Epicureanism fever

Not content with exhibiting total indifference to rural India where the great majority of incrementally suicidal farmers of this reportedly socialist republic live in abject poverty and misery, the ruling establishment which calls the shots in New Delhi and the state capitals has embarked on an orgy of conspicuous consumption which is giving economic liberalisation a bad name. Politicians criss-crossing the country in private jets and helicopters because they can’t be bothered with the mundane task of ensuring that roads are in good repair is de rigueur in post-liberalisation India. And the new genre of the nation’s equally high-flying businessmen pride themselves on partying as hard as they work — and making sure everyone knows it.

Unfortunately the media, particularly the press which following the continuous dumbing down of the country’s universities has emerged as the voice of the intelligentsia, is also infected with the new malaise of epicureanism which finds its most glaring manifestation in the page three phenomenon. While it’s well-known that the mighty Times of India has gone the whole hog with its city supplements in worshipping mammon at the altar of conspicuous consumption with unrestrained abandon, epicurean fever seems to have infected the entire fourth estate.

For instance in the national capital, media tycoon Aroon Purie’s latest contribution to the public good is Spice, a supplement of the best-selling weekly India Today which is a wholly unapologetic panegyric to over-the-top consumption. The first issue of Spice features a six page lifestyle report on a race-horse breeder who — good for him — has prospered so mightily from this arcane leisure business that he owns a six-door Mercedes limousine, private helicopter, jet, a stable of race horses, vintage cars and plush homes in Bombay and Pune which would boggle the spaced-out minds of India’s new genre of television soap opera producers. And Spice follows Purie’s travel magazine India Today Plus which lavishly features exotic holiday destinations so expensive that it hurts to read the prices. Other publishers have gleefully jumped on the glamour and glitz bandwagon which is rolling merrily along with nary a nod to the huge majority struggling with urban blight and rural penury.

Not that the good life is bad per se. But one would have thought that media ‘intellectuals’ would be only too aware that in developing nations where the great majority eke out miserable lives in abject poverty, celebrating effete epicureanism so blatantly isn’t good form.

But then maybe we’re talking about old world intellectuals. Not the new variety with less style and lesser substance.

Name and shame

There is a curious unwritten social contract within the ruling establishment which has mismanaged India for the past half century since independence. It has to do with the marked reluctance of establishment worthies to out anti-socials who corrode the system and harm the public interest. Even India’s much-hyped independent media is usually unwilling to name names and identify establishment malfeasants. This is not because libel and defamation laws of the country are stringent — in fact they are dysfunctional.

This curious national trait is practised splendidly by the Delhi-based business consultant, social commentator and self-styled educationist Gurcharan Das who writes an often engaging fortnightly column for the Sunday Times (of India). In his column of June 19, Das lamented the fate of a "distinguished friend who is the president of a prestigious American university that has produced several Nobel laureates" who had proposed to establish a branch campus of the American varsity in India so that "Indians could acquire his university’s degree at a fourth of the cost in America".

According to Das, two years of spadework done by this well-intentioned academic proved futile because the Association of Indian Universities never replied to his letters, and the University Grants Commission and HRD ministry "entangled them in miles of red tape". Worse, he writes, a meeting with the All India Council for Technical Education "resulted in a demand for a huge bribe".

These are serious allegations in a matter of great public importance. But unfortunately not a single name — including that of the distinguished academic — is mentioned. Why this willingness to strike but not wound? Surely it’s in the public interest that the anti-socials who have squelched the proposal and blighted the future of thousands of students who would have enrolled in this high-potential branch campus are sacked from their positions of authority?

Unfortunately such pusillanimity comes easily to Das who wields considerable influence, if not power, within the closed circle Delhi establishment. A few years ago in his best-seller book India Unbound, Das a former CEO of a pharma company, recounted in considerable detail the sins of omission and commission of a government official who had denied millions of citizens life-saving drugs and formulations. This malfeasant was also unidentified. A comment to this effect in an EducationWorld book review invited the wrath of Das upon this unappreciated publication. But such breast-beating journalism is of limited utility. If you really want to shame, you must name!

Sex education phobia

The draft National Curriculum Framework 2005 is a closely printed concisely written compendium which proposes radical and far-reaching curricular changes to revamp India’s crumbling school system. Its recommendations, the labour of love of 21 focus committees and a high-powered 35 member national steering committee, are spread over 112 pages with an estimated 70,000 words. But for Kiran Pal Singh minister for basic education in the government of Uttar Pradesh, the nation’s most populous (166 million) and arguably most politically important state, NCF 2005 is anathema.

Because according to the hon’ble minister the steering committee has recommended making sex education part of the school curriculum. And according to Pal "knowledge about the condom will pollute young minds". However, a careful reading of the draft NCF 2005 reveals only these offending words: "Several national health programmes like Reproductive Health and the Child, HIV Aids, tuberculosis and mental health have been targeting children as a focus group with prevention in view. These demands on children need to be integrated into existing curricular activities…"

This innocuous proposal has been interpreted by the minister as a recommendation to introduce sex studies at the basic level in schools. At the abortive meeting of NCERT and CABE called in early May to discuss the NCF 2005 draft (see cover story), Pal voiced his objection to the proposal quoted above. "We will have another round of meetings before the issue is settled but Uttar Pradesh has already said no to the proposal of sex education," says the minister.

Between 1991 and 2001, UP added 34.1 million to its population — a number greater than the entire population of Canada.