Time to correct course and stop mistaking the wood for the forest

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

In his regular column in the Indian Express this week, the president of the New Delhi based autonomous think tank, Centre for Policy Research, CPR, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, made a very trite but sharp commentary on the present government’s attitude to progress. His single line description of the government’s attitude to promotion of quality education was particularly remarkable for its incisive irony, exposing the absurdity of the situation by a witty play of words. The government, he said, is unable to distinguish between university building and building university.

The article was about the Union government, but the irony obviously is even apt of Manipur’s affairs. Indeed, the allusion to mistaking the wood for the forest would apply in practically every sphere of governance in the state. Hence, fighting insurgency and therefore counterinsurgency campaigns for instance have come to be about getting the numbers right – number of alleged insurgents killed in alleged encounters, the  number of captured insurgents, the number of weapons seized, the number of surrender ceremonies etc. As a matter of fact, as all who follow developments in Manipur, there is almost a rat race amongst various security agencies to throw up the biggest numbers in these so called indices of success in counterinsurgency campaigns, and therefore receive police and military honours in direct proportions to these. Despite all these “ground breaking successes” each year, insurgency however has only worsened, become more complex and faction ridden, and in many cases, turned into proxies of the interests of power brokers of all hues and reputations. Surely those behind this absurd drama are aware their game is only the wood, and that the forest is far away elsewhere.

Take again the case of the drive for quality education, which supposedly is powered not by the government alone, but also by various civil society bodies as well, including the most vociferous students’ bodies in the state. These bodies would even take it upon themselves to patrol examination centres during school public examinations to see there are no unfair means used. However, there is hardly a squeak from anywhere on the issue of the Shillong-based CMJ University which has been handing out fake doctoral degrees to candidates for a reported Rs. 2 to Rs. 2.5 lakhs. Reports of this scandal have splashed across front pages of many national papers as well. Why is nobody interested in finding out if such degrees have infiltrated into the faculties of our colleges and universities? In all likelihood, there would be many. This is not just about catching thieves, but of filtering out fake lecturers and professors from our higher education system so as to prevent the continual contamination of generation after generation of scholars from the state, year after year, till these fake teachers retire or die of old age. But going by Manipur standards, even if the CJM University has been derecognized and shut down, its administrative staff put behind bars, the degrees they sold would continue to command the cream of jobs and promotions in the state’s so called institutes of higher education. Yet, not only our government, but also our self-ordained champions of quality education amongst our civil society, remain tight-lipped.

Largely because of the fake, uncommitted teachers phenomenon, long nurtured by the state’s culture of selling government jobs to the highest bidders, thereby allowing many of the most unfit to garner jobs in all its institutions, including government schools, the latter have today become a dying breed, and if no emergency measures are taken to salvage at least some of them, they would soon become extinct. Until it became too glaring to continue to ignore, these schools had been hollow from inside for a decade or so already, many of them with more teachers then students enrolled. Yet the hollow claims of literacy campaigners continued to boast of the government schools-population ratio as an alibi that Manipur is one of the literate states in India.

This picture is ridiculously true of various other government schemes, including those sponsored by the Union government, as well. Take the case of the Integrated Child Development Service, ICDS. Though funds for the project come from the Union, workers engaged by the scheme are on a routine basis not been paid for as long as a year. Where do all the money disappear on a continual basis, nobody has ever thought of seriously interrogating. Why? Statistics will also show, in many regions of the state, there are more Anganwadi centres than there are pre-school children to be tutored and fed. Whose interest is all these serving?

A few years ago, the state also witnessed well turned-out, super cops, donning fashionable RayBan goggles, zipping around in their official vehicles, breaking windshields, deflating tyres, reprimanding vehicle owners for unauthorised parking on the streets of the busy Paona and Thangal Bazaars. Probably, other than the tyres of the wrongly parked vehicles, the fake zeal of the super cops in question, also ended up deflated, for today these streets have once again become congested with illegally parked vehicles, and there is no space to even walk on them. Vehicle owners who had the windshields of their vehicles broken during the peak of this fake traffic policing zeal ought to come together and sue the police department for their losses, now that it is quite apparent their losses were for nothing. Furthermore, to accommodate the vehicles which would have sought parking spaces in the parking prohibited areas of the two streets, poor vendors from the parallel Naga Mapal road were evicted to convert the space into parking areas. The sufferings and sacrifices of those vendors, supposedly for the greater public good, too have been made to come to nought. Why is our government so callous about reducing its own rule of law into a farce?

The ironic jab quoted in the beginning of this article, seem also almost literal when we take a look at the Manipur University. University building seems indeed to be often equated with university building in the state. After the Central takeover of this long time state university, its physical infrastructure has been growing in leaps and bounds. Those who do not visit the university too often are left amazed every time they do at the rate at which new buildings sprout and grow, seemingly out of nowhere. Salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff have also taken quantum leap ever since. What remains missing however are shining scholarships that would set the university apart and give it a sparkle nobody in the academic world in the country, and eventually abroad, would miss. Sadly, the growth in this area remains stunted and not at all reciprocal to the growth of buildings and salaries. We hope a balance comes about in this regard sooner than later.

Another sad development is that of the threat by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur, ATSUM, of an agitation with regards to the administration of the newly instituted Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, Manipur. Although there is nothing fake about the concerns expressed or the inability of the authorities to address these concerns adequately, we do hope sense prevails and the university is allowed to come up and shine in the coming years. Many of the troubles were anticipated. The Imphal Free Press had carried articles and editorials anticipating this kind of problem even when the Manipur University was made into a Central University nearly a decade ago. Indeed, true to expectations, tribal students’ bodies did complain that the university Manipur University, after its takeover by the Centre has not improved but depleted the number of tribal academicians in the university faculties. They also pointed out that even before the Central takeover, tribals were already poorly represented in the various faculties of the university. Among many other inferences, one thing is more than evident from these observations – the Manipur government’s reservation policy may or may not be adequate, but it is more liberal than that of the Central government. While the state reservation policy for Scheduled Tribes is 33 percent, the national reservation percentage for S/T is about 7 percent. As central universities, jobs at both MU and IGNTU would have to be open to the entire nation, more than a state university would. This being the case, it can almost be summed up that the present trouble in the IGNTU, Manipur is driven by a similar angst as the one that agitated MU.

A serious stock taking is called for into the allegation of poor representation of tribals, or at least not to the extent deemed as proportionate by the agitators, in the MU as well now in the IGNTU. Two things need to be established first and foremost. One, how accurate are the allegations? The second query would follow only if the answer to the first is in the affirmative, and this pertains to how and why this has happened. Is this scenario the result of any failure on the part of the government’s reservation policy? Or is it a case of shortfall of qualified tribal candidates for these jobs? Are these not a preferred job choice for the cream of tribal job seekers? Depending on honest answers to them would also come the hints at how rectifications can be sought.

Two of these last queries can be treated as factors of each others. If jobs in academics are not preferred by the cream of tribal job seekers, then there obviously would be the possibility of a shortfall of candidates from this section of the society possessing the requisite aptitude and qualification for these jobs. As for instance, the best of tribal candidates could be opting for the civil services, both of the state and the Union, so that there are not enough from this creamy layer left to contest for university jobs. And like it or not, jobs in academics are meant for this creamy layer. It is a rigorous field which no serious job seekers can with confidence say is something they keep in reserve as a second choice in case they are unable to make it to their dream jobs. To put it another way, if the best do not opt for it, too bad, this is not a job for the second rung. As in the case of jobs in the civil services, a candidate first of all has to be above average, have the aptitude for the job, and above all want the job from the time he or she becomes career conscious.

Certain jobs must have absolute qualifying standards too, and academics is one such. If this is the cause behind the discrepancies in representation that the students’ body point out, it would again only be fair for them to rethink the strike it plans. In the meantime, the state government could explore possibilities of making the Central government consider rectifying the reservation policy of Central universities located in different states, to suit the peculiar demography and social conditions in the these states.

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