Union Minister Kapil Sibal’s speech at the inaugural ceremony of Ramanujan’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations in Chennai on Monday

At the outset, my grateful thanks to the Prime Minster of India for declaring the year 2012 in honour of the 125th birth anniversary year of the genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who has no parallel in the history of human thought, as the National Mathematical Year.

Sir, Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India has written “Ramanujan’s brief life and death are symbolic of the conditions in India; of our millions how few get any education at all; how many live on the verge of starvation.”

And Professor Robert Kanigel, who is with us here today, in the fascinating biography of Ramanujan has written “Ramanujan’s life can be made to serve as parable for almost any lesson you want to draw from it.”

Referred to as the man who knew infinity, Ramanujan was a true genius. The 25-year-old-Indian clerk received no formal education. But the genius in him was recognised by G.H.Hardy. Thus began an unusual scientific collaboration between an English don and an impoverished Indian genius.

It all began with a letter in January 1913, when Ramanujan wrote to G.H.Hardy having seen a copy of his book Orders of Infinity in 1910. In his letter he introduced himself [thus] “I have no university education, but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school, I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course which is followed in a university course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed, by the local mathematicians, as startling.”

Hardy’s response was encouraging and a delighted Ramanujan replied as follows. “I found a friend in you, who views my labour sympathetically. I am already a half-starving man. To preserve my brains I want food and this is my first consideration. Any sympathetic letter from you would be helpful to me here to get a scholarship either from the university or from the government.”

I have quoted this correspondence with a distinct purpose. This exchange of letters demonstrates the following. First, it is not necessary to follow a regular university course to realise one’s genius. Second, there are discoveries to be made beyond the discipline of formal education. Third, students should be encouraged to strike a new path for themselves to conquer new frontiers of knowledge. Fourth, the system must provide for young minds to be heard and appreciated. Lastly, the genius in many of our young minds may never be recognised because of extreme poverty.

Sir, we recognise that there maybe potential Ramanujans in our midst whom the system may not recognise. They may well be sitting in this hall. We are thus endeavouring to build an education system that promotes creativity, freedom, joy and an awareness of our cultural heritage. It will help our children to retain their sense of wonder, to develop a spirit of enquiry and to nurture the joys of learning. I am thus determined to do away with rote learning and an archaic exam-oriented system.

We are endeavouring to reform this with emphasis on skill development and unlocking the creative talent within the child. A paradigm shift in the way our children are taught is on the anvil. Learning and education, henceforth, will be child-centric instead of the current exam-centric education system.

In a bid to de-stress children we have done away with examinations at the end of the year, replacing them with a Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation (CCE) system.

Sir, the degree of inequality in access to higher education hitherto has been exceptionally high. The Gross Enrolment Ratio of young people between age of 18 and 24 [years] is just about 15 per cent. In contrast, most developed economies have a Gross Enrolment Ration of above 50 per cent. We are seeking to enhance the Gross Enrolment Ratio to 30 per cent within the decade.

Thus far we have had an education system that is socially stratified. Graduates of a few elite universities, the IITs and the IIMs, become the managerial classes that run the Indian State and big industry. This is changing and must change. There is a mass of struggling educational institutions across India. Here and there we can see courageous teachers attempting to keep a vibrant intellectual current going, but they are in the minority with the odds heavily loaded against them.

We see a sharp stepping down of rigour and commitment towards reflection and questioning. A decline of the social sciences and humanities at both the elite and the mass sense of the system, is taking place. This is accentuated by basic changes taking place in the balance of power in India with the unprecedented rise of the corporate sector. Jobs in the state sector have stagnated while those in the corporate and informal sectors have grown exponentially.

One consequence of this has been a drastic alteration of priorities in higher education among the upper sections of Indian society. Prestige and financial returns acquired from participation in the global economy far outstrip most of what the Indian economy can offer. The effect has been to pull educated classes, in large numbers, into the global economy, leaving behind a vacuum whose impact we are still trying to cope with. The result has been a drastic reduction of the elite in areas of mathematics, social sciences and humanities, leading to shrinking or closure of these departments. And I am delighted that Raghunathan-ji has mentioned today that in celebrating 2012, we will do a lot of activities to give the necessary impetus to mathematics, which I think is essential to the life of any society.

We are thus endeavouring to bring about a change in this ethos through the setting up of innovation universities. I recognise that despite the triumph of our democracy, large sections of our society still continue to remain marginalised, disempowered, mainly due to the lack of education. We seek to expand and create an egalitarian education system around a clear understanding of our culture, history, needs, endowments and competencies. And all of us, government, academia, business, civil society and citizens need to work together to focus on education as the key enabler of empowerment, social change and inclusive development. But let us not forget that along the way, we need to give space to the uncharted journeys of those who seek to discover, to create and to conquer, much like Ramanujan’s journey. That will be a befitting tribute to a genius whose task remained unfinished. Jai Hind! Jai Bharat!

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