much more of This And That

by Ramesh Mahadevan

Good news if you are doing your Ph. D or if you are already a 'doctor'. Should you ever get arrested in India and put in a jail, your Ph. D degree entitles you to a First Class prison treatment, according to Indian laws. No need to break stones and sing a song about Ram with Amitabh Bacchan and other jailbirds.

We are living in some kind of a strange period. Country after country has a record number of ex-leaders in retirement. The USA has Nixon, Reagan, Carter, Bush and Ford, Russia has Gorby and India has V. P. Singh, Chandrasekhar and Morarji Desai - all old heads of governments, now in retirement. Morarji must be nearing the century mark and although it wasn't publicized much, he has also won his defamation case against Seymour Hirsch who had accused him of being a CIA informer. It seems Morarji was a little pissed off that the courts awarded him only a small compensation. (although, perhaps, when it comes to Morarji, a phrase like 'pissed off' could be an expression of joy rather than an expression of disgust)

Indian Airlines, perhaps the only airlines in the world without a single satisfied customer, is once again plagued by a strike. (It is considered to be one of the most 'strike-prone' airlines.) The traveling public has very little sympathy for such strikes. This time, the pilots are striking for, among other things, 'increased food allowance' for the food they have already eaten since 1989. Apparently, food allowance is one way to get around the federal tax, since it is given in 'Bearer's cheque', whatever that means. For example, when the Airbuses were grounded for inspection following the Bangalore crash, the pilots still got their 'food allowance', in some cases more than Rs 50000 during that period (of several months when they didn't fly an inch). Another interesting statistics - Indian Airlines has a worse 'on time arrival' record than Indian Railways (which is claimed to be around 80 % for major long-haul trains) despite carrying a miniscule of what the railways carry.

Also, the airfares determined by the Indian Airlines is subsidized by the government and do not reflect the costs of operation or any profit motive. Do you know that every time the Indian Airlines wants to hike its fares, it will have to get the fair hike approved by the Ahmedabad High Court ? A consumers group filed a class action case against IA a few years back, which they won and as a part of the settlement, the court now has to approve all fare increases. The consumer movement and the consumer courts are present everywhere in India these days, resulting in some very frivolous cases. Some examples:

A mother and her kid were riding in a bus in rain. The tarpaulin in the bus was obviously not leak-proof. So the woman sued the bus company for her and her child's eventual fever (caused, of course, by the rain) and the 'mental anguish' and won Rs 1500.

Another time a group of school kids were returning from a picnic and tried to stop a bus at the scheduled stop to go home. The bus did not stop and eventually the teacher sued the bus company and won Rs 50 per kid for their 'mental anguish'.

Yet another guy won thousands of rupees, when a bank draft he got was not properly signed by the bank officer, which prevented him from writing a 'competitive exam'. The money, of course, was for his 'mental anguish' and lost potential wages.

I don't know how many of you saw Dheeraj Sanghi's post about Tamil Nadu Science Forum and the request made by Dr. Ramanujam of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Madras. (where the famous SCI er Pramath and his wife Swathy currently work) This guy Ramanujam is a true hero. Besides being a top notch theoretical computer scientist, he is a consummate social worker. Just a few years ago, he would walk from village to village, with a jhola on his shoulder trying to make people literate. He would compose street plays ('jaatas') and wrote primers to be used as textbooks to educate the illiterate. Now the movement (called 'Arivoli' or 'Light of Knowledge' movement) has grown to be one of the most successful grassroot movements in India, spreading to far away places like Bihar. People educating people and trying to root out illiteracy. The enthusiasm and energy these people have are amazing and they are confident that India would acquire 90 % literacy or better by the year 2000. "This is a movement that has its own momentum. It cannot be stopped" I was told. "It is all over the country."

First some numbers. The illiterate to volunteer ratio runs around ten to one at present and even with about a 30 % attrition, there is enough supply of volunteers. This should give you an idea of how many people are involved in this movement. Most of the volunteers are school children, whose only reward is the joy of educating another human being. There are individual stories of courage and volunteerism, unheard of everywhere else. Like that girl in Pondichery from an orthodox family who fought hard and succeeded in spreading literacy among unwilling prostitutes. Even a teashop owner could be a volunteer and it was absolutely moving for me to witness a theoretical physics Ph. D being able to relate to a chaiwallah and chat about their common goal. The target is to teach the illiterates about 200 hours of non-formal education and that is presumed to leave them with a level of a fourth grade student. There is, of course, a big concern about neo-literates relapsing into illiteracy.

Already some districts in Tamil Nadu and Kerala are declared to be completely literate (completely literate is taken to mean at least 90 % literate. A major metro area like Madras or Bombay has such high literacy rates, especially among males) Interestingly, rural areas are more receptive to this idea than the urban areas and women are much more willing to become literate than males. The only area where there has been a significant resistance is in urban slums, where underworld activities by and large leave the denizens with little or no interest in education. Some politicians are obviously suspicious of this movement - politicians want people to be uneducated and dumb and also they fear that the volunteers might eventually become politicians. But there is no stopping India's march toward literacy, all done by pure volunteerism, what several well-laid out government plans or money could not achieve.

And remember folks, you have read about it here, first. I have absolute confidence in Dr. Ramanujam and his efforts. His eyes twinkle when he dreams of that day when illiteracy is eradicated in India.

(By the way, during the three day weekend of the New Years Day what would a Dr. Ramanujam and friends do ? Convene their Science Forum, of course for three days. His wife has designed some low cost, fun physics experiments for high school students. His science magazine, aimed at the ten to twelve year olds, is a big success, despite its perennial monetary problems. I have been asked to write a bunch of articles on computers and data storage. I love writing for children, lets see. Should anyone need more info, please contact me or better still Dheeraj who may be in computer contact with all these good folks in India.)

New Years Day is such a big deal in India, it has almost become a public nuisance. Only fools and drunkards and totally mindless would venture out around midnight, only to be promptly arrested by the police under various sections of Indian Penal Code. Interestingly, the New Years Day is also the busiest day for many temples in India, with temples like Tirupati raking in record collections for a single day. Special poojas are performed at the midnight hour by the devout and it is only a matter of time before the BJP/RSS/VHP Ajay Shah type Hindu fanatics claim that the New Years Day is actually a Hindu holiday. Even more amusing example of the 'West' mixing with the 'East' was when the Indian Science Foundation or some such outfit awarded a medal to an 'Astrologer' for his 'scientific contribution' over the protests of scientists like C. N. R. Rao and M. G. K. Menon. (In the past, this same foundation has sponsored research papers on such questionable topics as the 'Effect of magnetic field on sexual behavior' and so forth).

Uncle Raghavan, not a 'true uncle' of course, came to Pittsburgh a few years ago from Madras. He was an Inspector General of Police in Tamil Nadu. He was in Pittsburgh to join the Univ. of Pitt to do a Ph. D, although he already had a Ph. D in 'Police Personnel Management' from India and has even written a book. He was an energetic man, fit as a fiddle, displaying the typical, sharp police personality, although he wondered at first if the streets of Pittsburgh were safe for him to walk ! He was staying with my friend Abin temporarily and was a really interesting person to talk to. He could talk about anything in the world and had interesting perspectives. Besides, he was a treasure trove of anecdotes, based on his illustrious career. He showed us an old issue of India Today, pointed to a photograph (of Rajiv Gandhi being assaulted by a Sri Lankan soldier when he was inspecting a guard of honor) and told us "You see that shadow of a figure in the background, behind Rajiv Gandhi, that was me ! Thank god, nothing happened to him that day" Then mysteriously Uncle Raghavan went back to India, because of financial problems and aid not coming through and we never heard from him again.

Then history repeated itself. Uncle Raghavan was the police chief in charge when Rajiv was assassinated near Madras in 1991. The Verma commission found him 'responsible' for the security lapses, not in the least dwelling on the multi-dimensional pressures these officials face day in and day out, especially from corrupt politicians. However, the Verma report 'praised' Uncle Raghavan for his post-assassination efforts without which the case would not have been solved.

BHEL employees colony in Bhopal is one of the largest in India and is supposed to be the model in national integration, what with a large number of highly educated and technically qualified persons living in its quarters. In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid violence, even this bastion was not spared and over a hundred people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Obviously, education does not necessarily lead to enlightenment. Shame on you, Hindu fanatics.

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh