The Columbia crash

Print edition : March 14, 2003

I wish to thank Frontline for the excellent issue (February 28). No other magazine reported the `Columbia crash' in such an extensive manner. The excellent reporting, coupled with magnificent photographs and graphics, is ample proof of your magazine attaining the highest standards of publication. The articles by R. Ramachandran and T.S. Subramanian deserve special mention as they are not only informative, but written in such a lucid style that even a person who does not know the technical details about spacecraft would understand them without difficulty. While it would be too early to pin-point what exactly went wrong with Columbia, preliminary reports of the crash indicate that video images at NASA showed that an object hit the left wing of the space shuttle within 80 seconds after it took off on January 16. Aware that the space shuttle did not take off with 100 per cent accuracy, NASA took a huge risk, in view of the money, time, energy and above all prestige and ego involved in the mission.

S. Balakrishnan Jamshedpur

Mandir and politics

Apropos the article `The Ayodhya game again' (February 28). The saffron brigade is once again up to its old game of polarising Hindu votes on the mandir issue, with its eyes fixed on the forthcoming elections. Unfortunately, the VHP does not realise that the BJP did not win Gujarat because of mandir. The victory there was because of Narendra Modi's ability to convince Hindu voters that their existence was under threat from Islamic fundamentalists and that the Congress was out to appease Muslims, which would add to their woes. This cannot be replicated in other States. Nevertheless, the Central government has not done well to go back to the Supreme Court to seek a review of the decision on handing over of the undisputed land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas. This amounts to playing into the hands of the VHP.

Brig. V.K. Agrawal (retd.) Dehra Dun

Judges' acquittal

It is unfortunate that the media, which play the important role of shaping public opinion, made reckless allegations, which snowballed into a campaign of prosecution and vilification against three Judges of the Karnataka High Court (February 28). Immense damage has been done to the credibility of the judiciary, especially the reputation of the three Judges. To dispel the suspicions in the public mind and to restore the credibility of the judiciary, is it not necessary to publish the report of the judicial inquiry team which exonerated the Judges? Such a step would only enhance the authority of law. The credibility of the system is as important as the preservation of its authority and independence.

V.K. Sathyavan Nair Kottayam

Child labour

"Behind the bright silk" (February 28) hangs a sad story. The plight of child labour in the unorganised sector is pitiable. We have the largest number of laws in the statute, which are enforced loosely. Eradication of child labour through a fiat is a pipe dream. What we should be doing is to tackle the root cause of child labour - ignorance and poverty of the parents who are forced to send their children to work in order to supplement the family's meagre income. Only by a system of incentives and disincentives can the parents of child workers be persuaded to send them to school. Identifying child workers, giving the parents alternative means of support, and bringing education to their doorsteps could be a possible solution.

D.B.N. Murthy Bangalore

Foodgrains

Harsh Mander (February 28) quotes Amartya Sen as saying that the food subsidy "is mainly geared to keep food prices high for the sellers of food - farmers in general - rather than to make food prices low for the buyers of food... the high incentive to produce results in the massive stocks of foodgrains that we find in India today." Sen could not be more wrong. Foodgrains output per head of population has been falling. Compared to 205 kg in the early 1990s, it was 15 kg lower in 2000-01, and in this drought year 2002-03 it is 172 kg, the level in colonial India. Despite this, massive grain stocks have built up because of a large reduction in incomes and hence in effective demand on the part of the poorer majority of our population, which is constituted by labourers and farmers. The government has been following deflationary policies, which are mandatory under the neo-liberal reforms. Public expenditure on rural development has fallen to 6 per cent of GDP compared to over 13 per cent during the late 1980s. National Sample Survey data show clearly the resulting collapse of employment growth in rural India to just 0.6 per cent annually during 1993-94 to 1999-2000 compared to 2 per cent during 1987-88 to 1993-94. Hunger stalks the villages. Owing to demand deflation, the net availability of foodgrains has fallen drastically and the average four-member Indian family in 2002-03 is absorbing about 112 kg less compared to the early 1990s. Since absorption has increased for the top decile or so, it must have fallen even more for the lowest income deciles. Further, far from foodgrains prices being high, they have been crashing in global markets, as have non-foodgrain crop prices; most prices are at half the level of 1996 and some are lower than in 1988. Trade liberalisation has imported the depression in global markets into our economy. The present inflation rate is at a historic low owing to these primary sector price declines, and urban consumers are benefiting at the expense of farmers. Falling prices have additionally reduced our farmers' incomes and today they are in a deep crisis with rising levels of unrepayable debt. They are losing land and are selling kidneys. The recent drought has intensified their woes to unbearable levels. In 2002, the police records show that in three districts of Andhra Pradesh - Karimnagar, Warangal and Nizamabad - farmer suicides totalled 2,580 which is four times the number of suicides in all districts of that State summed over the preceding four years (Reported in the The Hindu, Hyderabad edition, January 6, 2003).

A drought, which comes after several years of falling employment and falling prices, has a very different impact from a drought under more normal conditions. The farmers in North India have sold their grain uncomplainingly to the Food Corporation of India for decades at much lower prices than world prices, and thereby sustained the deficit States and urban India. Now that world prices have crashed, the least that they have a right to expect is enough price support to prevent their utter ruin.Urgent measures are needed to raise the mass purchasing power, which can be done easily through a massive food-for-work programme. But the prospect of that happening is bleak, for neither the government nor its advisers, who adhere to the neo-liberal dogma that reforms benefit all, wish even to consider the correct diagnosis - which requires reversing the existing unwise, deeply anti-humanist deflationary macro-economic policies and adopting a boldly expansionary fiscal stance.

Utsa Patnaik Centre for Economic Studies and Planning Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi

The IIT story

The article on the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) by Kanta Murali (February 14) was one of the better ones I have seen in the Indian media - less hype and more reflection. We are all proud of Indians doing well abroad - and certainly IITians because, among other things, their success means these next-door middle-class boys (and a few girls) "made it on merit" and without the usual insinuations of string-pulling we are used to in India. It also probably does good for the psyche of those who had the humiliation to see India under the British Raj, to have their wards breaking glass ceilings and the like. No need to talk here of any residual mental colonialism being the "intimate enemy".

At the risk of inviting criticism, I must say, however, that the role of the IITs has been disappointing, if not dismal, except in exporting some unarguably bright and ambitious persons of Indian origin. I look around the country and ask how many of these IITians have contributed in any way to change the paradigms of knowledge. Or for that matter, have there been intellectual leaders from among them, in the sense of defining ideas and mores? All the technological revolutions in post-Independence India that have changed our lives, for better or worse, had no IITians to my knowledge, playing a defining leadership role in any sense - be it the Green Revolution, Operation Flood, the Pitroda-inspired STD/PCO sea change on the Indian telecom scene, or for that matter the so-called "equity" paradigm change in Indian stockmarkets.

Even the most pressing problems of the poor needed a Bindeshwar Pathak, who as far as I know is not an IIT product. After producing 80,000 or so (at the rate of 2,000 on an average for a minimum of 40 years) of these graduates with highly subsidised education (for much of the 1970s, the tuition fee was Rs.200 a year), what is the condition of our cities and villages with respect to infrastructure? Where are these IITs and IITians in providing sustainable solutions for the provision of clean drinking water and water for irrigation? Or a cost-effective way of harnessing solar energy in this land of sunshine and liberating us from the spiralling oil burden? Where are they and their well-heeled institutions promoting equitable low-cost solutions to housing for all? Where is the critique of the development paradigm that underscores the baggage of engineering education, in the IIT curricula? Would it be too much to expect IITians to rail against the "intellectual" predilections of their patron Minister Murli Manohar Joshi? Come out and say, for instance: "Hey Murali, we are inviting you to our Silicon Valley bash, but astrology and palmistry are technologically a no no." Did any of the IIT alumni have any remorse in inviting a high priest of the Parivar considering Gujarat, among other things?

Of course, in response, some of your well-meaning readers may point out that these are "governance" problems. But is technology not part of governance? Often these IITs are compared to the MIT (the M not for Madras, which produced poor Kalam, but Massachussets) or are supposed to be imitation MITs. If you look into the net on MIT syllabi and courses, you will find the MITs emphasis and range of excellence encompasses the pure sciences and economics and, of course, linguistics and philosophy. Can the same be said of the IITs?

From what one knows of the IITs, all the so-called pure sciences, not to speak of humanities, are poor neglected cousins. The pure science professors are needed only for setting the entrance examination papers and for the first year's foundation courses. Or take the performance of technology per se of our five Indian imitation MITs (two being recent additions). How many quality patents and papers have the faculty produced that can be said to have a reputable citation index?

At this rate, the ordinary denizens of this land may dare ask how come in spite of so many doctors being produced, we are still an illness-infested, besotted land; how despite so many IIMs and bright IIM professors and graduates we as a country continue to be mismanaged. But these are merely expectations of a people on the margin, not sufficiently integrated into globalising trends. Carry on multi-hued IIT/IIM/medicine diaspora, worry not about the Boojums asking questions.

I have had the good fortune to know a few unsung (by the media), and unhonoured, IITians who are working on grassroot poverty issues in India. But they probably would be doing so in spite of their IIT backgrounds. Because they have other sanskars to go by.

S. Srinivasan Baroda

* * *

The essay by Kanta Murali was excellent. Every now and then, an analysis like this appears and makes us think. When I was a student at IIT, Madras, in the early 1980s, I used to often contrast life in the villages adjoining the IIT (Velachery/Taramani) and that of us on the campus. I used to wonder if any of us on the campus ever dreamt of changing the life we saw on the fringes of the IIT.

I think we need to find the root cause of the IIT paradox. I feel we have to examine the contents of our primary and secondary education to arrive at some of the reasons. Are our students taught to come up with innovative solutions to the problems they encounter? If not, is this the reason why they take the easy way out when it comes to making a choice after they graduate from the IITs?

Our education system and middle-class parents focus excessively on individual excellence in academics but lay little emphasis on team work, a healthy work culture and other soft skills. This approach breeds excessive "selfishness" among children at an early age. In Western culture we come across selfishness being used in a very derogatory sense. IITians are only a culmination of such a flawed system. I think we should reset our expectations from them accordingly until we fix the larger system.

Aniruddha G. Kulkarni Pune

* * *

Congratulations on the excellent article on the IITs. It was a long-overdue assessment. As one who has been quoted, I wish to inform you that my article can be accessed at https://www.siliconindia.com/magazine/displayedetail007.asp?article id=1024 or at www.indusscitech.net under the channel articles. It was written about two years ago and drew angry comments from the establishment in India.

Having taught in the U.S. for an equally long period of time as at IIT, Kanpur, I stand by my figure of 10 per cent and they will be comparable to the intake here at UIUC, a world-class institution. I liked the comment about the lack of diversity at the IITs. I was in the midst of the controversy in the late 1970s over SCs/STs and had proposed a solution, which was voted down in the Senate at Kanpur. It is not too late for them to start, since it takes a generation for the effect to be felt, as we have seen in Tamil Nadu and here in the U.S. about affirmative action.

M.A. Pai Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering University of Illinois Urbana Champaign Illinois

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