Universities are temples of learning and factories of ideas, thought, dialogues, analysis, research and interpersonal interactions

In his article “Professor, teach thyself”, in The Hindu of September 3, 2012, Justice Markandey Katju complains that our tertiary education system does not serve the masses, and that the huge amount of money being spent on higher education in India is not raising the standard of living of the Indian poor.

His point needs to be debated since it raises the issue of what higher education and universities are meant to be, what their roles in society are, whether the money spent on them is misused; and what is meant by the term “standard of living”.

The Bible says man does not live by bread alone. Sage Barthruhari wrote sahitya sangita kala viheena manushya roopena mrigah charanti (and let us not forget the rural poor are rich in culture). Anthropology distinguishes us as homo sapiens; thinking, ideas and analysis are human attributes. Universities and other institutions of higher learning are meant precisely for this purpose. They are temples of learning and factories of ideas, thought, dialogues, analysis, research and interpersonal interactions.

Thought leads to action, action produces results and when results reach the public domain, they can be used by policy makers and societies for the public good. Universities are meant to produce thought leaders and to generate and promote culture. Yes, but do they help the standard of living of the masses? Higher learning leads to research and development (R&D) through the application of ideas and feeding manpower to realize these R&D efforts. Let us consider a few examples.

Information Technology (IT): Ten years ago, Professor Kenneth Keniston of MIT delivered the M N Srinivas Memorial Lecture at the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Bangalore. He spoke on “IT for the common man: Lessons from India” (downloadable at < web.mit.edu/kken/Public/PAPERS/IT_for_the_common_man.html>). He shows how Indian professors have used IT for helping ordinary Indians, especially in the weaker sections, meet their fundamental needs and achieve their basic rights.

There are technical requirements for these, and they are, connectivity, computers and software. It is precisely these three requirements that Indian professors have worked on, with success. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras invented the loop connectivity technology to reach and cover “the last mile”. It is easily adaptable and improvable so that villages can go on line.

As for computers, Vijay Chandru and associates invented the Simputer, with text speech capabilities in several Indian languages. The tablet “Aakash”, recently in the news, is a baby cousin of Simputer. Regarding software, Keniston points out the enormous difficulty faced in India with dozens of languages and scripts, and how Rajeev Sangal of IIIT Hyderabad and colleagues are addressing this problem.

How can IT help the poor, hungry Indian? One example is through the Unique Identification-based Aadhar cards of Nandan Nilekani. It helps assured personal delivery of governmental benefits — money, health care, rations, vote — eliminating the middleman and ‘mamool’. It is uniquely Indian in ideas and in end-use, and a great leveller. Don’t blame the university or the inventor if it does not work well, blame the government.

Biology and Genetics:In his “An obituary on Caste as a system” (Econ. Pol. Weekly, Feb, 2003; alas not free on the web), Dr MN Srinivas wrote that the caste system is indeed dying, but will not die without violence and a bloody struggle. And analysis of the DNA of hundreds of Indians from across the country, done at NIBMG, CCMB, MKU, JNU and other centres in India shuts the lid forcefully on the idea of castes and faiths, and shows we are all the same. The work shows who we all are, where we came from, how we peopled the subcontinent and how we mated and married. What can be a greater contribution to the oneness of India? Masters or masses, we are the same. Differences are not genetic, but cultural and traditional.

Food and Health: Genetics and biology have gone further in India, in the cause of the ‘masses’. It may come as a surprise to many that India produces and supplies over 45 per cent of the world’s childhood vaccine and at rock-bottom prices. Here is another example of how research in our centres of higher learning has yielded gratifying results. Malaria and TB (diseases of the masses (not of interest to Western pharma companies) are studied with great skill and dedication in India (incidentally, Dr V S Chauhan of ICGEB highlights our need and efforts on TB, on the same page of The Hindu where the Katju article appears).

Role of nutritionists

And let us not forget how nutritionists in India have helped win over goitre (iodized salt), night blindness (vitamin A mega doses), infant diarrhoea (zinc addition in ORT) and anaemia (fortified tablet salt). And it is genetics, this time on grains, using which Indian agriculturists have generated high yielding rice, using marker-assisted cross-breeding, to be cultivated on 5 million acres across India. And Imran Siddiqi has discovered the genes which would help maintain hybrid vigour in plants over generations.

Humanities and social sciences:Where are the M N Srinivases, the A L Basshams, Nilakanta Sastris, Mirza Ghalibs, Tagores, Bharatis, Bhatkhandes, U V Swaminatha Iyers or Bh Krishnamurtis of today? Such gems can be created only from universities. (How many Ramanujans can come out of sheer chance? He too needed a university to be recognised).

And finally, to give it perspective, what India spends each year on all of its education, research and technology is less than a tenth of what the US National Institutes of Health spends the same year on R&D. Give our universities time and money, don’t interrupt them or impose on them.

Recall too that the quality spectrum in any field — education, science, languages or law — is a bell-shaped curve. Our idea is not to decry but to help move the bell more to the right. This calls for patience and support. To say “huge funds ploughed into higher education in India are for the benefit of foreign countries and to give you professors higher salaries and fine houses” is churlish. Don’t blame them, blame the government. These academics contribute to India and its masses more than those living in cocoons in Lutyens’ Delhi. To paraphrase Shakespeare: the judge doth protest too much, methinks.

dbala@lvpei.org

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Professor, teach thyselfSeptember 3, 2012