Friday, November 20, 2015

05 Why government should keep running schools in muddle kingdom

The liberal economist tends to have little faith in muddle kingdom governance, and encourages it to get out of most sectors that can be better served by the private sector. Education is one of such sectors. Take a leading liberal right-of-muddle economist, Arvind Panagariya, who has been drafted by the Modi government to head the NITI Aayog or National Institution for Transforming India, the phoenix-like reincarnation of the Planning Commission (that itself has been consigned to the web archives). He advices that the state should, instead of trying to run government  schools for the masses, give cash vouchers so that each family can exercise its own choice among the schools available, both private and public (Panagariya, 2008). Presumably, this will also apply to institutes of higher learning, where the principle is urged of the beneficiary paying the full cost of education (or borrowing to pay back later), and of deregulation so that private entities (including foreign ones) can set up their own institutions as a commercial undertaking.

On the other hand, it is inconceivable that any popularly elected government is actually going to do some such thing. Indeed it is the same Modi government that has proceeded briskly to set up the additional IITs and IIMs and Central Universities and so on. There is no talk of government getting out of it, or of being less than competent in running the school system, and other hard headed liberalistic ideology.

Education has a certain almost spiritual connotation for the average citizen of muddle kingdom, where the Word is respected far beyond its material significance.  India has for centuries (or even, millennia) been known as a knowledge-based, even a knowledge-generating,  civilization. Of course the sciences developed in this civilization may not stand the test of modern western positive methods, but in its day and age, represented some fairly important achievements that contributed to the growth of world civilization. Works of erudition and creativity in mathematics, linguistics, materials, medicine, politics, fine arts, performing arts, aesthetics, philosophy, ethics, and so on still fascinate and instruct us; our religious, spiritual and ethical treatises, of course, have spread far and wide, at least in the east.

Another reason why the state sponsoring of school and college education is such a sensitive issue is that sharing of knowledge was restricted in that civilization, or rather denied to large sections of the people. A huge effort is under way to change this situation, and the state has a fundamental duty to actively sponsor this process on the ground. Any attempt to wriggle out of this responsibility, under the good intention of conforming to the economic efficiency principles of neo-liberal economic ideology, may well be misinterpreted as a backhanded attempt to cheat the traditionally discriminated-against of their constitutional rights.

Many of us who are senior citizens now, must surely have availed of the benefits of government educational facilities at different levels. In my own case, I had short stints in missionary schools, but longer stints at the government ‘model’ schools at Trivandrum and Trichur in Kerala, and in the Central School at Madras (I am using all old names to show my vintage and indicate the period this refers to!). It may be that one was fortunate to be in Kerala since this state apparently invested more and earlier on in public education and health, see Pulapre Balakrihnan’s recent article in the EPW of 10 January 2015,  http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2015_50/2/Kerala_and_the_Rest_of_India.pdf. I then did a bachelor’s degree in a Jesuit college, but thereafter enjoyed the benefit of one of the IITs for my Master’s. I think the tuition and hostel fees were pretty low at that time (and even today, government institutions charge much less than the private). Indeed private schools are much costlier than getting a post-graduate degree in today’s dispensation. Now all of us, who got our education and our fantastic degrees from these modest government facilities, find ourselves so well-off that we can grandly declare them redundant.

We should not ignore the fact, however, that here are hundreds of millions who are still just entering the whole process of becoming educated, and most of them will not be able to afford costly private institutions, however well equipped The same goes for many other public facilities, like mass transport, tourist facilities, hospitals, markets, postage and communications, and so on. Except for cell phones, perhaps, people do find government cheaper (if they can put up with the crowding, the ordinary or run-down infrastructure, and not so customer-friendly procedures of muddle kingdom). Most countries do still maintain the network of public (government) schools as a basic responsibility of the state. We can well imagine the howls of injured protest that will be set up by those upper middle-class people who glibly say that government should get out of services, if for example the police forces were to be withdrawn and citizens asked to arrange for their own security and regulation of traffic. That is, we are selective in the things we want government to do, and once we ourselves are not in need of a specific service, somehow it becomes easy to make it not a part of the government’s business, even when we ourselves have been beneficiaries and know that it has been done fairly effectively in the recent past. That way, big magnates would probably like to run their own little state on some island!

Notwithstanding the social obligation to run the a school system, there is objective evidence about the very poor performance of the students in the average government schools in the countryside. Far from conceding defeat and quitting the sector, the 12th Five Year Plan (we are not sure whether the plans are also scrapped along with the Planning Commission) has now turned the spotlight on improving the quality, now that the enrolment of children is close to a 100% in the elementary level. The 12th Plan document recounts in detail the various steps proposed to improve the curriculum, the mode of imparting education, improving physical infrastructure, teacher training and recruitment, and monitoring, evaluation and governance (among other things). Also on the cards is increased involvement of civil society, the corporate sector, local communities, and so on.

In the midst of all this, one factor that does not seem to have been considered is the working conditions of the teachers. There is a tendency to straightaway impute most of the responsibility for the bleak standards to teacher incompetence or indifference. Much is made of teacher absenteeism, for instance, and it is felt that until the local communities are made the boss of the teachers, this bad state will persist. The other side of this, however, is the need to deal with the teachers as an honourable profession, just like doctors or engineers. From impressions gathered, it would seem that there is a tendency to treat the teacher community as a source of ready manpower for all sorts of tasks: data collection, enumeration, census, elections, surveys, and so on. One wonders how many days of the year are occupied with such laborious tasks. Surely none of our better-off urban middle class youngsters would like to subject themselves to such treatment in the government school system: they would rather join private schools where there are no such onerous duties and no problem of transfers, either.

Another issue is that of multi-age multi-level single-teacher classrooms, which presumably are the ones portrayed in popular media where the sole teacher hangs up his umbrella, delegates the class to the older students, and disappears for the day. Obviously, there are better chances of teaching and learning getting done if there are a certain number of staff, a certain ‘minimum mass’ of manpower. One has to also understand that in muddle kingdom, where personal problems are always taking people away from their jobs, one has to carry at least, say, 20% more personnel than strictly required. It may even be worse: if one believes in the reality of the 20:80 rule, 20% of the personnel are actually carrying 80% of the load, so this implies that there are 4 underproductive members to each productive member of the staff! To make sure that those 20% highly productive, self-motivated, superior employees are available, the organization has to recruit some 4 to 5 times the number required! There is another principle called the rule of fives, where of 5 persons, 2 may be very competent, but 2 may be dead weight; only the person in the middle may have a chance of being motivated to better performance. In this scenario, to have 3 reasonably competent staff members, you need to enrol 5!

The complaint is frequently heard that government employees are not highly motivated or even capable of being enthused! We have to be a bit careful before jumping to such conclusions. My own experience in the forest service has been that basically, most people would like to have a sense of competence, a sense of self-worth and fulfilment, and this usually comes in large part from the main job or profession. There may be environmental factors, like the lack of recognition as a respected professional, absence of minimum mass, etc. as mentioned above, that are coming in the way of performance. Everybody appreciates a modicum of control and autonomy in doing their jobs, and perhaps teachers get the worst deal as they are sandwiched between demanding parents, recalcitrant students, uninteresting curriculums, and overbearing administrations. I feel the British colonials knew better than most administrators how to evoke a passionate involvement in the job among state employees; one method was to establish high professional standards and stick to them. In my own experience in the forest department, I found that the concept of a ‘service’ or ‘corps’, especially of uniformed personnel subjected to some sort of centralized training and building up of the ‘esprit de corps’ makes quite a difference. Perhaps some such thing can be tried for the teaching profession as well.

References
Balakrishnan, Pulapre. 2015. Kerala and the Rest of India. What We Can Learn from Each Other’s Development Experience.  Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. L No.2, 10 January 2015, pp.34-41. Accessed November 2015 at   http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2015_50/2/Kerala_and_the_Rest_of_India.pdf.


Panagariya, Arvind. 2008. India: The Emerging Giant. Oxford University Press.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

04 Myrdal’s advice on education – and our muddle kingdom response

Getting back to the thread of thought I started on Gunnar Myrdal’s magnum opus, Asian Drama (An Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations), I just finished most of the 700-page Volume III, which deals with Health and Education. Myrdal’s well-intentioned advice on education in India, and the quite contrary policy actually followed by the Indian state, illustrate nicely the muddle kingdom tendency to act in pragmatic ways in the face of (seemingly) theoretically sound suggestions.

Myrdal cites various statistics of education and literacy levels in India and other Asian countries soon after independence and the mid-century, and it is apparent how low in the line-up India figures, especially for girls and women. A common-sense (or common?) response would obviously be to throw the maximum feasible resources into expanding education at all levels, so that more and more of the population is covered by elementary and secondary education, the gap in girls’ school enrolment is rapidly bridged, and so on. Myrdal, however, as usual among experts, goes for the ‘counter-intuitive’ strategy of improving quality first (of the existing school set-up) and postponing expansion to a later stage. He goes so far as to declare that “It would appear more justifiable to halt the increase in, or even to contract, enrolment in secondary and tertiary schools”, to set right the “enormous amount of miseducation at these levels… caused not only by the scarcity of properly trained teachers and generally low quality standards, but by the wrong orientation of schooling” (Myrdal, Vol.III, p. 1816, italics in original). Similarly, he advices that higher education should take a back seat to primary and secondary. His argument is that current expenditure on low-quality education is unproductive, and a drag on development, and the school system should change from general education to more vocational and handwork (an attitude endorsed by Gandhiji as well, see Myrdal, p.1737).

That experts think alike is shown by similar recommendations in the famed, and similarly voluminous, Kothari Commission report on education which was issued in 1966 (NCERT, 1966, reprint 1970), which are also quoted by Myrdal since the Commission report was published first. These included new priorities in educational development (transformation first, qualitative improvement next, expansion last), selective admissions at the higher secondary and university stages (as against the current presumably serve-all-who-come policy?),  selective improvement of major universities, schools, etc. The interesting fact is that such strategic policy recommendations were not found acceptable at all (Naik, 1997, p.117 et seq.; see also Myrdal’s lament on the “determined resistance on the part of students, parents, and, frequently, teachers” on p.1817 of Vol.III). To the chagrin of experts, neither the exhortations of the Kothari Commission, nor Myrdal’s advice, seem to have found much favour in muddle kingdom. The eminent educationist, and also Secretary of the Kothari Commission, J.P.Naik, notes in despair that the in the “unequal struggle between education and political economy”, the priority to transformation and quality improvement over expansion was not accepted (Naik, 1997, p. vii). The Committee of MPs “threw it out completely and said that it would like to place greater emphasis on expansion, especially at the school stage” (ibid., p.118); and “it is still this policy which finds the largest support among political and official circles, among the general public, and even among a section of the academics who, by and large, accord a higher priority to qualitative improvement” (ibid). The experts could not convince the sceptics that there was a right type of expansion and a wrong type: for instance, “when we  said that every effort should be made to bring the children of the poor into schools (which was the desired type of expansion) and that the enrolments in secondary and university education from the urban and middle classes (which was the wrong type of expansion) should be cut down, the reaction was even more hostile. We were in fact called fools who try to educate those who do not come to school and do  not want to learn while we refuse to educate those who voluntarily come to schools and want to learn” (Naik, p.119). Even the eminent economic advisor, the late Dr. D.R.Gadgil, did not support the recommendation: any steps to eliminate any major waste resulting from unchecked expansion “must be done as part of a positive policy of spreading and equalizing educational opportunity and not through adopting a restrictive and regressive one” (Gadgil, Convocation address to Poona University, 1966; quoted in Naik, op cit, p.120).

So despite all the persuasion, India went ahead with expansion of secondary education and higher education, along with of course widening the coverage of primary education. Expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP is reported to have increased from 3.3 % in 2004-05 to over 4% in 2011-12 (Planning Commission, 12th Plan, Vol.III, p.47), State governments expenditure grew at 19.6% during the XI Plan, and Central spending at 25% per year. The breakup of total public expenditure on education is given as 43% for elementary, 25% for secondary, and 32% on higher education, but 50% of Central expenditure was on higher, 39% on elementary, and 12% on secondary, whereas 44% of State expenditure was on elementary and 30% on secondary school education,  (ibid.). Myrdal estimates that less than 50% of eligible children were enrolled in primary schools in India and Pakistan during 1960-61, against 90% in Malaya, 95% in Ceylon, 89% in the Philippines, 72% in Thailand; see Table 33-4 on p.1718, Vol.III of the Asian Drama). It isn’t till the 12th Plan document, when almost 100% enrolment is registered in the elementary school levels (admittedly with a steep fall thereafter at secondary and tertiary levels), that attention is turned to quality improvement, increasing attendance, reducing dropouts, improving skill levels and learning outcomes, and so on. There is however no talk of curtailing expansion at higher levels; in fact the 12th Plan aims at a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 90% at the secondary level, and 65% at the Senior Secondary level.

In the intervening years, India produces large numbers of graduates (but still low compared to the population), and many of them head to the developed countries. Here is where intellectuals again missed the long-term mechanism, as we all blamed the ‘brain-drain’ for impoverishing India of its intellectual manpower. But we didn’t really have adequate employment for the outstanding technical personnel the system produced. The strength of the Indian diaspora is now coming home to register, if not roost, in our reformed economy. India has always been strong on highly developed brainpower, and with the ramification of information technology into every nook and corner of modern living, our brain power is getting its due leverage.

The problem with single-stranded (‘hard’) strategies like Myrdal’s is that it does not take into account the multiple levels at which different parts of Indian society function: as the saying goes, from the stone age to the space age. The common understanding, the Muddle Kingdom perception, is that the advanced sections cannot be held in storage or abeyance while the masses of less developed sections catch up. All levels have to be developed simultaneously, and different groups, communities, regions or states may advance at different speeds, some spurred by the demonstration effect, some pulled up by positive support, reservations, and so on. The modern, post-socialist, liberal economy now looks like what the country was waiting for, to realize its potential. With rising aspirations and rising numbers of young citizens, the demand for higher quality education institutions is only growing, which is seen in the setting up of ever more numbers of central institutes for advanced learning like the IITs and IIMs, which should be making Myrdal turn in his Olympian grave. Obviously India’s muddle kingdom leaders have still not learnt the lesson Myrdal tried to teach!

This is not to say that there are no problems with the present state of education, whether at the school or college levels. But it is to recognize the long-run reasonableness of the muddle kingdom approach to planning, eschewing single-stranded or single-minded strategies as suggested by Myrdal and other experts, whose sage advice sounds quite odd today, and luckily was seen as so outlandish that even our muddle kingdom politicians, with all their faults, felt it best to ignore.

References
Myrdal, Gunnar. 1968. Asian Drama. An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Twentieth Century Fund, Inc. Reissued 1982, reprinted 2004, by Kalyani Publishers, New Delhi.

Naik, J.P. 1979, 1997. The Education Commission and After. A.P.H. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi. 2nd Edition, Indian Institute of Education, Pune, 1997. Accessed October 2015 at http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/JP-42.pdf

NCERT. 1966, 1970. Report of the Education Commission, 1964-66. National Council of Educational Research & Training. Ministry of Education, New Delhi. Reprint Edition, 1970. Accessed October 2015 at http://www.teindia.nic.in/files/reports/ccr/KC/KC_V1.pdf, …/KC_V2.pdf, …/KC_V3.pdf.


Planning Commission. 2012? Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017), Vol. III, Social Sectors. Government of India. New Delhi. Accessed October 2015 at http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/document-reports/XIIFYP_SocialSector.pdf, also at http://planningcommission.gov.in/plans/planrel/12thplan/pdf/12fyp_vol1.pdf, …/12fyp_vol2.pdf, …/12fyp_vol3.pdf

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

03 The (near) certainty of being mistaken

One of the great puzzles of human intellectual history is just how mistaken most eras have been in retrospect. But with all this, the human race rolls on and fulfils its destiny…

When my generation was in college (the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), one of the main pillars of our intellectual edifice was the perniciousness of the “brain drain”. Of course, “drain” theories of imperialism are well known and ubiquitous, and all our subsequent problems have been attributed uncritically to the selfishness of the colonial powers. But after independence, it was the drain of our technically qualified young persons that was held to be part of the neo-colonial conspiracy that was bleeding our intellectual manpower and damaging our development.

Today, of course, all this has been forgotten, and we realize that our techies abroad are a great resource, an asset. These Indians have built modern, innovative enterprises abroad, and we are now hoping to rope them in and use their expertise, their entrepreneurial skills, their networks, their investment, in accelerating our own climb out of the poverty trap.

Not just technically qualified persons, but even artisans and other workers have been going abroad, to the Gulf countries, for instance, and wherever there has been demand for skilled manpower. Their remittances have also helped our own growth and development.

A number of beliefs of that era – when young persons ran off to join the Naxalite movement in West Bengal (some never came back) – are today being stood on their head. Thus, the population increase itself is no longer seen as  such a serious burden, instead we talk today of the “demographic dividend”, an idea expanded and explained by Nandan Nilekani, e.g. in his book Imagining India (revised edition, 2009, pp. 44 onwards). The developed world (the West and Japan), and even certain developing countries like China that undertook aggressive population control measures, are going to face a problem of declining proportions of young age classes, due to low rates of population growth for the past decades. They will have lesser and lesser proportions of earning, working populations and increasing proportions of old people to be looked after, who will be requiring pensions, social security, and other support, or will just be drawing down their savings. These countries will have to find novel ways to increase the productive population – perhaps by immigration, perhaps by exporting much of the non-contact work abroad (wherever possible). Countries like India, it is argued, stand to gain from this transfer of work, over and above the direct benefits from emigration of their surplus young workers to the developed countries. With India’s large base of technically trained manpower, this has enabled transfer of relatively high-end processes to centres in India, especially since the information and communication technology revolution. This is the essence of the “demographic dividend” so commonly talked about.

A couple of caveats are order here: one is that the huge population of young people will yield a “dividend” only if they are trained and competent enough to take up the opportunities presented by an ageing but rich west. Even domestically, the affluence of the upwardly mobile middle classes will provide jobs to the uneducated or poorly skilled rural masses only to an extent. So the burgeoning population of young people may well turn out to be a demographic time-bomb, if we are unsuccessful in improving their skills and abilities.

The other caution is that the job opportunities are going to be in new sorts of activities in the modern sector, rather than in the traditional rural occupations like agriculture. In other words, along with the demographic opportunity comes a requirement for openness, flexibility, and a lowering of our traditional xenophobic barriers. Within the country, the social and cultural barriers to mobility and cooperation between people of different backgrounds, languages, and communities will also have to be brought down. The gaps in education and employability will also have to be filled resolutely in the next generation if the large young cohorts are not to become a social liability.

The advantage enjoyed by India in the general opening up of the international economy and in the information technology revolution, suggests yet another area in which our past assessment has proven to be mistaken: that is, the support given to higher education, as against primary education. Of course, this does not excuse the failure to provide universal primary education and to ensure that there is no illiteracy; however, many outside experts used to advice us to cut down on university education, which (they said) was only producing an army of jobless ‘clerks’, and to focus on universalizing primary education. Gunnar Myrdal, himself, repeats this homily in his Asian Drama, and even goes to the extent of suggesting a freeze on expansion of the school system, even of primary enrolment, on the argument that quality has to be first ensured to obviate waste of scarce funds on schooling that produced only failures. Myrdal also has many good things to say about Gandhiji’s concept and model of “basic” education, learning by manual work rather than book learning, especially to break down caste barriers and increase the respect for manual labour (and by implication, respect for labourers).

Independent India was led of course, not by Gandhians, but by technocrats, and resolutely turned her face away from the siren call of such utopian ideas. And the middle classes marched enthusiastically into middle schools, into higher secondary schools, into degree colleges, and into institutes of technology, and went on to provide the base for the astonishing success we have seen of Indians on the modern world stage. The IT world seems to have been made especially for Indians, almost as if this was what we had been waiting for. What Myrdal and others of his background may have missed, is the ground reality that India has been always a thought- and knowledge-based civilization, and in a way it may be said has been waiting for the “barbarian” west to catch up all these centuries. It is another matter that only a small percentage of the entire population may have been a part of this higher culture, and it is our duty to see to it that the rest of our own population also catches up; but even this minority constitutes a large national mass, and the perceived elitist nature of our ‘high’ culture is no argument to call for the dumbing-down of the whole society. We should continue to support the excellence of thought and intellectual effort in the higher levels of the educational system, while resolutely expanding the base.

Another example of how mistaken we have been is afforded by our socialist ideals of our youth (I am referring to the age cohorts that were in the universities around the 1960s and 70s). One of the dearly-held tenets was the need for self-sufficiency, self-dependence, or even a form of autarky in the economy, that is we produce everything we consume, and we consume nothing that we do not produce ourselves. As Neelekani and other pioneers in the IT world have written, this imposed enormous barriers to importing the simplest of equipment and components, or foreign exchange for travel, even up to the mid-80s, which kept us from advancing technologically. It was only after the mid-80s that this started getting liberalized, thanks probably to Rajiv Gandhi. I myself remember that when I returned to India in 1989 after three years in the UK, I carted things like a PC, a VCR and a colour television set (these being almost obligatory for returning Indians), only to find even more up-to-date models were already available in the market for more or less the same price (with customs duties etc.).

Another favourite dictum was that the rural population has to be kept in the villages, and migration to towns prevented by creating more and more jobs in the rural areas. Gunnar Myrdal has much to say about what the rural children should be educated for. There are still such arguments heard every day (especially in respect of “tribals”), but the growing reality is either that young people flock to the towns, or that the urban areas themselves are expanding and swallowing up villages. Some states like Kerala are one continuous semi-urban landscape, and no doubt parts of Tamilnadu, Punjab and Haryana also are getting there.

Yet another massive mental pothole is about language. Every day one or the other politician or general busybody inveigles (in English) against English, and demands that education should be in the mother tongue. Even Myrdal talks about the heavy linguistic load on the children of India. However, the people want English, they want bookish education and drilling, they want multiple language competencies. Of course this does not please the theoreticians, and even Myrdal in exasperation talks about the “determined resistance on the part of students, parents, and, frequently, teachers”  to the types of reform that the educational experts advocate (Asian Drama, Vol.III, Chapter 33, p.1817 in my edition). Myrdal specifically upbraids the south Asian countries of being “soft states” in the context of educational reform of the type advocated by experts (ibid., p.1820-21).

Today, far from being a burden, English is giving us a specific advantage on the world stage. If only we could combine this with a better environment for starting and doing business, better maintenance of public services and public spaces, and a general respect for the rule of law and more helpful processes and support for the novice and outsider, India would be able to compete with most other developing countries for international investment funds without giving up its basic cultural moorings.

What I have tried to argue so far is that many convictions that appear self-evident due to some ideological conditioning actually prove to have been quite mistaken. I have purposely termed this the near certainty of being mistaken, since we can’t be a hundred percent sure even of this dictum! But I think sufficient examples have been paraded to illustrate it and establish its basic soundness.

What should be our response to such a bleak conclusion? It is not that we should desist from taking policy decisions, but that we should do so with a certain sense of humility and even scepticism. That is where a “soft” state may actually prove more sensible in the long run. Countries that pride themselves on being “hard” may be super-effective in installing a particular policy in the short term, but they are prone to violent twists and turns because, more often than not, national policies have to be changed after some time and the transitions become traumatic because of the hardness of the state. A soft state, on the other hand, finds such changes easy and almost natural, because that is the expected state of things. No single measure or policy is ever going to be valid for all time or all over the country, so space is always left for deviations, even from the established laws (again something that Myrdal rails against). India has flirted with a top-down imposition of policy on occasion, with disastrous results (such as the family planning drives under Sanjay Gandhi). India has usually rejected such regimes, and instead honoured the quester, the questioner. That is its strength, and that is the legacy India’s thinkers have left to the world. Truth has to be sought somewhere in the shadows between darkness and full light, and is neither absolute nor valid for all time and all people, much to the chagrin of the more dualistic west.

References

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1968. Asian Drama. An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Twentieth Century Fund, Inc. Reissued 1982, reprinted 2004, by Kalyani Publishers, New Delhi.


Neelekani, Nandan. 2009. Imagining India. (Revised edition). Penguin Books, New Delhi.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

02 Gunnar Myrdal and ‘An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations’…

Our quest has to start with that iconic text of the turbulent ’60s, Gunnar Myrdal’s “Asian Drama”. What do you say of a work spanning all of 2284 pages, with separate Author and Subject indexes, footnotes in tiny print on every page which probably constitute more than half the text, and, when you finally come to end of the main chapters by page 1828 (in Vol.III), you are then faced with a ‘Postscript’ followed by 16 Appendices, in small type, over another 400 pages? One doffs the hat, and crawls away in shamefaced awe and chagrin at this marvellous performance, this tour-de-force of Teutonic thoroughness and literary architectonics.

How does one approach, let alone read, this work? My contemporaries (those who came of age in the ‘60s, that is) will recall that this was one those seminal works that most of us swore by, and cited as an authority, but few of us actually studied (Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao, Paulo Frero, Sartre, are some of the others). Published in 1968, never available in the college library (assorted intellectual types would wander with it under their arms for the permitted two weeks and end up paying fines but not getting past the contents page and acknowledgements), it’s only now, after four decades, that I accidentally stumbled upon it in the Sapna book depot in Bangalore (I was lusting after the Dewey Decimal Classification, being let go at 12,000 rupees), reprinted by Kalyani Publishers, New Delhi, in a green hard binding, for… hold your breath, a cool 650 rupees! Since we all remember, in various degrees of vagueness, the initial parts, I decided to start with the lesser-leafed third volume. I’ve just finished the main text, which talks about education and health, and am working through the Appendices now.  

The man is thorough, and also authoritarian. He knows exactly what is wrong with the world, and he has a ready prescription to every ill. All through his discourse runs the theme of ‘soft’ states and their opposite, which I suppose would be the ‘hard’ states, but this doesn’t appear to be the term the good Professor uses. It is this imagery that has stuck in my mind, if nothing else of his actual ideology has. Often I have expressed my thanks to providence that India has been historically a soft state, and will continue to be a soft state, despite the earnest exhortations of Myrdal and others. The civilised West finds the Indian mentality irritating, and our favourite image wheen we want to get back at them, is that of the gallon-hatted, spur-shod, cowboy trying to harangue the wretched third-world farmer resting in the shade of his gum tree (Acacia species) into a more strenuous mode of life. My favourite irony (it can’t be true, but somehow it has stuck) is of an expert who wanted to know why all the peasants were still sleeping at 11 in the morning…. little realising that they had risen with the dawn, and finished a half day’s work before breakfast (this may no longer be true in India today, since even the rural people have adapted to the western 9 to 5 workday, and moreover are conditioned by the demands of television).

We have a good example of a ‘not-soft’ state in our great neighbour to the north, the Middle Kingdom (India was the Western Kingdom to them). The Professor should have been proud of them… they took decisions, they brooked no opposition, they knew exactly what to do. They went through massive convulsions, they made a disastrous Great Leap Forward into an abyss, they engineered a major Cultural Revolution which destroyed much of their culture and history. The final epitaph of the Great Helmsman’s philosophy was probably this concise pronouncement: it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice. What will we do with all those heavy tomes we used to buy with our small change from the Indo-Soviet book centres, but never actually read all these years?  If that is what a not-soft state is like, thank god we are a soft state, is what I say…

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

01. Why India, the Muddle Kingdom, will outlast all others

India has been famously castigated for her soft-headedness, lack of coherence, cacophony of voices and tongues, indiscriminate tolerance... in short, as the Muddle Kingdom, in contrast to the neighbour in the north, a strong and unyielding Middle Kingdom. But we were the Western Kingdom to them, and the Centre of the World to ourselves. We have survived as a culture for millennia, while all other hard civilisations have bitten the dust. Why the Muddle Kingdom will outlast all others...