Saturday, August 29, 2015

Public Universities, Markets, and Public Accountability

Universities as sites of learning play vital roles in the national imagination, as grounds for training thinkers and as spaces for contributing to knowledge.

Across the globe, many nation states fund Universities as sites of learning, heavily subsidizing an University education.

Universities in most of these instances are public sites, funded by taxpayers, meaning that taxpayer monies pay for the infrastructures, salaries, and functions carried out by them.

As publicly funded sites, Universities are thus accountable to the public. At least, they should be in principle.

Unfortunately, rather than turning toward these public commitments, many Universities have increasingly turned toward markets. The logic of the market has taken over University sites, treating students as commodities and evaluating knowledge generation in strictly utilitarian terms. The hegemony of the market logic at Universities has stifled imagination, turning education into metrics defined by market needs and trends.

Paying more attention to building football stadiums, hiring the next expensive coach or investing a great deal of money to the next branding initiative, Universities have failed to pay systematic attention to students and to their needs. As tuition rates have gone up, so have student debts taken out to pay for education. Students are increasingly less adept at writing and in their numeracy.

In addition, in the last five years, a growing proportion of students have had difficulty finding jobs, an implicit expectation that students rightly have from an University education. Students across nation states have been graduating without employment, contributing to high unemployment rates.

In this climate, public pressures on Universities have been increasing, wanting to hold Universities accountable to taxpayers. In my own work with disenfranchised communities, I have heard a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment with Universities. Universities are seen as elite sites in the ivory tower, disconnected from the everyday lives of people. Moreover, for members of the public, the elitism of Universities and academics is unjustified, given that the public fund the Universities.

Academics within Universities have certainly started feeling this pressure. Academics who spout off elite theories in elite languages, caring little about translating what they do or making their work accessible to the margins, are being questioned about the "value" of their work.

Part of this questioning certainly is tied to the overarching market value that has taken over education in the absence of sustainable state funding in many parts of the globe. This market trend certainly needs to be interrogated and universities need to interrogate the market logic of organizing universities. Steady streams of adjuncts and part time workers paid low wages and working long hours are part of the market response, optimizing the efficiency. Increasingly, PhDs with degrees from many traditional departments are finding it difficult to find placement, ending up thus as adjunct workers. The exploitation of low wage academic workers amid the hegemonic trends certainly needs to  be questioned.

Yet, there is more to this questioning. For taxpayers, academic work carried out in Universities needs to be responsive to the public regarding the value of the knowledge produced. How does this body of knowledge make a difference? How does it make an impact? How does it help us live better lives? When communities are struggling with making a living, how is academic work contributing to ameliorating these struggles? How is academic work responding to the voices of the poor and the marginalized, who have increasingly limited access to mobility and opportunity?

Parents and students alike are asking, "How will your degree help me get a job? What are your placement rates? What is the value of the degree in helping me make a living?"

In the academic ranks, I see a great deal of frustration at and resistance to this global public response regarding Universities and the role of education/knowledge. Typically hanging the frustration on the broader market forces, academics have turned away from the question of their accountability to the public. They have turned away from being accountable to their students and to their roles as public educators.

In turning away from the public conversation, academics are not asking questions such as: What imaginations for instance can academia offer to other rationalities of education and knowledge beyond the market? What lessons can academia offer students that can help them find meaningful work that would sustain them and their families and yet push them toward imagining the world in bold ways?

Unfortunately, I see very little of these conversations beyond the use of the catch-all phrase "neoliberalism" to foreclose possibilities of being held accountable to the public. This reaction reminds me of the bourgeoisie character of academia, unwilling to be held accountable for its ways, unwilling to let go of the privileges that we as academics at public Universities enjoy (and here I am talking about mostly the tenured Associate Professors and Professors, who should be held more accountable because of their ranks).

More so, I am sadly struck by the callousness among faculty members about the employability of their students. If we care for our students, we must care for their futures, which includes thinking through how we equip them to function in the transforming global economies and make a living for themselves. To not think of this question is irresponsible and morally vacuous.

Among other academics who have operated in a cushy system by getting away with doing very little, making references to the market is also an easy way of getting out of having to do any work and being held accountable for the lack of work. To the extent that we can point to market forces that are forcing us to work, we can justify our six figure salaries teaching one to three courses a year, publishing almost nothing, and not serving communities around us. For these bourgeoisie academics, the increasing calls to public accountability are to be actively fought by discounting such calls as un-academic.

As Universities find themselves in a world where inequalities are dramatic, unemployment rates are high, and opportunities for mobility for the middle and lower middle classes are being constrained, pubic universities need to seriously reconsider their roles in engaging communities, in generating knowledge, and in preparing students. The air of arrogance that closes the academe in its ensconced privilege has to be done away with, instead opening up to listening to communities and to public conversations and simultaneously rendering academic work transparent and accessible.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The saga of struggle...

In contemporary society, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) issues have gained attention from both political and academic spheres. In few countries, such as few states in US and in UK, legal sanction of marriage between same-sex partners is hailed as a big turn in the fight for LGBT rights. Campaigners in UK who spent years battling for the legalization of gay marriage saw the historic law enacted at midnight on 28th March, 2014, despite objections from the Church of England and some members of the Conservative party. In India too, in a significant step, the Supreme Court on 15th April, 2014 recognized the transgender community as a third gender along with male and female, to be given reservation on par with Other Backward Castes in government jobs.
But this was preceded by another Supreme Court bench judgment that rejected a progressive Delhi High court judgment decriminalizing of Section 377, an 1861 colonial law banning same-sex behaviour among consenting adults, which is punishable upto 10-years in prison. Instead, the Supreme Court wanted the Indian Parliament to change the law. Moreover, the judgment cited lack of evidence of stigma and discrimination faced by the LGBT groups from police and health officials: “While reading down Section 377 IPC, the Division Bench of the High Court overlooked that a minuscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders and in last more than 150 years less than 200 persons have been prosecuted (as per the reported orders) for committing offence under Section 377 IPC and this cannot be made sound basis for declaring that section ultra vires the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution" (Supreme Court, 2013, p. 83).
Although there are several studies with LGBT community, most of these studies focus on health aspect of this community within the framework of sexual deviance or sexually transmitted disease (STDs), expert driven top-down interventions that may further stigmatize the group. Increasingly, scholars are challenging the effectiveness of health campaigns generated by powerful nation-states at the center (primarily the United States and the United Kingdom) and directed at periphery nations of the world system (India, Nepal, Mexico, South Africa, etc.) Inspite of several years of campaign work, failure of the expert-driven health advocacy campaigns to check HIV/AIDS rates implies the need for new methods and theories in health communication to help solve heath issues, which will require a broader conceptualization of what constitutes as health. I feel there is a need for a broader conceptualization of health. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Free trade? Or free trade only for the already rich and powerful? - Part II

More sad discoveries awaited me. During the course of that week, I chanced upon a group of sex workers from Cambodia. Carrying banners with the words "sex work is work", the small group of women appeared to be agitating for more respect for their work. However, as I talked at length with them, I learnt that they were protesting how they had been deprived of life-saving HIV drugs.

After Cambodia joined the WTO, it had to observe rules such as only allowing the distribution of patented drugs in the name of protecting intellectual property and encouraging medical innovation. However, this also meant it could not allow the distribution of generic drugs from countries such as India and Thailand which could have been obtained at a mere fraction of the cost of their patent-protected cousins.

And for a country such as Cambodia, it could ill afford to buy these very expensive patented HIV drugs for its patients. The woman I interviewed told me about how the quantities available in Cambodia were very limited, but even if there was more supply, she wouldn't have been able to afford them. She later related how she had seen about 20 of her friends die from AIDS.

After I filed this story late that evening, which happened to be on my birthday, I spent the rest of the evening thinking how insidious arrangements such as "globalization" and "free trade" really were. While they were expressly working to give more people access to goods and services, in reality, they were killing the most marginalized, vulnerable and disempowered pockets of humanity.


Free trade? Or free trade only for the powerful? - Part 1

While reading about neoliberalism in Mohan Dutta's Communicating Social Change, the following paragraph struck a chord with me:

"The advent of the neoliberal logic on the global stage has been marked by the power and control of global organisations such as the international financial institutions: World Bank, and International Monetary Fund as well as the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, which later evolved into the World Trade Organisation, created with the goals of minimising the barriers to global trade, and maximizing trading opportunities for transnational corporations across national borders."

In my time as a journalist, I have seen how these seemingly lofty ideals have translated on the ground. While I believe it to be generally true that trading opportunities are greatly enhanced for powerful western businesses under the auspices of global structures such as the WTO, do these same structures engender a level playing field for all? Do they really minimise barriers to trade, and do they do that expressly to enhance wellness and betterment to peoples' lives?

During a WTO summit in 2005 in Hong Kong, I witnessed not only finance ministers and dignitaries, but hordes of activists and protesters converging in the city. I heard stories from bitter Korean farmers of how they borrowed heavily to improve their rice farming practices and yields only to face the spectre of a glut when foreign rice flooded their domestic market. Due to WTO rules, the country would be accused of protectionism if it clung on to barriers against foreign imports. So the country opened its doors to rice imports and many South Korean farmers quickly became bankrupt. A simple search will uncover stories of farmer suicides. As I listened to their stories, I was appalled to find out how wonderful tales of globalization -- the dominant narrative in public, popular discourse -- could go so wrong.

Here was a case of how structural shackles exerted by international organization were encouraging dumping behavior. These perpetrators were protected whilst the little people, disempowered and bereft of agency, were left to perish.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Farmers’ Suicides and the question of Legitimacy: Part II

Continuing with the discussion on the narrative of development, in this blog I discuss more reports to finally sum up the various kinds of inequalities created by the news reportage. 

Suicides, considering their growing number, also enter parliamentary debates and thereby become news stories. NDTV reported on the controversial debate in the parliament where two Ministers had cited love affairs as one of the reasons of suicides by farmers (NDTV, 2015). In the report, the representatives of various political parties are cited as alleging the other for having made such a statement. While the news reports focus on ‘controversy’ generated by the debate in the parliament, issue of suicides becomes a game between the powerful officials, a tool to bring down the other party. A deceased farmer not only gets wrongly represented in the parliament, but his suicide too is not recognized as a ‘legitimate’ suicide – a farmer suicide.  

The report in The Economic Times focuses on showing that farmers’ suicide are not just an issue of debt (Ravi, 2015). And there might be other reasons such as health (mental and physical). It calls attention to the need to understand the finer nuances of the distress of the farmers beyond the simplistic narrative of debt. It cites the percentage of suicides in four sates in India – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The article suggests that suicide rates are higher in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. In these two states, 30% of all suicides are farmer suicides but only 5% of all suicides are due to debt or bankruptcy. Therefore a public policy intervention should aim to address suicides in the states for a larger population beyond the farming community. 

While this article does stress the importance of understanding the nuances of distress of the farmers, it also dissolves the terminology of farmer suicides and its relation to debt on the basis of percentage numbers. The deceased farmer then becomes a portion of the percentage that committed suicide in the state. His specific context then does not deserve a special attention in the public policy intervention even when the rate of farmer suicide grows in unprecedented manner. 

In all the above examples, there are two kinds of inequalities observed. One is the representation of a farmer and his indebtedness as a ‘problem’ in development rather than a consequence of it. Cotton farming as is practiced today in the Vidarbha belt has undergone change in the last decade. One of the changes has been the adoption of genetically modified variety of cotton called Bt Cotton. Whether the causes of the current crisis on agriculture can be directly traced to this particular change or not is a matter of heated debate. However, the farmer himself can tell, from his generations of experience, what may be the possible causes of the severe crop failure and what could be the possible solutions. Yet the narrative of the crisis that is created by the news reports takes away this ‘legitimacy’ of the farmer to meaningfully contribute in his own livelihood crisis. Further, enumeration of the percentage of suicide and erasing the historicity of the causes of suicides to trace them to love affairs takes away the legitimacy of the crisis as a development issue. In this way then, the narrative of development can erase the farmer suicides as an issue within the narrative and treat it as external to it. The farmer then is erased from the development discourse itself, just as he is already eliminated from the process of deriving agricultural solutions to the crisis, and charting public policy plans. The second inequality is seen in the representation of the government schemes. State government schemes are represented as the only legitimate solution to the crisis on the grounds that these schemes have large funds involved in them and are using technology based solutions such as proving the farmers with vans. The lack of industries and therefore setting up of ‘textile park’ is similarly a solution that has been drawn from the belief in industrialization as a way towards development. As the farmers remain simply the receivers of these schemes, a possibility of agriculture based solutions drawing on the knowledge of the farmers is eliminated, and thereby their legitimacy to be a part of the development process is eliminated in the way the discourse of development is constructed by news reports.  

In conclusions, in this post, I attempted to do a textual analysis of the new reportage on the farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra. I wanted to make visible the processes through which the disenfranchisement of the farmers takes place in the creation of development narrative that is built piece by piece by focusing on news reports although news is only one of the means through which a popular narrative is created. 


FIR against Maharashtra government official for 'abetting' farmer's suicide. (2015). IBN Live. Retrieved from website:
India, P. T. o. (2015). Sharad Pawar Listed Love Affairs Among Reasons Behind Farmer Suicides: Maharashtra Minister Khadse. NDTV. Retrieved from website:
Khapre, S. (2015). Textile hubs to be set up in cotton belt to tackle farmer suicides in Maharashtra. The Indian Express. Retrieved from website:
Ravi, S. (2015). Poke Me: Farmer suicides in the country is not just issue of debt. The Economic Times. Retrieved from website:
Suryawanshi, S. (2015a). Maharashtra: Govt to focus on milk production, poultry, fishing for curbing farmer suicides. dna. Retrieved from website:
Suryawanshi, S. (2015b). Maharashtra: Now, shrinks to help farmers. dna. Retrieved from website:
To check suicides, Maharashtra govt wants drought-hit farmers to sell fish. (2015). The Indian Express. Retrieved from website:

Farmers’ Suicides and the question of Legitimacy: Part I

In this blog, I want to question the idea of ‘legitimacy’ within the discourse of development – the legitimacy of certain people as citizens. I want to ask, who are the people that a developing country considers to be important for continuing to chart a successful path towards development? And who are the people that a developing nation considers to be unimportant for its development? I want to show that the narrative of development has a large share in maintaining the ideas of legitimacy. I will explore the idea of ‘legitimacy’ in the context of the farmer population in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra in India. On the basis of news results that appeared on the first page of Google News, for the keyword search of ‘farmers’ suicides Maharashtra’, the following observations and analysis was made.

The articles relating to farmers’ suicides often spoke of the causes and solutions to the given situation where farmers in Maharashtra are committing suicides in large numbers. The indebtedness and bankruptcy were the central focal points around which the stories of farmers’ suicides were reported. The New Indian Express reports that a new mission launched by the state government of Maharashtra proposed to ‘arrest suicides’ by means of granting more farm loans to the farmers in 14 districts in Maharashtra (IANS, 2015). The newly appointed chairman of the mission has been cited in the report to have said that his mission has been empowered to suggest a host of measures to prevent suicides, including health, food, finance, and education security. The use of terminology such as preventing suicides indicates that ‘suicides’ is the immediate obstacle that needs to be treated, with no regard to the historicity of the phenomenon. The farmers themselves feature in this discourse in the capacity of unknown entities that commit suicides, and are spoken about only after their deaths, as people to whom the ‘problem’ of suicides is traced back. Farmers in this manner become the source of suicides, the source of the problem. If a farmer attempts to claim more agency than allotted to him by the act of committing suicide, the consequences are peculiar. This is illustrated by another example of a news report. IBN Live reports that shortly after a visit by the Deputy CEO of Nandurbar Zilla Parishad, a farmer, Laxman Barde (70) wrote a letter to the district collector that the official humiliated him in front of all the villagers. Laxman Barde committed suicide couple days later. His son, Deepak Barde (34) filed a complaint at a police station, where an FIR (First Information Report) was registered. The news report runs this story with the title, “FIR against Maharashtra government official for ‘abetting’ farmer’s suicide” (IBN Live, 2015). As the issue of suicides enters the language of law in the news report, the farmers’ suicides become ‘crime’. The news story suggests that the farmer’s son complained out of distress and anger against the humiliation faced by his father. However, in the police complaint, a suicide is treated as a crime and the government official becomes the person who ‘abetted’ the crime. The farmer, in his powerlessness, becomes the criminal, not a victim in the news story.   

The reportage of schemes initiated by the state government further influences how this ironical understanding of the farmer as a perpetrator gets promoted. For example, The Indian Express reports on the scheme initiated by the Maharashtra government which wants the drought-affected farmers to take up the business of selling fish (The Indian Express, 2015). The report gives the details of the implementation of this scheme, such as Rs.66 crore will be granted for purchasing 660 vans that would contain a vending stall, a kiosk, insulated fish boxes, utensils, a stove and a refrigerator. The vans will be distributed among 132 self-help groups each containing five farmers in 14 districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha. The details of the scheme in this report suggest that the government has provided the farmers with necessary development solutions, such as vans that are complete with necessary gadgets for taking up the business, however if the farmer remains in debt, then the responsibility of the problem rests on him. Further the report mentions that the government has also decided to launch ‘Krishi Samruddhi Yojana’ (Agriculture Development Scheme) to ‘tackle the issue’ of suicides by easing farmers’ loan burden, improving farm infrastructure, and creating alternate revenue sources for farmers. And yet, as the report says, some farmers have not welcomed the scheme on the grounds that selling fish is a full time job and it is not a farmer’s job.

Another report, from The Indian Express on a scheme to develop textile hubs in nine districts across the state of Maharashtra to ‘override the suicides’ resonates the same sentiment where the government is seen as offering a meaningful solution to address the debt crisis and suicides by farmers (Khapre, 2015). As the report says, the first step in implementing the plan is to set up a textile park in Amravati on 100 acres of land. On this land a textile township will be created, where all the activities related to textile, including processing and marketing will be housed. Considering that a large majority of the farmers that are under debt are cotton farmers and according to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, the cotton-growing belt has been facing the problem of lack of industries that would be able to support the cultivators.     

The other articles that resonate the same note are those in dna, one of which reports on the government’s focus on milk production, poultry and fishing for curbing suicides (Suryawanshi, 2015a), and another that reports about the Chief Minister’s plan to rope in psychiatrists to treat the farmers distressed by poverty (Suryawanshi, 2015b).   

It is evident in these reports that the views of farmers on the proposed schemes are either entirely missing or are reported as minority opinions that are not influential enough to be accounted for. In both cases, the ‘development solutions’ for the farmers are proposed that the government believes would ultimately address the issue of suicides. The farmer remains the one who receives these solutions from the authorities such as the state government, and doesn’t have a say in his own livelihood choices, by means of ‘bytes’ in the reported news.

In these examples, I attempted to show that the legitimacy of the farmers not only as contributing members of society but also as people who can ask the government for what is best for their own livelihoods is entirely overruled. The news reportage is one of the means by which the narrative of any given development issue gets created and enters the popular discourse. The discourse created by the articles discussed above represents the farmers as a community that is not a legitimate stake-holder in the nation that is otherwise planning attractive schemes involving large funds implemented through state governments.

The second part of this blog adds to this argument further, and explores the other means through which the issue of legitimacy crosses paths with farmer suicides.

To be continued... 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Of deceptive employers and mind-numbing work

Recently, a photograph showing a staff of a famous Singapore confectionary chain filling up plastic bottles with soya milk from another company went viral. Netizens were incensed because this publicly-listed confectionary BreadTalk had been selling soya bean milk for years, billing it as “freshly-prepared”. The company quickly pulled its product from its shelves and issued an apology that baffled more than it explained.

“We've heard your concerns over our soya bean beverage sold in stores … We would like to apologise for any misaligned presentation or wrong impressions created, and clarify that it is never our intention to mislead,” according to its press release.

I was gobsmacked. Here was a company that not only was using language hideously to get out of a tight spot, it had for years instructed its employees to deceive. And why did it take so long for this to emerge? Why wasn’t there any whistleblower? Surely this act cannot be perceived as honest any way you cut it. How deep can culture and structure seep to blind and completely disempower a person and rob him of his inherent agency?