Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dear Dr Prime Minister


I could have started this article in the conventional format of a personal letter in English, thus: Dear Mr Prime Minister.

No offense to our scholar PM. There is a tradition among most professionals, including those working for wires like the Associated Press, Reuters or AFP, to withhold even the significant titles like the “Dr”. They are exclusively reserved for physicians and medical professionals. According to this rule, Dr Ram Baran Yadav is fine. Dr Baburam Bhattarai is not.

Of course, our media do not always adhere to this seemingly unfair journalistic rule but it’s fairly a common practice in the international media outlets of repute. You may recall reading the Times of India, The New York Times, or the Economist, and being taken aback to see them describing our learned PM simply as “Mr Bhattarai.”
I have heard from several reporters that some of their sources with doctoral degrees take it very personally when their “Drs” are missing in news reports.

They have no respect for a journalistic style that butchers their esteemed titles. Some fume with rage and demand correction, and others even threaten the already downcast reporter with future alienation as a source or defection to a competing outlet.

I don’t know how Dr Bhattarai feels about his academic title omitted before his name in print. And that, along with what the title entails for him by way of his new role as the country’s PM, is precisely the theme of my article today. And in some instances— because I have my feelings about my own PhD— I may sometimes sound a bit carried away by personal observations of the affinities one can find in the “lived realities” of two PhD-wallahs.

In the past, when I chose to omit his doctoral title in this column (and I omit that with my name too), our Op-Ed editor decided it must be printed. So it was. In fact, it seems it has left its imprint in everybody’s mind: Hey, he’s “the first PhD-holder PM” we have, the most educated head of government ever. So now, “Dr Prime Minister,” despite the awkward syntax, is fast becoming a natural construction like in India where they have had some more experience of being led by a PhD prime minister.

This between the PhD-wallahs: You are, Dr Prime Minister, every a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)-holder’s pride in Nepal, if not for your politics or ideology, then for your degree. For years, doctorates have been misunderstood or under-appreciated in our culture where dogma, anti-intellectualism, populist mediocrity and pseudo science abound. Padhelekhekaharu, the educated, is as much derogation as it is a compliment. Here is a chance that you may help to defend their values, promote their cause, and reinstate their dignity. And here is also the opportunity to demystify the academic “ivory tower” and to foil any unrealistic expectations pinned on your (or my) scholarly achievement.

To be honest, just like you often say, I come from a peasant family. Almost like you, I always stood first (and rarely second) in my academic studies. We both got scholarships to study abroad. We both ended up having PhDs along with the burden of serious responsibilities that come with these degrees. I still have much to learn, but just as you said recently that you would perhaps be among the Non Resident Nepalis (NRNs) if you did not take to politics, I feel I might as well have taken a different path. But no doubt, always a non-violent path.

I am not a politician and I wonder how you reconcile your scholarly pursuits of objectivity and truth with the political goals of power or justice. And there is the constant divide between pragmatism and populism. It must be tough. But leadership is about walking the talk. And to the public sense, your many small acts while in government so far seem to have manifested big symbolic effects already. Just like a scholar working hard to delineate the concepts and examine evidence to confirm or falsify his or her thesis, you seem to be busy operationalizing the concepts you hold dear.

Self-reliance is to Mustang-mania as donating your travel allowance to earthquake victims is to charity or parsimonious economy. Inspection of toilets in Mugling hotels is to improved health indicators and Hello Sarkar (dial 1111) initiative is to responsive governance. Janatasanga Pradhanmantri, the one-hour live monthly radio interaction with citizens is to access and accountability (although critics will also rightly call it a circumventing of private news media).

Dear Dr Prime Minister, you have taken some creative and innovative approach in addressing our problems by directly involving yourself in some acts of action research. You have been preaching by example, and upholding the doctoral values of rigorous “teaching” and “research” even while in the government office. You seem to be a strong believer in first-hand observations and verifiable evidences. Those are the effective “methods” and “techniques” to resolve problems. And because our people continue to believe in miracles, they already hope you are the ONE, their savior who will rid us all of our social and economic ills. If only you can meet their aspirations.

I started this as my email message to drop you at [email protected] but this ended to be much more than that since I could not stop scribbling my many thoughts. This is too long to be shared on dial 1111. And moreover, because you receive hundreds of emails every day, I feared that my chances of being noticed and responded are almost nil. So I had to tweak the email message to suit my column here today!

I don’t have to tell you that one of the indicators of a modernized nation is the importance it attaches to Research and Development (R&D) works, and invests in those areas. China and India are competing in their race to produce more PhDs in hundreds and thousands. They have also significantly expanded their R&D spending. We don’t have figures available for Nepal’s R&D spending, but if doctoral human capital is any indication we have a long way to go. Recent data from the Ministry of Education shows that Nepal has had 2,048 PhDs since 2017 BS. These cover records maintained by the ministry on degrees from Tribhuvan University and all foreign universities.

Many countries in East Asia and Latin America have begun to lure their migrant citizens with doctoral degrees with guarantees of jobs in the R&D sector. Governments all around the world are reassessing their policies on human capital flight overseas. Just the opposite is happening in Nepal. Nepalis with PhDs and other terminal degrees are leaving the country and those who live here have to spend time on unproductive tasks. This is very unfortunate.

I share the angst of many PhDs who live in Nepal, mainly because governments so far have not paid any attention to R&D in the country. Policy and planning today for economic growth and social services need much more by way of evidence and timely independent research and analysis, which is missing in most fields. True self-reliance in knowledge creation in the country is possible only when the government creates an independent agency with endowment of funds in the billions, in the manner of a National Research Council. Its grants in many areas of needs will help support R&D activities for Nepal.

Dr Prime Minister, only you, as a scholar yourself, can help make such a Council a reality. Imagine the collaborative environment it will unfurl among experts, and examine the direction of our national vision and leadership in the country.

I hope the conditions can now be changed for the better and that not every PhD has to take the path of a violent revolution to challenge the status quo.

Published in Republica, November 9, 2011


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