The Government of India has set in motion reforms which will lead to the eventual development of a very large number of private markets near the agricultural produce growing regions. The village level agri-marketing infrastructure is the last remaining piece in this giant jigsaw puzzle which has remained unfixed in India for the last 70 years. This missing link at the bottom of the pyramid, which would be in the form of storage and transportation and other agriculture-related infrastructure at the panchayat level, has to be plugged in.
The Government of India needs to move away from schemes which dole out subsidies to individual rich farmers. It is time to make the intellectual and philosophical shift to building infrastructure on the post-production storage, logistics and marketing fronts and leave individual economic agents, including farmers, to function on the basis of the demand and supply of various commodities. A production mindset creates perverse incentives for the production of certain commodities including what is happening in the case of wheat, paddy, sugarcane and some other commodities which suffer the overhang of this mindset. Having said that, risk mitigation mechanisms like MSP procurement and PDS distribution systems would need to continue for a long time to accord protection to growers as well as consumers from a food and nutrition security perspective.
The Standing Committee on Agriculture (Chair: Hukumdev Narayan Yadav) submitted its report on ‘Agriculture Marketing and Role of Weekly Gramin Haats’ on January 3, 2019, and recommended that the Central Government (i) increase the number of haats being targeted under the scheme and ensure presence of a haat in each panchayat of the country, and (ii) make the scheme a fully funded central scheme. As against the 22,000 haats mentioned in the Committee report, other sources quote there being 47,000 haats across India with no or very rudimentary infrastructure with produce lying on the ground for sale, etc. The presence of such vast numbers of unregulated village cluster level markets establishes the need for panchayat-level infrastructure as also recommended by the Committee.
According to a National Centre for Cold-Chain Development (NCCD), GoI report, there is a very large gap in the case of pre-cooling/pack-houses (99% gap in demand – 70,080 vs supply – 249), reefer transport (85%) and ripening units (91%) at the level of villages/village clusters. Currently, the post-harvest losses in fruits and vegetables are huge, with a substantial chunk being contributed by potatoes, onions, tomatoes and mangoes which contribute to more than 60% of the overall losses. The lack of cold chain facilities in India is a major reason for losses besides a host of other factors. The percentage movement of fruits and vegetables through cold chain infrastructure in India is near zero, while in the US it is around 80-85% with countries like Thailand being of the order of 30-40%. The orientation of farmers in all states is geared towards production. Not enough attention and steps have been taken to mitigate post-harvest losses. Because of the low number of reefer transportation vehicles in India and the lack of backhaul loads, the cost of cold chain transportation is very high (about 2/3 times) than the normal transportation trucking infrastructure. We have negligible pre-cooling of fruits and vegetables at the village level since infrastructure is non-existent.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Given both the recommendations and the ground level needs, the Government of India may consider a gigantic infrastructure project to ensure that there would be adequate infrastructure for storage and basic value addition. In larger villages, there would also be a need for auctioning platforms, weighing systems, quality assaying machines, training centres and transportation vehicles in the form of reefer vans as well as normal trucks for movement of agriculture produce. The core of this infrastructure which will also provide it with a self-sustainability revenue stream would be the pre-cooling, ripening, micro cold storage, dry storage and transportation infrastructure. This would be like an advanced version of a haat and more like a full-fledged mandi at the level of every Gram Panchayat in the country with infrastructure as required by fruits/vegetables (@315 million tons) which today exceed the production of grain/pulses/oilseeds (@280 million tons) in India. This requires an integrated pan-India cold chain infrastructure starting from the villages of India without which it makes no sense to have a cold chain infrastructure in just the towns and cities with no such facilities at the growing centres where most of the value destruction and wastage happens in case of fruits and vegetables. Starting a basic cold chain from the Gram Panchayats needs an analysis of the type of cold chain infrastructure that is viable and needed in the villages. There have been incentives and a bias in favour of larger cold storages in India with the trade and industry, which needs to be corrected in favour of micro cold storages at village or village cluster levels.
WHY ARE SMALL OR MICRO COLD STORAGES NEEDED?
It is not viable to store common fruits and vegetables in large cold storages, so small or micro cold storages are required at the farm level. There is a dire need for micro cold storages (MCS) despite the fact that they have a higher capital cost per ton of storage and have a higher running cost per ton of storage. This is because their usage is very different compared to a large cold storage.
The MCS can be used to aggregate and store fruits and vegetables for a few days until a financially viable transport quantity is available. Buyers typically need a truck load every few days. Demand keeps fluctuating according to which harvest of produce from given geographies in season is huge. There is a need for storage so that there are short time windows in which they can be stored during times of crashes in prices. The MCS also allows for longer term storage of two to three months, wherein prices can increase by five to ten times in cases of items like lemons and many other commodities.
MCS can also be used as ripening centres, whenever required. MCS can also become a spoke for large cold storages to ensure value preservation at the time of harvest. Since storage in MCS is normally in 20 kg crates which allow farmers to sell the produce at a higher rate in semi retail using his own or hired transportation. The MCS can also double up as village level pack house, which is nonexistent in Indian villages today, for sorting, cleaning, grading, packing and some basic value addition for vegetables and fruits.
SUGGESTED COMPONENTS OF GRAM MANDI/HAAT
The built area of each GMH unit may be a maximum of 5000 ft² which would make it one of the most imposing structures in each panchayat. There may be another thousand square feet which may be added in the form of training centres and rooms for other community activities. Part of the facility may also serve as a banquet hall for weddings and such functions at the village level. The concept of lawn marriages with the entire integrated package of services being provided by a third-party service provider has also taken root in the villages of India.
The GMH will serve as a one-stop shop for the farmers that cater to a range of relevant services and activities. They would be designed in a way so as to be equipped to locally deliver the immediate needs of the farmers. The promotion of best cultivation practices to enhance production and productivity of major field crops, vegetables, fruits and fodder crops of the region, including the introduction of new and useful plant species, can also be accessed at the GMH.
In addition to agri business units, the project can also initiate social development units including a Primary Health Centre, Women’s Skill Development Centre, Computer Education Centre and Children’s Recreation Centre.
These GMH would serve farmers through a range of services and facilities:
• Micro cold storage and dry storage for non-perishables
• Sorting, cleaning, grading, packing, and some basic value addition for fruits, vegetables and also non-perishable goods.
• Business/processing unit like seed processing units, a honey processing unit, daal mills, spice grinding units, etc.
• Provision of farm machinery on custom hiring (pay and use) basis
• Technical and expert support for cultivation of different crops
• Strengthening product value and its market integration through pulses milling facility, apiary processing and seed procurement
• Social development units such as Skill Development Centre, Computer Training Centre and Children’s play area, Primary Health Centre, etc.
• Every module within the GMH must be available on demand to the respective Gram Panchayat except for the core modules like cold storage, the dry storage, sorting/packaging/grading stations, processing unit and the training centre which should be compulsory with every GMH.
• One acre of land near the GMH should be dedicated to a technology demonstration unit which should have the latest technologies as well as the ICAR system demonstrating their technologies directly to the village. Start-ups as well as ICAR are struggling with the challenge of taking technologies from POC or subscale to mass scale implementation in the villages. The GMH could be a mechanism to facilitate this lab to land transfer system which has broken down today.
The micro cold storages could also function as bulk milk chillers at the village level which would add value to 180 odd million tons of milk which is produced all across India and whose supply chain also suffers from a lack of BMC infrastructure at the village level.
Assuming a production of 2500 tons per panchayat, storage may need to be built around 250 tons which would require a warehousing space of around 3000 sq ft.² for dry storage. Micro cold storage unit of the capacity of 30 tons rotated 12 times a year would provide storage for almost 360 tons of fruits and vegetables.
In order to fill this gap, market storage and logistic infrastructure should be built at every Gram Panchayat level in India which is at 250,000 odd locations with slightly bigger infrastructure at the block level which number around 6,600 in India.
The GMH should also provide physical space for village level workers in extension, livestock, healthcare (ANM), CSC, digital/physical training centre to ensure footfall and ensure that the facilities become a hub for all community activities in the village and the surrounding feeder villages.
Infrastructure under the SWAN Initiative of the GoI and the Common Service Centre Initiative of the GoI could also be converged for physical location within the same facilities.
FOLLOWING MODALITIES COULD BE FOLLOWED FOR ROLLING OUT GMH
Every Gram Panchayat would need to submit a proper DPR to the GoI for grant funding to set up a GMH in the respective village. The various criteria and the guidelines of the scheme would ensure the automatic self-selection of capable Gram Panchayats and would be the first off the blocks in rolling out the infrastructure first in the villages which would be capable of monetising the assets built under the project. This process would take time just like what has been envisaged for the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund scheme of Rs 100,000 crore from the GoI. GMH implementation would follow the same trajectory and may take three years to roll out to all the Gram Panchayats of India.
Gram Panchayats may need to give a written commitment to contribute two acres of land to this project and offer labour time to the project as a contribution of the villagers. This facility should include both dry storage and micro cold storage.
Gram Panchayats would also necessarily have to house the management (including the revenues and expenses) of these entities into a pre-existing village level primary agricultural cooperative society or create a new one with broad representation from the local communities for the purpose of the administration and management of these units. Some revenue rich Gram Panchayats may also opt for setting up a Farmer Producer Company with members drawn from the Gram Panchayat village as well as the feeder villages (two to every Gram Panchayat) which are in proximity to every Gram Panchayat. The entities (PACS or other COOPs) which would be engaged in management of the GMH infrastructure should be given the status of FPOs as being set up under a large programme by the GoI.
The Gram Sabha in each village would need to pass a resolution handing over a minimum of two acres of land for the GMH project. The Gram Sabha could upload all the details required directly onto a GoI portal along with the request for construction of the GMH complex in their village. These requests should be made by them directly to the Prime Minister of India.
This entire project needs to be tendered out all over India so good infrastructure companies take up the execution of creating great on-ground infrastructure. The nature and design may be customised depending on the geography. For example, the GMH in Ladakh and the GMH in Kerala would not be the same.
FUNDING FOR GMH
Presence in 250,000 Gram Panchayats and 6600 blocks would require funds to the order of 2.5 lakh crores (Rs1 crore per Gram Panchayat) for the GMH infrastructure at the panchayat level and @ 33,000 crores at the block level (@ Rs 5 crore per block). There could be direct financial support of INR 75 lakhs from the GoI coffers to every eligible Gram Panchayat in India with labour and land being contributed by the local communities under each Gram Panchayat. The GoI would raise another Rs 25 lakhs for each Gram Panchayat from CSR/grants/individual donations from domestic and international sources, making this a USD 40 billion project with the GoI funding it to the tune of USD 30 billion. The project could be implemented over three financial years from FY 21-22, 22-23 and 23-24.
The money for the scheme can be pulled in from schemes like MPLADS, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, National Mission on Horticulture, NFSM, Krishi Bhandaran Yojana and other such major/minor schemes under MoRD and MoFPI. MGNREGA may be used to partly fund the labour cost component of the project which will be rolled out in all Gram Panchayats of India.
The GoI could also appeal to PSUs and private companies with CSR budgets to help in building this infrastructure between 1 to 100 villages depending on the CSR budgets of each corporate. There are also large international donor organisations which could be approached to provide very substantial funds to a project of this scale. Non-resident Indians as well as persons of Indian origin can also contribute towards building this infrastructure in the villages of their ancestors. The GMH will provide a structured platform to ensure that any PIO/NRI with emotional connections to their villages would be able to donate for changing the lives of their brethren in the villages in a tangible way.
ECONOMIC OUTCOMES OF BUILDING VILLAGE LEVEL INFRASTRUCTURE
All the village level infrastructure needs to be connected institutionally with the new private markets coming up all over India which may be in the form of physical private markets or even electronic markets functioning on a regional or national basis.
The infrastructure on the ground could feed into these private markets where buyers from all over India could be attracted. Private markets could be run by the FPO or cooperative societies in partnership with organisations like NAFED, GCMMF or any such successful federation or public body with large-scale interfaces with farmers. This will revive the thousands of defunct or dormant Primary Agriculture Societies across India. It would give a fillip to the FPO movement if they have the status of being FPOs with the attendant benefits as available to FPOs through various State Government and GoI schemes and facilities.
Anything monetisable by the hands of the local communities through the mechanism of the bodies owned and controlled by them creates business models and economic opportunities for millions who would be engaged with the facilities built all over India. Many Indian companies including startups would be major beneficiaries of the GMH which would mean thousands of crores of rupees as revenue for these Indian-owned organizations.
Since the cold chain and sorting/packing/grading/cleaning would start from the villages, there would be huge savings in supply chain losses which may amount to billions of dollars on an annual basis. Since there would be a sudden boost in the number of reefer transportation assets all over India, the country would reach a tipping point in terms of their usage and also freight costs moving the country from zero to approaching the levels of Thailand at 40% percent of the output being transported in these types of vehicles. Since there would be a massive jump in the number of micro cold storages in India, their unit costs would go down from the current levels of Rs 10-15 lakhs for every 15-30 tons of storage to 1/3rd of that cost, furthering triggering their adoption by even large farmers.
The GMH can also be integrated with the ‘One District, One Product’ initiative of the Government of India with there being some level of value addition at the village level to the specialty produce from the village, which may be the processing of seed spices like cumin, coriander, fennel or other such items which are grown in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. There could be value addition to milk in the form of paneer, ghee and other products.
The project could also change the mindsets of the GoI and state governments from the current production focus to a market-driven approach. As a natural corollary of the One District One Product programme, the GoI could guide the country towards ‘One Village One Product’. There could be village wise commodity specialisation which could become the reason of renown for the village.
This will become a huge pump priming project for the economy which is suffering the effects of Covid and the turmoil in the global environment. The solution for the varied problems of the farm sector and the peasant community lies not in subsidies but in building a robust post-harvest infrastructure. It will help facilitate the journey to the doubling of farmers’ income in India.
The writer is founder and chairman, Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals and Indigram Labs Foundation. The views expressed are personal.
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RAM RAJYA: A MORAL SOVEREIGNTY
Both Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard.
“Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation”, wrote eminent scholar-politician-statesman Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his seminal work The Hindu View of Life. He went on to say, “Precious as are the echoes of God’s voice in the souls of men of long ago, our regard for them must be tempered by the recognition of the truth that God has never finished the revelation of His wisdom and love. Besides, our interpretation of religious experience must be in conformity with the findings of science. As knowledge grows, our theology develops. Only those parts of the tradition which are logically coherent are to be accepted as superior to the evidence of the senses and not the whole tradition.”
Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a religion of ‘believers’. “Unless you believe, you will not understand”, St Augustin of Hippo had exhorted early Christians of the Roman empire. But Hinduism allowed inquiry and wanted men to be seekers, rather than mere believers. Ram and the Ramayana are divine for many. Gandhi called Ram his personal deity. But Ambedkar did not agree much with Ram. He even challenged the Ramayana, going to the original by Valmiki, in his Riddles in Hinduism. However, there is a common aspect in Gandhi and Ambedkar’s stances: both argued from a logical perspective, not from blind faith or blind hatred.
Whether Ram was a historical person or not did not bother Gandhi much. What mattered to him was the concept of ‘Ram Rajya’. In his view, Ram Rajya essentially meant equal rights to “prince and pauper”. Even during his two visits to Ayodhya, the abode of his deity Ram, in 1921 and 1929, Gandhi’s rhetoric was about standing up for the weak and the meek. Addressing the saints of Ayodhya on the banks of the river Saryu during his visit in February 1921, he resorted to his favourite subject of Ram Rajya. He chose cow protection as the point of reference to tell saints, “Praying to God for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak…We need to learn to love the way Ram loved Sita”. There is no way to achieve Ram Rajya or swaraj without observing this svadharma, he told them.
Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s criticism of the Ramayana was based on his perception of certain events. He believed, not necessarily correctly, that Ram upheld the Varnashrama system and had killed a Dalit saint called Shambuka. “Some people seem to blame Ram because he…without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Ram for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was…based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Ram was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin. This is the reason why Rama killed Shambuka”, Ambedkar writes. Many scholars insist that the story of Shambuka’s killing was an interpolation. Ambedkar was also critical, probably on more valid grounds, of Ram’s treatment of Sita. He saw Ram Rajya as unjust and patriarchal and commented on Ram’s dismissal of Sita to forests the second time as “there are not wanting Hindus who use this as grounds to prove that Ram was a democratic king when others could equally well say that he was a weak and cowardly monarch.”
Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard. The search for such a just and equitable system where there is harmony between the ruler and the ruled has been carried on by political pundits for millennia. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was asked to consume poison by the democratic assembly of 21,000 citizens of Athens. His sin was that he supported the oligarchy of the 30 ruling tyrants of Sparta, a neighbouring city state. Socrates believed that the rule by a select class of wise men, like the oligarchy in Sparta, is better than a democracy based on mass hysteria as that in Athens. Tyrants in ancient Greek regime were those who usurped the role of the monarch; not necessarily the way we understand its meaning today. Plato and Aristotle detested both systems—the cruel authoritarianism of Sparta and the mobocracy of Athens.
Plato’s panacea was ‘philosopher kings’. As Bhishma tells Yudhisthira in the Shanti Parv of the Mahabharat, which was repeated by Chanakya in Arth Shastra:
प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥
This means, ‘The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.’
In the Yudh Kand of the Ramayana, sage Valmiki narrates certain characteristics of Ram Rajya or Ram’s kingdom:
-While Rama was ruling the kingdom, there were no widows to lament, nor was there any danger from wild animals, nor any fear born of diseases. Every creature felt pleased.
-Everyone was intent on virtue. Turning their eyes towards Ram alone, creatures did not kill one another.
-While Ram was ruling the kingdom, people survived for thousands of years, with thousands of their progeny, all free from illness and grief.
-Trees there bore flowers and fruits regularly, without any injury by pests and insects. Clouds were raining on time and the wind was delightful to the touch.
-All the people were endowed with excellent characteristics. All were engaged in virtue.
Ram Rajya is envisioned as that state of governance where the ruler is wise enough to place the good of the people above the interest of his own. But then, who will determine what is good and bad? Nietzsche, the German philosopher, had interpreted ‘good’ as “whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man,” inadvertently becoming the darling of Hitler and the Nazis. Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ also became authoritarians when the Romans invested divinity in them and philosophers like Nietzsche gave weird interpretations of power. Julius Caesar commissioned dozens of sculptors to make different sculptures of him, while Hitler revelled in his wisdom of a ‘superior race’. Such smugness and self-righteousness have produced cruel authoritarians throughout history.
Ram presented a different ideal. Valmiki used two phrases with profound meaning to describe Ram, whom he called ‘विग्रहवान धर्मः’ or the epitome of morality. Those phrases are: आराधनाय लोकस्य and राज्यम उपासित्वा. Ram ‘worshipped people’ and ‘worshipped the kingdom’. He did not believe in his infallibility nor was he overpowered by any superiority complex. When his mother, Kausalya, asked him after his return to Ayodhya whether he had killed Raavan, Ram’s reply was: “Mahagyani, Mahapratapi , Mahabalshali, Akhand Pandit, Mahan Shivbhakt, author of Shiv Tandav Stotra, the mighty Lankesh was killed by his own ego”.
That is why Gandhi summed up Ram Rajya as “the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority”.
The writer is member, National Executive, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, and member, Board of Governors, India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.
THE POLITICS OF COVID-19
Finally, the Kumbh Mela has been called off and the politicians too (most of them) have decided to address virtual rallies instead of crowded ones, but the damage has been done. Were these measures too late? Both on the ground in terms of the spreading Covid surge, and I don’t believe the excuse that the rallies are in West Bengal, while the Kumbh Mela was in UP, so how will they impact Maharashtra and Delhi? We are living in a borderless world and even if Maharashtra and Punjab have been affected by visitors from the UK and the US, it is not to say that the rallies and the Kumbh Mela won’t take their toll on an already burdened healthcare system. The numbers will come in later, especially once the devotees and political leaders go back to wherever they came from. And we will once again see another spike before this one has been flattened out.
The politicians make these decisions, and it is the ordinary citizens that suffer. We are told that the lockdown could not have been avoided. But from all our actions, we have been heading straight into lockdown 2.0. This includes our rather nationalistic vaccination strategy that totally failed to ensure that there was enough to go around. Again, a decision has been made to rectify this situation. And again I ask, why couldn›t this decision have been taken earlier?
In the end, we are once again seeing hordes of migrants heading to the bus stations and railway stations; while most middle class families are once again staring at their bank statements. The economic fall is a crisis waiting to happen. The government was able to inject some liquidity in the market in the last few months, but at some point it will have to tighten the interest rates due to inflationary pressure. What happens then? Again, it is clear that the states are broke and the only one with the money is the Centre. Where will the Centre raise the money from—by taxing the already overburdened salaried class?
And what about our healthcare system? Was there any learning from last year? Our budget barely made provisions to handle an ongoing pandemic. Perhaps our policy makers were lulled into thinking that with the vaccination, the worst was over. But with the vaccinations barely able to handle the changing mutations, clearly this is not the case. Our doctors are nearing a breakdown point. They are doing tele-consultations, hospital visits and countering WhatsApp forwards.
We have all been so shaken by this second surge that is also affecting our kids, that we need a doctor›s okay for even the most basic medicines. And they just don›t have the time or the energy anymore. Over stressed laboratories now cannot even handle routine blood tests. Once again, as what happened last year, routine and in some cases life threatening ailments are being ignored to handle the Covid onslaught. Most laboratories have drive-in centres for Covid testing to take the pressure of house calls, but while the timing of these are from 10 am onwards, the slots are all filled up by 10.02 am. I have had Dr Harsh Mahajan, founder, Mahajan Imaging, on Roundtable (NewsX) making a plea to state governments to stop routine tests for those crossing state borders as it adds to the already burdened system and those who really need the test done in a hurry have to wait. He has a point. These are desperate times.
Apart from the healthcare system, shouldn’t our budget have looked at the economic drivers such as the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors? It had barely begun to limp back when the second lockdown had thrown it back into a tailspin. Restaurants are once again reduced to take away counters and that is not where their revenue comes in. Malls are once again locked down as are gym and spas. Commercial real estate is at an all-time low, though residential real estate has taken off in these Covid times where work from home means you don›t have to live in an expensive apartment near your work place, but can actually invest in your own home in the suburbs.
These are not easy times. These are also times that need to see a strong leadership—by strong I don›t just mean a strong personality that can lead, but also one that takes the right policy decisions. During the last month, our Prime Minister has been too busy being a star campaigner. It is only in the last few days that we have seen him revert back to being PM. Hope he stays the course.
BORIS JOHNSON NOT SERIOUS ABOUT INDIA-UK TIES
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did it again—cancelled his visit to India. The visit was scheduled for next week, but was cancelled because of the current surge in coronavirus infections in India. The first time he did it was for Republic Day, when he was invited to be the chief guest but cancelled the trip because of a surge in infections in UK. While a Prime Minister going abroad when coronavirus is sweeping across his/her country can be bad optics domestically, by cancelling next week’s visit Boris Johnson essentially expressed his lack of confidence in the Indian government’s ability to protect him from the virus. This is rather strange considering a state guest of the stature of Boris Johnson would have been accorded the same security protocol that this country’s Prime Minister is given. A sanitized bubble would have been created for him, just the way it is created for the Prime Minister of this country when he is travelling. Anyway, the visit was meant to be a short one and only to New Delhi, and not to other cities that he was initially supposed to go to. So where was the need to cancel it? The irony is, it was his own government which failed to create a bubble for Boris Johnson, because of which the British Prime Minister ended up contracting the virus a few months ago.
The visit to India was supposed to be PM Johnson’s first major overseas trip after being elected to office in December 2019. If he had continued with the visit, he would have been considered a true friend of India. Instead, by cancelling it he proved that he was not serious about UK’s ties with India. This has to be seen in the context of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to New Delhi last week—in the middle of the pandemic—when he had a full-fledged meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Let’s also not forget that the corona pandemic did not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from visiting Bangladesh to participate in that country’s golden jubilee celebrations. Internationally too such visits are taking place, a case in point being Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden at a time when the pandemic is raging in both countries. It is from actions like these that the depth of a relationship is proven—how much importance leaders and countries give to ties with other countries. And obviously, in spite of all those Indian origin ministers in Boris Johnson’s government, in spite of the presence of such a huge Indian diaspora in the UK, in spite of the apparent collaboration in different areas, UK’s relationship with India just does not have that kind of depth.
India is no longer the British colony it once was, while UK is yet to recover from its colonial hangover, so finds it difficult to accommodate India’s interests—a case in point being the trouble that India faces trying to get some crooks extradited from there. Also, it appalls Indians that the UK allows its parliamentarians to discuss India’s internal matters and cast aspersions on India’s democracy, or that India’s high commission in London is attacked by Pakistan-backed radicals but the British government doesn’t take any action, or that British soil is allowed to become a hotbed for anti-India activities. And all these things have been happening on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s watch. There exists a lot of scepticism about UK in India. Moreover, the British media’s blanket negative coverage about anything India and Indian is seen as problematic by a large section of policymakers in this country. Boris Johnson has not done anything “spectacular” about India ever since he has taken over as Prime Minister—first as a successor to Theresa May in July 2019, and then elected Prime Minister in December 2019—that should inspire India’s confidence in him. Even his current focus is primarily about having a trade agreement with India, now that Britain is out of the European Union. It’s not known how interested he is in paying heed to India’s concerns. UK also wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific perhaps because every European power has started sailing its vessels there. But then Britain’s presence in the Indo-Pacific can only strengthen the alliance of the free world and may help in containing China, so that is welcome.
There is a lot that India and UK can do together. A visit by Boris Johnson would have gone a long way in building trust. Instead, news is that soon after PM Johnson said that he was not travelling to India, Britain added this nation to its red list of countries from where most travel is banned. And this in spite of India being generous enough about continuing its flights to and from the UK at a time when the UK strain was sweeping through Britain—the strain that largely caused this second wave in India. But then India approached India-UK bilateral ties in the true spirit of partnership. But the way things are shaping up, UK under Boris Johnson is not a reliable partner for India. India has shown enough generosity towards UK. Not anymore. It’s time India sent out a message to UK by withdrawing its invitation to PM Boris Johnson.
The difference between faith and fanaticism
A person of faith recognises the truth that God is, whoever it may be, for him and others, while a fanatic is certain that only s/he knows who or what God is and is blinded by her/his passion. That is where differences between the two arise.
Fanaticism has been in evidence across the world. Even Europe has no respite from the scourge, as one saw during the summer of 2016—from the acts of terrorism in Brussels on 22 March to the machete attack in Belgium on 6 August. And the trend continues till date. This wave of fanaticism raises certain questions for all people of faith. They are proud of the strength of their religious convictions, but so is the fanatic. What then sets a person of faith apart from a fanatic?
This question becomes particularly relevant in the context of terrorism, as one could pose a similar question about terrorism. The state uses violent force to combat terrorism but the terrorist also uses violent force against the state. So what is the difference between the two? All of us feel uneasy with an equation of this kind but we need to think clearly about this issue in order to feel clearly about it. In a country, the state has a monopoly on the use of violent force, which is supervised by a democratically elected government. Such moral and legal supervision is lacking in the case of a fanatic and that is why the apparent equation is misleading.
The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realizes that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways. But most will acknowledge, even the most faithful, that we can only know God as we can relate to God, not to God as God, not to God as God is by himself, herself, or itself. Right there we have a built-in check which prevents honest and profound faith from degenerating into fanaticism, because fanaticism presumes to know what God is. It is strange that sometimes religions tend to believe that they have a monopoly on God and that’s where fanaticism comes in. But if they examine the concepts of God in their own traditions, they will find that the traditions insist that one cannot know God fully.
Allow me to elaborate this point with an example from Islam, since some members of this tradition have been associated with many acts of terrorism in recent times. The fanatic member of this tradition is out to get the infidel, but in order to define someone as an infidel, we need to know who a true Muslim is. At this point a crucial distinction in Islam between the legal and theological identity of a Muslim becomes crucial. According to Islamic law, any person who recites the Islamic confession of faith in good faith in the presence of witnesses must be accepted as a Muslim and may not be denied access to a gathering of Muslims. He or she may not observe all the obligations of being a Muslim, such as performing the five prayers daily, but that only means that the person is not a good Muslim and cannot mean that she is not a Muslim. Thus, while the distinction between a Muslim and a non-believer is fairly clear in legal terms, the theological understanding of who is a Muslim is much more subtle. Whether one is a true believer or not is known only to God, and one and oneself only really know whether one is a true believer or not in the presence of God on the Day of Judgement. One can see how easy it is to fall in the gulf between these two understandings.
Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between truth and certainty. Often, when we think we are seeking truth, we are really seeking certainty. If such is the case then, yes, there is great potential for fanaticism in a faith, if we arrive at a conclusion and feel that it is absolutely certain. But the genuine seeker after truth realizes that we ourselves cannot know everything conclusively, except perhaps for the conclusion that ‘God is.’ Admittedly, there is a discomfort involved here. But if we can live with it—and all genuine faith recognises that we have to—then we have a built-in check against fanaticism, in faith itself.
Another distinction gains importance in this context. Whether one is a person of faith or a fanatic also depends on our attitude towards other people of faith. If we are certain that the people of other faiths are condemned, and abide by the ‘legal’ conception of one’s identity, then we have no purchase on our spirituality. If, however, we realise that only God can pronounce such a judgement and not mere human beings, then, as people of faith, it might be easier for us to understand that there are other people who are also people of faith like us. And that if we deny them their right to their faith, then in a sense we are questioning our own faith, or at least our humanity. Actually, when you become a fanatic, then in a sense, instead of worshiping God, you start playing God. Thus, like any other passion, even religious or moral passion can blind a person.
The writer is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at the McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is also associated with the Nalanda University in India. The views expressed are personal.
The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realises that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways.
COVID WREAKS HAVOC ACROSS INDIA AS DEATH FIGURES MOUNT
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.
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.
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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