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A Blog Resumed

February 8, 2013

Too much time has passed. The two months since my last post, full of incident (though also flu) and somehow too busy to find the necessary twenty minutes or so – that time now seems like a blur. In early December I was in India again, this time for the announcement of generous support from the Government of India, which is giving Somerville a grant of £3 million for our Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development. Matched by the University of Oxford and from the college’s own budget, this means that Somerville will shortly be in a position to invite applications from Indian postgraduates and early career researchers. The first cohort will be drawn from people accepted on to Oxford courses that involve the study of water, food security, agricultural development and closely related subjects. Over time, we will focus on new themes including governance and law. At all stages the centre will work closely with academics in other colleges and departments. We are poised for an exciting period of interdisciplinary developments. The generosity of colleagues in the University, engaging time, profound expertise and creativity in the vision of what this centre could do, is humbling. So too is the engagement of Indian and British friends in government and business in India. Each time I return to Mumbai or Delhi, my admiration for Indian enterprise and optimism grows and so do my feelings of indebted friendship.
Not many days after my return from Delhi came news of that appalling rape case, followed by the victim’s death, and then of other cases, equally horrific. The British press carried stories of the vast proportion of rape cases in the UK that also go unreported or unpunished. It is sobering to see societies that can attain such heights of civilisation, helpless in the face of such depravity. Equally disturbing was the news from Mali, where it seemed for a time that the Tuareg inheritance from generations of recorded learning had been wiped out by a band of jihadist insurgents. The manuscripts of Timbuktu have been rediscovered by international scholars relatively recently, and are only beginning to find a rightful place in our understanding of the contributions made to civilisation by African scholars, jurists and writers from the middle ages onwards. To lose them would be to lose a precious link to the identity of a proud, historic people. As it turns out, a small group of dedicated Malian citizens had been keenly aware of the impending danger, and guessed all too accurately where the jihadists’ wrath would fall. They methodically boxed up the irreplaceable scrolls and parchment volumes in their care, and buried them secretly in the desert. A few days later, the invaders torched the library where other manuscripts were kept. If we were faced with imminent pillage and conflagration, what would we save first, I wonder?
Contemplating such vast problems, it can be tempting to suppose that individual efforts can achieve too little to be worth while. Certainly it’s salutary to be reminded of the infinitesimal role that any one of us can play, as the extraordinary Indian philanthropist, former industrial leader and member of the Indian upper house of parliament, Anu Aga, told a group of Somerville students when she came to speak here last spring about working in India.  And yet I’m cheered by the determination that my university colleagues and our students display, to pursue work that will make the world a better place. The Indira Gandhi Centre plans have been developed through the efforts of a network of academics in the university and beyond; and the support given by ministers in the Government of India, like Jariam Ramesh and Pallam Raju (ministers for rural development and human resource deveopment respectively) betokens their faith that we will make a positive contribution. Students are flocking to take up internships working on projects for bettering the environment, including the Global Ocean Commission, which is hosted by Somerville and will launch formally next week. Any number of students at any one time are giving their services to their peers and to the local community as well as further afield. Their practical example encourages the thought that it is indeed worthwhile to build frameworks that will support them. What one Oxford college can do (Somerville being one among many) to add to the support for world-changing research and life-enhancing individual efforts, can make a difference.

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