Temples of critical thinking and debate 

To be among the best in the world, Indian universities must be freed from excessive interference and politicisation 

  • In the recent subject-wise ranking of world universities by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Indian institutions improved with 26 departments or schools placed in the top 100 of their respective disciplines.
  • Science, technology and business studies were the fields in which our universities showed their mettle.
  • While this is a reason to celebrate, not even a single Indian university features in the QS ranking of the world’s top 150 in overall parameters. 
  • The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) of Bombay and Delhi are at the 152nd and 182nd places in the overall rankings, while IISc Bangalore appears at the 184th position. 
  • There is much for India to learn from those who are miles ahead of us.
  • One common factor behind the success of the topmost universities is the freedom with which they operate. 
  • They have been major centres of innovation in teaching and research thanks to independence from bureaucratic or corporate meddling and political intervention by parties of the day. 
  • They could remain centres of extraordinary excellence in a sustained way by according primacy to matters of the mind, i.e. intellectual ideas and solutions to problems, and avoiding becoming hostage to dogmatic thought.

Pluralistic centers 

  • All the great universities of the world are ideologically pluralistic, with a mix of right, left and center among their faculty and students. 
  • There is no institutional line or official position on any issue. No one is penalised for holding a pro- or anti- view on social, economic, political, cultural or scientific matters.
  • The top universities are also excellent at attracting and retaining talent. They hire professors very selectively, based on outstanding scholarly abilities. 
  • They reject a large number of candidates for admission as students, and admit only the brightest and the most meritorious. 
  • This ruthless streak comes at the expense of social inclusion and access considerations, but some institutions must be allowed to generate knowledge as an end in itself so that they reach the summit of intellectual endeavor. 
  • Top universities incentivise publication and citation of research in an unforgivingly rigorous way. 
  • Big universities also inculcate critical thinking, debating and writing abilities in their students. 
  • They encourage students to look at issues through interdisciplinary lenses and to challenge their own professors. 
  • This type of interactive pedagogy produces champion graduates who have a reputation for cutting-edge skills and knowledge in the job market.
  • The world’s best universities are known for involving their own alumni in governance and reforms. Top global universities are also super-smart financial managers.
  • These big universities are products of historical circumstances which relied on private philanthropy, colonial plunder or governmental subsidies to reach the level they are at today.

The China example 

  • Still, a muscular push from the government of China with massive state funding has propelled Chinese universities into the top tiers in barely two decades.
  • In India, as the government is cash-strapped and lacks the kind of resources which the Chinese state deployed to pump-prime Chinese universities, our only viable path to world class universities are in the form of enlightened private philanthropy and borrowing best practices from established iconic universities.
  • Avoiding politicisation, ideological rigidity and nepotism, and freeing our universities from excessive interference and over-regulation, are prerequisites for success. 
  • Most importantly, our universities must have the drive to excel and compete with Chinese or Western universities. 
  • Insularity and self-congratulatory frog-in-the-well attitudes have held us back for long.
  • The government’s decision to identify 20 Institutes of Eminence (IOEs) which will get maximum autonomy from bureaucracy in order to climb up the world rankings is a step in the right direction. 
  • The selected IOEs must innovate with new degree programmes, expanded variety of faculty members and digital learning platforms.

India has miles to go in higher education. Unlike in authoritarian and top-down China, there is little likelihood of a meteoric breakout of multiple Indian universities into the top 100 of the world at a rapid clip. India’s democratic and contested character renders change evolutionary and cumulative. Still, with long-term vision and selfless leadership, our universities can eventually make it. 

Back-to-school jitters in the Valley 

After a seven-month break caused by the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the consequent shutdown of the Valley, students returned to school on February 24. Peerzada Ashiq reports on their stuggle to catch up just before schools closed again in the face of the novel coronavirus threat 

  • Private schools in Kashmir Valley were decked up to welcome the children after a long, forced break: candy stalls were set up and motivational quotes painted on the walls.
  • The students were excited; they were returning to school after 202 days, or nearly seven months. Instead of disciplining them, the teachers chose to be indulgent on that day.

Exams during a shutdown 

  • All the 11,308 schools (837 high schools, 410 higher secondary schools, 4,225 middle schools and 5,836 primary schools) in the Kashmir division were forced to close following the Centre’s decision on August 5, 2019, to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special status drawn from Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution.
  • The decision, and the shutdown following it, took a big toll on the functioning of schools. 
  • Most of the schools in the Valley failed to conduct the annual assessment test due to curfew-like restrictions and absence of communication lines. 
  • Most schools opted to give students home assignments instead of holding annual examinations in classrooms.
  • Students could not attend any of the tuition classes held during the shutdown because of the deteriorating economic condition of their families in that period.
  • There was so much security presence from August 5 as well as sporadic protests that students' parents didn’t allow them to step out to meet their friends. 
  • They would play home cricket. If tried to step out, they got shouted at by CRPF personnel. Students could not attend any tuition.

Behavioral disorders 

  • Getting the students back to school was no easy task, however. They had a seven-month forced ‘staycation’. They spent that time without Internet and without any outing. 
  • A student’s motivation to return to school comes down significantly when there is such a long gap.
  • Students also exhibit many behavioral disorders when they are forced to stay out of school for so long, say experts. 
  • Experts warn that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other such conditions are likely to show school refusal behavior. 

Bridging the knowledge gap 

  • The Director of the Education Department of Kashmir, Younis Malik, says they aim to have 220 working days for the middle school and at least 200 days for primary schools in the Valley this year.
  • But when asked how to bridge the knowledge gap and help students acquire the fundamentals, Malik’s department does not have an answer.

Life without Internet 

  • The lack of Internet during the shutdown was a serious concern for students and school administrations across the Valley. 
  • This was the reason why the syllabus could not be completed using apps and video lessons. Established in 1874 by then Dogra ruler, Maharaja Pratap Singh, Sri Pratap School was closed for several days in 2017 and 2019 in the wake of violent protests. The school’s main building was taken over by additional battalions of the CRPF from August 2019. 
  • During the winter vacations, the Sri Pratap School usually hosts ‘Project Kashmir Super 50’, an initiative rolled out by Naeem Akhtar, the former Education Minister and Peoples Democratic Party leader who is now in jail, along with J&K Peoples Movement chief, Shah Faesal, in 2013. 
  • Its aim is to prepare children from economically weaker sections for professional examinations.
  • After the Supreme Court’s intervention in January, only 2G Internet and limited access to around 1,500 sites, identified as whitelisted sites, was given. 
  • The rest were blocked in Kashmir. This had the students on edge. They fear that this curfew may be imposed again any time.
  • According to KPSA data, most schools in the Valley depend on online teaching for new modules for teachers too. “In the absence of Internet, the teaching ecosystem too gets impacted,” says Var.
  • Now limited Internet has been restored in the Valley but the threat of COVID-19 has again forced the closure of all schools for the month of March. 
  • Parents worry that children will be forced to stay at home again. There is still not access to 4G. If the government permits this, we can have video classes for the children.

Education sector under strain 

  • Educational institutions in the Kashmir division saw only three-and-a-half-months of class work in 2019.
  • Students went to school for only 105 days, whereas the National Education Policy, 2019, calls for 220 working days in educational institutes.
  • The fact that no aspirant qualified for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) from the Kashmir region in 2018-19 needs to be viewed with seriousness.
  • Official figures suggest that on an average, six to nine aspirants from the Kashmir region qualified for the UPSC exams before 2016, the year when Kashmir was engulfed in long cycle of street protests which saw civilian deaths.
  • Kashmir’s education sector is today under tremendous strain. According to 2011 Census data, the Kashmir region, which has a population of 69.1 lakh, has just 2,700 private schools compared to Jammu which has a population of 53.5 lakh and 4,300 schools. 
  • According to official figures, there are 480 government-run schools without teachers, 3,122 schools (33%) without electricity. Also, 70% of the schools are without playgrounds.
  • Despite this dismal scenario, 65,393 students appeared for the Class 10 exam in 2019. The pass percentage was 75%. 
  • Officials say that the J&K State Board of School Education had to offer grace marks to ensure that the pass percentage was brought on par with the 2018 pass percentage of 75.44%. 
  • However, the pass percentage in the government schools of Ganderbal (50.37%), Bandipora (53.90%) and Baramulla (57%) districts was poor.
  • Over the last three years, 125 private schools closed in Kashmir due to recurring agitations.

Even schools that were once managed by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) face the threat of closure. With the Centre banning the socio-religious group in February last year, the fate of 385 schools run by the JEI came under question. Together these schools have enrolled one lakh students. “The government’s move put both students and teachers through a lot of stress. Most of them are from disadvantaged classes. One year since, hundreds of students and teachers have already switched to other schools,” says the headmaster of a JeI-run school. This has happened, he says, despite the government’s decision to not seal the property of these schools following protests. 

Masks, sanitizers now essential commodities 

Centre announces the decision following their shortage in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak 

  • Masks and hand sanitisers have been declared as essential commodities due to their shortage in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • The Centre notified an order under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 to declare 2 ply and 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks and hand sanitisers as essential commodities till June 30, 2020. 
  • It has also issued an advisory under the Legal Metrology Act, so that States can ensure these items are not sold for more than the Maximum Retail Price (MRP).
  • The decision would empower the States and the Central government to regulate production, quality, distribution and sale of these items, and carry out operations against those involved in speculation, overpricing and black marketing.
  • Consumers can register complaints with the National Consumer Helpline 1800-11-4000 or at consumerhelpline.gov.in.
  • An offender under the Essential Commodities Act can be punished with imprisonment up to seven years, or a fine, or both.

RS nod for ‘Vivad Se Vishwas’ Bill 

It gives a second chance to taxpayers to settle their dues 

  • The Parliament on Friday approved the Direct Tax Vivad Se Vishwas Bill, 2020, which will give taxpayers a chance to settle tax disputes by paying their dues without any interest or penalty till March 31.
  • The Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha on March 4, was approved by the Rajya Sabha on Friday by a voice vote. 
  • The Vivad Se Vishwas scheme waives off interest and penalty on pending tax if paid by March 31. For payments made after March 31 and till June 30, a 10% penalty would be charged.
  • In her response to the discussion on the Bill in the Upper House, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the scheme was not giving amnesty and that those already being prosecuted under the Income Tax Act would be excluded from it.

₹5 crore limit 

  • The 75% tax on undisclosed cash deposited at the time of demonetisation would still apply.  
  • A cap of ₹5 crore in dues had been included in the scheme in order to prevent large-scale evasion or fraud-related cases trying to take advantage of the scheme.

Rupee rebounds after RBI intervenes 

Central bank assures adequate liquidity support 

  • The rupee made a sharp recovery after touching a record low of 74.50 a dollar in early trade following intervention and assurance of liquidity by the Reserve Bank of India.
  • The rupee opened weak at 74.39 a dollar compared with the previous close of 74.24 and then touched the day’s low of 74.50. 
  • The previous record low was on October 9, 2018 when the rupee closed the day at 74.39 a dollar. The rupee closed the day at 73.80 a dollar, up 44 paisa from its previous close.
  • The turbulence in the financial market steered the central bank into making a statement, saying it would take steps to ensure adequate liquidity and that the situation was being monitored closely.
  • Markets around the globe are facing volatility due to risk aversion; investors are holding liquidity even as COVID-19 keeps spreading. 
  • Trading was halted in the domestic equities market after hitting their lower circuits on Friday.
  • The RBI announced that it would open a six-month dollar sell-buy swap window to pump in liquidity in the foreign exchange market. 
  • The central bank will conduct U.S. dollar-rupee sell-buy swaps worth $2 billion on March 16, to ‘begin with,’ in its effort to fight market volatility.
  • The central bank observed mismatches in the U.S. dollar liquidity had become accentuated across the world but added that the level of foreign exchange reserves remained at comfortable levels to meet any exigency. 
  • Latest data released by the RBI showed the country’s foreign exchange surged $5.69 billion to reach an all-time high of $487.23 billion in the week to March 6 due to an increase in foreign currency assets.

Blue-chips gain colour as bourses turn course 

Banking majors among top gainers 

  • The most volatile day for Indian stock markets with the benchmark Sensex trading in a range of nearly 5,400 points and the Nifty hitting the lower circuit of 10% before closing with a gain of nearly 4%, stock- specific action saw many blue-chips gaining over 20% compared to the day’s lows.
  • Banking majors such as IndusInd Bank, Bank of Baroda, State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank were among the top gainers in the BSE 100 index, comprising top 100 companies as per market capitalisation.
  • While IndusInd Bank gained a little over 46% compared to its day’s low, SBI, PNB and BoB gained between 30% and 39%.
  • IndusInd Bank touched a low of ₹550.05 before closing at ₹804. Similarly, SBI, which enjoys a high weightage in the Sensex as well, closed at ₹242.25 after touching an intraday low of ₹184.25, a gain of over 31%.
  • Meanwhile, the Sensex, which had touched a low of 29,388.97 during the morning session, touched a high of 34,769.48 before closing at 34,103.48, up 1,325.34 points or 4.04%.
  • The broader Nifty settled at 9,955.20, gaining 365.05 points or 3.81%. Interestingly, the market was abuzz with talks that Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) was among the major buyers in the market as most of the banking stocks were currently available at 52-week low levels.
  • “LIC is a long-term investor and banking is one of the favourite sectors of the State-owned insurance entity,” said a dealer.
  • According to provisional data, domestic institutional investors were net buyers at almost ₹5,900 crore.

Apart from banking majors, stocks like Tata Steel, LIC Housing Finance, BPCL, HPCL and GAIL India also gained between 26% and 29% in intraday trading. The intraday reversal in price movement could be further gauged from the fact that all the stocks in the BSE 100 index, which were significantly down during the morning session, ended with gains. 


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