Friday, August 31, 2012

Higher education – an expensive proposition

We have very recently celebrated the 65th Independence Day of our country; the day we attained freedom from foreign yolk. But the question is- are we really free? And if I may borrow Dr Mukul Sangma’s statement from his recent speech at a seminar to commemorate the 150th death anniversary of u Kiang Nangbah, “Does the democracy we practice really make us free?’ Are we, and in particular the poor really free in the current state of affairs in the state?
The state higher education in Meghalaya is still very poor. We are yet to have a state- owned technical institute and have only one medical school. Hence young people have no other option but to pursue engineering and medical education outside the state. I am not saying that we should discourage students from studying outside, but let us consider how this impacts on the economy of the state?
In a year the state can hardly afford to sponsor 40 medical seats from the government quota which means that many students whose parents can afford to pay huge capitation fees and exorbitant monthly or annual fees send their kids to study in private institutes. This is good for the state because if we depend only on the government sponsored quota we will never be able to attain an acceptable doctor people ratio in the state. In the years to come, we will have more doctors and hopefully the state will not have the problem of getting doctors willing to work in the rural areas. But this comes at a price. Private medical education is unaffordable for many. Only the rich can afford it. The minimum cost of a complete MBBS course is approximately half a crore which includes Rs 22 to 25 lakh capitation fee and Rs 4-5 laks per year annual fees for five years. A private dental study would cost the parents 2.5 to 3 lakh capitation fees and Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh annual fees. This is information I personally collected from some of the institutes and agencies in the business of providing admission for students from Meghalaya to the rest of the country.
Then there are those who study medicine in the foreign countries like China, Nepal, Philippines, Russia etc and I am sorry I don’t have information on these but the fact of the matter is people from Meghalaya spend crores of rupees to educate their kids outside the state. A simple understanding of the economics of it will tell us that if the state has its own medical institutes much of this money will remain within the state. Besides Meghalaya will also attract students outside to these institutes which in turn will help the economy of the state.
Obviously private medical education is beyond the reach of poor parents and with the kind of capitation and monthly fees the private institutes charge the education loan provided by the various banks will be of no use. The banks will finally find the kids of poor parents not credit worthy. So the poor students have nowhere to go. To add to the problem, the only medical institute in the state is not of any help either. In spite of the allegations in the media against the way the entrance test to the Institute was conducted, yet the North East Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS) chose not to make any clarification. Letters to the editor questioning the result of the entrance tests were published time and again, yet the Institute for reasons best known to those in charge chose to dodge the question.
When no clarification is forthcoming from the Institute, the public in general are in a dilemma and are compelled to accept the saying “silent means consent” – that the charges of nepotism against the Institute are true. And the staffs of the medical school still have the gumption to demand that the government reserve two seats from the state quota for the children of the teaching fraternity of the institute. Where is equality? Does it mean that children of the staff in the Institute are preordained to be doctors? Isn’t there a common entrance test where the children of farmers, carpenters, daily labourers and perhaps even single mothers take to get admission to the Institute? If the children of the staff of the Institute with all the advantages and the kind of upbringing they have cannot compete with the children of the poorer parents then they don’t deserve to study medicine and I don’t see why the government should succumb to their demand. The doctors should be ashamed of themselves to even raise this issue with the government, because it implies that their kids can’t even compete with children of the poorer section of the society.
With regards to the entrance test, NEIGRIHMS should ensure transparency and conduct the test in a free, fair and just manner. If the HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s common medical entrance test does not materialize by the next year, the Institute should at least use OMR to conduct the entrance test and make the OMR answer sheets of every candidate available online.
September is approaching and the Directorate of Health Services is yet to publish the list of candidates selected for studying medicine and allied services. One wonders why. What takes the Department so long to publish the list? These are signs that make people question our democratic system.
Meghalaya is yet to have its own engineering institute too, so students who wish to pursue engineering studies have to go outside the state and private studies of any engineering trade is a very expensive. So where is the opportunity for the young, poor students? The central government has sanctioned a Regional Engineering College and was proposed to set that up at Sohra, but the state government is taking its sweet time to even start the project.
I support the MHRD’s plan to conduct a common entrance test for admission to all the medical colleges and engineering institutes in the country. This will provide a level playing field for students irrespective of the differences that they may have. Although candidates from rural areas will still have the disadvantage of not having had the best education opportunity, but a common entrance test for both medical and engineering studies in the country is the only viable alternative in the present scenario.
In Meghalaya, the process by which some departments selected students for pursuing technical studies from government quota also leaves ample room for suspicion that there is foul play by the heads of the departments. The case in point is the department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary. The director did not take proper attendance of the selected students. Those on the waiting list who reported as instructed in the notification were not asked to sign any attendance sheet and the director is the only one who keeps the attendance by a mere tick on the notification. There is no transparency in the process hence there is ample space for manipulation by the man in charge. Every department selects students for undergoing studies based on their performance in the class 12 science board examinations, but the directorate of AH & Veterinary is also the only department which conducts its own entrance test for students who wish to study veterinary in Mizoram. The question is whether the Department has the wherewithal that the various boards have, to conduct the test? Or is it because the Directorate does not trust the results of the various boards of examinations? The Directorate of Health and the Directorate of Higher and Technical Education selected students for studying medicine and allied services and engineering based on their performance in the Board examination so why does the Directorate of AH & Vety have to conduct a special test for this? I think the government should see that the Directorate does away with the entrance test because the Department will not do justice to the candidates. This will also minimize chances of manipulation and prevent favouritism and nepotism by those in power.
It is the bounden duty of the Government to see that citizens of the state irrespective of their caste, creed, economic status or religion are given equal opportunity to pursue higher studies. The Government which is the custodian of the Constitution should see to it that the poor are treated in a just and fair manner and equal opportunity for higher education is made available to them.

Northeast lessons from the exodus

While the homeward bound exodus of north-easterners was at its peak and workers from the region and the students particular headed home out of fear of the backlash against what was going on in Assam, we decided to do the opposite (although not quite a reverse exodus) and travel to Gujarat for my daughter’s admission in one of the cities in that state. The decision to travel was a cause of worry for our relatives in spite of the fact that Gujarat is in the west and there was no report of any threat or intimidation against the north easterners in that state. But that did not stop our near and dear ones from trying to speak sense to us and help us realize that for our own good we should postpone the trip. Although the problem originated only in the southern part of the country we were advised to postpone our trip till the problem subsided. But we stuck to our plans and travelled to Ahmedabad but before that I did my own little research by meeting ex-students from Gujarat and people who had lived and worked there. Everyone encouraged me to go ahead with my plan and assured me that Gujaratis are good people. I called people who live in Gujarat and asked if there is any threat to visitors from the east and the answer was in the negative so we continued with the journey.
The dust has finally settled and all fingers are now pointed at the internet; social media network sites were blamed for the exodus of the people of north eastern origin from this area. It is true the internet has given us freedom beyond our imagination, but it is only natural that there will be people who will abuse their freedom and use it to serve their own vested interests. But whatever may have happened censorship is not the answer to the problem. In fact no matter how much efforts the government puts in trying to censor the net, anti social elements will always find a way to skirt around and accomplish their evil designs.
The freedom that the internet allows sometime causes embarrassment too when one posts wrong information. During the recent 2012 Olympics, Amitabh Bacchan tweeted to appreciate Mary Kom’s achievement. The problem is that Bachhan did not know that Mary Kom is from Manipur so he said she is from Assam. The tweet was shared on facebook and facebookers were astounded by senior Bachhan’s ignorance of the geography of the country.
If censorship is not the answer what is to be done to make sure that false propaganda and disinformation does not finds it ways to the internet? If we are to learn any lessons from the recent imbroglio it is this that NOT all information shared or posted on the internet are true. There are unscrupulous elements on the prowl in the internet too and we must be careful with that kind of information. At the individual level, the mantra for all the internet users is to be very careful and exercise absolute self restraint before commenting, sharing or even liking the posts. Users should not get carried over by emotion, for the very reason that devious elements are targeting users’ emotion to drive home their point. Internet users should be very cautious in dealing with the content of a webpage, a blog, a tweet and even a facebook post. The recent exodus of north-easterners was obviously caused by people with evil intention who used pictures with mischievous content to play with people’s emotion. Internet users should be sensible and ignore page or pages with malicious contents, and to think twice before acting on such internet content.
Some say that people are like flies; they thrive on filth. It is the wrong post or bad pages which always have the strongest effects on people. Spiteful posts, offensive videos, posts or blogs always go viral the moment they are put on the internet. But kind and good content does not always get the same kind of attention. The recent exodus is again the best example. The pictures of people carrying their luggage on the railway platform went viral while a photo of a young Muslim in his Islamic attire (probably on the same platform) holding a placard which says “Please do not leave” has only a few shares. In short, the problem escalated because people were not able to separate facts from rumours. When we have a platform like internet which allows us unlimited freedom to share our thoughts, photographs and even opinions, it is our responsibility to exercise absolute restraint. Internet gives us the freedom of thoughts and expressions that the generation before us did not have, but we must use it with utmost responsibility.
The government too instead of censoring the net should in fact try to make its presence in the cyber space more robust by strengthening its cyber intelligence. If the cyber intelligence is active, the government would have been able to prevent the exodus by checking the websites or facebook which carried these hateful messages. The answer is to increase and strengthen intelligence presence in the net and not censor. This will enable the government to check and monitor odious content in the net and prevent any untoward incidents.
But beyond the cloud there is always a silver lining. The incident of the mass exodus of young north-easterners was reported in almost every newspaper worth its salt. The story was carried by every print and electronic media in the country and even abroad. The outcome of the mass movement of people has indirectly found mention even in the White House briefing when India was asked to be cautious on how it deals with the issue of censoring the net. All of sudden the region found mention in the media and there is a rush to learn more and understand about the region. On August 21, the Ahmedabad Mirror came up with a brilliant idea of publishing a quiz on the north east, which challenged its readers on how much they know about the region. There were write -ups in several newspaper about the region and the people who live in it and in many cases by the people from the northeast.
A story of the London Olympic bronze medalist Mary Kom’s consideration to settle in Bangalore which says “Think Northeast: Promoting Sports could bridge the gap between the region and the rest of India” was part of the August 24 editorial of the Times of India Ahmedabad edition. Who would ever think that Mary Kom’s mere consideration to settle in Bangalore would find space in the TOI’s Ahmedabad edition?
An optimistic view of things would help us learn than complain and curse against what had happened. Every ying has its yang too; the good and the bad of it. First it brought to light the in-fighting within the Congress party when the views of the President differed from that of the Government; the party and the government spoke in two different voices on a single issue. But the most important thing is for the people of the region to learn from what had happened. We need to be more cautious in dealing with the content in the internet and to be able to separate the shaft from the rice. We need to be more mature in our treatment of internet content and act responsibly in whatever we do and to refrain from hiding ourselves behind a fake identity; we should in fact avoid having to do anything on the internet with a person who uses a pseudonym or fake identity. Freedom is personal so it should also start and end with each and every individual’s exercise of his/her freedom with responsibility.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Protecting Myntdu before it’s too late

Jowai town and Myntdu are two separate entities interconnected to one another and the stories of the town and its people are intertwined with the story of the river Myntdu. What Myntdu is to Jowai, the Thames is to London; the two are inseparable one from the other. Myntdu’s relationship with Jowai is unique because it flows in an almost circular motion around Jowai town. Though a large part of the river is polluted and the river has become a dead river, only a small portion in the upstream of river Myntdu from its place of origin in Mihmyntdu till the periphery of the town, is still free from pollution caused by acid mine drainage (AMD)- a discharge from both abandoned and active coal mines. But the question is how long will it be before Myntdu becomes the next wah Umkhrah? Though there are no mining activities in the town and the Jaintia Fishing and Environment Society was able to convince miners in the Chyrmang, ?ongnoh and even Mustem village not to release mine seepage to the river Myntdu, the threat to the river is from the activities of the people who live in the town.
It is sheer coincidence that in my two recent trips to Shillong, I happened to share a taxi with the same person and what is unique about this gentleman is the moment the taxi crosses Myntdu, he would move his hand in a gesture of prayer as the car crosses the bridge. A large chunk of Jowai’s population still worships Myntdu as a deity which protects the town and its people from enemies and evil spirit. In fact, the river is as it is because of the sacred relation the town dwellers have with the river, but this too is gradually diminishing as people began to neglect the shared stories they have with the river and the gap in the relationship is only getting wider. For people who don’t know or care about these stories, Myntdu is but a mere river where they dispose their household seepage and dump their garbage in.
Myntu is not only a deity ka tawiar ka takan or the guardian angel of the town; it is the life line of the people which feeds the two vast stretches of paddy fields ka pynthor wah and ka pynthor nein and till now Myntdu is the only source of drinking water for the town’s folk. Like any town and city, Jowai too is growing by leaps and bounds; new townships have developed in the outskirts of the town and this development is going to have a drastic impact on the Myntdu which flows around these satellite townships. Sadly, the entire town does not have a proper drainage system hence all the liquid waste are discharged into the Myntdu. The town does not have a proper solid waste management either; hence the same is also dumped into the river.
Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council is a failed institution. The council is yet to implement the rule forbidding people from constructing houses right on the banks of the river. Because of that people have started constructing houses on the river in the Chah-tngid and Myntdu bridge area. And the worst part is that the council has distributed the council land in the Riatsasim area to the kith and kin of the MDCs. This particular land had once been designated as an orchid sanctuary by the former CEM, JHADC, JD Pohrmen. This land also serves as a catchment area of the river Myntdu, but now the forest has been cleared and very soon new houses will come up right on the banks of the river and we have only the JHADC to blame. If this trend continues, it will not be too long before Myntdu becomes like Wah Umkhrah.
The man at the helm of affairs in the Clean Wah Umkhrah campaign told me recently that the MLA of Jowai categorically stated that Myntdu will never go the Umkhrah way and that he had done his bit to ensure that Myntdu does not suffer the same fate that has befallen Wah Umkhrah. But the only thing that Dr RC Laloo has done so far to protect the river is to get the department of Soil and Water conservation construct a check dam at Syntu Ksiar. The two other check dams upstream were constructed at the initiative of the Jaintia Fishing and Environment Society which was sponsored by the JHADC when Moonlight Pariat was the CEM and another was sponsored by Rotary club of Jowai. I had the opportunity to be part of the discussion when the idea of constructing the first check dam to protect Myntdu was conceived. Of all the places, the idea was conceived when this writer was travelling in SK Lato’s car with W Pynkyntein Secretary of the JFES then known as Jaintia Fishing Association. When the idea of constructing the check dam as one of the means to protect Wah Myntdu was thought of, Lato a Rotarian suggested that JFA come up with a planned estimate so that he could raise funds for the project since he was due to attend the international Rotary meet shortly. That was how the first check dam over the river Myntdu came up.
These check dams or even more of these check dams will be of a little help to protect Myntdu, unless the government and the people work together to protect the river. The government needs to do more to save the river from becoming an eyesore for the people and a dead river in the future. The task to protect Myntdu is also an opportunity for Dr RC Laloo to prove to the people of Jowai that it is worth electing a PhD as their MLA. Dr Laloo has been an MLA for 20 years and now he is a frequent flyer to London. He must have therefore seen how the Thames and London co-exist. One therefore hopes that Laloo comes up with a blue-print to save the Wah Myntdu. Otherwise what is the point of having a PhD MLA if he cannot even foresee the future of the town in twenty years time? Laloo has no doubt initiated the constructing of new internal roads in Jowai which help ease traffic congestion in Iawmusiang, but I don’t think the people of Jowai constituency elected a very educated MLA simply to initiate construction of new roads and distributing MLA schemes. If the job of an MLA is merely to distribute MLA schemes then what is the point of electing a highly qualified person as an MLA, a graduate or a mere matriculate can do the same work.
And for the entire Khasi Pnar society, the challenge before us is to change our attitude towards the rivers and Mother Nature. To do that we need to rediscover our stories, the tales that link us with the rivers and the nature around us like those of Myntdu and Jowai. It reminds me of a journey to Kolkata and while the train crosses the Brahmaputra Bridge, my wife’s aunt dropped a piece of coin on the river, it didn’t strike me then that the small act has to do with the story that connects us with the nature. My wife belongs to the Passah Clan and the Passah believe that their ancestress (ka ?awbei/SeiƱ jeit) was ka Beipun Bor Kupli and their ancestor grandfather was u Papun Yale, the coin was dropped to pay obeisance to the Brahmaputra to which the river Kupli flows. I later learnt that a member of the Passah clan has to perform ka siang or offering before crossing the river Kupli, the offering consists of one unpeeled betel nut and three or five betel leaves (pan leaf) without lime. This is one story that I would tell my kids to help them discover the profound links we have with the nature and hopefully it will help them respect the rivers and Kupli in particular. I want them to know the story of the Passah clan and I hope they will be proud to know that they are the descendants of ka Beipun Bor Kupli- they are the children of the mighty river. There are many such stories that demonstrate the profound relationship the people have with nature and all we have to do is to rediscover these stories.