Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race

Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race
Photo Credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP
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It was being seen as a semi-final, an acid test for the main contenders before the Punjab assembly elections next year. But the Khadoor Sahib assembly bypoll is now turning out to be a damp squib, with two of the three major parties pulling out of the contest.

While the outcome of the February 13 by-election would not have necessarily served as a bellweather for next year’s state elections, the emergence of a virtual one-horse race has killed the possibility of a cracking contest in what was once the hotbed of militancy.

The Aam Aadmi Party had declared well in advance that it would not contest the election. The party has not contested a single bypoll since its surprise victory in four Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2014 general elections. Instead, it has devoted itself to meticulously preparing for the 2017 Punjab polls.

The Congress, the state’s main opposition party, was toying with idea of fielding a candidate in Khadoor Sahib till the eleventh hour. But the party, currently in resurgence mode since former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh took charge of its state unit, eventually decided to pull out.

Although there are seven Independents in the fray, a candidate fielded by coalition partners – the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – should saunter to victory virtually unopposed.

Divided house

The by-election was necessitated by the resignation of the Congress legislator Ramanjit Singh Sikki in October. His decision was prompted by a series of incidents of the Sikh holy book being desecrated as torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found at several places. There were widespread protests and in one incident, two protesters were killed in police firing. Sikki had resigned to demand the arrest of the culprits and action against police personnel who had opened fire on protesters.

The Congress has now cited the same grounds for not fielding a candidate in the bypoll. Party leaders tried to convince Sikki to contest, but his reluctance and the absence of a strong alternative candidate forced the decision to pull out. There was even a suggestion that one of those injured in the police firing last October could be made a candidate, but the proposal was shot down.

The party remains split over the final decision. Some leaders, including former MP and a member of the national executive of the party, Jagmeet Singh Brar, said the party was “running away” from the contest and said the decision was a “fraud”. Some feel the move will demoralise party workers, while others think it was for the best as the Congress was almost sure to lose the by-election – a result that would have cast a shadow on its prospects in the assembly elections next year.

A major factor in the decision not to field a candidate was apparently advice from Prashant Kishor, the political strategist who engineered the Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar last year and is now an advisor to chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Although the Congress is yet to entrust him with its 2017 campaign in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh has been in touch with Kishor in his “personal capacity”. Kishor is said to have conducted a study and advised Amarinder against contesting the bypoll. Kishor is believed to have already commissioned a team to study the Congress’ prospects in the next assembly elections and to prepare a strategy for the party.

With a virtual walkover on the cards for the Khadoor Sahib bypoll, the only remaining point of interest is the voter turnout. Congress’ Sikki has asked voters to boycott the election, while AAP seems indifferent. For the Akali Dal, which is facing anti-incumbency, a low turnout would be a setback. With this in mind, it has entrusted every group of five villages to a minister or legislator for the purpose of reeling in voters. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party meanwhile will be hoping that many voters hit the None Of The Above button.


Behind the smile and the pleasant welcome, a detailed evaluation is in the works.

What flight attendants really think about when they first greet you
Photo Credit: Tom Purves/Flickr
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I’ve been a flight attendant for 25 years. Greeting passengers at the door requires concentration on several levels. Of course the objective is to make you feel welcome and comfortable, but that’s only one aspect. While I’m trying to give that impression, I’m evaluating you very closely, and I’m considering a number of possibilities:

Is this person intoxicated?

What attitude do I get from this person? Helpful? Belligerent? Withdrawn?

Is this person physically fit? Powerful? If so, where is he/she sitting?

Any physical disabilities or hindrances such as a limp, injured hand/arm, etc.?

Traveling alone? With one other or with a group?

Comfortable/fluent with the English language?

All of these things help me to assess people who can be helpful to us on a flight or even if they might develop into a problem. Remember that we will be hurtling through the air between six and seven miles above the earth. If a problem develops, one cannot simply dial 911 and wait for the police, so the whole idea is to prevent problems from getting airborne, and be prepared for them if they do develop in flight.

Obviously, if someone appears to be intoxicated, we don’t want them on the plane; the potential for future problems is too great. Likewise, if someone boards the plane with hateful and nasty attitude toward the crew, that’s a concern that needs to be addressed before departure. (It’s rare, but it has happened.)

I watch for disabilities that may disqualify someone from sitting in the exit row. They need to be able to physically lift a heavy hatch (up to 60 pounds) or open a heavy door (several hundred pounds). Likewise, if they cannot understand English, they cannot understand shouted commands, nor can they read the instructions on how to open the exits.

If I see someone who is muscular, powerful, strong, physically fit, I memorise his/her face and make a mental note of where they are sitting. I consider this person a resource for me. In the event of an attack on the flight or on me, these are my “go-to” people. If a situation looks like it could develop, I’ll privately and discreetly ask one of these people if they would be willing to help us if necessary. Help might involve subduing or restraining an unruly passenger. We hope it never happens, but we will prepare just in case it does.

Safety first

I try to learn if we have any passengers who are airline employees, particularly crew members who have been trained in the in-flight procedures. These people also are a resource for me. They’ve been trained in what to do in an emergency – whether medical, mechanical, among others. They know how to handle the situations as well as I do, and are trained to become an instant “team member,” fitting right in immediately if needed. WhenUnited flight 232 crashed in Sioux City Iowa in 1989, it was a disaster that should have killed everyone on the plane. But when the problems began, the head flight attendant remembered that an employee, a pilot, was riding in the coach cabin. She told the captain, who told her to ask him for his help. It was his assistance in the cockpit that helped save so many lives.

Considering that air travel is fraught with inherent danger, made more so by the political climate of the world today, one must be constantly alert and aware of one’s situation. When I greet people, you better believe that I’m always very aware of each passenger who steps through the door of the aircraft. And the items mentioned above are only a few of the myriad of “triggers” that we watch for.

For example, I’ve had passengers board who look pasty and pale, deathly ill. (We removed them; nobody wants their flu germs!) I often see passengers who are afraid of flying and need a word of comfort and encouragement. I’ve had people try to smuggle pets in their purses or handbags, and bottles of booze in their briefcases. (Booze is allowed as long as it stays capped. You just can’t drink your own liquor on the plane.) So yes, I need to be vigilant and aware, all behind my “greeting face” of smile and pleasant, comforting welcome!.

As for thanking people as they leave, I’m probably thinking about getting out of my uniform and relaxing in the layover hotel, or at home! Or, I may be trying to figure out if I have enough time to grab a sandwich on my way to the next flight. Or, I may be figuring out how to get to my commuter flight home (I work in San Francisco but live in Denver). Once I had to think about the furious drunk guy who was waiting in the boarding area for me to come out. He was angry because I had cut him off during the flight (he could hardly walk), and was determined to “have it out” with me. As it turned out, he sat down in a seat in the terminal to wait for me and passed out!


Indians are falling out of love with British universities – and David Cameron is to blame

Indians are falling out of love with British universities – and David Cameron is to blame
Photo Credit: Pool New/Reuters
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A record number of Indian students are enrolling for higher education in the US – in just two years, it rose by 71% to 181,051.

But the trend’s been just the opposite for the UK.

In the last five years, the number of Indian students opting for British universities has more than halved. Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which collects statistics on public-funded British higher education, shows that the number of Indian students who enrolled there declined from 39,090 in 2010-’11 to 18,320 in 2014-’15. That’s a fall of 53.1%.

Meanwhile, China has seen a sharp increase in the number of its students in British universities – from 67,330 in 2010-’11 to 89,540 in 2014-’15, an increase of 32.9%.

Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency
Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency

China and India remain the largest contributors to the total of 312,010 non-EU students who enrolled in the UK in 2014-15. Nigeria, Malaysia, and the US are among the top five.

Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency
Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency

The decline in the number of Indian students has coincided with the British government’s decision to abolish post-study visa in 2012. The tier-1 (or post-study work visa) permitted students to stay back and work in the UK for at least two years after completing their courses. Recently, on January 13, the UK government rejected Scotland’s demand to reintroduce tier-1.

“Frankly, there are lots of people in our country desperate for jobs. We don’t need the brightest and best of students to come here and then do menial jobs. That’s not what our immigration system is for,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said in the House of Commons.

Moreover, the UK has come down hard on diploma mills – unaccredited universities – which provided students an illegal route to migrate to the country.


Tory MPs call for U-turn on education as school places squeeze looms

Michael Gove said councils should seek sponsors for free schools if extra capacity was needed.
Michael Gove, when education secretary, said councils should seek sponsors for free schools if extra capacity was needed. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

Leading Tories are demanding change to government education policy and an easing of cuts, amid predictions that councils in Conservative-run heartlands will soon be unable to provide school places for all the children in their areas.

The growing concerns of Tory MPs and council leaders are being relayed to ministers by the Conservative-led Local Government Association, which is calling on the government to hand back powers to councils so that they can expand schools or open new ones. The alternative, it says, will be a crisis of provision across the country.

Such a move would require a major U-turn in government policy. In the last parliament Michael Gove, while education secretary, imposed restrictions on councils’ ability to force academies to expand, arguing that headteachers should be free to run their schools as they wished.

He also said that where new schools were needed, councils should seek sponsors for “free schools” – which are funded by central government but not run by the local education authority.

Last week, however, Cheryl Gillan, the MP for Chesham and Amersham, whose constituency is experiencing rapid housing growth, was one of several Tories to voice concerns in parliament. She said Buckinghamshire county council had warned that it could not “provide the key infrastructure that is required for new schools and additional places”.

She insisted that her main message was about the need for more funding, but made it clear that more flexibility was needed to ensure places could be created where they were needed. “I thought our policy was supposed to be all about responding to demand,” she said.

Other Tory MPs who voiced concerns about looming shortages of places in their areas were Steve Baker (Wycombe) and Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton). Nick Gibb, the schools minister, insisted that enough money was being provided to councils to ensure sufficient school places.

The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said: “With such big rises in demand, the provision of new places needs proper planning and co-ordination. The government’s fixation with free schools as the only solution is stopping extra places being provided where they are needed. They should free up local authorities to open and expand good and outstanding schools as required. Otherwise we will continue to see many more children without any school place, and many, many more crammed into over-large class sizes and being put in unsuitable accommodation.”

One of the main criticisms of Gove’s “free school” programme has been that many of the more than 400 such schools established so far are not in areas of acute need, but where people wish to set up a new school.

The Local Government Association says that in areas of need, councils will often struggle to find people to sponsor “free schools” and believes that local councils are “uniquely situated” to manage demand.

Roy Perry, the Tory leader of Hampshire county council and chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said councils had created 300,000 extra primary school places by expanding class sizes, converting non-classroom space and diverting money from vital school repair programmes, but now needed to be able to expand schools or establish new ones to meet demand.

“If they [schools] are not willing to expand, then powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities themselves if they are unable to secure high-quality free school sponsors in their communities,” Perry said.

In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative party promised 500 new free schools by 2020, which they said would create 270,000 new school places. But Labour argues that there is no guarantee that they will be built in places where demand is highest.

To cater for 615,000 additional pupils expected by 2020, each of the 500 free schools would have to have an average of 1,230 pupils – when the median primary school size is between 200 and 300 pupils, whereas the median secondary school is between 900 and 1,000 pupils.

There are currently 304 free schools, with an additional 116 in the pipeline. According to the New Schools Network, a government-funded body, these 420 free schools will provide more than 235,000 places if they are full. Many of these schools have been significantly undersubscribed.

A department for education spokesman said: “Despite rising pupil numbers, 95 per cent of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year and any suggestion to the contrary is nonsense.

“Instead of scaremongering, the LGA need to ensure they use the funds provided by Government to secure enough places. Councils are responsible for ensuring there are sufficient school places in their area, and we expect them to plan effectively and make good investment decisions.

“Where local authorities identify the need for a new school they are required by law to invite proposals for a new free school and then forward these to the Department to decide on the options. We would encourage councils to work with RSCs, using their combined local knowledge, to identify top sponsors for new schools in their area, and are confident there is sufficient quantity of quality sponsors to meet demand. We encourage all good academies to grow, to help give every child the world-class education they deserve.”