Editorial 1\Sister act 3
Editorial 2\Easy money
Pots of electronic gold
Letters to the Editor

Politics in West Bengal is now the art of the impossible. Witness the current antics of Ms Mamata Banerjee. Didi had justly made a career warning her countrymen about the misrule of the Basu government. She also began her career warning her countrymen about the rival factions in her own Congress party. The faction, headed by the now-discovered ally, Mr Somen Mitra, was then dubbed as watermelons. Like the fruit, Ms Banerjee alleged, Mr Mitra’s primary colour was red though the outside was a deceptive green. Mr Mitra, an experienced political hack, had successfully kept Ms Banerjee at the Congress bay by defeating her at the party fora, a feat simply achieved by manipulating the electoral list. Mr Mitra and Ms Banerjee had only kind things to say about each other and not unsurprisingly Ms Sonia Gandhi’s efforts at reconciliation floundered. This gave Ms Banerjee the opportunity she was looking for: a reason to form her very own political outfit.

Schisms in political parties are as old as the planets. The Congress in West Bengal is no exception. A part of the problem is endogenous and possibly therefore beyond cure. The core in New Delhi will always attempt to impose its will while in the state a part of the periphery will resist. When the tenuous equilibrium snaps, the party splits. Personal ambitions are the overriding consideration, but it would be fatuous to deny that a principle of sorts does not have its play. Despite personal antagonism, the two opposing factions in the state Congress have been ideological opposites. In the bhai-bhai days of the Seventies, Mr Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, with his feet in the various Friendship Societies, was an avid advocate of the left. In contrast, the rival caucus of Messrs Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Mitra were markedly anti-communist. The amazing turns of fortune, however, have led both the camps to take positions contrary to their belief. Thus Mr Mitra earned Ms Banerjee’s reprobation, with the pomicultural epithet being the unkindest cut. Mr Das Munshi meanwhile had to remain content being the eyesore of the left. The joker in the pack in all this has been Mr Pranab Mukherjee. Almost a card-carrying member of the left, Mr Mukherjee ought to have been Mr Das Munshi’s soulmate but chose to become Mr Mitra’s mentor instead.

With Mr Mitra’s decision to join the Trinamool alliance, politics not only turns a full circle but a correction long due takes place. The two camps will now sport colours somewhat closer to their natural beliefs. In all this, Ms Sonia Gandhi and her Congress appear to be the biggest loser. From a national perspective, her enemy is the Bharatiya Janata Party, but from a West Bengal perspective, the enemy is the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The latter has managed to assemble the entire non-Congress flock under one banner. If Mr Jyoti Basu is to be worsted, the non-left flock has to be assembled under an equivalent banner. In this exercise, as the shrewd Ms Banerjee has shown, the BJP is a valuable and necessary ally. Ms Gandhi is in an unenviable position not wholly of her own making. Neither a ménage à trois with the BJP nor a refuge in the CPI(M) harem can be an appetizing solution. But then does she have an option?    

The Reserve Bank of India’s announcement to reduce the cost and expand the base of borrowing was anticipated by the cut in Public Provident Fund and provident fund interest rates earlier this year. The Central bank had been pursuing a policy of loanable funds in the banking sector. The latest cut in cash reserve ratio along with the reduction in the savings bank deposit rate is in line with the general policy stance of the RBI. Two major banks have already responded by cutting their prime lending rates, and more are expected to follow suit. The steps have been hailed as positive moves to stimulate investment and economic activity.

There are two issues emerging out of the softer interest rate regime that deserve comment. First is the apprehension regarding the negative effect the steps may have on the mobilization of resources by the banking sector. This apprehension is not well founded. Savings are certainly sensitive to the interest rate structure, particularly in terms of the composition of savings in the menu of alternative assets. However, the volume of savings, is determined by income and the facilitation provided by efficient financial intermediation. Access to banks and other financial institutions, the ease of transactions, and the growth of banking habits are also important determinants. Also, even if people park relatively more funds with non-banking finance companies or mutual funds, such funds ultimately find their way into the banking sector as a whole. What might occur is that the structure of liabilities in banks would change without altering the volume of deposits. The second issue pertains to the implications for fiscal management. The RBI is the banker to the government and has to facilitate the nation’s public borrowing programme. The finance ministry would obviously be happy to see lower interest rat-es in general so that it can have a sobering influence on revenue expenditures on account of interest payments. To this extent the burden of public debt would be marginally eased. However, the marginal cost of borrowing is also reduced and it might just prove to have a negative effect on future borrowing. The track record of finance ministers in the past decade has revealed persistent fiscal indiscipline. This largely negates the objectives of an easy-money policy to stimulate investments. The imperative for a serious dose of fiscal discipline becomes more obvious when interest rates are headed south.    

India is in competition with a number of developing countries, most notably China, for getting a share of the lucratic market for knowledge added services. A market, it has been estimated, will reach $ 200 billion by 2010. Several developing countries consider infotech a unique opportunity to leapfrog whole stages of industrial development. India, with its trained manpower pool and nascent infotech industry, has an edge.

The engine of growth of the booming Indian information technology sector is the software industry, which has grown at an average annual rate of 60 per cent between 1992 and 1999. The Indian software industry, which today employs 160,000 professionals, has zoomed from a mere $ 20 million 10 years ago to four billion in 1998-99, of which $ 2.6 billion was exported.

The industry has clearly emerged as a major export earner for the country, contributing to eight per cent of total merchandise exports. It has also achieved worldwide reputation for providing excellent quality: many local software firms have earned ISO 9000 as well as Software Engineering Institute’s capability maturity model certification, with five of them having reached level five. As an indication of this achievement, note that only nine firms worldwide have reached this level.

India has achieved this feat by leveraging its most valuable resource: highly skilled manpower. The country today boasts of the second largest English speaking pool of scientific manpower in the world and graduates 70,000 computer professionals every year. That is in addition to the graduates from the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology.

Technical excellence explains why India was identified by 82 per cent of United States companies as their top destination for software outsourcing, according to a World Bank survey.

Realizing the strategic importance of infotech for the country, the Indian government has set itself an ambitious target of making India a global infotech power and a key contributor to the world infotech industry by 2008. In 1998, a national information technology task force was set up and a national information technology policy formulated. The policy calls for raising the software industry’s turnover to $ 85 billion by 2008, $ 50 billion of this coming from exports.

It also proposes to strengthen the country’s human infrastructure through the establishment of an “Indian institute of information technology’’ in every state. Emboldened by the thrust given by the Central government to infotech development, 14 of the 26 state governments have already come up with their own infotech policies that aim to leverage the comparative advantages of their respective states.

Eager to climb up the value chain, the Indian infotech industry is at present aggressively pursuing the two hottest segments of the business: electronic commerce and infotech enabled services.

With domestic internet access now liberalized, Indian infotech firms are eager to tap into the lucrative internet software and services market that exists within the country. Goldman Sachs Asia predicts that by 2003 India will have nine million internet users and 400 internet service providers.

E-commerce is also taking off in India. According to International Data Corporation India, Indian e-business revenues will grow from $ 14 million in 1999 to $ 51 million in 2000 and reach $ 162 million in the year 2001.

Intel’s chief executive officer, Craig Barrett, has recommended the Indian national information technology task force focus on value added internet software applications if it seeks to become a global software leader. The National Association of Software and Services Companies forecasts that India could earn at least one billion dollars from exports of e-business software solutions in the year 2002.

Now consider infotech enabled services. Value added “remote services” like back office operations, call centres, medical transcription and so on could some day make India’s three billion dollar software exports in 1998 look like a paltry figure. The worldwide infotech enabled services market is poised to grow from the present $ 10 billion to $ 180 billion by 2010. According to NASSCOM, 25,000 Indians are currently employed in remote services. McKinsey and Company thinks this number will rise to one to three million people within 10 years.

Within India, Tamil Nadu, we feel, has great potential and is likely to surge ahead of both Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. A late comer to join the Indian infotech revolution, Tamil Nadu has nonetheless made remarkable progress in the past five years. Building on the state’s inherent advantages — a large reservoir of infotech skills, low cost of living, investor friendly public policies, better than average infrastructure — the Tamil Nadu government has multiplied efforts to attract foreign investment into the local infotech industry.

In 1998, the state announced a far reaching, industry friendly infotech policy and set up a state level infotech task force to implement it. All these efforts have paid off well: software exports have zoomed from nowhere to over $ 300 million in 1998. The state’s ambitious target for infotech hardware alone for the year 2002 is set at $ 1.25 billion. If this target is reached, the region’s contribution will represent about 30 per cent of the entire Indian hardware production.

Nirupam Bajpai is director, India program, Centre for International Development, Harvard University, US. N. Radjou is a consultant, Harvard Institute for International Development    


Man unkind

Sir — Neil Armstrong famously described his landing on the moon with the words “one step for man, giant leap for mankind”. He would never think to look under his boots to check what creatures have been squashed in the great strides of scientific advancement humankind has taken. Until now all science could do was reach the moon, clone a sheep or send satellites into space. But it hadn’t been able to find a cure for common cold, let alone cancer or AIDS. Or prevent cockroaches from enjoying a free run of human civilization (“Birth block to roach race”, March 30). But not anymore. Genetic engineering, the new panacea for all ills, will now prevent these creatures, who abounded on earth when human beings merely existed in potential, from going forth and multiplying. Haven’t scientists learnt that it is dangerous to tamper with the evolutionary balance. Considering that the many pesticides invented have had little effect against cockroaches, should not this species’ will to survival be better respected?

Yours faithfully,
Anirban Sen, Calcutta

Troubles near and far

Sir — Gwynne Dyer’s observations in “Taiwan moves out of China’s shadow” (March 29) brings to mind the saying: “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The fundamental debate within the Chinese communist party, as Dyer explores it, bears a striking resemblance to the intra-party feud of the Indian communists, especially in the states where they are in power. One only has to look at how, in West Bengal, the party leaders have chosen to expose the chosen within their own rank and file. Like those in China, here too, “in one corner are those (including most of the remaining ideologues) who insist that the party must not take over even one step backward from totalitarian rule, for it is already standing with its back to a cliff”.

In the other corner are the “rebels” who, due to superior insight or wishful thinking, are convinced that the party could declare itself national in preference to international and still hang on to power for a generation. In China, however, the difference between totalitarian rule under the garb of proletarian dictatorship and democracy is somewhat clear cut. But in the Indian communist-ruled states, this distinction has deliberately been made hazy, so that the occasional gimmicks from the leaders may appear as solid steps to alleviate people’s woes.

Yours faithfully,
Omprakash Mehta, Calcutta

Sir — It is unfortunate that China is determined to remain a bully despite its booming economy. Now that the Cold War is over and its arch rival, Russia, is bogged down with a perpetual rouble crunch, it is high time Beijing went slow on its “one China” policy vis a vis Tibet and Taiwan. Meanwhile, it is indeed commendable that China has been able to control its birth rate by propagating the “one child” family — and has attracted multinationals to set up shop in its territory; but that hardly gives the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, and his proletariat any excuse to manipulate its economic and military powers to rattle the sanctity and security of other nations. Just as Beijing wants the world to acknowledge its achievements, similarly it should show some respect for the sovereignty of other states. Wouldn’t a bit of restraint on the part of the Communist Party of China do a world of good for decreasing tension in southeast Asia?

Yours faithfully,
Sikha Dey, Calcutta

Sir — The recent victory of Vladimir Putin in the presidential elections in Russia is a setback to socialist forces around the world. Putin is a disciple of Boris Yeltsin, the ex-president who presided over the destruction of the Soviet Union thereby disheartening those who considered the Soviet Union a vanguard in their fight for social justice. The only country which will rejoice in Putin’s victory is the United States, the fountainhead of world capitalism. Putin’s ascendancy will only help capitalist forces around the world, led by the US, to increase pressure on the developing countries to open up their economy to the juggernaut of multinational corporations.

If Mikhail Gorbachov’s glasnost and perestroika created the conditions for the demise of socialism and the subsequent dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin’s policies laid the foundation for the advent of capitalism in Russia. No wonder that Clinton rushed to congratulate Putin after his election.

It would be unwise for India to rejoice over Putin’s election, for it will no longer enjoy the backing on issues like Kashmir as it did during the days of the Soviet Union. Putin’s victory cannot be immediately considered as the demise of socialism in Russia.

There is every possibility of the Russian people bringing back socialism, the only ideology which can emancipate the deprived.

Yours faithfully,
Sanmay Ganguly, Calcutta

Convert and perish

Sir — The report, “Orissa churches face conversion permit raj” (March 8) reflects the growing awareness of the activities of the Christian missionaries in Orissa. The state machinery seems to have studied the impact of illegal conversions carried out by the missionaries. Similar action needs to be taken by the state governments in the Northeast where the Christian missionaries are allegedly converting tribals.

In Tripura, the National Liberation Front of Tripura is reported to have started propagating Christianity by force. The state government is a mute spectator, witnessing largescale conversions, most of them at gunpoint. The Christian missionaries are playing into the hands of anti-national forces. Crores of rupees are being pumped in to sustain these conversion drives. The order issued by the Orissa government is welcome, but much more needs to be done. It should not be forgotten that the British used Christian missionaries as a weapon against the freedom movement.

Yours faithfully,
Hrishikesh Chakrabarti, Agartala

Sir — The editorial, “Faith Police” (March 9) pours venom on the Orissa government’s order on conversions. This is quite uncalled for. The media has never bothered to go into the sordid manipulations behind such conversions. This is the reason the modus operandi of these conversion brigade has gone largely unnoticed.

The court could not have, without a valid reason, deemed it necessary for an “outsider” to be present during the conversions. Why does not anyone bother to notice that the target of such conversions are always the illiterate tribal and the uneducated urban population. It is time the real stories behind such conversions came out in the open.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Reserve berth

Sir — The government of West Bengal admits about 1,027 female candidates in the different nursing schools in the state for the three year general nursing and midwifery course. Of these, there are reserved quotas for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and even supplemented quotas for destitute home or civil defence candidates. The other backward classes enjoy seven per cent reservation in state government jobs, as per government norms. But OBCs have no reserved quota in the nursing service. This is a grave injustice to female OBC candidates in nursing schools in West Bengal. It is hoped the director of nursing services and the state’s department of social welfare will rectify the anomaly by allotting the seats from the next session. Or else having an OBC certificate issued by the government will be of no use.

Yours faithfully,
Sudipta Das, Siliguri

Sir — In “The City Diary”, (March 17), Sri Aurobindo Seva Kendra hospital has been praised for the unique surgery of broken “femur (neck bone)”. If it was the neck bone that was operated upon, then the correct anatomical name is “cervical spine”. Femur means thigh bone.

Yours faithfully,
Somnath Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — Healthcare has become a nightmare with the prices of medicines going up rapidly. Since this also applies to life-saving drugs, one can only wonder what effect it might have on the poor who have no medical cover.

Yours faithfully,
Prahlad Agarwala, Nadia

Last word

Sir — Though one might refute the conclusion that Mukul Kesavan arrives at on the subject of secularism — that it is a “marker of modernity and metropolitan good taste” — the satirical tone he adopts throughout the article might be offensive to some readers (“Impeccably secular”, March 26). Like his comments on Rabindrasangeet or his calling Jawaharlal Nehru a “wog”.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

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