24 June 2013

The Open Floodgates


Sweeping current People watch as water rises over a bridge in Rudraprayag
How reckless development and lack of preparedness added to the disaster

Dammed: Over 600 dams are either operational, under construction or being planned along the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi, which combine to form the Ganga.

Not one river valley project was rejected by the MoEF from April 2007-Dec 2012

Natural calamities may be acts of God. But how we react to them, reduce the scope of disaster depends very much upon us. The death and destruction wreaked upon Uttarakhand by heavy rain, cloudbursts, flash floods and landslides is an indictment of our weak governance, sluggish systems and our inability to develop a coherent balance between environment protection and development. Could the damage have been minimised? Some hard questions must be asked of the central and state governments.

One area of concern for me is the predictive role of the meteorological department and how state governments respond to it. The met department forecasts weather for a week in advance. According to the newspapers, the department had forecast very heavy rain and bad weather. If such a forecast had been made, what was the response of the state government? Why weren’t pilgrims warned, and why wasn’t traffic halted at locations such as Rishikesh, Haridwar and Srinagar? Checking that inflow for a few days after the bad weather forecast would have saved many lives. Despite the prediction, why was there no emergency evacuation of pilgrims from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Hemkund Sahib? The systems and procedures designed to reduce the impact of a calamity have failed us. What makes this doubly damning is that it’s not as if this was a one-off event that took everyone by surprise: it is well-known that the Himalayan region, and Uttarakhand in particular, is susceptible to such monsoon woes.

There are two points I wish to make about the central government’s planning and future response. One, we need to know why such large volumes of water came tumbling down into the Badri and Kedar valleys. This is essential if we are to understand and possibly predict such phenomena. We also need to determine if there had been scope for anticipatory information and preventive action. Two, we need to find out where and how the system failed and improve it so that it responds proactively. Such an audit must not become a witch-hunt; nor must it turn into a PR exercise. What I advocate are concrete steps to ensure that the Centre and the state, regardless of politics, are able to respond in a well-thought-out manner to emergencies of such magnitude.

Raging water An angry Alaknanda thunders through Rudraprayag town

I also wish to point out the condemnable apathy to the maintenance of our roads and the impact it has had on this tragedy. Roads leading to three dhams are national highways and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO)—in my opinion, a wonderful semi-governmental organisation—is tasked with maintaining them. The region borders Nepal and China. In Barahoti, we have a territorial dispute with China. So the role of the BRO is even more critical.

Instead of megadams, the region should go for hydel projects of 25 MW or less. 

In February 2009, when I was chief minister, we created the post of an additional chief engineer for the Uttarakhand state. Subsequently, another such position was created for the Kumaon region. However, in later years, the BRO in this region has suffered from radically decreased central support, with whispers that private contractors (who have no competence in this area) are trying to get a foot in the door. The BRO has faced a paucity of funds for maintenance and repair of these roads. In 2010-11, against a requirement of over Rs 700 crore, less than Rs 50 crore was allotted to Project Sivalik (responsible for looking after the national highways in the Garhwal region). In 2011-12, against a demand of Rs 400 crore, the amount sanctioned was less than Rs 100 crore. During 2012-13, the allocation has been cut down to an unbelievable Rs 25 crore—sanctioned against a demand of Rs 200 crore! Somebody at the Centre must answer why the maintenance funds for those essential roads were never given to the BRO. I find this callous indifference to issues of strategic importance and road development in the region simply unbelievable.

Bludgeoned By Water

Also In This Story 
‘Himalayan Tsunami’

Drowned in brown Villagers sit outside their homes in a mud-inundated street A calamity tests the mettle of the people of the hills, the faith of pilgrim-tourists

A natural disaster but a man-made catastrophe

How everybody looked the other way Meteorological Department says it had alerted the Uttarakhand government on June 14 CAG report had warned of immense damage to hills by hydel projects along Bhagirathi, Alaknanda.

Scientists have repeatedly warned of “Himalayan tsunamis” caused by glacial lakes breaking banks

Why the ‘ragad-bagad’ happened this year 500% higher rainfall than average in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh this year 385 mm rainfall received by Uttarakhand; on average it receives around 71 mm around this time of year
  • Why the scale of devastation is so huge 
  • Incessant blasting of hills to construct dams has loosened soil. So has deforestation. This causes landslides.
  • Rush of pilgrims. Several thousands of outsiders present in and around the zones hit by landslides and floods
  • Rampant and unchecked urban construction in the riverbed and along the banks
  • Illegal mining of sand, which is very common, erodes banks and makes defences weaker
Death & devastation: The official death toll stands at 150+, but a reasoned estimat ion warns the final figure could run into the high hundreds and could even touch the thousands

60 thousand people stranded at pilgrim spots and other towns in Uttarakhand

It’s 5 a.m. The Jolly Grant airport looks like a missing persons bureau. From the early hours, when security personnel were changing duty rounds, young and old men have been arriving at the airport. In their hands, they hold pictures. Some are carrying passport-size photographs of loved ones missing in the floods. Others are holding up group photos of relatives or friends on vacation. Many of those stranded in the hills are pilgrim groups from across the country, groups of 20, 30, and in some cases even up to 70 people—family members, friends, people from a neighbourhood, who had got together to make the char dham yatra or pilgrimage to the four holy spots, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. Many of the pilgrims are elderly. This is not an Uttarakhand tragedy; it is a nationwide tragedy. For there are pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, everywhere.

A young man has come with his uncle from Akola in Maharashtra. His father and mother had saved up for the char dham yatra. They were barely metres away from Kedarnath when tragedy struck. Gangadhar Pandey, who managed to survive with his entire family, spoke of cars being washed away in a gush of water. He has been lucky. Some folks have heard by SMS from their relatives stranded in the hill towns and pilgrim centres. Those at home are relieved that they will be back soon.

A river takes back The Alaknanda swamps structures built on the riverbed in Govindghat. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 01 July 2013)

The Hillsides Are Greying

A satellite image warns of rain

Development is sinking its concrete teeth into the Himalayas—dangerously

Horror tale Uttarakhand, with its religious sites, draws pilgrims from acr oss the country, especially the southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka 28 hundred pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh among those stranded in the hills


What caused this so called Himalayan tsunami and could the disaster have been averted? Experts say this kind of torrential rainfall is certainly ‘unprecedented’ but cannot be blamed on climate change, global warming or melting glaciers—not just yet. Unplanned construction on a large scale in the fragile Himalayas, already made vulnerable by rapid deforestation, was perhaps a big contributor to this disaster—one waiting to happen.

As for the unprecedented rainfall, L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department, Delhi, says, “An unusual, rare and very unique combination of events led to this torrential downpour.” His team, he says, had correctly forecast “high to very high” rainfall in the region as early as June 14, 2013. The monsoon advanced early into the subcontinent, and this brought moisture-laden winds to the Himalayas. Simultaneously, a weather pattern from the west of India—the well-known ‘western disturbances’—closed in. The coupling of the two caused this dance of death. A whopping 440 per cent excess rainfall fell in the area in the first 18 days of June. But Rathore is wary of classifying this as an “extreme event” precipitated by climate change, as some environmentalists have been suggesting. What fuels this speculation is a landmark 2006 study published in Science by scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, predicting the rise of extreme rainfall events during the monsoon as a result of the climate warming up over the decades.

The met department did forecast heavy to very heavy rain in the region but, had special weather forecasting radars been in place, it could have made more pinpointed predictions—known as “nowcasting”. The Doppler-effect radars can make accurate estimates of rain-bearing clouds. But their installation was delayed. The Kedarnath temple and surrounding areas, situated at 3,553 metres, have borne the brunt of the disaster. The shrine itself is submerged in several metres of slush.

There has been speculation that rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers has contributed to this disaster. “But glaciers are not related to this disaster,” says D. P. Dobhal, a glaciologist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, who has studied the region for decades. It has also been hinted that a large part of what is called the Kedar Dome ice formation broke, causing a natural lake to break banks and flood the region. Dobhal, who has studied the Chorabari glacier, north of Kedarnath, says the glacial lake is unlikely to have caused such devastation: till early June it was still frozen, so it couldn’t have contributed to the floods.

But there is no denying that mushrooming construction and urbanisation, loss of vegetation, unplanned expansion of the road network have all contributed to the ruin. The Himalayas are a young mountain system, and the unique geology of the region makes them disaster-prone. The Indian subcontinent pushes under the Asian plate at about 5 cm per year. This causes the Himalayas to rise by about 5 mm every year, bringing much instability in the ranges.

Deforestation adds to the trouble: forests acts like sponges, soaking in heavy downpours and slowly releasing the water in streams. When vegetation has been cut back like it has been in the Kedarnath region, the water simply gushes down, causing devastating flash floods. When the mountain sides blasted for roads get saturated with water, they cause landslides, blocking all road communication. In Uttarakhand, whole mountainsides and river channels are being converted into concrete townships to cater to the ever-increasing flow of tourists. Anil Joshi, founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies & Conservation Organisation, blames “urbanisation, industrialisation, and unscrupulous development plans for such disasters”. He also blames the dams built in the Himalayan rivers for disrupting the ecological cycle. All these factors contribute to a vicious cycle that often ends in disasters of the sort Uttarakhand is facing today. Integrated ecosensitive and inclusive development could offer some solutions. Definitely not the greed that is today overrunning the Himalayas. But, as Joshi puts it, “The government wakes up to disasters when they strike. Not before, and not after.”

(The writer is India correspondent for Science and the science editor for NDTV. The views expressed here are personal. He can be reached at pallava.bagla AT gmail.com)

Respect, Said The Gods


Dhams are sacred. More sacred are mountains and forests around them.

Avalanche in Social Media Twitter, Facebook and certain news websites helped families reunite 10 The hashtag #Uttarakhand was a top 10 trending topic in Twitter worldwide

Uttarakhand is called Devbhumi—abode of the gods. But after hibernating in the cool, quiet winter months with the soothing snow as cover, the mountains must be quaking in their depths when it’s time for the char dham yatra. When those groups of youths with bright red tilaks on their foreheads, some with swords and trishuls, their unkempt hair tied in saffron bandanas roar on their motorbikes shouting Jai Shiv, Hari, Hari on the fragile dusty roads up from Rishiskesh. When families spilling out of Tata Sumos and Mahindra Boleros, racing with each other, pushing all the other vehicles off the road, leaving a trail of Lays Chips packets, gutka pouches and plastic bottles in their wake, head towards Uttarkashi or Joshimath. When all of them who have bought a flat in those River View and Ganga Darshan highrises in Haridwar and beyond come to claim their summer days. When the hills reverberate with the cry of the yatris.

This is not to blame the pilgrims for the present calamity in Uttarakhand. There have been unheard of torrential rains, cloudbursts and flash floods this year. But natural disasters will happen—hurricanes hit New York and earthquakes make Tokyo tremble—we can only be prepared, and plan. That horrifying, if arresting, TV footage of a building crumbling into the raging Mandakini could perhaps have been avoided if the builder of a four-floor structure on the river bank, caged-in with other buildings and standing on what looked like shaky stilts, had been asked to follow rules. If the trees had not been chopped and the timber smuggled out, the blow from the cloud bursts may have been softer. If the mining and stone quarrying along the Ganga had not been so mindless and large-scale, the river may have been less furious and not engulfed entire villages and towns. If the planning for the yatra had been done in earnest, so many people would not have lost their lives or left stranded. 

When the tiny state got its aadhar card over a decade ago from being an outpost of mighty Uttar Pradesh, there was hope that it would be managed better. But there has only been more confusion—starting from its name. At first, all vehicle number plates and government/institution name boards changed from UP to UA, or Uttaranchal. In about a year, they all changed from UA to UK, as after much deliberation, the state took the original agitationists’ name, Uttarakhand. Still in its formative years, it has had seven CMs, including the redoubtable N.D. Tiwari, and a flip-flop of BJP and Congress governments. In the last assembly polls the mystery lingered till the end if it would be a BJP or a Congress CM. With this kind of a political churn, the char dham yatra—Yamu­n­otri, Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath—lies in the hands of private tour operators who target as many trips as possible before the season ends. The pilgrims, many from faraway south and west India, are at their mercy. Last year, an estimated seven-eight million pilgr­ims visited Kedarnath. New hotels and dharamshalas come up every year, each looking more spidery. Vehicles are parked on either side of the highway for about five kilometres before you enter Gangotri. During the yatra days, the main town square in Uttarkashi resembles Churchgate station at 6 pm. If spirituality and serenity are what the yatris are looking for, as for many of them it’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey, they may find a food court in a city mall more tranquil. This yatra buzz is on the Garhwal side of Uttara­khand, along the Ganga right from Haridwar to Gangotri, and to Kedarnath and Badrinath. In fact, many in Kumaon say their region is relatively better off as there are no major dhams there. Well, the gods will live where they have to, it is in our hands to tread gently when we go visiting them, to show true res­pect and some humility to the mountains, the trees, the forests, the rivers, the lakes, the flowers, the birds, the animals, the snow, the glaciers—everything that surrounds them

“This Is No Time To For Nitpicking Or To Point Fingers”


Sikkim governor and former Union home secretary says that the first fortnight is all-crucial after a natural disaster.

When a natural calamity as the one Uttarakhand is in grip of strikes, it is instructive to see how other states have coped up with similar diasasters. Sikkim was rocked by a 6.9 earthquake in September 2011, and the hilly terrain and relentless rain had likewise hampered rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts. Uttam Sengupta meets the state’s governor, former Union home secretary Balmiki Prasad Singh, who tells him that the first fortnight is all-crucial after a natural disaster. Excerpts from an interview:

How did Sikkim recover in record time?

I broke all protocol. I sat in the control room for four hours, contacted the then army chief, the defence secretary and others. We set up control rooms in every district. We requested the army to depute an officer of brigadier rank for every control room and the government to depute a cabinet minister to coordinate rescue and relief operations. District magistrates are young officers and might not have been able to access decision-makers in real time.

What was new about the relief work that was undertaken in your state?

To cite just one example, we uploaded all information, even about the cash relief given to the people. Who received it, who delivered it and how much was delivered and when—it was all posted on a website.

Why is the civil administration so dependent on the army for the relief and rescue operations?

Because civil administration does not have the wherewithal and the trained manpower. Or, the logistics. They may have the information about roads, the villages isolated, people stranded and hamlets washed away. But they are not always equipped to rescue people clinging on to cliffs or hanging from trees.

There is a feeling that the administration in Uttarakhand was not prepared, and ignored warnings...

This is no time for nitpicking or a witch-hunt. There will be plenty of time for post-mortems and analysis. The first priority is to ensure that no precious life is lost, that every injured person is airlifted and provided medicare, that every hungry person is fed and rescued.

That should be the first, last and the only priority during the first 15 days, even for the media.

Do you find any difference between the situation in Uttarakhand now and the calamity in Sikkim then?

I have never served in Uttarakhand. But one obvious difficulty they have is that there the army units are mostly up in the hills and they will have to come down to help.

Fifth Generation Fighters and the IAF

Issue Vol 27.3 Jul-Sep 2012 | Date : 22 Jun , 2013

SU-30 MK-1 Formation

The capability of any modern fighter is usually way ahead of its predecessors, especially so if it is replacing decades-old planes such as the MiG-21 and the MiG-27. This is even more applicable to the leader of the pack of six of the world’s best fighter jets. Other air forces in the neighbourhood are also acquiring combat aircraft of similar capability, thus nullifying the IAF’s advantage. But the true game changer for the IAF, something that may give its potential adversaries many sleepless nights in the years ahead, is the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA).

These are exciting times for the Indian Air Force (IAF). After years of helplessly watching its combat assets dwindle or fade into obsolescence, the service is finally shifting into top gear and inducting an impressive range of modern equipment that should enable its transformation into a potent strategic force. Combat aircraft constitute the sharp end of air power, so the procurement of large numbers of Su-30 MKI air dominance fighters and the impending final operational clearance of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, possibly by the end of the year, are reason enough for cheer. And no other recent item has captured the public imagination like the high-stakes contest for the IAF’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) that recently threw up the Dassault Rafale as the winner. Yet these aircraft, important as they are, will not make a dramatic difference.

All fifth generation fighters use a high percentage of composite materials in airframe construction.

The capability of any modern fighter is usually way ahead of its predecessors, especially so if it is replacing decades-old planes such as the MiG-21 and the MiG-27. This is even more applicable to the leader of the pack of six of the world’s best fighter jets. Other air forces in the neighbourhood are also acquiring combat aircraft of similar capability, thus nullifying the IAF’s advantage. But the true game changer for the IAF, something that may give its potential adversaries many sleepless nights in the years ahead, is the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA).

The US Lead

The term “Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft” has been around for decades, especially in the United States. It is more marketing hype than a precise definition. In the early 1970s, American researchers identified stealth, speed and manoeuvrability as key ingredients of a next-generation air superiority fighter. The US Advanced Tactical Fighter project of May 1981 ultimately resulted in the production of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Designed mainly for dogfights against rival jets, the F-22, that became operational with the US Air Force in December 2005, features full stealth, an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and huge computing power that creates a single “sensor fusion” picture using data from an array of embedded sensors and data links.

Dassault Rafale B

It also has super-manoeuvrability and the ability to super-cruise i.e. fly at supersonic speeds without the use of afterburner rather than just making short fuel-guzzling supersonic sprints with afterburner engaged. That is not all. Some F-22 Raptors were recently upgraded with enhanced air-to-ground strike capability that makes it even more lethal and survivable in combat, a true multi-role combat aircraft. The USAF recently received the last of its tally of 187 of these prized jets at a cost of nearly $150 million apiece, a far cry from its original plan to acquire 750 aircraft.

For many years, the F-22 Raptor was the world’s only combat-ready fifth-generation fighter. The US rather selfishly refused to share it even with its closest allies. But competitors are gradually emerging. Designers in many countries are striving to make fighters with high-performance airframe, all-aspect stealth or at least a very high degree of stealth even when armed, powerful engines with low Infra-red (IR) signature, Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems capable of networking with other elements within the combat theatre to achieve a high degree of situational awareness. Effective sensor fusion is indispensable for the pilot to be able to utilise the torrent of information that sophisticated on-board sensors provide. All fifth generation fighters use a high percentage of composite materials in airframe construction in order to reduce Radar Cross-Section (RCS) and weight. Stealth technology including measures to reduce acoustic and visual signatures is also essential for any jet to be deemed truly fifth-generation. However, stealth shaping comes at a price. It can severely degrade the handling characteristics of the aircraft. So the right balance has to be struck between stealth, manoeuvrability and affordability. And stealth technology hardly renders fighters invisible. There are advanced sensors as well as some surprisingly low technology ones that can detect stealth aircraft.

Detour Needed: The 'New Silk Road' and a False Hope for a Troubled Afghanistan

Journal Article | June 20, 2013

On a sultry July afternoon in a crowded hall at the Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, India, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the strength of Indo-U.S. relations. She highlighted the many public and private links shared by the two countries, while outlining an optimistic, cooperative framework for the future. The Secretary’s speech illustrated a number of international issues affecting both states, eventually raising the matter of Afghanistan. With the impending withdrawal of Western security forces in 2014, an Afghanistan bereft of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was very much on the minds of those present in Chennai. Clinton used the Indian forum to reveal a bold strategy for salvaging a post-transition Afghanistan, a concept she described as the ‘New Silk Road’,

“Let’s work together to create a new Silk Road. Not a single thoroughfare like its namesake, but an international web and network of economic and transit connections. That means building more rail lines, highways, energy infrastructure, like the proposed pipeline to run from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan, through Pakistan into India. It means upgrading the facilities at border crossings, such as India and Pakistan are now doing at Waga. And it certainly means removing the bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the free flow of goods and people. It means casting aside the outdated trade policies that we all still are living with and adopting new rules for the 21st century.”[1]

Intending to bring the newly independent Central Asian republics into line with democracy and liberal economic principles, the notion of resurrecting the ‘Silk Road’ was adopted by U.S. foreign policy in the wake of Soviet rule shortly after the collapse of the USSR. However, the New Silk Road that Secretary Clinton promulgated in the summer and fall of 2011 included a different objective: to stave off disaster in a post-ISAF Afghanistan. According to the restructured New Silk Road (NSR) strategy, Central and South Asian regional economic integration, alongside intensive development initiatives throughout Afghanistan, would at least soften the blow of the removal of Western security forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The NSR gained a considerable amount of traction among diplomats and strategists alike, and it especially caught on within the AF/PAK Bureau at the State Department.

In a strictly policy-planning environment, the NSR approach to a successful 2014 transition is a remarkably well-planned initiative that addresses a virtually insurmountable problem facing our national security. On paper, the NSR can appear to be the economic remedy that will not only alleviate Afghanistan and Central Asia's economic woes, but also increase intraregional trade and cooperation within some of the international community’s most diplomatically austere, politically turbulent, and economically decrepit regions. In practice however, the NSR is a hollow concept that will not translate into any substantial economic benefits for Central Asians, Afghans, or Pakistanis alike. To the north, success is contingent upon the cooperation of Central Asia’s ruthlessly autocratic and insular regimes, interested in trade inasmuch as a means of maintaining a system of patronage upon which the ruling elite relies. On its southern flank, the New Silk Road hopes to inexplicably integrate an increasingly tumultuous and antagonistic Pakistan into a larger economic framework. Regarding Afghanistan, the plan examines the country through a Kabul-centric lens that completely distorts the reality as it exists outside of Afghanistan’s better governed, yet few urban concentrations. 

The reality is that U.S. foreign policy has made little to no headway in implementing the NSR since Secretary Clinton's speech in Chennai in 2011. For example, the walls impeding trade between the post-Soviet Central Asian republics remain just as solid as ever. Though trade between these five republics comprised around 20% of their aggregate total during the last year of the Soviet Union, intra-regional trade plummeted after independence, gradually dwindling to 5.9% roughly two decades later in 2010.[2] Despite the best efforts of policy-makers and diplomats, this paltry volume of exchanged goods between the republics has hovered around this percentage. Regional projects designed to cultivate cross-border economic connectivity have all but completely stalled. For instance, U.S. diplomats have been consistently unsuccessful in persuading Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to allow an independently owned corporation to take the reins in starting the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, an initiative crucial to the NSR.[3] Construction of the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan serves as another clear example of the enormous hurdles prohibiting effective regional economic cooperation. The dam, originally planned by Soviet officials some four decades ago, would generate much needed hydroelectric power in Tajikistan, which could then provide excess power to an energy-depraved Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the program has become completely mired in an interminable Uzbek-Tajik rivalry.[4] Yet another testament to Central Asian states' inability to overcome these inhibitions is the perennially deadlocked Central Asia/South Asia energy infrastructure program, CASA-1000. Another regional and energy-oriented project, CASA-1000 has proven to be little more than another casualty of mutual suspicion and fractious relations, foundering any hopes for Tajik cooperation with a wary Kyrgyzstan.[5]

The Confucian Epilogue


And what of the Humanities? In China, as here, an ethical-normative mist is rising.

“Ladies and Gentleman, Welcome aboard the Harmony (Hixie Hao) Bullet Train from Shanghai to Beijing.” It is a bullet train. China is. But one that is chaotic, serpentine and ever-morphing. And the humanities, it appears, shall provide the harmonious anchorage to its dizzying pace. A dominant section of its practitioners and policy makers believe that to be the role of humanities in contemporary China. In a recently concluded symposium to assess the directions Humanities studies is taking around the world held at Nanjing University—one of the top C9 League Universities in that nation—it was instructive to witness the way the Chinese academia and artistic community perceive emerging trends and imagine their role in them. This provides us with a fresh view outside of the dominant Euro-American and South-Asian paradigms for humanities studies. It also allows us a sense of how one of the major economic powers of the world is currently thinking about culture and literature within patterns of economic growth; how it is trying to come to terms with its own internal, tortuous debates, started after Mao’s death in 1976, and at the same time guardedly welcoming the world to share and exchange diverse viewpoints—thanks to its open-door policy. In fact, understanding the way China thinks and responds to artistic and literary debates makes an interesting comparison with the way humanities studies are being shaped now by the liberal policy-makers and academics in India.

A Triptych

The triangular ideological axes within which the Chinese questions may be framed are well chalked out: accommodating Mao and the official version of socialism in a changed world, negotiating with non-Marxist Western economic motivations, and a grand return of Confucius and his ameliorating ethical ideal. According to the formulation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the current political system is the primary stage of socialism, a transitional phase to a higher and superior form of socialism. But there is a deep aversion to utopian thinking and to Mao’s rejection of the moral and cultural past during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The CCP no longer stresses class struggle; nor does it oppose private property. The legal system is also being overhauled to that end. This is how Daniel Bell, one of the leading intellectuals at Tsinghua University in Beijing (who often writes to provide a moral raison de etre for the present dispensation) expresses it, drawing a parallel with India, “That is why Marx justified British imperialism in India: yes, it would be exploitative and miserable for Indian workers, but the foundations would be laid for socialist rule.

”The fact of the matter is that no one is really sure what the ruling elite intends as far as socialism is concerned. In the short term, the communist government will not be confined to Marxist theory if that conflicts with its intention of providing stability to the nation and its wish to remain in power. But Western ideas of rights-based liberalism is also found wanting, for that too conflicts with nationalist sentiments and local practices. To fill the moral vacuum that such scales of economic ambition must create, the official circle has taken refuge to Confucius and his followers, a harmonious and peaceful option, one that can both counter western style democratic values, extreme forms of nationalism and sects like the Falun Gong. Confucian thinking—a baggy term with its wide variety of forms and interpretive scope—is the perfect recipe for offering the compunctions of an economically growing nation a moral rudder. It stresses love, thrift, filial piety, family responsibility, cultural homogeneity and so on, and floats around more as a cultural fulcrum in the public consciousness. For the government, emphasizing harmony means showing a concern for all classes. Internal disturbances must be handled peacefully, not by violent class conflict. Internationally, the idea of a harmony-loving nation allays fears of military adventurism and an economic explosion. This workaholic nation must also apparently critique itself by setting an example of being morally upright. Such indoctrination must start young—millions of schoolchildren are now studying the Confucian classics, including in many local initiatives outside the formal system. Several high-profile companies in China instil training in “culture” that is grounded in Confucian values and the classics, to inculcate loyalty, responsibility, meritocracy and philanthropy.

The official circle has taken refuge in Confucius, a harmonious, peaceful option, one that counters both western democratic values, extreme forms of nationalism and radical sects. 

Indeed, responsibility is in the air. Corporate intervention and assimilation of good citizens within the system is also the baseline from which the current Indian political class speaks. And the deeply conservative academic-managers are gung-ho too. It has begun right from schools where the first lessons of pop-morality are being proposed. Moral blueprint, thus prepared, will then be taken to the next level, as in the case of Delhi University, which is just about to implement a particular interpretation of Gandhi in an ‘Integrating Mind, Body and Heart’ course in its new 4-year undergraduate programme where “ the student will be asked to seek incidents and episodes in her own life and world that resemble these incidents and episodes from Gandhi's life and she will have to study her own responses (or the responses and actions of the personages involved) in comparison with the responses of Gandhi to the extent possible.” Gandhi is the safest and most useful wager for all in India. The language and scope of the debate will nevertheless be given a definitive scholastic-virtuous direction: seeking truth, compassion, honesty, piety, austerity, safe, rigorous bodily practices and non-violence as guiding missions in life. This is how political conflict is being papered over in both China and India, by instituting and managing a gigantic process of social engineering.

Neutered Politics

At ‘The 3rd International Symposium on Humanities in the World’ at Nanjing University last month, this pervasive quest for harmony through Confucian values became obvious as we listened to successive Chinese academics speak on aspects of humanities studies in their country, even as it became clearer that what they each advocated actually fractured such a New Confucian journey into intriguing byways and detours. Professor Wang Ning of the topnotch Tsinghua University at Beijing, for example, was for unflinchingly ‘highlighting the humanistic spirit’ in liberal arts education in China, outlining a zealous variety of Confucianism placed within new frameworks of global culture, while Tong Quiang of Nanjing University harked with philosophical conviction back to the age of local Chinese Classics. Yet a third strain was putting Chinese arts and literatures in a sociologically-comparative mould with the West, as did He Chengzhou of Nanjing University on dance-drama and Wen-Chin Ouyang of the University of London on networks of literature. What was conspicuously missing from this multi-toned symphony was politics—and therefore did a presentation that examined the ravaged political in the humanities by Soumyabrata Choudhury of the Centre for Studies in the Social Sciences, Kolkata, ring alarm bells for many of the Chinese scholars in the audience. Those among the Chinese who felt otherwise expressed their solidarity with us quietly, sometimes seething with resentment at being intellectually shackled by mainstream senior colleagues. Their thoughts, however, are not entirely constrained, as a couple of not-so-harmonious papers proved.

A Great Democratiser

Founder dean, Indian School of Business & Founder, Ashoka University

Only online education can address a paucity of colleges, courses and faculty

Online education is going to be very big in India. It comes from a demand-supply gap, as the demand for education, particularly high-quality education, is way higher than supply and availability. This is why our children are not able to find the field of study of their choice and will have to explore opt­ions online to access what traditional offline modes cannot provide.

In the US, it is adding to what is already there. It is education for the educated. That is not the case in India; here it will be big and demand-driven, just as we have seen in mobile phones. Today, the quality is suspect and the bandwidth is low. With some initiative from the government and some from the private sector, we will see online education come up and flourish. And this will be pushed by 3G and 4G, better bandwidth and the coming of more smartphones, which will see many more people accessing onl­ine content on the phone.

It will also address the issue of shortage of faculty, which is a big problem in Indian education today. In online education, you need only a few high-quality professors. I would rather have one good mit teacher teach me than a bunch of bad ones. Yes, people will get into a debate whether this has the potential to replace teachers but we have also seen developments like Kindle and music players which have redefined usage patterns. There is also the classic intellectual debate about whether online education will work in isolation, in the absence of a classroom full of students, peers and teachers, but new theories show that self-learning is a new model whose time has come.

Actually, we cannot afford to engage in these debates, as India has no choice. Even if this model is the second or third choice for developed countries, it is a luxury for India to spurn it out of hand, as students here are not getting anything. The ideal solution has to be a blend where online education plays an important role in mainstream education.

We are now experimenting with a flipped classroom, where class-work is done at home online, while homework is done in class with teachers as facilitators. Research is also on about authentication of students in online education to establish who is sitting at the other side. There are issues with it, but even Aadhaar has issues with authentication. But in 95 per cent of cases, the data and information provided is correct. It is the same with onl­ine education. Some int­e­r­national online courses are exp­erimenting with using com­puter keystrokes as a biometric fingerprint to establish the identity of the person sitting at the other end of a computer.

The other thing online courses would provide is another chance to students who cannot understand or clear a course in the first attempt. In today’s system, if you fail in an exam, you are gone. In online education, you get more chances and can learn a lesson many times. It is a great democratiser. This is what India needs.

University Of Ether

Mission education An NPTEL class in progress at IIT Madras
After Harvard et al, the IITs take the lead in online professional education


Last month, the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, US, announced that it will offer its first online master’s degree course in computer science. It would also be one of the first full credit online courses in the world. In India, an initiative led by the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science is attempting to do something similar. Recently, the Indian government announced a tie-up between the US-based Cornell School of Administration and the holding body of hotel management education in India under which hotel management aspirants would be able to study and get, right here in India, a degree from the famous seat of learning. The entire course will be online. These are not scattered developments but part of a gradual move the world over to offer serious, mainstream education online. The question, however, is qualitative: can technology-aided access to quality education transform India’s education system?

Basically, India has a large mass of aspiring students vying for too few seats in too few good colleges, especially in technical fields. There have been plenty of new brick-and-mortar institutes, but they are mostly substandard, fail to attract students and often have had to close down. In this scenario, say exp­erts, only online education can fill the gap as it can cater to a large mass of students with a small group of quality faculty. Already, this model has spawned considerable success in coaching, tuition and entrance tests, which have all gone online, including the coveted Common Admission Test for IIMs. The next step, of course, is for courses to go fully online.

While small steps are already being taken at the primary and secondary level where many schools have started putting their regular and vacation homework online and enc­ourage students to do their regular school work online, the most serious work in India has been done by seven IITs and the Bangalore-based IISc. Their initiative, called the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), with support from the Union HRD ministry, went onstream in 2012. The initial videos uploaded received 62 million views and over 1,10,000 subscribers.

As of now, NPTEL has accumulated over 600 full courses on engineering and science. According to people involved in the overall planning and execution of the project, NPTEL will by December 2013 have in its fold over 1,000 engineering and science courses and will approach the government to set up India’s first virtual university, the groundwork for which has already been done. The university, the first of its kind in India, will offer education exclusively online.

Says Dr M.S. Ananth, visiting professor, IISc, former director, IIT Madras, and one of the pioneers of NPTEL as well as its first chairman, “With an acute shortage of seats and faculty, we have to exploit ICT (Information and Communication Tech­no­logy). We were supported by the National Mission on Edu­cation and now we have over 1,000 faculty in NPTEL. Our videos have got massive hits. Apart from the IITs and IISc, several others, like NITs, have written to us to be part of this.” According to Ananth, the initiative is ready with a bachelor’s degree and even a master’s degree course and covers five major disciplines apart from several science-specific subjects.

Heaven’s Pouring Fury

Safe return An Indore family makes it back from Uttarakhand

Why blame God when you’ve inflicted the damage on this devbhoomi?

To many, the only question to be asked would be: if there is a god, why in his supposedly infinite mercy, this terrible visitation of nature’s fury in Uttarakhand, the repository of his four abodes, the char dham. But for the believer, the answer is simple: death is the necessary end of life, do we blame the maker for it? We simply take for granted as inevitable as the night follows the day. The scriptures, in fact, call it nitya pralaya (loosely, recurring deluge, signifying the passing away of individual jivas, living beings passing through the cycle of birth and rebirth).

The questions that might be asked are: Why? What now? The first may be answered thus: adharma in acting contrary to nature; chaos and disintegration follows non-conformity. Endowed with wondrous mountains and peaks, home to the origins of our sacred Ganga and Yamuna, replete with flora and trees that rise tall as if they would verily touch the skies, the fauna which abounded—the tigers and leopards, birds of prey and of tenderness and song, fishes of a hundred hues that cavorted in the torrents ending in the pla­cid rivers of the plains—all this once, not far back, now stand in agonising testimony to man’s avarice that raped the hillside, denuded magnificent forests, encroached thoughtlessly on the course of the streams and rivers in the Uttarakhand that is now before our eyes. The answer to ‘why’ therefore is simple: the irreversible damage already thrust on this once-acclaimed devbhoomi. Can one, must one, blame God for this?

Why did this happen? Adharma in acting contrary to nature. What now? Relief in short term, then rehabilitation. 

If one can, it can only be in terms of the time-honoured verse of the Gita—Yada yada hi dharmasya, glanirbhavathi Bharatha! Where dharma declines and righteousness declines, I send forth for myself, to incarnate. In Dr S. Radhakrish­nan’s words: “God does not stand aside. When we abuse our freedom and cause disequilibrium, He does not simply wind up the world, set it on the right track and let it jog along by itself,” his loving hand steering all the time.

Now to the question, ‘what now?’ Reconstruction and relief in the short term, and total rehabilitation in the long. Home­steads have vanished, hundreds have perished, hospitals and schools have disappeared, paths and roads are no longer to be seen. To survey and document all this is of prime concern, primarily to the state government. But the imperative is of instant relief—shelter, medicines, communications, food, potable water, prevention of communicable diseases, all this and more is of concern not only to the entire nation but arguably to each individual state of the country.

Here is an excellent chance for all states and all our peoples to bond and rally as one—in this hour of what is truly a natio­nal tragedy—and come forth with assistance not only by way of funds but of organised human resources. Perhaps this is the most strategic lesson this grim tragedy has taught us. And of course a systematic and scientific crash study of the geographical and man-made factors that caused such devastation. The state is replete with dams and reservoirs, hydel powerhouses and risky buildings. To many, a seismic catastrophe is waiting to happen. Thousands of hectares of forest wealth has been oblitera­ted. The question thus is also: are we awake to all this? It is worth recalling what Swami Vivekananda said of the suffering of the poor, the aggrieved and the downtrodden: “If it is their karma to suffer, then it is our karma to relieve their suffering.” When a nuclear disa­ster strikes Japan, we rush to help. Should we not race now, to give Uttarakhand succour?

Not The Right Click

Director, IIT Madras, Chennai

Online courses have immense value, but as a supplement to the classroom

Online education, if handled well, can bring to the student the most motivating teacher. But there is much more to learning than just online courses. There is a role of the class—a role of discussion and feedback—that is crucial to learning.

It’s good there’s a debate on this—we have to really work out how online education can supplement traditional forms of education. All stakeholders have to come into the picture to make this happen. It is not just recording a course and putting it on the internet. We are putting up courses online but, significantly, the average student is not looking at it.

There is also no evidence that a student will sit in front of a computer and grasp the course and become an engineer. It is not clear that they will be able to do what a course requires them to do without the physical presence of a teacher. Even in Stanford, only hig­hly-motivated students actually sit through the entire course offered online.

Learning is a complicated process. What if the mind switches off? A student’s mind might just not work in isolation. In a typical classroom, there are lots of students, a lot of issues are raised and discussed and a lot of questions are asked during and after a class. There is also feedback on a teacher’s lectures. In education, a lot of hand-holding is required. How do you bring that into an online model?

Then there are things like peer groups, a teacher’s presence and laboratories, which online education needs to figure out. We can always set up an IGNOU-like university, but whether we should do that in the online sphere is not clear. I do not think there would be many takers for that. I don’t think online education will substitute normal physical classroom-based education in India. It will only aid the traditional form of education and can play a huge role in supplementing mainstream education.

There are many challenges to online education. We have an IIT-led initiative called the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), where we have prepared a large repository of engineering courses, but we find that its usage is opportunistic—a backup for when someone does not understand a particular subject and not as a course of mainstream education. Only the really motivated people are using the full course online.

Even in the developed world, people are still experimenting with various modules of online education. While there are many modules and intensive courses available in the US, course providers are still trying to figure out how it will finally work out in terms of issues like examinations. We also want to do online courses in engineering in India, but the challenge is how to get them credited by multiple colleges and universities. There are far too many issues that need to be sorted out.

First Drafts Come First

Priceless literary, musical heritage is preserved at Jadavpur University’s SCTR
  • Storage Spaces
  • SCTR scans, edits, digitises cultural, literary manuscripts, music, other reference tools
  • Conducts studies in history of printing, recording of oral literature
  • Archives include works of noted Bengali writers as well as genres like early Bengali drama, and Hindustani classical music
  • Certificate course in editing, publishing; doctoral research; short-term training courses, and music appreciation
At the end of a third floor corridor in Jadavpur University’s Arts building there is a department of English room where, ten years ago, a movement began—a crusade against time’s inexorable march. No, they have not quixotically endeavoured to stop time in its tracks. What they have been able to do is reverse the ravages it wreaks in its wake. That, after all, is the declared telos of the School of Cultural Texts and Records (SCTR), one of JU’s non-degree projects. It ferrets out mouldering, unp­ublished manuscripts of noted authors and poets from the dusty shelves of oblivion, and preserves them using a variety of methods, mainly through digitisation. SCTR’s work also involves scouring private collections of music so that priceless content captured in the decaying and friable—cassettes, long-playing records, even spools—may be saved using time-defying technology.

“There is a vast body of unpublished written work by distinguished authors, which is in danger of being lost forever unless something is done to preserve them,” Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri, founder of the school, explains. “Most of the written work, while in the safekeeping of family, friends, relatives or other private collectors, and undoubtedly treated with the utmost care, is nevertheless subject to time’s natural decay.” They are mostly hand-written in ink that fades with time, on paper that rots with each passing day. And the manuscripts exist in myriad forms—diaries, notebooks, loose sheafs, even scraps of paper stashed or filed away in cupboards of private homes or libraries.

In fact, it was the discovery of four such tin trunks containing the unpublished, private papers of eminent modernist poet Sudhindranath Datta and his wife, singer and musicologist Rajeshwari Datta, which came as the impetus to begin such a project. “Sudhindranath and Rajeshwari Datta, who had a long and close association with Jadavpur University during their lifetime, had bequeathed the body of their unpublished work to the university and therefore issues such as copyright did not pose a problem,” says Chaudhuri. “So we could immediately begin”.

Other works started trickling in, then came in a flood. “We have been very lucky,” says Professor Amlan Dasgupta, director of SCTR. “We have never really had to cajole or coax anyone for the salvaging or obtaining of documents or music. Friends, family and other custodians have mostly entrusted us with the material voluntarily.” Dasgupta, a connoisseur of music, spearheaded the school’s music preservation project at the time of its inception. If in the initial stages, those in possession of the documents did harbour some apprehensions, the reputation of the founders and faculty won them over.

Damayanti Basu Singh narrates the sequence of events which finally convinced her to hand over the manuscripts of her illustrious father—author Buddhadeva Bose—to the school. “I knew Sukanta and trusted him. Then I had to convince my mother and elder sister, who had equal say over the matter. But we had one condition. We didn’t want the manuscripts to go out of our hands. Sukanta understood my fears. Even if one page went missing it would be a terrible loss. So it was agreed that someone would come to my house with a portable scanner at a designated time and make copies. This continued for some time. But, gradually, the timing began to be a problem. After a while I agreed, after Sukanta assured me, to let them take four or five manuscripts at a time, process them, return them, then take the next lot.”

In 10 years, Damayanti feels “the school is doing excellent work in retrieving the manuscripts of authors who live on through their work beyond their lifetime”. In fact, it was she who in turn went on to encourage Meenakshi Chattopadhyay, wife of cult poet Shakti Chattopadhyay, to let SCTR have the manuscripts of her late husband.

Since those early days, the school has come a long way, added layers to its work and dealt with more complex issues than just digitisation of manuscripts and analogue music.

Habib Tanvir: Memoirs

By By Habib Tanvir 
Translated By Mahmood Farooqui 
Viking Penguin
345 Pages, Rs 599/-

On IPTA (Indian Peoples' Theatre Association) and PWA (Progressive Writers' Association) in the first year after independence, from the theatre maestro's posthumous memoirs

Habib Tanvir (1923-2009) planned his memoirs as a three-part autobiography which he started writing in his 80s. Unfortunately, he had only finished one volume till his death in June 2009, covering his life till 1954. It is very likely the first instance where a memoir was first published in translation: the Urdu original was published a few days after the release of this fine translation by Mahmood Farooqui in English.The excerpts below capture the tumultuous time for IPTA ( Indian Peoples' Theatre Association) and PWA (Progressive Writers' Association) in the first year after independence.

When the country became independent the Communist Party was divided into two factions. There was P.C. Joshi on one side and on the other side was B.T. Randive whom we used to address as BTR. The Telengana movement was in full flow, Makhdoom had disappeared, he was off poetry and was working with the tribals in the jungles of Telengana, he had gone underground. Vishhwamitr Adil had adapted a Chinese one act play in the background of Telengana and called it, ‘One Night in Telengana.’ I was playing the role of an old farmer in the play who loses his young son and towards the end of the play breaks down in grief. Balraj Sahni was directing the play and we were busy rehearsing.

One day the General Secretary of Bombay IPTA Ramarao came and said I have got the idea of a new play. His idea was about the everyday life of a clerk who lives in Borivali and travels to work in an office at Churchgate. When he sits down on his chairs he starts getting weird dreams. This was the idea, we assembled around him to hear more, Balraj had really liked the idea. Mohan Sehgal who in future would direct several films was appointed the director of the play. In a few days that very skeletal idea began to turn into a satirical feature. Mohan told everyone working on the play to think about their parts, to come up with dialogues and improvisations and to develop the plot as they saw fit. That’s how it happened, we used our imagination to fill up the play. Ahuja came up with his own dialogues, Dina made up her own, I was playing a Judge. I would sit there clipping my nails with a tailors’ scissors and would strike the table with an unusually long wooden hammer and say everyone keep quiet and listen to me. I had developed a new kind of stammering style. Balraj would walk downstage to the audience and say, ‘I live in Borivali and work in Churchgate and bring my tiffin with myself and then he would look up and say wow what fish, how big it is, look the whole tank is full of fish. Balraj had done the maximum improvisation, the basic idea which was not more than five minutes or so had expanded to over an hour. The play was given the name of ‘the Magical chair.’

The All India session of the Communist Party of India was held in Allahabad in 1948 and along side an IPTA drama festival was also organized. In that festival the Bombay wing presented these two plays, ‘One Night in Telengana’ and ‘The Magical Chair’ But Balraj was not satisfied with my performance. On the final night before the performance the rehearsal went on till very late. I was trying to play an old man and cry like one but Balraj, who was getting angrier by the minute, would scream for me to do it again and again. Eventually he could not stand it any more and gave me a tight slap and fiercely said to me, ‘now say your dialogues.’ I began to cry and began to act amidst sobs. The moment my speech ended he hugged me and said ‘now you will not forget it.’ I said, is this a new mode of direction, he said yes its called Muscle Memory. I happened to visit Indonesia in 1971 and at a school there I saw a famous Indonesian dancer teach Ramayan dance to the children. In the Indonesian Ramayan dance dramas the dancers adopt a particular pose. They double up their backs, like a hunchback and dance. I noticed that the children were facing difficulty adopting the pose, the Guru did not try to explain anything to them, instead he stood behind them, took his hands through their armpits and back around their ears and yanked it hard to create the pose. I was reminded of Balraj Sahni’s trick, perhaps this is what is called Muscle Memory.