Issue 18

Issue XVIII: Editors Note

The last year has been a rollercoaster for people around the globe. One might even come close to calling it a fever dream of sorts, with some months bringing us respite and optimism about a possible covid-free future, while others had us wrapped up in blankets, back to hosting virtual Christmas parties. Three mega covid-waves later, we once again dip our toes into the outside world warily attempting to be the creatures we were in the pre-pandemic era. One can’t help but wonder if the third time will be the charm. Questions about what the new(est) normal has in store for humanity looms on the horizon, as time in today’s world seems to be marked by an endless loop of living between pandemics and finding periods of normalcy, however abnormal that may be. Reflected in our cover art, the 18th issue of Open axis reflects on the year that has been, and where the loop might take us in the coming months. 

To begin with, Reya Daya tracks global covid developments and vaccination trends, dwelling on the power of human adaptability and the need to learn to live alongside a virus that shows no signs of burgeoning. Sharing his thoughts on the pandemic and government messaging surrounding covid, immunologist Dr. Satyajit Rath gets into conversation with Open Axis on correct policy-making and mixed messaging in times of a disease outbreak. 

On the upcoming Indian assembly elections, Biplob Kumar Das writes on the promises made to the farmers by parties contesting in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, particularly in the backdrop of a successful farmers movement. Further, Ranjini Ghosh from the Trivedi Center for Political Data analyzes the growth of social media usage in election campaigns and the implications of social media on microtargeting voters. 

Rutuparna Deshpande critically examines the homeschooling infrastructure in India and explores the consequences that homeschooling mechanisms (or lack thereof) might bring for India’s students with pandemic-induced nationwide school shutdowns. 

Reflecting on the happenings surrounding the 76th Republic Day and a resplendent parade in the capital, Ujjwala Shankar breaks down the consequences of extinguishing the eternal Amar Jawan Jyoti. Meanwhile, Adit Shankar examines India’s relationship with its constitution, a document perceived by many to be increasingly under threat. When a script for a movie surrounding a gay ex-army officer was rejected by the Defence Ministry, a nationwide uproar emerged on social media platforms. Shree Bhattacharyya reflects on this controversial rejection while exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in the Indian Army. 

Bharatnatyam dancer, performer, and instructor Justin Mcarthy writes on the legacy left behind by the late Kathak legend Birju Maharaj. In global news, Shauryavardhan Sharma dives deep into the future of India-China relations and factors that may shape the direction of future ties. 

Finally, Founding Editor of The Wire and popular economic and political writer, M.K. Venu shares his thoughts on the latest Union Budget and the government’s big push to public investment in infrastructure. To wrap up the issue, we present a collection of some of our favorite memes on the budget. 

Through the diverse topics presented in this issue, which make up a small but significant part of today’s new normal, we hope our readers find some incentive to step out into the world again and embrace all the changes the new world brings to us. 

–Jaidev Pant, Lakshya Sharma, Maahira Jain

Issue 18

Of Dance and Crumbling Havelis…

A morning of little horrors – re-reading my own writing from the 1980’s, writing that in retrospect seems to enable and justify all the lies of Indian dance. 

…unbroken traditiontrue art…  divine timelessness… These are some of the clichés ornamenting my writing of that period. They harmonise well with many wilfully misleading narratives. But let us move on from this haze of non-specifics and peer a bit closer through the rose-tinted lens of poetic deception I deluded myself with in those days. 

…The origins of kathak are ahistorical and rustic. The cowherdesses of Brindavan were the first kathak dancers… Back then it seemed fine to study the mythological origins of dance and leave it at that. But the set of forms usually known as Indian classical dance are largely 20th century inventions, and while ancient roots are obvious, direct links to such a past are certainly not. Despite their beauty, originality and vitality, they can be complicated by falsified histories often involving the misrepresentation or blatant erasure of communities of hereditary female singers and dancers, performers who were at the heart of those styles’ historical and aesthetic impulses. 

Along with divine allusions, vague phrases were fed to us about the dance having slowly fallen into disrepute. Since Independence, hereditary singers and dancers were penalised for unorthodox partnerships and child bearing arrangements outside the realm of marriage. It has only been with the past 20 years of new research that from this shadowy ignominy real women have emerged, largely hereditary singers and dancers whose performances were declared illegal in many parts of the country around the time of Independence. Through these legislative initiatives, the women were essentially penalised for their unorthodox partnership and child-bearing arrangements outside of legal marriage. 

…Tradition is a live force accessible to all and yet belonging to no one… How were we so, so naïve? Around Independence, communities of male teacher-accompanists formerly associated with the singing and dancing women were invited to teach by a new breed of would-be performers, women from “good” backgrounds, upper caste and of high social status. Meanwhile, the hereditary women, largely ignored, became almost invisible, their traditional art now available to almost everyone but themselves! 

whereas in the past villagers would covet the blessings of wandering kathakars, their art akin to divine oration… As strands of the old performance practices were forged into new styles, substantive pedigrees were introduced based on passages culled  from ancient and medieval Sanskrit epics as well as music and dance treatises. In the case of kathak, a concerted effort was made to invest the male teacher-accompanists with the aura of Vedic origins, thus disassociating them simultaneously from feudal court milieus and the culture of tawaifs or courtesans. But in the heady decades following Independence, as these dance styles grew and evolved in front of amazed dancers and spectators alike, who was worried about details, historical accuracy?  

a shy girl in love, skies heavy with rain, young lovers roaming… hmm, I might have been closer than I thought. Where is the tangible proof of the existence and importance of the singing and dancing women in the dance styles of today like kathak and even bharatanatyam? That proof lies in their music and their dance, ironically preserved by men who played such an active role in their disenfranchisement. Songs like thumris are highly aestheticised erotic poems that were usually sung and expressed through gesture before elite male audiences in courtly or private performances with an undercurrent of real or imagined sexual relationships colouring the bond between performer and viewer. 

When we ask ourselves if the continued existence of a socially sanctioned group of female entertainers maintained by married male patrons would be acceptable today, the answer is no. But the question of the legacy of their artistic repertoire is a more complicated one. The songs, the gestures and the movements were obviously too beautiful to be abandoned all together. So, as dance became a respected practice of middle-class, upper caste women (and sometimes men) in many parts of the country, the songs and their gestures while retained, were subjected to obfuscation and censure, while the movements were regimented and de-sexualised. Here I quote myself again …so often today its meaning and beauty elude us… Yes. Precisely. Obviously. Because recognising the sources of that beauty would be to challenge the moral ground upon which a modern society is often built. 

As dance students we studied the hero-heroine paradigm as an isolated phenomenon of artistic expression, though we were rather baffled, as it was never presented within the context of the professional singing and dancing women. To my mind this glaring denial of history is largely responsible for the state of Indian dance today. Thousands and thousands of young people all over the world learn, yet audiences are diminishing at an alarming rate, perhaps bewildered by or vaguely apprehensive about the ambiguous nature of what they are watching. 

….the students are visibly inspired when Maharaji speaks of dance in spiritual termsdescribing the rhythmic cycle (tal) as Mother Earth and the mnemonic syllables (bol) as sacred mantras, his is a genuine spiritual elation… Yes, Indian dance has spiritual and religious connotations. However, the dances we perform today are rarely from the canons of temple ritual, and are more likely to be from the courtly repertoire or pieces choreographed to imaginatively approximate temple dance.

in the evening the students gather round their mentorthis is the time when that perceptible intimacy between guru and shishya is reconfirmed, a  rapport of unquestioning acceptance which allows a semi-conscious transferral of knowledge from preceptor to learner… Much is made of the concept of guru-shishya parampara in the context of Indian dance today. In its essence a close bond between teacher and pupil is promoted, though the implication can be of blind servitude, and human deviance can twist the best of intentions. 

The reactions to the demise of Birju Maharaj have been mainly of unadulterated and unanimous praise, usually accompanied by snapshots taken with the maestro (the preferred term of reference for him). But a small community of dancers recounts many tales of coercion and abuse at the hands of the very same man. 

 The dance world is small and fragile. Complicity is rampant. Revenge can be swift. How easy it is to dismiss a young girl’s testimony by labelling her a bad dancer who just couldn’t cut the mark?  But no, their brave voices merit listening to. 

divinely naughty love-pranks, innocent eroticism… As dance students in Delhi’s Mandi House of the 1980’s, we were all privy to private tales and long lists of his (and many others as well) alleged predations, but in those days public renouncement didn’t seem even remotely imaginable. Instead, my female friends would heave sighs of relief that ‘nothing had happened to them’.

Yet even today people are hesitant to speak up. I contend that, again, the falsification of dance history is often the culprit. We are dancing an appropriated dance in blithe yet deliberate ignorance. We choose to see only the transcendental aspect of the dance. This pretext of spirituality can be used by gurus with predator tendencies to sexually exploit their students. So, yes, celebrate the art of a great dancer-teacher. Revel in your personal connections to him. But don’t flinch at publicly acknowledging a dark side of someone with enormous influence in the world of dance. 

 … Maharaji recalls past kathak masters, heavily moustached and bearded, who were worshipped for their near-perfect embodiments of feminine beauty… Students, connoisseurs, audiences- all have granted licence to male dancers of stature who, apart from sometimes suspect hereditary claims and serious suspicions of sexual misconduct, also manage to exploit the whole spectrum of expressions of gender and sexuality in their stage persona. We are told that in the erstwhile courts  a male dancer would sit demurely in front of a king and explore emotive dance in the feminine mode. That may be true. On the other hand,  what about the legions of young boys dressed as girls and the actual courtesans performing these dances up until not so long ago? Such memories are distasteful to most. But an avowedly heterosexual male with advertised hereditary performing origins is able to perform in this mode to enraptured acquiescence on the part of the spectators. But then why do we squirm when a queer person does the same thing or why do we whisper about antecedents when a hereditary female performer dares to go on stage today?

Disenfranchised hereditary dancers or sexually exploited young dancers are not expecting restitution or retribution. They know deep down that this would be too unreasonable a demand from such a deeply skewered system. But they do expect and deserve the recognition of historical wrongs committed, however well-meaning the protagonists may have been, and the recognition of unspeakable acts of sexual predation perpetrated by performers in positions of power. 

Now the difficult question for me is whether we can appreciate and be moved by a dancer’s art while simultaneously acknowledging the sometimes monstrous acts they have committed. I have no answer, but maybe I can fall back once again on my own writings of 35 years ago as I search for one…

Justin McCarthy is a musician, dancer, choreographer and writer. His media are piano, harpsichord and bharatnatyam. Apart from numerous choreographies in the bharatnatyam style, he has collaborated on a number of dance films. Justin has been with Ashoka since the university opened its doors in 2014 and he heads the performing arts department.

Issue 18

Budget 2022’s Big Infra Push May Flag in Face of Global Inflation 

This piece was first published by The India Cable and The Wire and has been republished here.

The Union Budget for 2022-23 can be seen as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last-ditch attempt at reviving private sector investment, which has stagnated for eight years. It must be worrying Modi that he is close to finishing a decade as prime minister, and his legacy could be remembered for poor growth in incomes, private investment, employment, savings and capital formation ― the most unenviable record for any prime minister since reforms began in 1991.

With higher revenue mobilisation and the government asset monetisation programme, the Budget aims to give a big push to public investment in infrastructure under the National Infrastructure Pipeline programme, which has identified specific projects in which Rs 20 lakh crore is to be invested annually for five years. This is the cornerstone of what finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman described as “crowding in private investment” through massive capital investment by the government. This is the core initiative to revive growth and employment. But will it succeed?

The budget allocates a 35% increase in funding for infrastructure, with Rs 7.5 lakh crore for 2022-23. It hopes that state governments will contribute their share of infrastructure funding under the PM Gati Shakti project, which aims to monetise government assets to fund new infrastructure projects earmarked in the National Infrastructure Pipeline. But to what extent will the “crowding in of private investments” be triggered by the government’s big public investment push?

The key risk flows from rising global inflation, which is at 30 year highs, and moves by central banks in the developed world to rein in liquidity and raise interest rates rapidly in 2023. The US Federal Reserve intends to raise interest rates three or four times to combat inflation, which can be the biggest dampener for growth and employment. India cannot be insulated from this broader trend and assumptions of GDP growth and employment generation based on massive infrastructure investment cannot but be impacted by global liquidity conditions and inflation.

M.K. Venu is a Founding Editor of The Wire. As an active economic and political writer, he has held leadership roles in newspapers such as The Economic Times, The Financial Express and The Hindu. He has written extensively on economic policy matters.

Issue 18

Money, Money, Money- Always Funny in the Twitter World!

Editors : Jaidev Pant, Lakshya Sharma and Maahira Jain.

Issue 18

Harvesting a Vote Bank

As the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh gear up for their respective state elections, political parties are making several promises to the farmers of the two states. The looming shadow of the year-long farmer’s agitation that ended in November 2021 with the repeal of the three farm laws has made its mark, as political parties have taken resurgent interest in farmer’s issues. In Punjab, farmers’ unions who were part of the agitation have created their own political party, Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) to contest the state elections. Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has sustained his campaign against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the face of the elections.

Amidst the debate and the rhetoric around farmer’s issues, we take a look into the promises made for the farmers by the main contenders in the upcoming elections of UP and Punjab. 

In Uttar Pradesh, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is primarily banking on agricultural schemes and decisions it had already implemented, both at the state and center to campaign among the farmers. Sugarcane prices have been a contentious issue in Uttar Pradesh, especially the Western UP region where 40 lakh farmers grow sugarcane. In 2021, the UP government had increased the purchasing price of sugarcane by Rs 25 per quintal, hoping to pursue the UP farmer population. However, the opposition has not shied away from pointing out that sugar mills are yet to clear around Rs 2000 crore pending dues to farmers. 

The BJP is also campaigning on the basis of national level schemes such as the PM Kisan Nidhi instalments, which it claims has benefitted numerous farmers. On the issue of guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP), which emerged as one of the main demands of farmers during their year-long protest, the BJP has largely stayed silent. Overall, the party has primarily chosen to campaign on the issue of better law and order, occasionally raising issues around “Jinnah”, or “80 vs 20 elections”, in what can be seen as a way to polarise Hindu-Muslim voters. 

The alliance of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have emerged as the main challengers to the incumbent BJP. The alliance has opted to heavily emphasise on farmers issues throughout their campaign. In a press conference dedicated to farmers’ issues, former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of SP stated that upon coming to power their government will make a law to assure MSP for every crop. 

Additionally, he also stated that his government will provide free electricity up to 300 units which will benefit the farmers immensely. The party also promised to provide free irrigation facilities for the farmers. Yadav also mentioned that a Farmers Corpus Fund and a Farmers Revolving Fund would be created to pay arrears to sugarcane farmers within 15 days of their government formation. He further stated that farmers will be granted interest free loans, while insurance and pension schemes will be implemented for their benefit. 

Another big promise that the SP-RLD alliance has made is that it will withdraw all cases filed against farmers during the year long agitation. They have promised to pay a compensation of Rs 25 lakhs to the family of each farmer who died during the protest. Additionally, they have assured to grant the status of ‘martyrs’ to the farmers who died during the protests. RLD leader Jayant Choudhury’s claim that “this is an election between ‘ganna’ (sugarcane) vs ‘Jinnah’” seems to epitomise the campaign approaches of the two main contenders in Uttar Pradesh. 

In Punjab, the state which participated most vehemently in the farmer’s agitation, the upcoming election is witnessing a tri-cornered contest. While incumbent Congress is looking to retain power, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and the alliance of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are seen as the main challengers. Responsible for the supply of wheat and paddy to most of the country, the farmers of Punjab have been promised several benefits by each party. 

The Congress recently released a ‘farm model, ’ which promises to help farmers steer out of the wheat-paddy cycle by replacing paddy with diversified crops, thereby allowing beneficial returns. The party has promised the procurement of dal, oilseeds, and maize at guaranteed MSPs through state cooperatives and corporations. The party has also promised to create a parallel market intervention scheme under which the government would pay the differential between market selling price and MSP directly to the farmers. 

Similarly, the SAD-BSP alliance has also promised to introduce MSP for fruits and vegetables and pay the differential to farmers. The alliance further promised crop insurance for any damage of crops during the protests. The alliance also acknowledged the need to end the culture of over-reliance on wheat and paddy crops in the state. 

Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party has promised to make farming profitable through a ‘special plan.’ While the special plan itself has not been revealed, nor a manifesto published, the AAP has made several pledges through its campaigns. The party has promised that upon forming the government farmers will be paid crop loss compensation by April 30th. The party also stated that they would facilitate the use of stubble for power, cardboard and agro-based industries, and DAP fertilisers. 

Uttar Pradesh will vote from February 10th to March 7th in seven phases, meanwhile Punjab is set to vote on 20th February in a single phase. The results will be announced on 10th March. While the election rhetoric has often tended to shift towards religious and caste based issues in both the states, the impact of the farmers protests have assured that agrarian issues are not overlooked by the parties. One can imagine the stakes for the farmers to be higher in these state elections given the backdrop of a successful farmers’ agitation and given that agriculture remains a state subject. 

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics. 

Picture Credits: Al Jazeera

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 18

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) by Jim Sharman

The enduring, timeless quality of cult classics is that they don’t make much sense to those outside the fan following. That’s a part of their charm and Rocky Horror Picture Show embodies this queer fact. Full of catchy musical numbers, elaborate costumes and a stellar ensemble cast – this virtually plotless film has had fans coming back to it every week for the past 46 years. Thus, making it the longest-running theatrical release in film history. 

The film chronicles the story of newlyweds Brad and Janet who find themselves stranded at a certain Dr Frank N Furter’s castle. Though, a dark secret lies ahead. The movie’s dark humour constantly references the old-school low budget horror films of the 1920s and has an embedded hedonistic motto for its audience – give yourself over to absolute pleasure. 

Image Credits : Twitter

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University. 

Issue 18

Only Murders In The Building : A Must Watch For Every Hardy Boys Fan Out There

Only Murders in the Building, created by Steve Martin & John Hoffman, is for the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie and true-crime enthusiasts among us. When a murder takes place in the building of the Arconia in New York, three neighbours find each other through their love for true-crime podcasts and vow to find the killer. Relying on their vast knowledge of true crime (derived from their hours of listening to podcasts), the three embark on a journey that is shrouded in intrigue, clues, red herrings and plot twists. Along with the classic case of ‘Whodunit?’, the series has perfectly placed and intimately nuanced comedic dialogue and witty quips — strengthened by the chemistry of the three main characters. 

The three neighbours, Charles Haden-Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), differ not only in terms of their personality but also age. Charles and Oliver are in their 70s, whereas Mabel is in her 20s. Though the generational gap jokes are plenty (Charles debates on whether to sign off on a text with Warm Regards — a wonderfully polite way of greeting that maybe we could all benefit from), what makes this show unique is its approach to age and the way they embrace it. The three find solace in each other, and realise that their past – regardless of how many years lived – bring them closer together. They are lonely and are all dealing with instances in their life that they have not confronted. The show also breaks the bounds of temporality. Our three crime fanatics are digging around the victim’s past so that they can solve the mystery, however, they are also trying to move forward in their own lives — and break their own monotony. Where there is death, perhaps there is also the birth of a new life for one who is frozen in time. 

The three characters evolve and change over the ten episodes, and each scene gives you an insight into their lives while making you desperately crave for more. The show may first seem like a parody of the age of bingeing, true crime stories, and podcasts – and it occasionally is- but it also serves as a celebration of fan culture and obsessive consumption of entertainment — and mysteries. 

As Oliver asks Mabel,Those are our proverbial onions, raw and peeled. And yours? Care to peel for us?” — Only Murders in the Building peels each layer of the mystery and the subtleties of human emotion and delivers it in a perfect blend of excitement and humour. 

Image credits: The Print

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Issue 18

Escape Simulator: A Thrilling Experience and Challenging Game, Designed to Escape the Virtual Vacuum

Escape simulator is a first-person view virtual escape room game, perfect for any puzzle lover. Created by developer Pine Studio, it offers three thematic adventures: The Labyrinth of Egypt, Adrift in Space, and Edgewood Manor, each with 5 levels of increasing difficulty. Based on real-life escape rooms, AV Club hailed it as a “near-perfect substitute for the real thing”.The game brings you all the simple joys and thrills of escaping a fake locked room by finding clues, unlocking doors and solving riddles that the pandemic took away right from the comfort of your home. 

Once in a room, you have fifteen minutes to escape the highly interactive and immersive room by moving things around, picking them up and even breaking them. You can continue solving puzzles even after the timer ends, making beating the clock even more of an achievement. The game is full of eureka moments that truly bring you the satisfaction of solving a good riddle and well-designed puzzles. 

The game also has an online co-op mode so you can replicate the feeling of yelling at your friends when a clue gets too frustrating. Lastly, for those who conquer the game, there is an additional editor mode that allows you to create your own rooms as well as play hundreds of community designed rooms so that the adventure never ends. 

Reya Daya is a third-year student, studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 18

Could Home-schooling Have Saved India’s Students During COVID?

India shares a grim pedestal with Nepal and Bolivia as the country with the second-longest school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic at a staggering 82 weeks. The justification for this measure has recently fallen out of favour with public health experts, parents and educators

Among many is the reason that online learning has exacerbated the existing education crisis of low literacy and a high drop-out rate. This is attributed to unequal access to resources like electricity and digital devices. Though alternative education models like distance learning and open schooling have existed alongside traditional schools for decades, they have not been able to offset the gaps left by online learning during the last two years. 

Under the current legal framework, the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) functions as the only National Board of Education for open schooling at the pre-university level. Under NIOS, NGOs and Institutes run affiliated centres which acquire and distribute self-learning material to enrolled students. Exams are conducted at government schools twice a year or on-demand for classes III, V, VIII, X & XII, with a liberal 9 attempts allowed in 5 years. 

NIOS was set up by the Ministry of Human Resources and Development in 1989 and currently stands as the largest open schooling system in the world. Though there are multiple other ‘boards’ like the All India Council for Open Schooling which are established as educational institutions that mimic the working of a school board, they have the legal validity of a coaching centre since they are not affiliated with NIOS. 

More than 5 lakh non-traditional learners depend upon NIOS for getting their recognised passing certificates that are required to get admission into higher education. This group includes the ones disproportionately affected by the pandemic: children of migrants, those living in rural areas, and women. 

Thus, ‘home-schooling’ is an elusive concept in the formalised education culture of India. Parents cannot, by law, register themselves as their children’s educators. To gain any real economic value out of home-based education, children need to be enrolled under NIOS affiliated centres. As philosophies of homeschooling gain popularity amongst India’s urban middle-class, cases like that of Malvika Raj Joshi are bound to crop up. In 2016, the 17-year-old was given admission into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after being rejected by IITs since she did not have a formal Class X or XII qualification. Malvika’s mother had pulled her out of school when she was 13 and had set up a learning environment at home.  MIT based her admission and a scholarship on 3 medals at the prestigious International Informatics Olympiad.

For the urban poor and the rural children in India, access to other types of merit certifications like an International Olympiad are far from the realm of possibility. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021, the proportion of children not enrolled in schools in rural India grew from 2.5% in 2018 to 4.6% in 2021. A survey by the Brookings Institution among children in Chennai revealed that a fifth of the children surveyed were enrolled in schools that did not offer remote learning facilities. Without access to basic schooling, external examinations remain a far-fetched luxury. 

A caveat to this data is that enrollment does not imply education. A study conducted by the Azim Premji Foundation last year found that about 60% of India’s children do not have access to digital learning tools. 

A natural answer to this digital divide in education could have been open learning platforms under the NIOS. Although reality treads in the other direction. According to a report by the Times of India, NIOS saw its lowest enrollment in 2021.  

A possible reason for this slump maps on to the same digital divide that has plagued traditional schools. NIOS is heavily dependent on technology to deliver its learning materials in using the radio, television or online libraries. Legislation by the government like the National Education Policy, 2020, through which a virtual open learning school was constituted last year, moves towards a digitally dependent growth of NIOS. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Central government had partnered with UNICEF to deliver remote learning material to students in lockdown via radio, TV, and internet-based learning. After two years of an ever evident lack of digital infrastructure, this line of policies has continued with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman mentioning PM’s e-Vidya programme in her Union Budget speech to Parliament. The full potential of distance and open learning seems to be limited by the same issues that have restricted traditional schools. 

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 18

‘There is as much cacophony in policy-making corridors as there is out on the streets’: Immunologist Satyajit Rath on Scientific Policymaking

In many ways, the complex interplay between fear, trust, and evidence have been the hallmarks of our collective pandemic experience. We have learnt to fear large numbers in the form of mounting cases, all the while trusting the vaccines by the way of their efficacy data. How policy-makers communicate evidence has been crucial to which impulse our attention rests at—fear or trust. 

In this insightful interview, visiting Professor of Immunology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Satyajit Rath in conversation with Rutuparna Deshpande answers the perennial dilimmeas of evidence-based policymaking.

The pandemic has revealed that ‘fear’ is a powerful emotional contagion among the non-expert population. How do you think policy-makers can balance stating the facts ‘as is’ and avoiding unrealistic speculations in public opinion?

It might be useful to make three preliminary points. One is that the distinction between ‘expert’ and ‘non-expert’, commonly thought of as clear, is anything but. ‘Expertise’ is a complex landscape, and most of us have a bit of it in some area and very little in most others. Therefore, ‘experts’ speaking to the rest of us poor souls ex cathedra is more pretence than substance. And a lot if not most of the times, policy-makers are not actually ‘experts’, they are simply getting advice from semi-randomly chosen groups of people with some expertise. A second point is that fear for oneself, one way or another, is not restricted to the ‘non-experts’; so-called ‘experts’ have it quite as much, and sometimes perhaps even more. And finally, neither the category of ‘policy-makers’ nor the ‘rest of us’ are a homogeneous body; both groups vary widely in perspectives, prejudices and predilections. There is as much cacophony in policy-making corridors as there is out on the streets.

That said, the only meaningful way we have of dealing with fear is through empowerment, which comes from evidence-based, self-correcting and cautious narratives of cause and effect. For this, governing authorities need to stop pretending that they have more ‘facts’ than they do, that their ‘facts’ are more clear than they actually are, and that these ‘facts’ indicate certain policies more unequivocally than they do. This elaborate pretence has long been a norm of governance in India, and we are all aware of and accustomed to it. That is in part why we, as the governed, trust government pronouncements less that the crazed claims of random weirdos on social media. It is crucial for ‘the authorities’ to explain the strengths as well as the weaknesses of currently available evidence, to explain the ongoing efforts to fill the gaps, and to discuss both the robust and the tentative components of the resultant policies. Mature collective sharing of the current state of evidence, explanations and strategies, warts and all, is the only way to avoid falling into diverse kinds of private terror-filled frenzies.

Numbers have played a large role in how we perceive the soundness of restrictions. Do you think absolute numbers rather than relative numbers are useful in having a well-informed population?

 I think that both absolute and relative numbers matter; I think it is useful to have as many ways of looking at and thinking about evidence as possible. But there is an additional point involved here. I think we have needed much more by way of numbers than we have had. People tend to look at their local experience, and they notice the discrepancies between those local experiences and the ‘national’ or ‘state’ numbers that come up prominently in public discourse. I think that it has been important to provide local numbers, not simply of ‘cases’, but of tests done, ‘positivity rates’, numbers of people who are seriously ill, numbers of local critical care beds available and occupied, so that the gap between what people experience anecdotally and what numbers are discussed as the bases for local restrictive policies is reduced as much as possible, helping policies make sense.

Some social media users have expressed confusion over the rapidly changing guidelines and advisories by the ICMR. How can policy-makers efficiently respond to an evolving pandemic while communicating rules in a timely manner?

 In an emerging and new situation, when the evidence is still fragmentary, when interpretations are changing, and when policies do need to be changed periodically in response to better, though still provisional, understanding, these kinds of confusions are almost unavoidable. Paradoxically, acknowledging that would help more than making each iteration sound like it was written in stone.

As Omicron has surged, breakthrough infections have become increasingly common. In light of this, how do you think policy-makers can distill convincing evidence for the vaccine’s effectiveness in the Indian context?

To begin with, it must be noted that all covid vaccines have been tested for protection against serious illness, and not so much against ‘infection’ of the asymptomatic or mild-illness kind. This protection appears to be still quite robust even against the omicron strains. However, sadly, India’s vaccine effectiveness monitoring has never been particularly reliable. Despite a year-long vaccination campaign, and apparent access to large-scale evidence about who is vaccinated, who is testing positive, and who is landing up in hospital, we still do not know how well our current two vaccines have protected and are protecting against severe covid illness, whether there is a difference between them, whether they have been differently effective in mid-2021 versus early 2022, and so on. While claims, including official ones, have been made about some of these questions, the actual evidence has been scarce. It is therefore unclear if these questions can ever be clarified with reliable, substantial and large-scale numbers, though one lives in hope.

Dr. Satyajit Rath is a visiting professor of immunology at the Indian Institute of Science, Education, and Research.

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