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I WANTED LIVES TO BE CHANGED: SAUDAMINI

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Saudamini Mishra
Saudamini Mishra

Talking about Dhi’s Parables of Divine Transformation, author Saudamini Mishra expressed, “Well, Dhi was a concept that came to me in 2015. I’ve been a painter for about 9 to 10 years. So before the book, I was involved in that. All my paintings are based on this one character, she’s supposed to be my alter ego, and the typewriter on her head signifies intellectual activity. ‘Dhi’ is a Sanskrit term, which means the mind, the intellect, and it’s supposed to signify something which is spiritually transcendental. So Dhi became the narrator of adult folk tales that I term parables as they have moral leanings for adults. The tales are all set in contemporary society and instead of animals like traditional folk tales, these have real people with real issues. But the moral of the story remains the same.”

She has also made it now to the bestsellers list in a short period. Addressing that, Saudamini said, “It is surreal but when I came out with the book, I was very certain about what I wanted. We all want to be bestseller authors but the positive impact this book was intended to have was far more important, I wanted lives to be changed. We all have these larger than life ideas as kids like you want to change the world or change a person’s life. That’s what translated into my ambitions. Also, as an author, I did want that. The numbers are important but the feedback that I’ve been getting that it has impacted people positively is far more important to me. That is surreal.”

Her book has had a positive impact on people and their lives. “I talk about how our inherent flaws are the tools we can use to transform ourselves divinely. We don’t need to be spiritual in the conventional sense such as leave everything, forsake everything and retreat into this life of a hermit, go into the world of seclusion and become spiritually enlightened. The feedback that I’m getting is that the people have learnt to respect their flaws and use them for the divine transformation. And people are telling you that how stories come back to them after a few days, they suddenly remember a story and it’s more real and they can channelise that into their real lives and cope with their problems. And it’s not like a “real-life” situation but real life because I think we all live multiple lives in one life. So coping with each one, be it in terms of separate roles, for example, a mother and a daughter, leading different lives, have inherent challenges in their lives. So they channelise it differently. And that, to me, is the biggest acknowledgement that it stays with them and tells them how to cope with the issues they are facing,” said Saudamini.

She spoke about the motivation behind penning Dhi’s Parables of Divine Transformation. Saudamini said, “There was no tangible motivation and these things are very organic. So I wrote this book in 2016 and finished it in 2017. It’s now that I’ve put it out there. So it was a long process. I’ve been a painter before and that was my profession. The book was a manuscript that was lying on the couch. I’ve met several people, so the book has all real-life accounts. Whenever their life or the incident struck me in any way, I used to write it down, because I knew that someday it’s going to help someone if it has helped me. If I have read that story or heard it and it impacted me, it’s going to impact someone else as well. So that was the inspiration that whenever I talked to people and hear about the different encounters, I said, wait a minute, this is changing something in me so it can change someone else as well. So it was a very organic and long-drawn-out process. It was me helping myself and all these people altered my perspective. So I’ve tried to share that experience.” She is currently working on another book that is expected to release by 2022.

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Organization of Rare Diseases India presents an enchanting session on Rare Diseases 

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ORDI panel

Organization of Rare Diseases India (ORDI) recently presented an enthralling session on Rare Diseases on NewsX. There were 4 power-packed panels of experts that joined in the session that was divided into 4 segments covering various aspects concerning the topic. The four segments were:

  1. Rare Diseases: The Untold & Unheard Saga
  2. Rare Diseases: The Indian Scenario
  3. RaceFor7- Walk/ Run/ Ride on 28th Feb
  4. Rare Diseases: Hopes from the government

‘Rare Diseases: The Untold & Unheard Saga’

Dr Meenakshi Bhatt, Consultant, Clinical Genetics, CHG, Bengaluru kickstarted the first segment by enlightening the viewers on Rare Diseases. Dr Bhatt said, “Rare diseases, as the name suggests are the diseases that happen very infrequently in the population. In countries other than ours, there is a definition, sometimes it is defined in certain countries as something that happens less than once in a population of 2 lakhs. In some other countries, there is a definition that 1 in 2,500 or less of the population is affected by a disease.”

“In our own country, we do not have an accepted definition but I think once we are settled on a definition, it should be 1 in 5,000 people who are affected by a particular disease. Collectively, it has a huge impact because of nearly 7,000 Rare Diseases and we estimate that there must be at least 70 million people affected by it in India with a collection of these diseases. What does it do to the people? It affects many systems of the body and sometimes, one individual that’s affected with the Rare Disease can have many parts of their body including their intelligence affected. So, it’s very important that we recognize it early so that we can do something about it,” said Dr Meenakshi.

This segment was also joined by Prasanna Shirol, Co-founder & Executive Director, ORDI, Sangeeta Barde, Co-founder Director, ORDI, Lalith S, Director, ORDI & father of kids with Sanfilippo syndrome, Arouba Kabir, Counselor & Mental Health therapist, Dr Sujatha Jagdeesh, Head of Clinical Genetics, Mediscan, Chennai, Dr Ann Agnes Mathew, Pediatric Neurologist, Baptist Hospital, Bangalore, Dr Shubha Phadke, Professor & HOD, Medical Genetics, SGPGI.

Rare Diseases: The Indian Scenario

Giving an introduction of ORDI, Prasanna Shirol, Co-founder & Executive Director, ORDI said in his inaugural address, “ORDI is an umbrella organization which represents 7,000 plus Rare Diseases. Basically, we work in the area of advocacy, awareness and patient support.”

Mr Shirol’s quest to finding answers to multiple questions in the area of Rare Diseases led him to find the organization. He personally struggled through his life as his 22-year-old daughter is India’s first Pompe patient which is a rare genetic and neuromuscular disease. 

Joining in the conversation, Sangeeta Barde, Co-founder Director, ORDI said, “We really came to a conclusion that there is no organization who can look at this in the most holistic manner. So, if one has to really work in the area of Rare Diseases then how can it be most holistic when it comes to addressing majority of these challenges that people encounter. So, that was the reason for the birth of ORDI and the whole mission is therefore around representing the Rare Diseases here in India. It’s not about one disease, it’s about 7,000 diseases that we are talking about. Some of them are not even identified properly, their names are unavailable, patients are unidentified.”

Other contributors of this segment of discussion were Dr Sumita Danda, Professor & Head, Department of Clinical Genetics, CMC, Vellore, T.S. Singh Deo, Health Minister, Chhattisgarh, Ashutosh, parent of a child of IEM, Samir Sethi, President at Indian Rett Syndrome Foundation, Dr Sarthak Kamath, MD, Psychiatry and is living with DMD,  Vaishali Pai, Occupational Therapist & Founder, Tamahar Trust, Bengaluru, Manjeet Singh, President, LSDSS and he also lost his child to MPS, Dr Ratna Puri, Professor and Chairperson, Institute of Medical Genetics, Sri Ganga Ram Hospital, Dr Sanjeeva G.N., Associate Professor, Pediatrics, IGICH, Bangalore, Anil Raina, General Manager, Sanofi Genzyme, Gitanjali Sehgal, Co-founder, FSMA and is an aunt to an SMA girl and Sunila Thatte, Vice President & Head- R&D Solutions India at IQVIA.

Segment 3: RaceFor7- Walk/ Run/ Ride on 28th Feb

Racefor7 is a yearly event that ORDI conducts for the past 6 years. It symbolically represents the 7,000 rare diseases with 7,000 people running for 7 kilometres. Prasanna Shirol, Co-founder & Executive Director, ORDI said that it is a mass awareness run/ walk/ ride. He added that it is unique and largest such program in the world where so many people join to create awareness who are unaffected for causes like Rare Diseases. This year, this event will be held virtually tomorrow, to register, go to registration.racefor7.com.

Segment 3 panellists were Prasanna Shirol, Co-founder & Executive Director, ORDI, Sangeeta Barde, Co-founder Director, ORDI, Dr Meenakshi Bhatt, Consultant, Clinical Genetics, CHG, Bengaluru, Arouba Kabir, Counselor & Mental Health therapist, Sirisha, OI Warrior, President awardee, Anand Shah, Trustee of PPMD India, Uttam Sahoo, teacher & parent of Progeria child Aditya from Uttarakhand, Dr Suresh Hanagawadi, President, Karnataka Hemophilia Society & Professor of Pathology, JMM Medical College, Davangere, Dr Prakash Gambhir, Chief Medical Scientist, Lifecell & Fetomed and Sunila Thatte, Vice President & Head- R&D Solutions India at IQVIA.

Segment 4: Rare Diseases: Hopes from the government

In the last segment of the session on Rare Diseases, the panellists shared the challenges that the government perhaps needs to take account of. Taking the same conversation ahead, Dr Ratna Puri, Professor and Chairperson, Institute of Medical Genetics, Sri Ganga Ram Hospital said, “Being a doctor who has been working half lifetime with patients with Rare Diseases, I think we deal with a very large population and the priorities from the health administration side are probably different. We see our priorities as the most vital, I do agree with the parent community, they are vital because every child has a right to life but we are moving ahead and I hope that with all this, with the noise that is being created, with the platforms that are coming forward to take the voice and the importance of treating children with rare disorders, we are all waiting for a good Rare Disease policy.”

The power-packed panel that joined this segment included Prasanna Shirol, Co-founder & Executive Director, ORDI, Sangeeta Barde, Co-founder Director, ORDI, Dr Meenakshi Bhatt, Consultant, Clinical Genetics, CHG, Bengaluru, Dr Ratna Puri, Professor and Chairperson, Institute of Medical Genetics, Sri Ganga Ram Hospital, Prasanna Shirol, Co-founder & Executive Director, ORDI, Gitanjali Sehgal, Co-founder, FSMA and is an aunt to an SMA girl, Manjeet Singh, President, LSDSS and he also lost his child to MPS, Samir Sethi, President at Indian Rett Syndrome Foundation,  Dr Sanjeeva G.N., Associate Professor, Pediatrics, IGICH, Bangalore, Anil Raina, General Manager, Sanofi Genzyme, Sunila Thatte, Vice President & Head- R&D Solutions India at IQVIA, Dr Ann Agnes Mathew, Pediatric Neurologist, Baptist Hospital, Bangalore and Vaishali Pai, Occupational Therapist & Founder, Tamahar Trust, Bengaluru.

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‘Startups: Opportunities in the next decade’: Taxolawgy explores new age entrepreneurship

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Moving towards an Aatmanirbhar Bharat, Taxolawgy Inc on Thursday, February 25, presented a captivating session on ‘Startups: Opportunities in the next decade’. Eminent leaders from the startup world, including CA Farooq Haque, Serial Entrepreneur, Founder & CEO- Taxolawgy Inc, Divya Varma, Co-founder at Taxolawgy Inc, Marketing & Growth Strategist, Anil Chhikara, Founder & CEO, Bluebolt Startup Factory, Amit Agarwal, Author- The Ultimate Sales Accelerator and Sajeev Nair, Serial Entrepreneur, Peak Performance Consultant, joined the panel.

Charting the course for new age entrepreneurship, especially in the new normal, Farooq Haque, Founder & CEO- Taxolawgy Inc, in his opening remarks said, “The new normal is not about changing your destinations, but rather changing your path and changing your journey to reach the same destination.”

Emphasising how the division between taking a job and or starting your own venture has blurred over the years, he added, “When I became a CA more than 25 years back, there weren’t many opportunities out there. Either you went into the job industry or you started your own practice. Then came the startup revolution around 10-12 years back, which gave a new opening for the young entrepreneurs out there, who had the entrepreneurial mind and advantaged from the startup culture, in terms of funds, mentorship and the help they needed. But, the new normal that we are witnessing now, is a complete game-changer. That iron wall that existed earlier between the job industry and the entrepreneurship is now completely broken. I would take this liberty to coin the new definition of freelancing, i.e, ‘Entrepreneurial workforce’. Freelancing is not like a job since you are not in the payroll of the company; you are an entrepreneur developing something of your own in the work domain. This is going to be a game changer in the upcoming decade.”

Speaking about the growth of freelancing and its growth during and after the pandemic, Divya Varma, Co-founder at Taxolawgy Inc, said, “The pandemic has proved to be blessing in disguise for the freelancing industry. As the world went into lockdown, the only thing that survived, or rather thrived, was remote working and freelancing. Employers are re-evaluating budget and opting for more flexible workforce. Even the employees are showing growing interest towards the independent world. Mac Berry, the founder of freelancers.com, has said and I quote, ‘While Covid-19 has been a trigger for upward trending freelancer movement, this exponential growth can also be attributed to the strong demand for individual to finally start their own freelance enterprise, work on their own terms and supplement their income.”

Anil Chhikara, Founder & CEO, Bluebolt Startup Factory and also the founder of Startup India Foundation, highlighted the development of startup eco-system in India in the last decade. He said, “If we put in a time machine and send today’s young entrepreneurs 10 years back, they wouldn’t believe that India was where it was. Things that we almost take for granted, were not there. If you look at Silicon Valley, they have gone through various upturns and downturns. The upturn is more important for an eco-system, because of the downturn and what happens after the downturn. If you look at the history of silicon history, after every massive downturn, much bigger companies have come back aligned to the new realities. The biggest change that happens during this is that the investors, the mentors and everybody that comes in to the ecosystem, are those who have been entrepreneurs before, have made a success and had failures. They have walked the path. I am happy to see in the last 10 years that the big change that has taken place is stakeholders, whether you are talking about accelerators, incubators and even the government, today are running something like Invest India and Startup India, rather than putting ‘babus’ to run it. They are putting really seasoned entrepreneurs who have been there, done that. The biggest example of this is Aadhar and UPI. I believe that the changes that happened in the last one year will outstrip the changes that have taken place in the last ten years.”

When asked about how startups should plan their sales activity at the starting stage, Amit Agarwal, Author- The Ultimate Sales Accelerator, said, “There is a how part of sales and there is 4W part of sales. What I framed is a 4W and H framework of sales. Simply put, it is why are you selling, what are you selling, where are you selling and who are you selling and how are you selling.” In a lot of cases, I have seen that there is a lot of focus on the ‘h’, i.e how part of sales. Startups should change that to focus on the first 4Ws. If startups start addressing these 4Ws, the ‘how’ part will automatically be optimised. There is a lot of literature on the how part and less focus on the 4Ws.”

Elaborating how one can find out the scalability of a startup idea, Sajeev Nair, Serial Entrepreneur and Peak Performance Consultant, said, “We all know that one of the key factors we always count is the scalability of idea or the concept. The question on how do you say whether your idea is scalable or not, is purely based on the idea. Primarily because if you are coming out with an idea, there are many business ideas, which are not scalable. The basic question, which startup entrepreneurs should ask, is what is your idea. If you have to scale something, what is it that you are going to scale! You need to have basic core element, which you can scale up. When we start a business, we should be focusing very clearly on what is that element that can be scalable. There could be one or more elements that can be scalable. First, we should define the purpose, then we design the products that meet the purpose and then we design the process, which can take the products to meet the purpose. We then find the people or the distribution channel through whom we can meet that purpose. When you are scaling up based on a purpose, you can gain success.”

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Farmer-centric innovation: Emerging trends and open spaces in agri-tech

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The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation presented a discussion on ‘Emerging Trends and Open Spaces in agri-tech’ to spark farmer-centric innovation that improves economic, social, and environmental outcomes and increase the income of small and marginal farmers in Indian agriculture. NewsX was joined by the expert panel which included Anil Kumar SG, Founder & CEO, Samunnati; Mark Kahn, Managing Partner, Omnivore; and Sudha Srinivasan, CEO, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation and moderated by Priya Sahgal, Senior Executive Editor, ITV Network.

In an attempt to build a better future for our farmers and focusing on especially the small, marginal and women farmers, Sudha kickstarted the conversation and said, “We started with the mission to launch and nurture India’s top talent to solve our most critical developmental challenges. There are so many social problems that technology can disrupt in particular, standing out as that space where more than half of India’s poor are engaged in some form of agriculture. The pathways out of poverty see roadblocks in the form of social norms that technology has the potential to disrupt. Technology can reduce the volume of inputs that go into the soil which later translates to the ability of the farmer to sell while meeting the standards of fuel density of pesticides or whatever’s preventing them from accessing, the range of possibilities was very wide. Unfortunately, as you look at active investments in the last few years, a lot of it is customer and consumer proximity. This is almost a void in the farmer-centric space that puts the farmer at the centre, making their livelihood important.”

Mark expressed his views on trends in agri-tech in India and abroad, “The amount of investment coming into agricultural tech startups annually in India was $15 million a year. In this past 12 month period, we’ve probably crossed $600 million. So it’s been up into the right over the last decade, it is better than it was earlier. When we talk about the kind of trends that we’re seeing globally and in India, the global agri-tech is different from the Indian agri-tech. Indian agri-tech is in some ways better positioned. The defining characteristic of Indian agriculture is the fact that you have 130 million farmers farming in an average landholding up just slightly more. No other nation in the world has that. If you think about all the debates we’re having from a policy perspective, about our Mandi system, our dairy economy which instead of working with large dairy farms like everywhere else in the world the biggest trend we see in Indian agriculture is digital outreach. We now can build a base layer to reach all of these disparate groups although every farmer does not have a smartphone. If we take one of our portfolio companies they are reaching about six lakh farmers. We, at Omnivore, say profitability, sustainability, and resilience are the three big challenges faced by Indian agriculture.”

Talking about how agri-tech is helping the small and marginal farmers and addressing the access to technology for the small farmers, Anil said, “The moment one gets into agriculture and talk about smallholder farmers the number one dimension is the smallholder which is where the rubber meets the road. The second dimension is the sector as a whole to the expanse of what agriculture is as a sector. Now, making the horizontal and vertical is where the entire benefit to the smallholder farmer would have to operate. Before getting into how technology is going to help the farmer I’ll digress a little bit and also share what is declining. I completely agree with both Sudha and Mark saying that things have changed significantly in the last few years, especially in the last five years. In addition to the capital inflows that Mark mentioned, the entire agriculture ecosystem is seeing the buoyancy: an ecosystem level, not only the entrepreneurial side that we are seeing but also the enablers that the ecosystem is seeing has not been absorbed as I have spent about 21 years of my professional experience in banking in the rural area. Things have changed significantly in the last five years in addition to the capital inflows. There is a lot of energy in the ecosystem. The moment you see this energy in the ecosystem, there are two dimensions. One is each one of us is several of the entities that are operating in this space and are looking at addressing one or two critical parts of this ecosystem agriculture. On the vertical capital, somebody is looking at satellite imagery in terms of monitoring and some entities are looking at horizontally. How can we be aggregators of all of these individual interactions? The collaboration of this horizontal and vertical is what will bring technology on its way. You take the benefit of technology, the attribution and the result of the technology contributing Rs 200 in their pocket is an important message. How can technology translate into upliftment in the livelihood is the single largest factor that will determine the adoption rates? The beauty of an ecosystem being active would also mean the smallholder farmer could adopt these technologies. Some players can also play the role of making these technologies.”

Throwing light on funding and the early stages of the incubation and how they prove over the years, he said, “The other way of looking at it is the number of integrations that have mushroomed. If you see the lifecycle of an entity reaching up to a stage of being able to get seed funding, there is an incubation and plan to touch the incubators. There is proof of concept and production capability and demonstrating a reasonable scale is when you get into the equity space. And the same thing CAG report also talks about more than 2000 startups in agriculture in various forms and shapes. From a banker point of view, when there is some distance to cover and a significant gap that is not in the equity funding at the seed stage but it isn’t working capital. Many entities don’t need equity but need working capital to deploy their solution product or technology to the intended users. Some of these entities struggle due to the way a debt fund looks at is still very traditional and rudimentary. They would look at the percentage of the activity, financial returns, profitability etc. But the agri-tech space is very young. You cannot expect a technology company in agriculture to have demonstrated a vintage of deploying their operations and showing sustainable financial records that’s not available yet.”

Sudha, who comes from the field of socio-entrepreneur, said, “One thing to note is the changing demographics of rural India. There’s a generational shift, far more farmers today, who are digitally illiterate, have aspirations beyond doing what their parents did. The pandemic also showed us the exodus from the urban centres back to the villages, although a lot of them might come back. We still need to look at India’s development in a more distributed manner that reduces the dependence on the urban centres and revitalises rural economies. Agriculture already is the labour of the sector. For me, the single biggest whitespace is the opportunity in near farm industries, something that goes beyond the activity of sowing, tilling, reaping, harvesting, to expand additional revenue streams for the farming communities.”

Responding to what else can be done to encourage farmer-centric startups financially, Anil said, “Before getting into how we can encourage financially I also want to bring in the demand now the transitory role that technology can bring to it is changing the visual of what agriculture would mean. The moment you say a farmer, and agriculture, we get the visual that of drudgery and impoverished farming family, not making much end, not getting a fair deal of what they’re producing and at the receiving end of everything. How can we make technology that drives the youngsters into agriculture and can we transition this visual to the young generation working with the gadgets? On his farm, happy children running around, mechanisation happening, and making a productive yield out of agriculture. And the bridge to these two worlds is technology, and this technology would also be the incentive and could also be the catalyst for youngsters to move from a physical directory (agriculture in an actual sense) to high tech farming which is where our country is moving towards.”

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INDIA-UNITED STATES STRATEGIC WINDOW OPENS IN THE INDO-PACIFIC

As two major democracies grappling with the ‘China challenge’, India and the US might fare better by joining forces against the Dragon. Close ties between the two nations in this scenario will not only be a wise move in terms of strategy and security, but also benefit each other’s economies and strengthen their fight against climate change and Covid-19.

Maneesh Pandeya

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After President Joe Biden’s inauguration, diplomatic circles worldwide and American strategic think tanks were abuzz with a single pertinent question—will the new administration be as tough as President Donald Trump against China? Given the “bipartisan hatred against the Dragon in the US political circles”, President Biden and his administration faced the enormous challenge to keep the legacy of Trump’s “anti-China stand, including curbs and a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific Ocean to keep the Dragon rattled”.

From the Indian point of view, what most were interested to see was whether New Delhi would get the same “pampered treatment” and significance as a partner in the US diplomacy and strategic affairs in the Indo-Pacific region while confronting China’s arbitrary expansion. India seems to have retained that significant partner status, which was strongly endorsed by not only the phone calls between President Biden and PM Narendra Modi, but also a flurry of diplomatic and strategic communications by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence General Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with their Indian counterparts within weeks of assuming office. 

The recent high-level Quad ministers’ meeting involving the foreign ministers of India and the US along with other key partners, Australia and Japan, puts to rest all questions raised about the Biden-Modi strategic compatibility. In fact, diplomats and Asian experts feel that India’s importance in US security planning and strategic affairs to jointly confront China in the Indo-Pacific region is on the cards. Former diplomat and South Asian affairs expert at the Johns Hopkins University, Walter Andersen, strongly feels that the importance of India to US security planning in the Indo-Pacific region is underscored by the multiple contacts of high-level officials of the new Biden administration. China’s growing power and assertiveness is the driving factor for both the US’ focus on the Indo-Pacific as well as the growing interest of other key Asian powers like India, Japan, and Australia in closer ties to the US.

Andersen says, “These US officials have talked of India as a `critical and preeminent partner’, underscoring a long-held US view that India, with its huge population, growing economy, nuclear capable military and critical position jutting down into the middle of the Indian Ocean to the south and a long-contested border with China to the north, is critical to preventing China from becoming the hegemonic Asian power.”

To make this strategic partnership even louder and clearer than Trump’s presidency did, Secretary Blinken has connected with his Indian counterpart three times between January 29 and February 8 in person-to-person conversations and then at the February 18 ministerial with the members of the so-called Quad.  

Andersen adds that the strategic thrust given to the Quad under Biden has a wary approach, similar to its predecessor, to what it has called the “Chinese challenge”. While not the equivalent to an Asian NATO, there is a cooperative security dimension to the Quad, with annual naval exercises that Australia has just rejoined after a decade-long hiatus following a Chinese protest. “In a crisis, the four are now able to cooperate with each other on security matters. While Blinken is not the first senior US official to talk of US-Quad or US-Indian partnership, he has set the foundation for a further expansion of the security relationship, should both the US and its three Asian partners require it.  They now have the basic security architecture to do so,’’ says Andersen, a specialist on Indo-US diplomatic affairs.

Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert on India-US-Japan security relations, says, “Despite the Biden administration saying that China is the “most serious competitor”, they are restructuring their China policy. It is expected that the long term purpose of their China policy will be the same as that of the Trump administration’s, but the ways may be different. The Biden administration is under process to come out with a clear policy towards China, and they need to collect more information. Therefore, this Quad meeting is important for the US to understand what kind of opinion other Quad members (India-Japan-Australia) have as information.’’

Nagao also agrees with Andersen on India’s significance in the Quad for the US’ new strategic push in Indo-Pacific region. The Japanese expert on Indo-Pacific affairs says, “For the US, the Quad is cooperating with India. The other two (Japan and Australia) are formal allies for the US. India is only a newcomer for the US. Therefore, the Quad meeting is an important meeting for the US to communicate with India.”

However, he added, “The Quad is different from an India-US bilateral meeting. The topic is more focused on security. And along bilateral relations with the US, India-Japan, India-Australia, Japan-Australia also exchange opinions at the same time. The Quad meeting is writing a big security picture in the Indo-Pacific.”

Apart from Quad dynamics emerging in the Indo-Pacific, the closer India-US ties are becoming a major worry for Beijing, which has gradually started to perceive New Delhi as a competitor. Andersen says, “The recent Chinese agreement with India to pull back troops and security infrastructure in eastern Ladakh along the disputed Line of Actual Control may be Beijing’s recognition that continued Sino-India tensions are driving India closer to the US. New Delhi has the room for maneuver on security issues as it is unwilling—at least so far—to consider a military alliance with the US against China and is careful to phrase Quad issues as something less than an alliance against China—unless provoked by China.”

The US and India see China as a common enemy and regional threat due to the latter›s arbitrary expansionist agenda. To keep the pressure on China and maintain the regional military balance in East Asia, there are ways to engage and confront China, says Nagao. “First, China’s repeated disregard for international law when laying claim to new territory. Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the President of the Tibetan exile administration, expressed that the Dalai Lama considers the disputed territories of both Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of India. Thus, there is a high possibility that China’s claim to areas along the India-China border is legally baseless. If so, the US and India must continue to respect the rule-based order grounded in current international law… Second, China’s behavior in the South China Sea is a valid reason for the US and India to create multiple fronts at the same time. For example, if India cooperates with the US, India will not need to deal with all the Chinese fighter jets at once, because China is likely to keep some of their fighter jets in their east side against the US (in the East China Sea and South China Sea), and vice versa.”

There is more beyond Quad as a mere security dialogue. In fact, there’s an opportunity in waiting for India and the US to beat China in the economic sphere while winning the confidence of smaller nations reeling under Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy.’’ India’s strategic cooperation with the US in Asia will not only promote regional security, but also economic cooperation. China has invested hugely in smaller countries. These smaller countries, due to the huge debt, are hesitant to criticise China. 

Nagao says, “If India and the US reduce China’s income, it is the right way to deal with China. However, it is also true that the US needs to assure its allies and like-minded countries that the strong position toward China will not stop the economic development of those siding with the India-US alliance. Indeed, the current economic system in the Indo-Pacific is dependent upon China. Many global companies built their factories in China. Many companies are selling their products within China. Thus, economic structure itself needs to change. India and the US should relocate their factories and find new markets elsewhere and two nations need to support small countries› infrastructure and markets instead of China.”

Interestingly, for many like Andersen, the Covid pandemic brought India and the US together on a far stronger note. Not only did India’s global stature rise in terms of the vaccine diplomacy it launched under PM Modi, but the pandemic also made the two look beyond mere foreign policy goals. “They have a common interest in containing Covid-19 and India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines, has the industrial capacity to produce a large part of the world’s needs. With various strains still in the air and the US Covid death toll now at 5 lakh people, chances of renewed outbreaks exist. The two can be strong as ever in what many see it as Biden-Modi health diplomacy,” says Andersen.

Not to miss, the two democracies, which have fought global terrorism together since the 9/11 attacks, are set to script a new partnership in climate change with both Biden and Modi on the same page when it comes to saving the globe from climate risks. Says Andersen, “Both can work together to handle climate change as such dangers threaten both the melting Himalayan glaciers for India and rising water levels in coastal US.”

So, it seems like the strong strategic window of India-US diplomacy opens in the Indo-Pacific!

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Dream big is my success mantra: Taxolawgy founder Farooq Haque

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Farooq Haque, Founder and CEO of Taxolawgy recently joined NewsX for a chat as part of its special series NewsX India A-List. Farooq not only gave us an insight into his journey from being a CA to a successful entrepreneur but also on how certain businesses can thrive in the new normal.

Speaking about his journey and how it all led to Taxolawgy, he said, “The journey has been a rollercoaster ride. When I was doing my CA, it was quite difficult but that experience taught me a few lessons such as being resilient and to stand up and fight again. These two lessons that I learned as a student helped me throughout my career. In 1998, when I cleared my CA exams, I followed my passion rather than the norms of the industry. I started my own coaching business. Although at that time, it was not called a startup, it was a startup for sure. In two to three years, I became a top coach in Nagpur. Then I faced a dilemma, what to do next? What should you do once you reach the top of the mountain? You can either sit there and enjoy and let the money come in or dream of something bigger.”

“I dreamt of something big and came down that mountain, left Nagpur and went to Mumbai which was a bigger market. This led to another difficult phase in my life. Setting up your business is not that easy so I struggled for almost two years. Then, I moved to Pune and found myself again at the top of the game. Somewhere in 2013 when I was leading a very busy life, taking classes in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and many other cities, I realised this is not the thing for the future. There has to be something better than this. There has to be a way through which I can reach multiple places at the same time. That’s when I came up with the idea of video classes. In 2013, I left the business of face-to-face classes and started an ed-tech company called Yo EduTech Solutions Pvt Ltd. We were the pioneers of CA online classes in India. That journey started in 2014 and continued till 2019. In 2019, I realised that there are still much better oceans out there. When GST came in, we realised that we need to have a global knowledge base, especially for taxation. So, we started building a knowledge platform where we can share knowledge. During this phase, my colleague Divya Varma came up with the idea of a freelancing portal wherein we can provide opportunities to chartered accountants and lawyers of this country. That’s how Taxolawgy came into existence and she is the Chief Operating Officer of the company as well as Co-Founder, “ added Farooq.

He shared with us the concept of Taxolawgy and his vision for the company, “We built Taxolawgyas a platform where we can collect all the domain experts such as legal experts, financial experts, website developers, digital marketers, cost accountants, and others working in a business environment and give services to businesses on a global scale. We wanted all of them to come on our platform Taxolawgy.com and provide services on a global scale. It is called Taxolawgy as it started as financial domain, tax and law are the main aspects of it but slowly we expanded it on a much bigger scale. Currently, we have over 3000 experts on-board, all experts of different domains from India, Australia, the Philippines, the US and other countries.”

Along with Taxolawgy, Farooq is also the man behind successful online portals like BookMyWizard, and YoWorkPlace. Giving us an insight into these projects, he shared, “We started Taxolawgy in 2017 after GST came in. While working on this portal we realised that there are a lot of other opportunities out there. Artificial Intelligence is coming in a big way and into everything. However, when it comes to sharing real knowledge based on experience and wisdom there is nothing better than human interaction. The way one human can communicate real knowledge, understanding, and lessons to another person are through human communication. Therefore, we built BookMyWizard which is based on human intelligence and the transfer of human knowledge through human connection. We are using technology for that. What we want is that people who are experts in their domain, who are wizards of their domain, should share their knowledge with people out there and we need this on a big scale today. The world is moving so fast that people want to learn fast. They can’t attend a large number of lectures and classes to gain knowledge. If I am stuck somewhere in my venture like coding then I need help instantly. The way to do that is to connect to a domain expert. That’s what we are trying to build with BookMyWizard. The experts, who are wizards and experienced in their fields, can help people through mentoring, training, or consulting.”

When asked about YoWorkPlace, Farooq replied, “When the pandemic struck, everyone was working from home. Even today most people are working from home and big companies have said that they will continue working from home till the end of 2021. During this stage, when people realised the benefits of work from home and a lot of research was done, I had an intuition that the world is going to move permanently. The way people work is going to change in the future and remote working is going to be the thing. With YoWorkPlace, we are building a complete ecosystem around that. We realised that people who are hired for a job in an office are suddenly shifted to work from home so they face a lot of problems as they were not meant to work from home. You need a complete ecosystem to survive.”

On a parting note, when asked if the pandemic has been an opportunity for all his businesses, he answered, “Yes, I think we were at the right place at the right time. Remote working needs a lot of things to come in, including creating job opportunities. What is happening right now is that people are hired to work from the office but they are working from home. The companies who hire these people hired them as they were living in that place. The location was most important but it is going to become redundant in future as talent will rule. We want to make that shift. We should not hire someone based on his or her location but because of their talent. Since people are working from home, they feel lonely at times. To overcome that, we are building a robust community and network which will provide them with several activities and events for skill development. We are also working towards building a robust network of co-working spaces because if you are not able to work from home, you can go to a nearby co-working space, hire it and work from there.”

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WHY WE SHOULD NOT CREATE UNWARRANTED EXAM HYPE

The government, in association with teachers, parents and communities, has made wonderful efforts to ensure that students continue learning as smoothly as they can during the Covid-19 pandemic. After all the challenges faced and initiatives taken over the past year, everyone must rest assured that each student is well-equipped to face the upcoming examinations.

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A video of the Delhi government’s Director of Education addressing school students in their classroom, telling them to “attempt every question even if it means just copying out the question again”, has raised eyebrows and become a subject of public disdain. Later, on being queried, a senior member of the Education Department clarified that the official’s statement should not be “misinterpreted” and that it is part of an attempt to encourage students in “a very bad year” as lots of them have lost out on their writing practice, and that the official was trying to tell students to “not be disheartened, not worry about the CBSE or anyone else, and just write”.

However, no clarification can justify the statement which was made. It was negative and discouraging for teachers who made Herculean efforts to complete the syllabus and also for the hardworking students who, despite the lockdown, used all available digital tools to study.

The year-long lockdown has been a matter of deep worry for one and all, especially for students, parents, teachers, administrators and law makers. A large number of questions were raised in both the Houses of Parliament during the current session about the impact of the lockdown on education and students. For instance, Ram Nath Thakur, asked a Starred Question (No.117) on 11.2.2021 in the Rajya Sabha to Ramesh Pohkriyal Nishank, Minister for Education, about the closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the action taken by the government to compensate for the loss of study hours. There were also questions in the Lok Sabha by Prathap Simha and Tejasvi Surya (SQ No.81 on 8.2.21) regarding online education. The minister informed the Parliament that education being a concurrent subject, his Ministry had taken a whole range of initiatives in the best spirit of cooperative federalism to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Instructions were issued to the States and UTs from time to time for ensuring continued education with quality and equity.

The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) conducted a survey in July 2020 with the help of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) and the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) to understand the scenario of online learning among school students including girls and the children of migrant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCERT prepared an ‘Alternative Academic Calendar’ and Students’ Learning Enhancement Guidelines. The guidelines suggest models for the following three types of scenarios to ensure that no student is deprived of the reach to education during the pandemic: learning enhancement for students without digital devices, learning enhancement for students with limited accessibility to digital devices, and learning enhancement for students with digital devices.

Further, a multi-pronged approach has been adopted by leveraging technology to reach the students. Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing Digital infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), SWAYAM PRABHA (32 TV channels), MANODARPAN for psychosocial support to students, teachers and families for mental health and emotional wellbeing, PRAGYATA (Plan, Review, Arrange, Guide, Yak (Talk), Assign, Track and Appreciate), etc. have been put to good effect. Guidelines on digital education, e-textbooks using e-pathshalas web portal and mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows are being used by schools, colleges and universities to provide learning facilities. Where internet facility is not available, SWAYAM PRABHA—one class, one TV channel—is being used to impart education. Besides, community radio stations and a podcast called Shiksha Vani by the CBSE are also being used effectively in remote areas where online classes are difficult. The Ministry is also implementing Samagra Shiksha, under which a number of initiatives for the promotion of education are being taken viz., opening of schools in the neighborhood to make access easier.

To a question in the Rajya Sabha (USQ No.1177 on 11.02.2021) by Elamaram Kareem on the reduction in syllabus by the CBSE, the Minister replied that the CBSE has rationalised the syllabi for major subjects of classes IX-XII only for the purpose of summative examinations 2021 as a one-time temporary measure to mitigate the effect of school lockdown. The CBSE has reduced the syllabi by 30% for the purposes of the 2021 Board examinations for classes X and XII. The concept of ‘Fail’ has also been done away with and replaced by ‘Essential Repeat’ with effect from the 2020 Board exams.

To a question by Sanjay Singh (USQ No.1164 on 11.2.2021), the Minister replied that online classes are being conducted at schools by employing various digital tools. Various efforts have been made for the creation of a digital infrastructure which would not only be helpful in the current circumstances but would also be a valuable asset for online learning in the future. The steps taken by all the states are in the report, India Report Digital Education June 2020. Learning programmes were also started in the form of offline learning tools – radio, community radio and CBSE podcasts, toll free numbers, missed call and SMS-based requests for audio content, localised radio content for edutainment, etc. The mediums of TV and radio have been used for students who do not have digital means, besides the learning enhancement and online education guidelines which were issued on 19 August 2020 for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Responding to the question of Derek O’ Brien (USQ 1145 on 11.2.2021) in the Rajya Sabha about displaced migrant workers’ school-going children, the Minister replied that his ministry issued guidelines to all the states and UTs for the identification, smooth admission and continued education of migrant children on 13.07.2020. States have been asked to identify and enrol all children of migrant workers without any procedural hassles and maintain a database of the migrant children admitted. The Minister said that he had a series of meetings with the states/UTs where he reiterated the whole range of measures, outlined above, that have been taken to meet the challenges. Also, during the pandemic period, mid-day meals in the form of food security allowance/dry ration have been provided to students at the elementary level.

A comprehensive initiative, PM e-VIDYA, has been launched for infusing technology with equity. This overarching initiative covers in its ambit DIKSHA, Swayam Prabha, comprising of 32 dedicated channels, of which 12 channels are “one class, one TV channel”, e-content for Open School, extensive use of radio, community radio and podcasts, and e-content for visually and hearing-impaired students. DIKSHA has 1,65,204 pieces of e-content and during the pandemic period between March to October 2020, it had over 5000 million page hits and over 450 million QR scans for the e-content of textbooks. Hundreds of videos on maths and science prepared by the teachers of JNV and KVS have also been uploaded on DIKSHA. There were 70 crore total learning sessions as on 18 October 2020. Under the Vidya Daan scheme, teachers, private bodies and experts contributed 38,206 contents, of which 29,069 have been approved and are available to students. Open Virtual Labs (Olabs) too were tied up with to facilitate practicals for senior students. E-comic books were released to continue learning joyfully and imbibe critical thinking skills. Measures were also instituted to address the issues of cyber safety and prevent cyber bullying.

Under online MOOCs, there were 92 courses and 1.5 crore students enrolled, On Air-Shiksha Vani, DAISY (Digitally Accessible Information System) by NIOS for the differently-abled, e-Pathshala, National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER) to develop e-content and energise books, telecast through TV channels, e-learning portals, webinars, chat groups, distribution of books and other digital initiatives. Besides, states also managed the critical task of providing digital education at the doorsteps of the students. Social media tools like WhatsApp groups, YouTube channels, Google Meet, Skype, e-learning portals, TV, radio, etc., were used to the hilt. A total of Rs 5784.05 crores was allocated under Samagra Shiksha alone to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 during the current fiscal year. An online course for 42 lakh school teachers has been launched too, wherein 16 lakh teachers were trained as on 22 October 2020 and 17 crores courses conducted on the DIKSHA platform.

My conversations with the Education Ministers of states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Manipur, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan and with the senior officials of many states have made it emphatically clear that in areas of poor connectivity, other available means were put to use effectively with the willing cooperation of the community. To everyone’s delight, the attendance percentage was higher than the usual school attendance. This proves beyond any manner of doubt that despite the pandemic, our students and their parents, the teachers, the line departments and the community made wholehearted and sustained efforts to learn and impart education, thanks to India’s fast expanding digital architecture. Our students are well-equipped mentally and emotionally to write the Board exams.

Thus, the talk of ‘copy the questions’ is absurd and undermines the self-esteem and ability of our students and the honest efforts made by the teachers to impart education. In the hoary tradition of India, meditation, concentration and self-study occupy preeminent place. Eklavya’s story is more apt and inspirational in these pandemic times. Our students have faced the challenges of the pandemic with grit, determination and great perseverance, made full and proper use of digital tools and they will surely come off with flying colours in the exams. Exams are like festivals—let us celebrate them instead of fearing them.

The author is former Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and a scholar of comparative governments and politics. The views expressed are personal.

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