Saturday, February 25, 2012

Victory for Now

The World Health Organization has taken India off the list of countries where Polio is endemic after the virus failed to take a single reported victim in a year. This is a landmark achievement for a country that once had the highest number of cases of polio in the world, sharing space with the likes of Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The victory against polio, as we can call it now with a degree of caution, was achieved through massive mobilization and exemplary citizen-government partnership. The fact that the mission created a new phrase in the regional lexicon - 'Polio Ravivar' - goes to show how well-targeted the system was.

However, the fight is far from over. Any lax in the future will see a recurrence of Polio. In addition, India must look at replacing OPV with IPV, although it will be an expensive transition. The danger of the OPV strain going wild is high and if it does so happen, then India would be consumed by the Polio virus with little hope of ever being able to escape.

The fight against Polio is a part of the fight against a myriad of viruses. The first great victory was the eradication of Smallpox. Perhaps one day, we will be able to eliminate HIV and finally, defeat the Goliath of diseases: TB, which kills more people than any other virus in the world. But for now, this small achievement in the larger fight deserves to be celebrated.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What have you done to yourself?


Producers: UK Film Council, Film4, Canal+ and others
Director: Phyllida Llyod
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd and others
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)
Pros: Captures history beautifully, another great performance from Meryl Streep
Cons: Confusing in some parts

Margaret Thatcher: a name that anybody, absolutely anybody, who has followed Cold War history would know of. Whether you love her or hate her, you cannot ignore Britain's longest-serving peacetime Prime Minister and to-date only woman PM. So how could the movies ignore her?

The Iron Lady is a wonderful movie whose name epitomizes the irony between the sobriquet that the Soviet Press invested her with and the delirious, dismal state of dementia that she lives in today. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! But the real story is that of her rise - how Margaret Roberts, daughter of a working-class grocer, and inspired by the likes of Sir Winston Chrichill, went on to become the lone MP in the Commons who took some harsh decisions as Secretary of State for Education and Science. From then on, the movie takes us though a series of events surrounding her, from her rise to Prime Minister, the Falkland Islands War (the best part of the movie) to her eventual resignation.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the movie is how the director has blended between two time periods. So while we see today's Thatcher, old, suffering from severe dementia, imagining herself to be with her late husband Dennis as she denounces terrorism, we are taken back to her heydays, when she stood up to Trade Unions and American Diplomats alike in her single-minded quest to make hard decisions. The movie is dotted with stills taken from archives, showing riotous mobs and IRA attacks and that adds to its liveliness.

As Thatcher, Meryl Streep has really outdone herself. Towards the end, when Thatcher tries to dispel her dreams of her late husband, the harrowed and frail look seems so real that you cannot really see Streep anymore. It's not merely the excellent make-up, Streep is such a brilliant actor that you really forget that she is not Thatcher herself! Jim Broadbent, as Dennis (or his ghost, rather) plays an excellent supporting role.

The movie does have the problem that it is boring in parts - continuous rants about the British-way of life make it somewhat monotonous and Thatcher herself is depicted as a rather black-and-white figure. But all that is forgiven when you consider the scenes from the Commons - how Thatcher started out as Education Secretary and was drowned out by the Opposition to the time when she looked them in the eye, the proud vanquisher of the occupiers of the Falkland Islands.

For those who love political history, The Iron Lady is an absolute mist-watch. It is not popcorn-entertainment but rather, a very serious move. The ending is worth dying for - the mighty former Prime Minister, a mere shadow of herself. Go out there and watch it! (OTFS)

Stop Politicizing National Security

Union Home Minister P Chidambaram recently notified the National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) under his Ministry as the nodal agency for integrated intelligence and operations coordination to fight terrorism in Indian territory and beyond. The notification derives legal sanction from the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which was suitably amended in the first UPA government's tenure after 26/11.

Sadly, the NCTC is now caught in a web of politics, with over a dozen Chief Ministers ranging from Gujarat to Tripura going hammer and tongs against it, describing it as being an anathema to federalism. Mamata Banerjee, who seems unable to mould herself out of the role of an Opposition force despite being in power, has now taken the lead by, you guessed it, blackmailing the Union Government of which her party is a part.

The fact of the matter is that states have failed to controlled terrorism and that's not entirely their own fault. Of course, a sloppy security mechanism is a problem, but terrorism is such that no single state can stop it on their own and a coordinated response from the entire country is required. Which is precisely where the NCTC comes in. The idea is taken from the US NCTC, and the US is a far more federal nation that our own. It is based on the military concept of one command centre, which is wholly necessary to end terrorism that does not recognize inter-state borders.

By invoking federalism -which itself is poorly defined in the Constitution - the states have done a disservice by politicizing the NCTC. The problem, of course, is also with the Home Ministry, which has not done enough to reassure the states. But that does not mean that it should ditch the concept itself, which took years to put in place and is the very centre of Chidambaram's anti-terrorism plan for India. While it is important to reassure states that only what is best for the country will be done, the Union Government must not back down from the NCTC and particularly not on the premise of federalism.

A Respite at Last

The Department of Civil Engineering is infamous for one thing - the size and number of its courses. Ever since 2-2, when the real engineering courses started, we have faced unreasonably long syllabi, a large number of subjects and, I must say, pretty poor teaching. Add to that was the fact that our schedule for any exam ran the longest, so that while the entire hostel would be celebrating, Civil would continue studying for one more exam.

But all that's changed now. We now have just five exams, our exams ended in two days and our professors taught us well. Such was the scenario for MTE-1. Here's where the subjects stand.

CE-332 is, by far, the most difficult subject of all. To some extent, it is difficult to understand and tends to be very empirical in nature, for such is the nature of Geotechnical Engineering. Add to the fact that the exam was very long, with just too many questions to solve successfully in an hour, and it seems that we are headed towards another subject where marks would depend not on how well you did but on how badly the others did. Not so with CE-352, a delightful course, our first in Structural Design. The subject is actually very easy but demands conceptual understanding, which is fine by me. Using the IS code is an eye-opened because it turns out it does not contain readymade designs but is just an aid! Nonetheless, this exam had several theoretical questions, which was no big deal.

CE-354 is like the poor cousin of CE-352. Also a structural design course, it is much simpler and you literally have to remember nothing as the Code contains every formula and safety factor that you'd need. So much so that many of us just remember some important page numbers in the code! The exam was, as expected, very simple, although we did land up with sections that do not exist. In one question, we were asked to design an equal angle section of 12mm thickness, which made it so large (ISA 80x80x12) that the who,e question became pointless - do what you may, you will still require the same angle section!

CE-362 is probably the king of pathetic subjects this semester. The exam was extremely easy, except for one question that would require a little more thought than usual. The logic behind the subject is very simple and although it is probably the most important part of Civil Engineering after Structural, Transportation is not living up to its expectations. What is living up to its expectations, however, is IAH-02, a course that I took with the soul desire to study very little. And with an extremely short question paper, not to mention a syllabus worthy of Class 7 science, it made my TS!

We do have CE-300 of course, but there's no exam for that. Ah, the wonders of 3-2!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Debating at SRCC

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) to represent IIT Roorkee at the SRCC Debating Festival in the Parliamentary Debating event. The event was quite good and, by most standards, well-managed.

We started off against Stephens A who, like most DU colleges (we discovered later), relied more on style than substance. Not that they were a bad team, but they did not give the kind of clinching logic that you should give. Rather, as the adjudicator pointed out, they won for better assertiveness - what we call Manner.

Then came Gargi, against whom we did put up a good fight. In fact, I think we won that one but adjudicator seemed to be biased, coming up with her own logic that was actually contested by the winning team themselves! But never mind - on Day 2, we had the opportunity to debate with Law Colleges, which, in my opinion, are the diametric opposite of DU colleges: more on substance and logic, less on style. It was a pleasure debating with NUJS and NLUD. Their teams were not great, probably rookies, but winning or losing on the back of logic is far better than doing it on Manner.

We ended the debating with LSR, which was a rather pathetic team that we actually enjoyed destroying. Although it was a closed adjudication round, we were able to find out that we had indeed defeated them - the advantages of staying after the break-in (and having a spy as trainee!)

The sad part is that because of the way the tournament was structured, we got to see very few good adjudicators. Not that the ones we got were bad (except the one against Gargi), but they could have been better. And we did not get to witness the legends - RVCE and NLSI - who would have done wonders for our debating skills. Nonetheless, for my second tournament (and first PD tournament), it was a good experience. And leaving with 3-2 in a DU college isn't too bad either, certainly better than what IITD or PEC managed to put up!

As for accommodation, it was pretty good, although we expected separate quarters for the sexes. Still, it was comfortable and the break-in party was a delight. As for the SRCC campus - 'smaller than my department' - it was rather disappointing, although mainly because of all the renovation going on. Still, the people were nice and the atmosphere competitive. A good experience - and I hope for more!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

ISEET: Give it a Try

The Union HRD Ministry has announced that starting from 2013, IITJEE and AIEEE, the major engineering entrance exams in India, will be merged into a new exam, the Indian Science Engineering Eligibility Test (ISEET). As expected, this announcement has met with jeers and angst from the IIT community, who have christened it the I-SHIT!

But I see no reason to deride the exam before it even starts. It's focus on logical reasoning and comprehension is tuned to International standards that measure learning through understanding a problem rather than knowing how to solve it mechanically. In a previous article, I demonstrated how much of the criticism is actually in deference to the stardom that qualifying JEE gets you rather than a genuine interest in getting good people into the IITs. I may add that much of the cheering is actually out of vengeance from those who did not qualify JEE.

But these minor arguments are not to be taken seriously. The major thrust should be to improve school education and flush out these coaching institutes that have become the bane of the education system. In a panel discussion with faculty three years back, we had concluded that these institutes are not the proper means to learn but are merely geared to train well-off kids to pass a single exam, following which they go back to being mediocre (and give up engineering entirely after that).

Already, a number of ISEET coaching centres have come up across India. Even before the exact pattern of the exam was revealed, institutes claimed to have become 'premiere' centres of coaching for ISEET! This is a disturbing trend, one that needs to be nipped in the bud by ensuring that nothing but good school education and a logical mind can get you through the exam. Rote learning, unending prep and other short-term means to get through an exam need to be discouraged and it is the responsibility of CBSE - which will conduct ISEET - to steer the exam in such a direction.

As for the quality of the exam itself, I see no reason to believe why it would be poor. Just because it's not JEE it does not have to be mediocre. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating - lets wait for 2013 to see the real face of ISEET. You never know - it could be just what the doctor prescribed to make sure IITians become engineers and not leave the engineering field altogether.

Aid with strings is unacceptable

The very day that the Indian Air Force announced that its $10.2 bn MMRCA contract would go to French Dassault's Rafale, the British House of Commons erupted with anger. One MP put it succinctly, "How can a country, let alone a former colony, that receives so much in British aid, choose the French over us?"

The comments coming out hence called for freezing about £250 mn in British Aid to India. The Indian media retaliated by quoting Pranab Mukherjee from a past conversation, wherein he said that British aid was 'peanuts' and that "we don't need it." Yet, the dichotomy seems to continue - a British Government weary of giving aid to India and an Indian Government weary of accepting it - but the aid still flows!

The truth of the matter is that India does need that aid. The few tens of thousands of children who received food and education because of that aid need it. It's all very well for politicians to claim, in association with the chattering class, that India has grown enough to reject British aid. But the truth is that India has the most poor people in the world and some of them are not just below the poverty line, they are below the starvation line. They need that aid - and the Indian Government has not, in 60+ years, been able to pull them out of poverty. Hard, cold facts. But facts.

Then again, we should also look at this in perspective. Britain occupied India for over 200 years and sucked the economic life out of it. Indians became British subjects, meant to do menial, clerical tasks and buy goods from their British paymasters. The British colonization of India was the root cause of India being born as one of the poorest nations in the world in 1947. The British cannot simply walk out after sucking the life out of a nation for 200 years - that aid is a small return for the wrongs committed on India during the occupation. Whether British MPs would like to acknowledge it or not, the truth remains that colonialism is still the cause of many failed states, broken economies and instability throughout the world. And British aid to India - and indeed, to many of her former colonies - should be seen as a small acknowledgement of the wrongs committed then.

Therefore, Britain must not believe its aid to be meant to push through diplomatic aims. Indeed, aid is usually meant to do just that - just see India's lines of credit to its neighbours - but that equation changes when you look at India and Britain, whose economies are, amazingly, nearly at par from a macro-perspective. India cannot be expected to kowtow to British interests in return for aid which, truly speaking, is a small amount in the overall aid that Britain gives. The British should learn to compete with the world, including France, instead of cribbing about how their country has become a has-been in International politics. 

Indo-British ties are indeed strong, but that does not mean one is negotiating from a position of weakness. If the British want to give aid, they should look at those mothers in UP who go hungry at night so that their children don't. That should be the strategic aim of Britain. If not, then truly, we don't need that aid. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Telecom Earthquake

The Supreme Court's verdict, cancelling 122 telecom licenses that were sold in an wholly arbitrary and unconstitutional manner, comes as an earthquake to the world's largest telecommunications market. The verdict will see major players (Idea and Uninor) and minor players alike taking a beating, while the titans of the industry - Vodafone and Airtel - will see thei fortunes rise.

In a way, it is poetic justice. The entry of such a large number of players - illegally - caused massive bleeding. Consumers did benefit significantly of course, but if you look at it in the long-run, the industry had become unsustainable and that would hurt consumers the most. Therefore, the industry was crying out for consolidation and price-rationalization. The judgment does just that, except with a bang.

The exit of so many licensees will mean that the existing players will get close to 40 million new subscribers in a matter of months, thanks to MNP. Auction of spectrum will give some much-needed revenue to the Government. Stabilization of the industry will prove hugely beneficial to consumers in the long-run, although tariffs may rise in the short-run. With the new telecom policy in place, however, consumers should be protected.

It's just as well that this move came through a huge scam - it exposed the UPA Government for what it was worth without destabilizing the entire nation. Hopefully, future governments will think twice before attempting anything like this again. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Right Choice

After years of waiting, the Indian Air Force has revealed its pick for the $10.2 billion Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal. French Dassault Rafale tipped its European rival Eurofighter Typhoon to win the lucrative deal.

Now, for the most of it, Rafale was selected on the basis of cost and technical specifications. Cost goes beyond the nominal price of course, it also takes into account mid-life servicing and technology transfer, a rather complicated calculation indeed. Nonetheless, Rafale was also chosen because France has been a steadfast ally of India since Independence, with the warmth growing over the last decade.

During Kargil, France was one of three countries that stood firmly behind India and did not indulge in Indo-Pak politics, the other two being old allies Russia and Israel. Virtually the entire non-nuclear submarine programme is based on the Scorpene submarines from France. France's Areva has been asked to build six nuclear reactors in India. Diplomatically, France, a member of the P5, unequivocally supports India's bid for permanent membership at the UNSC.

Clearly, Rafale brings with it not just an excellent fighter jet (being similar in configuration to the Mirage, integrating it with the IAF will not be very hard) but also diplomatic dividends. Interestingly, it has come as a shot in the arm for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is looking at a massive defeat this May. Such massive deals always have a strategic component in them. The Rafale was the right choice for the IAF, bringing with it a worthy partnership and badly-needed technology to the Indian defense industry.

The Biggest one Yet

I have no idea what I was thinking, really. It just seemed to be in my forte - represent a country, discuss International politics, live the life of a foreign agent. A dream come true at IIT Roorkee MUN - 2011: the first MUN to be organized in IIT Roorkee last year. Two days of great fun and two resolutions negotiated - one abstain and one for.

This year, something told me that we need to do this again. I could've stepped aside and done some other events - a paper presentation is still my main desire. But another MUN? Irresistible. A few phone calls and e-mails and I knew that we could do it. It was fairly simple convincing the Cogni people - MUN was such a hit last year that it just had to be done again!

But the actual task of organizing proved a bit more challenging. Looking at the state of Cognizance a little under 50 days before it starts, I've realised that this is probably going to be one of the largest events there. It needs to be successful. At one point, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But then came the hardest part so far - the EB Chat.

Selecting the EB was not very difficult - we got around 100 applications (compared to last year's 30) of which we selected 35 for further consideration. A questionnaire and four hours of discussion later, we finalized our EBs for the two committees. And then came a mega online-chat to decide the councils and their agendas. Five tabs open at the same time, hitting refresh non-stop, phone calls, SMSes... everything happened at the same time.

And then, all of a sudden, we finalized the councils and the agenda. The Arab League on Oil and the GA on the Media. Modern, relevant, untried. Despite the specter of being white-washed by LSRMUN, I saw my first ray of hope that this would happen.

A lot needs to be done now - applications have opened for delegates but publicity is yet to pick up. The Cogni people are a source of frustration. But of all the events that I have organized so far, this is definitely the largest. Am I scared? Yes. But do I think we can do it? Yes, yes, yes! One must graduate to newer and larger things eventually. This was inevitable. It's time to do it.

New Dawn?

In the dusty lanes of election-bound UP, it seems as though a new era has been ushered in, almost unnoticed. Driving nearly 10,000 km through India's most populous state is Akhilesh Yadav, son of SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. Yet, despite the reputation that the SP has, Yadav jr. is out to do something once thought taboo.

The SP's election manifesto promises laptops to students. Forget the financial impossibility of this: here we have a party that once stood against English education, computers and all things modern as it pursued its single-minded goal of "socialism." And how its UP General Secretary makes PowerPoint presentations in English!

Akhilesh Yadav, educated in Sydney, has been compared by many to the Congress heir Rahul Gandhi. He is an odd face that seems nearly maverick in approach. He espouses modern education and technology. For him, English education is necessary for people to be lifted out of poverty. Not something easy to say in a party as parochial as the SP, but that is exactly what he is doing.

Will the SP's new face become the game-changer even as Mayawati's BSP troops ahead on the back of its core Dalit vote? Perhaps. It depends where the urban middle-class goes: this segment, long a bastion for either the BJP or the Congress, could finally have a good reason to vote for the SP. As the polls in UP begin, 2012 could well be a new dawn for the state.

No JEE? So?

Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has had his away. After much resistance, the IIT Council has finally agreed to scrap the much-loved IITJEE entrance exam and merge it with AIEEE as Sibal aims for a common entrance test for the entire country.

This move has brought the normally-docile community of IIT students to arms, albeit on Facebook, poking fun at Mr. Sibal on the one hand and espousing the importance of a strong and challenging entrance exam for the IITs on the other. On the face of it, these demands seem to be legitimate expressions of concern for institutions - the IITs - that have been long-considered the pinnacle of Indian education.

However, when you look deep into these demands, that facade evaporates quickly. What does a qualifying JEE mark represent today? Hard work? Definitely. Talent? Yes. Exceptional aptitude? Hold on there! The fact of the matter is that the IITs have produced more non-technical wonders than engineers for decades now. A common refrain from IIT faculty and academia is that the current standard of students leaves much to beg for.

But also consider an even bigger issue - IITJEE is not just an exam. It is an industry valued, according to one study, at Rs.10,000 cr. Entire generations have grown up attending the so-called foundation courses (which basically teach you syllabus from next year). Parents spend a small fortune on IITJEE education. Today, qualifying in the JEE is not simply about how intelligent you are - it also depends on how much money you have. That's why you see so many IITians migrating to management - because it is now entirely about the money. An IIT degree hardly means technical competence anymore. Indeed, it is quickly becoming an indicator of incompetence.

But why do IIT students, who have already been there and done that, so vociferously support the JEE? It's mainly because of the brand factor: most students at IIT waste their four years doing nothing more than playing video games and sleeping. It is shocking to see such bright minds struggle to understand what are actually very simple concepts of Physics, Maths and Chemistry when they actually managed to grasp far more complicated things for JEE. To see high-ranking JEE qualified students at the very bottom of their class, unable to understand the most basic of technical matters, is indeed disappointing.

It is also this very group that most strongly vouches for the JEE. Because for a vast majority of students, it remains, after four years at IIT, the only real achievement worth talking about in their lives. It allows them to demand a sort of cult-status, although inside IIT they are actually very far from that.

The combining of JEE with AIEEE and other exams will not lower standards at IIT. Education here does not require super-human intelligence. Sincerity and commitment are quite enough.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Manipur: Just a Facade

Through the dark walls, she cannot see;
Through our dark souls, we will not try;
But the God above will always know:
There is no sun.
Only the guns, only the guns, only the guns.

Manipur went to elections last month under the shadow of the gun. A state that has bore the brunt of militancy and high-handedness from the Union Government was asked to vote in a Government once again that would probably be as ineffective as the last.

The problem with such elections is that they often hide the chaos underlying the order. For Manipur is a state under siege - militants on one side, espousing silly dreams of Independence, collecting taxes based on that silly dream an killing any dissent. On the other is the Army, which has virtually occupied its own country's civilian territory and which is being forced by an inept civilian administration to maintain law and order - something which it is not trained to do.

Caught between a rock and a hard place for over half a century now, Manipur's state of siege is now seen as 'normal.' The locals have learned to keep quiet and expect very little from one of India's poorest and most neglected states. Elections are just a formality because nobody seriously believes that things can change now - that in a corner of 'emerging' India.Until the Union Government and indeed, the larger people of India look upon Manipuris as their own people, the facade will linger.