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Valid issues, inconsistent approaches – the case of two thought leaders

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

There were two unrelated events that took place in a span of two days. The first was the Supreme Court pronouncing another game-changing judgement. But this time it was the Indian Supreme Court. It rejected Novartis’ plea for patent protection (read: I want to charge what I want for a life saving drug). The second was Prof MM Pant’s lecture at the Vasant Valley School; a part of the “learn today” initiative.

I read about the Novartis case in the newspaper this morning. Ranjit Shahani was quoted as saying “We give 95% of Glivec (the cancer curing drug)free to patients prescribed for CML(a type of cancer) in India and the balance 5% are on a generous co-pay programme.” If that is so, what is the patent war all about? I must really be losing my mind because I just don’t get it! The cost of the branded drug is INR 120,000 per month for the life of the patient; the generic one is INR 7000. I can clearly understand the angst for such a serious revenue loss. But if 95% is given away for free, what is the problem??? There is also a bigger issue with patents and especially for lifesaving drugs. It’s true we need investments to develop and these could run into many millions of US$. It could also be that the life of the drug is such that people will fall ill and will always need it. In the 1980s we were around 4 billion humans walking the earth. In 2013 we are around the 6 billion mark. By every yard stick, illnesses have only grown, I haven’t heard even percentages of humans falling ill, dropping.

Pharma companies are meant to make profits and they are meant to deploy some of it for innovation. So how much profit is acceptable profit? I don’t know. What I do believe is protection till the cost of innovation AND a decent, sustainable profit is the right way to view the business of life saving drugs. I have a sense of morbidity in profiting from the dying. There are other parallels that I can draw. How much food does one need, enough to fill a basement or enough to fill your belly? How big a house do you need? There is an Indian who has spent US$ 4 billion on a residence he doesn’t live in and this is primarily for a family of 4.

I just don’t get it.

I attended Prof Pant’s lecture and enjoyed his approach. As a former Pro Vice Chancellor of IGNOU he had already aroused my curiosity by the title of his lecture: “Learning 221: education in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century.” He enthralled me by his grasp of technology and his knowledge of ancient learning. The lecture began well and I thought it was the beginning of a concrete focussed approach. And then suddenly, I couldn’t get it. A student is not a student. A student  could be a primary school student, a secondary school student, a high school student, an undergraduate… you get the picture. The talk began by saying what the government isn’t doing (and rightly shouldn’t be expected to do) and ended up with MOOCs. I tried really hard to understand how MOOCs could be the answer to the Right to Education Bill and I just couldn’t get it. Akash tablets and Laptop computers (doled out by HRD and the UP government respectively) are not answers in themselves. This one action isn’t and can’t be the validation that India or any other nation our size, whether under or overdeveloped, is ready to embrace technology, the way Prof Pant saw it. I watched with amusement at the strong pitch for technology without addressing some fundamental issues. Even if I narrowed the relevance to metros, I didn’t see the answer to the fundamental question, how do you work with MOOCs? By their very definition they are digital products, hosted on the Net. Tablets or Laptops CANNOT connect to the net in isolation. Assuming an educational institution (and I am not even qualifying the level), had wireless campuses, what would the student do at home? I am stepping back and looking at the technology question, not just the MOOCs (MOOCs are already in the definition of technology).

Digital coursework is surely located in a cloud. I can’t imagine any institution, content creator or aggregator allowing the content to physically download on to a Tablet or Laptop. And please, I am aware Kindle (Nook etc) allows that to happen. If for a moment I indulged in a Kindle like model developed by the institution (and it doesn’t come cheap) content within this delivery system would be static. It wouldn’t allow dynamic content (access to resources or research) UNLESS connected to the net. So at home, the best a student can do is work with the static content downloaded at school. No, I haven’t forgotten that the student can get his own internet connection at home. Ah! The penny drops! We are suddenly not talking about a level playing field here. Even today, there are sections in New Delhi where there are mobile black-holes. These are spots where the signal drops. One of them is inside my house. To make a call I need to be in the front of the house. To study, in this model, I would need to crowd around the same spot. And lets not even discuss service providers and or what happens when you move out of the metros. Its best left unsaid. I must however, draw on another analogy to illustrate the use of technology. (My apologies, I can’t resist it).

SAGE has published a book titled “Squatting with dignity” ( It talks about toilet habits of Indians. In a section of India, the local government decided to subsidise and build toilets. This was to discourage public (read open air) defecation. At the end of a year a survey was conducted to evaluate usage. The toilets were built but they were used as store rooms. Someone forgot to train people how to use them and in some cases, forgot to connect water!

I respect Prof Pant immensely and I am sure he meant well. I thought his lecture could have been better focussed, I left quite disappointed. I have never met Ranjit Shahani but his interview left me equally if not more disappointed. And I am glad I now go to bed; I know sleep won’t disappoint me…

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