Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Elitist education?

I saw this link via Nanopolitan. And, I must say the author's arguments hit home rather well. As Abi says, some of them are broad-brush generalisations, but on the whole, he makes a lot of sense. For instance, when he says that people tend to look down upon others simply because they did not go a certain university, he successfully drives home an important point: that, unconsciously, graduates of elite institutions (I like to believe that Sciences Po is elite) look down upon those who do not "belong" there. I am guilty of that myself. I am proud I got into Sciences Po. But sometimes, I too have displayed that annoying arrogance of someone who is among, as Deresiewicz says, is among the "best and brightest." I am probably not. I am probably just very lucky. Or not even. I also agree that graduates of elite schools tend to judge themselves, and others, by numbers: SAT, GRE, GMAT scores.

In the Indian context, the equivalent is probably IIT and IIM. In this regard, I would like to point you to a brilliant post by Nita. (as always). It is a brilliant analysis of what IIM graduates are doing, how much they are getting paid, and what kinds of jobs they prefer. Beyond all this hype about the IITs and the IIMs, I would like to ask one question. What does an IIT graduate have that any good engineer from a decent engineering college does not? This is an honest question. I do not know. Any answers are welcome.

On a related note, I was rather surprised, even shocked to hear that many of my students have no idea how to write a CV. In fact, even those who are working have never written a CV because they were recruited on campus, and they simply had to fill up a form and take some technical tests. I do agree that BITS Pilani, the IITs and other institutions send out brilliant engineers. But, is brilliance a result of the college in which you studied? I know many people who come from nondescript and even unrecognised institutions who are capable of giving an IIT-grad a run for his money. I simply believe that excellence can exist anywhere, even in the slums. We are, as a society, too caught up in the rut of exams, degrees and marks to see that intelligence is unrelated to most or even all of these factors. What's more? We are refusing to allow our children to exercise their fundamental right to dissent. Any difference of opinion with school, college or teachers is quickly suppressed. "Just write what is in the text book. Otherwise you will not get marks." These are the words I hear from parents of all ages, day in and day out.

This reluctance to question is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that my grandfather tells me I must not question the analysis that appears in newspapers because those writing for the media are obviously better qualified than me to talk. Pray, why must I shut up when I see a journalist talking nonsense? Because the writer is a professor at JNU? No. I will not shut up. As long as I can substantiate my arguments, I have a right to say what I please. What people like my grandfather conveniently forget, is that we, as Indians, have a right to disagree. Even if we are engineers and not social scientists or strategic analysts. In short, we Indians give more respect to a piece of paper than to real intelligence. We must get out of this. If we want to innovate rather than replicate, we must encourage dissent. There is nothing like a good argument to foster new ideas. We must learn this fundamental truth for our own good.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On cinema

I rarely blog about cinema. I only write if it is worth the effort. The last movie I blogged about was Taare Zameen Par. But today, I wanted to talk about something entirely different. Let's start with home. The release of the much-hyped Rajnikanth guest-starrer Kuselan is around the corner. I have watched the trailers and teasers on TV. What I find amazing is that Rajnikanth has become such a hyped commodity. For me, what is important is the story. According to reports, Rajnikanth has barely 15 minutes of screen time. But, practically all the teasers feature him to the exclusion of everyone else. This, I find unacceptable. The other actors in the movie are equally accomplished, if not actually better. Take Pasupathy for example. I would rather watch Pasupathy perform as villain than watch Rajnikanth dancing around trees with an 18 year-old heroine. It is galling that actors of the calibre of Pasupathy and Prabhu are being sidelined in favour of the "superstar". I would not watch this movie for Rajnikanth, but I probably will because it veterans like Balachander and Vasu. I am probably going to get brickbats from fans of the superstar. But frankly, I am sick of geriatric heroes running around the trees with heroines less than their daughters' age. Vijaykanth is probably the worst of the lot. But, Rajnikanth or even Kamal Hassan(I happen to like Kamal's acting) are no better. Can they please give way to younger, and better-looking heroes?

Now, on to the next. Check out this post. A bit excessive don't you think? Even worse, the stupid "rule" the author has cited. I got to this link via Confused. And, I quite agree with him. It's a movie!! I go to a movie to have fun. Yes, once in a while, a movie succeeds in touching my heart or making me think. Like Taare... did. But, that is it. Some people love looking at the world through the prism of feminism. And the result is disastrous at times and ridiculous at others. I am not a feminist. I believe in equality, yes. But I do NOT watch every single movie with feminism on my mind. And if you so dislike pointless characters, you shouldn't be watching movies anyway. Most movie characters make no sense, male or female.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Are all-women's colleges really that bad?

Well, I really do not know. When I was in college, I was pretty irritated by the fact that WCC did not admit men. It cannot. Simply because it is the Women's Christian College. But today, when I read a few posts on same-sex education, it got me thinking again. Like Chandni and Sunita, I too was a vigorous advocate of co-educational schools for much of my life. But now, I am not so sure. What sporadic blogger said in her post is quite true.

"We are who we are, largely because we studied in an all-girls institution. And by that, I mean, we grew into people who are confident of their, our, ability. In several co-ed colleges, one sees that very few girls ever occupy union positions. If they do at all, they are elected into positions that are traditionally seen as a female domain-cultural representatives, literary representatives."

This, to a certain extent is true. I studied 14 years in a co-ed school. Three years in a women's college instilled the confidence that 14 years of co-ed failed to do. I was always rather talkative, but college channeled that urge to talk into something constructive and made me a debater. Now, let me say that any college could have done that. But the fact that I was accepted for what I was in WCC made a huge difference. Let me give you a rather personal example here. When I was in school, I was constantly judged on how I looked, how tall, how fat, how thin, how beautiful I was. I was judged on what boys (immature and even superficial young men) thought of me. If the class "cool guy" thought I was not worth talking to, nobody would. Not even the equally "un-hep" reject of the class. I stepped into college with a lot of apprehension. I constantly looked over my shoulder to see who was scrutinising my actions and judging my appearance. To my utter surprise, nobody cared about what I wore or how fair or how dark I was. To them, to the hundreds of girls I was surrounded by every day, I was normal. For the first time in life, I felt at home.

This was a personal experience. I will not say that co-ed is bad. But I would like to disagree with one point that Chandni makes. She says,

"In college we found girls who were 18 plus, behaving with the opposite sex, in a fashion that we did when we were 13. You know, the whole excitement and hype regarding “boys” when the hormones are in full swing and you suddenly see the “pests” with new eyes!"

Uhm...I do not agree. At 18, girls are not all that mature. Maybe growing up in a co-ed environment makes girls more confident. But, crushes do happen. At 18 or even at 23. Judging a girl as immature because she crushes on a cute guy is not fair. I blushed like hell when I first went out with my boyfriend. And I was at the ripe old age of 23. Hell! I still do sometimes. So?

I admit, at WCC, we definitely were excited at the prospect of culturals because they meant that guys would come. But we were barely out of our teens for goodness' sake! And we were women. Of course we wanted them to come to college. As someone points out in the comments section, not all women from all-girls' institutions behave like blubbering idiots in front of men. Some co-ed girls do so too. I think it's hardly fair to blame a type of education system for that.

I just think that each has its advantages. I for one loved my time at WCC. I could do what I pleased (as long as Mrs. Phillips didn't hear of it). I did not care a damn what I wore most of the time because we were all women. I have friends who used to turn up to classes in their nightsuits and pajamas because they woke up at 8:25 for an 8:30 class. It's all fun. The shopping, the gossip, the late-night secret chats over cell-phone (because my hostelite friends had sneaked it in without the warden's knowledge), everything was fun.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The delusions in being leftist

Ok. Here we go! I am probably going to get a lot of criticism on this, but I have to say it. The Left Front, its leaders, its politics, its ideology; they all anger, disgust and even infuriate me rather regularly. Its attitude towards the Nuclear Deal is a case in point. The Left Front, led by Bardhan, Karat, et.al have successfully held a nation to ransom, time and again. They opposed the oil price hike, when the only way to save the public-sector oil companies from sinking was to increase the price. They opposed disinvestment, opening up of sectors such as insurance, aviation, and retail marketing to foreign investment. In fact, they have opposed almost all essential second-generation reforms that will become indispensable, sooner rather than later, for India to sustain the current growth rate. They have single-handedly succeeded in halting, or at least slowing down India's economic growth by this opposition.

And no, they have not done all this by sitting in the opposition. They have simply blackmailed an invertebrate government, dependent on its support, to get what they want: economic stagnation so that they can conveniently blame "capitalism" for everything from rising food prices to global warming. And frankly, I have had enough. I wish to see the Left go back to where it belongs: the opposition. I would, of course like to see it being confined to the "dustbin of history," as Acorn puts it so beautifully at NationalInterest. But, I suppose that is a bit too much to hope for given that our Indian voters never actually think before voting.

But, do the politicians of the Left actually believe the crap they say? Sadly enough, they do. Nobody can doubt their personal integrity, (well...most of them...) but their ideology gets in the way of clear thinking too often. They are fully aware that globalisation is here to stay and there is no way we can become protectionist again, but they do not want to believe it. Time and again, they lean towards a Russia that is incapable of giving anything more than moral support, and a China that is getting increasingly menacing. One key point is their insistence on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline as an alternative to the deal. They criticised the Indian Government that voted against Iran on the nuclear issue, but opposed both Pokhran I and II, on the grounds that India was attracting sanctions unnecessarily. So Iran can make a bomb, but India should not? As if that is not enough, Prakash Karat actually said that he and his party wanted India to snap strategic ties with the US because such a union would mean that it would "counter-balance and encircle" China. Thanks to Nita for the link. I mean, can this get any worse? So, this actually means a "national" political party would rather ensure China's welfare than India's? Why are we still voting for such people? Is it not time to unceremoniously throw out such a party? I disagree with Nita there. They don't belong in the opposition either. They belong to a "dustbin of History" as I said earlier.

I have said it once, and I say it again: it is in India's interest to foster a reciprocal strategic relationship with the US. There is a very important reason for that. China, by pursuing an active "String of Pearls" strategy is gradually, but surely encircling India. Don't understand what that means? Let me explain. China is establishing its bases, military or commercial, in the seas surrounding India. The first of them is the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which is strategically located between three important regions: oil-rich Middle East, highly-populated South Asia and the newly-developing Central Asia. Any gas pipeline from Iran via Pakistan can and will be accessible to the Chinese. The second pearl is the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh, which they are actively funding. The third is the Coco Islands that our esteemed first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru generously gave away to Myanmar, situated about 80 nautical miles east of the Myanmarese Coast. China now has a naval base on the Coco Islands. And, these Communists are worried about China being encircled??? I am sorry, but I do not approve of this ideology. I fail to understand how your political ideology can be directly in conflict with your country's national security.

There is no way the Communists deserve any sympathy or understanding for their handling of the Nuclear Deal issue. They only deserve to be unilaterally criticised for what they have done.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Nuclear energy: facts clarified

I was both surprised, and rather disappointed to see Brahma Chellaney, eminent Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, an independent, privately funded think-tank, and member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the Foreign Minister of India, write against the nuclear deal. In his recent article titled, "Too much hot air in nuke deal," published in the Economic Times (link to his blog), he argues that "a major myth propagated is that greater nuclear-generated electricity will help reduce India’s oil-import dependency." I find it impossible to accept most of the reasons Chellaney puts forward against the deal.

Let me start with the first argument. He argues that,

"The link between nuclear power and oil is specious. In the years ahead, the world could move toward electric vehicles and even use grid power to make hydrogen for the fuel-cell vehicles of the future... But today, greater nuclear-generated electricity is not going to really reduce any country’s oil needs, certainly not India’s. In fact, with little overlap in the oil and nuclear global-market structures, nuclear power now competes principally against coal, natural gas and renewables."

I beg to differ. Nuclear fuel does not compete with renewables. Indeed, it competes with coal and natural gas. But coal and natural gas, like oil, are non-renewable sources of energy. According to a report on the CSLF site, about 30% of India's energy needs are met by oil, and more than 60% of that oil is imported. Also, India is the sixth largest consumer of petroleum in the world, accounting for about 2.9% of the total world consumption of oil. This may not seem like a lot, given that per capita consumption is far lower than that of developed countries. It is indeed distressing that nearly 30% of total energy required is supplied by oil. What will happen when the world runs out of oil? Too scary to imagine, right? The same report states that about 70% of electricity generated is by use of coal. What happens when there is no coal left? Chellaney's argument that the world's uranium reserves will last just another 85 years is difficult to believe. He cites an IAEA report, which he claims forecasts the amount of uranium available. A detailed reading of the report reveals that Chellaney, in fact, has not revealed all the details of the report. A press communiqué by the IAEA states that,

"Based on the 2006 nuclear electricity generation rate and current technology, the identified resource base will remain sufficient for 100 years. However, total world uranium resources are dynamic and related to commodity prices. The uranium industry has reacted to recent increases in the price of uranium by launching major new investments in exploration, which can be expected to lead to further additions to the uranium resource base. Worldwide exploration expenditures in 2006 totalled over USD 774 million, an increase of over 250% compared to 2004. Expenditures in 2007, for which data are not yet final, are expected to match those in 2006."

The overall tone of the communiqué is rather optimistic and is conveyed succinctly by the title,

"Uranium resources sufficient to meet projected nuclear energy requirements long into the future."

A second fact that must be considered is the quantity of uranium required in reactors. We are talking about a few kilograms of uranium, whereas in the case of coal, it is closer to a few million metric tonnes. That should give us some idea about the feasibility of using uranium as primary fuel for nuclear reactors. Also, Chellaney keeps talking about why nuclear fuel will not reduce India's oil imports. It will not. I agree. But if we, as citizens and thinking individuals, bother to look beyond the next few general elections and into the future, we will see that nuclear energy is the way to go. Of course, nuclear fuel will not make our cars run on hydrogen. But, at least we will not be paying through our nose for thermal energy, especially since coal reserves are fast declining. In a century or two, there will be no coal left to exploit.

For more information on the situation of nuclear fuel in India, see this report. One fact cannot be ignored. India has not signed the NPT, and for good reason. If it wishes to gain access to uranium reserves elsewhere, it must sign the deal. India has vast reserves of thorium. Even if we do develop indigenous technology, we need uranium to kick-start the reaction. To cut a long story short, we need uranium. And to get that uranium, we need the deal. Can it get any clearer? It is frustrating to see "experts" being so short-sighted.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Demystifying the Nuclear deal

The major political news of the week, or even the fortnight, is the tug-of-war between the UPA government and the Left parties on the issue of the US-India Nuclear Agreement. Now, several issues must be addressed before analysing the attitude of the Left towards the deal.

The most important question would be: What does the deal really mean? The idea of a civilian nuclear agreement was first mooted by US President George W Bush on July 15, 2005. He announced that he would "work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India." Before any kind of cooperation of atomic energy issues, it was essential that India sign a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This was essentially because India had refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and had virtually no safeguards on nuclear material in the use of raw materials for peaceful purposes. India's testing of the Nuclear Bomb, first in 1974, and then in 1998, convinced the US to further restrict supply of nuclear raw materials to India. It was after the first Pokhran tests in 1974, that the Nuclear Suppliers Group was created, which further restricted supply of Uranium (an essential nuclear raw material) to India. Changing balance of power and a gradual change in India's attitude towards cooperation with the United States, actively aided by the rise of India's economic power, provided the impetus to the nuclear deal. The legal framework of the bilateral nuclear pact between India and the United States is provided by the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, also called the Hyde Act, which is the principal bone of contention between the Left parties and the UPA government. This act provides the legal basis for the signing of the 123 Agreement (PDF link) with India, and requires the approval of the US Congress and the Indian Cabinet and will define the exact terms of the cooperation.

So, for the Deal to bee signed, the Indian Government must take certain steps. First, it must negotiate and conclude a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Deal ran into its first set of hurdles here itself. The Left refused to allow the government to go ahead with the IAEA negotiations, and threatened to withdraw support to the government. Without the Left's support, the government would be reduced to a minority and would be forced to resign. After last-ditch negotiations, the Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee went ahead anyway, and held talks with the IAEA. Now, the Left is "discussing the timing of withdrawal of support." The next step is the G8 Summit to be held in Japan this year. Again, the Left is blackmailing.

But, what wrong with the Deal anyway? I have said it before, and I will say it again. There is nothing wrong with the deal. The rationale behind the deal is quite clear. This paper (PDF link) by David G Victor, Director, Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, Stanford University clearly states the potential benefits of the agreement. He argues, in his brilliantly written paper, that the fuller commercial exploitation of nuclear energy, if done to the exacting standards of non-proliferation, can help cut carbon dioxide emissions. This is largely because nuclear energy emits virtually no carbon-dioxide, a gas that contributes to global warming.  With India's energy requirements on the rise, we need to urgently reduce our dependence on oil and petroleum, simply because these sources are rapidly dwindling. If the US is helping us do that, then why not? The fact remains that for India to successfully and quickly exploit its nuclear reactors, the US offer of transfer of technology would be invaluable. Of course, it is not the only option. But, it is the best possible option given the circumstances.

The second reason the deal must go through is political. Washington and New Delhi share concerns about the rather dramatic, and sometimes threatening growth of China, both militarily and in the economic sphere. Washington is seeking a strategic partnership with India is an apparent attempt to counter China's growing influence in the region. But, let's be clear on one thing. India is not going to act as a US representative in formulating its foreign policy with regards to China. This remains the principal fear of the Left: that India will be forced to review its foreign policy priorities due to pressure from the US. Personally, I do not see that happening. India is the biggest military power in the Indian Ocean littoral after the US, which has several bases in the region, including the one at Diego Garcia. A strategic partnership with the US would only be beneficial to India, because a strategic partnership basically means intelligence sharing, among other things. Intelligence sharing with the US, with its advanced spy satellites can be beneficial to India in the long run. A more comprehensive analysis on the deal can be found here (PDF link). This paper by Sumit Ganguly and Dinshaw Mistry makes a rather convincing case for the deal.

Finally, the Hyde Act, which has been much-maligned by the Left requires, as I said in an earlier post, that US foreign policy be directed to securing India's cooperation to actions against Iran and in securing its participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative. However, a detailed examination of the said law reveals that the Hyde Act merely requires that the US Government "encourage" India to take the above steps and cannot, in any way, force India's hand in the matter. India has already made it clear that it does not share the US hurry in action against Iran. There is no way the US can force the Indian government to do something that would harm the political, military or economic interests of the country. The Left parties in India seem to be stuck in the Cold War-era of America-bashing. What they don't seem to understand is the fact that the world is increasingly unipolar, and that India cannot afford to miss the nuclear bus when it still has the chance. The nuclear deal must go through. With or without the Left's approval.