up the Merlin operation accuses the United States government of assisting Iran. Jeffery ponders about the possibility of the Russian scientist in the IAEA investigations and the one that the CIA sent out being one and the same.

I was completely unaware of the Merlin operation, but was not particularly surprised that the CIA attempted it. The CIA, with support from Clinton, planned to send Iran on a wild goose chase by giving it the wrong blueprints for a nuclear bomb in 2000. The purpose of the operation was to estimate where Iran was in its nuclear program, how close was it to getting a nuclear bomb. However, the Russian scientist or the agent recognized the flaw in design and put in a note for the Iranians to contact him to locate it. Maybe it really is the same Russian scientist the IAEA is talking about.

Reading these stories I was worried about how many times the United States has done this before and where. The motives might be good, but was there sufficient understanding and discussion about the consequences? Or did Clinton go into this like Bush went into Iraq?

What's wrong with Putin?

He is going bonkers. First judo and now a tiger!

Thursday, October 9

The 'other' story

Yesterday the TOI fooled me with this headline. And today did the same. Only this time it has changed the entire story. Both the Times and IBN carry precisely the same headline "Maharashtra to legalize live-in relationships." However, while the TOI talks about it in terms of the 'other woman' in a polygamous relationship, IBN makes no reference to it and interprets it as a live-in relationship as in Salaam Namaste. If both reports are talking of the same cabinet decision, I see no reason why such confusion should exist. If anyone has the real story, I would like to see it.

However, no matter what the real interpretation is, it is a bold move. Going by the IBN interpretation, it is a welcome step that recognizes the reality of 21C India. It tells me that the government is thinking ahead where we are sure to see an increase in the incidence of live-in relationships. And legal recognition would go a long way in making things easier for the people involved and also lead to social acceptance of such couples. It indicates a desire to move beyond the flawed "Indians don't do this" mentality. And I am really surprised and happy that the government should be the first one to do it.

And that is precisely why I think the IBN interpretation is wrong. I think the state is legalizing the status of the 'other woman.' I am not sure I want to be happy about it as (from a Hindu law perspective) it promotes polygamy. And even with my limited understanding of the way law functions, it contradicts the monogamous idea within the Hindu marriage law. (I am open to being enlightened upon this apparent contradiction.)

As for other religions that allow for polygamous relationships, it is a welcome step. The plight of the 'other woman' is no secret, and some form of legal protection against the whims and fancies of men is long due. 'Other woman' generally has a very derogatory connotation, and such affairs tend to be clandestine. However, these women do bear/raise children and support their men like most other wives. But they also face social humiliation for being the 'other'. Respect both from society and the man is not always generous, to say the least.

While I do not advocate polygamy, given that it is a fact of life, I think we should welcome this decision. Ignoring it or refusing to recognize it will not make infidelity and polygamy go away. It is in the interest of society and human/women's rights that actions be taken to remedy the ills of such behavior. It is important not only for the women concerned, but also the children who have to suffer for their parents actions. I don't think this decision will encourage polygamous relationships, but rather should marginally discourage it. The decision makes it legally expensive (alimony, child support ) to have an extramarital and/or polygamous relationship which should ideally dissuade people from it.

Of course all this comes after the media has finally decided what the real decision is.