Editorials - 20-02-2021

An avalanche in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand early this month claimed 62 lives, destroyed two hydropower projects and ravaged the region. Jacob Koshy reports on how development projects are endangering the lives of people in the young and fragile Himalayas

The Rishiganga river looks like an idyllic brook from the balcony of Gyan Singh Rana’s two-storey house. The former headman of the village of Raini, who is in his nineties, has a stunning panoramic view of cliffs, glaciers, mountains, and the two Himalayan rivers — the Rishiganga and the Dhauliganga. In all these years of gazing at this view, Rana says he has seen the river flood from glacier melt only thrice. “But I’ve never seen anything of this sort,” he says referring to the avalanche of February 7 in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand that he watched in disbelief. “It was a blast, like something exploded in the mountains around me, and unlike the sound of big rocks of ice crashing.”

Pushpa, another resident of the village, was tending to her cattle when the disaster struck. “I really thought I’d die,” she says. “There was a huge cloud of dust. For a long time, I couldn’t see anything. I was suddenly knocked off my feet by the wind. I somehow got up and untied the cattle.”

The residents of Raini number less than 300, according to the 2011 Census. They aren’t strangers to the vagaries of glaciers. Ranjit Singh Rana, the village headman and Gyan Singh Rana’s son, says villagers in the region frequently go to the forests that are part of the Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve, home to some of the most imposing glaciers in the Himalayas. “We go there to collect herbs for cooking. From there we can see icy peaks. They break, they grow, they recede and sometimes flood. But the recent event was simply extraordinary,” he says.

The sentiment is the same among all the villagers: they are familiar with the mountains and their moods and they have seen tragedies before, but the Sunday landslide that killed 62, smashed two hydroelectric power plants, and swept away everything in its wake have them shaken and worried. After the 2013 floods in the State, this tragedy has once again put the spotlight on the model of development in the fragile region, where the environment may not be able to sustain massive projects of development, as scientists have warned time and again.

A trail of destruction

On that fateful Sunday, a mass of rock, around half a kilometre wide according to satellite-based estimates, detached from a hanging glacier on a mountain called Raunthi. This massive lump fell vertically for about two km and then pulverised into a large cloud of dust and debris. Within minutes, a mix of ice, stone, sand and water coalesced into an estimated 25 million cubic metres of slurry, rolled down the Raunthi stream, and slammed into the Rishiganga river. Part of this mass of dust has dammed the Rishiganga’s natural flow. The rest hurtled down, past the Rana residence, and crashed into the Dhauliganga river that meets the Rishiganga.

The force of the landslide was so great, recounts Rana, that it slammed against a cliff and travelled for a few hundred metres upstream, against gravity. Then it made a ferocious descent down to the Dhauliganga engulfing five residents of Raini village in its fury and at least 62 workers at the Tapovan-Vishnugadh hydropower plant, eight km downstream.

Labourers were busy in construction work at the 520 MW power plant which was delayed by many years. When the avalanche came, it trapped several of those who were working on the barrages as well as those inside one of the tunnels used to divert the natural flow of the Dhauliganga.

The Tapovan site is now a vast expanse of grey slush. Workmen are attempting a drainage on an industrial scale. The site is teeming with bulldozers, excavators and all manner of heavy machinery. The task is to unclog the mulch and debris that have blocked most of the tunnel and find survivors, if any, though hope of this has faded. It is still not clear how much of the two km tunnel has been obstructed. Ten days since the disaster, only about a tenth of it has been accessed by the machines. All the bodies that have been recovered so far are from this stretch. However, the barrages that failed to stop the onslaught of mud remain standing. Some workmen at the site point out that had it not been for the walls of the triple-gated barrage, more mud would have rolled further downstream.

All that remains is a pipe

Unlike in Tapovan, eight km upstream, there is simply no trace of the Rishiganga hydropower project except for a torn metal pipe. A 60-metre bridge that used to connect the two banks of the Rishiganga has been obliterated. The bridge allowed people to cross over from Tapovan onto the road that eventually snakes up to the China border. It connected two halves of the Raini village — one where the Ranas live and the other housing several residents, some of whom as children joined their parents in the iconic Chipko movement of the 1970s. Defence personnel, members of the Border Roads Organisation, and the Indo Tibetan Border Police troop down this half of the village fixing cable and communication lines. “We are sitting ducks for China,” one of them remarks.

With the bridge gone, a manually operated trolley that can ferry one person at a time and requires four to strain and heave it serves as a mode of transportation. It is also being used to carry goods including vegetables, medical supplies, sanitary pads, and packaged food. The other option is to walk several kilometres down and gingerly cross a temporary bridge built by the army after the disaster. “We are hoping that a new bridge will be ready this month,” says an officer of the Border Roads Organisation. But there is less certainty on whether the Rishiganga project will surface again.

The ill-fated plant

The 13.2 MW Rishiganga power plant that was designed to generate electricity with the force of the Rishiganga waters had a tumultuous history. In 2011, nearly 15 years after plans to first install a power plant at the site were drawn, Rakesh Mehra, the Ludhiana-based owner of the plant, was in Raini to witness a trial run. He was killed by a falling boulder on site. Disputes then began in his extended family over control of his businesses, including of the plant. Tragedy struck again in 2016 when a flood destroyed the plant rendering it unworkable. Ultimately, the ownership of the plant passed on to the Kundan Group in 2018.

“Mehra was a good man. He had developed the plant involving the villagers. There was a lot of support for the project as it was going to provide electricity to the villages in the vicinity,” says Deepak, a resident of the nearby Peng village. “But the company that took over after Mehra died was different. It expanded the project and in the process, destroyed a Kali temple that was located near the dam site.”

The villagers strongly opposed what the company did. There were also disputes involving ownership of the land. “The company blocked access to our grazing pastures and did not compensate us for the use of our land,” Deepak says. “This project is cursed.”

In 2019, residents of the village petitioned the Uttarakhand High Court for the environmental damage that was caused due to the use of explosives in the construction of the power projects.

Silt and debris continue to cascade down the Rishiganga but other concerns loom. Teams of scientists and police personnel, who have trekked up the mountain near the vicinity of the glaciers, have identified a lake that’s about 350 m long. This, too, is Rishiganga water that has been dammed by the debris from the day of the disaster.

Though the water from the lake is gradually emptying, many in the village fear it may not be quick enough before the rains. “What if the river floods and we see a gush of water along with the debris? What will happen to the villages and the dams below,” asks Ramesh Singh, a resident of Joshimath who lives uphill of Raini for a few months. “The climate here is warmer than usual. Last year, the snow was falling on the highway during February. This year has been unusually warm,” he says.

The Rishiganga project was among the several hydropower projects that had applied to secure carbon credits under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in early 2012. This was when hydropower projects were seen as competitors to solar power projects. However with the enormous challenges involved in setting up hydropower plants in the Himalayan region, the risks from natural calamities, and the falling price of solar power, there are now doubts about the future of hydropower plants and their viability as an alternative to fossil fuel-based sources of energy.

Development and local constraints

Atul Sati is a prominent political activist based in Joshimath, the tehsil that encompasses Raini and Tapovan. Sati, who is associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), had been involved with movements for the independent statehood of Uttarakhand. He has been questioning the developmental models in the State for years. In his two-storey house that also doubles up as a workplace, there is no electricity for long stretches. In the darkness he points to a sequence of electric bulbs from a window that are from a substation of the Vishnuprayag hydropower project on the Alaknanda river downstream. “That power plant is located right here in Uttarakhand but the power it generates is for other States including Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. It is not for us. There is darkness here, the people who work for the plant are from here, but the benefits are routed out of here,” he claims.

When the Uttarakhand government entered into agreements with private companies to develop power plants, it allowed them to produce and sell power to anyone. Only 12% of the power produced is to be provided compulsorily to Uttarakhand.

While hydropower is the mainstay of electricity power generation in the State, Uttarakhand did not really need large hydropower projects such as the Tapovan plant, says Sati. The needs of large parts of the State can be met with smaller projects that are no more than 5 MW, he says.

“The promise of carving out Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh was precisely that the geography and the challenges posed by the environment here are unique and so all development here must be framed respecting local constraints,” he says.

Sati recounts the story of a tunnelling accident in 2009, again involving the construction of the Tapovan-Vishnugadh power project, to demonstrate how there is little accountability for excavation projects. Geologists Piyoosh Rautela of the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, Government of Uttarakhand, and M.P.S. Bisht of Garhwal University wrote about the same incident in a 2010 article in the scientific journalCurrent Science.

Larsen and Toubro (L&T), the infrastructure company, employed a tunnel boring machine (TBM), a huge drilling apparatus that is used as an alternative to blasting mountains with explosives, to excavate an eight km tunnel. The head race tunnel, through which the natural flow of the river is diverted, was located in a geologically fragile area below Joshimath. On Christmas eve in 2009, the TBM, located nearly a kilometre below the ground, ended up puncturing a water-bearing aquifer about three km inward of the left bank of the Alaknanda near Shelong village. “The site was more than a kilometre below the surface, somewhere below Auli, according to the project authorities. The water discharge was reportedly between 700 and 800 litres/sec. The aquifer discharge was about 60-70 million litres daily, enough to sustain 2-3 million people,” Rautela and Bisht wrote.

The caving-in after the collision damaged the TBM. In 2016, L&T washed its hands off the project and NTPC, the project developers, commissioned the Hindustan Construction Company to fix the machine.

Geologists R.K. Goel and Bhawani Singh wrote in a research paper on Himalayan tunnels that the TBM was finally made operational after a second excavation tunnel was bored through. Sati said that after a brief recovery, the machine failed again. The challenge with tunnel boring in the Himalayas is that these mountains are relatively younger and have several regions that are tectonically active. “Faced with cost and time constraints, detailed investigations before selecting a tunnel alignment are often compromised, resulting in encountering disturbed geological conditions. It is essential that detailed exploration work is carried out before the start of the project and exploration ahead of the face is undertaken on a continuous basis,” they wrote in their article.

Vulnerable mountains

The vulnerability of the Himalayas to flash floods, landslides and earthquakes was brought home in 2013 when floods killed at least 6,000 people, destroyed hydropower projects and plunged the State into darkness for days. Following that disaster, the Supreme Court constituted a committee, led by Ravi Chopra, founder and director of the People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, to assess the role of hydroelectric projects in causing environmental degradation in the Himalayas and in causing the floods of Uttarakhand in 2013.

In its April 2014 report, the committee singled out para-glacial zones (regions higher than 2,000 m from sea level) and valleys north of the Main Central Thrust (MCT), a geological fault where the Indian Plate has pushed under the Eurasian Plate along the Himalayas, as “ disaster-prone areas.” The committee recommended that hydroelectric projects not be built in these valleys. These recommendations were accepted by the Union Environment Ministry and placed before the Supreme Court in December 2014.

The apex court recommended that 24 proposed projects be stayed but no decisions were taken on ongoing projects such as the Tapovan-Vishnugadh and on the Rishiganga. The committee also recommended installing a flood warning system.

Chardham challenges

“Last Sunday’s tragic disaster has confirmed our fears and warnings. Hundreds of crores spent in the last 7 years for constructing these dangerous dams have ended up with the loss of over 200 persons, domestic animals and destruction of national property,” Ravi Chopra wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court on February 13.

This, however, was also written in the context of another ongoing project called the Char Dham Pariyojana, which is a 900-km-long road widening project connecting major pilgrimage spots in Uttarakhand. The drive from Dehradun, at the foothills of the Himalayas, up to places such as Kedarnath and Badrinath is as much replete with beautiful views of valleys, Himalayan rivers and glacial peaks as it is with swarms of JCB excavators, muck dumping sites, scaffoldings, half-erected pillars to support a future railway line, and frequent roadblocks. Large amounts of rock are being cut to widen stretches of the road. After protests by several environmental groups against the Char Dham Pariyojana construction project, which is not a single Rs. 12,000-crore project but consists of 53 small projects that are handled by separate contractors and companies, the Supreme Court constituted a committee, again headed by Chopra, to suggest measures by which the project could be executed with minimal environmental damage. There was dissent within the committee on the matter of the appropriate width of the new roads. Chopra and two other members opined that the roads be no wider than 7m of tarred surface. A majority of the committee members suggested a 12m tarred surface width. Making the roads 12m wide, argued Chopra and the two members, would result in further assault of the mountains. They said that this was also in contravention of the standing recommendations of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways that hill roads, particularly above the MCT, should not be no more than 5.5m wide. The Supreme Court is yet to take a view on the matter.

“There are numerous instances where the roads have been identified by experts as being prone to destabilisation and landslides. Disaster resilience is more critical than simply wide highways. Slope stabilisation works so far have been most inadequate as evident from the frequent failures and road closures. Excessive tree-felling, indiscriminate disposal of road construction and landslides debris have endangered downhill slopes and polluted rivers,” Chopra noted in his letter.

“In the case of Himalayan development we are all like the proverbial blind men identifying the elephant,” Kalachand Sain, Director, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, toldThe Hindu. In the aftermath of the latest disaster, five of Sain’s colleagues drove and then took a helicopter to survey the glacier to ascertain the causes of the damage.

“This is a difficult terrain to study. Even today we cannot forecast an earthquake or an avalanche in the region with the required accuracy. Scientists can assess potential risks. The government must live up to its promises of providing infrastructure and services. But when something goes wrong, we all collectively suffer,” he says.

The Priya Ramani case is a key moment in the legal process that has often failed to bring justice to women complainants

The acquittal of Priya Ramani, a journalist, on a complaint of criminal defamation by former Union Minister M.J. Akbar has come as a vindication to a long line of women who have not been taken seriously earlier when they have alleged sexual harassment. Many an allegation has often remained unvoiced for fear of ridicule, shaming, or on grounds of sheer financial necessity. There have also been those who feel that anything short of rape or outraging a woman’s modesty is not actionable. That long silence has now been broken by this verdict. A powerful man’s predatory past has caught up with him, when a not-so-powerful victim chose to come forward with her story and even at the risk of imprisonment, turned down suggestions of a compromise and persisted with telling her truth.

The story begins in December 1993 when the very term sexual harassment was rather unknown. Ms. Ramani, then 23, was being interviewed for a job by the then 43-year-old celebrity editor, at 7 in the evening, in a five-star hotel, the Oberoi, in Mumbai. Rather than having a meeting in the lobby that she was expecting, she was surprised to be called up to the man’s room. She says, “It was more date, less interview. You offered me a drink from the mini bar (I refused, you drank vodka), we sat on a small table for two that overlooked the Queen’s Necklace (how romantic!) and you sang me old Hindi songs after inquiring after my musical preferences. You thought you were irresistible. The bed, a scary interview accompaniment, was already turned down for the night. Come sit here, you said at one point, gesturing to a tiny space near you. I’m fine, I replied with a strained smile. I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again.”

This account from her article dated October 12, 2017 inVogueIndia (https://bit.ly/3jZYWLe), did not name Mr. Akbar, who since June 2016, was a Minister of State, in the Ministry of External Affairs. However, on October 8, 2018 Ms. Ramani put out on Twitter “ I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t ‘do’ anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator maybe they’ll share.” A media storm followed which forced Mr. Akbar to resign his position as a Minister on October 17. 2018. The next day, he filed a criminal complaint for defamation against Ms. Ramani for her article and her tweets.

Defamation and the defence

The law of criminal defamation is premised on a person’s right to a reputation. Making or publishing “any imputation concerning any person, intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person”, is criminal defamation. Mr. Akbar alleged that Ms. Ramani’s allegations, “by their very tone and tenor, areex faciedefamatory and had not only damaged the complainant’s goodwill and reputation in his social circles and on the political stage, which was established after years of toil and hard work but also had affected the personal reputation of complainant in the community, friends and colleagues, thereby caused him irreparable loss and tremendous distress.”

Ms. Ramani premised her defence on the First Exception to Section 499 which postulates that “It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it be for the public good that the imputation should be made or published.” She also relied upon the Ninth Exception which says that , “It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.”

For public good, witnesses

The Third Exception was also pressed into service saying: “It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct ....” Thus Ms. Ramani’s lawyers, led by Rebecca John, “plead[ed] truth as her defence, made in good faith, in public interest, and for public good”. They “also contended that [the] complainant is not a man of stellar and impeccable reputation and [the] accused did not defame him by publishing the tweets and article”.

What seems to have turned the case is the testimony of witnesses produced by Ms. Ramani in her defence. Her friend, Niloufer Venkataraman, corroborated that Ms. Ramani had narrated the incident to her soon after it had occurred. The journalist, Ghazala Wahab, who had also worked with Mr. Akbar at a later point of time, narrated her own horrifically detailed experience of harassment by him. Relying on these witnesses, the court accepted the “defence of the accused that she disclosed the truth regarding the incident of sexual harassment against her at the Oberoi Hotel, Bombay in December 1993 on the basis of testimony of accused DW1 and its corroboration by the testimony of DW2 Niloufer Venkatraman. The Court also accepts the contention of the accused that the complainant is not a man of stellar reputation on the basis of testimony of accused DW1 and testimony of DW3 Ghazala Wahab.” The judgment has thus ruled that Ms. Ramani spoke the truth, and that Mr. Akbar had a pre-existing tarnished reputation which had been exposed for the public good.

Other cases

Many have wondered why the acquittal on a charge of defamation by a victim of sexual harassment is being celebrated when the alleged perpetrator has faced no criminal prosecution at all. The answer is that this judgment shines like a good deed in a naughty world when contrasted against a series of cases where the legal process has failed to bring closure and justice to women complainants.

In the Mathura rape case of 1978, the Supreme Court’s acquittal of the policeman, Tukaram, earned it a stinging rebuke from legal scholars that “consent involves submission, but the converse is not necessarily true”. A decade later, in 1988, IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj prosecuted Punjab’s super-policeman K.P.S. Gill, for outraging her modesty. Mr. Gill’s conviction was maintained right up to the Supreme Court but he was released on probation and suffered no imprisonment.

Two years later, in 1990, S.P.S. Rathore, another senior policeman in the neighbouring State of Haryana, tried to force himself on a 14-year-old tennis player. When the girl and her family complained to the authorities, a targeted pattern of vengeance and harassment followed which lead to her death by suicide. Nevertheless, even after a prolonged uproar, in 2016, Mr. Rathore got away in the Supreme Court, with a six-month term of imprisonment already undergone, in view of his advanced age. The founder-editor of a magazine, Tarun Tejpal’s trial for an alleged digital rape, in 2013, of his subordinate in a hotel lift, is still pending trial in a court in Goa.

By rarely visiting retribution upon the perpetrators, the legal process has hitherto yielded little in terms of relief to the victim. Against all odds, the sight of Ms. Ramani and Ms. Rebecca John triumphing in court may come to be a defining image in India’s long walk towards respecting female sexual autonomy. Many more women will now be emboldened to resist harassment at the workplace and elsewhere. Hopefully a few men are now deterred from trading power and position to secure sexual favours. Mr. Akbar may yet file an appeal and the wheels of justice may yet be kept grinding, but Ms. Ramani today stands tall and vindicated.

Sanjay Hegde is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India

It is time to rethink the changing role and the mandate of the IITs in order to ensure that quality and focus continue

Without question, the Indian Institutes of Technology, or the IITs, are the crown jewels of Indian higher education. They are world-renowned for the quality of their graduates and for their academic programmes in a range of fields in technology and engineering — and in the past decade, in research and innovation through research parks as well. They are among the few Indian higher education institutions that do reasonably well in the global rankings. However, for the past decade or so, and according to current plans, the IIT “system” has expanded beyond its capacity to maintain its high standards and is in danger of sinking into mediocrity. The recent decision of the University Grants Commission to permit select IITs under the ‘Institutions of Eminence’ category to set up campuses abroad could further weaken these already stretched institutions. It is time to rethink the changing role and mandate of IITs in order to ensure that quality and focus are maintained — and by prioritising the needs of India, but with a 21st century twist.

What the IITs are, are not

The original five IITs were established in the 1950s and early 1960s (https://bit.ly/3kfq9K9). Four had a foreign collaborator: IIT Bombay (the Soviet Union), IIT Madras (Germany), IIT Kanpur (the United States), and IIT Delhi (the United Kingdom). Currently, there are 23 IITs. After setting up IIT Delhi in 1961, it took another 34 years to establish the sixth IIT in Guwahati (1994). Since then, 17 more IITs have been established, including several that resulted from upgrading existing institutions.

Funded generously by the central government, the IITs focused exclusively on technology and engineering. They later added the humanities and social sciences — but these programmes were modest until the 2020 National Education Policy emphasised the IITs should focus more on “holistic and multidisciplinary education”.

According to data available with the Council of Indian Institutes of Technology, the IITs are small institutions with average student enrolments in the five older IITs of around 10,000. Some of the newer ones remain quite small, with fewer than 400 students. The older IITs have faculties of around 1,000, while some of the new ones, such as those in Palakkad and Jammu, employ 100 or so. Further, most of the IITs suffer from a severe shortage of professors. For example, IIT Dhanbad is approved to hire 781 instructors but only 301 positions were filled as of January 2021.

Offerings, students, faculty

The IITs are not universities; they have neither the range of disciplines nor the size that characterise universities worldwide. The IITs started as undergraduate institutions; they gradually added small post-graduate programmes, but some are now adding significant post-graduate offerings. IIT-Bombay’s student enrolment, for example, was 58% post-graduate during 2019-20 (https://bit.ly/3pxUZyp). The IITs were, and are, self-consciously elite institutions aiming at the highest international academic standards — a tradition which, in our view, is important but increasingly difficult to maintain.

It is not surprising that IITs graduates are so successful — the schools may be the most selective institutions in the world. Around 7,00,000 students sit for the national engineering entrance examination for the IITs and several other elite institutions each year and a vast majority of them target the 16,000-plus seats available in the 23 IITs. According to an answer provided in Lok Sabha by the Minister of Human Resource Development, in February 2020, dropout rates at the IITs are infinitesimal and declining, from 2.25% in 2015-16 to 0.68% in 2019-20.

Similarly, the IITs have traditionally attracted high quality faculty, where most have doctorates from the most respected western universities. Top quality professors have been attracted to the IITs because of the quality of the students, the chance to work with the best academic minds in India, and a commitment to India’s development. While salaries do not compare well on the international market, working and living conditions on the older IIT campuses are comfortable.

In recent years, however, things began to change. The IITs could not attract a sufficient number of young faculty to fill vacancies resulting from retirements. The emerging IT and related industries in India offered much more attractive salaries and exciting work opportunities, and many were lured to universities and industry in other countries.

At the same time, the government dramatically expanded the number of IITs, spreading them around the country. Most of the new IITs are located in smaller towns such as Mandi (Himachal Pradesh), Palakkad (Kerala), Dharwad (Karnataka), and others. While it is important to provide educational opportunities outside the major metropolitan areas, top institutions are seldom located far away from urban amenities. There is no doubt a sufficient number of excellent students to attend all of the IITs, but there are not now, nor will there be in the future enough top-quality faculty to staff all of the new institutes, especially those in mofussil locations. Facilities and infrastructure are unlikely to be “world class.” It is, thus, inevitable that quality will decline and the “IIT brand” diluted. This would be very unfortunate for India, since the IITs are without doubt India’s most recognisable and respected academic institutions.

Another area is the lack of correlation between the local needs and IITs. Most of the IITs and other prominent “Institutes of National Importance” are ‘academic enclaves’ with little connection with their regions. Only a few State governments are effectively utilising the presence of IITs in the local milieu through knowledge sharing networks involving universities, colleges and schools, and local industries and firms. Similarly, there are few community outreach programmes. Such an approach could prevent disruption, such as that occurring in Goa, where local groups are resisting locating a new IIT in their region.

What needs to be done

While excellent engineering/STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) institutions are needed, they all do not have to be IITs. Perhaps 10 to 12 “real” IITs located near major cities are practical for India. Some of the newly established institutes can be renamed and provided with sufficient resources to produce high quality graduates and good research. A more limited “IIT system” needs to be funded at “world class” levels and staffed by “world class” faculty, perhaps with some recruited from top universities internationally. Recent decision to liberalise the recruitment rules to attract more foreign faculty is a good step in the right direction.

Further, the IITs need to pay attention to internationalisation beyond sending their brightest graduates abroad and recruiting Indians with foreign PhDs; starting overseas branches is a bad idea, but in-depth collaboration with the best global universities, and hiring foreign faculty, perhaps as visiting scholars, would yield excellent results, and further build the IITs international brand. IIT Bombay-Monash Research Academy, and University of Queensland-IIT Delhi Academy of Research (UQIDAR), are promising examples. The IITs need robust policies to attract international students. And, of course, adequate and sustained funding is mandatory — both from government and from the philanthropy of tremendously successful IIT graduates at home and abroad. It would be tragic for India’s “jewel in the academic crown” to be diminished. And overexpansion will inevitably mean exactly that.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, U.S. Eldho Mathews is a higher education researcher based in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

A criminal prosecution that is inexpensive and quick becomes a handy tool to silence critics

Some judicial verdicts acquire emblematic significance far beyond the outcome of a particular case. The acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani of the charge of defaming M.J. Akbar, a former Union Minister, journalist and author, has protected and preserved the space for women who have found their voice in recent times to speak out about their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. A conviction in this case would have had disastrous consequences for the many courageous women who have come out with disturbing revelations about the extent to which a large number of professions and fields in the country have been unsafe. Be it the media, as in this case, or any other domain, the reality that many women suffer in silence in the face of harassment, especially in the early stages of their career, has been brought to the fore by the new-found space and freedom to share their experiences, even if it be after many years. Mr. Akbar’s case was rooted in the claim that he had a ‘stellar reputation’ as a highly respected journalist and an accomplished writer. However, the court found the testimony of Ms. Ramani and Ghazala Wahab, another journalist who testified in her defence, to be credible and detailed enough to question the reputation that he was so strenuously trying to uphold. A welcome feature of the judgment is that the court was receptive to the defence that Ms. Ramani’s claims were true and made for the public good.

Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Ravindra Kumar Pandey, has placed the case in the correct perspective by noting that a woman cannot be punished for criminal defamation when she raises her voice against sexual harassment because “the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of [the] woman”. He has taken note of the unequal equations of power between the harasser and victim in most situations. Given that it may result in loss of dignity and self-confidence at that time, the court underscored that “a woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades”. It may appear to be a sweeping statement that opens up the possibility of incidents from the distant past to be raked up, to the detriment of anyone’s reputation. However, the court places it in the context of the need for women to have freedom, equality, equal opportunity and social protection, if they were to excel in an atmosphere in which their workforce participation is undesirably low. In this backdrop, it is unfortunate that criminal defamation still survives in the statute book, thanks to a 2016 Supreme Court verdict upholding it. A criminal prosecution is quicker and less expensive, making it a handy tool to silence one’s critics and detractors. The time may have come to decriminalise defamation so that those who suffer injury to their reputation are left only with a civil remedy.

The BJP’s loss in the civic elections in Punjabis reflective of a deeper malaise

Sometimes, a defeat is more significant than a victory. The ruling Congress party’s emphatic win in the recent civic elections in Punjab is amplified by the poor performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its former ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The results will inevitably be read as an outcome of the ongoing farmers’ agitation. The Centre’s new farm laws, and its attitude towards the farmers who have been protesting for months against the laws, were prominently raised by the Congress against the BJP during the canvassing. The BJP tried to defend the farm laws but its leaders and workers faced heavy backlash on the ground, and it is clear that the party failed to convince the voters. The Congress, which may be on the back foot for unkept election promises of 2017, could find popular approval largely due to the support it extended to the farmers. The BJP’s oldest alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal’s decision to end its coalition with the National Democratic Alliance amid the farmers’ protests was an attempt to regain its alienated voter base. The result, however, makes it clear that it may not be an easy task ahead of the Assembly elections, due in early 2022, for the BJP or SAD. And the political ripples of the farm agitation are spreading beyond Punjab.

The Centre’s hope that the agitating farmers will disperse out of fatigue, and in the face of police measures, appears to have been too optimistic. The Delhi police miserably failed to prevent violence by certain farmer groups on Republic Day and later started haunting civil society activists on flimsy grounds. Criminalising dissent has been a familiar component of the BJP toolkit, but the endurance of that strategy is on test as political costs accrue for the party. The Jannayak Janta Party, which counts the Jat community as its support base, and the BJP share power in Haryana after bitterly fighting each other in elections; in western Uttar Pradesh, a sharp polarisation on religious lines had brought sections of the community closer to the party in recent years. The BJP raised a new band of leaders from the community based entirely on vituperative communal rhetoric. With the farming community now turning against the BJP, and even reaching out to Muslims, the formulaic toolkit of cow and communalism has been interrupted. The BJP called a meeting of Jat leaders in Delhi to mend the situation. If the situation continues, the BJP could face reverses in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. It will be able to recover lost ground only by being more accommodative to the livelihood concerns of the Jat community and not by heightening the polarising rhetoric.