Wednesday, June 20, 2018

POWER FAILURES AND POWER POLITICS


From April onwards, there have been several power failures in the state; they are not over yet. At the beginning of June, it became crystal clear that the cause of the power failures was not just faulty and aging equipment, but also gross mismanagement by the electricity department. Goans even learnt that to keep a particular big time corporate builder happy, the department had decided that an entire taluka could suffer a day-and-a-half without power.

One can think of the frequent power failures as a metaphor for the sorry state of affairs in Goa. Every year one witnesses a spectacular display of inefficiency in the management of public infrastructure by the administration. At other times, the administration deliberately denies the public services and utilities as it happened when two of the Panjim-Betim ferries were used for the benefit of casinos. There is no accountability and no one has been able to hold the administration accountable for simple and basic services. The result is quite plainly visible – flooded streets, overflowing sewage, leaking roofs of public schools, snapped electric cables, damaged footpaths, and general chaos all around.

One needs to ask why does such chaos, emerging from mismanagement and an unaccountable administration, recur every year? The reason is that the elected representatives – across party and ideological lines – have failed to provide the leadership that the positions they occupy demand. I am not making an argument that perfunctorily blames politicians – or corruption – in general. But what I am suggesting is that there is a particular systemic problem within the administrative system with the elected representatives having abandoned completely the idea of public good. If we would turn the formulation on its head, corruption results because elected representatives have abdicated responsibility, trust, and accountability – or public interest so vital for the system. One could think of elected representatives in the past as crafting the Constitution, or formulating land reform laws in Goa as promoting ideas of public good.

Abandoning ideas of public good has consequences for the administrative machinery. One has to understand that the administration can be divided into two broad sections: the executive, which is occupied by the elected representatives and the cabinet ministers; and the bureaucrats or the government servants, who are employed to run the administrative machinery, which includes the implementation of the policies and laws that the executive formulates.

If we consider the incident wherein the whole of the Tiswadi taluka was left without power, it appears that certain decisions were made by the Power Minister (the executive) without taking the concerned bureaucracy into confidence (or without informing them properly). Alternately, one can suggest that the bureaucracy did not properly respond to the decisions of the executive. Sample this: when news of the builder being unfairly favored emerged, the Chief Engineer of the Electricity Department admitted that he had no knowledge of the work being carried out. Given the fact that there is a stop work order from 2017, the bureaucracy should not have allowed the workers to go ahead with the work since due process was not followed. In any case, the Department was not prepared to undertake the work of such proportions, and one doesn’t know who exactly gave the orders to commence the work.

Goa may have many leaders with thousands of supporters, and who shower them with countless favors, but the fact is that once in power – in ministries, or in legislature/parliament, where it matters the most – they are rarely able to run the affairs of the state efficiently. Contrast this with the spectacular display of promises and popular support during the campaigning for elections. Also, consider the situation immediately after the results are declared, when cutthroat power negotiations take place. All these theatrics give the impression that the political class wields immense power to change the world for the better, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Indeed, they do wield very real and tangible power but that is often used (or misused) for private gain and to further the interests of big businesses.

Perhaps, the rot goes deeper considering the fact that the elected representatives are rarely seen conducting the business of the state inside the parliament/legislature, or through the administrative system. It is becoming increasingly clear that more and more politicians spend their time in election rallies than anywhere else. For one reason or the other (legitimately or not) sessions of Parliament or the Legislative Assembly have been wiped out. In Goa, for instance, there wasn’t a single cabinet meeting held for the last three months. The important budget session was conducted in an unprecedented rush because the Chief Minister was ill. If any laws have been passed in the last 4 or 5 years, they are done so without any public discussion. Many of these laws are detrimental for the people and the environment.

It is important that citizens extract accountability from the administration; emphasize that the affairs of the state be conducted through proper channels like the legislature and local governing bodies. One can suggest that if the system is collapsing – or not functioning properly – it is largely because the persons in the administration have not ensured that it runs smoothly. The elected representatives, and to a lesser extent government servants, do not seem interested in upholding public interest. Selling off public resources – and therefore public interest – to the highest bidder today is the norm. The manner in which power is expressed in our society needs to change, one that privileges public interest and not private gain. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 June, 2018)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

PASTORAL LETTERS AND INDIANNESS


Over the last couple of years, pastoral letters written by various bishops in India have led to national furore over their contents. While the writing of pastoral letters is routine, these letters found themselves in the eye of the storm largely because they were written around the time of elections and referenced the problematic political conditions affecting minoritized caste and religious groups. The most recent of such pastoral letters to have received the attention and ire of Indian media is written by Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi. But if one considers all the recent statements together, a particular pattern emerges – one that concerns the health of the Indian polity. Let us proceed chronologically.

In 2015, the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch (BBSM) led a campaign that demanded that English as a medium of instruction (MoI) in primary schools to be not funded by the Goa government. Despite a widespread demand from all sections of Goan society for English, the BBSM and other such right-wing organizations blamed Catholics and the Church for going against the interest of Indian culture. As is usual, these organizations attempted to pit ‘Hindu sentiment’ against the Christian communities in Goa. In response to the false accusations, the Archbishop of Goa and Daman, Felipe Neri Ferrao at the annual Christmas civic reception pointed out that in terms of education, and in other matters like religious tolerance and Goa’s environmental destruction the role of the Church was viewed with suspicion.

What followed the speech at the civic reception were wild accusations about the Church not being Indian enough – or being directly responsible for Goan Christians being disloyal to Goan ethos and Indian culture. An editor of a prominent Marathi daily – who recently coined the bizarre and Islamophobic term “Kristi Jihad” – even went to the extent of finding proof of the Archbishop’s/Church’s un-Indianness in the fact that the gathering was addressed in English!

Towards the end of 2017 and with the Gujarat State legislative assembly elections round the corner, Thomas Macwan, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar found his pastoral latter being splashed across TV news channels, and loud, uncouth debates conducted over its contents. The letter cautioned that the growing influence of nationalism was threatening the core constitutional values of India. The relevant portion of the letter needs to be quoted for a better understanding of what Archbishop Macwan was concerned about: “We are aware that the secular fabric of our country is at stake. Human rights are being violated. The constitutional rights are being trampled. Not a single day goes without an attack on our churches, church personnel, faithful or institutions. There is a growing sense of insecurity among the minorities, OBCs, BCs, poor etc”.

Archbishop Macwan’s letter was directed to re-claim what he understood to be an Indianness – secular in character – that is disintegrating due to ugly power struggles. Even if India may not have a great track record of upholding secularism and protecting marginalized groups in the past, letters such as those of Archbishop Macwan repose faith in the founding principles of the Indian constitution. The manner in which this is done is by swearing allegiance to a certain idea of nationhood – or Indianness – for securing rights and citizenship. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a gap, an ever widening gap, between the noble principles enshrined in the Indian constitution and contemporary Indian nationalism (irrespective of political leanings); there is no equality as such and there are no equal partners in this nationhood.

Which is why we are in a situation wherein only few groups can legitimately speak for the ‘nation’ – and ‘minorities’, or the minoritized are not a part of this group. This was very clear through the furore that followed Archbishop Couto’s letter; most had no idea what was so objectionable in the letter. In many ways, one could consider Archbishop Couto’s letter (along with Archbishop Ferrao’s recent letter) as similarly directing our attention to hold fast onto the founding constitutional principles. While we welcome the calls for following the constitutional principles, one has to be careful while understanding the repeated references to the “secular fabric” of India. One cannot assume that there was secularism which is now under threat; the numerous instances of planned sectarian violence over the course of the last half century against marginalized groups are a case in point. Secularism, if one goes by its fraught history in India, is not something that seamlessly exists with the current idea of Indian nationhood, but a promise that needs to be realized.

And it is precisely in times of elections – or impending elections – that one feels the threat to the constitutional principles. In this sense, many of the bishops in India who have expressed concerns about the political future of the people owing to an election cannot be faulted. However, if one thinks that it is only in times of elections that one can stop the rapid rot of the Indian political system then one is sadly mistaken. Elections come and go and short-term politicking does little to improve the lot of the poor and marginalized.

In times of deep political crisis, one feels the need for moral leadership. In this sense, the Church in India is quite suited considering its systematic and long-term charity work and the ideas of compassion it brings to public life. Therefore, it is legitimate for the Church to be concerned and act in the here and now, without compromising its core values. But it has to recognize that marginalization of various groups is a deeper problem, beyond the scope of nationalism and elections. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 June, 2018)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

TANGIBLE HERITAGE: AVOIDING MONUMENTAL MISTAKES


If it isn’t naked Hindutva, the government seems to be hell-bent in promoting vicious neo-liberalism. In a joint policy-decision by the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Culture, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the government envisages corporate participation in the maintenance of India’s heritage sites, including natural heritage sites like Assam’s Kaziranga National Park. Many iconic world heritage monuments in India will be put up for ‘adoption’. Private companies and individuals, and public sector undertakings now will be able to manage particular monuments through the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme.

As claimed by the government, the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme is designed for increasing tourism revenue. All heritage sites currently under the scheme are ostensibly selected on the basis of “tourist footfalls and visibility”. Indeed, the vision of the scheme gives prime importance to the development of “tourist amenities”, like toilet facilities, drinking water, and flow of traffic as its main objectives. The government claims that the revenues generated will be ploughed back for the upkeep of the same monuments. This is a rather bizarre claim as most of these monuments are already generating large revenues from tourist footfalls – such as the Red Fort in Delhi – and there seems to be is no reason to increase the popularity of these sites amongst the tourist. One can surmise, therefore, that the reasons for promoting this scheme lie elsewhere: to increase the privatization of heritage tourism.

Being in Goa and suffering from the excessive and unregulated tourist footfalls should make us see red when a scheme like ‘Adopt a Heritage’ is promoted. Goa doesn’t need more tourist footfalls, but less. Moreover, the idea that generating more income from increased footfalls would help in the restoration/conservation efforts is self-destructive. More tourist footfalls mean that there is an increasing pressure on old monuments leading to faster deterioration. One cannot fix the present condition of deterioration by creating a situation in the future that will deteriorate the monument further. Similar to what is happening with the rest of Goa, schemes like ‘Adopt a Heritage’ will only accelerate the destruction of Goa’s natural and built heritage and Goans will lose access to their heritage and history.

Apart from the pressures being exerted due to tourism revenues, the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme seems not to be in consonance with the existing heritage laws that regulate and protect monuments and sites. What I particularly refer to is the legal aspect of how the ASI has to interface with the local bodies and owners in not only maintaining monuments but also displaying them as world heritage sites or sites of national importance. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, empower the ASI to control and conserve monuments, such as the Basilica of Bom Jesus under their care. This law provides for two parties to enter into a contractual guardianship – the owner(s) and ASI. The nature of this guardianship is such that the control of the ASI is not absolute; the guardianship is formed on such a basis that the original owner is entitled to all rights and privileges as an owner as if the guardianship was never constituted with the ASI. Add to this is the fact that churches in Old Goa are also UNESCO world heritage sites.

In itself this provision, as it is framed, creates a legal grey area: who has control over what aspects of the monument? This was clearly visible in 2011 when the ASI and the Archdiocese sparred over whether or not to impose dress code for the visiting tourists. Both sides claimed that they had the right to the monument – the ASI asserted its role as a care-taker authorized by the central government and the Archdiocese argued from its position as the owner of the monument. In any case, the abovementioned Act provides for non-obstruction in religious worship; the dress code is imposed to maintain the sanctity of the church as it is a place where Catholics worship. And yet there was friction between the parties, whether born out of ignorance of the law/rules or plain arrogance is a story for another day.

And now to add a third party – private corporates/individuals and public sector companies – without any clarity of how all these three parties will interface with each other is to create more confusion. Imagine if the corporate company feels that the Basilica of Bom Jesus should be ticketed, since it will generate good revenue for its upkeep – perhaps one would have to purchase a ticket to attend mass! For the problem with involving private companies is that these are driven by profit and the vision and aims of the private companies more often than not are detrimental for public good.

Specifically in relation to the Goan scenario when the legal and contractual basis of the partnership is not clear, the Goa government, the ASI, and the Archdiocese has to first clarify what is the legal basis for this move and not make hasty decisions – whether opting for the scheme or not. That the government is seeking private partnership for providing such basic facilities as toilets and safe drinking water reflects badly on the ASI – the institution set up to do just this and many other important things. More than generating revenue out of the monumental heritage, it is imperative that these structures and sites are conserved and/or preserved for their historical and cultural value.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 23 May. 2018)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

STATE OF EDUCATION: EXAMS AND MERIT


This year’s Goa Board examinations witnessed many HSSC and SSC students complain that the physics and science question papers respectively were too tough. Many parents and students wrote letters in the press, pleading with the Goa Board officials to be lenient during evaluation. The anxiety that students and parents shared alike was so much that it also resulted in an online petition.

Such complaints about exams being too tough or questions being framed “out of the syllabus” are not at all new. In fact repeated pleas for leniency come from students who mostly attend private and expensive schools (in Goa it is generally aided private schools), and who are provided with the best of facilities. Contrast this with the public schooling system which is in doldrums; the largely poor students who attend such schools don’t make such demands. Across India, good schools are generally private ones whether they are aided or not by the government. These demands for leniency – largely for science and professional subjects – expose the serious problems with the educational system in the country and the state’s failure to provide equal and fair education. In the end, it also exposes the hollowness of the idea of ‘merit’ as a yardstick to measure academic excellence.

Through the whole period of schooling one finds very few parents demanding better quality of education. Rather than demanding proper changes, one finds that students and parents in fact suffer through bad schooling systems. Some prefer private (and expensive) schools as alternatives, which are often considered better for non-academic reasons. Despite there never being a sustained demand for better public schools, parents still expect their kids to excel academically and will go to any lengths to achieve this. To give the best to one’s children is not wrong; the problem emerges when only those with means can afford decent schooling facilities. The consequences will be serious as good educational facilities are intimately linked to a better society.

The pleas for leniency rest on deep fears that a difficult question paper will affect a candidate’s chances of qualifying for reputed professional and technical colleges. The petition circulated by students in Goa was similarly concerned with “percentages and careers”. We know that there are thousands of ‘middle class’ parents across India who spend lakhs on coaching classes so that their children will have access to these professional colleges and the job market. Indeed, the proliferation of expensive private schools and coaching centers not only bestow prestige on the students and parents who are able to afford it, but also ensures that high paying jobs only go to the privileged folk.

This is precisely what the periodic hue and cry regarding tough question papers confirm: the complaints are not about the miserable system of education, but are about the anxious feelings amongst parents and students for losing out on individual success and personal gain. The logic seems to be frustratingly simple: nothing matters except that the student cracks the exam. And why not, since the whole education system is oriented towards cracking an exam – it is worse for technical courses whereby colleges and coaching centers train one to answer one typical question paper that guarantees results. A slightly unusual question paper – fairly or not – causes panic as children are not encouraged to think independently, critically, and to have sound awareness of the world around them.

Which brings us to the question of merit. The access to expensive and exclusive technical/professional colleges is intimately connected to the idea of merit, as it recognizes only individual success in professional/science courses which are valued over the rest. This is the obsession of the elites who identify as ‘middle class Indians’ and those that aspire to this class mobility through their children’s success. Hence this merit can generally be achieved by only those with the financial means and caste/class networks.

The inadequate availability of publicly-funded, fair, and equal education and the simultaneous promotion of merit and cutthroat competition is one of the causes for the rising inequalities in India. The intense competition that private schools, teachers, coaching centers, and parents promote not only lead to narrow career choices being valued, but it also makes education extremely expensive for a large chunk of the population. This would eventually lead to inequalities in accessing the job market as well. Which is why, any idea of merit and academic excellence celebrated and promoted during the time of board exams, and after results are declared, ring hollow.

I do not want to deny that Goa hasn’t witnessed any demands for a better schooling system. Movements like that of FORCE – Forum for Rights of Children to Education – that demanded better facilities for all gives us hope for a better future. The movement championed by parents who could not afford expensive private education, demanded that the government support English as a medium of instruction as this would help their children to access better jobs. The movement also rested on the fact that government or public schools – where most of the poor people were forced to send their children – were ill-equipped to impart any decent skills that would be useful in later life. But the full potential of the movement has not yet been realized.

In many ways it appears that Indian society, riddled with considerable inequalities, hasn’t learned to exist in communion with the less fortunate other. This is why, time and again, one hears calls for leniency in evaluation during examinations, when in fact one should have demanded a better education system and facilities.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 9 May, 2018)