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Vol. XXV No. 24, April 1-15, 2016

Our Readers Write


The Mylapore walkway (MM, March 16th) is not the only problem created by the so-called authorities who should be maintaining and monitoring our roads and sidewalks to ensure the comfort of the public.

Instead of looking the other way, they should be looking at the speed-breakers that come up at random overnight at a distance of five to ten steps! They only end up breaking and rattling the bones of the two-wheeler riders. Whether they serve the purpose for which they were created overnight (mostly by the locals with the help of “helpful labourers” is a moot question.

For example, the stretch from AVM Avenue 2nd Main Road via St John’s School up to Arcot Road through Radhakrishnan Salai has about 12 speed breakers of various levels and at very short to medium distances (particularly at the entrance to the school mentioned) with sewage water oozing out from a broken crevice on the road that adds to the misery of users.

Chennai is famous for its roads without pavements; now it is gaining the status of a city with roads which are themselves like speed-breakers with additional bumps called speed breakers on which the leaders’ posters and banners stand with benign smiles on their faces!

Kanchana Ravi

Autonomy before monotony

I recently read an article wherein Rev. Xavier Alphonse, former Principal of Loyola College (Madras) and now in retirement in St Joseph’s College (Tiruchi), lamented that no significant progress has been made on the front of autonomous colleges in the last few years. I have not been following this aspect of Indian education for several years now, since I no more belong to the system. Nevertheless, the lament of Rev. Alphonse brought a few aspects of college autonomy to my mind, since I was one of those young lecturers who was excitedly involved in the planning of autonomy for Loyola College in the mid-1970s, under the leadership of the late Joseph Kuriakose, s.j., the then Principal.

I had the good fortune of being in the close company of the late D. Shankar Narayan for several years, until I moved to Australia for good. Shankar Narayan was the Additional Secretary of the University Grants Commission in the 1970s. He officiated as the relieving Secretary of the UGC in the 1980s. After retiring from the UGC, he worked as Professor of Higher Education and Educational Planning, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, until his end.

Considerable confusion prevails today while referring to the architect of college autonomy. The concept in its entirety belongs to the late Vadekedath Varkey John (V. V. John, 1910-1991), who was a Professor of English in the early years of his career and later a dynamic Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jodhpur (now Jai Narain Vyas University). For his brilliant, original thinking on this concept, please read his vibrant book Freedom to Learn:

The Challenge of the Autonomous College (1976). Obviously this idea had been fermenting in John’s mind for many years and he could possibly share this with another equally liberated thinker, the late Malcolm S. Adiseshiah, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Madras. It so happened that Adiseshiah could suggest that idea to the managements of Loyola and Madras Christian Colleges in Madras, and Lady Doak and American College in Madurai in the mid-1970s*, which were convinced to take up the challenge and work towards it earlier than John could promote the concept in Rajasthan or elsewhere in Northern India. Malcolm Adiseshiah gets the full credit for bringing the concept to fruition, by convincing the principals of these institutions in Tamil Nadu, under the aegis of the University of Madras.

The University Grants Commission, convinced of the concept, entrusted the responsibility to Shankar Narayan to develop it further for launch. Shankar Narayan developed the blueprint (the guidelines) for the early experimenters: Loyola, Madras Christian, Lady Doak, and the American College*. What needs to be factored in is that the blueprint developed by Shankar Narayan in the 1970s, the actual launch year being 1978, was just one-and-a-half pages long, with a few generic points. When I had the opportunity to interact with him closely, when he chaired a review committee to assess Loyola’s performance as an autonomous college in 1988-1989, I asked him how come the set of guidelines developed by him in 1970s was so very brief, whereas the one introduced by the UGC in 1988-1989 ran to several pages, with hair-splitting details similar to the Indian Penal Code! Shankar Narayan answered me with a smile and said: “The intent was to give freedom and not to curtail.” That meant volumes to me then. I have no clue how these guidelines are today; maybe they have become worse than a legal document.

When Rev. Nicholas Casimir Raj, s.j., was the Principal of Loyola, we convened in 1983 a five-day workshop inviting principals and teachers from various operational autonomous colleges (then only in the State of Tamil Nadu). At the workshop we thrashed out significant outcomes; we disinterestedly analysed our failures and successes. Close to 100 participants attended the workshop, which included many discussion forums. General lectures included inspirational presentations by V.V. John and Malcolm Adiseshiah. Casimir Raj brought out the proceedings as Five Years of Autonomy (1984).

I need to confess that by the time I left Loyola, in the late 1990s, I could see that the spirit of innovation – the backbone of college autonomy – was dwindling. People were becoming uninterested. In fact, Xavier Alphonse as the Principal of Loyola, playing on words remarked, “Autonomy has turned into monotony.”

It would indeed be good if a comprehensive evaluation of this concept is done, given that many institutions across the nation have taken this challenge on. Has any progress been achieved? If yes, how, and what mechanisms have been used? John dreamt that autonomous colleges will one day become universities by their own rights. Is this still a possibility?

Anantanarayanan Raman

Flood learning

It was good to be back home after The Flood. The electricity had been restored and the phones were working. We even had someone come and collect our names for compensation from the government for the loss suffered, which of course never came! Everybody was feeling good. “Chennaiites had handled the crisis in an exemplary fashion,” “see the spirit of Chennai,” etc. You had to admit the public had done a great job of rescuing people, providing food, water, shelter and other essentials.

It was now time to assess the damage and take action. A major inconvenience was damage to the car; so I decided to get down to processing the claim for the car insurance first. On informing the garage, the tow truck came promptly. The two front tyres were mercilessly immobilised with locks and the huge fork lifted only the front half of the car to tow it away. I objected, on behalf of the car, to this mistreatment. I asked why the car could not be taken atop the tow truck, which was empty. I was told that space was reserved only for the VIP category of cars – Mercedes, BMW, Audi, etc. I had to swallow the implied insult.

After a week the newspapers broke the news that companies were charging anywhere between Rupees 150 to 250 per day as parking charges for cars towed away. But why did they tow them away when there were not enough mechanics to work on them and why did they not inform car owners before towing their cars away? I wondered to whom I should address these questions – neither the car dealer nor the insurance company personnel picked up the phone! Slowly it sank in – it was not going to be easy and a long, difficult road lay ahead. The employees of the car dealer and the insurance companies were overworked and drowning in a sea of claims. They themselves were not sure how to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

The estimate for repair was almost equal to insured value, with no guarantee that it would be restored to its original condition – a not-so-subtle pressure to go for total loss. I was told very casually that declaring the car a total loss would get me about 60 percent of the insured value. I just did not understand the logic. Then why state the insured value in the document? I was desperately looking for someone to educate me on the nuances of negotiating with the insurance company.

A month went by and I was still clueless. I could not reach anyone from the insurance company. Then the breakthrough happened – my sister-in-law said that a relative of my husband’s cousin is a surveyor. I clutched on to this piece of information like a drowning person clutching a straw. I called him and broke the ice by explaining how I was related to him. He was a surveyor for major projects and not for automobiles. My heart sank but I quickly recovered and requested if there was any way he could help. He was very courteous and promised to find out through his contacts how I could speed up the claim process. By now it was over two months since The Floods.

At last there seemed some hope of claim papers moving. The signs came when my calls were picked up by the Claims Department. At the time of writing this – that is three and half months after the floods – I managed to get the full insured value.

After this experience, I now have my own four Maha-vakyas:

1. Life is like Chennai roads – you don’t know when you will hit a speed breaker.
2. Never take anything at face-value – even legal documents.
3. In modern times, family is those who are there for you during a crisis.
4. Finally and most importantly – remember, this too will pass.

– Lalitha Ramachander

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