Editorials - 25-06-2021

A school-leaving exam should be based on what a child has learnt right through two years at least

The CBSE has prepared a tabulation scheme to determine the marks that students of Class 12 will be awarded in this pandemic year, upon completion of schooling. How reliable is such a scheme against the backdrop of the digital divide, and can it be improved? In a conversation moderated byG. Ananthakrishnan, Anita Rampal and Uday Gaonkar discuss the road ahead for assessing students. Edited excerpts:

Were the students adequately prepared for the assessment system proposed by CBSE?

Anita Rampal:I know in Delhi, for instance, students who could not even access online classes. So, for them, it’s important that CBSE is looking at assessment over a longer period, not just this pandemic year, and what marks they got in Class 10 and 11. They have yet to see how their schools are going to be marking them for their internal assessment in Class 12. I have spoken to some who did not understand much of what happened in Class 12 because they barely had a shared phone between the siblings or not even that. This has been a very challenging year. I think this was the fairest that the CBSE could have worked out at the given moment, especially since it was done very late and under court orders.

You would have a different experience in a rural setting, Mr. Gaonkar. What do you think?

Uday Gaonkar:I’m working in a state-run school for Classes 8 to 10. Last year, only 80-85 days of physical classes were held. Normally, the academic year should have 200 working days. The syllabus was reduced by 30%. So, that is a mismatch: school days were reduced to 50% and the syllabus cut only by 30%. We were forced to teach hurriedly. Meaningful learning involves a lot of interaction between students, teachers and the community. In this scenario, we are just forced to complete the syllabus. The Government of Karnataka tried broadcasting classes: video classes were broadcast on Doordarshan and even on YouTube, but ours is a very remote location in a rural area. Only 30% students have smartphones. Others have keypad phones. Students found it very difficult to get access to those YouTube videos.

On TV and the Internet, what’s their efficacy in terms of pedagogy?

AR:Very poor. For decades, we have struggled to move beyond just chalk and talk and staring at the blackboard. That itself is not pedagogy. We seem to be losing a lot of the work that we may have done in the last few decades. Learning happens through discussions with others, through engagement with activities or with the world around you.

Now, asking students to stare at a screen is worse than even staring at a blackboard. This is not learning; this is just a kind of coaching. You have learnt something, but you are told that you can have a person or a machine to help you revise it. Digital coaching has been pushed relentlessly by the industry of education technology. This time they really had it big. You can see the kinds of billionaires who have come out of this industry. For at least two decades, most educators in India have tried to resist the pressures of the computer industry which said that you must have smart boards and computers in the classroom. We have said that these can only be add-ons in places where there are essential resources for actual teaching and learning; they cannot be a substitute for activities and discussions among learners.

The pandemic has not only devastated the lives and livelihoods of a majority of our children, but has exacerbated divides. During a board exam, we know that children from disparate backgrounds take the exam and are marked for the same questions, irrespective of the kinds of resources, schools and teachers they’ve had. Now, this is an added layer to that divide. And this digital divide seems to be overwhelming, so much so that the government is bringing out guidelines on home learning and homeschooling, almost putting the responsibility on the learner and the family instead of the system.

That is going to be damaging. When the Right to Education (RTE) law was enacted, the Ministry had appended to the Act a significant note, a justification for each of the clauses. One important justification was that if a child is not able to learn, it is not the failure of the child but of the system. Today, what is going to happen when the system is going to take responsibility for all these lapses, for the inability to connect with our students? We need to not just push the syllabus, but also emotionally support their agency, give them the confidence to continue despite all the odds, because many students are going to drop out after the pandemic is over. So, it’s not just a matter of what marks we will give them for Class 12.

What can feasibly be done this year?

AR:All the State Boards should make sure they’ve looked at assessments, at what students have done. I don’t like the term ‘learning loss’ because again, it puts the responsibility on the student. I think the youngest children have learned a lot. They’ve learned the difficult lessons of life, so we shouldn’t be calling it learning loss. Boards are very distant, remote entities. Schools should really make that intimate and compassionate connect. First, look at students and support them, relieve them of their traumas and anxieties, and then assess them over a longer period. Look at their Class 10, Class 11, look at all the work and projects that they may have done, or can do even now, and then assess them. Of course, if students have not had online classes at all, the school will need to take a call on that: how do they do an internal assessment? I think they will have to be empathetic, careful and fair. The RTE Act says that up to age 14, there should be continuous and comprehensive assessment, but the system never heeded that. What it did, instead, was a poor substitute, what the CBSE called continuous assessment. We need a rethinking on continuous assessment. It’s not just a mark on a paper. It is the assessment of abilities — students’ expression, writing, observation, ability to critically think and experiment.

During the pandemic how can you provide instruction to students?

UG:Last year, the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samithi (BGVS), most of them teachers, started Vatar Sala, a neighbourhood school [in Karnataka]. Students here interact even during a lockdown period and because they know each other, they interact, they share one playground. We thought that one teacher or volunteer will help the students learn. One activity that we have developed is for children to collect electricity bills from their friends in their neighbourhood and transfer that data into another table for that information to be tabulated. They use that information to get various inferences, for example, per capita electricity consumption in that area. We have developed worksheets and activity sheets this year also.

The system is set around one school-leaving examination. Is the situation conducive to having a standardised exam, besides entrance exams?

AR:Exams meant as entrance exams are selective. You have a large number of people, you have fewer seats. But a school exam does not have to be selective. It should be a school-leaving exam based on what you have learnt right through the period or right through two years. That is much more healthy. It does not have to be standardised, which is never a very good format for children because education is really rooted in a child’s environment. The more decentralised the assessment, the more rigorous and better it is, the more it discerns what students have learned. You could have a common textbook, but the best way to assess is to be more decentralised. The RTE Act says don’t take a centralised assessment for selecting/ admitting students into school or for any other purpose. All our assessment theories tell us that better assessment is done in a trusting environment. We have statistical ways of seeing that these are not unfair, or can be moderated in ways that do not get skewed towards any particular State or district or school.

CBSE has stipulated results committees in schools. Is that a sound approach, with 40% of the marking at Class 12 level?

AR:It is okay to have some external component of the committee, some people who can understand assessment and who also look at fair distributions. For instance, in our university assessment for the four-year B.El.Ed teacher education programme run by many colleges under our faculty, there is a large component of internal assessment. We have a good system of moderation, where all colleges actually look at samples of work, of their highest and lowest marks, and then decide whether they fall within a fair marking distribution. If some college marking is skewed, those marks are moderated by consensus. This is a challenging process, it needs time and patience and careful rigour, which could be developed within the school system.

Mr. Gaonkar, could you tell us about your report on education reform?

UG:BGVS submitted a report last year to the committee set up by the government on online classes. Our experience with Vatar Sala was very helpful. We gave some data collected by a national sample survey about Internet access and availability of devices. We said that it is injustice to have online classes for school students because it will not reach all the students, and recommended some paper-based activity sheets. Even learning kits were tried.

What did you find from the survey and recommend as remedy?

UG:Of the 70% of the students living in rural areas, only 6%-7% or even 2% have computers at home — laptops or computers — and only 10%-12% know how to handle the computer and Internet. Students who don’t have a mobile phone have to share the phones of their friends. Most of the students have only basic keypad mobiles, no smartphones, and more than 20% of the students don’t have a mobile phone. So, we said that is unjust. Even though Chandana television reaches more than 60%-70% students, these are PPTs (power point presentations) without any interaction. That is not learning.

If conditions don’t really improve for children to go back to physical classes, what would you do for 2022?

AR:We should be prepared to run schools only when there are lean periods between COVID-19 waves when it is safe. And in that time, try and maximise the time to keep them engaged, not just give them memory-based information. More importantly, we need to keep in touch with them at home. Maybe give them some handouts, worksheets. Assessment should be closely tied to learning.

UG:This year is an opportunity to look into this matter differently. Board exams made the schools tuition centres. Now, we can make schools learning spaces again by providing real experiences rather than virtual experiences. Students gather knowledge in a fragmented way, whether it is language or the sciences or maths. Classes are fragmented age-wise. We can club them as far as possible and children can learn with their elders’ help. It is time to rethink school education.

Most of the students have only basic keypad mobiles, no smartphones, and more than 20% of the students don’t have a mobile phone.


The Government needs to reverse its neglect and policy missteps as key indicators show the sector has resilience

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic could be slowly receding with a decline in the official estimates of daily infections and deaths. The economy is also very gradually getting back to normal, with many States beginning to ease some of the restrictions imposed in their lockdowns. However, the challenge of an economic recovery is far more serious than the health pandemic despite official claims of there being an economic recovery. Last month, the National Statistical Office (NSO) released the estimates of the Indian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth for the fiscal year 2020-21. The decline in GDP, at 7.3%, was slightly better than expectation, even though this is a gross underestimate of the reality given the methodological issue of underestimation of the economic distress in the unorganised sector.

Making things worse

But what makes economic recovery challenging is that this decline followed three years of sharp decline in GDP even before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the country. Economic growth had already decelerated to 4% in 2019-20, less than half from the high of 8.3% in 2016-17. Since then, the slowdown in the economy has not only made things worse as far as economic recovery is concerned but also come at a huge cost for a majority of households which have lost jobs and incomes. The pandemic has only worsened an already fragile economic situation. The sharp decline in GDP was partly a result of the trend of a slowdown in economic activity since 2016-17. But a large part of the economic outcome in the first year of the pandemic is also a result of a mishandling of the economic situation.

While a strict national lockdown certainly hit economic activity last year, what made matters worse was the less than adequate response from the Government in increasing fiscal support to revive demand in the economy. Many of the grand announcements remained largely on the monetary side without the enabling policy framework to help small and medium enterprises as well as the large unorganised sector which bore the brunt of the restrictions in economic activity.

Agriculture, a key driver

Despite the lack of fiscal support, an important contributor to the better-than-expected economic performance was the resilience of the rural economy, particularly the agricultural sector. While rural areas were the first point of refuge for a majority of migrants who walked back thousands of kilometres from urban metropolitan areas, agriculture was the only major sector (other than electricity, gas, water supply and other utility services) which reported an increase in Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2020-21. It not only provided jobs to returning migrants but also sustained the economy in the rural areas.

Agriculture has not only been the biggest saviour during the period of the pandemic but has consistently been an important driver of the economy throughout the last five years which has seen the economy slow down sharply. The average growth rate in agriculture GVA in the last five years, at 4.8%, is significantly higher than the GVA growth of the economy as a whole, at 3.6%, in the last five years.

But can the rural sector play saviour again? Unlikely, in the present context. And it will not be due to any natural calamity such as drought but a result of the neglect and policy missteps by the Government. Even though the lockdowns imposed by the State governments at the beginning of the second wave were less severe when compared to last year, they did impact the non-agricultural economy as is evident from the high frequency data for the last two months. The expectation of positive growth in this fiscal year may suggest recovery. However, given that the economy has already suffered last year, any recovery will largely be a statistical artefact driven by the low base of last year rather than a real recovery. The fact that a majority of households have already suffered job losses and income decline which are yet to regain their pre-pandemic levels suggests caution in making any inference on an economic recovery.

However, even the aggregate data are unlikely to capture the actual extent of devastation in the rural areas. While this is true for even the basic estimates of death and the health catastrophe caused by the pandemic, it is even more severe in its economic impact. Similar to the official statistics which have underestimated deaths due to the pandemic in most States — as has been brought out recently in several newspapers — the economic distress in rural areas is also largely unreported and underestimated.

The second wave affected rural areas disproportionately, in terms of health but also in terms of livelihoods. Many households have lost an earning member and an equally large number have spent a large sum on private health care expenditure in dealing with the infection. It will not be surprising if rural areas now witness a sharp rise in indebtedness from non-institutional sources.

However, the response from the Government has not been commensurate with the scale of the pandemic in rural areas. Unlike last year, the Government has not increased the allocation this year for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). For the country as a whole, despite an increase in employment demand in NREGS, the person-days generated in May 2021 was only 65% when compared to May 2020. While the free food-grain scheme has been extended this year as well, it does not include pulses as was provided last year. Similarly, there has not been any cash transfer to vulnerable groups, unlike last year.

Decline in jobs, income

The impact of declining incomes and job losses on demand is now visible even in rural areas. While real wages have continued to decline with the latest estimates of April 2021 showing a decline in rural non-agricultural wages by 0.9% per annum in the last two years, agricultural wages continue to stagnate. One indicator of declining demand is the decline in wholesale prices of most of the agricultural commodities. Cereals and vegetables, which together account for more than half of crop output, have seen prices decline on a year-on-year basis for more than six months now. This is happening at a time when international agricultural prices are at an all-time high.

Some of this is reflected in the rise in inflation in pulses and oilseeds groups, both of which are largely imported. The net result is a peculiar situation where output prices for dominant agricultural commodities in the domestic market are declining while consumer prices of essentials such as edible and pulses are contributing to rising inflation.

Inflation threat

Rising inflation further threatens to reduce the purchasing power of the rural economy struggling with declining incomes and job losses. This is further compounded by the shift in terms of trade against agriculture which has put agricultural incomes under strain. The rise in input prices for diesel has already contributed to rising input costs but the recent increase in fertilizer prices for most of the complex fertilizers have also added to the misery of farmers. Rising inflation in international commodity prices also threatens the rural non-farm economy. A majority of the rural non-farm sector already struggling from low demand has now seen its profit margins getting impacted due to the increase in the cost of raw material.

Despite these setbacks, the rural economy including the agricultural economy continues to remain crucial for any strategy of economic revival. But for that, it will require proactive intervention from the Government to protect the rural population by speeding up vaccination. Unfortunately, so far, the rural areas have been lagging behind in the overall rate of vaccination. At the same time, rural areas will also need greater fiscal support, both in terms of direct income support to revive demand in the economy but also through various subsidies and protection from the rising inflation in input prices. This urgent intervention is not just necessary to support economic revival but also prevent another humanitarian crisis, this time as a result of economic mismanagement.

Himanshu is Associate Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

New Delhi needs to make new commitments, developing and deepening links in health, space and digital technologies

Africa is considered a foreign policy priority by India. The Narendra Modi government designed a forward-looking strategy to deepen relations with African countries. Its implementation was managed quite well, with much political will invested in expanding the multi-faceted engagement. Even as the COVID-19 era began in March 2020, New Delhi took new initiatives to assist Africa through prompt despatch of medicines and later vaccines.

But now the policy implementation needs a critical review.

The macro picture

The latest economic data confirms what was apprehended by experts: India-Africa trade is on a decline. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry, in 2020-21, India’s exports to and imports from Africa stood, respectively, at $27.7 billion and $28.2 billion, a reduction of 4.4% and 25% over the previous year. Thus, bilateral trade valued at $55.9 billion in 2020-21, fell by $10.8 billion compared to 2019-20, and $15.5 billion compared to the peak year of 2014-15.

India’s investments in Africa too saw a decrease from $3.2 billion in 2019-20 to $2.9 billion in 2020-21. Total investments over 25 years, from April 1996 to March 2021, are now just $70.7 billion, which is about one-third of China’s investment in Africa. COVID-19 has caused an adverse impact on the Indian and African economies.

India’s top five markets today are South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Togo. The countries from which India imports the most are South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Angola and Guinea. India’s top three exports to Africa are mineral fuels and oils (processed petroleum products), pharmaceutical products and vehicles. Mineral fuels and oils, (essentially crude oil) and pearls, precious or semi-precious stones are the top two imports accounting for over 77% of our imports from Africa. The composition of the India-Africa trade has not changed much over the two decades.

Global competition

These latest trends in bilateral economic relations should be assessed against two broad developments.

First, COVID-19 has brought misery to Africa. As on June 24, 2021, Africa registered 5.2 million infections and 1,37,855 deaths. Given Africa’s population (1.3 billion) and what happened elsewhere (the United States, Europe and India), these figures may not have drawn international attention, but Africans have been deeply affected and remain ill-equipped. A recent World Health Organization survey revealed that 41 African countries had fewer than 2,000 working ventilators among them. Despite these shortcomings, Africa has not done so badly. Experts suggest that the strength of community networks and the continuing relevance of extended family play an important supportive role. Besides, Africa has some of the protocols in place, having recently suffered from Ebola, and managed it reasonably well. Sadly though, with much of the world caught up in coping with the novel coronavirus pandemic’s ill effects, flows of assistance and investment to Africa have decreased.

Second, as a recent Gateway House study, Engagement of External Powers in Africa; Takeaways for India (https://bit.ly/3qoI4kv and https://bit.ly/3xOfFXE), showed, Africa experienced a sharpened international competition, known as ‘the third scramble’, in the first two decades of the 21st century. A dozen nations from the Americas, Europe and Asia have striven to assist Africa in resolving the continent’s political and social challenges and, in turn, to benefit from Africa’s markets, minerals, hydrocarbons and oceanic resources, and thereby to expand their geopolitical influence. A mix of competition and contestation involving traditional and new players, especially the United States, the European Union (EU), China, Japan and India, has attracted much attention from governments, media and academia.

While China has successfully used the pandemic to expand its footprint by increasing the outflow of its vaccines, unfortunately India’s ‘vax diplomacy’ has suffered a setback. This came in the wake of the debilitating second wave of COVID-19 in the country and the shortage of vaccine raw materials from the U.S. Geopolitical tensions in Asia and the imperative to consolidate its position in the Indo-Pacific region have compelled New Delhi to concentrate on its ties with the United Kingdom, the EU, and the Quad powers, particularly the U.S. Consequently, the attention normally paid to Africa lost out.

India’s role

This must now change. For mutual benefit, Africa and India should remain optimally engaged. It was perhaps this motivation that shaped the substantive intervention made by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on May 19 in the UN Security Council’s open debate on conflict and post-pandemic recovery in Africa. Touching on politico-diplomatic dimensions, he regretted that “the voice of Africa is not given its proper due” in the Security Council (https://bit.ly/3qle5Kl). He highlighted India’s role in peacekeeping in Africa, in lending support to African counter-terrorism operations, and contributing to African institutions through training and capacity-enhancing assistance. India’s aid for economic development in the African continent is set to continue, he assured. His visit to Kenya (June 12-14 ) has helped to re-establish communication with Africa at a political level.

It is time to seize the opportunity and restore Africa to its primary position in India’s diplomacy and economic engagement. The third India-Africa Forum Summit was held in 2015. The fourth summit, pending since last year, should be held as soon as possible, even if in a virtual format. Fresh financial resources for grants and concessional loans to Africa must be allocated, as previous allocations stand almost fully exhausted. Without new commitments, India’s Africa policy would be like a car running on a near-empty fuel tank.

Areas with promise

The promotion of economic relations demands a higher priority. Industry representatives should be consulted about their grievances and challenges in the COVID-19 era. It is essential “to impart a 21st century complexion to the partnership with Africa”, as the above-mentioned study argues. This means developing and deepening collaborations in health, space and digital technologies.

Finally, to overcome the China challenge in Africa, increased cooperation between India and its international allies, rates priority. The recent India-EU Summit has identified Africa as a region where a partnership-based approach will be followed (https://bit.ly/3wW1jUV). Similarly, when the first in-person summit of the Quad powers is held in Washington, a robust partnership plan for Africa should be announced. For it to be ready in time, work by Quad planners needs to begin now.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former High Commissioner to South Africa, Kenya

and Lesotho

Overcrowding in prisons has put several inmates at risk of COVID-19 infection and death

The catastrophic surge in COVID-19 cases across India in April and May led to a great number of deaths (still being counted) and put an enormous strain on the healthcare system and governments.

In the midst of the surge, prisoners were largely forgotten. The failure of the authorities to reduce severe overcrowding in prisons left thousands of prisoners at risk of infection and death. According to data, there are 12,715 inmates lodged in 11 sections of Tihar Jail alone as against the lodging capacity of 7,425. Out of them, 11,077 are undertrials.

Violating human rights

As was expected, given the poor state of prisons in India, hundreds of prisoners got infected during the pandemic and a number of them died. This vitiates a fundamental right derived from Article 21 of the Constitution. Overcrowded jails are a violation of the human rights of prisoners (Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 v. State of Assam, 2018). As the court said inCharles Sobraj v. The Suptd., Central Jail, Tihar,1978, “imprisonment does not spell farewell to fundamental rights”.

The aim of imprisonment is not merely deterrence of crime but also reformation. Apart from risking the lives of inmates, ignorance of the poor conditions of prisons has also added to the misery of the families of those in jail. Since physical meetings between the inmates and family members were suspended, many families have been unaware of the conditions of their loved ones in prison. While the Supreme Court ordered that prisons adopt video conferencing technologies to overcome the lack of physical meetings, this has not been properly implemented, according to Amnesty International. A report of the organisation noted that prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir were allowed a phone call to their family only once in 15 days.

In May, prominent Hurriyat leader and chairman of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, died in detention in Jammu. Sehrai had been jailed under the Public Safety Act, a detention law that allows detention of any individual for up to two years without a trial or charge. He had tested positive for COVID-19 posthumously. His son said that Sehrai had complained of ill-health when the family had spoken to him 10 days earlier but there had been delay in his treatment till death became inevitable. Sehrai’s death has exposed the condition of prisons in Jammu and Kashmir. It has also exposed the condition of political prisoners who often languish in jail for years and are rarely convicted.

Political prisoners

Ever since the pandemic outbreak, human rights activists have demanded the immediate release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds but this has fallen on deaf ears. There are several Kashmiris kept in preventive detention in jails in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and other parts of India. A number of them are undertrials. According to Article 14 (3)(c) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an accused has the right to be tried without undue delay. The state is bound to provide legal assistance to prisoners, ensure their safe and timely release and safeguard their rights to a fair and speedy trial (Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar,1979). But this is not the reality for a large number of prisoners.

Taking cognisance of this issue, the Supreme Court directed the States to examine releasing inmates, convicted or facing trial on non-serious charges, from jails either on regular bail or on parole. It also directed them to provide transport facility to the prisoners to reach home. It is hoped that States will comply. Some have said that they have begun reviewing prison occupancy. Given that States have started vaccinating prisoners too, the situation may improve soon. But India cannot ignore the problem of overcrowding, pandemic or no pandemic.

Aabid Mushtaq and Tajamul Islam are students of law at the School of Law, University of Kashmir

Govts should unlock using good evidence on how to avert another COVID-19 wave

After a debilitating second wave of COVID-19, cash-strapped State governments have responded to falling cases with a swift unlock programme in most districts. Some States have opted to open the floodgates, allowing dine-in restaurants, gymnasia, most shops and religious centres in areas with low test positivity rates for the coronavirus. Lockdown-weary citizens, on their part, have greeted the reopening with road trips to tourist centres, even travelling across inter-State borders. This is not surprising, considering that the country has gone through weeks of anguish, when death and misery touched the lives of millions. Thedéjà vumoment, worryingly similar to the misplaced optimism following the first wave, is a time for caution and to avoid the missteps that produced the deadly second wave. Already, Maharashtra has expressed worry that there is a noticeable rise in cases in just a week; the experience of other States will soon be known. There is a lot to be concerned about, since the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus that overran cities and rural areas in April-May continues to threaten unvaccinated populations, senior citizens and people with weak immunity in particular. The likely risk for children also causes apprehension. That it has morphed into a delta plus variant through a fresh mutation underscores the need for greater vigilance.

With the unprecedented knowledge base created in just over a year on COVID-19, governments have the resources to plan finely tuned reopening strategies. The current consensus on preventing spread, as WHO points out, is to avoid the three Cs — crowded places, close-contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces. The intersection of these is the most dangerous, and relaxations given by some States fall within this red zone: dine-in restaurants, cultural performances, shops, and social events in enclosed spaces. A significant number of people are unwilling to wear masks and adhere to distancing, making it difficult to stop transmission, including on trains and buses. Neither have State governments moved to provide certified masks to the public liberally, to be able to insist that they be worn. The insurance and banking sectors have made slow progress in enabling employees to work from home using real time platforms that can reduce crowding in offices. It is clear that until vaccines are freely available and cover every individual, the economy can reopen with a modicum of safety only with strong leadership. A record vaccination rate on a given day may encourage more people to come forward to be immunised, but there are not enough doses available, and data show rural areas are doing badly compared to cities even for the first dose. The Centre is cautious this time, warning of a third wave, but the imperative is to open windows of activity gradually without dropping the ball on safety.

New Zealand did well to win the Test Championship in spite of time lost to rain

The sun, after playing hide and seek with the clouds, finally shone in all its glory at Southampton and the inaugural ICC World Test Championship summit clash had its closure on the reserve sixth day. New Zealand emerged as deserving winners with skipper Kane Williamson leading from the front through knocks of 49 and an unbeaten 52, both outings buttressed by patience and a steely resolve to counter a strong Indian bowling unit. The Black Caps won by eight wickets and Virat Kohli’s men had to draw solace from being second-best. They had to accept that the opposition was stronger in English conditions akin to New Zealand backyards unlike the tropical heat and abrasive pitches seen in India. Williamson also relished his luck at the toss and immediately elected to field with the damp weather and moist air further enhancing his pace-attack’s potency. Even while the seniors Tim Southee and Trent Boult did their nagging lines, tall Kyle Jamieson, the man-of-the-final, extracted bounce and lateral movement and shackled the tentative Indian batsmen nibbling outside the off-stump. In a Test spiced by the elements, a low-scoring slugfest was in order and once New Zealand snatched a 32-run first-innings lead and reduced India’s second dig to just 170, barring a miracle Kohli’s men were down for the count and the meagre 139-run target hardly stretched the eventual champion.

India’s cricketing nostalgia is infused with the glories of ‘Indo-Pak’ rivalry, the 1983 World Cup final against the mighty West Indies or the battles against Australia right from the miracle of Eden Gardens in 2001. But it has to be admitted that matches involving India and New Zealand have also acquired a mystique of their own. In recent ICC duels, New Zealand held the edge and it continued in Southampton. During the 2019 World Cup semifinal at Manchester, New Zealand prevailed and even that face-off spilled into the reserve day. The tale back then was one of swing and dark skies and the same backdrop was present at Southampton. New Zealand has often ended up as the bridesmaid in premier tournaments but a corner was turned over the last few days and it augurs well for cricket’s health while new champions step up. India, which last won ICC silverware — the Champions Trophy — in 2013, did well in the run-up to the latest final and its rousing triumph in Australia earlier this year was the stuff of dreams. The squad has the right mix and after a break, it will be time to get back into the bio-bubble and then play the five-Test series against host England from August 4. A battle of attrition awaits India while New Zealand flies back with the champion’s halo.

One of the greatest minds of our time didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was

Anticipation was in the air that bright October afternoon in 1987 at Pala, a bustling town in central Kerala known for its rubber plantations. Some 40 young chess players had come from across Kerala for the State junior championship.

For some of us, it was our first big tournament. So, the fact that we were playing at such an event was cause for excitement.

But there was another reason why we were so excited that afternoon: we were to meet Viswanathan Anand, who had recently been crowned the world junior champion in the Philippines. The State’s chess association was felicitating him.

Anand had come along with his mother, who used to accompany him for tournaments those days. He also took part in an exhibition event called simultaneous display, a term that has now become familiar because of a recent controversy following an online fundraiser.

In simultaneous chess, a strong player takes on several less talented opponents, ranging from 15 to 50 mostly, at the same time. There have been instances of Grandmasters playing against hundreds, too. In fact, Iran’s Ehsan Ghaem Maghami set a world record in 2011 when he took on 604 players at Tehran (for the record, he won 580 of them, drew 16 and lost eight).

Usually the number is much lower. The player makes a move on one board and then goes to the next one. While the multiple participants get plenty of time, the strong player has to make his calculations quickly. But as the statistics from Maghami’s simultaneous display suggest, the Grandmaster wins most of the games. Grandmasters can defeat a large number of opponents even while playing blindfolded.

At Pala, if I remember correctly, Anand won all games but two.

He did, in due course, go on to win games more important than that in a career that has had few parallels in world sport.

As a reporter ofThe Hindu, I have written on some of his finest moments over the years. I have also been privileged to interview him on several occasions, including a memorable one at his residence in Chennai three years ago. He greeted me with the same friendly smile which I first saw in Pala three decades ago.

It was a pleasure listening to him talk for well over two hours. Anand is one of the greatest minds of our time. The entire chess world – and those who have come across him anywhere – would agree that he is an incredibly nice, polite, humble gentleman, on whose head sit lightly five world championships and the credit for single-handedly revolutionising chess in India.

It is little wonder then everyone felt bad when news emerged earlier this month that some of Anand’s celebrity opponents had cheated, using the computer, during the simultaneous display organised by chess.com to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.

It would count among Indian sport’s great fiascos. Anand didn’t deserve to be treated like that. The celebrity event featuring film stars, singers and businessmen was supposed to gain publicity for chess, which isn’t as popular in India as other sports like cricket or football. It generated publicity alright, but of the negative kind.

The U.S. government has been fighting a losing battle with the press, which has published secret official documents about the origin and escalation of the war in Vietnam. As the Government took theNew York Timesto court and got the publication of the documents stopped, the task of publication was taken up in turn by theWashington Post, theChicago Sun-Timesand theBoston Globe. The Government got a further jolt when some of the judges held that the newspapers did nothing seriously wrong in publishing the documents, since the consequences might be to preserve national security, rather than endanger it. Though the war in Vietnam continues and American troops are fighting there, it should be pointed that the Pentagon documents concern the decisions of past Presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson and their advisers. They do not refer to current operations, except in a historical context. Americans have recently begun to ask: “How did we get into this war? Why did we send half a million soldiers there?” The official papers have supplied the information which the public needs in order to evaluate the policies which led to deep American involmement.