Monday, 9 December 2013

Our New National Epidemic

This is a column I wrote for the June 2013 edition of the Youth INC magazine.I'm reproducing it here . This is a world away from the topics I usually comment upon. Hoping it makes for an insightful read.The original can be read at the Youth Inc website.

 Students in India have always incurred some kind of ragging or bullying in their  lives. Society has grown to accept it but there are horrible consequences no one talks about. Nisarg Kamdar investigates
Bullying and ragging have long remained a smear on independent India’s script. Countless efforts have been undertaken to tackle the deepening menace and various legislations have been enacted, and while some have been effective, there is an overwhelming feeling that the law can have more of an impact to improve security of students in Indian institutes.


Ragging is widely defined as ‘any action or situation created by a group to intentionally produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule among those wishing to join the group.’
Professor of psychology, and a key researcher in bullying, Dan Olweus defines school bullying in a general way as “repeated negative, ill-intentioned behaviour by one or more students directed against a student who has difficulty defending himself or herself.  Most bullying occurs without any apparent provocation on the part of the student who is exposed.”
The fundamental difference between ragging and bullying is that ragging is intended as a method of initiation into the group whereas bullying is intended at keeping the victim ostracised.


While ragging was originally meant to help freshers mingle with their seniors and break the ice, it has become a tool for seniors to impose social hierarchy and implement their will upon their juniors.
Bullying on the other hand arose due to school students seeking an effective way of making themselves known. It is heralded as a product of low self esteem by modern day psychologists.


When it comes to ragging, a victim who has been physically and mentally tormented by his seniors might start believing them to be his friends who are putting him through a rough time to prepare him for the future. This can be equated with Stockholm Syndrome where a kidnap victim empathises with their captors after having spent enough time in their presence. Unfortunately, this will ultimately result in the victim justifying the act of ragging who will, in turn, impose it on their juniors in the following years.
Bullying causes physical and emotional pain among the victims from continuous tormenting by their perpetrators. But with time, the effect is also felt by the perpetrator who spirals further into trouble-making activities which can be in the form of conduct 

disorder, substance abuse and other forms of crime.


When it comes to ragging, helplines are crucial to aid a student who is suffering from turmoil at the hands of his seniors under the guise of a socially accepted norm. However, strict laws need to be set up which will allow legal redressal to the victim and book the perpetrators for their heinous acts. It is only by effective legal recourse that a mass taboo would be placed upon the act of ragging, thereby eradicating it from our schools and colleges.
Bullying dances to a different fiddle since it stems from a psychologically affected individual or group of individuals who are asserting their will upon a weaker person. Emphasis should be laid on providing appropriate care to the victim as well as to the perpetrator in the form of counselling and psychiatric therapy. Restructuring the juvenile crime system will also allow strict legislation which will nip the root in its bud and help eradicate the problem from modern society.


The University Grants Commission established a 24×7 helpline to aid any students who have been victims of ragging. The student may call the toll free number 1800-805522 or send an email to helpline@antiragging. net to file a complaint.


In December 2004, a 19-year-old electronics and communication engineering student committed suicide by hanging himself from a ceiling fan in his hostel room at SKR Engineering College in Tambaram, Tamil Nadu. The student was being continuously ragged and humiliated by his seniors to the extent that he was forced to bathe in his own urine. Unfortunately,  his written complaints to college authorities were ignored which led to this drastic recourse of taking his own life.


India ranks third after China and Singapore when it comes to cyber bullying. Reports have indicated that cyber bullying cases persist in the country due to perpetrators believing that they can get away scot free and because of intolerance towards minority groups who have been the prime victims of the crime. Cyber bullying is punishable under Section 66A of the IT Act which states that a person can be booked for sending false, offensive messages through communication services.


Many Bollywood celebrities are openly against ragging and have spoken about the need to eradicate it. Amitabh Bachchan has vaguely spoken of a traumatic ragging encounter in his college days while Arjun Rampal has also spoken of a vow he took in college to never rag his juniors after he was subjected to ragging by his seniors. During the launch of 3 Idiots, Aamir Khan said that the film was specifically anti ragging and hoped to highlight problems in the education system.

Education in Cyberspace

This is a column I wrote for the March 2013 edition of the Youth INC magazine.I'm reproducing it here .The original can be read at the Youth Inc website. 
As the Internet evolves before our very eyes, it takes on every role imaginable – entertainer, informer, communicator and even educator. Nisarg Kamdar analyses the e-learning trend and what it means for India’s future

Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education, famously commented in 2002 – a period when Internet penetration was woefully low – “Education is the only business still debating the usefulness of technology.” Eleven years on, it can be stated that the debate has been settled and the Internet has been identified as technology critical in advancing affordable education and curating ideas.
As Internet penetration steadily climbs, online education, or e-learning as it is referred to in popular parlance, is gaining traction in India. An article in the Times of India forecast India’s online education market expanding into a $40 billion industry by 2017, a 100 per cent rise from current levels. In spite of having one of the largest education systems in the world with a network of more than 1 million schools and 18,000 higher education institutions, levels of  education and literacy haven’t necessarily inspired confidence. A concerted campaign to develop and integrate online learning tools with traditional methods of imparting knowledge can go a long way in filling this lacuna.

Initiatives of the Government
Having recognised the challenge of educating such a populous country plagued by a severe scarcity of teachers and decrepit infrastructure, the government has devoted a substantial amount of its resources to establishing a vigorous foundation for online education. The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning or NPTEL is a government-sponsored initiative to develop curriculum-based content to aid engineering education of undergraduates. A large number of videos from some of the premier institutes of the country have been hosted on the website with the sole aim of enhancing the quality and the approach to technical education in India. Phase 1 has some 600 courses being covered.
Phase 2 of the programme envisages the entire spectrum of the IITs, NITs and IISc being content generators. The credibility and impact of the enterprise will be catapulted, once value-added case studies are appended and experiential learning features are implemented. Phase 2 marks a major milestone with its inclusion of question banks and case studies in the courses, which is a euphemism for enforcing herd mentality. The provenance of innovation and research is embedded in questions arising from the unencumbered cognitive centres of the pupil rather than being fed with questions to ponder over. The latter is a self defeating exercise and it would be a sheer tragedy to burden online education with this burden.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS)
MOOCs have fundamentally altered the education that was being imparted, and engineered a global shift in the scope, blurring the limitations which so distinctly existed only yesterday. Geographical boundaries have been bulldozed, and attending a class in Political Science offered by MIT is eminently possible. There is a critical difference which delineates this bunch of resources from your regular animated curriculum material – the experience is engrossing and augmented by social interaction, thus enabling features such as peer-reviewed papers.
Aniket Parikh, a second year student of Mining Engineering at IIT Kanpur, opines, “I believe that even though e-learning definitely has long-term potential in India, the right way to go about it is systematically via establishment of prerequisite infrastructure and distribution conduits.” Indians are the second largest group registering on e-learning websites, which is testimony to the growing influence of online education and sustained shift towards a more refined approach to intellectual stimulation. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, a not-for-profit Harvard-MIT joint venture, was the benefactor of $60 million in funding to host a huge basket of lectures from the colleges online, believes that MOOCs are “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.” The influence of these resources is further amplified by the inability of a substantial number of major universities in offering simultaneous dual degrees. In the 21st century where one is expected to possess a working knowledge of every element and field one interacts with during the course of his professional work, such monolithic systems are strenuous and counterproductive.
There should be a clear move towards encouraging enrolling for dual undergraduate courses simultaneously. An upcoming field is patent lawsuits, for which one needs to be familiar with the finer nuances of law and technology. Unfortunately, this is a field dominated by lawyers with absolutely no knowledge of the technical intricacies. Rather, an engineer or lawyer resorts to online MOOCs to gain familiarity with the opposite field as the university still seems reluctant to enforce these reforms. Mumbai University’s decision to allow technical degrees to be pursued in conjunction with legal qualifications must be applauded in this light.

Harsh Swaminarayan, an IT engineer who teaches at a public school in Dadar, regularly uses Khan Academy for displaying “simulation and videos explaining scientific concepts.” Harsh strongly believes that aids like Khan Academy help him establish a teaching schedule more suitable to the students grasping capabilities, rather than leading the entire batch at the same pace doing justice to neither the fast pickers nor those encountering difficulties with the subject.

That online education is basal to any sustainable education revolution in this country is beyond reproach, but a certain degree of caution is indispensable when observing the participation of Indian companies and universities in this. Their work has left a lot to be desired and one ends with the hope that Indian companies would refrain from re branding the various audio and video cassettes that were popular in the ’90s as online education, but rather pioneer an era of revolutionary education tools, available across the length and breadth of the country.

Geographical boundaries have been bulldozed, and attending a class in Political Science offered by MIT is possible[...]The experience is augmented by social interaction [and] [...]features such as peer-reviewed papers
Online Course Providers
The leaders in the MOOCs space, as featured by Business Standard are:

1. Coursera (US): for-profit, close to 2 million users, 5 per cent from India; offers 203 free courses as well as paid certificate courses which comes with an exam to judge the knowledge grasped.
2. Khan Academy (US): for-profit, founded by the ‘other’ Salman Khan, of Bangladeshi origin. His YouTube maths and science videos are highly popular in high school owing to their stress on basics and interactive tests.
3. edX (US): non-profit, founded by MIT and Harvard University. Courses are offered only in science subjects as of now, specifically in computer science.
4. Udacity (US): for-profit, outgrowth of free computer science classes offered in 2011 through Stanford University.

The Politics of Youth

With the rise of younger politicians in India’s political playground, Nisarg Kamdar profiles some of the players and gauges their skills on the field

While the Indian National Congress (INC) certainly has a more obvious youth presence and a greater number of youth politicians in the media limelight, one has to note with a tinge of regret that an extremely high percentage of those are a product of dynastic politics. Either their ancestors were themselves politicians, thus establishing a direct link, or were public servant officials during the Nehru-Gandhi reign and have successfully made the transition to politics – like Kanishka Singh, son of former foreign secretary and Arunachal Pradesh governor S.K. Singh, who has now successfully ingratiated himself in Rahul Gandhi’s inner political circle. In fact, a huge chunk of Rahul Gandhi’s close aides include sons and daughters of former loyalists.
The Congress’s youth battalion is led by Rahul Gandhi, though he seems to be perilously close to breaching the youth bulwark at 42 years. Some more popular faces are Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia, a descendant of the Scindia dynasty that represents Guna district in Parliament. Scindia is the present Union Minister of Power, a very crucial ministry considering the colossal power crisis pestering India. Other notable names are Jitin Prasada, Mausam Noor, Milind Deora, Priya Dutt and Navin Jindal – all descendants of families with a rich political heritage.

Sachin Pilot
Sachin Pilot (age 35) is the present Minister of Corporate Affairs. He represents the Ajmer constituency of Rajasthan, a constituency formerly represented by his father, and is a well recognized Gujjar community leader. He is the son of Rajesh Pilot, who was a Union Minister from 1991 to 1996.
To his credit, in 2009 when he was elected, he became the youngest Member of Parliament in the country. He is the first Union Minister to be commissioned as an officer of the Territorial Army, following in the footsteps of his father who had served as a squadron leader in the Indian Air Force before diving into politics. His father adopted the last name Pilot owing to this.
His education includes a Bachelor of Arts Degree from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business, USA. In 2004 he married Sara, former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s daughter, deftly navigating heavy opposition from Sara’s family.
He stuck to his father’s tradition of holding an ‘Open House’ every morning where people from his constituency drop in to interact with him. One of his most pertinent qualities, as writer Aashti Bhartia notes in her debut novel Votes of Confidence, is his ‘self-conscious evenness’. Aashti notes that unlike most politicians, Sachin speaks in the same tone and dialect in his constituency as he would in Delhi, giving him a much sought-after air of credibility.
During his stint in the Ministry of Information Technology, he attempted to help non-English communities access mobile Internet. He was acutely aware of the fact that far greater resources needed to be devoted to develop locally relevant content in local languages.
Sachin has stated that he wishes to make the Ministry of Corporate Affairs a more approachable ministry that facilitates and “reduces the cumbersome nature of the red tapism and the time lag that we have sometimes”.

The BJP’s youth connect is primarily through its youth wing, the All India Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which is its All India Student Council.

Anurag Singh Thakur
Anurag Thakur (age 38) is a member of the Lok Sabha, representing the Hamirpur constituency in Himachal Pradesh. He is the son of the present Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Prem Singh Dhumal. Anurag has a Rajput lineage.
Thakur, unlike most of his compatriots in the Congress, completed his education in India itself. He claims to have dropped his last name in a bid to pre-empt any accusations of dynastic politics.
Anurag became the President of Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association at the tender age of 25 years, at a time when cricket administration is dominated by career politicians or established professionals. He is widely appreciated for enabling international matches to be played at the HPCA Stadium in Dharamshala, a challenge which was exacerbated by the fact that the stadium is situated at a height of 1,457 m above sea level amid snow-capped mountains in the backdrop.
From there on, Anurag worked his way up to become the President of the All India Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. He was an integral part of the controversial Tiranga Yatra which aimed to hoist the Indian flag at Lal Chowk, Srinagar. It snowballed into a huge political charade and polarised opinion against him.
In spite of this, Anurag has an affable nature and inclination to interact with people. He has the knack of being able to converse to an industrialist and an activist for the rights of eunuchs in the same breath, which will hold him in good stead if one were to go by the age old adage – politics is the art of compromise.

Nationalist Congress Party
The two prominent youthful faces of the NCP, a party strongly rooted to Maharashtra, are Agatha Sangma and Supriya Sule. Supriya is the daughter of NCP head and Union Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar while Agatha is the daughter of P.A.Sangma, a former Lok Sabha speaker and Chief Minister of Meghalaya, who recently lost to Pranab Mukherjee in the Presidential elections.

 Agatha Sangma

Agatha Sangma (age 32) is the youngest MP in the 15th Lok Sabha. She represents the Tura constituency of Meghalaya and won the 2009 parliamentary election as a candidate of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Having completed her LLB from Pune University, she went to Nottingham University in the UK to complete her Masters in Environmental Management. At the age of 29 she became Minister of State for Rural Development, which made her the youngest minister in the 15th Council of Ministers. She planned to ‘incorporate environmental aspects and focus on vigilance in the work being done in rural areas’ during her stint in the Ministry.
Her appointment was also an important step in reintegrating the North East with the rest of the country. Conscious of the discrimination against people from the North East in the rest of India, Agatha delivered her speech in Hindi while wearing a traditional outfit, thus making a social and political statement.

Samajwadi Party
The Samajwadi Party (SP) is today responsible for the governance of India’s most populous state – Uttar Pradesh. And it does become imperative for them to have youth representation in the party.

Akhilesh Yadav
Akhilesh Yadav is the present Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. He is the youngest CM of UP at 38 years. He is the son of SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, himself a three-time Chief Minister and a former Union Minister of Defence.
Akhilesh studied engineering in Mysore before obtaining a Masters in Environmental Engineering from University of Sydney.
Akhilesh began his political journey in 2000 when he was elected to represent the Kannauj constituency in the Lok Sabha. He was instrumental in improving the SP’s tally from 97 in 2007 to 224 in the 2012 UP Elections to the Vidhan Sabha.
He was subsequently elected the Chief Minister of the state when his father responded to popular demand. His performance in office, though, has been underwhelming. The law and order maintenance seems to have deteriorated, the youthful exuberance is absent, the investment in the state is still lackadaisical and communal tensions seem to be rising.
Many sympathise with his situation as he is a youthful CM caught in a cabinet full of party loyalists with an inflated sense of ego he cannot afford to irk.

Other Notables

Kalikesh Singh Deo of the BJD

Kalikesh represents the Bolangir constituency of Orissa and is the son Ananga Udaya Singh Deo, a veteran politician.
Kalikesh graduated from St. Stephens College, Delhi and has played basketball and shooting at the national level.
Deo was instrumental in starting the Legislative Assistance for Members of Parliament (LAMP) programme. It began on an individual basis and was later institutionalized. The programmeis an 11-month fellowship, providing the youth an opportunity to work with an MP.
Deo is currently the convener of the programme. The program is an excellent opportunity for budding politicians to acquaint themselves with the functioning of the parliamentary system and also throws up a career alternative as a political aide to an MP.

Lessons from the World’s Oldest Democracy

 This is a column I wrote for the December 2012 edition of the Youth INC magazine.I'm reproducing it here .The original can be read at the Youth Inc website.


The two-year-running acrimonious battle to be elected to the august office of the President of the United States of America culminated on November 7 with the reelection of Barack Obama. In the aftermath of this whirlwind ride, the time is ripe to stray light on the deficiencies in the Indian democratic paradigm which we can rectify by simply borrowing from the world’s oldest democracy. As Obama embarks on his second and final term in office, it is paramount upon a country that is more fixated with the political rumblings of the west than the political fortunes of mofussil leaders, to palliate the ails of the modus operandi of elections in India considering a string of state elections and national elections will be upon us with the span of the next two years.
It is preponderant to issue a disclaimer to the effect that the idea of this piece is not to lambast the election system presently existing in India nor is the author a victim of the western inferiority complex hoping to see all and sundry branded Western shipped into this country. The idea is to engage in a conversation to evolve the election process, a natural part of any modern and progressive democracy, in a bid to envelope a larger section of the populace under the canopy of enfranchisement.

This is skimming off the popular sentiment in India. Almost the entire segment of passive political watchers, those who make up for the electronic media (TV), print media (newspapers) and social media’s traffic, collectively yearn for a Prime Ministerial debate after witnessing such debates through the tools of modern technology. They are enamoured not only the content but also the measurable impact it has on the entire election morale.
The Presidential debates carried with them a certain allure and political theatre which invited viewing and catapulted the American elections to the consciousness of the world zeitgeist. But those are the ancillary benefits. For voters, it offered an opportunity to see the candidates and their ideas of America juxtaposed. It was extremely prominent that the moderator for all four debates – rather than let the candidates indulge in garrulous incontinence and lengthy diatribes – chose to purposefully draw them to the bones of contentions, thus helping delineate their positions. In fact, this cost the contender, Republican nominee Mitt Romney quite a bit, whose inability to offer nuanced details on his plan for economic revival spooked voters and which Obama played to the hilt. This is extremely crucial for India, a country where the politicians permanently float in the realm of ambiguity when it comes to policy, thus making it near impossible to differentiate the major political parties on the basis of their policy agenda. Rather, we are reduced to substituting this with religious nonsense. Having a Presidential debate can make a world of difference, pushing parties to take stand which can be represented at the debates.
Special mention must be reserved for the Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent, non-profit corporation instituted to finance and conduct debates in an efficient, unbiased and ethical manner. Their penchant for setting up debates in a manner which assists voters to draw a clear distinction between the two parties’ position is something India should adopt blindly. The moderators too were firm, erudite and quick to clamp down on any attempt to filibuster.

Surprisingly and rather unsettlingly, this slipped beneath the radar as far as popular punditry in India is concerned. Unsettling because it helps address and mitigate a much deeper wound than Presidential debate cures – the apathy and sheer torpor of the quintessential voter.
Early voting (also known as advance polling or voting) is the process by which electors can vote on a single or series of days prior to an election. The idea of early voting is to substantially pump up participation and relieve congestion of polling stations on election day.
Early voting is similar to “no-excuse” absentee voting. In many U.S. states, the period varies between four and fifty days prior to election day.
While accounting for the propensity of Indian politicians to win by artifice (it might be too early to encourage voting by post or email) the concept of early voting is certainly implementable and essential.
An array of Chief Election Commissioners have, on countless occasions, expressed disgust at the pathetic polling numbers election after election, particularly chiding the middle class and the elite for their apathy. There can be no better solution than early voting.
Early voting robs people of the perennial excuse of insufferably long lines and irksome timings. Also, it absolves the need to have election day as one another in the long list of national holidays. The US has for decades now had election day as a normal, working day, hardly affording the thought of allowing another day to go to waste.
Having early voting guarantees high polling percentage, is a convenient setup for citizens to exercise their rights and reduces the strain on polling booths on election day. A quarter of Americans, including President Obama himself, chose to lock their vote well before election day.
Organising early voting might be a logistical challenge, like every election in India, but should not prove beyond the capabilities of the superlative Election Commission.

Unlike India, both the Democrats and Republicans concentrated a major part of their political rhetoric on wooing the youth. Youth agendas were drafted and policy commitments made with primarily the youth as the voter base.
There is yet no discernible youth identity in the way India votes and the incumbent politicians are hardly bothered about the political lightweights.
The Indian youth still votes on religious and caste considerations.
Secondly, both campaigns had participation from the youth who extended a hand for basic volunteering as well as to be part of the organisations’s setup. This inculcation of the youth as one of the pillars of a successful presidential campaign illustrates the value attached to their insight and makes it a much more participatory democracy.

This election has established that in America probity and rectitudinousness in public life as well as past life as a private individual are unsubstitutable qualities and are held non-negotiable.
Pundits and people might disagree, but the reluctance of Mitt Romney to come clean on his income tax returns at the height of his time as the head of Bain Capital and the infamous and uncharitable “47 percent” remark he made to a private gathering in a secret video created the illusion of chinks in his moral armour, irrespective of his credentials to lead America, and played subconsciously on the minds of Americans.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, enjoyed a clean slate and seemed to carry around genuine empathy and earnestness which helped boost his image. His sterling record while in public office, devoid of any colossal outbreak of idiocy, held him in good stead.

Election funding has always been a contentious issue in India with accusations often flying left, right and centre.
That black money floats around with impunity in election season is an incontrovertible fact. The Election Commission might have gone with its collective might to counter this menace but the success has been anything but resounding.
The American model, however, offers hope, though it too is beset by ills. The idea of the public financing the Presidential election campaigns is based within the chaste tenets of democratic principles which intricately links the candidate with the constituency backing him. The people financing are not just the rich and wealthy; even the plebeians make their significant contribution within their means in a bid to secure their and the country’s future with the candidate whose manifesto they identify with. Such a system establishes a scheme of shareholding wherein the public becomes a shareholder in the success of their candidates. This scheme of instituting ownership in the candidates can probably be the justification for the jubilance of Obama supporters which left many Indians a tad befuddled.
Admittedly, the system is not without its perils, what with corporates and bankers creeping in through Super PACs (Political Action Committees) but at least every penny spent is accounted for.
In Indian election reforms, state funding of elections has been put on hold for far too long, allowing the nefarious elements in society to make merry.

Our country is in the midst of a major churn. Politicians are facing the heat like never before and unless they react appropriately, they will be dinosaurs
long before they regain their senses.
The proletariat is in a sense of frenzy having just witnessed the juggernaut of American democracy roll ahead, brushing aside any barrier with characteristic contempt.
The nation must not fritter away this opportunity to push ahead with vigour and vitality towards election reforms – reforms which reflect our progress and evolution since Independence.



The Americans do not elect their president directly.
They vote for an elector – a representative who must vote for the same candidate. There are 538 electors. Together, they are called the Electoral College. Each state has as many electors as it has members in Congress (parliament).

When Americans vote for a candidate of a party, they actually vote for an elector of that state.
On election day voters go to the polls to choose the electors in their state, however, they only see the names of the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. They vote for a candidate, but they in fact vote for the elector. This is called the popular vote.

A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the election.
In almost all states the candidate who receives the most popular votes wins that state’s entire electoral votes.

The President is elected only in December.
Even though the winner of the election is known the following morning, he/she is officially elected President in December when the electors meet. The President is then sworn into office only in January when the oath of office is taken.

The United States of America is a Constitutional Republic.
The Republic of India is a Parliamentary Representative Democracy. While we will assiduously avoid diving into a stream of jargon, we shall keep that in mind to avoid making unfounded suggestions.