Friday, May 13, 2016


That scarcity of water and its poor quality plague many parts of India this year is widely acknowledged today. Yet it has taken the Supreme Court to call out the reluctance of some States to declare a drought while simultaneously decrying the Centre’s recourse to “federalism” as an excuse to avoid taking up the matter with these States. In the judgment, delivered on a writ petition filed by the non-governmental organisation Swaraj Abhiyan, the Supreme Court concluded that Bihar and Haryana had been remiss in not officially declaring a drought despite clear indications of water scarcity; also that Gujarat was late in its declaration made in April 2016. The governments of Bihar and Haryana had argued that a declaration of drought was not necessary as rainfall deficits had eased in many districts by July 2015. But the Supreme Court has pointed out that many districts in these States have since progressively suffered rainfall deficits till as late as October 2015. The court also said that steps taken by State governments for irrigation and foodgrain production, or the presence of perennial rivers (which the Bihar government has submitted as a factor), alone cannot determine whether there is a drought-like situation or not. It has directed the Centre to take proactive steps in drought mitigation as well as in assessment, planning and relief as mandated by the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Drought is attributed to rainfall deficit in several States, suggesting that meteorological and natural factors are primarily responsible for the phenomenon. This, however, is an incomplete explanation. Water scarcity — in both surface and ground water — is also the result of failure to regulate water extraction, storage, wastage and patterns of use. The excessive use of deep borewells to extract groundwater has eroded the capacity of aquifers to replenish. Poor reservoir management has led to silt accumulation, among other issues limiting water storage. Lack of water harvesting and over-irrigation owing to cropping choices and patterns have depleted water tables. Preparation for drought and ipso facto for a deficit in annual rainfall must go beyond mitigation and include steps to address this man-made scarcity. This cannot be done without a coordinated effort at all levels of government. The Supreme Court has directed the Centre to constitute a National Disaster Response Force, establish a National Disaster Mitigation Fund, formulate a National Plan on mitigation and crisis management, and standardise the methodology for declaring a drought. If one sets aside the question of whether this is another case of judicial overreach, it is difficult to deny that this is a truly landmark judgment. By laying down a broad framework for dealing with such situations and firmly emphasising that the government cannot absolve itself from acting decisively, the manner in which we deal with drought in the future may change markedly, and for the better.

Monetary Policy Committee (MPC)

The process to constitute a Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) will begin once the Finance Bill 2016 has been notified as an Act, Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das said.
“Process to constitute Monetary Policy Committee will be initiated after passage of Finance Bill and its notification as an Act,” Mr Das tweeted.
In his Budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said that the Reserve Bank of India Act would be amended to facilitate the setting up of a committee tasked with setting interest rates in the economy.
The proposed committee will have six members — three appointed by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the remaining nominated by an external selection committee.
Following the setting up of this MPC, each member will have a vote while the Reserve Bank of India governor will have a deciding vote in the event of a tie, therefore rendering him as first among equals. This is important in the context of the government pushing for lower interest rates to spur the sluggish demand in the economy.

Adrift in school | Dev Lahiri

The silly season of the board examination results is once again upon us. Boards will vie with each other in doling out 90 per cent-plus to their candidates. Social, electronic and print media will overflow with congratulatory (and sometimes self- congratulatory) messages and interviews. Teachers will thump themselves on the back for their “outstanding results”. Schools will go ballistic advertising their “toppers”.
Yet behind the razzmatazz of this marks jamboree, lie some uncomfortable questions that need to be answered. First of all, what of those who did not make it to this elite club? What about those children, who, for reasons well beyond their control, are left struggling on the margins with mediocre or poor results — or even failure? Are they not entitled to a future?
How many of the teachers congratulating themselves would have identified and spent time with students struggling with some learning disability? How many teachers would even recognise the problem of a learning disability?
More fundamentally, how many schools would even admit any student identified as being so disadvantaged?
Let us not even begin to talk about the issue of other disabilities that thousands of our children suffer from. What kind of a culture are we evolving where the disadvantaged are ignored? I remember that when I started an “Assisted Learning Programme” in a boarding school that I headed in the early ’90s to help such students, one of my governors warned me against admitting “mentally retarded” children.
And what do these 90 per cents actually reflect? No one can deny that most students work very hard to achieve these results. The fact that they survive this joyless system is indeed a tribute to their resilience.
The fact, however, remains that the system is so hugely “content driven” that all that the marks reflect are a student’s ability to absorb and spew content, and the teacher’s ability to “teach to the test”. Have schools and teachers taught their students to make connections between what they have learnt in one discipline and what they have learnt in another? Between, say, math and music? Have they taught students to think creatively and critically, to work in teams, to assume leadership, to research and reference, to communicate effectively?
After all, these are the skills required in the real world. Have they excited their students about the business of learning? And I am not even touching upon values such as respect for others, empathy, integrity, gender sensitivity. Teachers, before you get carried away by your “success” please do not forget the steroid of the tuition market without which even that 90 per cent, flawed as it might be, would have remained a distant dream.
Let us not also overlook the reality of the manner in which the examinations are administered. Has anyone, for instance, done an audit of the examiners? After all, the examiners come from the pool of schoolteachers and I dare say that, by and large, that is not a very distinguished catchment area.
The reasons for this are manifold. Teaching, particularly schoolteaching, is not exactly a first choice career option for most. I once asked an assembly of parents in my school how many of them would encourage their son to be a schoolteacher or indeed their daughter to marry one. No marks for the correct answer!
The levels of motivation, not surprisingly, tend to be generally low. To compound the problem, teacher training is something that is largely ignored in our country. Promoters of schools, anxious for quick returns on investment, generally consider spending on teacher training a waste of precious resources.
It is worrisome that we have yet to create an institute with the same brand equity as an IIT or IIM. And ironically, it is the schoolteacher who prepares all the entrants for the IITs and IIMs and indeed for all other professions. It is also well-known that dishonesty is rampant in our examination centres. So how valid are these results?
The sad truth is that school in our country is less about “education” and more about “certification”. Where in any enlightened society is a child virtually “boxed in” as early as grade nine and forced into either “Commerce”, “Science” or god forbid “Humanities”? And never the three shall meet!
A child’s mind should be set free — free to explore and to discover the connections between all the beautiful, and indeed ugly, things he or she learns about this universe. In a very interesting article on the world-famous mathematician Ken Ono, in this paper (‘Prime Obsession’. The Indian Express, May 8) Amruta Lakhe quotes Ono on the relationship between him and his mentor Basil Gordon. “He was the Hardy in my life (a reference to the relationship between Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy). I couldn’t wait to start working on theorems but he didn’t let me anywhere near a math formula for months. We went biking, played the piano, and opened our minds to classical music.”
“Then on one of their expeditions”, Lakhe writes, “Ono was struck by the beauty of a particular sunset and mentioned it to Gordon. Gordon replied that Ono was now ready to do math.”
Unless our school education system, among other things, learns to open up the minds of our children to the fascinating universe they dwell in, it will never really impart an “education”, and will never really prepare them to be “weapons polished and keen” who will help build a new and more equitable and just world order.

The writer retired as principal of Welham Boys School, Dehradun.
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Prime Obsession | Amruta Lakhe

Growing up, Ken Ono hated math. It didn’t help that he had an extraordinary talent for it. Brought up by strict disciplinarians and a mathematician father, Takashi Ono, he rebelled against his Japanese upbringing in America. He threatened to run away from home, fail school and never study math again. That was until his father received a letter from the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s widow, Janaki.
“The letter thanked my father for his contribution in building a statue of Ramanujan after his death,” says Ono, 48, over the phone from Atlanta. “I had never seen my father cry before. He hadn’t shed a tear when his parents had passed away. But the passing of Ramanujan had meant something to him.”
Ramanujan had dropped out of school twice and never believed in formal education, but yet, he was Takashi’s god. It gave Takashi the strength to believe in his rebel son. “Because of Ramanujan’s story, I was given the permission to go find my own.” That was Ono’s first encounter with Ramanujan, but as he would find out, it was a first of many.
Ono travelled the world, but finally came back to math. Today, an eminent mathematician, he specialises in number theory, integer fractions and modular forms, areas of Ramanujan’s study as well. In 2011, he cracked the finite formula for computing partition numbers, a 500-year-old problem. He has delivered TED talks on how to imbibe mathematics into everyday life. His book, My Search for Ramanujan: How I learnt to count, is a glimpse into the shadow that Ramanujan cast on Ono. Between mentoring young mathematicians and understanding black holes, Ono recently found time to be an associate producer and math consultant for The Man Who Knew Infinity, the movie based on Ramanujan’s life, and give math lessons to actors Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.
On the set of the movie, Ono’s job was to make the film stay true to the life and time of Ramanujan, a drop-out math genius from a village in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, who braved all odds to become a Mathematics Fellow at Cambridge University in the backdrop of World War I.
From his office in Emory University, where he works as an Asa Griggs Candler professor of mathematics, Ono talks about working on a Hollywood set. “I helped with the art design to make sure that Ramanujan’s three journals looked authentic and taught Patel and Irons how to behave like mathematicians in the 1900s: how they’d walk, talk and study,” he says.
Ono worked on tweaking some key points in the script. In one scene, Ramanujan’s mentor and partner GH Hardy asks Ramanujan to return with actual proofs and not just results that the Indian mathematician was so used to handing in. Hardy is seen telling Ramanujan, “It’s not that I don’t believe you; I don’t think you understand how you got there.” “It was very important that the actors said those lines. Hardy and Ramanujan were different mathematicians. Hardy operated systematically while Ramanujan had flights of mathematical fancy. Hardy pushed Ramanujan to prove his work and that was an extremely important detail.”
Another of Ono’s responsibilities was to explain the unusual mathematician that Ramanujan was. “As seen in the movie, Ramanujan was intuitive about math. He loved formulas and equations but often couldn’t explain them. Mathematicians today try to find solutions to existing problems. He was never trying to find solutions, but often stumbled across a formula. He was more of an artist or a musician, extremely creative in his work.”
Because Ramanujan was different, he could never explain where his mathematical insights came from. He claimed that Hindu goddesses put the formulae in his mind. “Ramanujan made important mathematicians understand the presence of a larger power, whether it was God or something else. He made them understand that we are just explorers of infinity. We do not invent formulas. We just find the right words to explain them,” says Ono, who is a church-goer and a believer.
There’s an unconscious sense of resonance in the way Ono’s and Ramanujan’s lives took shape. To begin with, the World Wars played a significant role in both their lives. While Ramanujan moved to Cambridge ahead of the World War I, Ono’s family in Tokyo was a victim of World War II. “My father moved to the United States after Tokyo was bombed. But since US helped in the rehabilitation of Japan, he was offered the chance of a better life at Princeton University,” Ono says.
The memories of Pearl Harbour were fresh in their minds when the Onos arrived to make a life in a white neighborhood in America. “We grew up in an environment of racial tension. My brothers and I were brought up extremely sheltered,” he says.
Later, in his initial years as a mathematician, he met Basil Gordon and formed their-own Hardy-Ramanujan relationship. “He was the Hardy in my life. I couldn’t wait to start working on theorems but he didn’t let me anywhere near a math formula for months. We went biking, played the piano and opened our minds to classical music.” After many months, on one of their expeditions, Ono was struck by the beauty of a particular sunset and mentioned it to Gordon. “He replied that I was now ready to do math.”
The attempt at emulation becomes more apparent in Ono’s recent work. He expanded Ramanujan’s theory of partition congruences and made significant headway into Maass forms. He now uses many of Ramanujan’s theorems to understand black holes and string theory. Ono’s car also bears a license plate with the famous Hardy-Ramanujan number: 1729.
Ono may be one of the most important mathematicians of this generation. Yet, on his website, there’s not a single picture of him next to a blackboard. There’s one on a bike, another on a surfboard, because he is a professional marathon bike racer, surfer and triathlon champion. “Sports keeps me sane. It stimulates the mind endlessly. But I need to hit the road again. Promoting the film has made me gain 10 pounds,” he says.
But why did it take a Hollywood film to get Ramanujan some attention ? Ono says it is because the work of a genius takes time to recognise. “Even though Ramanujan published 37 papers, it has taken people 60-70 years to discover the implications of his work. For instance, we are now understanding that his work could be used to understand black holes. He began a path, showed us the way. We’re just discovering where it leads. He was not a scientist, he was a mathematics prophet,” he says.

Amruta Lakhe is a freelance writer in Mumbai.

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