Sunday, May 25, 2008

Not halcyon days any more

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word `halcyon' to a bird, usually identified with a species of kingfisher, which the wise elders in the ancient West believed to have bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea. The ancients thought that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was calm during the period.

By extension, the term `halcyon days' refers to 14 days of calm weather, believed to occur about the winter solstice when the halcyon was brooding.

From those fabled roots come the contemporary usage of `halcyon' to allude to a calm, quiet, peaceful and undisturbed period or time.

The need for such an atmosphere must have been the lure behind the move of Regent Maharani Sethulakshmi Bhai to construct in 1930 an imposing palace atop a hill overlooking the Kovalam bay near Thiruvananthapuram as a summer leisure retreat for the family members of the Travancore royalty.

That beautiful piece of property is now in the midst of a controversy over ownership. The Oman-based M Far Hotels of the M Far group, which purchased the Kovalam Ashok Hotel from the public-sector India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) for Rs 44 crore in July 2002, insists that the Halcyon Castle forms an integral part of the hotel complex.

However, local activists, egged on by leaders of the Opposition front, dispute the claim and maintain that it belongs to the State Government. Tourism Secretary T. Balakrishnan was quoted as saying that there were no records to show that the Halcyon Castle belonged to the State Government.

It is easy to see why the grand sea-facing granite castle has suddenly become everybody's interest. For the hotel industry, it is a rare property that will attract dozens of pricey customers. Already, the 188-room Le Meridien Kovalam Beach Resort & Spa, which is what the erstwhile Kovalam Ashok is now called, boasts that its "four royal suites in the castle are in the category of the most luxurious accommodation available in the handful of five-star hotels in the entire State." And their tariff ranges from $350 to $500 a day.

For politicians, it is an opportunity to shine in the limelight. For the Government, it is an embarrassment, another sign of ineffectiveness in policing prime property.

However, every one of these interested parties seems to be barking up the wrong tree. The government, while it does have a moral obligation to protect and preserve architectural and cultural monuments, has often failed to do so, not for want of intent but for sheer inefficiency and ineptness.

One has to only look at the dilapidated condition of most of Kerala's architectural heritage to realize this. Recently, the government looked on as a portion of the historic West Fort in the capital was destroyed.

It is not as if the government cannot be a good caretaker of heritage. Consider the impeccable and elegant manner in which the Department of Archaeology has maintained the Padmanabhapuram Palace, near Thuckalay in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the fact that it is in another State - and thus not so attractive to the local media - prevents government officialdom and sundry politicians from interfering in its functioning.

The fact is that private entrepreneurs can - and are often encouraged to - maintain heritage property in a responsible manner, especially today when the well-heeled traveller is in search of authentic historical and cultural experiences. Consider the many heritage hotels run by the Taj group, especially in Rajasthan.

The Halycon Castle deserves a caring and benevolent guardian. But whether that ought to be the State Government alone is a moot point.

Drop everything and read

Kerala can lay proud claim to being India's First State, as far as the fine art of reading is concerned. Naturally, therefore, observation of June 19 as Reading Day and the entire week as Reading Week was in keeping with the State's longstanding tradition of reverence for the written word.

The P.N.Panicker Foundation, in association with the State Government, Education Department and Public Relations Department, decided to observe June 19, the 9th death anniversary of P.N. Panicker, as `Reading Day'.

Panicker was the driving spirit behind Kerala's Adult and Non-formal Education activities, which began in organised manner with the setting up of Kerala Grandha Sala Sangham in 1945 with 47 rural libraries.

Panicker was able to bring 6,000 libraries into this network, transforming the libraries into community centres that were soon abuzz with impassioned discussions, seminars and symposia, all accessible to the public.

Fittingly enough, the Central Government decided to issue the P.N. Panicker commemoration stamp on the occasion of Reading Day.

Continuing the initiative, the current week - from June 19 to 25 - will be observed as `Reading Week' in the State, with special school assemblies to promote the reading habit among children.

Reading Clubs and P.N. Panicker Corners will be formed in the schools. There will also be exhibitions of books during the week.

It is heart-warming that Kerala is taking some pains in this direction, for, all over the world, respect and adulation for reading and the written word is under increasing threat, as critics of television soap operas and matinee cinemas never tire of reminding us. Closer home, witness the near-anaesthetic grip of prime-time soaps on Malayalam television channels.

Worldwide, initiatives are under way to stem the rot. In Malaysia, for instance, property developer Island and Peninsular Berhad (I&P) has come out with an exciting way to help students make reading an indispensable part of life. The company recently donated 300 books worth 8,000 Malaysian ringgitts (approx. Rs 92,000) to a secondary school in Selangor, for excelling in its campaign, DEAR (Drop Everything and Read).

I&P Corporate Communications Manager Izan Hussain told a Malaysian newspaper that the three-month-long campaign was aimed at helping to improve the standard of English among pupils by encouraging them to read.

"Our primary objective of starting the DEAR campaign was mainly to address the lack of interest in reading amongst the young. This vacuum in reading comes from the perception that there are more interesting electronic media such as the Internet and television," Hussain added.

Catching them young was also the motive behind Unesco's General Conference establishing, in 1995, April 23 as World

Book and Copyright Day. Each year, Unesco organises a string of events encouraging everyone, particularly young people, to discover the joy of reading.

Since 1948, Unesco has carried out an ambitious programme to translate and publish more than 1,000 representative works from the widest range of cultures. R.E. Asher's celebrated 1980 translation of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer's Me Grandad 'ad an Elephant was part of the Unesco collection.

Unesco is also backing regional co-publication programmes in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, with an emphasis on books for children, women and those who have only recently acquired reading skills.

"Books and reading are as important today as ever," according to Milagros del Corral, director of Unesco's Division of Creativity, Cultural Industries and Copyright. "Reading means establishing an interactive dialogue with the virtual universe created by the author of a text - a universe of intellectual representations that differ according to the imagination of each reader," she said.

Ms del Corral - who is also in charge of Unesco's Publications - highlighted persistent inequalities in reading: "There are books on all subjects, for all public and for all times. But we must make sure that books be accessible to everybody everywhere."

That is the challenge ahead - more books for more people, more easily available.

The grey digital divide

Many Keralites readers will recall, perhaps some sense of pride, the news and photographs that appeared some years ago in local dailies of senior citizens - many of them functionally illiterate - in Malappuram district staring at computer monitors to read e-mails from relatives abroad.

Once written off as Kerala's most backward district, Malappuram soon became the symbol of what a determined Government and bureaucracy could do to use information technology to transform ordinary lives.

Through a network of Internet kiosks, called Akshaya centres, the State Government claims to have brought 100 per cent e-literacy to Malappuram, creating a growing appetite for value-added services like Internet browsing, voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) and videoconferencing. However well-intentioned the State Government may be, that claim is a bit too tall.

Even internationally, while many countries have met success in overcoming the `first level' digital divide - that is problems of access - few claim to have jumped over the `second-level digital divide' - the exclusion of elders in reaping the fruits of the digital revolution. This `generational difference' is a key feature of adaptation to the Internet, with older portions of the population taking up use at a much slower rate.

Take the case of the UK. In spite an overall increase in the use of the Internet to 62 per cent of the British populace, according to the most recent National Statistics survey (2003), the over-55 age group remains low, with only 30 per cent using the Internet.

Although "technological diffusion" has increased Internet use in many sections of society, a relatively small percentage of those over 55 use the Internet, compared to younger age groups.According to one study, in both developed and developing countries, the Internet penetration rate among younger people is substantially higher than that among older people.

In developing countries, students who can get online via school connections make up a big share of Internet users. In general, the life stage divide is declining in most countries, except for Korea.

The European Union is taking a good, hard look at the situation. Accepting the reality of a "social digital divide" or "informational black hole," the leaders of the 15 EU member States met in Lisbon at a summit in 2000.

It was agreed then that the boundaries defining relative poverty were fluid, so that those without Internet access were not only "informational poor" but were also socially excluded from other activities.

The members agreed that by public and subsidized private access, all citizens of the EU should expect to have some sort of Internet access by 2005. This was based on a Finnish programme that had adopted a notion of free and subsidised Internet access as a citizen's right by 2005.

And last fortnight, Britons over 50 who go online regularly celebrated `Silver Surfers Day', with 69-year-old Dennis Rogers scooping the `Silver Surfer of the Year 2004' award. The organisers said they wanted to combat digital exclusion by showing how technology is relevant to people's lives.

To mark the occasion, they fitted the York-to-London express train with Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) connectivity - something Indian Railways is also currently trying out.

The average life expectancy in Kerala is 72 years. From a demographic point of view, Kerala is about 25 years ahead of the rest of the country. A child born in the State today can expect to live over 70 years. A girl child fares even better - she can hope to live to 76.

What is disturbing is that Kerala's aged population is projected to touch 72 lakh by 2021 and 119 lakh by 2051. Kerala can expect to see more and more people in their 80s, and many of them are likely to be women. Worse, most of them will have children residing beyond the State's shores.

As an aspiring information and knowledge-based economy, Kerala owes it to these senior citizens to try and bridge the existing grey digital divide.

K.N. Raj: Kerala's finest economist

Kerala's finest economist

At a conference in Thrissur, organised in 2004 by the Department of Economics, St Thomas College, several of the best minds in the country came together to pay glowing tributes to a son of Kerala who can be called - without fear of contradiction - the greatest economist this State has produced. That the conference was held at Thrissur was even more appropriate, for that sleepy little town was where this distinguished person was born 80 years ago.

Kakkadan Nandanath Raj or plain K.N. Raj, as he is universally known, is that rare combination of teacher, researcher and builder of institutions, all rolled up in a backdrop of progressive libertarianism that stopped short of radical Marxism but always embraced a deep humanism and concern for the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and, above all, the nation.

`Planning, Institutions, Markets and Development' - the theme of the Thrissur conference - sums up the key areas in which Raj has been active. As the Assistant Chief of the Economic Division of the Planning Commission, he played a pivotal role in India's planned development, drafting sections of India's first Five Year Plan, specifically the introductory chapter. Raj was then merely 26 years old.

Subsequently, he moved to Delhi University, where he was Professor of Economics and also Vice-Chancellor (from October 1969 to December 1970), spending a total of 18 years there. During that time, he was instrumental in setting up the Delhi School of Economics (DSE).

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen recalls "several stimulating and instructive conversations with him in the DSE in the early 1960s, in those heady days when many of us were privileged to participate, under Raj's superb leadership, in the building of a great graduate school of economics."

After the Delhi stint, Raj returned to Kerala in 1971 to set up the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at Thiruvananthapuram, an institution that soon acquired an international reputation for applied economics and social science research. The work that Raj and his colleagues did for the United Nations in the early days of the CDS, and published in 1976, helped shape the contours of what later came to be called the "Kerala model" of development - the co-existence of low per capita income and very high physical quality of life indicators.

As for markets, Raj, like his friend Amartya Sen (who calls him "a remarkable applied economist"), does not have the automatic aversion for markets that most Left-leaning economists display. In 1970, Raj recommended that all controls on the steel industry be removed, and the industry be exposed to the effects of market forces. That was seen as almost heretical at a time when the command economy was in full rule and the public sector was a holy cow.

Raj once wrote: "I think that most of the things that welfare economists talk about are those that are obvious to all of us, especially the common people. In fact, even a pure philosopher and religious thinker like Sree Narayana Guru, who achieved a social transformation in Kerala, spoke about the very same things that welfare economists speak about today: education, health care facilities, even small-scale industries... Many people like me practised welfare economics without knowing that it was welfare economics, because we were anxious that economics should help the poor. But people who take economic theory literally would say that this is not our problem."

For Raj, development has always been the central problem. For that unstinting concern, we, as citizens of India, ought to be grateful and, as residents of Kerala, perhaps even more so, for K.N. Raj's contribution to his home State will long outlive conferences, seminars and tributes.

Fishing in troubled waters

Transboundary crossings by fishermen

These days the media is awash with reports of Indian fishermen getting arrested for crossing the maritime borders of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka and even as far away as Oman in the Gulf region. Some of them belong to Kerala, and it is unfortunate that the State Government has not been able to do much to help them.

In May 2004, for instance, the Pakistan Coast Guard arrested six fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam for straying into Pakistan's territorial waters. Joboy Pascas, Yesudasan Raju, Joseph Vincent, Stalin Alosius, Antony Vijayan and Jose Varghese put out to sea from Muscat on May 23.

After several days at sea, their motorised boat, which drifted out after developing a technical snag, was captured by the Pakistan Coast Guard. The fishermen were jailed for three months and later released. According to their relatives, the sponsor in the Gulf and the Indian Embassy in Muscat had failed to respond to repeated requests to secure their release.

Although their wives, led by the Kerala Swathanthra Matsyathozhilali Federation (KSMTF) launched an indefinite sit-in strike in front of the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, seeking the intervention of the State and Central Governments for their release, nothing has been done. The KSMTF President, T. Peter, said the officials in the office of the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, had informed them that the matter was being taken up at the highest level in New Delhi.

Pakistan and India agreed to release fishermen of both sides on the occasions of Id ul Fitr and Diwali, a source in the Pakistan Interior Ministry told Dawn newspaper. The agreement was reportedly reached at a meeting between Indian High Commissioner Shivshankar Menon and Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao.

The efforts to release the held fishermen were stated to be part of the "confidence building measures" being taken by the two countries. Pakistan and India routinely arrest each other's fishermen for border violation or sometimes on suspicion of being spies. According to some sources, there are now 725 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and about 102 Pakistanis in Indian jails.

Similar efforts for humanitarian treatment of fishermen arrested often for no fault of theirs have been reported from Sri Lanka as well. In a joint statement issued at the end of talks between Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Indian leadership during the former's visit to India, the two sides decided to expedite the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Fisheries, under consideration.

While agreeing to continue with the existing understandings on the humane treatment and early release of apprehended fishermen, it was decided to constitute a Joint Working Group which could meet frequently to deal with issues relating to straying fishermen, work out modalities for prevention of use of force against them and explore the possibilities of working towards bilateral arrangements for licensed fishing.

Back in Kerala, Fisheries Minister Dominic Presentation recently demanded a `National Mission on Fisheries' to increase the potential of the fisheries sector for growth and to provide a range of solutions to the problems confronting the industry.

The initiative for the same should come from the Union Agriculture Ministry and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), he said, while also asking for the expertise of the ICAR to develop open-ocean aquaculture in the State's offshore waters.

Perhaps some initiative should also come from the State Government to save the livelihoods of the fishermen who inadvertently stray into foreign territory.

Women in Kerala: engendered or endangered?

Kerala's women

The paradox of the status of women in Kerala lies in the confusion between `gender equality' and `gender equity'. The notion of gender equality assumes that the needs and interests of women and men are identical, whereas the notion of gender equity presumes they are different.

Each year witnesses the ritualistic observation of yet another signpost in the long march towards equality and justice of a still marginalised section of much of the world's population - women. March 8 has traditionally been observed as International Women's Day, celebrated in various incarnations since the turn of the century, and formalised in December 1977, when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women's Rights and International Peace.

On March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City in the US, staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The police attacked the protestors and dispersed them. Two years later, again in March, these women formed their first labour union to try and protect themselves and gain some basic rights in the workplace.

Such assertion of political and human rights has been the forte of women in Kerala too, especially in the trade union movement in the coir and cashew industries and in the plantations, in the peasant and agricultural labour movements and in the struggles for land reform.

Kerala's women have not remained out of sight of official patronage. As a day of celebration, assertion and review of the status of women in society, March 8 was therefore duly consecrated in Kerala too - with meetings, rallies and speeches.

Women and Kerala have a hallowed relationship, especially in the goggle-eyed wonderment of social scientists, who drool over the power of "women's agency" in advancing the social and economic development of a State.

Frankly, though, for Kerala, which claims the most exalted status for women in social development in the whole of India, the ritual of the red-letter day smacked of sheer pietism - a sham tribute to a largely amorphous empowerment.

Development scholars point to past and current levels of female literacy and education, late age of marriage, declining fertility and a greater female work participation rate to establish that Kerala's women are a privileged lot. However, there is a yawning chasm between official statistics, public policy and everyday lives.

The fact is, as anyone who has lived in Kerala for even a short spell will tell you, Kerala's women are empowered only in a virtual sense - many of the rights and powers they are bestowed with are not inalienably intrinsic to their status as females.

They are, in many cases, the outcome of historical processes husbanded - the word is used here deliberately in its politically incorrect and chauvinist meaning of "being managed" or "stewarded" by males - by institutions and organisations that defined the course of Kerala's history.

In Kerala, women's rights are mediated through different agencies, institutions and practices, most of which remain patriarchical and oppressive, albeit coated in a veneer of progressive postures. The paradox of the status of women in Kerala lies in the confusion between "gender equality" and "gender equity."

Yasushi Uchiyamada, a senior researcher in anthropology at the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, Tokyo, who has studied land and modernity in Kerala, explains that the notion of gender equality assumes that the needs and interests of women and men are identical, whereas the notion of gender equity presumes they are different.

Focusing on gender equality - as much of the discourse in Kerala did on International Women's Day - tends to conceal rather than reveal the specific needs and interests of women. Even when women articulate these, the dominant discourse of Kerala society distorts these self-representations, getting them "masculinised" to conform to the expectations of men.

Without institutions that listen and respond to their suppressed voices, women in Kerala will remain content with celebrating International Women's Day year after year - as their international sisters move on to true emancipation and empowerment.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Shopkeepers, traders, merchants

Is Kerala a land of traders?

Napolean reportedly called England a land of shopkeepers. Closer home, some observers like to slap that epithet on to Kerala. In the absence of a rousing industrial culture, the closest Keralites come to displaying some entrepreneurial dash is when they are behind a shop counter.

The proverbial Malayalee teashop owner who greeted Edmund Hillary atop Mount Everest with a rousing cup of hot tea may be the work of a feverish imagination, but it does point to the ubiquitous nature of the Keralite shopkeeper mentality.

Thus it was not really astounding to learn that the Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi (KVVES), the State's largest and most powerful organization of traders, had recently declared that the organization had decided to "physically" prohibit multinationals (MNCs) from opening large retail chain stores in the State.

The KVVES distrust of MNCs is nothing new. Some years ago it locked horns with Hindustan Lever over the margins that the company was passing on to its retailers. That it had to finally cave in without wresting many significant concessions from India's largest fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturer says as much about the divisions amongst Kerala's traders as about the power of the MNC.

It is, however, difficult to understand - or sympathise with - the KVVES stand. Not only does it have nothing to really fear from the operations of a foreign retail chain or a strong FMCG firm but it also ought to be actually encouraging more such entities to open shop in Kerala. The KVVES is perhaps underestimating the power of its own members - who number close to 5 lakhs - and the ingenuity of Kerala's shopkeepers.

It only has to look at the Margin Free Market, the chain of supermarkets started by the Consumer Protection and Guidance Society, to realise the weakness of its claims that a foreign retail chain will wipe out Kerala's traders, especially the smaller ones. Registered in 1993 in Thiruvananthapuram, the State capital, the Margin Free Mark et is a co-operative venture of the Consumer Protection and Guidance Society and the management, which set up the first Margin Free Market, in Thiruvananthapuram on January 26, 1994.

Since then the group of supermarkets has spread to become India's largest retail chain, offering products at prices marked down as much as 40 per cent of the maximum retail price. Even a large well-established supermarket group like Foodworld or Spencer's from the RPG stable has not really been able to upstage the Margin Free brand.

Given the Keralites' increasing disposable incomes and their tendency to opt for convenience goods even at the cost of fancy packaging, it is possible for the State to accommodate several more retail outlets. The KVVES ought to realise that the strength of Kerala's trading community - as well as the organisation's own prowess - stems from the free play of competition.

Rather than threatening to block newcomers, the KVVES ought to be encouraging them to enter, in a more-the-merrier spirit. After all, the organisation does have an altruistic side to it: soon after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, its Kollam district unit announced it would construct 42 shops for the traders of Alapad who lost their shops to the tsunami waves.

So, evidently, the KVVES has a heart. Now it needs to find its guts too. After all, as Oliver Goldsmith said, "Surely the best way to meet the enemy is head on in the field and not wait till they plunder our very homes." Competition, not confrontation, should be the motto for this land of shopkeepers.

Monsoon trawl ban in Kerala

Monsoon fishing woes

By implementing the annual monsoon trawl ban effectively and fairly, Kerala can show others how to manage fisheries resources and conflicting resource users in a reasonable and healthy manner.

As the southwest monsoon is due to set in over Kerala next month, on its way north, there is one part of the home State that is a mite worried - the fisheries sector and the fishing communities and traders who depend on it for their livelihoods.

There are two principal sources of bother - the annual 45-day monsoon ban on trawling in the State's waters 12 nautical miles from the shoreline, and the issue of safety at sea for the fishermen who venture out to sea braving the rough monsoon conditions.

For almost 20 years now, Kerala has used the annual fishing closure as a fisheries management tool that several other coastal States in India have subsequently followed. The first 45-day trawl ban was imposed in 1988 as a result of a sustained and strategically focused campaign by the traditional fishing sector, led by the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation, and representing around 1.75 lakh fishermen. (An earlier ban in 1981 lasted a mere three days, before it was withdrawn due to pressure from the mechanised sector that operates fishing vessels equipped with high-horsepower inboard engines and large gill-nets.)

The main impetus for the monsoon trawl ban is its resource conservation value - the monsoon is the spawning season for many varieties of fish, including shrimp, especially the highly valued karikadi variety. Besides, the ban has another welcome spin-off - the potential to prevent violent physical conflicts between the artisanal small-scale sector, operating traditional craft such as the catamaran, and the mechanised sector, which comprises inboard-powered vessels.

However, this year, there appears to be an interesting twist to the call for an annual fishing ban. This time around, it is the mechanised sector that wants the ban imposed. The traditional sector, on the other hand, is against a blanket comprehensive fishing closure, claiming that its own fishing techniques are environment-friendly and non-destructive as far as fish resources are concerned. It claims that the mechanised sector's call for a total ban is a cover for allowing cheap imports of fish. The traditional sector wants only trawling to be banned since, from experiences the world over, bottom trawling has been shown to be destructive of both habitat and marine resources.

Yet the traditional sector is not beyond reproach as far as resource conservation is concerned. Last week, for instance, the Fisheries Department launched a major drive against the use of stake nets in Ashtamudi Lake, near the harbour mouth at Shakthikulangara in Kollam, the central launching point for trawlers in the south of the State.

The use of stake nets during high tide has been banned under the Travancore Cochin Fisheries Act 1950. A comprehensive study of the lake by the Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad has stressed that stake net fishing is a highly destructive mode of fishing. They are allowed to operate only during the low tide.

During the monsoon, over 30 species of commercially valuable marine fish enter the Ashtamudi Lake through the estuary at Shakthikulangara, either for spawning or to find safe nurseries. These include schools of fries (newly hatched or born fish) of different species. The stake nets set at the entry point into the lake trap the fish that come to spawn as well as the fries that come in search of nurseries. Since the fries enjoy no commercial value, they are merely dumped back into the lake. Such capture of fries would lead to the depletion of future resources, say fisheries scientists.

Thus, in order to conserve the State's marine resources, both the traditional and mechanised sectors need to engage in reasonable resource management. This is all the more important since for Kerala, the fisheries sector is a major source of employment, income and food, and small-scale fisheries and aquaculture are important for sustainable development of coastal communities in the State.

Kerala's annual monsoon trawl ban follows international trends in fisheries resource management, where fishing closures are used to revive nearly collapsed fisheries or sustain potentially over-fished fisheries. Honduras, Peru and Indonesia are some of the countries where such annual fishing bans are in position.

It is important to guard against any dilution of the principle of a precautionary approach to fisheries resource management. After all, 75 per cent of the world's fishers' population are in the artisanal and small-scale sub-sector, which accounts for nearly half the global capture fisheries production. Kerala can show them how to manage resources and conflicting resource users in a reasonable and healthy manner.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Open learning

The recent move by the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala to ‘open’ up its courses is welcome, but much more can be done.

Late last year, around November 2007, as part of its move to promote quality education, the State-owned Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala (IIITM-K), based in Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram, announced that it would soon offer its classroom courses in the “open mode”.

What this means is that the institute’s courses will now be available to a wider range of professionals, especially from the information technology (IT) field. IIITM-K believes that the opening up of its courses to IT professionals and the academia is “an important and logical extension of the Institute’s commitment to promote technology-enhanced education in the State.”

IIITM-K was established by the Government of Kerala in 2001 with the stated goal of advancing the state of the art in IT and its applications in science, industry and society through research, projects and teaching. The present move to extend its academic reach is part of that goal.

The courses will be taught by IIITM-K’s faculty, who hold doctorates from universities in India, the US and Canada. The Institute claims its faculty have over 200 scientific publications in national and international journals.

Their work spans a wide range of fields in Science, Engineering and Management, including Theoretical and Applied Computer Science, Software Engineering, Computational Sciences, Control Systems, Geo-informatics, Grid Computing, e-Governance and Rural Enterprise Management.

These are the subject areas to be covered in this year’s offering for professionals pursuing their career in and around Technopark, where they can spare a few hours every week to upgrade their knowledge and skills.

The idea is to offer a semi-flexible package, with rigorous instructional delivery combined with a degree of flexible timing, so that they can earn adequate number of credits through different courses, complete relevant project or term paper work and obtain IITM-K’s post-graduate diploma in information technology (PGDIT).

The institute is also upgrading its present PGDIT to a full-time M Tech programme. With Technopark’s working population of 15,000 set to grow further, the new open PGDIT programme is expected to help a number of IT professionals advance their capabilities.

While the idea of extending its courses to a larger population is commendable, what IIITM-K is offering is not truly “open” in the sense of the path-breaking OpenCourseWare (OCW) offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

OCW is a free publication of course materialsused at MIT, which allows anyone with an Internet connection to get lecture notes, problem sets, labs and more, watch lecture videos and demonstrations, and study a wide variety of subjects. However, OCW is not an MIT education. It does not grant degrees or certificates, nor does it provide access to MIT faculty, and the materials offered online may not reflect the entire content of the course.

According to MIT, the OCW is an idea – and an ideal – developed, supported, and embraced by the MIT faculty, who share the Institute’s mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship to best serve the world.

In 1999 the Faculty considered how to take best advantage of the Internet to advance education, and in 2000 proposed OCW.

In 2001 OCW was announced in The New York Times. In 2007 the OCW Web site traffic set a new monthly record of over 2 million visits. Publication of virtually all MIT courses has been completed, and next year will see the transition to “steady state” of 200 new and updated courses per year.

Now other institutions are working with MIT to create their own OCWs, and the first mirror site has been established in Africa. Importantly, OCW puts out all content under the Creative Commons licence.

The Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others legally to build upon and share. The organisation has released several copyright licenses known as Creative Commons licences, which, depending on the one chosen, restrict only certain rights (or none) of the work.

The Creative Commons licences enable copyright holders to grant some or all of their rights to the public while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract schemes, including dedication to the public domain or open content licensing terms.

The intention is to avoid the problems current copyright laws create for the sharing of information. A Creative Commons license is based on copyright and applies to all works that are protected by copyright law, like books, Web sites, blogs, photographs, films, videos, songs and other audio and visual recordings.

Creative Commons licenses give the owners the ability to dictate how others may exercise their copyright rights – such as the right of others to copy your work, make derivative works or adaptations of your work, to distribute your work and/or make money from your work. They do not give you the ability to restrict anything that is otherwise permitted by exceptions or limitations to copyright, including, importantly, fair use or fair dealing.

These are the sort of options that institutions of higher learning like the IITM-K ought to be exploring as they seek to “open” up their portals of knowledge.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Beyond the Market, Freedom Matters

By basing itself on moral rectitude and ethical resoluteness, the Free Software Movement seeks to focus on the importance of ‘freedom’ as in ‘free speech’ or ‘free elections’, and not gratis, as in ‘free beer’. In the process, it has invited the wrath of the likes of Microsoft.

Kerala: A Left Turn

The resounding victory of the Left Democratic Front in Kerala was more than an expression of disgust at the corrupt misrule and otiose performance of the shamed United Democratic Front. It was also a call to arms for the LDF constituents to lift Kerala out of its development dilemma. Yet the early manoeuvres of and within the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the LDF's leading member, have left the electorate with more than a sense of dismay.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

God's Own Country?

Some jarring notes on Kerala's tourism front

In the face of some recent unsavoury events in the tourism sector, it is necessary for Keralites to imbibe the principles of responsible tourism.

Random Walk archives 2007

  • Retailing protests (December 17, 2007)
  • A nutty problem (December 03, 2007)
  • SmartCity rises again (November 26, 2007)
  • Open learning (November 12, 2007)
  • Labouring overseas again (October 29, 2007)
  • Pathrakadavu hydroelectric project

    Another green battle ahead?

    The sooner the Pathrakadavu hydroelectric project issue is settled, the brighter will be Kerala's energy future.

    Pathrakadavu is a biodiversity-rich slice of the Nilgiri Hills in the Western Ghats, located in Palakkad district of Kerala, approximately 500 metres from the southern border of the Silent Valley National Park, one of the last undisturbed tracts of montane rain forests fringed with some tropical moist evergreen forests in India. And now it is in the news for not the happiest of reasons.