Editorial\Mining a reform seam
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL\MINING A REFORM SEAM 
 
 
 
 
Indira Gandhi saw her nationalization of banks and coal mines as the crowning successes of her socialist takeover of the Indian economy in the Sixties and Seventies. In the decades that followed, the coal industry disappeared into a dark miasma of corruption and inefficiency. It became better known for its support of Dhanbad mafia dons than its contribution to the national income. Coal stained other parts of the economy. Power plants and steel mills complained of poor quality fuel, erratic supplies and astronomical prices. Imports were allowed to try and contain coal’s economic cancer. New factories were given coal mines to run. Attempts at reform were stalled by militant trade unions. Coal has been a textbook example of everything that is wrong with socialist economics.

Allowing the Indian private entrepreneur to mine and explore for the black rock is still more symbolism than substance. After all, the other public sector standard — banks — is open to foreign players as well. The rider that New Delhi will also set conditions regarding the size and location of new private mines is further faintheartedness. But there can be no doubt a few rays of liberalization are penetrating the darkness of India’s coalshafts.

Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee has been determinedly shoring up his credentials as an economic reformer. It does not come a moment too soon. His government began the year with a phenomenally mediocre budget. It failed to carry out proposals to downsize the government. In the past several weeks the Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime has been besieged by populist demands from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Congress and the BJP’s own regional party allies. The finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, warned that the political consensus on reforms was in peril.

The prime minister has since begun taking decisive steps. He weathered a storm of criticism over subsidy cuts, including ones that increased the politically sensitive price of kerosene. Mr Vajpayee followed it up with a stirring defence last week of the need to disinvest from the public sector. More recently, he invoked the national interest to deflect RSS concerns about the degree of foreign economic involvement in the country. Kicking the socialist coal scuttle is another signal. The message is that so called second generation economic reforms are on their way.

The decision on coal is important for another reason. The past pattern of reforms has been one of rapid changes on the trade front and a snail’s pace when it comes to heavy industry. Lowering tariffs and allowing foreign telecommunications companies did not affect the fortunes of any major vested interests, not too many jobs were affected. Since 1991 successive governments have studiously avoided the manufacturing industries because of a strong union presence and their utility as sources of patronage. The result has been India’s dual economy. On the one hand, sparkling, globally competitive knowledge based industries that are wowing Wall Street. On the other, sclerotic, heavily regulated and inefficient smokestack sectors that require frequent government bailouts. By tackling coal, reforms are knocking on the doors of the unreformed chunks of the economy.

Economic reforms in India are passing through a difficult patch. Each ruling party, the BJP included, has tended to claim its economic changes are the result of external coercion — a foreign exchange crisis, the World Trade Organization and so on. Reformers know that these are often excuses. Economic reforms are necessary to India’s economic and political success in the 21st century. The outside world’s views on the matter are in the long run irrelevant. Socialist India was a failure. Liberal India has to take its place. This truism should provide reform the momentum it still lacks. Unfortunately, Mr Vajpayee and his predecessors continue to prefer not to make this admission. Which is why liberalization no longer comes in waves, but more in the way of hesitant ripples.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

That’s what it is, child’s play

Sir — Mattel has once again got it all wrong (“Doll’s house gets career boost”, April 3). When parents insisted playthings weren’t preparing children for the roles they eventually take on, they were in all probability protesting against the stereotype Barbie has sought to promote, especially with respect to her physical attributes. That Barbie has often prompted girls to turn anorexic is no secret. Making her career oriented would only add to the problem. Children already have their childhood stolen from them. Now think of the gruesome prospect of children being forced to think of their professions when they are still playing with dolls. Girls now have to sport a good figure and have a good career too.

Yours faithfully,
Suryasekhar Sen, Calcutta

All in a row

Sir — One cannot but be amused at the news of four former prime ministers, V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda Chandra Shekhar and I.K. Gujral, saying that they will launch a nationwide stir against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s misrule (“Old PMs train gun on govt ‘hidden agenda’”, March 29). But what are the credentials of these four? Singh became prime minister with BJP support and had to resign when the party withdrew support. Chandra Shekhar defected from Singh’s Janata Dal with 40 members of parliament and rewarded each of them with a ministership.

Deve Gowda was chosen by a motley group of parties which by themselves were in a minority, in order to keep the BJP out of power. He was chosen because he was thought to be the least controversial figure and thus the most easily manipulated. Gujral’s rise to and fall from the chair too had a similar history. All four are politically rootless and rely on the manipulations of Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who wants power but without its responsibilities. A.B. Vajpayee should ignore them. It would be a good idea to scrap the perks of those who have been prime minister for less than a year.

Yours faithfully,
A. Srinivasan, Hyderabad

Sir — “An idle mind is a devil’s workshop” appropriately fits the four former prime ministers desperately seeking a vocation to keep them occupied. These four have already damaged the moral tone of national politics with their unscrupulousness. Chandra Shekhar is the only one among them to be able to enter the Lok Sabha. I.K. Gujral gave up on Parliament after he realized that he would need the support of the BJP to ensure his reelection. H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) is yet to take root in his native Karnataka. It is best these politicians keep away from further political misadventures and let the National Democratic Alliance government get on with its job.

Yours faithfully,
T.V.S. Murty, Noamundi

Sir — The four former prime ministers who recently announced that they would tour India and arouse the masses against the present NDA government, have no following worth the name and are no longer part of mainstream politics. V.P. Singh has been away from active politics for close to a decade now, Chandra Shekhar is the only MP of his party while H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral are Rajya Sabha members. Except for Singh, they all became prime ministers by chance rather than merit.

Chandra Shekhar had Rajiv Gandhi to thank for his elevation and he showed his gratitude by not pursuing the Bofors case. He and Subramanian Swami tried to bury it. And Deve Gowda and Gujral did nothing to ensure the Bofors investigations reached their logical conclusion.

Yours faithfully,
Jagannath Singh, Calcutta

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