Millennium Post

Unlocking a dichotomous India

There is a small district town tucked in the northwest corner of Madhya Pradesh – Sheopur. It can be accessed from Gwalior through a heritage narrow gauge train, which takes 11 hours to cover a distance of about 200 kilometres. The track, built by Gwalior state in 1909, runs through forest and hilly terrain. It’s advisable not to take this train to Sheopur, if you are in hurry to reach destination.

Those interested in a less adventurous train journey could take a train to Sawai Madhopur, an important junction on the Delhi-Mumbai line. From there Sheopur is 60 kilometres accessible by road in about 75 minutes. It was not always that easy, as in between Sawai Madhopur and Sheopur flows the Chambal river in its full grandeur and the bridge over Chambal was built only in the
post-Independence period.

Last week your reporter travelled to Sheopur to attend University Grants Commission (UGC) sponsored seminar on higher education. The idea to visit Sheopur had twofold inspiration – first the never satiating desire to see rural India and second to find out the meaning of having a ‘national seminar’ in such a remote town. There were revelations waiting to unveil themselves on both the count as we drove nearly five hundred kilometres from the national Capital through Ahirwal of Haryana then to the Gujjar stronghold of Dausa, into the ‘supposed’ tiger country of Ranthambore and Swai Madhopur and finally crossing the ‘Ghariyal-infested’ Chambal river into Madhya Pradesh.

The state of roads especially those maintained by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) mirrors the state of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government – ill managed and in disarray.

Nevertheless the ever changing contours and hues of the Indian countryside continued to mesmerise. The matters were further helped when we were forced to take a diversion through village and jungle roads as a huge truck broken down on the shattered highway. The builders have not yet accessed these areas and the water bodies here continue to retain rain drops till
February inviting winged guests.

We reached Sheopur after dark and headed straight for the seminar venue – the huge campus of the local degree college which is christened as Government Post Graduate (Lead) College. It’s owned by government, has classes till the post-graduate level and acts as the lead college of the area coordinating with the other institutions on behalf of the university, which is away in Gwalior and the directorate of higher education, which functions from Bhopal.

The first surprise was to find the principal in office at that late hour. So were some of his colleagues all perked up with the idea of hosting a national seminar next morning. I saw the list of speakers for inaugural session, it made an interesting mosaic. There were two academicians – one a Nehru fellow from Teen Murti House in New Delhi and the other a professor from Bhagalpur University in Bihar. The list also had the local MLA, the Zila Panchayat chairperson and the boss of forest department, who would have helped organisation of seminar.

The seminar began in the right earnest with the usual paraphernalia of invocation and welcome address. Then came the paper from the professor on Bhagalpur. I was amused that the man after travelling for more than 48 hours through various railway zones could still manage to retain energy to make a very thought provoking presentation. I had slowly started to grasp the meaning of ‘national seminar’.

The Nehru fellow, who was the main speaker of the session, left nothing to imagination when it came to highlight what ails our higher education. The fact that he had a politician sharing dais with him mattered little as he blamed ‘mypoic vision’ of our leaders for the disarray that higher education finds itself in. By the time he ended I was feeling uncomfortable for the reason that I expected fireworks from the MLA and second I could not approve of all that was said by my co-traveller from Delhi.

The MLA surprised us all by his ‘sagacity’. He decided not to be retributive and said that he would take what was said as a lesson and in his small way try and improve the situation. The disapproval of the keynote speaker’s line was further reiterated when I interacted with the other participants of the seminar. About 100-odd lecturers and scholars from all over Madhya Pradesh and bordering districts of Rajasthan and far off Jharkhand, travelling by various means had converged for the seminar.

They were no ordinary scholars. Many of them were graduates and postgraduates from Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru universities. Unlike their counterparts in Delhi University, they seemed to suffer least from the arrogance of intellectualism and showed the extra-ordinary calibre to discuss and deliberate and look for takeaways from the event. I found one who had travelled through the night from Betul near Bhopal to reach Sheopur to deliver his paper, then travel to Sawai Madhopur by road, take a train from there to Delhi to be part of a viva-voce test at his alma mater – JNU.

Finding myself among such zealots of learning, I wondered if our higher education indeed was in a state of disarray. I learnt that Madhya Pradesh introduced semesters in their institutions much before one heard of it on DU campus. The admission in these colleges is online. Their students enjoy facility of smart classes. Introduction of four-year programme is next on their agenda.
Travelling through rural India and living in a mad metropolitan has made me believe in the existence of a dichotomous India which is abysmally cynical and materialistic in the urban centres and brims with optimism and energy in the suburbs.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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