Shiv Visvanathan on Rajni Kothari

January 21, 2015

In the Hindu:

Rajni had a playful response to criticism. I remember when a Serbic Marxist wrote a critique of his work claiming that Kothari had forgotten to mention the word class. With easy equanimity Rajni replied that he had not mentioned cucumbers either. This ease was important because the period of the 1960s and the 1970s was dominated by a pompous left which treated Marxism with a form of idolatry. Rajni felt that Marxist critiques dealt more with the formal economy and had little place for marginal groups and the informal economy. Little protests did not acquire the officialdom of trade union struggles. The movements alone in the era, Chipko, Narmada, Balliapal and fishermen struggle in Kerala had to struggle with the official radicalism which refused to go beyond conventional categories. CSDS became an archive and a sounding board for many of these struggles which linked ecology, livelihood and empowerment to the still life of electoral democracy. Rajni had an easy way of pushing younger colleagues to stretch beyond themselves. I remember when the Bhopal gas disaster occurred. He looked at me and said, “Let’s see if your work on science helps. Pack up. You are leaving for Bhopal tomorrow.” When I began my work on science and violence, he sent me to Hiroshima requesting the Mayor to take me around the city. He believed that projects should begin as pilgrimages; he was always nudging us to see linkages and connectivities. He never lectured, and wanted us to discover and internalise and share our insights. For him mistakes were something precious one owned up to. He was a great teacher but always taught by anecdote and example.

I must confess that in the final decade, many of us moved away from the Centre and Rajni. Quarrels are important because they mark the contours of a relationship. One felt that the Centre was now imitating itself rather than inventing ideas. In spite of having moved on and all the distance I realised how much the Centre had taught me.

In his final years, Rajni Kothari was a lonely man — ill and broken by the death of his wife Hansa and son Smithu. In the meanwhile, political science had lost its flavour of dissent. It had become a game of think tanks and Rajni must have watched it with wry sadness, a prophet abandoned by his own community. But the future will no doubt celebrate the man.

Economics and astrology

January 20, 2015

David J Griffiths in his Millikan lecture 1997: Is there a text in this class? makes the following statement:

People who believe in UFOs and astrology are, on the whole, merely pathetic, but those who think you can run a modern society without taxes are downright dangerous.

The piece of Ashok Desai in Telegraph reminded me of this statement of Griffiths; Desai has some recommendations to the prime minister:

Growth of manufacturing output has been close to zero in recent months; industrial investment is also negligible. Till six months ago, this could be blamed on the UPA government. Industrialists did so, and funded the Bharatiya Janata Party generously. But the economic environment has hardly improved; if it continues to be bad for another six months, the industry-BJP honeymoon will also turn sour. The Prime Minister’s solution – asking foreign businesses to come to India – will not solve the problem.

If he wants a serious answer, Raghuram Rajan gave one in his Bharat Ram memorial lecture. It is well thought-out. Rajan is in the wrong job. He should be finance minister; Jaitley might do a better job in external affairs. And for commerce and industry, the Prime Minister simply does not have a minister in his party; it calls for abolition or a radical reconstruction – what we used to call reforms two decades ago.

Economists do have ideologies, but are generally not party creatures. No respectable economist has Hindu nationalist inclinations: the ideology is mistaken according to economics. So it was no wonder that Jaitley made the first budget in India’s history without a chief economic advisor. Now he has one – a very good one – who organized a conference of economists in the first week of December. It was a good idea, but for the fact that the distinguished economists who had been flown in from abroad had little idea of the problems facing India.

But the planning commission has been emptied, and remains a shell. The Prime Minister has got one big office building close to his office, with no people in it. In my column of September 3, I suggested that he should create a think tank that would connect India’s 139 best economists with policymakers through an equal number of research assistants. It did not strike me then, but it would not work, because Modi’s ministers are largely incapable of using economists or research assistants. Meanwhile, we have the most desperate economic situation in 60 years, and the present government has to live through it. It is important in these difficult times that it should have the best judgment and counsel available to it. The Prime Minister should revive his predecessor’s Economic Advisory Council, appoint any economists he likes to it, and consult it frequently; he cannot do without economics.

A good piece!

Teaching as inspiring

January 20, 2015

The post number 1379 of tomorrow’s professor is a must read:

As we go more and more toward class technology and a “facilitating” rather than an exemplary role for college teachers, the opportunity for students to be personally inspired by ennobling figures like Gullberg, Stebbins, and Eakin gets less and less. Not every teacher will or can be like those extraordinary people, but students in their first years of college need to be exposed to at least a few. Students may be able to understand the idea of DNA synthesis better with sophisticated graphics and a virtual teacher than with a mediocre live lecturer but no kid is going to say, “When I grow up, I want to be just like Dr. Macintosh here.” Things like TED and MOOCS are great for expanding the exposure of great teachers, but nobody watching those broadcasts has the feeling that the lecturer is talking to THEM. So, in the new world of large class college teaching where there is scant opportunity for students to be personally exposed to experienced, motivating teachers, how are we going to INSPIRE students, especially the non-traditional ones?

A great piece!

Worthiness apart from performance

January 17, 2015

A link I got thanks to Hariharan.

On the death of an author

January 17, 2015

Suchitra Vijayan in The Hindu:

Right-wing Hinduism, mostly alien to Tamil Nadu, has become increasingly normalised. Liberal freedoms are under threat, in the guise of language marchers, the morality police, religious rioters and the many-headed mobs. Ironically, the state that is meant to protect has remained a mute spectator allowing Perumal Murugan’s constitutionally protected right to become subverted. At the same time, with exemplary zeal, the government has passed laws like the Tamil Nadu Entry into Public Places (Removal of Restriction of Dress) Act, 2014, that unconstitutionally legislate on issues relating to private bodies purely with an intention to expand its voter’s base. The State government no longer governs in furtherance of the Constitution, but in the perusal of votes at the cost of subverting fundamental rights.

Take a look!

Continuing journey of a musician

January 15, 2015

A must-read from Sanjay!

On growing intolerance of fringe groups

January 14, 2015

The Hindu Editorial:

Noted Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan’s Facebook page went blank on Tuesday in a virtual closure of his identity as a writer, in a shocking illustration of the growing intolerance of fringe groups constricting public discourse. It is ironic that the author was made to virtually recant to buy peace after the recent controversy over his novel Madhorubhagan, first published in December 2010, purportedly offended the sensibilities of some dominant sections of society in the western ‘Kongu’ belt of Tamil Nadu. This, ironically at a time when many parts of the world are uniting in solidarity to uphold freedom of expression in the wake of the terror attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

 

Chronicler of Kongu

January 12, 2015

A R Venkatachalapathy in The Hindu. A must-read and I also hope that we do not go down this route of book burning and banning.

Panchayat elections and eligibility criterion to contest

January 5, 2015

Aruna Roy in The Hindu:

The introduction of educational qualifications as eligibility criteria for contesting panchayat elections has shocked and angered rural Rajasthan, including supporters of the ruling BJP.

A must-read article for some of the interesting anecdotes and incidents that Roy describes:

I have been trained for 40 years of my life, particularly in democracy, ethics, and governance, by illiterate but highly educated people in rural India. We have traded skills. Naurti, now Sarpanch of Harmara (Ajmer district), is “illiterate,” but learnt to use the computer at the age of 50 and teaches middle and high school dropouts how to use the computer. She has no class 8 certificate, but uses the website of the Ministry of Rural Development. Who is more skilled between us is debatable. I would not advocate that Naurti head the Ministry of Human Resource Development or that she teach me Shakespeare, but in matters of governance in the panchayat she is heaps better. My informal learning about the invention of scientific thought, of Galileo and Kalidasa, have provided a worldview worth the learning. But I am not equipped like Naurti to understand the nitty-gritty of getting a panchayat quorum to take a difficult and just decision when faced with a contentious issue. I do not know if I could face the ire and possibility of violence for standing against sati, without caste or money on my side, as she did. She will not be trapped into a situation by unethical, unjust people; nor will she be trapped by the writing on a paper that she cannot understand.

I remember Beelan, 65, scoffing at me 35 years ago saying I had nakal (copying by writing) whereas she had akal(mind). I could not remember figures and money spent, but many of my illiterate friends remembered details to the last paisa. A weaver of Ikat in Odisha is a mathematician — not only in simple arithmetic but in the intricate art of dividing numbers to form patterns.

Roy’s conclusion is also worth quoting:

The cherry on the cake is that the State government as well as the Centre proudly tout formal learning as an unnecessary criterion for choosing Ministers. In reality, 90 per cent of their work is through the written word, unlike that of the sarpanch who deals with the human condition.

Competent versus exceptional

January 3, 2015

Here is Paul Graham on the need to allow immigration of programmers into USA:

We have the potential to ensure that the US remains a technology superpower just by letting in a few thousand great programmers a year. What a colossal mistake it would be to let that opportunity slip. It could easily be the defining mistake this generation of American politicians later become famous for. And unlike other potential mistakes on that scale, it costs nothing to fix.

So please, get on with it.

Of course the entire discussion is based on the premise that

… there is a huge variation in ability between competent programmers and exceptional ones, and while you can train people to be competent, you can’t train them to be exceptional. Exceptional programmers have an aptitude for and interest in programming that is not merely the product of training.

I do not know how far it is true and if true, why it is so. Of course, that would be the most interesting question to ask and the answer might be worth the pursuit!


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