Editorial 1/Family way
Editorial 2/Wages of subsidy
So nice and private
Letters to the Editor

There is a certain irony in the government passing a national population policy 2000 about three months before India’s population will officially pass the one billion mark. There is a faint sense of too little, too late. The Union home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, had said in November last year that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government would introduce “strict measures” to control population growth. The present policy strikes the right note by offering a mix of individual incentives and broader social development goals. What arouses scepticism is the lack of details on how all this will be implemented and, crucially, how much money a financially strapped government can put behind the schemes. No one doubts India would benefit from a reduced population growth rate. However, there can be doubts regarding the willingness or ability of New Delhi to go beyond rhetoric about the issue. India has spent more money for more years on family planning than any other country in the world. Yet its population gallops ahead with a net increase of 15.5 million a year. India remains on target to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in two or three decades time.

The new policy proffers both micro and macro solutions. The former include cash and material incentives for panchayats and families to reduce fertility rates. These are schemes tried repeatedly by both Centre and state with limited success. It is difficult to even communicate such schemes to the illiterate and poor. It is even more difficult to maintain political and bureaucratic interest in the programmes. Unfortunately, the present government has avoided reviewing the 1992-93 decision to abolish family planning targets. This is despite a widespread belief successful state family planning programmes like that of Tamil Nadu still quietly maintain such targets. But the real meat of family planning lies in broader social and economic development. The best contraceptive is a rising income. Closely linked are social indicators like female literacy, reducing infant mortality and abolishing child marriage. It is these larger, and more difficult, policies that governments tend to avoid. India’s human development record is nightmarishly poor, in many ways below that of subsaharan Africa. Thus the most important clause in the new policy may be its declared intention to introduce free and compulsory education up to the age of 14. The question is whether this will become more than words. All these broader social goals have been given a 2010 deadline — well beyond the life expectancy of any Central government.

New Delhi deserves some commendation for at least attempting to formulate a population policy. However, it has not put forward any radical thinking on the subject. Other than promising a technology mission on the subject, it has little to say about what to do in the Hindi speaking states where family planning barely exists. It continues a policy tradition of being stronger on treating symptoms than the underlying causes of the disease. There is a glimmer of hope in the plan to create a national commission on population which could, in theory, provide an institutional base for more creative policies. Unfortunately, given the government’s financial state, it is hard to believe it will be able to put its money where its contraceptives are, any time soon.    

The field of education is mined by confused thinking. This affects even those who see themselves as educators. One expression of this is the argument, fundamentally populist in its appeal, that higher education in India should be cheap. This has resulted in a situation in which students attending universities and colleges pay ridiculously low fees, sometimes as low as Rs 15 or Rs 20 a month. This means that higher education in India survives on subsidies. The proposal of the ministry of human resource development to raise college and university fees is an attempt to break out of this subsidy raj. Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, the minister of human resource development, has repeatedly emphasized the need to raise fees in colleges and universities and now two expert committees constituted by his department have made a similar recommendation. Both committees have proposed a minimum level. Institutions of higher learning are permitted to charge a higher fee if they want. The minimum level that has been recommended is about 10 times higher than the fees that are now prevalent. The higher fees are perhaps not realistic as they do not match the costs incurred by the institution to educate a student. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction and it is hoped that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government will accept the recommenda tions and not surrender to populist demands.    

Who has not worshipped at the shrine of privatization? When one has to visit the charnel houses that pass for hospitals, when one stands in a queue for hours to pay a telephone bill to a surly, vile-tempered clerk, when one is visited by a smiling, venal municipal employee who wants his chai-pani, when one has to sit for hours on a platform waiting for a train and no one deigns to inform the wretched, stranded passengers when it is due. Whenever, that is, one is up against the scruffy, smelly face of an organization run by the state, one has invariably offered a prayer to the god of privatization, beseeching him to redeem society and vanquish the asura of state enterprise.

All around the decaying, enormous edifices of such “public” organizations as municipalities, telephone departments by whatever name they’re called, are electricity boards, railways, airlines, hospitals, schools and a myriad others of the growing number of private enterprises. They are bright, efficient, friendly, quick and understanding. Visit a shop and buy something to see just how different it is. Look at private hospitals, consider private schools. Visit Jamshedpur, where one can drink water straight from the tap, where inverters and “gensets” are unknown, where there is no garbage on the roads; where, too, one sends a sad prayer to the god of privatization, but only as one leaves for the urban purgatory one is obliged to inhabit.

What an almighty effort was made some decades ago to damn private enterprise! What slogans were shouted about a demon collectively known as “Tata-Birla”! They were the exploiters, they fattened themselves at the cost of the starving poor, challenged only by a few intrepid upholders of the banner of social justice. And today, these intrepid upholders of the banner of social justice have been in power for almost twenty years in West Bengal, and for fairly long spells in other states, with results every sensible person can see.

Is it only a matter of money? Does private enterprise thrive because it makes money, because its only motive is to make money and everything else is incidental. The answer is yes, certainly they are there to make money. But so does everyone else, from a school teacher to a clerk in an office. If they could, they would make more; and many of them have ingenious ways of supplementing their income, and it is not for the good of the poor and the exploited. But can one write off the positive side of private enterprise as just a desire to earn more and more?

Not so long ago Kalakshetra — the renowned cultural institution set up by the late Rukmini Devi Arundale in Chennai — was on the verge of bankruptcy. Classrooms were falling apart and the once splendid auditorium was in desperate need of major repairs. The water supply, the frayed, old power lines — all of this was hurrying the institution towards inexorable ruin and collapse. And yet, teachers continued to teach, in whatever way they could, on salaries that were pitiably small. A major effort to help the institution recover was made by the central government; it was made an institution of national importance, that is, one whose proper maintenance became a public responsibility.

Today it is funded entirely by the Central government; and all its staff, including teachers, are paid salaries that are far higher than they ever received before, with the consequent benefits and security that the staff of similar institutions get. One could be forgiven for concluding that the troubles of the institution were over, but one would unfortunately be wrong. For the first time ever — including the time when salaries were a pittance — the staff have gone on strike.

Money by itself, then, is not the answer. Merely by paying more one does not get better services. So the argument that private enterprise is qualitatively better because they pay more, or earn more, is facile, and wrong. Consider the coldly selfish pilots of the two national airlines, people who earn lakhs a month and yet are always eager to go on strike to get more. They dress their demands up with a lot of fancy jargon, but the real issue is always more cash. As it is for the employees of a whole lot of other “public services” like banks and insurance companies.

The real factor is identification. The staff of Kalakshetra may have earned less earlier, but they identified with the institution as it was then. They felt they were a part of it, that its mission, its objectives, were theirs too. Once they became a state-funded organization, they were paid more, true, but this sense of identification disappeared. They were reduced to the level of mere salaried employees, and inevitably, their goals became much more personalized — to get more out of the institution for themselves, since the institution was not going to give it to them on its own.

And this is the sad story of all state-run organizations; a tacit distancing of employees from the institution, of developing separate identities for them and for the organization they work for. The seeds of unhappiness were sown by this, carefully nurtured by the fertilizers and other synthetic nutrients of political parties.

But, it could be argued instantly, there are unions in private enterprises as well. There certainly are, but the attitudes are much clearer, and as long as both sides respect the institution itself they remain mutually beneficial. The basic identification with the common goals is shared; it is when they are not that the enterprise comes apart, and that can be the doing of either side. The successful enterprises have highly skilled professionals studying just this, and working to maintain the mutual interest in and commitment to the welfare of the enterprise as a whole.

The commitment to shared ideals and objectives is not confined to private enterprises alone. Consider a well organized political party and its various units. Before independence, those who joined the Congress did so because they shared in the party’s ideals, and subjugated their own interests to that of the party and of the movement it led.

In later years one saw the same commitment in other parties like the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Members had a total commitment to the vision and ideals of their parties and many gave up any personal ambitions they may have had for the good of their party. The committed worker in a thriving private enterprise is really no different from a committed worker of an organized political party. Both share in the ideals of their organizations; both organizations produce results.

They share something more basic; their attitude to people, and their knowledge that the general public, whom political parties refer to as “the masses” and successful private enterprises as “the market”, are gullible and malleable. They are persuaded by one lot through processions, strident slogans and, selectively, the use of force; and by the other through advertising and the clever illusion of the free lunch. A pity they do not appear to realize this essential similarity; it might breed more respect for each other, and lead to a more constructive attitude to organizations, and the services they provide.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


Different strokes

Sir — Sreyashi Dastidar’s article, “One can’t damn water” (Feb 9), is biased. A barbaric act like disrupting the shooting of Water cannot be compared with the banning of cabarets. Could any man conceive of visiting a cabaret with his family? It is completely illogical to say that cultural judgments should be left to the general public. What about state intervention on issues like sati and widow remarriage? The government must interfere in matters of public morality. While the sangh parivar fascists have demolished the Babri Masjid, participated in the Bombay riots, assaulted M.F. Husain and now disrupted Water, the Left Front in West Bengal has seen to it that Nepali, Hindi and Urdu are also used in public service commission examinations. If the state government were cultural fascists, the many non-Bengalis who choose not to adapt to Bengali culture would not have been able to settle in Calcutta. This logic escapes “secular” Calcutta intellectuals who raised a hue and cry over the proposal to change the name of the city.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Calcutta

Energy loss

Sir — The ministry of power issued an advertisement in The Telegraph (Jan 15) with a lot of pious messages — “Energy is life, Conserve it”, “As long as we waste power, more will always be less”, “Plan underway to generate 80,000 MW in the next decade which is equivalent to total power generation in the past five decades”. This last commitment is hardly credible since the annual average generation over the last nine years, from the beginning of the liberalization process, has not crossed the 4,000 mega Watts mark. Even a steady generation of 6,000 MWs will do, provided the power sector seriously tries to step up plant load factor. It should meet the gap between supply and demand by balancing the power requirements during the evening peak and day lull. Power consumption during day should be pushed up through economic advancement. While the addition of new capacity is necessary, from the quantitative point of view, to cope with forthcoming demand, the qualitative performance of existing units has to be raised. Older units should also be renovated.

As for the 25 per cent wastage of power, (in developed countries it is less than 10 per cent; in Calcutta close to 19 per cent; in Mumbai suburbs, 11 per cent; while in state electricity boards, above 30 per cent), the remedy for this is political will.

This is needed for a complete restructuring of the distribution network under the SEBs, to privatize and segment them into numerous viable sub-systems. Energy received and sold must be correctly accounted for to ensure optimal utilization. Tariffs should be reasonable and the penalty for non-payment should be disconnection, irrespective of who the consumer is.

The advertisement goes on to recommend the use of compact fluorescent lamps to conserve energy. But domestic as well as institutional consumers in India are chary of making this switch, fearing an additional initial investment, however minimal. It does not matter that in the long run this move will save costs and energy considerably. Energy auditing and energy conservation measures need to be enforced since persuasion has yielded almost no results. Perhaps, a bill on energy conservation in Parliament will do the trick.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — The trade union movement in India, especially in state, Central and public sector undertakings, has gone completely astray. Corruption, the lack of any consideration for the consumer, indiscipline, an ostrich-like attitude, low productivity and frequent strikes are the result of this. The government spends most of its revenues to pay salaries to employees instead of on social welfare schemes. The recent strike by the Uttar Pradesh power sector employees protesting against privatization is a species of such high-handed behaviour. The state is deprived annually of about Rs 2,500 crores due to inefficiency and corruption in the power sector. The power generated is only 30 per cent of the capacity.

In Karnataka, a lineman was recently arrested with more than Rs 1.5 crores in his possession. Employees blame shortage of transformers for the unavailability of power. Later, it was found that transformers were being sold outside for a pittance. Electricity rates are high and the billing is arbitrary. To make matters worse, there are frequent power shutdowns affecting farmers and industries. As a result industries are shifting to other states and few new industries are coming up in the state leading to unemployment. Power generation and distribution companies are bankrupt and have to borrow to pay salaries. No wonder the striking employees in Uttar Pradesh did not have the support of most people. The unions should mend their ways, else they will be marginalized as in most countries of the West.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Kumar, Udupi

Unloving neighbours

Sir — J.N. Dixit’s suggestions in “India flies alone” (Jan 20) are neither new nor are they original. These are regularly trotted out every time an Indian aircraft is hijacked. On the other hand, the Banatwala committee report on preventive measures against hijacking has been gathering dust for over 15 years because no one seems bothered about its implementation. Callousness reigns supreme.

India seems to have got by for the past 52 years on the utopian belief that international diplomacy was dictated by bhai-bhaiism. Compounding the problem is India’s corrupt and self-centred bureaucracy.

India loves to fight its battles, with the gun on someone else’s shoulders, or blame others for not fighting its own battles. Its attitude towards the world’s only remaining superpower is weird: it criticizes the United States for Kosovo, Bosnia, the Gulf war, et al, but it also expects the US to defend it from Pakistan.

Its bumbling ways have resulted in its now acquiring the reputation of being a “soft state” which, instead of dealing strictly with terrorists, panders to them. No improvements can be expected unless Indian leaders become more professional in their approach.

Yours faithfully,
Jayanta Kumar Dutt, Calcutta

Sir — N.K. Pant lashes out at Nepal for leaving its territory open to international terrorists who instigate subversive activities in India (“Shangrila becomes a serpent’s nest”, Jan 25). Pant’s complaints against Nepal range from lax airport security, drug trafficking, allowing passage to Kashmiri militants and Inter-Services Intelligence agents and poor border management making it easy for Nepalese subjects to infiltrate into India. He even fears that the Gurkha regiments of Indian army are being infiltrated by Nepali subjects who have been trained by the ISI. One wonders why India has refrained from taking action against Nepal if what Pant says is indeed true.

The problem with Pant’s analysis is that the issues he talks about are not limited to Nepal alone: many Indian cities have become safe ports for terrorists and ISI agents. It is true that many Nepalese, taking advantage of the 1950 bilateral treaty between the two countries, have entered India in search of jobs, but what about the Indians who go to Nepal?

The Terai region of Nepal is flooded with skilled Indian artisans who even take part in the country’s politics. Nepal is mute witness to Indians’ grabbing hold of a large part of the country’s economy and the flight of huge amounts of capital from the country. Contrarily, Pant cannot deny that most Nepalese in India are employed in menial jobs and live in terrible conditions. For example, Indian brothels are home to thousands of Nepalese girls.

It is time for India to decide whether the reported ISI operations in Nepal are the result of a spillover of the shadow war between India and Pakistan, or whether Nepal wants to counter India by playing the Pakistan card. India should also make use of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to address the issue of trans-border terrorism.

Yours faithfully,
M. Koirala, Darjeeling

Letters to the Editor should be sent to:
The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
[email protected]

Maintained by Web Development Company