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Monday, February 29, 2016

Budget 2016 for Higher Education

We eagerly await this day. While the government works 365 days and announcements are made every day of plans and proposals and decisions, but a fairly significant number of them are announced in the budget speech. Also, while most other decisions of the government are discussed openly prior to them being announced, the budget announcements are somehow considered state secrets, and therefore, we don't have any inkling for many of them.

While I have generic interest in economy, my primary interest these days is finding out what is in store for higher education.

Let me start with what I consider as the most crucial announcement for higher education.

61. It is our commitment to empower Higher Educational Institutions to help them become world class teaching and research institutions. An enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to ten public and ten private institutions to emerge as world-class Teaching and Research Institutions. This will enhance affordable access to high quality education for ordinary Indians. A detailed scheme will be formulated.

This is important because of the realization that it verbalizes. That the regulatory architecture today does not support or empower rather hinder the higher educational institutions to become high quality. The institutions in India who provide high quality education do so not because of regulations, but in spite of them. UGC and AICTE can only think of specifying minimum standards through force, which end up becoming maximum standards for many educational institutions to achieve. UGC and AICTE do not understand that by having so much regulation, they are letting these institutions off without any accountability, since they simply have to follow UGC/AICTE regulations.

The second important aspect of this statement is that the government expects private institutions to emerge as world class institutions. Again, it is an important statement since for all these years, we have heard only one thing from regulatory bodies as well as from the government - that the private sector is poor quality, notwithstanding the fact that some private sector institutions like BITS Pilani and IIIT Hyderabad are outstanding in every sense of the word, and a large number of government institutions are really bad in quality. That narrative has been balanced to some extent. That most of the higher education happens in private sector is a reason enough to find ways to support private sector, and I am glad that a beginning is being made.

Of course, the devil is in the detail. How will these institutions be selected. What kind of regulatory support will be given to them. How will that support be worked out so that other institutions don't go to court demanding the same treatment to them. (And I hope, if the differential regulatory mechanism does help these 20 institutions, we will then not limit ourselves to just these 20, but could be more, many more.) Let this be an experiment in education regulation.

62. We have decided to set up a Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) with an initial capital base of `1,000 crores. The HEFA will be a not-for-profit organization that will leverage funds from the market and supplement them with donations and CSR funds. These funds will be used to finance improvement in infrastructure in our top institutions and will be serviced through internal accruals.

Are these top institutions same as the 20 in previous announcement. I hope not. I am hoping that this will lead to educational institutions getting access to loans cheaper than what banks would have given otherwise. Also, banks have not been giving long-term loans to educational institutions. They require payment in small number of years, which is not possible unless the fees charged are very high. This body, hopefully, will give loans on long-term basis. This should allow for improvement in infrastructure. Those pieces of infrastructure where there is a clear internal accrual like hostel would be easy to fund through this. But, of course, it is extremely important that loans are given only to worthy institutions. This body should not be stuck with bad loans.

63. To help Students, Higher Education Institutions and Employers to access degree certificates of candidates, it is proposed to establish a Digital Depository for School Leaving Certificates, College Degrees, Academic Awards and Mark sheets, on the pattern of a Securities Depository. This will help validate their authenticity, safe storage and easy retrieval.

This is something that I have been hearing for a decade. Fake degrees and certificates is a serious problem, and as a result, the number of agencies who want these things to be verified is increasing by the day. For some institutions, the verification process has become a profit making venture, but for most institutions, it is a pain to reply to a large number of verification requests. But I don't know what has been the problem all these years. This seems like such a simple idea which should have been implemented long ago. But anyway, I hope this announcement will actually be implemented before the next budget speech.


There are several other announcements which are related to skill development and building companies. These are all good things, very much needed to take advantage of the so-called demography dividend, but I would consider them outside the scope of this blog.

On the other hand, I am very disappointed by the amount of money allotted to MHRD. The actual expenses in 2014-15 was Rs. 68,875 crores. The revised estimate for 2015-16 is Rs. 67, 586 crores, and the budget estimate for 2016-17 is Rs. 72,394 crores.

Notice that in 2014-15, the budget allocation was significantly higher but later the government slashed the budget.  In 2015-16, there is another reduction in budget. And in 2016-17, while nominally there is a 7% increase in allocation, we have to see whether we will see reduction in actual expenses that we have seen in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. Even if there is no reduction and the entire budgetary allocation is spent, a 7% increase will not even take care of inflation and 7th pay commission raises, not to mention the increased expenditure on setting up of new IITs/NITs and other institutions that have been announced in the last couple of years. There is also major expansion taking place in the university system. So if we look at the budget on a per-student or a per-teacher basis, there is a third continuous year of decline in funding of higher education.

This is extremely serious. I do understand that there is greater amount of resources being shared with states and the state governments are supposed to spend more on education, but even with that, it is going to pinch at least the central government institutions which do not get any funding from states. It will only put pressure on the government to allow higher tuition. IITs have already demanded that tuition be raised sharply, and with this budget, it would be difficult to not agree to those demands.

Institutions which can diversify their revenue sources will become stronger over a period of time. The budget for the last two years and the proposed one for the next year should convince every administrator in the higher education sector that the priority of this government are more in terms of skill development and they have to live with reduced support. Skill development is, of course, extremely important, and it is a much more important merit good than higher education is. So no complaints really, except that I believe that money could be found for both skill development and education. They should not be considered either-or. Institutions should become more aggressive in raising philanthropic funds, including from alumni as well as CSR funds from industry.

Overall a mixed bag. A couple of exciting announcements and I hope the details will be worked out soon. The budget on the other hand is much less than what was expected.

Added Later:
I have been told that though the overall increase in the MHRD budget is minuscule, the increase in higher education budget is good, while the budget for school education has been cut.
I would request readers to put such information as comment and don't be shy. But, of course, if you don't want to write on the blog, I will post important information that I receive on email.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Murty Classical Library: Petition to Remove General Editor

As per this news report, a group of 132 eminent Indian academicians, including many well-known Sanskrit scholars, have expressed strong reservations regarding Columbian University Professor Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of philology presiding over the historical project of Murthy Classical library as the general editor.

As the news report further informs us, the Murty Classical Library of India was established by Mr. Rohan Murthy, with an aim to publish modern English translations of classical Indian works present in various Indian languages.
The news report carries the entire letter verbatim.

I find this letter to be amusing. First of all, why address this to Mr. NRN Murthy. I am sure as a father he has some influence over Mr. Rohan Murthy, but why not just talk to Mr. Rohan Murthy first, before trying to use his father's influence over him.

Second, I have no idea about Prof. Pollock, and he may well be anti-South Asia in some respects. If his appointment was protested right in the beginning, it would have made sense to me. However, if he has already been there for more than a year, then the criticism should be on the basis of his work in this library. Many books have been translated and published. Point out some bias in those translations. It would strengthen your case.
But have they read any of the works produced by Murty Classical Library of India. Well, they don't seem to have read the speech that they have quoted in the letter that they have signed. They have given two examples of the "views" of Prof. Pollock which are not charitable to South Asian knowledge. One of the example is a 1985 paper. From the paper they conclude, "He sees all shastras as flawed because he finds them frozen in Vedic metaphysics, which he considers irrational and a source of social oppression." But note that they have not quoted anything from the paper to show that indeed the paper had that conclusion. The second example is from a 2012 speech, and they quote from the speech:
 “Are there any decision makers, as they refer to themselves, at universities and foundations who would not agree that, in the cognitive sweepstakes of human history, Western knowledge has won and South Asian knowledge has lost?  …That, accordingly, the South Asian knowledge South Asians themselves have produced can no longer be held to have any significant consequences for the future of the human species?”
Surely this sounds negative. But I wish these worthy academicians had read the entire speech (I have read it, and I know what he is talking about), or even just the complete paragraph in which these lines appear. This is what appears in the same paragraph before these lines:
"in the eyes of those who have never crossed the threshold of the [South Asian] Institute, ... the value of South Asians' own knowledge of the world, .... is effectively a null set."

So in the lines above, he is not talking about his own views, but only pointing out that most South Asian Studies departments other than the one at Hiedelberg University (where this speech was given) have considered South Asian knowledge as useless.

Later in the speech, he offers his own views of South Asian knowledge:

"The now widely discredited knowledge I have referred to [above], it bears repeating, is the accumulated labor of millennia of human consciousness, which we cannot lightly toss in the trash. To do so would be to enter willing into a species-wide state of Alzheimer's, a state hardly less destructive on the grand scale than it is on the personal. I have been privileged to live my life amid this body of thought, and I have glimpsed,or thought I have glimpsed, a vast range of things I would otherwise never have known: relationships of culture and power, for example, that were nothing like those we know in the contemporary world of nationalism and imperialism; forms of vernacular life, such as language ideologies, that constituted, not a compulsion driven by ethnicity, but an accommodation to, literally, the particular ecologies of particular places; a cosmopolitanism that was voluntary rather than compulsory (like, say, Romanization), ethnicities that were fluid (if they existed at all), universalism that managed to co-exist with particularism."

Another quote from the same speech:

"It has declared by the careful cultivation of many of South Asia's literary languages that the region, by its three millennia of continuous, multilingual textual production, has made perhaps the most luminous literary contribution to world civilization. And this is just to touch the top of the very deep proverbial iceberg."

So, out of two examples they have given, one is clearly showing that he holds the South Asian knowledge in very high esteem, and the other example, they have not quoted. So the case that Prof. Pollock is negatively pre-disposed towards South Asian (or Indian) knowledge is rather weak. Again, I do not know Prof. Pollock and I am not a researcher in this area. So I am not able to say about him with any authority. May be there are other works of Prof. Pollock which "prove" his antipathy towards Indian knowledge. But then these 132 persons chose to sign on something and that certainly appears to be quoted out of context.

Signatories also make the argument that he is not the right person because he is not politically neutral. Aren't most of us political animals. Didn't these 132 people vote in any elections so far. The point should not be that someone has political leanings. Only when the political leaning affects the impartial judgment and introduces a bias that it becomes a problem. So the right thing to do should be to show that the work done so far (and many texts have already been translated and published by the Murty Library) has biases. It is important to note that no such bias has been pointed out.

Finally, the organizations that these 132 academicians represent have huge resources, much more than what Murthy Classical Library has, and these organizations keep getting large grants from the government year after year and have been getting for decades. Why worry about a foreigner. Take up this task yourself. Do a better job. Go beyond Murty Library. They are translating only 500 texts. You should translate many more. They are translating only to English. You should do translations into all Indian languages. They are translating only really old texts. You should translate classics of more recent origins also.

If these academicians can do a far better job, then the bias of any foreigner would not matter. Also note that the government usually is very supportive of any efforts to make Indian culture and knowledge accessible to all Indians. So money is not likely to be an issue. I think collectively, the Indian institutions can do a far more comprehensive and a better quality job than what a venture funded by a single person can do. Let us do that instead of complaining about an editor.

To think that a small venture can have a huge negative impact on our culture is paranoia. Most of the popular texts (like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Gita) are available in both Indian translations and foreign translations, and most people don't care for foreign translations. So if we have good quality Indian translations for these 500 books also, there is no reason to believe that people will read foreign translations.

Another rebuttal found here by Professor Dominik Wujastyk.
An article in The Wire that explores what the petition is really about.
Another article in The Quint on what the row is about: DeQoded: What the Sheldon Pollock Row Is Really About
An editorial in Indian Express: It's politics, stupid:  The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards - See more at:
Article in Live Mint: Who is Sheldon Pollock
Statement from the Indian Writers Forum on Sheldon Pollock
Reporting in Make in India and remove Sheldon Pollock from Murty Classical Library demand 132 intellectuals
An article in Hindustan Times: Pollock-Murty Classical Library issue: Indian experts back Canadian prof.

Another blog: Why Sheldon Pollock
An article in Telegraph: Scholarly reply to Swadeshi - Citing JNU, academics target leader of landmark project
Response by Mr. Rohan Murthy in this Huffington Post article:  Rohan Murty has a brilliant response to those seeking Sheldon Pollock's removal
An article in asking both sides to avoid polemics:  Polemics and paranoia over scholarship: Why the right-wing should not target Western scholars
A video on Watch Sheldon Pollock answering his own question, 'What is Indian knowledge good for?
The quote from 2012 speech has been removed from the petition after this blog was published. But one can judge the ethics of the organizers of this petition by the fact that even though it changes the petition substantially, they continue to claim that all 132 are signatories of this new petition.
I am told that at least one person has withdrawn his signature from the list of 132, and some more are in the process of doing so. I hope that many more signatories would consider withdrawing their names.
I see that Prof. Ramasubramanian is no longer the author of the petition. Prof. Ganesh Ramakrishnan is. I am hearing from my friends that he says that he was made author without his consent (though he largely agrees with the issue, I am told). I am trying to get exact status of what exactly has happened.
Another article in Telegraph. A very interesting quote from the article:
In January 2015, while commenting on the Murty Classic Library project, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a poet and a professor who retired from the University of Allahabad, had told The New York Times: "Everyone here will praise this library and talk about the glorious civilisation it represents. But then Indians will wake up and realise they've done very little to preserve or translate their own texts."
Interesting not for what Prof. Mehrotra said, but what he did not say, and I may extend that to say this, "When certain Indians realize that they have done very little, they will stop supporting this project."
It has been pointed out on my facebook discussion that this debate has led to some individuals (including Mr. Rajiv Malhotra) to do a parallel effort. That would be a fitting result of this debate. Instead of acrimony, if we can have more scholarship, everybody gains. Here is the link to the initial announcement:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Railway Budget 2016

I eagerly await Railway Budget every year. Though I keep telling myself, Railways does not deserve a separate budget, but the old colonial ritual continues and frankly, I am not complaining by the extra attention Railways get as a result in the parliament.

This year, the expectations were huge. Mr. Prabhu has been one of the few Railway Ministers who has been working hard behind the scenes and not trying to take credit for all populist decisions. Indeed many of the decisions of Railways under his leadership has been anything but popular. While we, the railfans, have criticized some of his decisions, but mostly, we have recognized that he is looking at the medium to long term revival of Indian Railways. We were hoping he will share with us his vision on how to take the huge transporter forward, and he has not disappointed us. To be more precise, he has many great points in his speech, though we have seen that sometimes the devil is in the details.

First, the disappointments. The operating ratio is projected to be 92, which is terrible. Yes, it is partly due to 7th pay commission. But any which way you look at it, this really sucks. And we know historically that the final ratio is worse than what one projects in the budget. If this is the best you could do, why did you not raise fares. Several good intentioned Railway ministers in the past have talked about increasing the non-tariff revenues, but it has never been realized. You can't increase the cost of food any more than you can increase the fares. You can't increase the cost of retiring rooms and in any case, that is hardly any income. You can't have too many advertisements on the coaches without people crying foul. Every Railway minister has talked about exploiting space around stations in the big cities. Hasn't happened and there are reasons for that. So, I am convinced that 92 will only get worse, but even if it doesn't, it is terrible to begin with.

I know with Diesel costs being significantly lower, it was difficult to increase fares. And a lot has already been done in the last few months outside the budget - increase in cancellation charges, more Tatkal seats, more dynamic pricing seats, etc. Even this time, my friends in Railways tell me that the plan is to increase the number of Tatkal seats even more and run more and more trains on dynamic pricing. But I think it was important to also raise the base fares. And this time, it could have been sold politically by arguing that he has proposed so many improvements in passenger services.

The second disappointment was the announcement that NAIR will be converted to first Railway University. The earlier announcement was for setting up only one Railway University, in Vadodara, and it was said that NAIR campus will be temporary home before they can build a campus elsewhere. Today's announcement is faulty on two counts. One, converting a purely training place to a university indicates that perhaps Railways is not emphasizing the research and development aspect. There is such a huge need to do R&D in railway related topics in the country, and one was really hoping that Railway University will take the lead. The second issue is that the announcement indicates that in future, Railways might want to convert their other training centers into universities. I think there is a space for both training on one hand, and education and R&D on the other. To top it all, there is no announcement on when it will start and what will be the structure of the university.

I am happy to see a reference to Vikalp in the speech and an announcement that alternate train accommodation in specific trains will be provided. I take it as that in future, when I make a waitlisted booking, it would be possible to specify which is the alternate train I would like to consider. This is what I had said in my earlier blog about Vikalp that without allowing specific alternative train, it is really of very little use. Railways seem to have figured that Vikalp wasn't a big success.

Monetizing soft assets is great, as is monetizing infrastructure, and all other "hard" assets. He specifically mentions in his speech that privacy of the passengers will be protected, but I remain concerned about that. I hope they will only "sell" statistical data. But the comment about their allowing free access to enquiry is being exploited by other private players displayed a lack of understanding of the issues. What stops Indian Railways to come up with a site better than erail or railinfo, etc.

The overdrive to do electrification was a bit disappointing. If we have been doing electrification at a slower pace, it is usually due to a strong rivalry between pro-electric and pro-diesel lobbies. And both lobbies have their strong arguments. Most of the trunk routes (both for passengers as well as for goods traffic) have been electrified, and it is not obvious whether in the remaining system, electrification is so profitable an investment compared to other needs like doubling or improving signaling and communication.

Booking of retiring rooms on an hourly basis is a great idea and something that I have written about in the past. (I have argued that Railways has the strongest position in overnight travel market. And if Railways can provide a clean place to quickly get ready in the morning without having to pay for a full day's rental, it can fend off competition with other modes - both air, and the sleeper buses.) Of course, devil is in the details. How will this work. Can I book a specific hour in advance. If yes, what happens when the train is late. If no, what happens when several people queue up in the morning. Who gets the room first. I hope they will also create sufficient capacity or even get into a deal with nearby hotels to offer the service to a larger customer base.

The biggest announcement to me was an attempt to reorganize Railway Board. It has been talked about for as long as I remember, a few decades at the very least, but inter-cadre rivalries within Railways are difficult to handle. I do hope that we can have a restructuring done at the top level to make it more responsive to markets and customers, and Mr. Prabhu is best placed to carry it out. Not only he has the credibility and intellect, but also the trust of the PMO.

There were other announcements which have been made in the past one year but had been consolidated in the budget speech. The partnership with states to invest part of the cost in building infrastructure. Raising of funds from LIC and market in general, I hope all of it is not from government controlled sources, which as we know can be controlled, and have resulted in huge NPAs for our nationalized banks. PPP model for a lot of investments. Things which have been said again and again, but there appears to be hope that Railways now understand how to convert these intentions into successful plans.

The best part of the budget was kept for the last. I am not sure how many would appreciate the import of the seven missions, but they really have the potential of changing the face of transportation in India. Some of them are more ambitious than what seem possible in today's environment, but not impossible goals, and that is how these things should be. You should exert the pressure on the work force to do slight beyond what seemed the limit of possibility.

I don't know why all the great announcements were made at the end, but I am also very excited about the data analysis part and having a 50 crore fund to support innovations and start ups. I hope he will continue to encourage Indian Railways to interact with academia as he has done in the past year.

Overall, a lot of promise, a lot of new ideas, a lot of initiatives, a lot of hope.