Monday, March 23, 2015

India should reform the way top bureaucrats are recruited and function

For quite sometime I was thinking that it's high time to consider abolishing IAS, IPS, IFS type Indian civil service which was introduced by the British rulers, mainly for tax collection purpose (that's why it's still called collector). Indian should reform its top bureaucracy and the way it's recruited and work. 

If any ministry or department or agency need any officer, they can directly advertise, mention what qualifications/experience etc they need and select the most suitable candidate. It's how civil servants and bureaucrats are recruited in USA, Canada, UK and most, if not all, other developed democracies. The Brits themselves never have the same system they introduced in its colonies like India. 

That's one of the main reasons for rampant corruption and lack of governance in India since long. Indian civil servants are utter misuse and wastage of few genuine talents who join through one of the most competitive exams in the world with less than 0.3% success rate via UPSC. It's proved time and time again that, "Indian bureaucracy is the worst in Asia" and also among the least effective in the whole world.

Such (basically) clerical job whose main purpose is to implement whatever is told (read, order) to them by their political masters. Previously it was the british rulers and now (mostly) the criminal and/or corrupt Indian politicians. Subservience to politicians and feudal governance hardly attract any candidate with awareness who has natural leadership, dignity and personal integrity. It's not so surprising that mostly students from lawless states and areas, where they experience or expect huge extra-constitutional power of such officers, their ability to get huge bribe (and dowry), are attracted to such jobs. 

Rare few who join the service with such basic human qualities, are either 'tamed' or leave the service. Few continue with high level of frustration and wait for retirement. 

Such recruitment of top bureaucrats from outside the lower grade employees are also a major reason for least efficiency and rampant corruption in Indian civil service. It's more dangerous for law enforcement and security agencies.  In most, if not all, developed western democracies, higher officials in any law enforcement agency (and many other civil service agencies) are only promoted from lowest positions- unlike that in India. No IPS type recruitment to fill vacancies in top positions in police or other security and investigative agencies. That's a big reason for its neutrality and efficiency.

A feudal society which is so obsessed with hierarchy, that include power without much accountability, and show off of (mostly) ill gotten wealth is bound to have such infatuation. Even abroad, many, if not most, Indians are so obsessed with employment hierarchy irrespective of their ability and professional satisfaction in such 'prestigious' positions like manager, group leader, Cxx, professor etc. The typical “sirji” culture, the tendency to show-off relationship with influential people, teenage obsession of  showing pictures with famous people are so visible among many adults. It’s just another symptom of the same disease, if I may say so.

I think it's high time to reform Indian civil service and introduce some civility into it.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why our grandchildren are less likely to be part of any Bengali or Indian association abroad- unlike many of our non-Indian colleagues and neighbors?

Sometime ago I got  emails from few local Bengali associations that  it need articles for the magazines for upcoming Durga Puja, the greatest event celebrated by almost any cultural organization that has any relation to Bengal or Bengalis- in India and abroad. We all seem to love such events that promote our culture that includes Bengali’s favorite, mostly sterile adda (that reminds me of Utpal Dutta in Satyajit Ray's 'Aguntak') and food. It provides us the opportunity to skip boring cooking at home for a day or two. This seemingly religious festival is also a great respite even for the atheists.

I visited and lived in few different countries. Witnessed such programs almost everywhere, without much difference- both its unity and diversity (read, division). Initially, it was rather surprising to notice that hardly any Bengali teenagers and young adults attend such Bengali festivals, become part of such Bengali/Indian Associations. Most young children join such programs till they are under parental control. I do not see almost any second and subsequent generation of Indian/Bengali origin adults there. I realized it as soon as I started attending Indian festivals and other programs organized by Indian associations abroad. The picture was and still is not much different for Indian organizations representing different state/region/language/religion from India. Even professional organizations representing India  are no different, just like our "national carrier"- Air India.

About 69% of Indian Americans age 25 and over have four-year college degrees, which dwarfs the rates of 51% and 30% achieved by East Asians and whites, respectively. In 2007, the median income of households headed by an Indian American was approximately $83,000, compared with $61,000 for East Asians and $55,000 for whites (1). But these impressive achievements do not reflect social contribution of Indians. It fail to promote positive side of Indian culture (not the moral bankruptcy, lack of any sense of justice, feudal mentality, social hierarchy and pathetic work ethics) that benefit Indian interest (not just for few ‘elites’ or political agenda) in India and abroad. We can ignore politically correct, motivational speeches by political and corporate leaders of America.

Many parents feel an overwhelming urge to teach their children the value of ‘our’ culture- mostly in the name of religion and tradition- like Durga Puja. But the question arises, what and how much does such effort achieve? Why so many second generation Indians still face severe identity crisis of being a ‘Bengali’ or ‘Indian’, despite the fact that Indians are the most or second most prosperous racial group in western world, including both USA and UK (2)? How does that economic prosperity benefit our future generations- both in India and in the host country? 

The answers for most such questions are far from satisfactory. Unlike British or German or Irish or Afro-American groups, I have not seen many third or 5th generation of Indian origin people with foreign citizenship organizing or proudly celebrating Indian festivals outside India- be it traditional, cultural or religious one. Second and subsequent generations of Bengalis (read, Indians) rather learn and perform ballet or salsa than Bharat Natyam or Kathakali; proudly play piano or violin than tabla or dhol or santur, if not coerced by over-indulging parents. Are those musical instruments or classical dance styles from India less artistic or ‘cultured’ that our own kids feel less or no attraction? Or is that peer-pressure from non-Indian friends in a foreign society? Do these children, and more importantly their parents, understand that if they cannot respect their own heritage there is less chance that they can respect other culture? 

It’s not that hard to differentiate crude appeasement and opportunistic attitude  from genuine appreciation. Generally, a free and productive society and its leaders do not like cronies even if s/he has great job skill or money. They may need, even prefer, these backboneless cronies to perform certain jobs for the company but do not like to give much social acceptance and recognition, not much ready to consider them as their own. Unfortunately, few rare exceptions from India are also considered the same way, with the same default standard- at least initially. Social profiling is a very innate and seemingly effective skill that we learn from our childhood, not only from the parents and society but also as a policy tool, widely used by many corporate and government agencies (mainly immigration and security agencies).

Even the most docile, good-for-nothing fellow (other than being among the most obedient employees) who had no problem to take dowry and marry a highly docile, typical Indian bride from India, hardly attend and get associated with such Indian associations. To cut the long story short- such evidences indicate how we, collectively, fail to offer the advantage to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children and grandchildren the benefit of being part of one of the most glorious heritage and being among the most prosperous racial groups in western world where they get the opportunity and freedom to experience and embrace different other options and ways of life.

We also need to keep in mind that quality of American higher education & research and technological edge, where most Indians are associated with, are steadily declining since last few decades. As per latest data, the overall global ranking of USA slipped to 16th in 2012 as compared to 2nd in 1995 (when systemic data collection started) so far quality of higher education and research is concerned. It nicely correlate with America's declining economic prosperity and global socio-political dominance. It may or may not be related to demographic change where traditional minorities are becoming majority and percentage of white Caucasian population is declining.

Generally speaking, any immigrant population tends to be more successful. Indian and Bengali population outside India or Bengal (Bangladesh included), respectively, is no different. But that competitive advantage seems to be leveled off by third generation. That is true for any immigrant Bangladeshi or Bengali family settled in either Chittaranjan Park in Delhi or Chicago or Madison in the USA. Financial prosperity of current generation cannot be any indicator of success for subsequent generations, although (unfortunately) parental income does play a major role in future success of children in the USA, as latest data indicate. But that is an indication of a bigger social problem that USA must address even to maintain its current lower standard of living, economic prosperity and, most importantly, social harmony.

Alienation of subsequent generation of Indians from actual Indian culture or having a wrong impression and/or interpretation about it also give rise to another long term issue when they get involved in India specific projects undertaken by (foreign) governments or private organizations- by virtue of their Indian origin. People who hardly know India and its people can never serve justice to any project intended to benefit Indian society and the host country/company that genuinely likes to achieve positive impact. It’s equally true for those first generation Indians whose knowledge about India hardly goes beyond metro cities and privileged societies there. Watching 'Pather Panchali' or rote memorization of Rabindra Nath Tagore, only to show-off and quote in ‘literary’ discussions, is of no use.

We fail, first, to realize and then to acknowledge that such Indian/Bengali organizations represent ‘our’ culture to our children. We ourselves and then these organizations are the role models to them. Most of us still promote the same moral bankruptcy, feudal mentality that include sycophancy, racial intolerance, and hierarchical society that we experienced and/or tolerated in India

Even a felon (criminal) prosecuted and convicted for 'domestic violence', who used beat his wife on a regular basis, was occupying 'board of trustee' position in a Bengali cultural and few other Indian associations, including a religious one, in a city in the USA. Almost everyone in the association and, most importantly, the management knew about it. Few meekly opposed that criminal, that too mostly in private conversations, while many so-called 'highly educated' people like professors, doctors, engineers, 'scientists' actively supported and/or helped him to remain in high positions in such Indian/Bengali/Hindu  associations. Abusive behavior, domestic violence against women and children (including girl child killing) seems to be more socially accepted. Such incidences are not so rare among 'educated' and financially prosperous NRIs and Indian origin people abroad as many might think.  Personal interaction with many others from India in the US and Europe made that perception stronger. 

There is less chance that any second (and subsequent) generation of Indian origin person would feel proud being part of any such association when they compare that culture and ways of running such organizations with other similar ones from European origin people or representing different community. We tend to promote those kids and people who have influence (monetary or otherwise) than real talents. Bigger the city and organization, worse the problem. ‘Indian’ organizations in Columbus (OH), Chicago or Washington or Zurich have far worse problem than smaller places like Madison (WI). And it’s not a scaling up issue. The tendency to brew discontent and break up increases, 1) when it has more affluent, influential members with feudal mentality (who think that giving hefty donations entitles him/her to control the organization, micromanage its agenda to promote self, spouses and children depriving many better deserving candidates- both at organization level, culturally and professionally) and, 2) a steady flow of young first generation immigrants who want to get social acceptance and recognition in a foreign country. No wonder, most big cities in the US have more than one such Indian organizations representing same or similar goals and/or community. 

How wrongly we portray Bengal/India in the eyes of our own children and grandchildren. Surely it has its consequences affecting us, as well as India and the host countries. Promoting actual Indian or Bengali culture after filtering out the issues for which we all are now in a foreign country and not in our own, would help our own children to prosper here in the host country, become more socially productive and successful part of the world (that includes both India and the USA)- than naively refuting or hiding their own origin, suffering from identity crisis and foolishly rejecting one of the oldest and best civilizations and culture the world has ever witnessed. 

I hope our children or grandchildren would not be forced to become immigrant and migrate to other greener pastures in case America’s prosperity declines due to our (collective) ignorance or inability– just like our forefathers in India. It would be a great day to witness Indian or Bengali events/festivals spontaneously participated by 4th generation Indians/Bengalis living here in the USA, as we see for communities like Irish, German and many others. I would feel much happier if I can spontaneously share Bengali literature, culture and traditions without any false pretension or shame with my grandchildren and his/her non-Indian/Bengali spouse. Local Bengali organizations can play a much better, not necessarily bigger, role to help proud Indians/Bengalis like me achieving that- may be with their non-Bengali spouses.

Modified version of this blog were published in Durga Puja magazine, organized by Bengali Association of Madison (BAM). 

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Arab Spring and Nation Building

Many people and policy makers from western countries were so happy witnessing the rise of democracy in few Arab countries just a couple of years ago. It all started with Tunisia on 18th December 2010. Then spread to countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Many other countries in the region were affected witnessing major protests against its governments. People in some of the Arab countries threw the dictators and installed democratically elected governments. Many of the dictators were propped up by western powers, mainly USA. They were replaced by conservative, if not fundamentalist, organizations like Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the current American president Obama welcomed the uprising. Described it as 'moment of opportunity' on May 2011. For the first time in many years, probably ever, people in these countries elected its own governments. Many people in some poorly governed democracies like India started dreaming for such Arab spring style uprising. So far so good.

Now comes the challenging part. Current political situation in Tunisia, the most western   influenced poster child of Arab spring, is 'poisonous' dominated by Islamic extremists led by the salafists. Situation in other countries are equally challenging and similar in nature, not identical though. Recently we are hearing more about Egypt, its recent coup that uprooted democratically elected Morsi government. It seems to be heading towards more trouble. Many western governments have no clue whether to support or oppose it. Previously the american president took no time to come out openly to support the revolution against Mubarak regime, despite the fact that Mubarak government was one of the strongest supporters of US foreign policy in the region. But now Obama is keeping mum, probably confused. American administration probably will continue its financial assistance even after the ‘coup’. Many influential American politicians like John McCain are equally confused whether america should do the ‘right thing’ by suspending aids.

Arab spring reminded us, once again, that revolution is only the first act of a big drama. Subsequent acts are more challenging and require long term sustained preparation. We can get a clue if we analyze more successful transition towards peace, prosperity and democracy in many east european countries. Alternative elite group of people were active in those countries during communism and soviet dominance. Many political leaders, bureaucrats and other professionals started working towards civil society during communist rule. Former Czechoslovakian president, author and poet Vaclav Havel started his work organizing people around 1970s. This trend is not limited to Czech republic but a consistent pattern in other east european countries as well. Such socio-political elites presented a qualified and, most importantly, acceptable alternative. People with shared vision of nation building and professional ability filled the vacuum after collapse of communist rule. It was not the same for Soviet Union and some of its breakaway republics. Reformists and oppositions were either too fragmented or repressed and harassed. Former wolves just changed its skin to become social democrat and came to power. They continued almost same policies of previous regime. No wonder Russia is now branded as a 'mafia state', as per Wikileaks revelation of US diplomatic cables.

It’s not economic or political system but human resource that makes the difference. It seems to be the main challenge with Arab spring too. Most Arab countries never had any such alternative elite group of leaders. Professionals working for past regimes were either killed or totally rejected. Political process and leaders who could lead were simply not there or disenfranchised. Now it have to start from the scratch. It will take a long time if get the right direction and the direction has to come from within.

We see the same trend in both Asia and Africa that were affected by european colonialism and apartheid. Countries that drove away almost all from past regimes suffer more. Almost every former european colony suffered when all white people fled rather than assimilated with native population. Zimbabwe is an extreme while India is a more moderate example compared to former european colonies in Latin America and post-apartheid South Africa. Assimilating socio-political elites, irrespective of past affiliation or racial identity, with shared value and decent sense of professional ethics seems to be a better route. It takes time and sustained effort preparing ground for a beautiful spring that people would enjoy and be proud of. It's tough but surely not impossible.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Equality, morality and quality among kids and beyond

Few days ago I was flipping the  January 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine. There I got this exciting article- Are babies born good? New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from. Yes, babies are born with basic morality and ability to differentiate between 'right' and 'wrong'.

It reminded me of a discussion on whether to be strict to our kids to make them more quality conscious or follow the current tradition of encouraging our kids for whatever they do. Now majority parents in countries like the US encourage their kids even for a very sloppy job and say awesome. Does that “awesome culture” increase the chance of future success by boosting confidence or encourage kids to continue sloppy work that need to be criticized to encourage him/her to do better or help him/her to try something else? Of course, I do not buy the extreme of “tiger mother” concept prescribed by Prof Amy Chua in her controversial book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. In fact, Prof Chua’s portrayal of typical Chinese mother is becoming less common among Chinese mothers these days. More compelling evidence of why Prof Chua may not be right comes from the fact that countries like India and China where such 'tiger mom' culture is perceived to be more prevalent, do not do well to promote leadership, original thinking and minimize high level of corruption in public lives. Both the countries rank at the very bottom so far creativity and innovation are concerned. The more intriguing question for me is- what should be the right proportion of criticism and encouragement.

I do acknowledge the power of praise and encouragement to make our kids more confident. But we often forget that our praise need to be sincere and with reason. We just cannot keep on saying 'awesome', 'great' in a casual fashion without showing much interest or have time to evaluate what the kid has done. If a kid is intelligent enough to understand 'right' and 'wrong' from a very early age, s/he probably understands what a genuine praise is and what is just a habit. Nonetheless they are confused to evaluate their work and take the easy way of congratulating themselves for even a sloppy job.

Now coming to a trickier issue. Does confidence really breeds success? Evidently mere high confidence does not breed success. But our effort to make our kids more confident resulted in "narcissism epidemic", at least in USA. Few recent studies concluded that narcissistic attitude among US students are increasing since 1979. Many factors are blamed for that trend, including "parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media and access to easy credit, which allows people to appear more successful than they are". It has been concluded that "there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes."

Few probable consequences are- increasing dominance of mediocrity in almost every field of life, consolidation of wealth and power in fewer hands with decreasing social mobility. Published data show that rate of innovation and invention is slowing. Nobel Prize winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz recently said, "The US has one of the worst opportunity rates of any of the advanced economies. A child's life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than most other industrial economies".

Now success depends more on networking, ability to agree with majority than raw talent and ability to solve problems. One can gauge this trend more clearly in social networking sites like Facebook. Number of ‘like’ depend more on who is posting it, rather than its relevance or quality. It can also be argued that many people who have less knowledge and/or critical thinking tend to give 'expert' opinions. Such opinions are readily available to others by virtue of media and internet. Higher acceptance or 'agreeability' can give rise to a sense of confidence and seemingly more influence among peers with  long term consequences in democratic societies. The same media, internet and social networking sites also make common people aware that some of our leaders, famous public figures, top executives are no genius. Sycophancy, nepotism, stealing ideas, telling lies are not taboos anymore but a ‘desired’ character for increasing number of people to become successful. People who succeeded via that route are less likely to accept constructive criticism or failure. That puts extra pressure among colleagues, junior staff and students. The trend is expanding due to increasing reach of news-hungry media and internet. More we know about our ‘leaders’ more we tend to think that s/he is just one of us, nothing special. If others consider that person a genius, then I’m no less a genius! Recently I watched a news report on famous american president, John F Kennedy (JFK). It included some of his affairs, mainly with a former white house intern Mimi Alford. Few people who were previously fond of JFK started 'severely disliking' him after they came to know JFK more intimately. Such reversal of fortune, erosion of public faith will continue to rise as internet and other media coverage increases its reach and investigative ability. 

It’s yet to be proved if increasing reach of internet and other media add or counter-balance its power to promote mediocrity in the name of talent in this era of reality shows. But we can be reasonably assured that increased scrutiny would help to promote transparency. Evidences now indicate that social media is making us more honest. Now many well groomed people, ambitious enough to succeed and occupy influential positions would try avoiding such media scrutiny and taking extra precaution to leave less digital footprint.

Some of our great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have formal education. But lately most US presidents are coming from privileged background with Ivy League university degrees while past US presidents were from all over the country and from different colleges and universities. Of course, I’m not talking about Obama. I consider him as a rare exception in this regard. The trend deteriorated further after Ronald Reagan, who practically transformed US education mainly higher education, to another for-profit industry. It does not seem to be a mere coincidence that all the US presidents are from Yale or Harvard since 1980s. One can observe the same trend for many influential positions in US, including supreme court judges. All nine current supreme court judges in US are from either Harvard or Yale, except one (justice Alito). 

It's not so surprising that quality of education, which is considered the silver bullet for social mobility and fulfilling the so-called ‘American dream’, is deteriorating. Education is becoming more of manufacturing workers and consumers than to groom a complete human being with the ability to understand the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to act accordingly. Now money and influence plays a more important role in deciding college admission (12). Such students enjoy even more competitive edge in admission in very selective and costly Ivy League universities where many of our current leaders in both corporate and government sector  now comes from. The famous book, "The Price of Admission" by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden shows, "how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges and universities – and who gets left outside the gates".

Einstein once said, “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. It’s not that hard to understand the consequences of encouraging a fish to think that it is equally talented to climb a tree. The situation gets worse if climbing tree is far more financially rewarding than swimming. In that situation, many parents will try to coerce their fish-kids to climb. The culture of imposed equality may not be that great to infuse a sense of quality and mentor talent. Deliberate or not, it seems to help kids from privileged background who are destined to be 'successful' irrespective of their ability and talent at the cost of the society and the nation in the long run. I'm not sure though if infatuation to wealth management and not wealth creation by talented or ambitious students since last few decades is related to it.

We seem to destroy the in-born morality that I told earlier. More people feel less ashamed  to accept awards/scholarships/credit that they don't deserve. The tendency probably continues when such kids grow up and occupy influential positions, be it in academic-research, corporate management or public policy. It probably makes a run-of-the-mill decent worker but not a natural leader who is able to earn respect and lead effectively.

Now we live in an increasingly smaller global village with more aggressive news media, increasing reach of internet and social networking sites. People feel comfortable with mediocrity. Many people don't like to take the pain to find out what they are good at, what they love to do (particularly if that is not financially rewarding) but prefer to impose themselves on a subject that they are not so good at. Best prepared candidates are not always the best or most talented ones to succeed. Gradually talent is replaced by mediocrity. More kids are groomed with that objective. They are less encouraged to excel what they are good at if that does not fit the objective. We see its consequence more clearly during selection of top bureaucrats in India through, arguably, the most competitive selection processes in the world with less than 0.3% success rate. Yet  ‘Indian bureaucracy the worst in Asia’.

We can see its influence not only in schools, universities and screening for a specific career but also in many other forums and cultural programs. Many, if not majority, cultural organizations promote children and adults who have proper connections or influence. Such parents feel elated simply by seeing themselves, their spouses and children on the stage. Many times we witness reduction of performance time even for expensive artists from abroad to accommodate such whims of influential members. They seem to be totally ignorant on the larger implications of such act of nepotism. Many organizers of such programs proudly assert that cultivating equality, mass participation is the goal; not promoting talent or leadership. The sense of justice, professional ethics are severely damaged for the kids too. Talented kids are not only demoralized but also start accepting corruption and nepotism as part of life, as the main (sometimes, only) criteria to be recognized and enjoy what they are good at. They too will try to take advantage of the same in areas where they are not so good at. 

In a sense, imposition of equality helps maintaining the status-quo. It encourages people who believe in dynasties, give effort to establish their children towards same success and power. We need to keep in mind that kids from privileged families sometimes are under more pressure to succeed. Regular evaluation, defeat in the hands of more talented student help such kids to accept defeat,  remain humble and empathetic. It help promoting talent, grooming worthy leaders. 

No, I am not suggesting that kids from privileged families cannot be good or genius. Yes, they have equal probability to excel. We need to encourage students who are good- irrespective of his/her background. I believe that every child has talent. We must acknowledge specific talent and not lower the bar to make almost everyone feel like a genius. Students who cannot see the bigger picture start believing that if many mediocre people become so successful then why not they. In the long run, the rot will become clearer in form of deterioration of governance, declining ability to innovate and invent, erosion of product quality (both goods and creative art) resulting deterioration of industrial competitiveness, and overall quality of life. It's impact will be on whole society, including our children. Many of us often forget that we and our own children, who may not be that excellent in a specific area, would have a far more productive and happier life if s/he is under a competent professional and governed by an able leader- academic, corporate or political. 

Coming from a developing country, l personally feel little worried witnessing the same trend in a developed country like the USA.

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** Modified version of the blog is published in one of the most influential science and technology policy forums in USA, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University and Washington DC. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

India needs to be cautious while following the American model of higher education and research

It's almost unanimously accepted that quality of Indian education and research is steadily declining since last few decades despite of huge increase in funding and number of schools, colleges, universities and institutes. It's also well recognized that we need drastic reform. Whenever we talk about reform in Indian science, we generally end up talking about the American model as the gold standard. Many do not consider analys­ing the US system and its limitations in more detail. Others think that we should first reach the current state of American research and only then talk about further modification, probably following the same US model.

There is no doubt that developing countries like India can learn and more to gain from the American model of higher education and research, e.g. transparency in funding and recruitment. But we also need to be aware of probable pitfalls so that we do not repeat the same mistakes and end up wasting our scarce resources and lose few more generations of scientists.

Since early 18th century when France led the world, till today, history and sociopolitical events indicate that emergence of science super powers generally follow economic uprising. Not the other way round. Scientists must not take undue advantage of a nation’s appetite for heroes. It becomes more important in this era of economic crisis where almost all national governments are hard pressed to fund research projects. Here, I mainly discuss the issue in the context of the US, which we generally try to follow in India.

Lately, the whole assembly line to manufacture "scientist" is becoming dysfunctional as evident by slowing down of innovation and invention. Even the mighty pharmaceutical R&D sector is now suffering from acute shortage of new drugs. Few policy makers in the US already started asking serious questions about the relevance of once highly productive post World War II ‘input–output model’, where monetary input was assumed to be directly proportional to knowledge output, to judge the efficacy of today’s public funded research. Many argue that scientific output should be judged in terms of its capacity to achieve the desired social outcome.

We generally forget that immediately after the World War II, the US had no serious scientific and economic competitor. The US higher education and research enterprise was, and still is, much larger than that of any other country. The most successful and dominant player for American research was the Department of Defense (DoD). With (i) end of cold war and the declining role of DoD in translating public funded R&D into tangible social outcome; (ii) rise of many serious challengers (mainly the emerging economics in East Asia and South America); (iii) newly emerging issues (e.g. public health care, global warming and energy crisis) that require greater scientific understanding, needed a different approach to quantify and prioritize national scientific need. These issues arose mainly during 1980s and put the traditional ‘input–output’ model under serious threat. India never has the luxury of being an economic superpower to invest heavily to build a massive infrastructure on science education and research, naively thinking that quantity will ensure quality. Here I should mention that India already has the second largest higher education system in the world, only after the USA! 

Some people already started demanding that the universities should be restricted to teaching, without wasting public money in the name of research. Now US universities are more interested to select those candidates as faculties who have developed suitable network and mastered the art to attract grants, than to identify and select candidates with original thinking ability who can innovate and/or invent to generate revenue for the university. Present model completely absolves the universities from the responsibility of spending tax-payers’ money. In its most optimistic and fair terms, keeping aside the regular allegations of nepotism and corruption in recruitment and funding, Indian research institutes and universities are no different.

The lack of strategic thinking, focus and coordination between government, other funding agencies and universities, and by unrealistic expectations of what money could buy are becoming more evident these days. Some of the problems, including that of the ‘publish or perish’ model started long ago during the 1970s, as indicated in the book, Hera­clitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature, by the famous biochemist Erwin Chargaff. Later, it became more of a global problem as initial success of the American ‘input–output’ and ‘publish or perish’ model was adopted by many countries, including India, albeit half-heartedly.

The problem worsened as the most important parameter to quantify productivity and efficacy of our publication based academic research started losing its credibility. The ‘monopolistic’ business of the academic publication industry has become one of the fastest growing lucrative businesses without much self-regulation and government oversight. Today almost anything can be published in journals claiming to be peer-reviewed. It has significantly contributed towards deterioration of the peer-review process, rising incidents of scientific misconducts and higher acceptance of such misconducts among researchers. China is a good example in this regard with increasing incidences of plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct. Chinese journals find a whopping 31% of submissions are plagiarized.

It has serious consequences not only on over all scientific environment but also on careers of individual researcher – as recruitment, funding, promotion and fame, which can be defined as ‘institutional power to influence future direction in any specific area’, depends largely on that single parameter. Credibility of data, its interpretation and conclusion seem to depend more on individual researcher. Any researcher adhering to the higher standard of professional ethics and scientific understanding is now under severe threat.

Lack of accountability partly explains low financial remuneration for non-tenured researchers and students, poor working condition, poor mentoring that contributes to low attraction and lower retention of talented students in the US. It reduce support towards science not only among talented students, but also among policy makers and general public for this vital sector, which was, still is and will remain crucial for industrial competitiveness and higher quality of living in western countries. Any country ambitious enough to have a knowledge based economy, as some Indian policy-makers like to achieve, needs to acknowledge that increasing dominance of mediocrity is a serious threat today than ever before.

Companies are running out of new blockbuster drugs, other novel products and technology that can generate high profit to pay its shareholders and executives as the quality and integrity of scientists are steadily going down and mediocrity flourishes. It's one of the major reasons why companies are increasingly taking illegal routes by undertaking deceptive marketing and illegal promotion of drugs not approved by US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or similar regulatory authorities in other countries. Its impact is also becoming more common in research publications, scientific seminars and conferences. Almost all, if not all, major drug and medical device companies now seem to be involved in systemic and massive fraud (AbbottGlaxoSmithKlineMerck, Pfizer, Novartis, BASF). They are increasingly bribing doctors even in developed countries like USA. Now more than 90% of doctors in US receive favors from drug companies who paid more than $2 billion to different health professionals. Keep in mind that it's only the disclosed value, that many believe to be the tip of a massive iceberg.  It's now reported that at least one big pharma company invented the drug first and then the disease that it claim to cure

We need to understand that past achievements will sustain competitive edge for a shorter period of time in this age of higher mobility of manpower and increasing reach of communication technology. It demands   faster development of novel, innovative products and technology. Many times the policy makers and scientists either could not understand or conveniently ignored the bigger picture, as there are not many subject matter experts willing to play the role of a devil’s advocate.  Scientists with vested professional and financial interest generally evaluate scientific projects and invariably recommend specific projects that benefit them personally.

It seems that exaggerated data fueled the hype for Jatropha based biofuel programs in countries like India and ended up wasting huge public money. Another recent casualty of over-selling or culture of hype became clearer when many high profile players in the pharmaceutical industry dropped their plans and altogether pulled out from much hyped technique, RNA interference, popularly known as RNAi.

Deteriorating scientific climate and rising incidences of misconduct in both public and private funded universities and R&D units, even in developed countries like USA, have far reaching consequences for the organization, the country and, most importantly, science itself. Developing countries like India with fewer resources need to learn from both the successes and mistakes of more successful countries like USA. Ignoring their mistakes will be no less fatal. India needs to prepare itself to adopt the changing world where, probably, there will be no science superpower to follow.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

End of anti-corruption movement by Anna Hazare?

Anna Hazare dismantled his team that was fighting against corruption. Now "Team Anna" is forming a political party. None of their demands is met. Janlokpal bill is as far away as before. They probably succumb to the pressure from all political parties and media to contest election. I am not sure why they feel that civil rights movement always have to win election and/or follow the system they are so opposed. I am also not sure how wise that decision is- considering the nature of Indian election and electorate where rampant crime and corruption plays a major role. It becomes clearer when we consider the fact that some of the top leaders in ruling Congress party and current government had a miserable time to win election despite of getting all backing from the  powerful party machinery. One of the poster boys for "honesty and wisdom" and our current prime minister failed to win a single election, even from one of the most prosperous and educated constituencies in India- South Delhi in 1999. Dr Manmohan Singh is always a  member of the upper house of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). It seems that once hugely popular anti-corruption movement by Anna has lost its steam, at least for now. I am quite confident that no such movement against corruption will be successful  in India in near future.

Many Indians seem to think that Arab spring type revolution is more probable and also desirable to cleanse India. They probably forget that any movement or revolution becomes successful when it connects majority of common people. Majority people have to agree with both the goal and the path to achieve it. All the regimes in all the countries where Arab Spring is successful were from the minority sect / community, within Islam. Minority rule over majority people was a major factor there.

Majority of Indians accept corruption as part of life. They adjusted their ‘education’ (rather lack of it) and lives to use that as a tool to ‘succeed’. They feel so comfortable with that historic but no less damaging  socio-political reality.

Any anti-corruption movement can never have a great chance to succeed in a country where one third of population is “utterly corrupt” and half is in the “borderline”, as described by Pratyush Sinha- one of India's Central Vigilance Commissioners, country's anti-corruption watchdog. It will not be unfair to say that more than 80% of Indians are basically corrupt. Mass attendance during the first phase of Anna’s movement is more due to curiosity and time pass for many. Almost everyone seems to believe that others need to become honest and less corrupt first. They have enough excuses to justify why s/he personally need to do all sorts of corruption, even crime. Recently one state minister from Utter Pradesh (one of the biggest and most corrupt states in India) openly admitted that “little stealing is acceptable”!

Almost everyone seemed to 'support' Anna Hazare even though they are highly corrupt in their own professional and personal lives. How can any movement against corruption be successful without mass public support in real sense?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Our legacy, our liability, our future

Can we solve a problem without acknowledging and analyzing the problem before we attempt solving it? Let me put in other words. How a woodpecker find rotten wood that might have its food- the wood boring insects, grubs and ants? Can a woodpecker survive if we ask it not to drum or peck the dead wood? The topic I'll discuss below have a lot to do to these questions, seemingly unrelated. I'll come back to the woodpeckers later.

Yesterday lower house of Indian parliament, popularly known as Lok Sabha, passed (mostly) the government version of Lokpal bill. It is yet to be passed in the upper house, Rajya Sabha. Many think the bill is too weak to have any impact, while many others think that it will increase corruption, instead of minimizing it. On the other hand many believe it as a total betrayal by our elected representatives and parliament considering its promise (formally referred as "parliamentary resolution" or "sense of the house") made in the floor of the parliament to make and pass a strong lokpal bill that will include (i) Citizen's Charter, (ii) lower bureaucracy under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism, and (iii) establishment of Lokayukta in the States. Today Anna Hazare ended his fast in Mumbai. Many of his followers are disappointed. They think the fight against corruption is over, at least for now. Many are worried about the long term consequences of our culture and social acceptance of corruption. 

The problem of extremist movement arises from systemic blockage of civic protests, as happened to many previous socio-political movements and as happening to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. We are yet to show any sign of maturity as a democracy and learn from our past mistakes. Our system in independent India has been doing it since its birth in 1947. Our 'elected' representatives and ruling elites inherited the legacy of the foreign rulers, since 1192- start of Muslim rule. Such elites include mainly the blue eyed boys of Muslim invaders (for ~600 years) and then the British (for ~200 years), who facilitated their rule over this country- in form of maharajah  nawab, jaminder, feudal landlord, businessman and    bureaucrat (including police, judiciary, civil administration bosses). It is also true that many of such maharajahs  nawabs etc were nothing but local dacoits or leaders of organized crimes (that include many businessmen). Such elites were remunerated not only by prestigious awards, powerful positions and blood-money, but also awarded admission to prestigious British universities like Cambridge and Oxford. That was like passport to culture and education accepted to our ruling elites. Responsible positions in civil administration were severely compromised. In subsequent years, oppression was accompanied with the awe and ego of 'culture' and 'education' of the scions of the looters aka rajas, nawabs, jaminders and bureaucrats. That tradition continued. It did not take much time for British trained wolves to get into 'Indian' sheep outfit.

Emerging elites start buying famous books and other items of art to decorate their homes and offices. Such books, movies and other items of art are hardly used, less understood, least followed. Another preferred way to get reputation as 'cultured' is to get the son/daughter (mainly daughters are sacrificed for such noble act!) married to a spouse already having heavy weight degree(s) or sending the would-be groom to buy some degrees, preferably from abroad. Such seemingly 'educated' and 'cultured' sons-in-law are excellent showpieces to advertise the glory of the family. No, such people are not much worried about any certificate of honesty, as they know that ignorance of general people allow them to accept heavy-weight degrees and employment hierarchy as the gold standard for all virtues like honesty, hard work and talent. They would afford to ignore few skeptics who still dare to question why so many of our 'highly educated' politicians and other elites are so corrupt, least talented, but no less gifted with awards. Paid headline news in national media are not so uncommon these days. On the other hand, our typical 'good' students from less fortunate background seldom afford the courage and ability to ignore the easy and fast track to succeed, provocation of assured career, and most importantly, wealth and power- simply by being associated with such powerful and wealthy families.

Severe shortage of trained manpower and commercialization of education in western countries made the job easier. Gradually Oxbridge was replaced by american universities as the glory and power of British empire eroded, new world order established. Occasionally such elites promote backbone-less cronies as we see in some high positions, only to show that one can prosper only if s/he obeys them - the ruling elites. In short, the culture of endowment, distribution of national scholarships/fellowships/awards to cronies and relatives continued unhindered in independent India.

That culture of a feudal society and all pervasive corruption has another serious implication. It does not allow natural leadership quality to grow. In such a society people with actual leadership quality have to face severe consequence- ruthlessly crushed if not supported by some god-father/mother or powerful dynasty. The vacuum in leadership are filled by non-natural, promoted 'leaders'. There is no internal democracy in majority, if not all, of the political parties in India. That's why there is hardly any chance for India to get its own Barack Obama in near foreseeable future. That trend is not limited to politics or bureaucracy but present in almost every field including private sector companies.

Of course, not everyone belong to this category but majority does and it follows a pattern. You can describe it as 'profiling'- successfully used by security agencies and policy makers. It's the same reason a person can expect little more scrutiny while applying for US visa from its embassy/consulate in Delhi or Mumbai as compared to Kolkata. 

The cycle of deprivation, oppression and exploitation continued almost unhindered since 1947, as the British handed over the right to rule (not govern) to more dishonest and no less oppressive desi “brown sahibs”, who sometimes behave more British than actual British rulers. On top of that, the good-for-nothing fellows who failed as students were groomed by mainstream political parties as student "leaders". Then modern day criminals, big businessmen joined the loot.

Now several business tycoons are members of our parliament, many in Rajya Sabha (the upper house) where members are nominated by political parties without public referendum. There are an estimated 300 MPs with assets worth Rs one crore (10 million) or more in the new Lok Sabha, with 543 members having combined asset of Rs 3,075 crore. Now the  number  of crorepatis is almost double, from 154 in the 14th Lok Sabha. Four MPs in Lok Sabha have assets worth more than Rs 100 crore. If anyone still thinks that these rich and powerful people are there to serve the country and its people then read this article published in Economic Times which describes how "MPs have managed to find a place in many House panels despite having business interests in the sectors concerned". Please keep it in mind that the above information is only the declared asset value where the most powerful Indian politician, Sonia Gandhi, has only Rs 1.38 crore total asset including a house in Italy that is valued around Rs 18 lakhs (1.8 million) (USD ~36,000) and no car, as per her election affidavit.

The trend accelerated fast after Indira Gandhi institutionalized corruption. National institutions were ruined, started resembling party offices and increasingly being dominated by cronies. In the meantime, we committed another grave mistake. We kept most of our old laws, bureaucracy, police, judiciary that the British introduced in their native colony, which was significantly different than what they had in Britain. Our policy makers never seriously tried to reform the core institutions, even though talks of reforms are going around since ages.

Last few weeks I was watching debates on Lokpal Bill in Indian TV channels. Most of the politicians, mainly from the ruling party, talked as if they are the kings. We all seem to have the constitutional obligation to obey them and, most importantly, those who support Anna Hazare and Anna himself is nothing but insignificant bugs which "would have been crushed if our great forefathers, great administrators, were present" (as per one prominent Congress leader in NDTV). 

Many believe that it is now pay-back time. Fast spread of naxals, increasing tendency of general citizens to take laws into their hands, more support towards hartals, bandhs and gheraos by common Indians now (as compared to 1971) are just few symptoms of the all pervasive rot. Check this BBC article that says- "today 223 districts - India has 636 districts - in 20 states are "Maoist affected", up from 55 districts in nine states six years ago. Ninety of the affected districts, according to the government, are experiencing "consistent violence". PM Manmohan Singh calls it the country's "greatest internal security challenge". Such facts show the increasing distrust over our political system and civil governance, more so after 1991 economic liberalization. That is supported by many reports, fact and figures. One such reports tells- Indian government gave three times more subsidy to rich Indians (Rs 4.6 lakh corers) as compared to middle class and poor people (Rs 1.54 lakh corers). It is high time for us to ponder why India is among the worst of the emerging economies in terms of poverty, income inequality and social discrimination since globalization (i.e. since 1991- in case of India). Emerging economies like Indonesia, Argentina effectively reduced social and income inequalities significantly in recent times while India is among the worst affected ones. 

Anna's movement is (probably, was) a rare opportunity to bring a systemic change in our system of governance and force our "elected" representatives and public servants to govern- not rule. Only those get democracy who deserve it and ready to fight for it. By now we know that chanting the mantra of peace does not guarantee peace. The same way, chanting the mantra of "parliamentary democracy" and shouting from the roof that “parliament is supreme” does not transform a corrupt, feudal society into a productive, prosperous democracy. One must be able and ready to pay the price as and when needed. At the end of the day, we get what we actually deserve. It does not matter if we like it or not!

Remember the woodpecker whom we asked not to drum or peck when we started this article? Wood boring insects, grubs, ants are not the only food woodpecker can eat. In fact, adult woodpecker change its diet  according to what food sources are most abundant. In the fall, nuts, seeds and fruit are popular because of plentiful natural harvests. In the spring and summer, these birds feast primarily on insects that provide high levels of protein for breeding birds and growing hatchlings. If we ban our woodpecker to drum or peck dead woods it will not only create rippling affects in the relevant ecosystem but also will have huge negative impact on future generations of woodpeckers, without not-so-immediate and acute impact on the adults.

**added later: The bill was not passed in Rajya Sabha. The house was adjourned without voting amid chaos after a debate stretched to midnight.

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