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The Hindu Notes for 04th September 2018

The nature of dissent

Dissent is necessary not only for democracy — it is necessary for the survival of the human race

Disagreeing with each other is a fundamental human trait. There is not a single individual who does not disagree with something or the other all the time. Philosophers argue that a baby meaningfully attains its sense of the self — its recognition of ‘I’ and the concept of ‘mine’ — when it first begins to say ‘no’. At a primordial level, we become individuals only through this act of stating our disagreement. There is no family without dissent between parents and the children, or between the siblings. A family which learns to deal with dissent rather than authoritatively dismissing it is a more harmonious family.

A way of being

We dissent at home, with our friends and with our colleagues in the places we work. It is through these ways of dissenting that we establish a relationship with them. Our relations with our friends are based as much on how we learn to live with our disagreements as on other things. The relationship between spouses is filled with many moments of disagreement. If our friends and family consist only of those who agree with us all the time, then we will not have any friends and family. Learning to live with others, the first requisite for a social existence, is about learning how to live with them when they disagree with us.

Dissent is so ingrained in us that we don’t even need others to disagree. We constantly disagree with ourselves. We argue with our own selves all the time as if each one of us is an individual made up of many selves. When we think, we are often dissenting with our own selves. When we stifle dissent within our own minds, we stop thinking. Many of our meaningful acts also occur from this dissenting conversation of our many selves.

Social dissent

Dissent is thus a condition of existence and the real problem is not dissent but silent assent. When we agree collectively, we are silently assenting, agreeing with what is being said and done. This is really not the existential characteristic of a human being but only that of a ‘bonded mind’. However, some might say that assent is the way societies come together, and it is needed for a stable society. But this is plain wrong. Just as a baby attains its sense of self through dissent, so too does a society get its own identity by learning to dissent. In other words, we will have a stronger identity of what our society and nation are through forms of dissent.

Moreover, every process of forming the social needs dissent. A group made up of people who agree to everything all the time is not really a society but an oligarchy. It becomes a society only through disagreements and dissent. Dissent, paradoxically, is the glue which makes a decent society possible.

A mature society is one which has the capacity to manage dissent since members of a society will always disagree with each other on something or the other. Democratic societies are the best of the available models in managing dissent with the least harmful effect on the dissenter. This is the true work of democracy; elections and voting are the means to achieve this. The essence of democracy is to be found in the method it uses to deal with dissent, which is through discussion and debate, along with particular ethical norms.

A democratic society manages dissent by trying to make individual practices of dissent into social practices. Academics and research are two important activities where dissent is at the core. No society has survived without making changes to what was present earlier. New knowledge and new ways of understanding the world, for good or bad, has always been part of every society.

How is new knowledge, new understanding, created? Many new ideas arise by going against earlier established norms and truths. Science, in its broadest meaning, is not possible without dissent since it is by finding flaws with the views of others that new science is created. No two philosophers agree on one point, and no two social scientists are in perfect harmony with each other’s thoughts. Artists are constantly breaking boundaries set by their friends and peers. Buddha and Mahavira were dissenters first and philosophers next. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are filled with stories of dissent and responsible ways of dealing with it.

Thus, when academics dissent, it is part of their job expectation to do so! Dissent is not just about criticism, it is also about showing new perspectives. The scientific community does not imprison scientists for dissenting although we are increasingly finding today that social scientists and artists are being targeted in the name of dissent. This has grown to such an extent that when faculty members dissent about unlawful hiring practices, they face harassment and suspension.

It is not that dissent is necessary only for democracy — it is necessary for the survival of the human race. Any society which eradicates dissent has only succeeded in eradicating itself. We cannot afford to forget the examples of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. A sustainable, harmonious society can only be formed from practices which deal with dissent respectfully and ethically.

Ethics of dissent

The importance of dissent is not just that it is good for democracy. There is also a fundamental ethical principle involved in dissent. Any society which muzzles dissent is acting unethically. Let me give two ethical principles associated with dissent. First, its relation to non-violence, a principle which is so integral to the unique Indian practices of dissent from ancient times to Gandhi and Ambedkar. Second, dissent is an ethical means of protecting those who are worse off than others. Dissent is not mere complaint which all of us, however privileged we are, indulge in. Social dissent is a necessary voice for all those who are oppressed and are marginalised for various reasons. This is the only thing they have in a world which has denied them the basic dignity of a social life.

The ethical principle is that the worse off in a society have greater right to dissent and protest even when the more privileged may not agree or sympathise with that dissent. This is the truly ethical principle that can sustain a mature society. Thus, when we hear the voices of dissent from the oppressed and the marginalised, it is ethically incumbent upon those who are better off than them to give them greater space and greater freedom to dissent. Any of us, particularly the more well-off population, who support any government which wants to use its power to stop dissent of those who are suffering from injustice of various kinds are being used as partners in this unethical action. We act immorally when we sit in the comfort of our homes and abuse those who fight for the rights of the poor and oppressed. When we condemn them in the name of the nation, we are performing an unethical act of further condemning those who are already condemned.

Sundar Sarukkai is Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Green shoots of revival

Next year will be crucial in further development of the Bay of Bengal region

The road to the fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in Kathmandu, Nepal, last week was marked by scepticism and hope. This was understandable, given the grouping’s past performance — modest in the previous 19 years and promising in the past two years. The same blend characterises the summit’s outcome. A dispassionate mindset is essential to assess its results accurately.

The positives

On the positive side, the fact that the summit could be held was a success in itself. It had been delayed. More importantly, BIMSTEC leaders listened to officials, experts and business chambers, and concluded that this grouping (composed of five South Asian and two Southeast Asian nations) needed to be given a firm institutional foundation. As a result, several important decisions have been taken. First, work begins now on drafting a charter for BIMSTEC, which has functioned so far on the basis of the Bangkok Declaration of 1997, and outcomes of the past three summits and the Leaders’ Retreat in 2016. Second, a Permanent Working Committee will be set up to provide direction during the period between two summits and also to prepare the Rules of Procedure. Third, the Secretariat has been promised additional financial and human resources and enhancement of its role to coordinate, monitor and facilitate the grouping’s activities.

Fourth, as the institution has been handicapped due to lack of financial muscle, the leaders (picture shows some of them) took the bold decision to establish the BIMSTEC Development Fund. This is not an easy task, but without strengthening itself financially, BIMSTEC cannot shed the unwanted tag of being a mere talk shop. Fifth, a push to increase its visibility and stature in the international fora will also be made. Finally, recognising that 16 areas of cooperation represent too wide a spectrum, the BIMSTEC governments will make a serious endeavour to review, restructure and rationalise various sectors, identifying a few core areas. In this exercise, Thailand has proposed a new strategy of five pillars (viz. connectivity, trade and investment, people-to-people contacts, security, and science and technology). This will be considered, although the difficulty in dropping specific sectors dear to individual member-states should not be minimised.


As to the debit side of the balance sheet, it should be noted that of at least six legal instruments awaiting finalisation, only one, the Memorandum of Understanding on Grid Interconnection, could be inked in Kathmandu. Fourteen years after signing the framework agreement on Free Trade Area (FTA), the leaders could only renew, rather lamely, their “commitment to an early conclusion” of FTA negotiations. The Thai Prime Minister bravely urged participants to accept making BIMSTEC a Free Trade Zone by 2021 as “our common goal”, but this did not find a place in the summit declaration. The Myanmar President pointed out that the grouping had established its Energy Centre in 2009, but it was still struggling for the “early operationalisation” of the Centre.

Every participant dwelt on the advantages and potential of connectivity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi aptly emphasised that “the biggest opportunity is connectivity — trade connectivity, economic connectivity, transport connectivity, digital connectivity, and people-to-people connectivity.” The Kathmandu Declaration has spelt out a number of measures, old and new, to secure this objective. However, it was noted that the Motor Vehicle Agreement and the Coastal Shipping Agreement would still need more time for finalisation.

Hopes were pinned on the leaders agreeing to make the BIMSTEC summit an annual affair. But they stopped short of it, choosing a “timely holding of Summit”. Probably the timing of the next summit will be determined by the degree of progress ministers and officials achieve in the coming months. If the grouping succeeds in holding its next summit in 2019, it will be seen as a healthy sign.

Other facets

The annex to the summit’s declaration presents an overview of the present state of play in various areas of activity. Plans to revitalise the Business Forum and the Economic Forum should be welcome if they help in fully engaging business and industry. Cooperation in the security domain has been progressing satisfactorily, with a new instrument added to the arsenal: a meeting of home ministers. This will be in addition to annual meetings of national security advisers and the first meeting of army chiefs, which is due to take place in Pune this month. Also envisaged is a sound plan to establish forums for parliamentarians, universities, cultural organisations and the media community.

The summit articulated a vision for the Bay of Bengal Region heading towards a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future. The region is now widely viewed as a common space for security, connectivity and development.

Think tanks are fond of advising governments that they should walk the talk. But this time, that role was appropriated by the Nepalese Prime Minister and the summit chairman, who asserted: “Now is the time not just to deliberate, but also to deliver. Now is the time to translate promises into performance.” If this prescription is followed by all, BIMSTEC can become a dynamic, effective and result-oriented organisation. The coming year will be crucial in its further development.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and former Ambassador to Myanmar

Still too many children out of school

Data show that the proportion of these children is higher in rural areas and among SCs, STs and Muslims

The official numbers of out-of-school children in India are either out of date or contradictory. According to the 2011 Census, the number of out-of-school children in the 5-17 age group was 8.4 crore. However, according to a survey commissioned in 2014 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the number of out-of-school children in the 6-13 age group was only 60.64 lakh. This is a gross underestimation. It is quite unlikely that the number of out-of-school children came down so drastically from 2011 to 2014, especially given that there were no significant changes in objective conditions, warranting such a miraculous reduction.

A matter of serious concern

We recently calculated the number of out-of-school children in India on the basis of the 71st round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) carried out in 2014. We took into account the 6-18 age group, which we consider to be the most appropriate for estimating out-of-school children, even though the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act covers only the 6-14 age group. According to our estimate, out-of-school children in this age group were more than 4.5 crore in the country, which is 16.1% of the children in this age group. In big States such as Odisha (20.6%), Uttar Pradesh (21.4%), Gujarat (19.1%), Bihar (18.6%), Madhya Pradesh (18.6%), Rajasthan (18.4%) and West Bengal (16.8%), about one-fifth of the children in this age group were out of school. In Kerala, Goa, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the proportion of out-of-school children was lower than the national average. It is a matter of serious concern that nearly 10 years after the enactment of the RTE Act, and 16 years after the right to education was elevated to a fundamental right, such a large number of children are out of school.

We also found that the proportion of out-of-school children was higher in rural India (17.2%) than in urban India (13.1%). In rural areas, the proportion of out-of-school girls (18.3%) was higher than of boys (16.3%). The proportion of children from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) was the highest, followed by Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Among religious groups, the proportion of Muslims was as high as 24.1% in rural areas and 24.7% in urban areas. On the whole, the data show that out-of-school children came mostly from the rural areas, and a high proportion of them are SCs, STs, Muslims and from other economically backward communities.

From low-income families

Recently, we completed a study on the extent, location (rural/urban), and distribution by social and religious groups of out-of-school children in the Fatuha and Bihta blocks of Patna district in Bihar. Our survey covered all those households in these two blocks which had one or more children in the 6-18 age group, the total number of households being 4,205. Our survey confirmed the national-level finding that out-of-school children came mostly from low-income, landless and marginal families — 99.34% of the families from which out-of-school children came were either landless or marginal. The annual income of the fathers of 58.19% of such children was less than ₹50,000. Also, fathers of 51.18% of out-of-school children and mothers of 88.45% of out-of-school children were uneducated. Moreover, fathers of 56.84% and mothers of 33.28% of such children were casual labourers.

Analysing the data collected from these two blocks, we found that the most important reason for boys to drop out of school was to take up jobs to supplement the family earning; for girls, it was the compulsion to participate in household work. There is sufficient evidence to conclude that this is an all-India phenomenon. According to the RTE Act and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, these out-of-school children fall under the category of child labour. It is, therefore, not surprising that the largest number of child labourers in the world is in India.

Reasons for not going to school

Several of the reasons given for the non-enrolment of children and their dropping out of school indicated the prejudice against educating girls that is prevalent in India. This prejudice has been brought out more sharply in the Telangana Social Development Report, 2018, prepared and published by the Southern Regional Centre, Hyderabad, of the Council for Social Development. This report also draws on the data of the 71st round of the NSS. According to these data, a proportionately larger percentage of girls than boys was not enrolled. In the rural areas, the gender gap on this count was as high as 13 percentage points. A relatively lower percentage of girls was found going to high fee-charging private schools. Similarly, a relatively lower percentage of girls took private coaching, which involves costs additional to those incurred for schooling. Very few students in Telangana resorted to private coaching, but among those who did, the share of girls was only 2% of the total number; the share of boys was 6%. A much higher proportion of girls than boys dropped out of school after Class 10, after which education is not necessarily free. An additional collaborative evidence is that in Telangana, the average expenditure on the education of girls was less than that for boys. In Telangana, 50% of the children walked to their schools. Among these, the proportion of girls was higher than that of boys.

We would not have been confronted with this high proportion of drop-outs if all the provisions of the RTE Act had been implemented within the time limit prescribed in the Act (latest by April 2015). For example, the Act provided for the availability of a school at a distance of 1 km from the residence of the child at the primary level and 3 km at the upper primary level. If these provisions had been implemented, a major reason for drop-out (distance of school) would have been eliminated. If all the infrastructure facilities prescribed in the Act had been put in place during the period of implementation, another reason for drop-out (environment not friendly) would have disappeared.

The most important reason for drop-out (socio-economic conditions of the parents of the children) calls for a more comprehensive approach that is not reflected in the RTE Act. Until an adequate number of schools at the prescribed distances from the children’s homes becomes available, it would be necessary to provide secure modes of subsidised travel to schools, particularly for girls. Another important provision which ought to have been included in the RTE is financial support to poor parents, adequate to enable them to send their children to school. There is incontrovertible evidence of a positive correlation between economic incentives and a lower drop-out.

The most important social reason for drop-out is lack of awareness of the importance of school education and of the fact that education is now a legal right. Ironically, education is the most important instrument for creating this awareness. Thus education is a quintessential example of being vested with intrinsic as well as instrumental value — being both the means and the end.

Muchkund Dubey is President, Ashok Pankaj is Director, and Susmita Mitra is Assistant Professor of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi

When the levee breaks

We have to be better prepared for calamities arising from extreme weather events

The Kerala floods have been attributed to mismanagement of reservoirs, construction at sites that are off-limits, changes in land use patterns, destruction of forests and very heavy rain over weeks. Recently, other parts of the world too experienced extreme events. Sweden and Norway had a large number of wildfires that broke out with heat waves this summer. California has been ravaged by fire.

With the climate getting warmer, communities need to be prepared for an increase in the severity and frequency of prolonged heat waves causing dry conditions and fire, cyclones, very heavy downpours in short periods of time leading to flooding, and the failure of seasonal rains leading to droughts. But climate change does not appear with a legible calling card. Each of these events interacts with local conditions and activities to manifest a separate pattern of destruction. So, there may be landslides in hilly areas with little vegetation, severe flooding in homes built on lakebeds, flooded streets when storm water drains are not clear, breaking of levees, destruction of property and loss of life. The meteorological events may trigger the natural disaster, but they do not necessarily cause it.

Lessons to learn

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, or so the expression goes. Residents and decision makers look for immediate measures to contain or prevent similar events in future. Unfortunately, these efforts quite often turn out to be short-term actions that could worsen challenges in the long term. Studies by Sarah Anderson and colleagues show that such extreme events, which are high impact but have a low probability of occurrence, lead to managerial responses that may be ineffective, can be maladaptive, and may in fact result in worsening the problems.

There are some lessons to be learnt from looking back at how extreme events were dealt with in the past and what the consequences were. The 2010 Pakistan floods were caused by unprecedented rainfall along with sudden changes in the flow location of the Indus, which occurred due to the breach of the Tori Bund, a levee built upstream to contain the river water. Similarly, the Kosi in Bihar temporarily changed its flow path in 2008 as a result of mismanaged response to earlier floods. The river brings a large amount of silt, which, along with the large volumes of water, led to a breach of the embankments and caused severe flooding in northern Bihar and parts of Nepal. These levees were built in response to earlier floods. In such situations, when a river is prone to avulsion, there should be plans to accommodate large periodic flows of water and sediment.

Responding for the long term often involves difficult choices by local people and decision makers, such as moving people out of flood plains or building homes that are designed to withstand flooding. Strengthening the engineering structures is not always the right solution. Short-term solutions demonstrate that some action is being taken, and they also match the political cycle of four to five years, but they do not generally take local ecology and the landscape into consideration and do not address long-term changes taking place as a result of climate change.

In another example, various new kinds of vector-borne diseases are rearing their heads and some of the older ones are reappearing due to changes linked with higher temperatures. But increased spraying with insecticides, a short-term measure, results in boosting resistance of the pest to the chemical spray. Scientists give the example of Boa Vista, in Brazil, where aggressive efforts launched after one patient was found to be infected with the dengue virus led to rapid and widespread increase in insecticide resistance in the region. Similarly, the approach taken by the U.S. Forest Service to suppress forest fire as a result of prominent fires in the early part of last century had the inadvertent effect of making tree growth denser and more flammable. This most likely made subsequent fires more dangerous when they occurred in warmer temperatures.

The way forward

For Kerala, the long-term decisions would include improving land use, so that much of the rain water can be absorbed, paying heed to recommendations for limiting development projects in the Western Ghats, especially in vulnerable areas, developing systems for integrated management of water including in reservoirs, designing emergency evacuation measures, and improving institutional mechanisms so that there can be an immediate and integrated response when there is unprecedented rain. When the risk of extreme events increases, people and governments are more likely to pay attention and respond to that risk through action. But making sure that the action is suitable for the short and also the long term is crucial.

Sujatha Byravan is a scientist who studies science, technology and development policy