As a particularly ‘argumentative Indian’ I can never resist a good argument. So I was delighted that Dr Amartya Sen responded to my column last week. It gives me another chance to reiterate that Dr Sen and his fellow travellers and their leftist ideology are to blame for keeping the vast majority of Indians poor, hungry and illiterate for decades. Luckily for us the economic dictatorship imposed by Nehruvian socialism was inefficient and disorderly, or India may have collapsed like the Soviet Union did.
So Dr Sen objects to my charge that he was a ‘virtual advisor’ to the Sonia-Manmohan government. Then how is it that his comrade and co-writer Jean Dreze was such a powerful member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council? It was on account of Dreze that money that should have been spent on improving the abysmal quality of rural schools and hospitals was spent instead on the MNREGA. Is this not true? And, is it not true that instead of creating jobs in rural India, the MNREGA provided a form of dole?
Providing a hundred days of work annually to destitute people instead of creating real jobs is to ensure that they remain in poverty rather than escape it. But no government can rid us of this very bad scheme now because it has created a vast infrastructure of corruption that benefits officials hugely in the name of ‘alleviating’ poverty. Dr Sen as a Nobel prize winning economist could have advised his ‘very good friend’ Dr Manmohan Singh to spend India’s meagre resources more wisely.
Dr Sen, as your ‘virtual friend’, may I humbly point out that you make a mistake by bemoaning cuts by the Modi government in the budgets for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the midday meal scheme. On my travels in rural India I always inspect the village school, so I can tell you that the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has not raised teaching standards at all. Enrolment has gone up but children forced by poverty to go to government schools get almost nothing by way of ‘shiksha’. This is the reason why even desperately poor Indian parents try to send their children to private ‘English-medium’ schools.
This shameful situation was made worse in the past decade because of the deceptive ‘right to education’ law that forces private schools to keep a quota for children whose parents cannot afford to pay full fees. The worst consequence of this ‘right’ has been that instead of government schools improving private schools, they now have more inspectors poking their noses into everything. The problem is not a shortage of funds; the problem is a corrupt licence raj that the new Prime Minister must dismantle urgently.
As for the midday meal scheme, may I recommend a visit to any Akshay Patra centre to see the difference between the school meals they provide and what government school kitchens provide. Let us never forget the children who died from eating a school meal in the village of Dharmashati Gandaman in Bihar’s Saran district.
Now let us talk of Dr Sen’s complaint that the Modi government has cut funds for public healthcare. Does he not know that government hospitals are so appalling that an estimated 80 per cent of Indians are forced to rely on private hospitals and quacks? It is not money that is the problem but a disdain for the people of this country that is embedded deep in the souls of those who run this country. As for Kerala having the ‘highest per capita income in India’, Dr Sen is wrong again. It is at number eleven, below Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and a long list of other states.
On Nalanda, may I say that the reason why I did not discuss the salaries of Dr Sen or the university’s faculty last week is because there are no details on the website.
If Dr Sen wants Nalanda to be ‘fully accountable’ then it is vital that these details be made available. Since they are not, there have been a series of speculative stories that suggest that Indian taxpayers are paying thousands of dollars to foreign professors.
One final question that I did not ask last week out of respect for so eminent a personage. Why did Dr Sen never consider coming back to India to teach? Could it be because the state of higher education in our ancient land has deteriorated so seriously that even the best of our universities count among the worst in the world?
Nalanda must raise the bar much, much higher. I happen to be among those who want it raised really high because every time I visit the ruins of this ancient university I weep for what it once must have been. But, if Dr Sen’s departure is all it takes for it to fail there has to be something very wrong with its reincarnation.