It needs considerable myopia to celebrate the recent verdict of the Delhi High Court upholding the legal validity of photocopying as a means to promote knowledge and learning. The case had originated from a practice involving the use of “course packs” containing hundreds of photocopied pages from books. The argument that books are much too expensive for students to buy proved strong enough to prevail against the plea made by some prominent publishers that bulk photocopying infringes copyright. There was an obvious David and Goliath feel to the case. David has won, but the victory conceals a dark hole. Even as the photocopying shop at Delhi University’s Library of Social Sciences resumes preparing its fat course packs, we must take some time off to peep into the dark hole.
If we do, we will encounter the reality of higher education in India and institutions like Delhi University, especially their libraries. It is no news that the university has been facing an acute financial crisis for several years. All central universities are affected by the slashing of funds suffered by the University Grants Commission (UGC). All aspects of university life are suffering, and some of the pain has now become a routine reality. The use of ad hoc teachers instead of tenured faculty is one aspect of the new reality. The decline of library services is another. Retiring staff has not been replaced for years. A paucity of funds has forced libraries to cut down on new book purchases and subscriptions to journals, especially those published overseas. The use of “course packs” is a reflection of this larger context.
Libraries in India are victims of a compounded misunderstanding. Many new age academic administrators believe that libraries need not be a priority anymore because the internet now provides plentiful access to knowledge. This is a typical Third World delusion that has taken many forms over the years. Each time a new technology comes in, our administrators get excited. They love to entertain the fantasy wherein India overtakes Western nations by taking a short cut in the fourth gear. Online access to knowledge is the current version of this fantasy. Vice-chancellors who regard Google as a global guru have willingly endorsed the government’s policy of hard kicking library infrastructure and permanent faculty. As a result, libraries can no longer buy major new titles or multiple copies of older, basic texts. The newly imposed semester system demands multiple copies of essential books because courses have to be completed within 16 weeks. Malnourished libraries can’t cope with the new teaching cycle; hence, the lure of photocopied packs.
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The idea that photocopied material can substitute books needs to be examined on several scores. A student who has studied from photocopied “course packs” cannot enjoy revisiting a text later in student life or beyond. This is because the ink used by laser printers starts fading within a year or two. “Course packs” promote the values associated with an exam-centric culture of education. Far from creating a fascination for knowledge, such a culture reinforces an obsession with exams. “Course packs” contain the readings relevant for the exam. It matters little if the old pack fades because the student must rummage through the next when the new semester starts.
The acceptance of photocopying as a legitimate substitution for library holdings will perpetuate India’s academic poverty. The publishers who had protested against the photocopying shop located in the Ratan Tata Library are no enemies of higher education. They have published some of our best-known academic authors, providing them a global reach and reputation. No publisher of serious books anywhere in the world is currently having an easy time. Indeed, publishing as an industry is among the worst hit by global recession and budget cuts in education. If the measly profits on which academic publishing in India survives are to be nibbled away by photopying, the losses will have to be shared by all, including authors, teachers and students.
Students now come from a broader social spectrum than in the past. Many come from homes where no one had earlier gone to college. They deserve a well-stocked library to overcome the backlog of good schooling. Giving them a fading pile of A-4 sheets, instead of nicely bound books, compounds the injustice they have suffered throughout childhood. Among the rest of the student body today, many attended high fee-charging English-medium private schools. They have resources and impressive private possessions. It is the responsibility of an academic institution to induct them into a culture of owning, and not just reading, books. Good libraries do just that, by providing a physical ethos where books look beautiful. “Course packs” don’t.
By saving money on libraries and teachers, India can only sink deeper in the poverty of ideas and research. The rhetoric of quality education has already worn thin, and anyone can spot the brittle bones of our once-reputed institutions. No Indian university comes close to the world’s best. The three key criteria that push our institutions down in global rankings are: Teachers, libraries and significant research. All three are interrelated. Good teachers need assured careers with eager students and a rich library.
The greatest irony of the copyright dispute was the support that eminent scholars, including Amartya Sen, gave to the photocopy shop. Sen’s support saddened me because he belongs to the generation of teachers who believed that India’s nation-building would have to be original. It seems he too has reconciled to the prevailing view that the best option now left for India — and for Delhi’s old, struggling university — is to focus on photocopying.