Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Sacking of Venugopalan

Well, the recent sacking of P Venugopalan as the director of AIIMS is another blemish in Indian history, following the tale of reservations. Anubani Ramadoss, our health minister, cited the primary reason for disqualification as 'Using AIIMS as a political battlefeild'. Though the statement is certainly true, but the culprit is you Mr Ramadoss! (though he is a doctor, i do not think he is worth the qualification, so i shall address him as Mr or plainly Ramadoss throughout this post!) .

This post intends to bring out certain facts which many people are unaware of. One of the primary factors which is to be taken into consideration is the formation of the AIIMS governing body. AIIMS is an autonomous institution, formed under the AIIMS act and thus all top level decisions are taken by an independent governing body rather than the government. This governing body used to comprise the Health Secretary and Health Minister before, but in 1996, the Rajya Sabha had ordered that the Health Minister and Health Secretary be removed from it. Thus, the presence of Ramadoss, who was present in the governing body, is not only immoral, but it is also illegal.

In fact the Delhi High Court has issued a notice for the dissolution of the AIIMS governing body, in response to a petition which was filed on this fact.

Now, the question is - why is Ramadoss so much interested in interfering AIIMS? One of the obvious reasons is that the UPA Govt wanted to suppress all moves of opposition against the increase in quotas. All the directors of autonomous institutes like IITs and AIIMS were told to make sure that the students do not protest, but there was no written order based on this. The Directors of IITs did warn the students of direct restigation if they took part in any event (rally/strike/demonstration), but Venugopal had the courage to tell the govt that his students were striking for the right cause, and since the cause was right in his opinion, he offered full support of the students.

So, as we all know, AIIMS became the epicentre for the protests against the quotas, while other bigger institutes (i mean in size, not in stature) like IITs watched the whole process as silent spectators. In fact, until the lathi charge on medicos took place, there was hardly any support from the outside, and just AIIMS, with the support of the medical colleges of Delhi and some other states, waged on the battle themselves. However, the strike, being entirely peaceful, did gather momentum, and slowly more and more people joining in, which eventually put the pressure on the government, and it conceded to a deman to increase the seats.

After the Supreme Court Intervened and ordered the doctors to get back to work in interest of the patients, the doctors dutifully obeyed, and the strike ceased to continue. The government, at that point of time had offered to take no 'disciplinary action' of any kind against the agitating doctors. However, when the time came to distribute the monthly stipends/salaries, the government refused to pay for the days the doctors were on strike! The issue was not only of a monetary matter, but the fact that those students who were in internship, had their internship extended by that many number of days! Now, the AIl India Post Graduate Examination (for entrance into PG Medical courses) requires that the students should clear their internships on or before March 31st of the year in which the exam is to be conducted. Keeping this fact into consideration, most of the colleges make sure that the internship is completed till the last week of March (in most cases it is 30th or 31st). Now, since the internship period is extended by 19 days, this means that those students who were on strike, end up losing a year, since they wont be eligible for the entrance examination!

The case is in court, and in a statement, the Supreme Court has blasted the government to apply the "No Way No Work" Principle. It has suggested the government to act as an ideal employer, and fulfill the promises it made and immediately restore the salary and stipends. However, this is just a suggestion yet, and no notice or leigislative action has yet taken place on this ground, and the case is still in court, as hundereds of mediocs are eagerly waiting for a favourable verdict, so that they don't have to lose a year.

Ramadoss' linkage to AIIMS is not just limited to the reservation issue. He made sure that all his chamchas were a part of the governing body, by giving orders to place them there. It has been observed that most of the people in the governing body were either his relatives or confidiates. This is why the verdict to sack the director came out as 12-3 on votes. Now, what does Ramadoss gain from this? The answer is MONEY! With all his confidiates in place, Ramadoss was all set to gobble up astronomous amounts of money. This is because the aid that the centre provides for the functioning of AIIMS is huge. It runs into several crores a day. All the decision about when and where this money is to be spent, is taken by the governing body, because of the autonomy issue. Now, Ramadoss wanted to take full advantage of this, and fill his coffers at will. (all of us know he didn't even dream of becoming the health minister, and probably will never think of it again). But in this process, his main problem was Venugopal, who is known to be a very truthful and humble man. He is not the kinds who would accept his 'cut' and let Ramadoss grab all the money he can. So, he took up the reservation issue, and the demand for the salary of doctors as issues and sacked Venugopal, without even giving him as much of a chance to explain his standpoint.

I would like to add a bit about Venugopal here. He is the person who conduced the first Heart Transplant in India, and is probably the best Cardiac Suergon in India at the moment. He is highly revered in the medical community, and has rejected several offers by private institutes to join them full time in exchange for huge sums of money. He is very much in love with AIIMS and he has done his MBBS, MS, MCh and his residencies, all from AIIMS. So his attachment to the institute is obvious. I know his wife, who is the Head of the Deptt in Ophthalmology at Lady Hardringe Medical College. She continued to work as normal, without even giving a clue to as what was going on in AIIMS. Hardly anyone in her department knows that she is Venugopalan's wife! After being sacked, Venugopalan even refused to celerbrate his birthday, declaring this was his 'death-day' at AIIMS, and turned back all visitors.

This is what a person gets for his attachment and dedication to an institution, for whom he spent his entire life as a gift from our myopic gang of politicans.

All we can hope for now is a favourable outcome of the cases pending with the court, and the govenrment adhering to those decsions rather than passing legislations for new laws, as had been done before. Otherwise, the next Venugoplan in the making will probably pack his bags to settle abroad....

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Logistics of Reservations...

A lot has been said about reservations in the last few weeks. The sound bites have been accompanied by disturbing images, be it the water cannons in Delhi, to the brutal lathicharge in Mumbai, the mad free for all that the pro-quota reservations in Patna turned into and very importantly the angst of patients suffering in hospitals in Gujarat and Delhi. There are many issues here... the government's reservation policy, the use of force by the police to quash peaceful protests and whether it is right for the patients to pay for the protests.

Let me make my stand clear at the outset, I live in Delhi and have been participating in the anti-quota protests. That said I also believe that there is great social injustice in India and it is in the long-term interest of everybody to correct this.

What I have seen amongst fellow protestors is an extreme stand; I can even understand this from the viewpoint of a disenchanted urban youth. My first awareness of caste came from my civics textbooks, which explained reservations to me. My next encounter with the now ubiquitous word was when I filled in my admission forms to various colleges after school. I had to try doubly hard to get anywhere, while batch mates of mine who could benefit from reservations(who also belong to the same socio economic strata that I do) had a much easier time. So in the urban middle class context what is happening here is not social justice, but only the correction of historical wrongs. This explains the anger that we see on the streets. Nobody wants to pay to correct historical wrongs, it does not even make sense to ask that of people. The question is "Why should I suffer just because his/her ancestors were treated badly?"

Imagine a Taxi Driver who struggles all his life to make ends meet.. but unfortuantely he belongs to the so called upper caste, and sitting behind in his taxi is a Gentleman, who belongs to a reserved cateogory.. and is pretty well settled... both their kids sit for the same competitive exam, the Taxi Driver's kid pays double the amount as the entrance exam fees, scores double the marks in the exam... but ends up getting a lower branch than his more fortunate counterpart. They enter into college, and while the rich reserved dude is given a host of facilities... free books, tution waivers, reservtion again in the post graduate level, the soon of the poor taxi driver has to pay the entire fees even if that means his father sleeps empty stomach on alternate days....

The issue in our cities is not caste...(you can hardly bother with caste taboos when packed like sardines in an urban slum....)

Now cut to a small tribal hamlet in rural MP(or Bihar or Karnataka or wherever) where caste is still a dominating force. The peasants toil for the landlords and so do the children. There are hardly any opportunities available to the children. These are the people in need, but since they rarely get any primary education it is insane to expect them to benefit from reservations at the post-doctoral level.

I don't buy the dilution of merit argument in entirety. True merit is not just an academic construct. I am not necessarily smarter than someone who went to an ill staffed and ill equipped municipal school although my grades may be much better than theirs. It is not a question of merit; I just had better opportunities.

The irony is that our blanket caste based reservation policy does not look at true merit. It does not look at opportunities available. It starts and ends with caste. So funnily enough, even amongst the SCs, STs, and OBCs only academic merit is considered. Common sense tells you that the truly disadvantaged will still not benefit.

So when I think of social justice I can't settle for anything less than a system which benefits the urban poor as well as the rural downtrodden. Only for that lofty a cause can I contemplate losing out on a seat I believe I deserve. But that IS NOT what is happening.

When our politicians amend the constitution there has to be an analysis of motives. Is social justice and equality a motive? Not even close! The latest announcement by the honourable HRD minister was strategically timed to coincide with assembly elections. This was just a ploy to garner more votes in elections that are not fought on issues anymore. The wily old men and women have worked out perfect formulas … promise free power, free colour televisions, free rice, and yes, free seats. The free power and TVs don't last too long as the government invariably does not have enough money to bankroll these schemes. The free seats on the other hand are not a problem as all they have to do there is increase quotas.

Does the government improve funding or infrastructure? No!(at least not as priority, THAT wasn't a poll promise)

Does the government care who gets these seats that are meant for those who are disadvantaged? No! That is fine by our political masters; it keeps people where they are, so that they respond to fresh promises at the time of the next elections.

Do the politicians care if their policies lead to greater polarisation and marginalisation? NO! Polarisation is good politics! This is an important point, as the kind of outrage that has been seen amongst students will only lead to the creation of a divide that didn't need to be there.

The OBC is a concept that has been kept intentionally vague by our politicians. Many castes are regularly added to the OBC list as and when necessary. These are not always disadvantaged communities; they are usually just regional vote banks. A prime example would be Jats in Rajasthan, UP and Delhi.

When you write a scientific paper for a peer reviewed journal you need to notify the editors of any conflict of interests that will keep you from being objective. Similarly, policy decisions which will have a long lasting impact on the nation cannot be left to the whims of our crafty old politicians trying preserve or grow their vote banks. These are not honest decisions taken with an eye on 'the greatest good for the greatest number' as they claim. Our politicians have sadly resorted to vote bank politics whenever they have been too short sighted to see real problems or have had no real solutions to offer. Be it the Congress, the BJP or the 'Third front'; be it Mandal or Ayodhya. We as a nation get regularly conned by those we repose faith(and votes) in. I am so sick of politicians talking about social justice. The last two to speak were Laloo Prasad Yadav and Chagan Bhujbal. Laloo(the fodder king) said that the protests against quotas were a wasteful exercise since the amendment had already been passed. He spoke as if a piece of legislation passed by a bunch of power hungry, corrupt politicians was 'the will of god' that can't be challenged. Bhujbal (ex Shiv Sena lately of Telgi scam fame) on the other hand exclaimed that we can't resist quotas since America has them too. Bhujbal needs to learn to read? Or to look up from counting cash… The American Supreme Court abolished quotas in 1978, only a few years after they had been introduced. The court deemed quotas to be unconstitutional. What actually happened in the US is a policy of "Affirmative Action" that has worked very well. It is a voluntary policy, which does not use grades or race as the only criteria. It is based on a variety of indicators that predict the students' aptitude, taking into consideration disadvantages suffered by them.

I don't claim that the American system is perfect, nor do I say that American society is the epitome of social justice. I only beg to point out that there is no 'magic bullet' answer to social injustice. Ever increasing quotas are no panacea. There has to be a clear audit as to how beneficial the reservations have been so far. We need to look at creative options to banish current disparities. We should work towards clearly defined goals and not confuse the means(quotas, affirmative action etc.) with objectives(social justice). Lastly, I feel that none of this might happen if our present gang of myopic politicians continue to be decision makers when it comes to the scope of the quotas and their duration.....