1,200 students from 60 countries test each others’ skills in debating championship

“50 cents, now that we have adopted the US dollar,” said Austen Harrison, talking about the price of a newspaper in Zimbabwe. “Before that, don’t even ask. The currency’s value kept depreciating. It was utter chaos,” said the student of teacher education at Mutare Teachers’ College in the southern African country.

Austen welcomed the New Year in Chennai, hoping that things continue to be stable when he gets back. On Thursday and Friday though, his entire focus is on arguments and counter-arguments on a variety of issues. He is among the 1,200 participants from 60 countries who are in Chennai at the Rajalakshmi Engineering College for the World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) 2014. This is the first time the debating championship is being held in India.

If debating is all about discussing different sides of an issue, the best argument is presented by the person who has thought of all possible angles. “One of the topics had to do with the abolition of gated communities. In Australia, inequality is much less than in developing countries. Many participants could not relate to the topic, but as I grew up in Thailand, I was able to present a cogent argument,” said James Gray, an economics student from Australia.

The topics of discussions ranged from NATO and media issues to global security threats. “Participants from English-speaking countries always seem to be at an advantage. As Asians, it is sometimes difficult to contextualise your examples. The same issues mean very different things to people from different countries,” noted Ritvik Chauhan, from the IIT- Bombay team, the only one from India among the 48 teams that qualified for the next round. His teammate Souradip pointed out that in debating, one was often forced to argue against one’s own views.

“We were supposed to talk about ‘the hook-up culture’. Though we have no problems with it, we had to argue that sometimes, such relationships rob you of the ability to emotionally connect with people,” he said.

It was not all serious debating. Joshua Baxter from New Zealand, a student of law at the University of Auckland, was fascinated with autorickshaws. “For a moment, I thought it was dangerous but I held on. I still cannot understand why drivers here honk so much.”

Lodged at a five-star hotel many of these candidates welcomed the New Year dancing to Indian music. Rosie Unwin, an adjudicator from London, said she was touched to see people on the streets on New Year’s eve, wanting to shake hands with everyone.

Some of them have made friends here too.  Liam Brown from Melbourne, Australia said he managed to have a long conversation with the security guards at the college. “They heard Australia and screamed Ricky Ponting. We then analysed how the Indians thrashed us the last time.”

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