Editorials March

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Language of merit

Widespread criticism of the changes notified recently by the Union Public Service Commission involving the language component in the Civil Services examination has forced the Union government to put those plans on hold pending review. The “language bias” allegation that has been made by almost all the detractors is centred on the perception that English has been given a more prominent place in the scheme of things compared to regional languages, including Hindi. Some of them point out that a paper that carries 100 marks in English comprehension and précis will now affect the merit ranking of candidates where earlier her or his facility in English was tested only at the qualifying stage. This, it is argued, favours urban, English-medium educated candidates, at the cost of those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. Other controversial changes, though predictably less of a red rag for our usual English-baiters, involve the subtle downgrading of India’s regional languages in the UPSC exam. For example, students who study in any language other than English or Hindi will no longer be able to write a crucial paper in that language unless their undergraduate degree also happened to be in that medium of instruction.

The thrust since Independence has been on giving the Indian Administrative Service and allied cadres the stamp of an inclusive and representative stream, effacing the elitism that was the predominant feature of the Indian Civil Service that preceded it. It is this rationale that led to a selection process where candidates belonging to poorer and deprived classes or from hitherto under-represented regions are also able to make their mark. This approach is crucial to ensuring that officers who lead the bureaucracy have the right orientation to give primacy to the principles of equity in decision-making. Any debate that posits the “language bias” argument to downplay the need for verbal and written fluency in English is fraught with danger. In today’s India, administrators have to be able to communicate effectively in English. To that extent, the UPSC exam must ensure that a successful candidate has a minimum level of proficiency in the language. That said, using English as a merit-ranking device may not produce an optimum outcome. While candidates who study in English-medium schools are likely to know the language better than others, there is no reason to assume their overall knowledge base or skill set is better than those who have studied in other languages. Allowing candidates to answer a common set of questions in the language they are most comfortable in is the best way to assess their suitability. Of course, the post-entrance training process can and must be used to improve standards of English.

India’s continuing shame

There could not have been a more naked admission of the government’s all-round failure. A new law is already in the making to replace the 1993 Act to prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines. The current law was conceived erroneously and solely as a corrective to a public health and sanitation problem, rather than as a guarantee of justice, equality and a life of dignity for persons employed as manual scavengers. Ironically, there is little evidence on the ground of any improvement in public hygiene and sanitation standards. Almost the entire two decades since the 1993 law has been spent in fulfilling a procedural prerequisite. As the legislation was enacted under the Constitution’s State List, the same had to be separately adopted and enforced by various State governments. Then, the 2011 decennial population census findings that there are as many as 2.6 million insanitary latrines in the country met with stout official denials. Some governments even filed affidavits in the Supreme Court to the effect that there were neither manual scavengers nor dry latrines in their States, without disclosing details about any survey they had carried out to back their claim.

The relevant Standing Committee has just laid its report on the bill before both Houses of Parliament. The new bill addresses manual scavenging under Entry 24 (welfare of labour and working conditions) of the Concurrent List. While this may be an improvement over the current law, the real point is to recognise this debasingly inhuman and iniquitous practice as such. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment must incorporate this all-important modification to show genuine commitment to restore basic dignity to persons employed as manual scavengers. Significantly, the bill stipulates a prohibition on the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The Indian Railways, the largest single employer of this country, has helped perpetuate this caste-ordained practice for decades. They should also bear the bulk of the blame for contributing to the insanitary state of stations and tracks. Handling some 8.4 billion trips per annum and adding about 3000 coaches, it should not be beyond its capacity to equip trains with systems to manage faecal waste. A sustained campaign by grassroots movements, including public interest litigation, has sought to combat this grotesque form of violation of basic human rights but it has been an uphill battle because of official apathy. The time to end this callousness is now.

Antarctica concerns grow as tourism numbers rise

Across most of Earth, a tourist attraction that sees 35,000 visitors a year can safely be labelled sleepy. But when it’s Antarctica, every footstep matters.

Tourism is rebounding here five years after the financial crisis stifled what had been a burgeoning industry. And it’s not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in “adventure tourism” like skydiving and scuba diving under the ever-sunlit skies of a Southern Hemisphere summer.

In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, that tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be an exceptionally long way off. The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done. An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and neither of those is yet in force. It’s not just the numbers of tourists but the activities that are changing, said Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions, who has been part of a delegation representing New Zealand in some Antarctic Treaty discussions. “What used to be Antarctic tourism in the late 1980s through the 1990s was generally people of middle age or older going on cruises and small ships where they went ashore at a few locations and they looked at wildlife, historic sites and maybe visited one current station,” he said. “But there’s an increasing diversification of the activities now so it’s much more action orientated. Now people want to go paragliding, waterskiing, diving or a variety of other things.”

Visitors can also skydive over the frigid landscape, and London-based Henry Cookson Adventures took two and three-man submarines to Antarctica in the latest summer.

There are fears that habitat will be trampled, that tourists will introduce exotic species or microbes or will transfer native flora and fauna to parts of the continent where they never before existed. A major worry is that a large cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers will run into trouble in these ice-clogged, storm-prone and poorly charted waters, creating an environmentally disastrous oil spill and a humanitarian crisis for the sparsely resourced Antarctic research stations and distant nations to respond to. The United States has been criticised on environmental grounds for building a 1,600-kilometre (995-mile) ice road from McMurdo Station to the South Pole on which tractors drag fuel and supplies on sleds. The road provides a more reliable alternative to frequently grounded air services. — AP

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