Editorials - 17-03-2021

Without adequate safeguards, AI can widen social and economic schisms, leading to discriminatory outcomes

Since Czech writer Karel Čapek first mentioned robots in a 1920s play, humans have dreamed about intelligent machines. What if robots take over policing? What if nanny-bots look after our children and elderly? What if — and this has been rich fodder for dystopian literature — they became more intelligent than us?

Surrounded as we are by the vestiges of our analogue world, to many of us, these wonderings may seem decades from fruition. But artificial intelligence (AI), the engine of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is already very much with us.

AI’s exponential growth

It is embedded in the recommendations we get on our favourite streaming or shopping site; in GPS mapping technology; in the predictive text that completes our sentences when we try to send an email or complete a web search. It promises to be even more transformative than the harnessing of electricity. And the more we use AI, the more data we generate, the smarter it gets. In just the last decade, AI has evolved with unprecedented velocity — from beating human champions at Jeopardy! in 2011, to vanquishing the world’s number one player of Go, to decoding proteins (https://go.nature.com/30N9BQz) last year.

Automation, big data and algorithms will continue to sweep into new corners of our lives until we no longer remember how things were “before”. Just as electricity allowed us to tame time, enabling us to radically alter virtually every aspect of existence, AI can leapfrog us toward eradicating hunger, poverty and disease — opening up new and hitherto unimaginable pathways for climate change mitigation, education and scientific discovery.

For better or for worse

Already, AI has helped increase crop yields (https://bit.ly/3cAUv67), raised business productivity, improved access to credit and made cancer detection faster and more precise (https://go.nature.com/3qRmfbO). It could contribute more than $15 trillion to the world economy by 2030 (https://pwc.to/3tvmJq1), adding 14% to global GDP. Google has identified over 2,600 use cases of “AI for good” worldwide (https://bit.ly/3qSmsM2). A study published inNature(https://go.nature.com/3tlzJyj) reviewing the impact of AI on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) finds that AI may act as an enabler on 134 — or 79% — of all SDG targets. We are on the cusp of unprecedented technological breakthroughs that promise to positively transform our world in ways deeper and more profound than anything that has come before.

Yet, the study inNaturealso finds that AI can actively hinder 59 — or 35% — of SDG targets. For starters, AI requires massive computational capacity, which means more power-hungry data centres — and a big carbon footprint (https://bit.ly/3lmsof4). Then, AI could compound digital exclusion. Robotics and AI companies are building intelligent machines that perform tasks typically carried out by low-income workers: self-service kiosks to replace cashiers, fruit-picking robots to replace field workers, etc.; but the day is not far when many desk jobs will also be edged out by AI, such as accountants, financial traders and middle managers. Without clear policies on reskilling workers, the promise of new opportunities will in fact create serious new inequalities. Investment is likely to shift to countries where AI-related work is already established (https://bit.ly/2NnrMt7), widening gaps among and within countries. Together, Big Tech’s big four — Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook — are worth a staggering $5 trillion, more than the GDPs of just about every nation on earth. In 2020, when the world was reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, they added more than $2 trillion to their value.

The fact is, just as AI has the potential to improve billions of lives, it can also replicate and exacerbate existing problems, and create new ones. Consider, for instance, the documented examples (https://bit.ly/30Ny8VI) of AI facial recognition and surveillance technology discriminating against people of colour and minorities. Or how an AI-enhanced recruitment engine, based on existing workforce profiles, taught itself that male candidates were preferable to female.

Privacy worries

AI also presents serious data privacy concerns. The algorithm’s never-ending quest for data has led to our digital footprints being harvested and sold without our knowledge or informed consent. We are constantly being profiled in service of customisation, putting us into echo chambers of like-mindedness, diminishing exposure to varied viewpoints and eroding common ground. Today, it is no exaggeration to say that with all the discrete bytes of information floating about us online, the algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. They can nudge our behaviour without our noticing. Our level of addiction to our devices, the inability to resist looking at our phones, and the chilling case of Cambridge Analytica — in which such algorithms and big data were used to alter voting decisions — should serve as a potent warning of the individual and societal concerns resulting from current AI business models.

In a world where the algorithm is king, it behoves us to remember that it is still humans — with all our biases and prejudices, conscious and unconscious — who are responsible for it. We shape the algorithms and it is our data they operate on. Remember that in 2016, it took less than a day for Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot, christened “Tay”, to start spewing egregious racist content, based on the material it encountered.

Ensuring our humane future

How then do we ensure that AI applications are as unbiased, equitable, transparent, civil and inclusive as possible? How do we ensure that potential harm is mitigated, particularly for the most vulnerable, including for children? Without ethical guard rails, AI will widen social and economic schisms, amplifying any innate biases at an irreversible scale and rate and lead to discriminatory outcomes.

It is neither enough nor is it fair to expect AI tech companies to solve all these challenges through self-regulation. First, they are not alone in developing and deploying AI; governments also do so. Second, only a “whole of society” approach to AI governance will enable us to develop broad-based ethical principles, cultures and codes of conduct, to ensure the needed harm-mitigating measures, reviews and audits during design, development and deployment phases, and to inculcate the transparency, accountability, inclusion and societal trust for AI to flourish and bring about the extraordinary breakthroughs it promises.

Given the global reach of AI, such a “whole of society” approach must rest on a “whole of world” approach. The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation (https://bit.ly/3cDBrV2) is a good starting point: it lays out the need for multi-stakeholder efforts on global cooperation so AI is used in a manner that is “trustworthy, human rights-based, safe and sustainable, and promotes peace”. And UNESCO has developed a global, comprehensive standard-setting draft Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence to Member States (https://bit.ly/3cC4pEH) for deliberation and adoption.

Many countries, including India, are cognisant of the opportunities and the risks, and are striving to strike the right balance between AI promotion and AI governance — both for the greater public good. NITI Aayog’s Responsible AI for All strategy (https://bit.ly/30LMXIv), the culmination of a year-long consultative process, is a case in point. It recognises that our digital future cannot be optimised for good without multi-stakeholder governance structures that ensure the dividends are fair, inclusive, and just.

Agreeing on common guiding principles is an important first step, but it is not the most challenging part. It is in the application of the principles that the rubber hits the road. It is where principles meet reality that the ethical issues and conundrums arise in practice, and for which we must be prepared for deep, difficult, multi-stakeholder ethical reflection, analyses and resolve. Only then will AI provide humanity its full promise. Until then, AI (and the humans who created it) will embody the myth of Prometheus: the Titan who shared the fire of the gods with mortals, and the trickster whose defiance of Zeus led to Pandora opening her box.

Renata Dessallien is UN Resident Coordinator, India

Only a robust public health system, and not healthcare alone, can lead to disease prevention and control

The worst pandemic in a hundred years has demonstrated the importance of healthcare and public health in times of a health crisis. The efforts of healthcare personnel, from ASHA workers with only basic training, to highly specialised intensive care physicians, have saved countless lives and made India proud.

That healthcare is science-based was convincingly demonstrated. Lab diagnosis, clinical assessments, triage and management ranging from home quarantine to intensive care, clinical trials discriminating between useful and useless therapeutic modalities all gave society a glimpse of how modern medicine works. We learned that outcomes of well-designed clinical trials with their statistically significant differences between treatment modalities are sacrosanct for evidence — not unreliable personal anecdotes.

Healthcare personnel worked tirelessly, with single-minded devotion to duty, putting the best interests of others who were in need over their own personal priorities. This made a mark in public perception. Now we realise why good grounding in theory, long years in basics and specialisation, and apprenticing to gain experience in ethical, evidence-based medical practice are essential for the making of caring medical and nursing professionals. Both the science base and the discipline belong to the allopathic system of medicine. This was brought to India just over a century ago and successfully adopted by us as our own.

Healthcare and public health

While the health-care capability in India ranks among the world’s best, it is a different story when it comes to public health. We need to distinguish between the two. Healthcare refers to the transaction between one caregiver and one sick person at a time – hence the client is the sick person and therapy is the mainstay. For public health, the client is the community at large and the goal is disease prevention and control. Disease control is the deliberate, intervention-based and quantified reduction of disease burden. It has to be data-driven. Data are required on baseline disease burden and real-time monitoring to track the control trajectory of all the highly prevalent infectious diseases. Reliable data must be collected from all sources including every healthcare provider, for monitoring disease burden by diagnosis and outcomes; for this exercise, the total population is the denominator.

Data collection for HIV control is sample-based, under the unique Indian design of sentinel surveillance, established in 1986 and still continuing. It shows only the time trend of declining infection prevalence. Counting of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) and laboratory tests for polioviruses (including molecular methods distinguishing wild from vaccine viruses) were crucial for polio elimination in India. The commonality between HIV/AIDS and polio programmes is the availability of denominator-based data. The denominator for polio elimination is the national total under-five population. So, we knew the total disease burden. And when it reached zero, we knew polio was eliminated.

Our health management does not have a way of prospectively collecting data on all diseases and deaths by diagnosis. That is precisely the task of public health. In its absence, we have only the numerator data on various diseases, including COVID-19, but not the denominator — in short we do not have a comprehensive and quantified profile of any disease in the entire population, including those under vertical programmes — tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, AIDS.

For COVID-19, computerised medical records informed us about how many were tested for SARS-CoV-2 infection — and among them, how many were positive, hospitalised, survived or died. All statistics are available in the public domain. Everyone knows that the numbers cover only a fraction of the total, but what proportion of the total, will remain unknown forever.

Social vaccination

To get an insight into the totality of infections in the whole population, we rely on the shape of the COVID-19 epidemic curve that peaked in September and steadily declined to the present — with less than 20,000 daily new infections since January 7 until recently. That informs the proportion already infected — most probably 50%-60%, for 700 million to 800 million people. But the detected numbers are over 11 million. Where does the truth lie: nearer to 11 million or to 700 million? We will not know without a public health surveillance system. The sero-surveys on random samples, an attempt to derive the totality of infections, reported widely disparate figures and failed to give us a reasonably reliable picture.

For COVID-19, there are non-pharmacological preventive interventions — face masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing — and pharmacological prevention by vaccination. Where we fell short is timely and comprehensive public education with authoritative and authentic information communicated effectively to the public for self-motivated behaviour modification. In other words, a ‘social vaccine’. Social vaccination is another function of public health.

In the absence of public health infrastructure, India’s AIDS Task Force designed and successfully applied ‘social vaccine’ during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and this was continued by the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO). Sadly, there was no crosstalk between the COVID-19 programme and NACO; hence principles of social vaccine, so effectively deployed in AIDS prevention, were not adopted for COVID-19 prevention. Now, during the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, authentic health education regarding vaccination is conspicuously lacking, leading to considerable vaccine hesitancy among even healthcare staff. Post-vaccination surveillance, vital for assessing vaccine efficacy and safety, is not being conducted, again a lacuna in public health. We sorely miss public health.

COVID-19 has strong social determinants of infection transmission — overcrowding, lack of cough/sneeze etiquette, and urban-rural divide in health awareness and education. These factors are common for influenza and TB too. Typhoid, cholera, leptospirosis, scrub typhus, malaria, rabies, etc. have environmental determinants. In countries where public health is given equal status with healthcare, public health addresses both social and environmental determinants and controls these diseases. Public health personnel have jurisdiction over people in their homes and workplaces, food and water distribution chains, and over ecosystems — ranging from densities of arthropod vectors, rodent and canine populations, to flight ranges of fruit-eating bats.

Our government errs when it thinks that healthcare for people’s felt need alone will suffice, without mitigating disease determinants through public health. India’s style of mounting ad hoc responses only when there is a pandemic is no longer tenable. Currently our healthcare institutions are cluttered with too many infectious diseases that are amenable to control if only we had public health. Imagine how much wealth is going down the drain for want of public health. Investment in public health will result in health, wealth and prosperity.

T. Jacob John is retired professor of clinical virology, Christian Medical College, Vellore and M.S. Seshadri is retired professor of medicine (endocrinology), CMC, and Medical Director of Thirumalai Medical Mission Hospital, Ranipet

The CBI’s record in bringing to justice some of India’s big-ticket offenders has been a mixed one

I am not an uncompromising admirer of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), despite the fact that I was once director of the crucial agency. It is an outfit which has its strong points such as talented and dedicated supervisors with a sound knowledge of the law and of unquestioned integrity. It is also an outfit with a few glaring shortcomings, such as the enormous delay taken in completing many an investigation and having in its ranks a set of black sheep who have brought ignominy to the organisation. The CBI’s performance in recent times has been a mixed bag, with its moments of glory alongside its moments of shame.

The Nirav Modi, Mallya cases

For example, the Nirav Modi case which was very much in the news recently is testimony to the CBI’s capacity to execute a professional job, provided it is given a free hand. The jeweller, who took Punjab National Bank for a ride, is holed up in Wandsworth Prison in London. He tried his best to demolish the CBI case to get him extradited but did not succeed because the London Westminster Court which tried him was convinced that the prosecution had a watertight case. It is generally believed that the CBI will succeed very soon in bringing him to Mumbai where he is expected to be lodged at Arthur Road jail. Fortunately, the CBI is learned to have received the unstinted support of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) of the United Kingdom, which has an enviable record of professional excellence. Extradition of accused persons who have fled India is the toughest task before the CBI. In this, we have had a few successes and many failures. I am happy that the CBI has done a thorough job in the Nirav Modi case, in ferreting out all details and presenting them before the London court.

In discussing the Nirav Modi case, my mind goes back to the Bofors gun case of the 1980s-90s where an enterprising wheeler dealer, Ottavio Quattrocchi, (said to be close to a political family in India) was allowed to escape from India with the then government’s connivance, and later helped by influential persons in Delhi circles. He was never brought back to face trial in India despite overwhelming evidence against him.

More recently, Vijay Mallya, the liquor baron of Karnataka, who received huge financial favours from a few banks, has been dodging imprisonment and repatriation to India. There are many stories behind his success in evading the due process of law, some credible and some not. Mr. Mallya has lost his case both before the lower court and the High Court. His fate now depends on what view the U.K Home Secretary will take. Sensing his hopeless situation, Mr. Mallya is believed to have sought asylum in that country.

The CBI can rightfully gloat over its success in the Nirav Modi case. The order (February 25, 2021) of a Westminster Magistrate’s Court, London did not mince words. It confirmed that the accused had indeed committed an extraditable crime. This is a shot in the arm for the CBI investigators. This was undoubtedly the outcome of sustained investigation for two years after overcoming the many obstacles put up by an accused person with enormous influence. He was able to get the help of two former Indian judges (one of who was a former Supreme Court judge) to exploit the alleged loopholes in the prosecution story. However, this ploy did not succeed.

Strategies by the accused

In all cases of extradition, the ruse of the accused was mainly to dispute that he had committed an extraditable offence. The endeavour here was to prove that the offence alleged against him was not in the statutes of the country where he is living. Another stand which an accused usually takes is to allege that political considerations had weighed in the mind of the requesting country in demanding extradition. A third strategy was on trying to prove that the country seeking transfer of the offender did not fulfil human rights requirements, particularly in respect of hygiene in the prison in which he was proposed to be lodged. (A video of Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail filed by the prosecution clinched the issue.) Incidentally, this is where Mr. Mallya will also be if and when he is extradited.)

The London judge rejected all three contentions put forward by Mr. Modi’s counsel, and this reflected the thoroughness with which the CBI had done its job.

In the present case, the facts are fairly clear unlike Bofors where the number of players was too many and the transactions under scrutiny originated from a foreign company. Mr. Modi bought up a single employee of Punjab National Bank who was willing to do his bidding.

Financial fraud is a maze

A novelmodus operandiwas employed to hoodwink many in the top echelons of the bank in connection with the Letters of Undertaking and the bank’s core banking system. This was a new lesson to learn for bank fraud investigators and the banking industry. Talk of tightening lending procedures becomes meaningless if a bank employee decides to turn a rogue and is able to successfully hide major unauthorised concessions. This is analogous to many attacks admitted to by financial corporations across the globe during the past few decades on their computer systems, where one bad employee (who had authorised access to sensitive information) can wreck all security arrangements.

A final thought. The public should be made to understand that financial crime in current times is too complicated for agencies such as the CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) to unravel all the facts in quick time. What is involved here is a laborious process of identifying documents that are required to prove a case and to explore where exactly they are lodged or hidden. Many such documents, as in the Bofors case, are in other countries, in private and public recesses. There is mind boggling protocol that has to be observed in trying to procure them. Any ham-handed approach will frustrate the whole process.

Other travails

In all such matters, another instrument of torture for the prosecution is the so-called Letter Rogatory (LR), which the relevant court in India will have to issue to the corresponding court abroad to get hold of documents or examining witnesses in the countries involved. This is a painfully long-drawn-out process which many influential accused persons have taken advantage of. Courts in India are sometimes unfair to the investigating agencies by lambasting them for being responsible for delays, ignoring the fact that it is quite often the foreign government concerned which is dragging its feet. This is part of the huge number of travails that the prosecution faces in pinning down the guilty. Agencies such as the CBI and ED are sometimes the favourite whipping boys of the public and, unfortunately, sometimes of the judiciary.

R.K. Raghavan is a former Central Bureau of Investigation Director and a former High Commissioner to Cyprus

The BJP has been deepening its presence in Assam, making the regional parties more and more dependent on it

The BJP’s ability to forge alliances with prominent regional parties during Assembly and Lok Sabha elections enables it to win votes from wide segments of society with the exception of the bulk of Muslim votes. In Assam, for the coming election, the BJP gave up its alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and chose to ally with the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) apart from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Key leaders including the only sitting MLA from the Ganashakti Party joined the BJP.

Inability to form a counter-coalition

The opposition is dominated by two major alliances. The Congress is in an alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), based mainly among Bengali-speaking Muslims; the Left parties; the Anchalik Gana Morcha; and the BPF. This alliance is expected to have a major impact in Muslim-dominated seats in Lower and Central Assam as well as in the Barak Valley.

Then, a regionalist alliance of two fledgling but prominent regional groups comprising the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP), supported by the influential All Assam Students’ Union, and the Raijor Dal, which is backed by the left-oriented Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, may impact outcomes in the Assamese-dominated areas, mostly in Upper Assam. Despite unanimous resistance among opposition parties to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, they could not forge a pan-Assam coalition to counter the BJP. A State-wide counter-coalition would have been pragmatic given the BJP’s dominance.

There are three reasons why the BJP could stitch and retain a regionalist coalition while the Congress failed to forge a State-wide counter-coalition. First, the deepening religious polarisation and consequent Hindu consolidation in favour of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had foreclosed the possibility for the AGP to expand electorally on its own. Though it could not secure a seat in the Lok Sabha in 2019, the AGP witnessed a marked increase in its contested vote share. Factionalism within the party and the gradual appropriation by the BJP of caste Hindu votes, tribal votes and the tea tribes’ votes reduced the possibilities for the AGP to expand its political base on its own. Thus, its dependency on the BJP grew. The party has been more pragmatic than ideological — it decided to be a part of the NDA while simultaneously opposing the CAA. The shift of traditional AGP voters, caste Hindus in particular, to the BJP has ensured that this dependency may continue till the time the BJP remains a dominant pole in the State. On the other hand, while the Congress-AIUDF alliance may reap electoral advantages in minority-dominated constituencies, it remains self-limiting in Upper Assam constituencies, which are marked by ethno-linguistic diversity and religious homogeneity.

Second, the BJP’s strength also lies in projecting itself as representing indigeneity and the cultural identity of Assam. Its alliance with the UPPL and the fact that key leaders from the Ganashakti Party, which has a popular base among the Mising community, joined the BJP shows the national party’s aggressive alliance strategy. This not only puts it at an advantageous position but also helps it in its pursuit of cultivating an independent base among the indigenous groups.

Third, the Sangh Parivar’s long-term strategy of cultivating a base among the tea tribes has significantly contributed to the BJP’s electoral stability in Upper Assam. Implementation of welfare schemes as well as negotiation of pay hikes for the tea workers have been aimed at retaining the support of this populous community. Despite the territorial concentration of a few ethnic groups, several constituencies in Upper Assam are ethnically diverse with the tea tribes’ votes having a considerable impact in the outcome of the elections.

Mobilisation across sections

With the BJP now dominating the landscape, its allies have become more dependent on it. This has shrunk the autonomous electoral space for the regional parties. The constitutive basis of such a compulsive coalition with the BJP can be attributed to two processes. First, the BJP appropriated the question of cultural identity and indigeneity and infused it with deeper religious meaning and symbols. Second, it further deepened the dependency of diverse ethnic groups on it through the creation of development councils and ensured representation in political bodies. Thus, religious-based mobilisation overtook the ethno-linguistic basis of political mobilisation in the State. While the opposition parties were in a dilemma over forging a counter-coalition fearing religious polarisation in Upper Assam, the NDA has maintained a pan-Assam regional alliance.

Vikas Tripathi and Dhruba Pratim Sharma teach Political Science at Gauhati University, Guwahati

From an industry perspective, U.S.-India collaborations in certain areas will bring many gains

Under the new U.S. administration, the economic relationship with India can be expected to be on the radar as India has enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. A closer economic partnership would bring gains to both sides in terms of GDP, employment, and productivity, given the complementary natures of their economies.

From the industry perspective, a robust collaborative agenda would rest on a comprehensive set of actions which can take bilateral trade in goods and services to the desired goal of $500 billion. In the five years to 2019, bilateral trade grew at a CAGR of 7.7% per year to $146 billion. If we assume the same rate of growth, the $500 billion target will be achieved by 2036. To ensure this, the CAGR would need to be set at 11.9%. This is doable if the right policy actions are taken. CII has outlined key areas for collaboration.

Areas for collaboration

One, a collaborative response to the pandemic would contribute to global containment of the virus. Business partnerships are already taking place in the supply chain to ensure coordinated shipping, distribution, and last-mile connectivity. As India becomes the hub of global vaccine distribution, building confidence in the Indian IPR regime, reviving the U.S.-India Health Dialogue, and mutually recognising standards and approvals will help drive healthcare exchanges.

Two, the macro trade architecture can be strengthened with a broad trade agreement focusing on resolving the low-hanging fruit. The U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum meetings can be revived along with a cross-sector track-2 group to look at convergence on issues such as market access. There is potential for flexibility from both sides for restoring the Generalised System of Preferences which would help lower duties for certain Indian products. The two countries should consider initiating discussions on a free trade agreement.

Three, mobility of professional labour would aid trade in services. Recent regulations in the U.S. have impacted labour mobility which can be addressed through immigration reforms for employment-based visa backlogs and smooth and timely processes. The MoU on labour cooperation signed in 2011 could be updated in line with India’s recent labour regulatory changes. This may also be a good time to reconsider a totalisation agreement pertaining to social security, given that both have already entered into such agreements with many of the same partner countries.

Four, defence industry ties can be stepped up in coordination with industry, as both sides benefit from U.S. technology and Indian manufacturing in this sector. A defence dialogue including the private sectors of both sides could help in co-production and co-development in the defence and aerospace sectors.

Five, engagement of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can be stepped up. Smaller U.S. companies can find significant new opportunities for investments in India and sourcing from India. A U.S.-India SME CEOs Forum can be set up to catalyse such partnerships.

Six, clean energy and climate change, high priorities of the U.S. administration, are also areas where India has made rapid strides. The U.S.-India Strategic Energy Partnership should be geared towards joint investments in industrial decarbonisation, carbon dioxide removal and green hydrogen. The programmes of Partnership to Advance Clean Energy Research, Partnership to Advance Clean Energy Deployment and Promoting Energy Access through Clean Energy must be relaunched.

Seven, a digital economy partnership is critical. India has proved its mettle in this space with new opportunities opening up in robotics, space, AI and electric vehicles. It is also important to disseminate information on India’s IPR regime improvements and work towards taking India off the U.S. Trade Representative IPR priority watchlist.

Other opportunities in the bilateral economic relationship include education, innovation and R&D, and agricultural trade and technology. Industry is confident that the relevant dialogue mechanisms will be instituted at the earliest.

Chandrajit Banerjee is Director General, CII

Freebies form the core of the promisesmade by the main parties in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu, which has seen tumultuous political changes in the last five years, is set for one more round of a familiar battle in the Assembly election on April 6. Its two principal parties, the DMK and the ruling AIADMK, have stitched up pre-poll alliances and taken the lion’s share of the 234 seats to be contested. Both parties have, by and large, retained their allies of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. While the Congress, which appears to be enthused by the visits of its leader Rahul Gandhi to the State, occupies the second slot in the DMK-led alliance with 25 seats, its national-level adversary, the BJP, after aggressive posturing, has had to be content with the 20 seats allotted to it in the AIADMK-led coalition. As this is the first Assembly election after the passing of Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, the AIADMK, in power for the last 10 years, and the DMK, both shorn of charismatic leaders, have thrown in offers of an unusually large number of freebies. The DMK, apart from making, in the run-up to its manifesto release, an offer of Rs. 1,000 a month to the woman-head of every family, has promised Rs. 4,000 to each pandemic-hit ration cardholder (around two crores totally); a subsidy of Rs. 100 per cooking gas cylinder and a reduction in petrol and diesel prices. The AIADMK’s assurances include Rs. 1,500 a month to the woman-head of each family, six cooking gas cylinders annually, a washing machine and solar-powered cook stove and a 50% subsidy in city bus fares for women. It is debatable how these promises will be kept as the State’s fiscal indicators, according to the Fifteenth Finance Commission’s report, have plunged, from 2012-13 to 2018-19. The parties and their allies should concentrate on substantive issues such as public health. The Commission has pointed out that the prevalence of anaemia among women and children is 55% and 50.7%, against the national average of 53.1% and 58.6%. Neither party has addressed such issues satisfactorily in their manifestos.

There are other parties such as the MNM, led by veteran actor Kamal Haasan, the AMMK of T.T.V. Dhinakaran and the NTK of actor-director Seeman. Heterogenous in character, the first two are apparently positioning themselves as serious contenders, with the NTK seeking to don the role of a neo-Tamil nationalist party. Opinion polls point to the likelihood of the DMK-led front securing a comfortable majority, while the ruling party is trying to play catch-up using the governance track record of CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami. As of now, the campaign has been devoid of personal attacks. But, it would take a lot more doing on the part of the principal players to keep at bay forces thriving on parochialism, divisive politics and hate culture.

Govt. should sponsor preparatory plans to help fill faculty posts in Central institutions

A severe deficit in the number of OBC, SC, ST candidates recruited as faculty in Central institutes of higher education has been revealed by Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal in Parliament, drawing attention once again to the pallid state of reservation in some of India’s elite institutions. Some of the striking data show 62% unfilled vacancies for SC in the IIMs and 90% for OBC in the IISc, while vacant positions are on average about 38% to 52%, taking Central Universities, IISERs, IIT (non-faculty), IGNOU, and Sanskrit Central Universities into account. The data confirm that the trend seen earlier in the IIT system extends to many more institutions, highlighting a serious mismatch between the government’s equity-building goals and actual recruitment outcomes. In the case of the IITs, an official committee suggested that the way out would be to exempt these institutions from reservation, as provided for under the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Teachers’ Cadre) Act, 2019, or to dereserve lower faculty positions after a year, if suitable candidates from the beneficiary communities are not found. This cannot obviously be a salutary course for official policy, when the reservation system, envisaged as an improvement on western ideals of affirmative action, is widely seen as the shortest path to equality and equity. What could help bridge the gap is a better understanding of the lacunae in the education system, marked by a sea of deprived public schools and colleges, hyper-commercialised private universities and colleges and islands of elite institutions such as the IIMs.

The failure of the Central higher education institutions to recruit faculty to all the reserved positions is usually attributed to the absence of enough qualified candidates, as the Education Ministry’s committee for IITs did. One of the forward-looking remedial measures suggested by the panel was to start government-sponsored preparatory programmes, which would both equip aspiring faculty, and create a pool of research talent. This has merit in the context of management, science and other disciplines, and in the short term, could help qualified individuals overcome the deficiencies of their preparatory years. Such courses would also make these institutions of higher learning more socially responsive, meeting the goal of addressing historical deprivation of communities based on caste. Yet, there are larger questions that need answers, and which continue to be agitated in courts. One of them is whether there should not be even greater attention devoted to the most marginalised within the reserved categories, such as SC, since trickle down quota benefits for them are scarce. The egalitarian answer would be to continue expanding the pie of opportunity in the public realm, through ever greater funding of quality universal education at all levels and aiding the deprived through affirmative action on the road to equality.

The feeling is growing among people interested in the matter that the Madras School of Arts has fallen upon evil days. As we have more than once pointed out, the school does not now enjoy about half the popularity that it did in the days of Mr. Havell. It would appear that pure art is seriously neglected in the School, while in the matter of industrial art it has yet to establish a reputation. Mr. Hadaway, the present Principal of the School, appears to be a gentleman who prefers the Arcadian methods of education. He is an enthusiastic exponent of the doctrine that “anatomy and geometry has never yet been of real service in making an artist” and expects his students to be geniuses to blossom forth, solely by dint of hard work in drawing from figures of objects and without the adventitious aid of anatomy and geometry, into great artists. Mr. Hadaway’s position that the importance of the ability to draw accurately cannot be too strongly emphasised as a fundamental equipment of an artist is understandable, but, surely, one who sticks to mere drawing for all time to come can never become an artist.

The Government of Ceylon has declared a state of emergency with effect from midnight to-night [March 16]. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, is due to broadcast to the nation to-morrow morning when she is expected to tell the people about the situation in the country. The “Che Guevara” insurgent group which has come under strict police surveillance consists mainly of educated unemployed youth. They have been holding secret classes in various parts of the country on guerrilla activities. Several of them have been arrested by the police but they have had to be subsequently released as no specific charges could be brought against them under the present laws. The Government is now reported to be framing legislation to give wider powers to police to investigate insurgent activities. During the past few days, there have been several cases of sporadic violence. One of these incidents was the attack by a mob on the American Embassy in Colombo with hand bombs. Following this attack, two embassy cars were burnt and five others were damaged, while a police inspector who was stabbed by the mob died three days later.