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JULY 26, 2017


‘Weak public institutions best way to ensure social injustice’

  • In the next few decades, there will be a youth bulge with a skewed sex ratio, one where people, the young people, have ostensible credentials but no real skills or knowledge because of how bad our education system is. So they have expectations and aspirations which are not going to be met.
  • Add to it employment in the face of technological change which in every area requires fewer workers.
  • All of this is coming together with a background of weak, if not weakening, public institutions to manage this.

In some ways, everywhere public institutions are challenged.

  • All institutions are some form of checks and balances, but if those in power do not want those checks and balances and they get re-elected repeatedly, then over time there is erosion and — I want to emphasise this — this is across political parties.
  • we have the most regulated higher education system… the UGC (University Grants Commission), AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education), etc.
  • For universities- the underlying ethos of higher education is a spirit of inquiry, a spirit of curiosity, a spirit of tolerance, a spirit that says excellence is important. In that sense higher education should be elitist.
  • Very few universities, they are islands of excellence. But for the bulk of our population, public universities will, and should, continue to be very important. But we seem to be writing them off. Other than the very elite narrow technical institutes like IITs and AIIMS and IIMs, these have reduced what the purpose of education means to a basic functional instrument.
  • If you want to create a sense of genuine nationalism, of service to the nation, that’s where it begins. It doesn’t begin in sloganeering. Why shouldn’t IIT graduates be sent to help out panchayats with technical expertise?
  • If you look at public loans for higher education, they were about Rs. 300 crore in 2000. Now they are Rs. 72,000 crore, the fastest-growing NPAs (non-performing assets) in the banking system. Basically, these moneys go to private colleges, many are run by politicians, teaching rubbish and in the end, the public sector will pay in any case.

What ails our public institutions?

  • One of the extraordinary things is how undermanned they are. It’s not only about shortage of personnel in numbers, we have a shortage in quality. Partly I think this whole thing of everything at the top being reserved for the IAS, IPS has to go.
  • Ironically, weak public institutions are the best way to ensure social injustice. Who needs strong public institutions? It is the weak, not the strong. The strong will always be able to buy their way, whether it is education, police protection. The irony is in the name of social justice, we have undermined the very social justice we have claimed we were doing this for.
  • One of the things we should do in our Central universities is besides reservation, insist that half the students come from outside.

If you are in a research programme funded by public money, what should be your role? Should it be activism or research?

  • Research is not a part-time activity. Good research requires tremendous commitment over a sustained period of time. You cannot get around it. That is the bottom line. An ordinary taxpayer may say, main kyon paise doon (why should I pay)? Or from the point of view of the young person: there are so many injustices, do you want me to keep aloof? There is an inherent tension we should recognise.


In the age of data

  • As India awaits the judgment of a nine-member Bench headed by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar on whether privacy is a fundamental right, the moment is ideal for the country to redefine and reconstruct some of the elementary definitions and laws associated with ‘privacy’.
  • The present time period is said to be the ‘age of data’ with private companies — ranging from social media platforms to e-mail services and messaging applications — storing humongous volumes of information, a lot of it outside India’s borders.
  • Both Facebook and WhatsApp have more than 200 million active users in India, with India recently surpassing the United States in terms of the number of Facebook users.

EU regulation

  • To protect the privacy of its individual users, the European Union is to implement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018. Aimed at harmonising data privacy laws across Europe, it will impose stiff penalty of up to 4% of the company’s worldwide turnover in the event of a breach. Many companies will also have to ensure that even their vendors are fully compliant with the GDPR as a condition for running their businesses. Recognition of privacy as an individual right in India, without similar enforceable regulations, will be akin to raking water up a hill.
  • Coming to collection of data by governments and agencies, we need to keep in mind the Internet and the more virulent Darknet are being increasingly used these days by criminals and antisocial elements for illegal trade, trafficking and money laundering apart from recruitment to various terror outfits like the Islamic State (IS).
  • Regulations that impinge on the effectiveness of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies as they battle these challenges would significantly compromise our social harmony and national security.
  • Hence, what India needs more is effective data protection laws, along with strong independent watchdog institutions to ensure that the organisations handling our data do not go astray.

For a hygienic track

  • The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on catering services for the year ended March 2016 provides further evidence that little has changed in the system: food unsuitable for human consumption, contaminated and recycled items, packaged articles past their use-by date, and unauthorised items are sold on trains, all endangering the health of passengers.
  • In the area of passenger services, any reform has to contend with the ‘open access’ character of rail travel in the country, since coaches are open to unlicensed vendors who sell food, water and other goods.
  • Given the need for employment, it would be pragmatic to broaden the network and enrol more local distributors of certified articles, while implementing the core idea of the IRCTC running modern base kitchens.
  • Audit findings of contractors on railway premises overcharging users and selling packaged food items at prices inflated over the open market are serious, and require immediate resolution.