A New Hope Of Life For Our Ailing Education System

A New Hope Of Life For Our Ailing Education System
- Shobha Shukla

It is heartening to note that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), under the able guidance of Sri. Kapil Sibal, wishes to overhaul the education system in the country. It envisages replacing marks with grades (already been done by some Boards), having a ‘one nation -one board principle (an excellent idea), and bringing a tough law to prevent, prohibit and punish educational malpractices (very laudable, indeed).

So the air is seeded with well intentioned reform clouds getting ready to burst upon our sick education system. Whether they will infuse the much needed new life to it, or drown it, is what we need to ponder on. Very often, the erudite reformers take a blinkered view of the scenario, while sitting in their ivory towers. So it is important to initiate a nation wide debate on this issue, inviting not only heads of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and higher institutes of learning, but persons at the grass roots’ level too, that is the teachers and parents and students from different strata of society, who will be the direct beneficiaries or losers in the process of revamp. A mere scrapping of the class X board exam or introducing the grade system would mean poor cosmetic changes, without addressing the more vital problems.

Reforms need to begin at the lowest rung of ladder, viz. the primary level. It is at this stage that the child needs to be free from stress and the monster that a teacher/school is made out to be. With an increasing number of women joining the work force, the utility of play schools cannot be denied. But unfortunately, despite their mushrooming number, they are in the unorganized sector, with hardly any standards of quality control. The Honourable Minister would do well to strike at the grass roots, so that play schools do not become a mere extension of the ‘learning by rote’ system. It is here (and later in the primary classes) that the child can be introduced to environment protection, good hygiene habits, healthy food habits and communing with nature, in a very subtle manner, without the use of the written word. This becomes all the more important as parents find less quality time to spend with their kids. Corporate houses and government offices would do well to have such a ‘home away from home’ on their premises. This is one of the best ways to discharge their social accountability duties.

The primary level stage is the next one which is again largely into private hands. Education, for them, is big business, at least in the urban areas. Almost every other house in any locality has a board proclaiming to offer the best facilities (through English Medium) to a four year old child in the form of ‘computer education’, general knowledge etc. Very few boast of any sort of a play field. People, from even the lower middle class families, send their children to these schools, where they virtually learn nothing, by way of the three ‘R’s, even on reaching class V.

The situation could be slightly better in the missionary and public schools, the latter charging hefty fees. Computer is the buzzword these days. Parents do not seem to be interested in letting their child enjoy a carefree and happy childhood. Instead they want them to be store houses of crammed facts and figures. It is at the primary level that we can inculcate good moral and social values in the child as also a love and respect for nature and fellow human beings. Some schools score very high on this, but they are few and far between. One of my relative’s daughter studies in class three in a reputed Parsi school of Mumbai . At this young age she sees to it that there is no wastage of water/electricity in her house and that garbage is reutilized as far as possible. She is totally against junk food and aerated drinks. And she has effortlessly imbibed all these values from her school, which have now become part of her psyche. At this tender age, it is easy to mould the young characters as they look up to their teachers and try their best to emulate them. If they are made environmentally conscience at this stage, there will be no need to ‘Study’ Environmental Education as a subject in higher classes (so many of us are up in arms against this additional burden of having to memorize another subject with no tangible benefits). And please, let us not replace the play ground with the computer lab. The irreparable harms of this are already there for all of us to see.

Surely till class V there should be no exams. This is the time to arouse the curiosity and hone the natural talents of the child. Interests in fine arts like music, dance, painting (so very important and so much neglected) will help to ignite their imagination, encourage their creativity, and groom them for a well balanced personality. There is much more (and better) to life at this stage than being adept at handling the computer and reciting dialogues from television programmes of the cartoon network. Reading (apart from textbooks) is another habit which has taken a backstage, thanks to the absurd notion that ‘any activity which doesn’t fetch high marks is a waste of time.’ The intangible benefits of a love for reading are far too many and stand by us life long.

With the number of obese children on the rise, it is also important to emphasize on healthy eating habits and physical exercises and a love for nature. And I can say with certainty that all this is very much possible, if we have the will to do so.

Of course, we need specialized educators at the primary level to ensure a proper and balanced development of the child. It should be mandatory for schools to have play fields, airy class rooms with not more than 30 children to a teacher, compulsory yoga, and music and painting activities under competent teachers. The number of schools following these practices is abysmally small. If all schools follow these basic stipulations then parents would not seek specialized coaching of their child, from private tutors, to succeed at the interview for admission to nursery class in a school of their choice. It may seem grotesquely absurd, but such tuitions are immensely popular in urban areas.

The menace of ‘coaching institutes’ is another area, which needs immediate attention. If it is stopped, the students will be able to manage their time better and be de stressed. Gone are the days when taking private tuitions was a sign of the student’s incompetence. There is big money in coaching these days and nowadays it seems to be a matter of prestige, rather than necessity, to join one. Parents feel it is part of their parental duty to send their ward for private tuitions, right from Class I to Class XII, whether there is actual need of it or not. Obviously the child will be stressed due to paucity of time, having to manage ‘two study shifts’.

Several of my class 12 students admitted that they joined some coaching centre more out of peer/parental pressure. But once the heavy fees were paid they kept on wasting their time without improving their education levels at all. Incidentally, most of such students fare poorly at their Board Exams and also fail to qualify for a good professional institute. They would do much better if left to themselves, provided their teachers in school are sincere. Some state governments have tried, (but failed), to uproot this menace in the past. But the education/coaching mafia has such strong tentacles that nothing short of a strong diktat can deter them. This is one field where the HRD ministry needs to do some thing drastic.

At the middle school and secondary/higher secondary level again, it is a good idea to have a uniform pattern of education throughout the country, with some lee way given for regional modifications. But there should be just one examining body/board for the class XII level examinations. It will not make much of a difference if the class X board examination is scrapped, or the marks are replaced by a grade point system. The gradation in marking will and must remain. It is only the allotted marks that are changed to grades and some examining bodies are doing it already. But it does not make much sense to make the class X board examination optional. Either it should be there or not there. Else it will create more traumatic discrimination in the students.

What is more important is to revamp the examination system. At present it seems to be more of a farcical comedy than a serious exercise. There is an absurd emphasis, right from school authorities, to parents and students to get high marks. So much so that the latter are encouraged to cheat and score well by hook or by crook. The undeserving students stand to gain, at every step of the process. These days the teacher is always held responsible /accountable for good results, but rarely for the good conduct of her pupils. Many school managements encourage students to cheat, (particularly in the practical examinations), use unfair means and score high marks. Students obviously are no longer ashamed to cheat. They feel rather proud at having hoodwinked the authorities. There are numerous cases where parents have withdrawn their child from a particular school (after Class X) as the management did not guarantee to her full marks in Class XII Practical examinations. They preferred to send their ward to one which delivered these goods. So much for the moral character of the so called ‘character builders’.

But my contention is – why have such a system which encourage one to cheat and get away with it with impunity.

At present, every Board is trying to outdo the other by way of giving high marks (by diluting the marking scheme), and not by way of imparting quality education. We have students getting 100% marks in subjects like English, Hindi and Economics. Yet their knowledge of the subject is abysmally poor. The system of conducting practical exams in the Science subjects is fraught with aberrations and needs to be seriously revamped.

Exams should not be an ordeal, but make students capable of tackling pressures of life, without getting affected psychologically. Stress is an over hyped and fashionable word these days. The media has contributed to this stress factor in a big way, by making much ado about nothing. It is ridiculous to see students being interviewed before and after taking the Board Exams. It is pathetically amusing to see parents (particularly fathers) discussing the entire question paper with their ward as soon as she/he comes out of the examination hall. What is worse is the anguish and discomfort writ large on the face of the child at this ‘childish’ behaviour of the parent. I have witnessed such scenes very often during the course of my invigilation duties for Class XII examinations. It is such irresponsible behavorial attitudes which increase the stress levels of the students and not the actual exams

Some stress is necessary for all of us. Human beings are generally said to perform better under stress. Too much of dilution will make life insipid and unpalatable, in the same way as over stress will crush it completely. It is more important to impart life skills to our students. We should neither molly coddle nor suppress them. They have to be made competent enough to face the challenges of life; not to be deterred by failures; to accept success with grace and not brashness. They should not feel happy in walking with the crutches of their parents’ power/position. Rather they have to learn to earn their place in society by rightful means.

All this cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the teachers. There needs to be more accountability and better compensation in the teaching profession. It is only the government schools which implement fully any pay scale revisions for teachers. Yet they are notorious for under performance. Private schools (including missionary schools) maintain better standards, but their teachers are grossly underpaid, especially those teaching the higher classes. They always cite paucity of funds as a major problem. The HRD Ministry would do a yeoman’s service if it applies the ‘equal pay for equal work’ policy and makes a sincere effort to remove these discriminatory anomalies. Of course, higher financial benefits will have to be matched with better performances on part of the teacher community. They will also have to utilize their expertise and energy for teaching in class and not in coaching centres.

It is true that achieving this (or even some part of it) involves getting across many hurdles—political as well as logistic. Already there are loud voices of disagreement coming from some states. But instead of being carried away by populist measures, the ‘powers that be’ should don their thinking caps to figure out how to make it happen. A sensible education policy is in the interest of the students, parents and teachers-- in fact the entire nation.

Shobha Shukla

(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

Drug users demand dignity, participation and evidence based policies

June 26: International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking

Drug users demand dignity, participation and evidence based policies

On the international day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking, drug users gathered outside Shastri Bhavan (New Delhi, India), to reject “sham” programmes for addiction and demand meaningful involvement in policies. Protesting torture and cruelty in de-addiction centres, drug users called upon the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, to “clean up” drug treatment and introduce evidence based services in consultation with persons who use drugs.

In his message on June 26th last year, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had called on Member States to ensure access to health and social services for people struggling with addiction and that no one is stigmatized or discriminated against because of their dependence on drugs. This message seems to have been forgotten. We are here to remind various agencies of their responsibility towards persons who are dependent on drugs” said R.K Raju, President of the Drug User Forum and convenor of the protest.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), drug dependence is a chronic medical condition that requires multi-disciplinary and comprehensive services. Drug treatment in India , is however, provided by some agencies utilizing unproven, outmoded and unscientific modalities. “Opioid dependent patients must have the benefit of Methadone and Buprenorphine, medicines that are on WHO’s list of essential drugs. It is time to promote and ensure wider access to drug substitution therapy, which reduces HIV and other blood borne infections related to injecting, lessens illicit drug use and improves health” recommends Dr. M. Suresh Kumar, a Chennai based psychiatrist who has been treating drug dependence for over twenty years. Presently, services for drug dependence are offered through:

* Government hospitals that provide inpatient and outpatient care, mostly detoxification. Barring premier centres like the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre of AIIMS in New Delhi , most of the government clinics do not offer opiate substitution.

* NGOs, who receive grants from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to run de-addiction centres that house addicts for 15 to 20 days. NGOs impart awareness and counseling but do not always follow clinical methods to treat addiction.

* Private centres that operate without registration or government approval. Such centres charge anything between Rs 3,000 to 7,000, from addicts’ or their families. There is no professional assistance; instead inmates are ‘punished’ for addiction. No government department monitors these clinics, which violate norms with impunity.

Of the above, the third category is the most dangerous. Recollecting horrific memories of his stay at a private de-addiction centre in Delhi , Anil said -“Forty of us were locked up in a dingy basement. One boy fell sick with cholera because of the dirty water we were made to drink. The owner allowed us to eat only 3 thin rotis a day, if some one asked for more, he was tied up and thrashed. Our heads were shaved off. We were treated like animals…worse than animals...”

“Many drug users have died in these centres, because of physical torture and/or lack of timely medical attention” complained Tripti Tandon of the Lawyers Collective, an NGO that advocates for rights of people dependent on drugs. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act tasks the government with setting up treatment facilities, but this responsibility has largely been ignored. “Schemes of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment are not binding on private centres. There is an urgent need to regulate treatment and protect the health and safety of drug users” urged Tandon.

Another grouse was the non-involvement of drug users in policies that affect them. “Community participation is essential for widening the reach of programmes. The Ministry has ignored us far too long. This must change.” – demanded Raju, flagging the banner of nothing about us, without us. Earlier in the day, more than 40 international groups and experts worldwide issued a call to action that presses governments to adopt a humane approach to drug policy and enact measures based on scientific and medical research.

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Prop Up The Failing Health Of Women

Prop Up The Failing Health Of Women
Sarika Tripathi, MPH

Despite launching new maternal health policies regularly, the Uttar Pradesh government has failed to combat malnutrition in its female population. In November 2008, a novel scheme called ‘Saloni Swasth Kishori Yojna’ was launched with great fanfare. It aimed to break the cycle of malnutrition among women, but seems to have failed just within six months of its inception.

Under this scheme a health check- up of adolescent girls, in eight schools of each block, was to be conducted once every six months. Besides, it had the provision of weekly Iron Folic Acid supplementation and half yearly distribution of de worming tablets. But, due to an inefficient health system and lack of will in its implementation, even half of the set targets in the first phase could not be met. This has been revealed in the report of the state Health Department. The main reasons for this could be the lack of any formal training in the personnel involved with the scheme, and also the absence of proper monitoring. The second phase of the scheme was to be launched in April/ May of this year, but due to some reasons it has not begun as yet.

The scheme is of special importance for a state like Uttar Pradesh, where maternal mortality rates and anemia prevalence are very high. The health of adolescent girls is of prime importance, as malnourishment in this age becomes one of the major causes of complicated pregnancies in later years. This leads to a vicious cycle in which the health of women suffers from generation to generation. It is this target group which, with proper intervention, can break the cycle of malnutrition and anemia among women.

It has been seen that women having low haemoglobin levels are at a high risk of losing their life at the time of child birth. Any mild bleeding during delivery can endanger the mother’s life. Even if she survives, successive pregnancies deteriorate her condition still more. Anemic women often give birth to malnourished babies, putting a question mark on child survival. Low birth weight babies, premature deliveries, intra uterine deaths are some of the consequences of anemia in pregnant women. Even if the child comes to this world despite these adversities, it is likely to suffer from various physical and mental disabilities, the degree of which may vary from mild to severe. Later on this child is likely to transfer the heritage of ill health to her progeny. So, if preventive and corrective steps are taken at the early stage of development, this vicious cycle of malnutrition can be broken, as only a healthy mother can give birth to a healthy baby, thus contributing to a healthy society.

Rigorous efforts, on the part of the government, are required to learn a lesson from the failure of the first phase of its laudable scheme. Instead of launching another scheme with the same objective, it would be better to re-launch the same scheme but this time with double enthusiasm, better planning and effective implementation.

Sarika Tripathi, MPH

The author is a Correspondent of Citizen News Service (CNS), who did her post-graduation in Public Health Management from Lucknow University in India. She can be contacted at sarikasarika_49@rediffmail.com

Jabalpur High Court begins hearing on issues related to Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar canal

Jabalpur High Court begins hearing on issues related to Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar canal


In a significant development in the long-drawn struggle of lakhs of farmers and adivasis whose lands are regularly acquired for the canals across the country without adequate rehabilitation and prior consultation, the Jabalpur High Court, by issuing notices to various central and state authorities, in a way, recognized, that the cause of 'canal-affected' also needs to be pursued further and tested on constitutional, environmental and rehabilitation planks.

The issue is indeed one of great 'urgency', since the fertile black cotton soil lands of farmers and the landless; thier source of livelihood is being acquired overnight for the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar canals by side-stepping the legally binding consent-consultation process of the Gram Sabhas and imposing 'urgency clause' to acquire lands, denying even the right to raise objections.

While on the one hand the struggle of the reservoir-affected by these two large
dams is still on for fair and just rehabilitation, the canal work is going on at break neck speed not just violating all environmental pre-conditions and without complying with the rehabilitation policy and due legal process, but also without finishing the command area and rehabilitation plans and tasks
which had to be completed by 1994!

It is also to be noted that those whose lands are acquired for the canals are many times more than those affected by the reservoir and yet all those who are losing more than 25% of the land are neither recognized as even 'project affected' nor is the benefit of the rehabilitation policy of giving 5 acres of cultivable, irrigable land extended to them, even as the 300 feet wide main
canal and numerous branch canals and minor canals are being built without the mandatory and pre-conditional command area plans in place, let alone execution.

With the huge pits dug and broken roads unattended, the construction of canals
is surely to create havoc this monsoon. The manner in which with excavation work is progressing is also against the spirit of the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy, 2007 which is to promote development with minimal to nil displacement and there is a need to explore and pursue such alternatives.

The lands of small and marginal farmers and adivasis is being acquired by fraud, force and allurement of meagre monetary compensation overnight and many of these are infact irrigated lands that are already affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project. Placing these facts and basic violations before the Hon'ble High Court, Advocate Raghavendra and Medha Patkar, pleading for the petitioners stressed that no land alienation can go on in the scheduled adivasi areas, without the free, prior, informed consultation and consent of the concerned Gram Sabhas and that the M.P. PESA cannot be different from or in violation of the Central PESA Act.

Issuing notices to the Union Environment Ministry, Narmada Control Authority, Government of Madhya Pradesh, Narmada Valley Development Authority and the District Collectors of Badwani and Dhar Districts, the Bench of Chief Justice A.K. Patnaik and P.K. Jaiswal sought reply from the Respondents regarding the status of Gram Sabha consultation and the preparedness and implementation of the command area and rehabilitation plans. The matter has been posted to the 30th of June for the next hearing.

Mohan Patidar, Kamla Yadav, Ramsingbhai, Gendiyabai, Medha Patkar

Jabalpur High Court: Corruption in rehabilitation

Jabalpur High Court: Corruption in rehabilitation

High Court strongly reacts to prolonged inaction by Narmada Control Authority
and government of Madhya Pradesh (GoMP) in containing corruption Directs Govt. to provide detailed data on all eligible Project Affected Families (PAF) excluded from list of declared by 22nd July, 2009 The public interest litigation (PIL) on rampant and continuing corruption and irregularities in rehabilitation of the Sardar Sarovar Project affected persons went yet another step ahead today with NBA filing its detailed rejoinder to the reply affidavits filed by the Narmada Control Authority, NVDA and Government of Madhya Pradesh.

The hearing today was pursuant to the hearing on the 19th of June, when the Court had agreed to hear the parties in detail on the various aspects of corruption. NBA had filed detailed rejoinders on the 19th and again today stating, with specific examples of individuals and villages how corruption is continuing unchecked and not just senior officials, but even the Counsels and the Court are, in a way, mislead by suppressing the facts and even forging documents! Medha Patkar, arguing for the petitioners began by strongly contesting the position of the Respondents who had filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court specifically praying to set aside the Order of the High Court dated 21-08-2008, through which the Justice Jha Commission was constituted and instead, while arguing stated that they were not against the Commission, but only wanted the Interim Order of the High Court of 24th, April regarding disbursal of livelihood grants to be stayed.

The Respondents, stating that the
Supreme Court is 'seized' of the matter tried to convey that High Court may give a 'final hearing' in the matter. However the petitioners showed that the Supreme Court Order dated 10th March 2008 clearly stated that the Court is aware of the ongoing PIL in the High Court and when the Court-appointed Jha Commission Report is awaited and a series of I.As on serious allegations and complaints of corruption not yet responded, the case would continue. It was also argued on behalf of the petitioners that despite repeatedly providing information and complaints to the Narmada Control Authority and the Central Ministries, no action was taken, expect sending letters to the state government and clearing the dam height without actually fulfilling its monitoring mandate as power the Narmada Tribunal Award and Supreme Court Judgements.

Responding to the petitioner's complaint that the NVDA has till
date, almost one year after seeking information under RTI, not yet provided the list of all PAFs who have been declared ineligible, whereas this is a matter concerning the issues of life, liberty and livelihoods of the PAFs and must be provided within 48 hours, the Bench comprising Chief Justice Shri A.K. Patnaik and Justice Shri P,K. Jiaswal directed that detailed lists of all the PAFs must be provided by the State by the next date of hearing. In the interim, the Court had also required the NBA to provide a sample list of eligible PAFs who were denied lawful rehabilitation entitlements as per law and policy, Contending that the issue of corruption in Sardar Sarovar is so huge that it may be beyond the bounds of the Registrar (Vigilance) to investigate, the Court favoured independent investigation into all these matters, and stated that it is their constitutional prerogative to intervene when the state authorities fail to act as per law.

The Court has also observed that the haste which the Government is showing with
all the development projects should be reflected at least in half by seriously taking the environmental compliance measures and rehabilitation of the project affected persons. The petitioners had once again conveyed through concrete data how corruption is resulting in violation of the right to life and right to rehabilitation of thousands of PAFs. Senior Counsel Mr. Bhargav represented the GoMP / NVDA and Mr. Naqvi argued for the NCA. The next of hearing has been posted to 22-07-2009.

Shrikanth, Kamla Yadav, Medha Patkar

In The Lap Of Ancient Civilization

In The Lap Of Ancient Civilization

I am just back from Egypt -- a land of thousand contradictions, where ancient traditions and modern technologies live together. Our journey through Cairo , Aswan , Luxor and Hurgadha proved to be a mixture of discovery and pleasure. Time got into reverse and the senses reeled under inexplicable influences. It was difficult not to be overwhelmed.

Our first stop was Cairo . Incidentally we arrived there on 4th of June, the same day when the President of the U.S.A. also landed. I had read somewhere that ‘if you have not seen Cairo , you have not seen the world.’ Cairo is situated on the east bank of the River Nile, which the Egyptians call the mother of the world. I remember our history books referring to Egypt as the ‘Gift of the Nile ’.

We were put up at Hotel Pyramid Park in Giza , which is perhaps the second largest town in Egypt . So we were already close to one of the wonders of the world -- the famous pyramids. Most of the sign boards in Cairo were in Arabic and so it was difficult to recognize any building on its own. I found the words ‘kahira’ and ‘misr’ written at some places ( urdu equivalents of Cairo and Egypt ). What really struck the eyes was the mud and earth coloured exteriors of most of the buildings and houses. Many houses seemed to be incomplete (though one could see air conditioners fitted in the windows). Our guide informed us that people often resort to this to avoid paying taxes to the government, which they have to, once the house is completed.

The Pyramids of Giza

The Arabic word for pyramid is ‘ahramat’, which means group of tombs. The bright sunny morning of 5th June found our group in front of three massive stone structures, built on a rocky desert plateau, close to the Nile and near the then capital city of Memphis. They once housed the remains of the fourth dynasty kings Khufu (Chiopse to the Greeks), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure, who ruled through 2589 to 2506 B.C. This was also the peak time of prosperity of the old kingdom of Egypt .

The pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu has a base covering 9 acres and was originally 146 metres high, until it was robbed of its outer casing and capstone, decreasing its height by 9 meters. More than 2 million limestone pieces were used to construct it. Surely, to build such a gigantic structure the ancient Egyptians must have had access to some modern technology (which perhaps now lies buried deep in the sands).

The second pyramid is of Pharaoh Khafre (Chephren), the son of Khufu. It is 3 metres less in height, perhaps in deference to the elder king. The 3rd of the trio of this ‘pyramid plateau’ is of the grandson Khopho (Menkaure), which is incomplete as the king died before he could complete its construction.. There are three other smaller pyramids of the wives of these three Pharaohs.

The Sphinx

Coming face to face with the Sphinx was a moment I had always dreamt of. And now here it was in front of the pyramid of Khafre, presiding and guarding over the Giza nechropolis. Carved from a single piece of stone, it has a lion’s body with a man’s head ( presumably that of Khafre).

Unfortunately the pyramids were plundered long ago of their belongings and bodies, by tomb robbers. Pyramid building also stopped as the power/prosperity of the pharaohs weakened. Yet these marvelous structures represent more than mere tombs. The mysteries surrounding their symbolism, design and the mathematical precision with which they were built will continue to inspire passionate debates.

The Egyptian Museum

How could we leave Cairo without taking a peek at the treasure trove of artifacts (no replicas, mind you) in The Egyptian Museum, located in Tahrir Square . It was impossible to see the entire museum (consisting of more than 100 halls), keeping in mind the time constraints of a tourist, who wishes to see so much in so little a time. So we confined ourselves to the section of jewellery and the hieroglyphic paintings of ancient Egypt . And none could miss the dazzling collection of more than 3000 antiques found intact in the tomb of the famous Boy King Tutankhamun (who died at the young age of 19 years after ruling for 9 years). His tomb was discovered in 1922 in the valley of kings at Luxor , by Howard Carter. Carter believed that although the tomb was robbed twice after the funeral of Tutankhamun, yet it remains the only tomb where at least the burial chamber was untouched, perhaps because it was built under the tomb of Pharaoh Rameses V. In the tomb, Carter found four gilded shrines nested inside each other. The innermost shrine covered a stone sarcophagus, which hid three more coffins. The innermost of these, made of 110 kg of pure gold, housed the mummy of the king. His spectacular crown of gold weighed 11 kilograms. There are exquisite jewellery pieces in pure gold. Most of his other belongings like his bed, his throne (with a foot stool on which are carved his enemies faces) with the statues of his wife and himself, his carriage etc. are made of gilded sycamore wood. Everything, including the vivid colours of the paintings, are so well preserved that they seem to be marvelously new.

The smallest statue in the museum was that of King Khofu, who was supposed to be very ugly. An embalming table still had drops of blood preserved on it.

Photography is prohibited inside the museum for lesser mortals like us.

Temple of Philae

We took the night train from Cairo to Aswan , which is famous for its great dam (111 meters) high, built on Lake Nasser , the largest man made lake at 6000 square km. Our next stop was the Temple of Philae , which is dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of the falcon god Horus. These three characters dominate the ancient Egyptian culture and religion. Its construction was started by Ptolemy II in Greco- Egyptian style, and continued by Roman emperors. The temple was originally built on the island of Philae (hence its name) on the Nile . But it was totally submerged when the high dam was completed in 1960. So the temple was completely dismantled and reassembled on its present location on Aglika island, 550 m away, over a period of 10 years.

Cruise on the river Nile

Another dream come true! We boarded the ship Adonis at Aswan , for a three night leisurely and luxurious cruise on the mother of all rivers. We stopped at the temple of Kom (group) Ombo (gold), meaning lots of gold. In ancient times Kom Ombo stood on an important crossroad on the caravan route from Nubia to the gold mines in the eastern desert. The temple, dating from 200 B.C., was built during the Plotemaic era. The temple is unique in the sense that it is a double temple – the right side of it is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, and the left side honours Haroeris, a form of the falcon headed god Horus. It was built basically to propitiate the crocodiles, which infested this bank of the river. Our guide Ahmed told us that the temple housed 5 mummies of crocodiles (nowhere else have animals been mummified), which had been removed to the British Museum just a few days ago. The outer hypostyle Hall of the temple has 15 columns topped with lotus capitals and the bases bear the papyrus symbol. The walls of the temple are full of carvings and hieroglyphic paintings. One wall has the etchings of medical tools of that era (but still in use in today’s times). Of great significance are two carvings of women in labour, delivering a baby, in the sitting posture. Gynaecologists, please note!

Next morning, we watched in awe as our ship approached and slid past the Esna Lock into lower waters.

Valley of Kings

Next day we disembarked at Luxor to visit the royal necropolis on the western bank, with the mountain of Thebes providing a natural pyramid background. Tombs of 62 kings are located here. We took mini trams to reach the walkways of the three tombs of Ramases I, IV and IX, which we visited. The deepest tomb is of Ramases II, which is 185m into the mountain, another engineering marvel. The walls of the tombs are decorated with coloured paintings, in natural earth tones of blue, rust, yellow and black. Our guide told us that the walls were polished, painted and then covered with egg white, to preserve the paintings. Here again we were not allowed to click our cameras.

But the star attraction was the mummy of Tutankhamun, which is the only mummy still preserved in his tomb, which is the smallest tomb in the valley, as the king died very young. The blackened mummy had the face and the feet uncovered and each contour was clearly visible, the third toe finger of the left foot slightly broken/damaged. The rest of the body was covered with a gauze like sheet.

Temple of Del El Bahri built by Queen Hatshepsut (foremost of noble ladies)

After visiting an alabaster factory we found ourselves in front of the temple built by queen Hatshesput. A very tall structure, it took 20 years to complete and 10,000 workers are said to have died during its construction. The queen was the 5th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty and ruled for 22 years from 1479 to 1458 B.C. She was a prolific builder, commissioning several projects throughout Egypt . She built this temple around 1450 B.C. to commemorate her achievements and to serve as a funerary temple for her; as well as a sanctuary for god Amon Re. It consists of three elegant colonnaded terraces set against the high cliff. We accessed the second terrace by a ramp having 51 steps.

The Karnak Temples

This is the largest temple complex, spread over 700 acres and built and enlarged over a period of 1300 years. Although ruined partially, it is still an impressive site dedicated to gods Amon Ra, Mut and Khonsu.

The main hall has 134 columns, each 75 m high. The last façade/pylon was built in 335 B.C. but could not be completed due to attack by Alexander the Great.

Queen Hatshesput built two huge obelisks (symbolS of eternity and of the house of Amon Ra) here, one of them being 97 feet high. Rameses II added generously to the splendour of the temples. In several paintings etched on the walls, he is shown with the gods (and not shown making an offering to the gods). The entrance is adorned by two statues of him.

The complex also has a sacred lake which was purportedly dug by Isis to save humankind. Near the lake is a huge stone scarab – the Egyptian god of luck and magic.

The heat was mind boggling, but so were the carvings and paintings on the temple walls.


This was the last stop on our itinerary. On the way from Luxor to this famous beach resort, we passed through mud brick houses, as our bus ran over mountain and desert roads. At Safaga, I had the first glimpse of the pristine blue of the Red Sea (so called because of its red coral reefs).

Hurgadha is a modern city, about 55 years old. Tourism is its mainstay and it boasts of more than 300 hotels and an international airport. The quaint structures of this place reminded me of Arabian Nights’ Tales. We stayed at the Sonesta Pharaoh Beach Resort.

The experience at the beach was nothing short of exhilarating, as we floated, swam, walked, and snorkeled in the deep blue waters of the Red Sea .


In between, our very hectic schedule we found time to ramble through the Khalili Bazaars at Cairo and Luxor; saw how papyrus paper was made from the stems of the plant, which is sacred to Egypt, may be because of its pyramidical crossection; inhaled the aromas of wild, sensuos scents at a perfumery; enjoyed the exuberance of the famous Nubian Tanoura dance; lunched at the Indian restaurant Massala at Hotel Karvin in Cairo (run by an Indian Kaval Nain Oberoi and his beautiful Egyptian wife).

This was no mean feat when seven of us teachers had 50 energetic and ebullient Loreto Convent students to look after on their first international educational tour. Apart from getting a peep into the most famous and ancient civilization, this trip taught them the important lesson of conserving water. We had to buy water all through our journey at Rs.40 (or more) a bottle. No hotel/eatery in Egypt serves free water with meals. And no roadside restaurant allows free usage of its washrooms – one has to pay Rs.8 per person.

By the grace of God, we returned to Lucknow after 9 dreamy days, tired but refreshed.

Shobha Shukla

(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

Reminiscences of Egypt - A Travalogue -

Reminiscences of Egypt
- A Travalogue -

Aha! To be in the land of the Pharaohs and of Cleopatras; to breathe deep the air of ancient civilization ; to marvel at the pristine blue of the Red Sea; to let the senses reel under the inexplicable experience of a cruise on the Mother of All Rivers.

My stay in Egypt was a mixture of discovery and pleasure. It was difficult not to be overwhelmed. The sheer mathematical precision and design of the Pyramids at Giza at once awed and humbled me. Did the Kings really ascend to the after life to find a place amongst the gods? Or were the elaborate preparations (started by them in their lifetime on earth) for the journey to the next world, all in vain? These and other questions will remain unanswered forever.

Pharaoh Khofu, who built the biggest tomb for himself, also has the dubious distinction of being represented by his smallest sized statue at Cairo Museum , as he was supposed to be very ugly and not liked by his people. This is just one of the many contradictions I came across. As I drank deep of the air over the River Nile, I was denied the basic human right of free drinkable water. No hotel (big or small) across Egypt provides free drinking water. A one litre bottle of water costs 5 Egyptian pounds (approx. Rs.40) or more. Petrol is much cheaper at 2 pounds a litre (Rs.16). But the body cannot survive on petrol. So buying water was one of my major expenses.

The dazzling display of artifacts at the Egyptian Museum was overpowered by the tell tale signs of abject poverty spilling around me. Outside an alabaster factory, a worker gave me a piece of polished limestone (with a figurine etched on it), in return for a pen. He said he had three school going children. This he did with other tourists also.

Although Cairo , Luxor , Aswan , Hurgadha, still retain an old world charm and have very few high rise buildings, they are all very high on smoke. Despite signing and ratifying the global tobacco treaty (formally known as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - WHO FCTC), the Egyptian government seems to have done nothing to curb the menace of tobacco. Of course there were ‘no smoking’ signs everywhere, with people puffing away merrily under those signs. At the entrance to Karnak Temples, I clicked a policeman smoking close to a ‘No Smoking’ sign. He really got angry at me and said that I was not allowed to photograph a police man. When I pointed to the ‘no smoking sign’ he just walked away.

ent types of tobacco in very attractive packing are sold everywhere. I found it impossible to walk even a few steps in the market and other places, without encountering cigarette smoke. Another very common sight was that of a hookah smoker.

Inside the Ramses Perfumes Palace , the air was thick with the fragrances of flower perfumes. A delicate touch of the pure essence oil of lotus, narcissus, jasmine, lilac, golden water, behind the ear or on the hair assured a fragrance lasting for several days. Blends, going by exotic names like ‘secret of the desert’, ‘thousand and one nights’, ‘omar el sherif’, ‘papyrus flower’ and ‘queen Cleopatra’ arouse the sensuous in you. Then there is kohl to beautify the eyes and incense to perfume the apartment.

Papyrus painting is to Egypt , what ‘chikankaari’ ( a special form of hand embroidery) is to Lucknow . It was wonderful to watch the making of papyrus paper from the stem of the plant. And the beautiful paintings of Egyptian gods and goddesses and floral designs executed with finesse, similar to our own madhubani paintings. I found a lot of similarity between them.

The trip to Egypt can never be complete if one has not savoured the delights of bargaining in a typical Egyptian bazaar (like the khan khalili market at Cairo). Haggling indeed is an art form in Egypt . It is perhaps expected and, from the local point of view, encouraged as a way of communication and human contact. Being an Indian, I enjoyed it immensely. The shopkeepers have a habit of touching you, praising your beautiful face and hair, cajoling you to buy their goods with all the vile trickery at their command. Once they knew that I was an Indian, they even took the name of some bollywood movies and expressed their admiration of Amitabh Bachhan and Shahrukh Khan. I had been warned by my guide not to fall in their trap, but I did. I bought a pair of ear rings for 60 pounds, which were quoted at 250 pounds. When the bargain was finally struck, the old shopkeeper said to me, ‘God Bless You’. ‘For what?’ I wondered. Perhaps, for allowing him to cheat me.

Of course, how could I leave Egypt without buying a cartouche, the oval shaped good luck charm. It has symbols of eternity, love and protection etched on it. One can also get one’s name etched in hieroglyphic script on it. It is generally worn as a pendant or as earrings.

My senses are still spinning like the Tanoura Dance, the Egyptian version of the Sufi whirling dervish dance, performed mainly at Sufi festivals. It was awesome to see the male dancer spinning non stop for nearly half an hour, juggling with 5 tambours; twisting and turning as his multicoloured long skirt created the illusion of a human kaleidoscope.

In the words of Jalaluddin Rumi, ‘There must be a purpose, a cause for existence, and inside the cause, a true human being.' So be it.

Shobha Shukla

(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

Work On Ganga Expressway Project Continues Despite High Court Ban

Work On Ganga Expressway Project Continues Despite High Court Ban
[To read this in Hindi language , click here ]

The hasty manner, in which the Uttar Pradesh government had granted environmental clearance to the Ganga Express Way Project, prompted the High Court to quash the environment clearance granted to the project thereby imposing a ban on its implementation on 29th May, 2009, till further notice.

Serious aspersions are been cast against the haphazard working of the government, on this important issue. Neither the project report nor the `environment impact assessment' report was made available during the August 2007 public hearings. On top of this, the `state environment impact assessment authority' and the state level appraisal committee took just one day to take the major decision of granting permission to the project.

A press conference was addressed on 12 June 2009 by noted water rights activists Rajendra Singh (Magsaysay Awardee 2001) and Dr Sandeep Pandey (Magsaysay awardee 2002 and National Convener of National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM)).

Leading frontline veteran activist of Narmada Bachao Andolan Arundhati Dhuru was also present adding value to the dialogue on this issue.

Professor U.K.Choudhury of the department of Civil Engineering of B.H.U. has expressed the fear that on its completion, the project is likely to increase the possibility of floods, rather than control them. Apart from this, the emissions from the vehicles plying on the expressway would add to the pollution of the Ganges river (the amount of oxygen dissolved in its waters would decrease and the bio oxygen demand would increase). The ground water level will also be affected.

The acquisition of 27,000 hectares of land, required for the project, will affect the agriculture of the region and impact the livelihood of the farmers. It will also create serious displacement problems for them.

During his tour of Rae Bareli and Pratapgarh districts, Rajendra Singh, the famous `water man', found that the process of land acquisition continues unabated, despite the ban by the High Court.

We demand an immediate stop to all the work related to this project, till the U.P. State Government obtains proper environmental clearances from different agencies and also the clearance from the Central Government.

Shobha Shukla

(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

Rahmani-30: A school of hope

Rahmani-30: A school of hope
Kashif-ul-Huda, TwoCircles.net

The Muslims of North India for historical reasons have not had very friendly relations with the local police. I was in Patna visiting Rahmani-30 when Abhayanand, Additional Director General of Police makes a visit in his official car. Rahmani-30 is set up on the pattern of Bihar Super-30 which is a successful experiment to pick and train 30 students from poor economic background and prepare them for entrance exam of famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

Abhyanand waits while group of twenty odd Muslim students finish their afternoon prayers (Asr). These students have recently appeared for the class tenth exams and selected to Rahmani-30 after an entrance test and an interview. Entrance test was held in Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal – clearly a sign of increasing popularity of the institution that is barely a year old.

A year ago, Maulana Wali Rahmani, Sajjada Nasheen of Khanqah Rahmaniya, Munger and Secretary of All India Muslim Personal Law Board requested Abhayanand to help him set up Rahmani-30. Abhayanand was associated with Super-30 and readily agreed to the idea. The dearth of good quality students led them to start another batch of students who had just finished their tenth. So that they can be given quality education for two years and that way more students can be ready for the tough entrance exams of IITs (IIT-JEE).

I was visiting the institution just three days before the results of IIT-JEE were to be announced. No one could have imagined that all ten students would have qualified for India’s premier engineering institutions. At that time there were about twenty-five students who had arrived there from different districts of Bihar. A few students were from adjoining states of Jharkhand and West Bengal. These are the two years batch of Rahmani-30 that is preparing for IIT-JEE of 2011.

Abhayanand, who goes by only one name, arrived unannounced and a class was organized just after the Asr prayer. He went over some Physics problems for about 45 minutes. Students came out to see him off and he offered some words to inspire his young and eager students. Talks again turned to Physics and he continued the instructions on the back of his official car. This was a rare and a welcome sight to see police officers contributing towards the future of young Muslim students.

ADGP Abhayanand told me that he enjoys teaching and is now associated with five such experiments. Most of the students of these five institutions qualified for IIT. For economically and educationally backward state of Bihar this is very good news. And more than news, it is a hope that now even poor but meritorious students can achieve success with a bit of help. In Bihar, Rahmani-30 has given a new direction to Muslim students anxiously waiting for announcements of entrance exams and results.

Successful students of this year’s exam have already indicated that they will teach their juniors and once finished with their education will work for the benefit of the community. It costs Rs. 80,000 per year for each student’s expenses. Students are given free board, lodge and instructions. All expenses are met by Rahmani Foundation.

Rahmani-30 is a beacon of hope for Bihari Muslims not only because of the help it provides to meritorious students but also because a new generation of Muslims is taking up interest in the community affairs. Though Abhayanand and Wali Rahmani are the public face of Rahmani-30, volunteer team behind this institution consists of young Muslims in their 30s. These have jobs but volunteer their time to make sure that wheel of this coaching keeps turning. They make decisions for the day to day running to organizing exams.

With the successful result of this year’s IIT-JEE, Rahmani-30 and people associated with it have proved that they mean business and that with focused and sustained effort nothing is impossible.

Rahamani-30(Unit of Rahmani Foundation, Munger)
Address: Maulana Azad College of Business Management Campus,
Anisabad, Patna-2
Contact: mdwalirahmani@gmail.com
Website: http://twocircles.net/rahmani30.html

Kashif-ul-Huda, TwoCircles.net

World now in early days of 2009 influenza pandemic

World now in early days of 2009 influenza pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on 11 June 2009 that 'swine' flu (or influenza caused by H1N1 virus) is a pandemic.

"On the basis of available evidence, and these expert assessments of the evidence, the scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met. I have therefore decided to raise the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 5 to phase 6" said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO in a press statement issued on 11 June 2009. "The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic" further said Dr Chan.

"We are in the earliest days of the pandemic. The virus is spreading under a close and careful watch. No previous pandemic has been detected so early or watched so closely, in real-time, right at the very beginning. The world can now reap the benefits of investments, over the last five years, in pandemic preparedness. We have a head start. This places us in a strong position. But it also creates a demand for advice and reassurance in the midst of limited data and considerable scientific uncertainty" cautioned Dr Chan.

The virus is contagious, spreading easily from one person to another, and from one country to another. As of today, nearly 30,000 confirmed cases have been reported in 74 countries.

This is only part of the picture. With few exceptions, countries with large numbers of cases are those with good surveillance and testing procedures in place.

Spread in several countries can no longer be traced to clearly-defined chains of human-to-human transmission. Further spread is considered inevitable.

"Thanks to close monitoring, thorough investigations, and frank reporting from countries, we have some early snapshots depicting spread of the virus and the range of illness it can cause" said Dr Chan.

"We know, too, that this early, patchy picture can change very quickly. The virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time.

Globally, we have good reason to believe that this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity. As we know from experience, severity can vary, depending on many factors, from one country to another" said Dr Chan.

On present evidence, the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild symptoms and make a rapid and full recovery, often in the absence of any form of medical treatment.

Worldwide, the number of deaths is small. "Each and every one of these deaths is tragic, and we have to brace ourselves to see more. However, we do not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe or fatal infections" said Dr Chan.

The H1N1 virus preferentially infects younger people. In nearly all areas with large and sustained outbreaks, the majority of cases have occurred in people under the age of 25 years.

In some of these countries, around 2% of cases have developed severe illness, often with very rapid progression to life-threatening pneumonia.

Most cases of severe and fatal infections have been in adults between the ages of 30 and 50 years.

This pattern is significantly different from that seen during epidemics of seasonal influenza, when most deaths occur in frail elderly people.

Many, though not all, severe cases have occurred in people with underlying chronic conditions. "Based on limited, preliminary data, conditions most frequently seen include respiratory diseases, notably asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and obesity" said Dr Chan.

At the same time, it is important to note that around one third to half of the severe and fatal infections are occurring in previously healthy young and middle-aged people.

"Without question, pregnant women are at increased risk of complications. This heightened risk takes on added importance for a virus, like this one, that preferentially infects younger age groups" added Dr Chan.

"Finally, and perhaps of greatest concern, we do not know how this virus will behave under conditions typically found in the developing world. To date, the vast majority of cases have been detected and investigated in comparatively well-off countries" cautioned Dr Chan.

"Let me underscore two of many reasons for this concern. First, more than 99% of maternal deaths, which are a marker of poor quality care during pregnancy and childbirth, occurs in the developing world. Second, around 85% of the burden of chronic diseases is concentrated in low- and middle-income countries" said Dr Chan.

Although the pandemic appears to have moderate severity in comparatively well-off countries, it is prudent to anticipate a bleaker picture as the virus spreads to areas with limited resources, poor health care, and a high prevalence of underlying medical problems.

"A characteristic feature of pandemics is their rapid spread to all parts of the world. In the previous century, this spread has typically taken around 6 to 9 months, even during times when most international travel was by ship or rail" said Dr Chan.

Countries should prepare to see cases, or the further spread of cases, in the near future. Countries where outbreaks appear to have peaked should prepare for a second wave of infection, according to Dr Chan's statement to the press.

Guidance on specific protective and precautionary measures has been sent to ministries of health in all countries. Countries with no or only a few cases should remain vigilant.

Countries with widespread transmission should focus on the appropriate management of patients. The testing and investigation of patients should be limited, as such measures are resource intensive and can very quickly strain capacities.

"WHO has been in close dialogue with influenza vaccine manufacturers. I understand that production of vaccines for seasonal influenza will be completed soon, and that full capacity will be available to ensure the largest possible supply of pandemic vaccine in the months to come. Pending the availability of vaccines, several non-pharmaceutical interventions can confer some protection" said Dr Chan.

WHO continues to recommend no restrictions on travel and no border closures as per Dr Chan's statement.

Influenza pandemics, whether moderate or severe, are remarkable events because of the almost universal susceptibility of the world’s population to infection.

"We are all in this together, and we will all get through this, together" said Dr Chan.

- Bobby Ramakant