Ill-advised candidacy

For mysterious reasons the newest poster boy of the Indian establishment and the Delhi durbar in particular is Shashi Tharoor, the former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, who is now back in India after having been sacked by the newly elected UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the cheerful former foreign minister of South Korea. Despite Tharoor being closely associated with the administration of former secretary-general Kofi Annan whose term ended last December under a cloud, following revelations that his son was involved in some unsavoury shenanigans connected with the UN’s food-for-oil programme in Iraq (which also cut short the career of India’s former foreign minister Natwar Singh), the Congress-led UPA government and the PMO (prime minister’s office) ill-advisedly supported Tharoor’s candidature for the post of secretary-general in opposition to Moon, who had the support of all permanent members of the Security Council. In the process by actively supporting the candidacy of Tharoor, a lightweight career diplomat with the UN who did little of note during his several decades with the UN except pen some forgettable novels, New Delhi severely damaged its chances of being accepted as a permanent member of the Security Council, an unwarranted desideratum upon which the Indian establishment has set its heart.

Now back in India, Tharoor is busy working his St. Stephen’s and Oxbridge connections with several Delhi-based media tycoons and planting stories about his imminent induction into the Union cabinet as foreign minister, a post which has been vacant for over six months following the unlamented resignation of Natwar Singh. The fact that he has spent little time in India during the past several decades and is a stranger to its political culture and processes, has not in the least deterred Tharoor or his champions in the metropolitan media.

Against this cumulative backdrop, political prudence and commonsense would dictate that Tharoor’s candidacy for the foreign ministry should be treated as an offer which must be refused, inspired media support notwithstanding.

In departure lounge

Policies are more important than personalities; the public interest must be accorded precedence over private preference; in governance the watchword must be the greater good of the greatest number. Such platitudes roll off the tongues of politicians and bureaucrats with practised ease. But in reality within the cosy club that constitutes the Indian establishment, there is an unspoken understanding that the convenience of members is given prime importance, the public interest be damned.

Proof of this gap between practice and precept is provided by the latest news that several meetings of the Union cabinet to discuss the vital issue of terms and conditions under which foreign universities will be allowed to offer education and qualifications in India have been repeatedly cancelled, because septuagenarian Union HRD minister Arjun Singh has been ailing for some time. In the meanwhile the proposals of several blue-chip American and British universities who are keen to offer their high quality study programmes either in collaboration with local partners or by way of establishing their own campuses in this country, have been kept hanging in the balance. Despite widespread awareness that there is a severe capacity shortage in higher education as a consequence of which Indian students fleeing abroad for tertiary education spend an estimated $ 4 billion (Rs.18,000 crore) per year, there is little concern that the best foreign varsities may lose interest if they are kept waiting indefinitely.

Moreover within the Union commerce ministry which is in favour of the red carpet being rolled out for foreign universities, there’s some suspicion that Arjun Singh’s reported illness is a ruse to put off cabinet discussion on the subject. As is well known, the lefty HRD minister is against the idea of easy entry for foreign universities into India. He is reportedly in favour of strict terms and conditions — ministry regulated tuition fees and syllabuses, reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs, the whole book. Never mind capacity constraints and the massive brain drain.

EW sources in Delhi suggest that sentimental rather than rational considerations are behind sufferance of this clearly date-expired minister by the council of ministers. But according to the latest reliable information, Singh’s time is up and he is likely to be persuaded to resign on health grounds very soon. And there is likely to be little lamentation because quite clearly, he has tarried too long.

Tragic vindication

The largest provision (Rs.38,250 crore) made in the alternative pro-education Union budget proposed by EducationWorld in our early February issue, was for the construction of lavatory/toilet blocks (at Rs.5 lakh each) in the 765,000 Central and state government primary schools countrywide. The argument advanced for this proposal was that failure to provide adequate toilet facilities is a prime cause of the high percentage of girl students in particular, opting out of the education system.

Given that public education is a low priority item not only on the agendas of the Central and state governments but also on the priority list of shining India’s uniquely selfish and self-absorbed middle class, this publication’s alternative budget story which drew a road map for the Centre to take the initiative to double annual expenditure on education, was greeted with sullen silence. The minimal feedback received (verbally), made snide allusions to over-budgeting for sanitation.

Regrettably the critical importance of providing toilet facilities for girl children was impacted on the public consciousness in tragic circumstances a few days after the February issue of EducationWorld hit the newsstands. Divya and Soundarya, both eight-year-old girl students of the Government Primary School in Bidadi (Bangalore), drowned when they were obliged to avail a stagnant sewage pool for toilet purposes. Subsequent investigations by the police indicated that the school’s two toilets — grossly inadequate for 400 children in the school, had been appropriated by teachers with students locked out. Now following a massive public outcry, the state government proposes to restart its forgotten Total Sanitation campaign which is likely to be forgotten once again when the storm blows over.  Hence the supply side recommendation of this publication.