Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The Bombay High Court very recently chided Medha Patkar for fasting against a Mumbai slum redevelopment project. It said, “Let’s stop these hunger strikes and start democratic governance in the country”. Apt words.

Some Fast, All Lo(o)se

The country’s young school graduates scratch their heads as admission cut-offs climb higher still. Elsewhere, “unconstitutional” fasts unto death continue.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 19 June, 2011

The examination and university admission cut-off marks, at least in Delhi, have reached absurd limits. Other than in exact sciences none can score 100 per cent. In my time, 65-70 per cent in humanities spelt distinction. Today it is almost akin to failure with poor prospect of admission to a college or subject of choice, especially in the first or even second rounds. This is a most untidy method of “rationing” effective demand for higher education to a limited supply. Many good students with high marks opt out of the rat race by seeking admission abroad.

Maybe the proposed new grading system will help rationalise student ratings but will not answer the supply and vocational bottleneck. There is a real crisis here that the Knowledge Commission addressed. Speedy poverty alleviation demands high growth; but high growth will not be possible without a huge expansion in human resource development from the secondary level upwards. Quantitative expansion is not enough. Qualitative improvement is essential if India is to be competitive and innovative. Even our best colleges and universities rank poorly if at all in the world league.

Education reform and expansion are under way – but not fast enough. Community colleges are a good innovation and many new private universities are coming up, some with elements of foreign collaboration. Alas, many fly by night operators, unscrupulous politicians and moneyed men, have also entered the field of educational entrepreneurship and spawned a number of dubious medical, engineering and other institutions. The idea that existing colleges of repute seek autonomy to expand and innovate and even spin off as universities has not really taken off. Land and resources are issues but in some instances academic unions have become ideological obstacles to progress.

All this must change. Nothing is more important than education, which has suffered enduring neglect. Could civil society activate itself here, democratically and constructively as this concerns us all.

Meanwhile, “civil society” continues to huff and puff and, in some instances, to tilt at windmills. The argument that the prime minister, higher judiciary and MPs must come under an omnipotent and omnipresent Lok Pal is exaggerated and does not warrant references to “indefinite fasts” though what Anna Hazare is now laying down is a deadline, August 16. What the country needs is not a “strong” Lok Pal but an effective anti-corruption/black money mechanism howsoever constructed. Extra-constitutionalism is unacceptable and would be unworkable. Such dangerous claptrap must be eschewed. Consultation, yes; but out-sourcing legislation to self-named crusaders speaks of supreme arrogance and contempt for democratic norms. The analogy with the National Advisory Council (mark its very name) is false and to say that “people” are superior to parliament is to advocate mob rule and anarchy. Anna’s team appears to have embraced the Orwellian theory that “some are more equal than others”.

Meanwhile, Ramdev stands exposed, much as Dhirendra Brahmachari, Chandraswamy and others of their ilk earlier. Now, intriguingly, an estimated Rs300 crore worth of gold, silver and coins have been unearthed from Sai Baba’s personal living sanctum. While drawing no adverse inference, this surely calls for a credible explanation as declared wealth of this order would normally be accounted for and deposited in bank lockers.
More tragic has been the death of the young Swami Nigamanand Saraswati in the same hospital he shared with Ramdev. He allegedly succumbed after 115 days of fasting to protest unsustainable sand mining in the Ganga at Haridwar. His guru, Shivanand. However believes that he was poisoned by/in the hospital where he died. His parents were denied the right to conduct his last rites both by Shivanand and, curiously, the district administration as he was a sanyasi, and he was buried in a grave in the Maitri Sadan ashram near Haridwar. The case is to be sent to the CBI. Neglected while he fasted, Nigamanand has become a sad celebrity in death.

This fast too was a case of using wrong means, howsoever worthy the stated ends. It was “emotional blackmail”. The lack of public ”emotion” while he fasted was because of the absence of minute to minute media coverage with perfervid anchors, panellists and party spokespersons sermonising and screaming imprecations at one another to nobody’s enlightenment. The media needs to introspect whether it is not becoming a false trumpet.

The Bombay High Court very recently chided Medha Patkar for fasting against a Mumbai slum redevelopment project. It said, “Let’s stop these hunger strikes and start democratic governance in the country”. Apt words.

Another question remains. Are these so-called “indefinite fasts”, “fasts unto death” and “hunger strikes” truly fasts or gimmickry? They do pretentiously mortify the flesh. Yet, of Ramdev’s nine day fast, three or four were on saline. Nigamanand is said to have fasted for 104 days, which is medically impossible. Dehydration sets in possibly within 10-15 days (or less) and without an intravenous saline or glucose drip, or force-feeding through tubes (as in the case of Sharmilla Irom in Manipur), none can survive. However, some political fasts have been known to have been aided by surreptitious feeding. Nigamanand was admitted to the district hospital on April 19 and to the Himalayan Institute Trust Hospital in Dehra Dun on May 2. He was on drip in hospital though it is not clear as from which date.

The other facet is that in some known cases, a fasting person would like to break his fast but is not allowed to do so by his followers who have a stake in his ”cause” or in their own pious self-glorification, which might even be better served by his death or “martyrdom”. Ramdev appeared most anxious to end is fast and some of his followers were desperately looking for some gesture by the government to enable him to save face. That did not come and intervention came from Sri Sri Ravishankar, who has since spoken most sagely on the subject of protest and fasting.

Euthanasia is still banned in India though “passive taking of life” has been allowed. Should attempted suicide or its abetment be also made a criminal offence? This is a complex and sensitive issue but merits debate. Society cannot be periodically held up to ransom by blackmail and humbug.

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