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Aatmanirbhar Bharat: Make agriculture smart, villages smarter

Maneesh Pandeya

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In the last five years of India’s economic development and nation building, the “Smart City” tag has created the maximum buzz. It was supposed to be home to jobs, assured income and basic to high quality living. The “smart cities” today are helpless, jobless and most of them, penniless. The coronavirus pandemic and the unending “infectious” wrath have compelled us to do some reverse thinking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make India Aatmanirbhar (selfreliant)” dream has already shown the window to where the future is.

As famous agricultural economist Ashok Gulati puts it, “The package is surely a 1991 moment of economic reforms in agriculture…it should have come many years ago.” With nearly 60% of the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package directed to the villages, primarily the agriculture sector, it’s time to think smart and turn farmers into agri-entrepreneurs to make the sector the core pillar of New India feeding the world. How much is India agrisavvy vis-à-vis employment?

You go to a village and the most common request to you will be for a job. Unfortunately, agriculture today is a legacy bypassed by the lineage, and to many is a liability in the villages. It has never been seen as a profession and the “only” option for income. Most of us till our lands only to make ends meet and have forgotten the old hit track of the late 1960s, Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle hire moti, in the Manoj Kumar-starrer Upkar.

At times, we have solutions close by but we ignore it for a mirage. It’s time to make agriculture smart and techenabled and villages smarter. By agriculture, I don’t merely mean farming, but the entire gamut of activities — from normal crop production to animal husbandry to dairy to fisheries to innovative agricultural land policies, increased production techniques, to maximising food processing sector to meet modern day consumers’ demand and global supplies.

Be it rice, dairy, fisheries and a lot of processed food, including fruits and vegetables, India’s real “food bowl” potential is yet to ring bells in global markets. Or for that matter, even in our apartment living, high-middle class grocery shopping list. We prefer multi-national brands as we go shopping. Little do we know about India’s strength in honey production, organic spices and products, processed meat and poultry, exotic fruits from the Northeast and its fast-growing production of beverages. The “aatmanirbhar” package is in sync with Niti Aayog’s modern thinking and policies suiting the demand of farmers and village industries engaged in agriculture. It has everything on paper.

However, to be honest, the chain gets lost as farmers lose the battle to middlemen, arbitrary crop pricing, high lending interest rates, inadequate safeguards against crop damages and access to right information and dependable market networks. I doubt if many district collectors hold even weekly or fortnightly farmers’ chaupals to address the policies and issues dedicated to agriculture and farmers’ welfare.

Some states with a responsive bureaucracy and tech-enabled governance may be exceptions, but the majority lags and have left farmers to fend for themselves. The package, as Gulati puts it, is a “breather and the government has surely shown a willingness to walk the right path and deserves compliments”. The agri-economist added, “The reforms announced last week could be a harbinger of major change in agri-marketing, a 1991 moment of economic reforms for agriculture.”

The execution of this package for farmers will be key and their interests need to be safeguarded with an effective regulation by the district and local level administration, including village panchayats having a say in the local mandis. This a deciding moment and the country needs to blend enterprise with some innovative farm techniques on the ground.

A lot of nations are doing this to encourage farmers to make agriculture the backbone of the economy. The United States, for example, uses a lot of entrepreneurs and has agriculture in college curriculum aligned with business and science courses. The colleges have access to farmer bodies for regular interaction with the students and experts, eventually having a healthy exchange of research ideas, new breakthroughs and also giving them access to private players for funds and grants to produce more and new varieties.

Shefali Mehta, a top agriculture expert in the Indian diaspora, feels that “India can learn a lot from the US experience with agri-entrepreneurs, but there is a catch.” The funding and investments must be directed to farmers’ needs and not to private players imposing their demands of products suiting their markets and profits. Mehta cites the US case by saying, “To truly leverage the value of agri-tech and entrepreneurs, partnering with farmers is critical.

This ensures we solve the major problems farmers face while ensuring the technology is operationally feasible, which leads to faster adoption and use. What we learn from the US agri-tech experience is that despite tremendous money invested at unprecedented levels in the past years, the tech solutions are still falling short because some companies are ‘pushing’ their products rather than necessarily solving high priority problems for farmers.” This is always a fine balance to remember while re-hauling our agriculture sector.

India can learn from this by ensuring partnerships upfront and throughout to get more bang for their buck on investments. Mehta was in India in 2018 and again in February 2020 and witnessed the continued shift of entrepreneurs looking to leverage their technology for agriculture. “The challenge, similar to what has hampered US agri-technology, is that there is a sense of ‘we have a hammer, how do we use this in agriculture’, while many challenges facing farmers are still being overlooked. The ideal balance is by both bringing new tech to agriculture, while identifying the challenges faced by farmers and solving those.

India is in a great position to strengthen their food supply chain and environment issues by thoughtfully bringing these parties together from the beginning of ideation and development, rather than later in the game.” Let’s be honest, we need to make farmers the core and lead actors of this new economic battle in fields, which we have seldom done as credit in India’s farming sector, including in food processing, has mostly gone to food processors, investors, retailers, e-tailers and entrepreneurs. How many times the farmers are told about new taste buds developing and what the chefs are looking for in the farms to make their new plates? Seldom.

From her experience in India, Mehta feels that India’s additional challenge is the broad range of farmers, including many smallholders, thus the immediate revenue back to tech companies may be relatively small for the investment to develop and commercialise products. Creating more ways for companies to partner with those who can assist like researchers, farmer cooperatives and provide some protection and targeted support so that the investments have a stronger benefit would also help. Finally, as people “rediscover” food and get closer to the food supply chain, there’s also a broader desire to be connected which can be leveraged. Ultimately, for the technology to reap benefits, farmers need to use it.

For agri-tech entrepreneurs, they need to be able to access many farmers quickly and effectively. Thus, working with other sectors means they can test and showcase their products through field trials, etc (that US universities often do) and access large farmer networks with those who already know how to work with farmers. But most important is that farmers need to learn technology too and must have access to information linked to micro-farming techniques to easy finance options and also a complete decoded version of PM Modi’s current package at the panchayat level so that it is best used by those for whom it is meant. The resilience of our farmers coupled with out-of-box ideas by entrepreneurs in our fields will produce a cocktail of a bumper yield set to realise India’s dream of being “aatmanirbhar”, for sure!

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Opinion

COVID WREAKS HAVOC ACROSS INDIA AS DEATH FIGURES MOUNT

Pankaj Vohra

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Multiple theories regarding the sudden surge in Covid cases across India, particularly in metropolitan cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, have come up with the government struggling to bring the situation under control. It is being said that China could have unleashed a double mutant of the virus in West Asia from where it has travelled all the way to this country since there is a large Indian diaspora which lives in that part of the world. According to this theory, the new strain of virus may have come to Mumbai, Delhi and Kerala, through Dubai. In any case, the mounting cases are a cause of immense worry, and both the state as well as Central governments should prepare themselves for meeting this growing challenge.

Another issue that is being debated is that why was the Sputnik vaccine not made immediately available here, even after reputed medical journals had rated its efficacy higher than that of other vaccines. It is evident that the powerful pharmaceutical lobbies operating out of the West and in parts of India, were interested in keeping the Russian product out of the market. The pharma companies have made tonnes of money in the past couple of months and many people who have been vaccinated were also getting afflicted, which effectively means that the pandemic is far more dangerous than what was the initial assessment.

It has to be clearly understood by all political parties that Covid does not carry any election symbol and therefore it was most important to keep politics out of this nationwide effort to combat this dreaded disease. There have been suggestions that like Britain, India should go in for a prolonged lockdown in order to decrease the number of cases. The flip side of this argument is that in an economically depressed nation like ours, people have to go out and work in order to support their families. There are reports of migrants once again returning to their native places. In the past 13 months, so many people have lost jobs or have their salaries reduced to one-fourth and in many cases, have not been paid for months. The Centre must come out with a policy to safeguard the interests of the citizens who are essentially bearing the brunt of this pandemic.

It is really strange that the Election Commission has chosen not to merge the remaining phases of the Bengal elections, even though several political parties have urged the constitutional body to do so. Election rallies and religious congregations must be immediately curtailed. What is unexplainable is that when schools and colleges can be closed and examinations postponed indefinitely, why cannot an appropriate decision be taken regarding the elections which are being needlessly prolonged. India must take some firm steps by involving experts who can help in providing solutions. The political establishment has been found inadequate in dealing with the matter. Therefore, the issue should now be dealt with experts who can help in containing the pandemic. Wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance is a reality that should not be allowed to be ignored.

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Opinion

PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES NEED TO GO BEYOND QUESTIONS OF CONVENIENCE

Private sector can play a significant role in realising the goal of expansion, equity and excellence as envisaged in NEP-2020, provided it makes right kind of investment in areas like curriculum reforms, recruitment of competent faculty, and research and development.

Ved Prakash

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The first attempt to lay down the foundation of modern Indian higher education was made in 1781 by the people of Calcutta when they petitioned Governor General Warren Hastings to establish institutions of higher learning. He paid no heed to their appeal for a long time. British did not want to repeat the same folly which they had committed in America by establishing educational institutions and losing control over its territory.

After what seemed like a long wait of thirty-six years, Raja Rammohan Roy formed an association and founded the Hindu College at Calcutta on 20 January 1817. This was the outcome of an altruistic desire of the people of Calcutta to improve human welfare. Soon after that, in the same year, the CMS College, Kottayam was established by the Church Missionary Society of England. There is a little controversy about the year of establishment of CMS College as some still believe that it is the oldest existing college, two years older than the Hindu College.

The philanthropic endeavour of these two groups caught the imagination of the people of the country, resulting in some more colleges in the later part of the nineteenth century. Prominent amongst them are Serampore College (1818), Agra College (1823), Wilson College, Bombay (1832), Medical College, Calcutta (1835), Grant Medical College, Bombay (1835), St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli (1844), Krishnagar Government College, Nadia (1846), Thomason College of Civil Engineering (1847), Elphinstone College Bombay (1856), Brennen College, Thalassery (1862), Christ Church College, Kanpur (1866), St. Xavier’s College, Bombay (1869), St. Stephen’s College, Delhi (1881), Fergusson College, Pune (1885), Khalsa College, Amritsar (1892), Hindu College, Delhi (1899), Cotton College, Guwahati (1901), Ramjas College (1904), St. Bede’s College, Shimla (1904), etc. All these colleges were established by arduous efforts of social reformers, philanthropists and missionaries as the government was not keen to spend on the education of Indian citizens.

The first wave of expansion of colleges in the country was mostly due to private enterprises. The scope of higher education widened a little with the arrival of Wood’s Despatch of 1854 in which he made the recommendation of establishing three universities in the country on the model of University of London. The main function of these three universities, that were established in 1857 in the cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, was visualized to confer only degrees after testing the value of education imparted not on their campuses but through different colleges.

Subsequently, some more universities were established through the efforts of luminaries like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Sir Akbar Hydari, Sir Syed Ahmed, Thakur Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, Sir Hari Singh Gaur, Pratap Singh Gaekwad, Krishnaraja Wodeyar, to name a few. In fact, higher education in India owes a great debt to private initiatives undertaken by people and societies of variegated backgrounds including social reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Pachayappa Mudaliar and societies like the Deccan Education Society and the Arya Samaj. It was their selfless service to the society with no profit motive. Ironically, the spirit of that selflessness amongst most of the present set of educational entrepreneurs is incredibly lacking.

Most of the institutions during the pre-independence period were established with the help of generous donations from private individuals and princely states. Over the years, they found it difficult to support their programs due to growing enrollment and lower rates of internal recoveries leading to depletion of resources. There were only 21 universities at the time of independence and of them, 9 were teaching universities and all others were teaching-cum-affiliating. There were about 500 colleges that were affiliated with these universities. All of them gradually turned into grant-in-aid institutions.

There has been a steady increase in the number of universities during the post-independent period. However, it remained confined only to the public sector because there was no legislative framework available for the establishment of private universities. The era of liberalisation put an intense pressure on the state governments to open up the sector for private service providers as the public system was not in a position to fulfil the aspirations of swelling the middle class population. Thus, a beginning was made by the states of Madhya Pradesh and Sikkim in 1995 when they enacted legislations for the establishment of private universities and set up one university each. Thereafter, the government of Chhattisgarh went overboard in this direction and established as many as 112 private universities within a short span of one year, in 2002. The government of Chhattisgarh enacted the law in a manner that had completely done away with any kind of control of the Regulators (UGC) over these private universities. It compelled the former Chairman of the UGC, Prof. Yashpal, to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court against the government of Chhattisgarh and others, which resulted into complete shutdown of those universities in 2005.

After the severe jolt in Chhattisgarh case, the private entrepreneurs resorted to an alternate option, of becoming a deemed to be university. Consequently, the number of deemed to be universities shot up exponentially from 72 to 128 within a short span of four years from 2005 to 2009. Such a sudden spike in the number of deemed to be universities sent an alarm bell ringing in certain quarters compelling the UGC to replace its guidelines with the rigorous Regulations in 2010, to frustrate the proliferation of sub-standard institutions as deemed to be universities.

As soon as the private entrepreneurs realised the complexity of establishing a deemed to be university, they reverted to their earlier strategy of approaching the state governments to enact legislations for the establishment of private universities. More and more state legislatures enacted the laws resulting in an exponential rise in the number of private universities from 69 to 372 within a period of eleven years from 2009 to 2020. As of now, there are twenty-five states which have already enacted legislation for the establishment of private universities. The largest number of private universities are in the state of Rajasthan (52) followed by Gujarat (43), Madhya Pradesh (39), Uttar Pradesh (29), Haryana (24), Karnataka (19), Maharashtra & Uttarakhand (18 each), Himachal Pradesh (17), Jharkhand & Punjab (15 each) and Chhattisgarh (12), while in others it is in single digit.

It is important to recognize the trend in the growth of private universities and their massive proliferation in just thirteen states. The issue of only a few states with maximum concentration of private universities of unacceptable standards is a matter of great concern. It is extremely concerning that nearly 43% of them have not yet cared for UGC’s mandatory inspection. An equally worrying aspect is the quality of their programmes as is evident from their abysmally poor show of accreditation. The latest data from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) reveal that out of 372 private universities only 55 have got themselves accredited thus far. And, what is even worse is that none of them has been able to make the cut to the top grade (A++). Just 3 of them could barely make it to grade A+ and 13 to grade A. Most of these universities are offering run of the mill programs without qualified faculty and proper infrastructure that are necessarily required for proper transmission, certification and creation of new knowledge. Obviously, these developments are unacceptable, and beyond that, extremely disturbing.

Private sector can surely play a significant role in realising the goal of expansion, equity and excellence as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, provided it makes right kind of investment in areas like curriculum reforms, recruitment of qualified and competent faculty, professional development, classroom processes, students’ assessment, research and development. In addition, they should make the best use of the existing regulatory, ranking and accreditation mechanisms for quality enhancement rather than considering them as infringement of their academic freedom. These reforms should no longer remain in the form of an idea but become a reality. They better learn fast that only then they would be able to survive in this fiercely competitive world.

It may be pertinent to mention that there are over hundred institutions deemed to be universities that are in the private sector. Somehow, they seem to be doing much better than the state private universities as is evident from their NAAC accreditation and NIRF ranking. It is evidently clear that the overall situation of the state private universities is far from satisfactory. It urgently requires both programmatic approach and curricular reforms on a significant scale to give a much-needed boost to the private sector. There is a need to evolve pan-India norms in terms of land and infrastructure requirements to minimise wide variations that exist across the states. Each state should have its own regulatory authority which should monitor and evaluate the programs of the state private universities on a continuous basis and ensure their timely accreditation. UGC on its part should also make necessary amendments in its private university regulations and provide in it for a periodic review as is caused in the case of deemed to be universities.

The growing generation of private entrepreneurs should also draw inspiration from former reformers and philanthropists who had provided high quality higher education to the country with much lesser resources. It is true that the current challenges are far more difficult than the earlier ones but principles of exemplary dedication for selfless service, consistency and unyielding commitment to empowering youth can still be as much contributing factors for excellence in teaching and learning as for the advancement of knowledge.

Most of these entrepreneurs need to change this impression that there is no sense of urgency for them to fulfil even the mandatory requirements of the regulators and accreditors. If they continue with this lackadaisical approach even towards basic reforms that have been there for long then they are going to meet the same fate as the second-rate engineering institutions. They will have to go far beyond questions of convenience to provide real-life practical experience to students by modernising and transacting curricular provisions under the watchful eye of qualified and competent faculty. 

The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

CHALLENGES FACING MAINSTREAM POLITICS IN BANGLADESH TODAY

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In the 50 years since its independence, mainstream politics in Bangladesh has faced a difficult challenge. The main opponents of democratic politics are now Islamist fundamentalist groups which have gradually accumulated massive power in Bangladesh, a state based on secularism and national identity. However, there are countless forces that do not believe in the basic principles of Bangladesh. Political analysts believe that the reasons for their rise include the two military coups, the lack of proper practice of democracy, the indulgence of Islamist parties on various pretexts, and failure to take timely action to stop their rise and prevent Islamist groups from contacting Pakistan.

During the War of Liberation, two main pro-Islam political parties opposed the independence of Bangladesh. One was the Muslim League and the other Jamaat-e-Islami. Among the leftist parties, the Chinese, who were divided into different factions, were against the liberation war. After Independence, the Muslim League was politically abandoned and the government banned Jamaat-e-Islami. At that time, Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam formed a committee to restore Pakistan and traveled to different countries, urging governments and heads of state not to recognize Bangladesh. Later, the Bangladesh government revoked Azam’s citizenship. 

After the assassination of “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, army officer Ziaur Rahman came to power and formed a political party called the Bangladeh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP was joined by leaders and activists of the Muslim party, which was defeated in 1971, and the majority of leaders and activists of the pro-China political parties. At that time, Ziaur Rahman allowed the anti-liberation Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami to enter politics and also reinstated the citizenship of Ghulam Azam. From this time onwards, the politics of Bangladesh was divided into two streams—for and against the liberation war.

Sheikh Hasina returned to the country after being elected the President of the Bangladesh Awami League from her political asylum in Delhi. Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League quickly became strong. After her return, the politics of the country started flowing in two streams again: pro-Awami League and anti-Awami League. Sheikh Hasina declared that her party’s policy would be based on secularism and Bengali nationalism. Hasina formed a political front with 14 leftist political parties which believed in the spirit of the liberation war. On the other hand, Khaleda Zia formed a political front with seven political parties. Besides the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, the other allies of this front were also pro-Islam.

In its 2008 election manifesto, the Awami League announced the trial of major leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami who were accused of war crimes. When Sheikh Hasina came to power, she started the trial process of the war criminals in 2009. Several top leaders of the party were convicted and sentenced to death. The most powerful fundamentalist party in the country fell into disarray at this time.

However, the radical Jamaat-e-Islami adopted four new strategies to sustain itself. On July 8, 2010, the party sent a circular to all its branches, issuing instructions to party leaders and workers to infiltrate the ruling Awami League. Youth workers were asked to join the court as lawyers so it could save them from police harassment. Thirdly, workers were also asked to take up journalism as a profession and join the pro-Awami League journalists’ forum. Finally, leaders and activists were told to take over the leadership of various branches of Hefazat-e-Islami instead of Jamaat-e-Islami. In the circular, Shafiqur Rahman, the current Amir of Jamaat, also mentioned that this was the way to go for the time being in order to survive and secretly organize themselves for the future. 

In addition, Jamaat-e-Islami has invested huge sums of money in and sent its cadres to Europe, the US, Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia, from where they launch cyber attacks and spread propaganda against Sheikh Hasina’s government. The Awami League government has also failed to respond to such cyber propaganda. The cyber sphere in Bangladesh is now under the control of the fundamentalists. Investigation shows that about 56,000 leaders and activists of Jamaat and Shibir have already infiltrated the Awami League since 2010. The government is not able to stop further infiltration. 

Although Khaleda Zia’s party, the BNP, has several anti-fundamentalist and liberal democracy-minded leaders, the main leader, Tariq Zia, is in favour of giving shelter to the fundamentalists. There have been several demands to expel Jamaat made by the BNP’s political front, but that has not been done yet. Why not? The top leader of the BNP, known as a liberal, has said that so many Jamaat members have infiltrated the BNP that a large part of the party’s top leadership is from the fundamentalist party.

These fundamentalists are now sustaining themselves in Bangladesh through various tactics. By occupying the country’s cyber space and putting out misleading interpretations of Islam, they are inciting the youth of the country against the principle of secularism and Bengali culture.

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Opinion

Why Tintin is forever

From seven to 70-year-olds, Belgium to Tibet, and comic books to the silver screen, the swashbuckling reporter Tintin has left an indelible mark on the world—and through his iconic stature lives on the talent and charm of his creator, Georges Remi, or as he was better known, Hergé.

Bhuvan Lall

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Eight decades ago, on 15 April 1941, many parts of Europe were in flames. Nazi Germany had wreaked havoc across the continent. France and Belgium were under Nazi occupation. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had walked through the bombed sites in Bristol devastated by the Luftwaffe. It was noted that tears filled the tough-minded British Prime Minister’s eyes. For Churchill and Britain, it was not so much a battle for survival but a struggle to survive. Across the Atlantic, President Roosevelt made a speech promising aid to the British and their allies in their war against the fascists “until total victory has been won”.

On that April afternoon, in the middle of the World War, a 33-year-old Belgian comic book creator, artist, and writer, Georges Remi, was at the Théâtre Royal des Galeries, Brussels to attend the performance of a play penned by him. Born on 22 May 1907 in Etterbeek district of Brussels, Remi drew and wrote under the name Hergé (his initials G. R. transposed and pronounced air-zhay). With his artistic hand and creative storytelling, he gave life to the perpetual adolescent hero, Tintin. The first-ever Tintin comic appeared in black and white in the French-language newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle on 10 January 1929. It was an instant hit. Right from the beginning, Tintin the teenaged snub-nosed Belgian reporter with his trademark quiff of hair, accompanied by Snowy, his faithful fluffy white fox terrier, embarked on voyages and swashbuckling adventures around the world. Tintin, whose cause was just and whose heart was pure, personified courage and loyalty by fighting for the oppressed. Each episode was a page-turner sprinkled with slapstick comedy, sophisticated satire and political comment. Hergé once admitted Tintin was a projection of his inner self, stating, “I am Tintin… I am no hero. But like all 15-year-old boys, I have dreamed about being one. And I never stopped dreaming.”

Hergé dispatched his hero to Russia to denounce communism, teach African children in Congo, sail to America to take on gangsters, and witness Native Americans being driven from their land. Subsequently, Tintin chased drug smugglers through Indian jungles in the Kingdom of Gaipajama, dealt with spies and drug smugglers in China, headed off to the deep forests in Latin America in search of a statue, pursued a gang of counterfeiters across Scotland, and even saved the Balkan state of Syldavia from annexation by its neighbor Borduria, whose leaders had been plotting with a fictional character ‘Musstler’ (a contraction of Mussolini and Hitler and a great anti-fascist statement). 

Then 12 years after Tintin first arrived, in the spring of 1940, the Nazis landed on his doorstep in his hometown as the occupational force. It was a difficult year for artists and writers in Belgium. The Nazi regime turned significantly more repressive and the persecution of the Belgian Jews escalated. On orders from the Nazis, Le Petit Vingtième, the publisher of Tintin, was shuttered, never to reopen, and Hergé was forced to transfer the adventures of the journalist from The Daily Reporter to one of Belgium’s main dailies Le Soir, that was a known Nazi collaborator. Working in the stifling climate of censorship, Hergé was disturbed by the constant sirens, bombardments and noisy air raids. Yet he continued to contribute to the popularisation of comics in Europe. In April 1941, Hergé watched Jeanne Rubens perform the lead role in Tintin aux Indes – Le Mystère du Diamant Bleu (Tintin in India – The Mystery of the Blue Diamond) on the stage in Brussels. It was a three-act theatre piece set in distant India, co-written by Hergé with Jacques Van Melkebeke.

In the play, the intrepid Belgian comic book hero solved a mystery about a stolen blue diamond in the fictional state of Padakhore. The play concluded with the relentless do-gooder catching the thief in the medieval hall of the Chateau of Syldavia. Directed by Paul Riga, Tintin aux Indes received a positive response from the Belgians, and to Hergé’s satisfaction, it had three more outings. Surviving through the war years, Tintin, the world traveler from the small European nation, continued to raise Belgian spirits and became an indisputable national hero. However, in the post-war period, Hergé was shockingly detained for questioning four times on unsubstantiated charges of collaboration with the Nazis. The members of the resistance who loved Tintin came to his rescue. Then due to the occasional appalling language, narrow ethnic jokes, stereotypical caricatures of non-European characters, crude propaganda, and colonial tints in some of the comics, Hergé faced accusations of racism, resulting in multiple revisions of his works. Hergé touched up, redrew, and recoloured the old stories and soon his creation evolved into Belgium’s most celebrated exports.

Over the next decades, the young Belgian, imbibed with high moral standing through his 23 plus one half-finished comic book adventures, captivated millions of fans, cutting across age and nationality. Hergé surrounded his protagonist with over 228 zany and eccentric characters including the vast of the brain, hard of hearing, absent-minded scientist-inventor Professor Calculus, the yowling shrill-voiced Milanese nightingale Bianca Castafiore, the irritating chatterbox insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg, the overworked butler Nestor, the bumbling hapless bushy-mustached bowler-hatted detectives from Interpol – Thomson and Thompson twins, and his gruff sidekick, a quick-tempered alcoholic bearded sailor Captain Archibald Haddock, who screams “Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles” and has a collection of more than 220 insulting epithets like “Bashi-bazouks”, “Ectoplasms”, and “Sea-gherkins”In his comic, the mild-mannered Hergé also made the Hitchcockian appearance and was seen discreetly attending ceremonies, taking notes, or interviewing Tintin as a reporter himself.

In the pre-social media, Internet, and television era, countless people, from seven to 77-year-olds, followed Tintin as he traveled beyond his home at the Marlinspike Hall to new countries, cultures, landscapes, and natural phenomena which were still relatively unheard of. In the 62-page comic books, the footloose allrounder hero with his usual squadron of supporting characters and crazy villains covered continents on foot, horses, carts, hand rickshaws, camels, elephants, cycles, motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, tanks, trains, boats, rafts, ships, submarines, helicopters, light aircraft, fighter planes, airliners, private jets, spaceships, and even a flying saucer. Tintin took his fans to lands as far afield from the perilous seas, rainforests, snow-clad mountains, and burning deserts to a meteorite and even outer space. It is rumored that when Neil Armstrong finally landed on the moon in July 1969, President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire reminded President Richard Nixon that it was Tintin – the one-time visitor to Congo – who had reached the moon first. In 1954, Tintin wearing an orange space suit made the trip through space in a red and white chequered rocket and landed on the moon in the double comic books, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. 

Tintin’s enduring appeal made him an iconic character and a friend to millions of children worldwide. With fans even as far as India, Hergé had once claimed, “I receive… a lot of mail from India. Here, in the office, are two letters from Calcutta. Now, what can there be in common between a boy in Calcutta and myself?” In 1934, his hero crash-landed in an Indian jungle in his fourth adventure, The Cigars of the Pharaoh. Besides the clichéd fakirs, fortune tellers, tigers, cows, snake charmers, and cobras, Tintin met with some British residents of the colonial era and in the end joined his host, the Maharaja of Gaipajama, on a bejeweled elephant, in a victory procession. Later from September 1958 to November 1959, Studios Hergé serialized the twentieth volume of the comic series, Tintin in Tibet. The comic book’s release coincided with His Holiness Dalai Lama’s successful escape from Lhasa to India. Worked out after extensive research, it told the story of Tintin’s search for his friend Chang, who goes missing in the Himalayas after a plane crash. Desperate to find him, Tintin and Haddock land at the Willingdon Airport in Delhi as a brief stopover on their way to Kathmandu. In the afternoon they visit the Red Fort and Qutub Minar, and take a trip through a typical Indian bazaar. Lost in the Himalayas, they seek refuge in a Buddhist monastery inhabited by a levitating monk. Eventually battling blizzards, Tintin retrieves his friend from the snow-bound heights and also encounters a very emotional Yeti. Tintin in Tibet was voted the greatest French-language graphic novel of all time and was said to be Hergé’s favorite. By the 1970s Hergé became interested in eastern philosophy and Tintin took to yoga in Tintin and the Picaros.

Hergé with his talent for pacing, intrigue, and action, elevated comic book storytelling to almost the thrill of watching movies. On 6 December 1961, Tintin et le Mystere de la Toison d’Or, the first of the two Tintin original feature films starring Jean-Pierre Talbot as Tintin and Georges Wilson as Haddock, was released to mixed results followed by a similar outcome with the second live-action film, Tintin et les Oranges Blues in 1964. Hergé’s little masterpieces had been adapted for the radio, stage, puppet shows, musicals, animation, television, movies, and even BBC programs, but Tintin could not cross over to America and Hollywood perhaps because he was not a superhero. Interestingly on the 44th page of Tintin in America, the victorious reporter is surrounded by the American press in Chicago and a Hollywood agent in a suit shouts: “Paranoid Productions are starring you in their new billion-dollar movie spectacular!”

By a strange quirk of fate, in 1983, Hollywood’s most successful filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, while reading the French language reviews of his blockbuster hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark, came across repeated references to Tintin. He got hold of a Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun and was immediately smitten, accepting, “Every single panel told a story in cinematic terms, including color pallet, composition, figures in action… that was I think the genius of Hergé. It was a movie”. A call was organized in the middle of February 1983 with Hergé and it turned out the artist was a fan of Spielberg, having loved his first film, Duel, in 1971. Spielberg, who decades later in 2011 directed and produced The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, later revealed that Hergé had told him, “You are the only director I feel who can do justice to my book”. After the call, a meeting between Hergé and Spielberg was arranged first in London and then in Brussels but it did not materialize. The health of 75-year-old Hergé was failing and on 25 February 1983, he was rushed in an ambulance to the Saint-Luc Clinic in Brussels. Seven days later on 3 March, as the clock hit ten in the evening, Georges Remi, one of the greatest comic book artists of the 20th century, passed away. The adventures of Hergé ended that night and his death was front-page news in the Francophone world. A headline ran, “Tintin est mort”. Everyone realized that there would be no Tintin without Hergé. 

Over the years, with more than 200 million copies in more than 80 languages, including Tibetan and Esperanto, sold worldwide, the simplicity and complexity of Hergé’s comics resulted in Tintin attaining superstardom and a global following. General de Gaulle had famously declared that Tintin was his only international rival while Hugh Grant professed his love for Tintin’s King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Andy Warhol who met Hergé was a big fan, and so was Roy Lichtenstein. The French philosopher Michel Serres declared that Hergé was the author who has had the “most impact on contemporary French life.” In 1999, following a survey by Le Monde, Tintin’s The Blue Lotus was ranked 18th amongst books that left their mark on the 20th century. On 1 June 2006, the Dalai Lama bestowed the Light of Truth award posthumously to Georges Remi and the Hergé Foundation for producing Tintin in Tibet and making a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of Tibet. Tsering Jampa, representing the International Campaign for Tibet, stated, “For many, Hergé’s depiction of Tibet was their introduction to the awe-inspiring landscape and culture of Tibet”. Hergé’s instantly recognizable style of sketching has acquired a name, ligne claire, and Tintin was the first comic strip to enter the modern art collection at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. There are Tintin stamps, coins, shops, museums and a bronze statue of Tintin and Snowy stands in a square in Brussels. Also on 14 January 2021, a Tintin drawing by Hergé, originally illustrated as a cover for The Blue Lotus in 1936, was sold in Paris for 2.6 million euros ($3.1 million), breaking the record for the most expensive comic book art in history. A planet in outer space has been named Hergé in his honour.

Ninety-two years since making his debut, Tintin the unbeatable hero of many adventures is a global phenomenon with over two million comic books sold every year. Countless Tintinologists believe that the eternally youthful and indefatigable reporter with two dots for eyes, a little nose, and a distinctive tuft-hairstyle is still out there doing good somewhere in the world with Snowy chasing a butterfly next to him. Numerous fans retain a bit of Tintin within them from childhood onwards. And for millions, Tintin is forever. 

Bhuvan Lall is the author of “The Man India Missed The Most Subhas Chandra Bose” and “The Great Indian Genius Har Dayal”. He is currently writing “The Path of Gautama Buddha”.

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Opinion

COVID CRISIS: LOCKDOWN IS NOT THE SOLUTION

Joyeeta Basu

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Amid an unprecedented surge in Covid infections, the Maharashtra government has imposed what it insists is not a lockdown, but a Section 144. Considering the said section of the IPC prohibits the assembly of four or more people in an area, and given the measures that Maharashtra has taken, its “Section 144” looks a bit too much like the prolonged lockdown of last year. Everything will stay shut in Maharashtra except for the essential services and what is used by the essential services. So public transport, including local trains, will run but can be used only by the essential services. Cargo services and e-commerce will be allowed to function but only if they are supplying essential goods and services. IT services are allowed but only for critical infrastructure. ATMs and postal services will stay open, as well as manufacturing units that produce raw materials for essential products. Hotels, restaurants, malls, markets, factories—everything will stay shut for at least a fortnight or more. What this effectively means is a complete shutdown of sector after sector that were showing some signs of recovery after 2020. Whether the chain of infection breaks or not, what this new avatar of Section 144 will do is break the back of Maharashtra’s economy. And considering Mumbai is the financial capital of the country, this move may have a cascading effect on the country’s economy as well.

There is no study to show that lockdowns are effective in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. In fact experts are of the opinion that lockdowns are the last option, or perhaps not even an option, for it can be a killer for the most vulnerable sections of society. And if some of the vulnerable—in this case the migrant labourers—again start returning home then the possibility of the infection spreading to even the remotest corners of the country increases manifold.

Even though last year’s lockdown has been justified by some experts as having been necessary to prepare the health system to handle a huge number of cases, there is no such reason that can justify a lockdown now when the second wave is raging. Instead, the focus should have been on implementing a strict containment policy, the operative word being “implementation”. The situation in Maharashtra has been going from bad to worse over the last one month, with this single state accounting for 55-60% of the country’s total caseload. But the criticism is that no appropriate containment measures were implemented. People were allowed to throng malls, marketplaces and beaches, tossing Covid appropriate behaviour in the dustbin. The local trains went back to being crowded as ever. Mumbai went back to its nightlife, parties continued. Social distancing norms were violated with impunity, masking was given the go by. When the first corona wave subsided, it was business as usual. There was a possibility that the second wave could have been contained but for that there had to be a policy in place, which was not the case. And now that there is a surge, instead of a lockdown, the concerned authorities should have thought about what is known as an “aggressive containment policy”, which includes heightened testing, contact tracing, isolating, ensuring that social distancing is maintained, no large congregations are allowed to take place either in public or private and that people wash hands and wear masks. Apparently, one of the reasons that this surge is happening is because of the high percentage of asymptomatic cases, because of which the infection is transmitting from person to person very fast—hence the need for implementing social distancing measures.

The only way out of this mess is testing and more testing. Also the vaccination process needs to be ramped up. There is a marked unwillingness among many people to get vaccinated because of the various rumours swirling about the after effects of vaccination and reports of people getting the virus even after being vaccinated fully. The message has to go out that vaccination may not always be able to prevent the virus from attacking a person, but even if such an attack takes place, it is not virulent. It’s very mild and is not fatal. The after effects too can be tackled with over the counter medicines. In fact, from anecdotal evidence it is apparent that large swathes of the underprivileged population do not even know what the vaccination is all about. Educating them about the importance of getting vaccinated should be a priority, for which respective state governments should enhance their local-level health infrastructure. India still has a long way to go before it achieves herd immunity. Until then the infection may be coming back in waves. Whatever be the case, lockdown is not the answer to tackle the virus. It is based on this premise that policy should be made and implemented.

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Opinion

Why National Curriculum Framework must be ‘national’

The 2005 National Curriculum Framework, introduced during the UPA-led government, is in need of review and revision. Mainly because the textbooks produced as per the framework have glaring omissions and anomalies, which are depriving school-going children of an education that exposes them to latest developments in the world while inculcating a sense of national pride.

Niranjan Kumar

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Children are the foundation on which our future will be built. Therefore, for nation-building, children will have to be nurtured in a way that they grow up to be conscientious and well-developed, can take pride in themselves and their heritage, and are ready to contribute to the progress of the country. For this they need to be given the ‘right’ education through a well-balanced curriculum in schools. However, an ironical situation has developed today for the want of value-based learning in children’s education and its curriculum framework, particularly when assessed from a nationalistic/Indian perspective. 

Before we delve into what is not right with regard to children’s education, it would be germane to understand its framework, denominated as the National Curriculum Framework (NCF). NCF, provided for school education, is a detailed outline of the guiding policy and objectives of education, the subjects/courses taught to school-going students, the choice of lessons/texts incorporated, and the pedagogy to impart these.

It is the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), an institution under the Ministry of Education, which bears the onus of designing the NCF. It also prepares books in light of the NCF. On the initiative of the Ministry of Education, NCERT set up a committee last year to review the NCF. Here, I would like to point out the reason for the proposed review. An obvious one is that with the numerous developments in various fields it is the need of the hour that students keep abreast of the same. Therefore, the school curriculum must be revised to keep pace with new developments. It’s not without reason that this kind of exercise is initiated every 10 to 15 years.

If we look at the history of NCF’s revisions, we find that it has been revised four times so far: in 1975, 1988, 2000 and 2005. So, the last changes were made 16 years ago. However, in 2000, during the NDA government, the amendments, which had been made after a long and meticulous process under the mentorship of Prof. J.S. Rajput, the then NCERT director, had not gone down well with the Marxists and “liberal academics” associated with the Congress-Left alliance government. Hence, soon after forming the government in 2004, a new NCF was framed at lightning speed in 2005, just five years after the last revision! 

On the perusal of the NCF-2005 document, no concrete reason for the changes is apparent. It is cursorily mentioned, “The review of the National Curriculum Framework, 2000 was initiated specifically to address the problem of curriculum load on children.” But contrary to its stated purpose, the burden and complexity has actually increased manifold. Besides, many important points incorporated in the NCF-2000 were deliberately omitted under “ideological pressure”.  

If one looks upon the ‘Guiding Principles’ and ‘Objective of Education’ in the NCF-2000, it is found that along with placing equal importance on value education, character building, patriotism, the spirit of national unity and integrity, ‘Fundamental Duties (enshrined in the Indian Constitution by Indira Gandhi)’ were made ‘core components’ of the same. The Fundamental Duties, among others, include abiding by the Constitution, respecting the national flag and the national anthem, maintaining the unity and integrity of the nation, serving the nation, valuing and preserving the rich heritage of our composite culture, etc.

There is little need to iterate how important the above mentioned features are for any country. Unfortunately, under the vested ideological pressure, most of these were pretermitted in the NCF-2005 in the name of a “new” and “child-centered approach”, “learning without burden”, “making learning enjoyable” and a “joyful experience”. However, if one looks at the books put together in the light of NCF-2005, one finds the opposite. For example, in the Social Studies book ‘Social and Political life’ for children of Class VI, who are around 10 or 11 years of age, complex concepts such as “stereotypes” and “prejudice” have been discussed, subjects which such minds would barely comprehend. Similarly, taxing and complex questions as, “What do you think living in India with its rich heritage of diversity adds to your life?”, “Do you think the term ‘Unity in Diversity’ is an appropriate term to describe India?” “What do you think Nehru is trying to say about Indian unity in the sentence quoted above from his book The Discovery of India?” have been asked in the same book. I must repeat here that these questions and concepts are not meant for students of Classes IX, X, XI or XII, but for children from the sixth grade. Can a 10 or 11-year-old fathom such complex socio-psychological and socio-political concepts properly? It is an issue which requires careful deliberation. Another pertinent question which arises in this context is whether negative concepts like ‘prejudice’ and ‘stereotypes’ should be taught to tender minds at this early stage? My contention is not with teaching these concepts as part of the curriculum, for students must understand our social system and its shortcomings, but I would recommend it for higher classes, when the mental growth and the resultant power of comprehension of the pupil enable them to view and assess these issues in totality. 

It is a task of great responsibility, and must be determined likewise, to decide what children should learn and at which stage. An example which I would like to extend here is that of sex education. The content to be included in ‘physiology’ or ‘sex education’ and the age to be taught the same demand careful and diligent exercise of wisdom. In the name of necessity, ‘sex education’ or ‘physiology’ cannot be taught to sixth graders. In a blind emulation of the West, subjects cannot be taught as per Western requirements, as cultural values and grounding of the mentioned societies varies vastly.

Sadly, the syllabus for history also suffers from the same impertinence where the glorious and rich traditions of ancient India have been ignored, undermined or distorted. For instance, the Vajji state in ancient India was a republic or a kind of democracy. According to renowned historian K.P. Jaiswal, the concept of democracy in ancient India is older than the Roman or Greek concepts of democracy. But in the NCERT book “Our Pasts-1”, there is a mysterious silence on Indian (Vajji’s) democracy except for a fleeting mention that Vajji had a ‘gana’ system, without making it clear that the ‘gana’ system was a form of democracy. The same text, however, is quick to take cognizance of and categorically mention that there had been democracy in Athens, Greece 2,500 years ago.

Similarly, while discussing the name of our country, the denomination ‘India’ has been subtly given a sort of primacy over ‘Bharat’, mentioning the name ‘India’ first and ‘Bharat’ as the second one. It must be noted that the nomenclature of ‘Bharat’ came at least a thousand years before ‘India’. The word ‘Bharat’ was mentioned at least 3,500 years ago in the Rig Veda, whereas ‘India’ was first used 1,000 years hence by the Greeks.

To cite another example from “Our Pasts-1”, the fourth chapter is titled, unscrupulously, as “What books and burial tell us”. It must be known that this chapter deals mainly with the time of the great Rig Veda. Shouldn’t the same qualify as the chapter title then? Also, there is no mention about the highly regarded status of women at that time. There is indeed a passing reference in a single sentence, which states that “a few (hymns) were composed by women”, but there is no mention that women at that time had various other rights along with the one to study the Vedas. Eminent Marxist scholar of Hindi Ram Vilas Sharma, unlike other Marxists, writes that a large number of women composed the ‘Shuktas’. Romashan, Lopamudra, Ghosha, Appala, Savitri Surya, Kamayani, Shraddha and Yami Vaiswati are a few to name. The fact that they composed Vedic hymns clearly indicates that women had the right to study. In fact, women had many other rights, as they used to fight in battles as well.

Similarly, a discussion on Emperor Skandagupta, who repelled an invasion by the tyrant Indo-Hephthalites (Hunas), Anangpal Tomar of the medieval period, credited to have established Delhi, and the subaltern king Maharaja Suheldev, who defeated the nephew of Mahmud Ghazni, is missing.

One can find hundreds of subtle references, full of fraudulent or incomplete narratives, in history, social studies and literature books. These discrepant narratives, instead of promoting patriotism or a sense of national pride and unity, are bound to breed negative feelings and an inferiority complex in children, particularly in the context of their nation.

In addition, NCF-2005 gives little importance to ancient Indian knowledge and science, philosophy, Ayurveda, yoga, astronomy and metallurgy. These subjects are missing completely from the current books. ‘Vedic Mathematics’, known to increase a pupil’s computational capacity manifold, and is available at private tuitions or on TV channels as a paid service, finds no mention in the curriculum too. 

Thus, a review is in order to incorporate various social, economic, scientific and technological developments made in the last 16 years and set right the anomalies mentioned above, with an aim to expose school-going pupils to the latest and correct knowledge that the world has to offer. Towards this objective, a competent academic leadership is necessitated, in the absence of which the growth of school-going children in India will continue to be compromised as they will remain deprived of a well-balanced curriculum even after seven years of a ‘nationalist government’ in existence. 

The author is an academician teaching at the Central Department of Hindi, Delhi University. He has also taught in various US universities. He can be reached @NiranjankIndia. The views expressed are personal.

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