From APU Conference 2013 : On right to welfare

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

This morning we are at APU’s Conference 2013 on Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work. The focus seems firmly set on India and here is the list of papers. My colleague and I find the conference note to be high on theoretical quotient with respect to thinking on institutional and legal fronts – about what welfare means in India and its delivery. During the day we hear people working in social security, education, poverty, food, work and a variety of interdisciplinary areas in development like rights based approach to welfare, structural violence and welfare etc.

Besides the range being a little too expansive, we find that it might well be one of the few times in a year that we sit in conferences understanding, debating and learning about new ways of thinking and conceptualization of problems that we see in our work with non-profits and small businesses in the development sector. We experience the issues of equity, access and rights but seldom get to effect changes to remedy the imbalance. Or at times we have not even known how to approach serious issues such as these. The themes –

I. Law and development in India

II. Statutory rights-based approach to welfare

III. Rights and Obligations

Of these we look forward to interesting research on structural violence and welfare by Akhil Gupta, Social Citizenship in India by Niraja Jayal and on India’s new rights agenda by Sanjay Ruparelia.

The conference opened with two fairly accurate observations from Anurag of APU, who trawls the Indian hinterland looking at changes, emerging practices and learning from them to devise effective social action –

1. That there has been a retreat of welfare in India

2.  That there is a lack of engagement between the intellectuals and people on the ground. And  that this is beginning to be a problem .

For us as practitioners, this might yield interesting ways to look at the contests of rights, access and equity and associated problems that we see in out work. And how these could be addressed by businesses or perhaps by our work in data analysis and documentation. If it does yield interesting insights, be sure to find it here.



Another case of being too early: Governor’s remarks on APU



Being always late when required and way too early when not required is a pathological condition in India, especially among those of the political and bureaucratic lot. Of them the Governors of states are a unique lot. In the recent times, it has become rather difficult to understand what role does this class of administrators (if one can call them that) play in a state other than occupying colonial bungalows. With some of them almost behaving like those who occupied those bungalows before independence. Last week, the Governor of Karnataka, H.R. Bhardwaj in a ceremony at the Raj Bhavan (the Governor’s residence) remarked that Azim Premji University (APU) is not ‘living up to its promise of helping the poor and economically-weaker students’.

I happen to attend a graduate program in development at this university. Clearly, I have spent more time than the Governor in this university and can see that he has arrived way too early into an impact assessment party which is not happening. And it in this case it is neither required nor solicited. That he is a “Visitor” at this university and not the Chancellor is a relief!

Obviously, such a remark grows out of a distance from a life of struggle and realities of the country that the office of the Governor reflects. How does one assess the impact of a university which was set up in 2010 and has just seen its first batch graduate? Since his remark, many have suggested that it is premature to judge APU which is a fair point. But let us indulge this remark as it happens to have received some coverage in the newspapers. So, if he would have cared to even visit this university in question for at least one continuous week he would have learnt a thing or two about restraint, civility and definitely a good load about the realities of people, lives, livelihoods and education in an India which is different from what it appears from the windows of the Raj Bhavan. This learning put together would be worth more than a typical luxurious and soporific term in the office. One needs to look at the areas of work that the university is working in – primary education, government teachers’ training, education capacity building in districts and blocks, policy research, empirical studies in education and development – to gain a sense of the expanse that this institution is hoping to contribute to.

His remark was particularly about helping students of economically poor background. For one he clearly has no idea about the scholarships, financial assistance and pre-placement offer like arrangements that the university has with the students, in spite of he being listed as a visitor here. Second, this is a vacuous, opportunistic statement. If the assumption is that this would evoke a response from the university or the foundation that runs it or even the people who manage it, then it is a clear miscalculation. Because there is not a spare moment for indulging remarks like these in this establishment. And civility with hard and real work is valued here more than watching things out of a window. Those who are at the helm do not spend their time addressing banquets but trudge the paths in the hinterland understanding the country better and developing an appropriate response to help the situation, if necessary.

Bottomline is, there is much more happening here than what goes out in the world. People here are media shy and tend to take the last row of chairs when it is time for accolades. This to some is an alien thought.

A colleague suggests that this post is flat on substantial point about the university and that it verges on being a rant. So here goes further evidence of the kind of thinking and scholarship that the university hopes to produce. In Putting Scholarship First the university’s registrar, Giri talks of the Gordian knot of higher education in India today. It is an interesting piece, particularly for those who are interesting in questions with a slant of ‘impact’.

In the Indian context, the overarching social purpose ought to drive research. Research that informs policy and can contribute towards social benefit, even if not published in international journals, should be valued. Such research by teachers serves to bring their students into the world of inquiry, discovery and to appreciate that knowledge is not something to be merely consumed but to be continuously generated.

How does one then look at the impact of a new university within three years of its start? For all we know, a vision such as this might not even create an impact as understood and expected by those sitting at positions from where they should rather be more telescopic in their thinking.