Book review: India Development and Participation by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze

The book cover

The amazing growth story of India in the new millennium and the countless problems that we face have spawned a cottage industry of books about the opportunities and the challenges faced by the nation. It has become very difficult to get the right book that identifies the challenges in the right perspective and suggests constructive solutions.

One way to choose is by looking at the profile of the author(s). Hence the work by the renowned economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, who also have a good field experience in India was an obvious choice when I came across it in a book fair. The book India: Development and Participation is one of the most comprehensive work on the challenges faced by the nation in the socio-economic front.

Citing statistics and making comparisons with other parts of the world, it talks about the challenges in education, healthcare, women emancipation, liberalisation and decentralisation. The authors expose the myth of the inclusiveness of our growth story by showing that we lag behind sub-Saharan Africa in most of the  health and nutritional indicators. The inter-state disparities is also brought into picture. Each chapter ends with a case study of the state in India that has been able to make definite progress on the subject when compared to the other states. A comparison with China, which has similar problems like us also help us in putting things in perspective.

Are we on the right track?

Even as they applaud China for its success in the socio-economic front, the authors are unambiguous in their disapproval for the authoritarian methods used by then to achieve the ends. By noting the achievements of Kerala which has better indicators than China, they call for local, community based approaches to the major issues.

The chapter on women emancipation talks about an issue that is conspicuous by its absence in other similar discourses: the problem posed by widowhood and prospective widowhood that leads to choices like male-child preference. As the life expectancy of females are higher than males and because of our patriarchal norm of large age gap between the wife and the husband, this is a very serious issue in India.

The current edition was published in 2001. Hence the statistics are old. Interested ones can dig up the latest statistics from the original source that is given under every table. Also having written in 2001, it doesn’t talk about Naxalism which has become a serious problem off late. Being a result of the socio-economic and governance problems in the rural hinterland, an additional chapter on Naxalism can be added in future editions.

Hence as a whole, this book is one of the best written books on the socio-economic challenges faced by India. Written by eminent authors with good field experience, backed by authentic statistics and put in the right perspective, the book is a must read not only for people interested in public service but for every Indian so that we are not blinded by the glitz of our ‘growth’ story and lose sight of the humongous challenges we face.

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My Civil Services Interview- CSE 2010

My interview was scheduled for the afternoon session on the 4th of April 2011. After the document verification, by around 14.15 hrs, we were told that we will be interviewed by the board chaired by the UPSC member I.M.G. Khan. I was the last candidate in the list.

I entered the interview room by around 16.50 hrs. This is the transcript of the interview:

Me: May I come in, Sir?

The chairman asked me to come in. The room and the table were quite small. So I had a hard time distinguishing the chairman from the five members.

I got in wishing the chairman, lady member and the other members Good afternoon. But before I could finish the niceties, chairman was asking me to sit down. He seemed very cordial and the mood in the board was surprisingly fresh even at the end of the day. I sat down saying ‘Thank you’

Chairman: So you are Gokul?

Me: Yes sir, Gokul G.R

Ch: I will call you Gokul. Will that be fine? (smiling)

Me: Yes sir that will be fine. ( me too smiling)

Ch: Gokul, you have taken Physics as an optional. Are you going against the trend as we see a lot of engineers and science graduates taking non-science optional?

Me: Sir, physics is a subject that I have been studying form my school days. It is the most familiar subject for me and I like it. I wanted to take a subject that I would enjoy studying.

Ch (going through my bio-data): So you passed out from NITC with first class with distinction. Some chap came to a place near Calicut some time back no? Who was he?

I was confused and thought for a fraction of a second when I knew he was talking about Vasco Da Gama…

Me: Vasco Da Gama sir. It was in 1498. He landed at a place called Kappad. It is quite near to my college.

Ch: The beach has a memorial saying this is where he landed. Have you seen that?

Me: I have been to the beach twice. It is a rocky beach. But I don’t remember seeing the monument.

Ch: It’s a small monument which says ‘this is the spot where….’ (the other members nod at this)

Me: sorry sir. I don’t remember seeing the monument.

Ch: Why did he have to find a route through the sea?

Me: I don’t exactly remember the details but the land route was blocked by some reason.

Ch: No No that’s not possible. They could have found some other route.

Me: Sea route is cheaper and it also facilitates large scale trade.

Ch: Yes. Besides don’t you think it is safer? Taking the land route they would have to come through hostile territories and through bandits and hooligans. But again they face pirates in the sea route.

Me: Yes sir.

Ch: Why did the Europeans land in Kerala?

Me: They were looking for trade in spices, especially pepper.

Ch: Is spices still an important component of your state’s economy?

Me: Yes sir. Spices are still a major component of our exports.

Ch: Why is that Kerala has not been able to diversify from traditional agricultural commodities? Why is Industrial growth not strong in Kerala?

Me: There is a general lethargy within the government and people about inviting capital and setting up an investor friendly climate. We also have a very strong trade unionist culture. It definitely has positives for the society. The wage rates and working conditions are one of the best in India. But various elements have misused it and used it for personal ends at the expense of industrial growth. It was a mindset that was set in the 1970s and 1980s that is still preventing investors from investing in Kerala. But we are definitely changing. We just commissioned the vallarpadam project and signed the agreement for the Smart city project.

Ch: So you think that the situation will change? That the future is bright?

Me: The change is already happening. It has already started sir (smiling).

Ch: Tell me about this smart city.

Me: It is a PPP between the Kerala Govt. and Dubai’s Tecom to set up a Technology park which will provide the necessary infrastructure for software and electronics firms to set up office.

Ch: Where exactly is it?

Me: At Cochin. Kakanad to be exact.

The chairman nodded at the first member. Having taken Physics as an optional, his questions were only on the safety of nuclear power and nuclear reactors.

M1: In the context of the Japanese disaster, do you think we should continue our expansion plans for nuclear energy or should we stop it? How safe is nuclear energy?

Me: Nuclear energy is a dangerous technology and it can never be 100% safe. But nuclear energy is a vital energy source for the future. So stopping it is not an option. But we should put in place better safety and security systems. Even in the Japanese case, the reactors withstood the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami and the reactor stopped working also. But it was the failure of the cooling system due to the damage to the electric grid that led to the current crisis.

M1: So what all should be done?

Me: We already have better safety systems. Our reactors are PHWRs as opposed to the BWRs of Japan which are inherently safer. Besides, the newer reactors have a Passive heat removal system by which air can be used for cooling in the event of failure of active cooling systems. New reactors will also have Hydrogen capture systems to prevent the kind of explosions that occurred at Fukushima.

M1: But still you think it won’t be 100% safe?

Me: Achieving a 100% safety line would be impossible but we should put in place mechanisms and safety systems to take the safety level as near to 100% as possible. Besides the safety guidelines should be placed under an independent regulatory body outside DAE.

M1: Very recently the former chairman of the AEC said that India should not import foreign reactors. Even he is not so sure about the safety of the rectors.

Me: The foreign reactors especially Areva’a EPR 1600 has untested safety features and has been rejected by a number of nations. Also, foreign reactors will have different safety systems and we will have to be experts in each of these. We will also have to depend on foreign know-how to learn their safety features also. But our reactors have been completely designed by us. So we have a better understanding of their dynamics and can better perfect the safety systems for them. Even the former chairman has supported the use of indigenous reactors.

M1: The proposed reactor at Jaitapur is coming up in a seismically active zone. What all measures need to be taken to prevent damage due to earthquakes?

Me: Building standards need to be strictly applied. Earthquake-resistant technology need to be incorporated which building. The effect of this was seen in the recent earthquake in Japan. The 8.9 magnitude quake, which is one of the largest ever killed only 20,000 people while the 7 point magnitude quake in Haiti last year killed more than 2 lakh people.

M1: You said about smart city? What all are the criterion for selecting a place for setting up a project like this?

Me: Connectivity to major city centres, road and rail connectivity, presence of good colleges in the vicinity.

The chairman interrupted asking me whether human element is also a factor that is considered.

Me: Yes sir. Availability of prospective employees is a major factor. If a Keralite is given a choice between a job in Smart city and in Bangalore, he will choose smart city even if the salary is a bit less. Given that about 50,000 engineers pass out from Kerala every year, this will give a competitive edge for the recruiters.

The turn was passed to the second member, a lady member. Her questions were about social issues.

M2 (looking at the summary sheet): You were selected as the ‘Young Scientist’ at the National Children’s Science Congress and you were second in the Regional Mathematical Olympiad. Why have you chosen civil services after coming from a science background like this?

Me: The project that we did for the Science congress has in fact played a very important role in me choosing civil services as a career. It was a social project. It was about the nutritional status of the people in a particular rural area in my district. The project gave me a firsthand exposure to the problems in the rural areas and about the various government departments working on these issues. The results of the project painted a very grim picture about the nutritional status of the people with respect to protein and vitamin deficiency. Besides, my aptitude is in an administrative job. Civil services will offer me the variety and challenges that no other job can give. I chose engineering because of my interest in science and to keep my options open. But civil services have been my dream throughout. It was always there in the back of my mind. That was why I started my preparation at the end of my third year itself.

M2: Suppose you are posted as an SDM in your state. What will you do to improve the nutritional level of the people? Are you aware of any schemes in that regard?

Me: ICDS, PDS, NRHM etc are the schemes for improving the nutritional and health levels of the people. Most of these projects suffer from poor implementation and leakages. For e.g., in ICDS, the anganawadi workers are ill-paid and their responsibilities are quite heavy.  This has led to a lack of morale among them. I will concentrate on proper implementation of such schemes.

M2: But as an SDM you cannot make policy decisions. You can’t give them more salary. What will you do in that context?

Me: I will look for implementation of the schemes with support from the local bodies and community organisations. Involving of Panchayats can also create the political pressure for change.

M2: Kerala is called ‘God’s own country’. In what context is that name used.

Me: It is essentially a tagline coined by the tourism department for promoting tourism in Kerala. But otherwise also, Kerala can be called God’s own country (smiling).

Everyone laughed at this and the chairman interrupted asking me ‘Why is that Gokul?’

Me: The climate is good throughout the year,  people are well educated and friendly, presence of some of the most ecologically diverse areas, greenery all around……

With this, the Third member took charge. He was jovial throughout.

M3: You have taken public administration as an optional. Do you think decentralization through Panchayati raj is good?

Me: Definitely sir.

M3: Then why is it that in spite of being inserted in the constitution, it is not properly implemented in many places?

Me: Although they have been inserted in the constitution by the 73rd and 74th amendment, it is still the prerogative of the state governments to delegate powers to these bodies. In the case of Kerala, most of the powers in the 11th and 12th schedule have been delegated. Besides, 25% of the plan expenditure in budget is passed to the local bodies.

M3: So what should be done in the other states?

Me: People should be politically motivated and should demand more powers. Education can play a very important role in this.

The member said ‘Oh, you Keralite have 100% literacy’ and laughed. Everyone joined with him. I smiled and said 94% according to the provisional census figures

M3: Tourism is affecting our culture. Should we stop tourism due to that?

Me: No sir. We should not close ourselves to anyone. The tour operators act as the interface between the tourists and our people. They should be given training and orientation to properly orient foreign tourists before they land in India. The foreign tourists should be given a basic idea about the culture and society into which they are stepping in.

M3: But shouldn’t masses be educated for this to be effective. (He turned to other members and joked ‘our sanskrithi will become apasanskrithi by then)

Me: A well educated society is definitely good for developing a service industry like tourism. That should be our long term goal. But in the short term, educating the operators will help us develop tourism sustainably.

M3: A DM was recently kidnapped by the Maoists. In such a dangerous environment, do you still want to be an IAS officer?

Me: I heard about Mr. Vineel Krishna for the first time after the incident. All the reports in the newspapers were very positive about his work as a DM. In fact, he was kidnapped when he went to check a development work in a remote area without any protection. The people of his district rallied behind him. So if you are upright and do your work, you will have the support of the people and will be perfectly safe.

M3: So you think if he is honest and upright, nothing bad will happen?

Me: Yes sir.

The turn was passed to the fourth member.

M4: Did you write CAT, GRE or GATE in between?

Me: No sir. I was preparing through my final year and gave the exam right after my final exams.

M4: So you were focused. Tell me the advantages and disadvantages of Mobile communication. Advantages first: Economic advantages:

Me: Better connectivity, ability to make fast economic decisions, buying and selling goods using mobiles, advertising.

M4: Social

Me: People and families are always connected. You can call everyone at any distance at very low rates at any time.

M4: Political

Me: Campaigning, Communicating political ideas and schemes…

M4: Any disadvantages?

When I thought for a while, he said ‘it’s Ok, if you can’t think of any’.

M4: What are the uses of space technology for people?

Me: It has revolutionized communication. Weather satellites like Metsat help us in better prediction. Remote sensing satellites help us in planning. We have recently put in orbit Oceansat which observes the ocean. The information gathered by it is beneficial for the fishermen.

M4: Cyber security is a major issue now. What do you know about it and what is being done by the Indian government?

Me: It is a very dynamic area. It is a constant battle between a large number of hackers and security establishments. We need to keep ourselves updated always. DRDO is developing an operating system for use in govt. systems. The operating systems that we use now are available throughout the world and hence are more prone to hacking. We have set up cyber cells in the major police stations. The CERT-In is the body that is responsible for cyber security at the national level.

M4: Define ethics.

Me: The set of standards that we are supposed to follow in a particular realm.

M4: Can you point out some of those that you are supposed to follow. Was there any committee that made recommendations about ethics?

Me: It was a committee that was appointed in the U.K (couldn’t remember the name of Nolan committee) that gave detailed guidelines regarding ethics in public life.

M4: No Indian committees?

Me: A number of committees to look into corruption have also given similar recommendations.

M4: Can you list out a few of those standards?

Me: Honesty, integrity, leadership by example…

M4: Those are general things. Don’t you have any set of professional ethics as an engineer? Is there any Body that sets such standards?

Me: IEEE sets the standards for us. But I am not aware of any code of ethics.

M4: No Indian bodies? IETE?

Me: Sir, do you mean ISTE?

M4: No, IETE. Ok, tell me the ethics that you are supposed to follow as a communications engineer.

Me: Respect for IPRs, honesty…

M4: Ok.

The chairman took over. The interview was in its last phase.

Ch: Very recently a Bulgarian group was arrested in Delhi for robbery. What does this incident mean for India? Have we become a soft state that people from faraway places are coming for robbery?

Me: It may be a random, off the cuff incident.

Ch: No no. It was a well organized group with a lot of members.

Me: A number of foreign groups are active in a number of nations like the Italian Mafia in USA. As the economy improves…

Ch (interrupting): So you think it is a good thing!!!( and laughed…the members also joined him)

Ch: So Gokul, what will you do after getting out. Tell me the first thing that you will do on exiting this room.

Me:  Sir…..I will be removing my tie (It was a spontaneous reply)

Everyone burst into laughter at this and the chairman asked me whether candidates think they won’t be selected if they came in half sleeves without tie (Every male member in the room wore half sleeves without tie). I started with the usual answer, ‘Sir, this is one of the most important occasions for us. We respect the occasion’ when the chairman joked once again. Then I said, “Sir, frankly candidates tend to be a bit conservative in this regard”

Ch: Ok. Your interview is over. It has been nice talking to you. Thank you.

I thanked the chairman, the lady member and other members and left the room. It was 17.20 by then. The interview went for around 30-35 minutes.

The session felt more like a candid discussion rather than a strict interview. Hoping for the best!!

P.S : I was given 214/300 for this interview 🙂

Google before you Post

 

The image belongs to its owner

Scaremongering messages and status feeds has become the order of the day during times of disaster and tragedies. The latest has been the message spreading through facebook and sms saying that the nuclear reactors in tsunami stricken Japan has given away. Networking makes it easy for such messages to be spread. And more often than not, people accept it without a hesitation. Not all such fake feeds need be harmful though. I also happened to come across a note, supposedly authored by Harsha Bhogle which turned out to be fake. And also a comment attributed to Sachin (supposedly made after the Indian debacle against South Africa), ‘‎ I was still changing out of my sweaty clothes and taking a shower and was shocked to see the whole team back…’ which on googling showed up just ‘social networking sites and blogs and not any credible source by which it can be attributed to Sachin.

While the latter ones make good humour, spreading fake news as in the case of Japan creates a fear psychosis which can be counter productive in times of real need. The most distressing aspect of this phenomenon is that all this can be avoided by the simple act of googling up the relevant data. The fake Japan message had ‘BBC alert‘ in it. That makes very easy to check for authenticity. Copy paste the first few lines of the message and add BBC or go directly to their site (bbc.co.uk) and find out.

While information super highways have truly made the world flat and has made available all the information ever collected by mankind at the tip of our fingers, we seem to be satisfied by the unreferenced messages coming from strangers through the social networking sites.

Remember the last time you were reprimanded by your parent or friend for a careless comment and reminded of the need to ‘Think before you talk’. Well the basic rules remain the same for your online identity also, but with minor differences in the terminology:

So please

GOOGLE BEFORE YOU POST

The Pseudo science

Few pseudo sciences enjoy the kind of popularity and belief as astrology. Although variants of this pseudo science is practiced in many parts of the world, the Indian brand would definitely

Image courtesy the universal press syndicate

outshine its competitors in terms of acceptability. That such a belief system which believes that the fate of a person and his character is determined by the position of celestial bodies at the time of his birth baffles reason. Even naming this brand of superstition as ‘astrology’ with close resemblance to ‘astronomy’ is itself a fraud on science.

From deciding on the compatibility of the bride and the groom to fixing the date to start a journey, from deciding on financial transactions to naming a newly born, it seems all past, present and the future are decided by a few celestial bodies hanging from the sky. Genes? they don’t exist. Which force is used by the bodies to set all these? a mystic force other than the four fundamental forces. BULLSHIT.

What bothers me is not the total absurdity of the subject but how it is accepted by the public including highly educated persons and the high decibel statements made by interest groups that ‘astrology is a science’. Astrology is not only restricted to the hindu community alone. Reliance on it by members of other major communities is also on the increase.

What made me write this post is that i came across a paper prepared by Jayant Narlikar (Founder director of IUCAA) and three others on a simple statistical test on astrology. The full paper is here:

http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/mar102009/641.pdf

Its a basic principle of statistics is that only similar entities should be compared. The team rightly chose to compare whether astrology or tossing a coin has a better statistical chance in correctly predicting a particular event. Yes you guessed the result right. The study found tossing outperformed the sacred science of astrology.

Astrology is not a personal superstition but rather its harm is extended to innocent others also. Marriages cancelled after engagements, financial deals cancelled after finalizing the agreement etc are just a few cases. Giving a scientific look to this superstition was widely pursued by the BJP govt during their 1999-2004 term as a part of their divisive hindutva agenda. They went so far as trying to include ‘Vedic astrology’ in the university syllabus.

Superstitions challenge the foundations of our knowledge base and if let free has the potential to destabilize the basic tenets of our social life. While blind faith and irrational social compulsions will keep the believers hooked to it, various interest groups will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo.

 

 

 

Food, Inc : Warnings for India

Happened to see the academy award nominated documentary Food, Inc today. It was about how corporate farming has replaced traditional agriculture and how it affects both the people and the environment. Together with advocating changes in the system, the documentary calls for transparency to let people know what exactly they are eating. It’s completely about agriculture in the USA. But it definitely has warnings for a developing nation like India which, I feel is slowly heading towards that stage.

Compared to other developing nations and developed ones, agriculture in India is one of the least productive and income generating. We need solid changes in the way we manage the sector if we are to redeem a sector in which 58% of our population depends for sustenance. But rather than looking for strong and solid long-term steps, the shift of approach is ostensibly towards the supposed panacea of market solutions. In the process, a number of changes are happening in the agricultural sector that make the situation described in the documentary quite possible in the near future. Although the changes are very small when compared to the scale of agriculture in India, one should not miss the warning signs which clearly shows a shift towards corporate farming.

1.GM crops: Nothing in the field of agriculture has been more controversial than the introduction of GM crops. Traditional cotton breeds have been completely replaced by Bt cotton. Today India has the fourth largest area under GM crops. One may not have forgotten the sheer callous way in which the govt gave approval for Bt Brinjal. If it was not for the organised protest of farmers and civil society and the commitment of an environment minister to move from the ‘rubber stamp’ image of the ministry, we would have seen the introduction of the first GM food crop in the nation without any on field trials, studies on the effects of humans, other crops and cattle (brinjal is used as fodder) and without any laws on labeling GM crops (so that people can know they are purchasing GM crops). Besides all such environmental and ecological concerns, both the crops are patented by Monsanto. As these crops are hybrids, seeds will not germinate and farmers will have to buy new seeds for every season from the company. As it has happened in the developed world and shown in the documentary, this would lead to a complete dependence on a few seed companies.

2. FDI in multi brand retail: This has been branded as the next big thing in India. The market retail business is estimated to be $400 billion annually. More than 30 million people depend on this sector for existence. Although the debate on this issue is a very old one, the ministry of corporate affairs has recently circulated a note to other ministries calling for a fresh debate on the issue. Experience in other nations suggest that although in the initial phases, the opening up facilitated good competition, removed inefficiencies and middle men and created value for both farmers and customers, gradually consolidation occurred leading to dominance by a few majors like Wal-mart, Carrefour etc. This meant that the competition that offered choice for farmers was no longer present and they were left with only two choices: either sell it to the corporate in terms set by them or let his produce rot. This micro control by corporates on farming issues is also discussed in the beginning of the documentary.

3. Changing pattern of agricultural loans: Lack of credit through proper channels is another problem that our agricultural sector faces. But inspite of this, P. Sainath notes that agricultural loans ranging between Rs. 10-25 crores is on the rise. These are not loans given to the ‘marginal’ (defined as one with agricultural land between .01-2.5 hectres) farmers who form 80% of our farmers but to big corporates for warehouses and corporate farming.

The need to feed one of the largest population in the world and the prospective increase in the size and nature of the demand as our economy grows is mooted as the justification for all these changes. But have we reached a stage in which the only way forward is the highly subsidized, unsustainable, harmful and intensive farming as followed in the developed nations. The answer i feel is ‘Not yet’ (and very much avoidable). The reasons are:

1. Famines and hunger in India is more a result of mismanagement of food rather than lack of availability. As the supreme court had noted, food rot in our godowns even as people die of hunger. The surplues grains stored in FCI godownsis more than 65 million tonnes. This can feed almost 50% of our population for a year. An effective way to distribute this to the poor through a leakproof PDS can go a long way in addressing our shortage.

2. We lead the world in lack of productivity. The productivity per hectre for almost all major crops other than rubber is way below global average. Fresh investment in agriculture has been abysmally low since the 1980s. The 2010 budget allocated just Rs.12,ooo crore to the sector. Improvements in the fundamentals like irrigation, dissemination of proper knowledge etc can greatly improve productivity.

The documentary shows the real side of agriculture and food market in the developed world. It should act as a strong warning for us to know what to avoid as we continue on the high growth path and join the leading economies in the world. And as most of the important, long term changes are often pushed through by the governments without meaningful debates and public discussions, it is important that we keep our eyes and ears open and keep our legislators accountable for changes in this most vital sector.

Brilliant Tutorial for civil services: desperately out of focus

People coming from science and engineering background tend to go for Brilliant tutorial material for preparation for civil services due to their familiarity with the same during their preps for entrance exams. Ready reviews about the material is not available in the internet. This is my experience from using their material for my preparation for prelims and mains of CSE-2010.

Science optionals: I had physics as my first optional. The preparation for any optional should be ideally from a mains point of view. Besides, you need to master all the topics for the science optional due to scaling and the ‘almost digital’ marking scheme. Thats were the problem starts with BT material.

1. Not all topics are covered ( This cannot be afforded as each question in the paper will consist of 3 separate questions in a 20×3 format. If you don’t know one sub-question, you can’t completely attempt the question) . I found often repeated topics like Rayleigh scattering, Difference between conductors and insulators by quantum method skipped.

2. The approach for a lot of questions is not the standard one and wont fetch you 20 marks if you attempt.

3. Concepts are not properly defined in the beginning of a proof. Besides, they skip a number of steps in between and bring in unknown concepts without introducing. This is fatal as it will hamper one ability to study and remember the derivations. Conceptual clarity is given good weight during evaluation. One will end up writing bad answers.

4. Glaring mistakes in many solutions.

5. The change in syllabus has not been incorporated. The result: a lot of crap.

The only good thing that BT material gives you is that, appended to every chapter is a question bank of all previous questions from 1990. This is very important in knowing the pattern of questions and to fine tune ones understanding. Although the question papers are available at examrace.com, in the early periods of your preparation, the solved set can be a real boon.

I was studying optics from BT material, found it hard to continue and then found out the wonderful book by Ajoy Ghatak. I studied Electricity and Magnetism from their material, then had to relearn the chapter from textbooks after failing to answer questions asked from the chapter in the previous years.

So what is to be done? Use standard text books alone. Supreet Singh Gulati has written a good writeup on the textbooks in his blog.

Non-science subjects: The material for all non-science optional and GS is a big time mess.  The material is completely out of focus and it’s really hard reading through it both for the lack of conceptual clarity and the low quality print. The material is filled with copy-paste kind of material from all possible sources which has no relevance for the exams. They have science section for GS which deals has given the topics studied in plus 2 like thermodynamic, scientific names of all possible organisms and what not. All the model answers given at the end are just general comments which beats around the bush. A conceptual flow and connectivity that’s vital for subject like PubAd is hopelessly absent.

Concluding, if you have a science optional, the question bank can be useful but that doesnt justify the 15,000 rupees one has to pay. But if you are not taking a science optional, subscribing for BT is throwing your 15K down the drain…

 

Andamans : The emerald Islands

The last family tour that we had was to the foot of the breathtaking Himalayas in Manali in the summer of 2008. My preparations for the civil services exams meant that we didn’t get time for planning another after that. We decided to plan for a getaway right after my mains. As it would be December, North India was out of the choice. Finally we decided to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Planning the tour:

We had done all the hotel bookings and had completely planned the tour through Andaman Holidays, a tour agency i found in the internet.  As various ferries have to be booked for the journey to the other islands, it is advisable to book everything in advance through one of the many tour agencies based in Port Blair.

The Islands have a very interesting and an action filled history. A good idea about the island parallel histories, one starting when the first wave of humans moved out of Africa and the other starting with Lt. Blair of the British Navy surveying the island for setting up a penal settlement will enrich the experience of visiting this place. I found this book very helpful and informative in that regard. Our Plan was to base ourselves in Port Blair and visit small islands around it and one other major island for an over night stay. We chose havelock island to be our second destination.

Getting there :

Andaman is connected by sea and air to Chennai and Kolkata only. Both cities are almost equidistant from Port Blair. The sea journey would take around three days. No luxury ships are available and one has to book for cabins in one of the passenger ships catering to the needs of the local population. We had made a similar journey during our trip to Lakshadweep. The cabins were comparable to the coupe in railway coaches and the bathroom was so narrow that it was an ordeal doing your daily routines. Besides, three days would both bore and tire you. So we decided to go by air.

We started on 10th night from palakkad and reached Chennai station on the 11th morning. Forget about freshening up in Chennai central as there is only a small waiting room and a few bathrooms catering to one of the busiest station in India.  You can get volvo buses right at the front of the station. The plight of the bathrooms in the domestic departure terminal in Chennai International airport is also pathetic due to the construction work going on. Hope it will be solved once the construction work ends.

The flight just 2 hours and the Kingfisher flight was both economic and pleasant. As one approaches Port Blair, you can see the beautiful islands as emerald spots on the blue sea. Only a few island are inhabited. Beside, 80% of the land area is under forest cover. So the view is truly breathtaking. Try to get window seats in the flight. We were welcomed by a sudden burst of rain as we stepped out of the flight at the Port Blair airport. Though December is infact the best time to visit the islands and is the peak tourist season, the rains were totally out of schedule this year. The sudden rain did cast a shadow on our plans.

Port Blair

Being volcanic in origin, the topography is more like what you see in a hill station. Its more like you are on the top of a submerged mountain. One can do a few shopping. There are shops run by govt. cooperatives. Try to buy from those. A few museums run by various govt agencies gives you an idea about the marine life and the history of the islands.

The first image that comes to the mind of any Indian when thinking about Andamans is the Cellular jail. The imposing structure, standing on the highest point in the island has become the symbol of the resilience of our national movement. The ASI has done a commendable job in preserving the structure as such. One can still feel the chill of the pain borne by the political internees when walking through the corridors of the jail.

Havelock Island

The next stop for us was the Havelock island which was about 50 kms away from Port Blair. There is a govt operated ferry connecting the two islands. But we chose to go by the private ferry MV Makruzz which was faster and more comfortable.

Havelock is a tourist island and is one of the favourite destination of foreign tourist. Being so, everything from the average biriyani to room rent in hotels is costlier than in Port Blair. The stay in Havelock was undoubtedly the best part of the tour. We stayed at the Barefoot resorts. The rates were quite high we went as the season was beginning, but it gives good value if one goes during off-season.

The location of the resort could not have been better. Its located at the beautiful Radhanagar beach. The beach itself is a very long one and only the tourists come to one end of the beach. The resort is towards the other end. So its essentially like a private beach. You can have the whole beach almost for yourself. The beach is bordered by thick lining of trees. The resort is carefully huddled within these trees. The cottages were built with local wood but was highly luxurious. All parts of the resort was connected by stone payments alone and once darkness falls, you are guided only by the small torch kept inside the rooms. We got up early the next day and made it to the beach to find ourselves to be the only living souls in one of the most beautiful beach i have ever been to. I feel that alone justified the otherwise exorbitant rates charged by the resort.  We were bewildered to find the whole beach dotted by small clusters  of sand balls forming amazing patterns. It was as if the sea goddess had created ‘kolam’ with sand or martians had visited the beach in the night and left their ‘signs’. But the sight of the small crab-lings crawling out of the tiny holes at the middle of each pattern brought me back to reality. The pattern was created by thousands of crabs hatching.

Ross Island

Our next destination was the abandoned British capital of the islands, Ross Island. It is just 40 minutes away from Port Blair in normal ferry. The island was the administrative capital and the military HQ of the islands until the Japanese occupation in 1942. The island and its structures were heavily damaged by allied bombings during Japanese occupation. Although British forces reoccupied the islands after the surrender of Japan in WWII, the Island never regained its lost glory. Following independence, the new Indian administration shifted the capital to Port Blair.

The Ross island is today under the authority of the Indian navy. Navy divers competed with the ferries in crossing the channel. A portion of the island is cordoned off as naval area. The island is well maintained and a winding pavement connected all structures. The british structures have not been restored and is in a highly dilapidated situation. There was very little to be restores after the incessant bombing by the allied forces. Huge trees have grown on the walls and one wonders how long the walls would stand. There is a very small cafeteria in the middle of Ross. That was by far the smallest restaurant that we found offering lobster. So we ordered two for lunch. There is a small beach on side of the island. But it has been rendered unfit for swimming by the 2006 Tsunami.

Andaman lies at around 92 degree longitude but the time followed is IST measured at 82 degrees. Hence the day in the islands in between 5.30 in the morning and 5.30 in the evening. So dont jump out of the bed seeing the suns rays coming in through the windows. It might still be too early in the morning. Also prepare for pitch black by 5.30 pm and plan accordingly. As I noted in the beginning, Andamas is a must visit place both for its beauty and its unique identity and place in our history. The roads and tourist centres were well-kept and the people were nice. I rate the emerald islands as the third most beautiful place i have been to after Lakshadweep and Manali

The Miracle of Calcutta

Kolkata saw the worst of the communal riots before 1947 including the one on August 16, 1946, the infamous direct action day called by the Muslim League which sealed the fate on a united India. So when the date for the costliest amputation in the history of mankind was nearing, leaders feared that the flames of communal riots in Bengal would tear India apart. But Mountbatten didnt have forces to spare for Kolkata.
The whole of the Frontier force was deployed in Punjab and NWFA. When the Radcliffe line was announced, the relatively peaceful Punjab which hadnt seen any major communal clashes in the past went up in flames. As the Frontier force watched helplessly, around half a million were butchered. But Kolkata remained peaceful. Initial bursts of violence quickly died out. It was a one man army….a frail, half naked man in his late 70s, achieved through prayer meetings what battalions of armed soldiers couldn’t…..
Its said that its difficult to control a group a people, but when it becomes a mob its almost impossible. Gandhiji didnt give any elaborate talks or offer any rewards….He went into self penance of fasting and called prayer meetings. Acts as simple as that could change the mind of a murderous mob and caused them to go back. An incident of this scale would have never occurred in the history of mankind.
This might have been one of the many incidents that prompted Einstein to say, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

Yes…The world is flat

Our mother earth is believed to be 4.5 billion years old. Throughout her life, her texture, composition, size etc have changed a lot. But it more or less remained spherical. Some call it lemon shaped, some others egg shaped and like that. It essentially implied that we never could look beyond the horizon. Some people tried getting onto the tallest building to see the bigger picture. Some others took to the sky. They saw far more then what their fellow mates standing below saw.

Then suddenly a few years back, people started laying pathways of light underneath oceans and between continents. Continent building forces are slow and takes millions of years to make appreciable changes. But as earth was encircled again and again by the pathways of light, something extraordinary happened:

The world became flat

It was a few days back that i thought of how much the internet has become a part of our life. More than anything else, it has opened the world of information to everyone. Everyone connected to the net became simultaneously the source and target of information. No single person can no longer hold the magic key to control access to information. And the result: we are more empowered than ever before. I am quite sure that this picture of the world would have never been in Tim Berners Lee’s mind when he proposed the idea of hypertext to connect a few researchers trying to accelerate ‘not to be seen’ particles to ‘never before achieved speeds’

A long wait and then…cleared my first hurdle

The results of the prelims was supposed to come by the end of the first week of  august. But it just kept on getting postponed. When upsc conducts an examination, unlike our entrance exams, no date will be published beforehand and you guess on the dates based on previous years’ results and other facts like time for mains, time before the foundation course of previous year starts etc. And you will know they havent put up the results after refreshing the upsc site a 100 times between 5 and 6 in the evening.

And finally it came on the 19th by 6 pm. And the very next moment the site hung up. But i had got the link to the actual result page by searching in google. The link remains same every year and they only update its contents. I accessed with that and entered my roll number. Although i was pretty much confident of clearing the prelims, my heart was obviously beating faster then. After all its a competitive exam, anything can happen and then…..

Congrats…..your roll number figures in the list of successful candidates

And thus i have cleared civil service prelims in my very first attempt. Although i feel that i can take a break tomorrow, i cannot afford to be complacent or lower my concentration. As the marks doesnt carry over to the mains, prelims is nothing but a necessary evil. You make or break in the mains exam. Even interview can only supplement your performance in mains as mains carry 2000 out of the 2300 marks.

My prelims physics paper was the best objective paper i had ever written. Could attempt 117 out of 120. But mains is an entirely different ball game. With scaling that happens with science subjects to make them on par with humanities subjects, one has to score quite high indeed. I should revise again and again to reproduce the answers within the stipulated time. The next three months could very well turn out to be the most important 3 months of my life. Lets see where life takes me.

P.S: For the past two months i didnt have much to say when people asked me : ok gokul, what u doing now??…..now i could atleast say ‘i cleared prelims and am preparing for the mains’