Sisters and brothers of India, the centre government has set aside $1.5 million as an endowment grant for creating a chair at University of Chicago to mark the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda.  I have great admiration for the philosopher monk who promoted universal tolerance and religious harmony, and I think the Manmohan Singh government has good reasons to establish the faculty post in an American university.  Many of us are aware of the order of the Ramakrishna Mission monks with their headquarters located in Belur Math in West Bengal and their incredible work through social service schemes is commendable.

I do also understand the significant link between the city of Chicago and Vivekananda, for his great speech at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 was given there.  However, I wonder how governments decide on the ways to celebrate birth anniversaries of public personalities in India?

Many of my good Bengali friends and neighbours at Belur Math will have mixed reactions about the decision to make a large grant to a foreign university.  The primary grounds for contesting this grant will be the urgent need for renovation and rejuvenation of at least couple of universities in West Bengal.  In particular, most vice chancellors are aware of the National Knowledge Commission’s (NKC) ambitious recommendation to create 1,500 universities by 2015 and implement changes in the curriculum in various subjects including the introduction of the credit system.

The initiatives in innovation are alien to the thoughts of most universities in Bengal with poor infrastructure for teaching and research. My imagination goes to the reluctance of the centre government to develop a chair in a state university in Bengal as most of them continue to have political interference, especially through professors and lecturers who are imbued with the spirit of communism.

Sisters and brothers of India, the second reason for the indigestion of the news about the University of Chicago chair comes when I think about the pathetic roads from Howrah railway station leading to Ramakrishna temple, a place of international pilgrimage and architectural features overlooking the banks of the river Ganges.  The roads in Howrah, a 500 year old city adjoining to Kolkata, are among the world’s worst broken urban roads with an enormous number of potholes.  It is worse during the rains, causing water to accumulate on the roads and slowing traffic for daily commuters.  The most affected are the thousands of students who travel to school and the poor migrant workers who toil in the open yards of the iron and steel markets in Liluah, which happens to be the largest scrap market in Asia.

Howrah once had many metal and jute industries, but very few survived, with the workers union & employee conflict under the communist raj causing wide scale un-employment in the region. Once again my mind goes to imagining the plight of pregnant women and those with back aches and spinal injuries travelling on those roads.

I wish the endowment grant from the tax payers’ money to celebrate the noble man’s anniversary were to be used in higher education reforms or in fixing roads and developing a master plan for traffic improvement in Howrah.  Good roads would increase the flow of visitors from India and abroad visiting the beautiful, privately managed Ramakrishna Temple in Belur Math in comfort, which in turn will favour the state tourism industries who are currently gearing up to change the face of Bengal. Let us dream about changes toward a ‘Beautiful Bengal’ like the changes we hear about in Nitesh Kumar’s Bihar.

-Manoj Mathew