Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Software uber alles
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 
 
 
 
 

State of burden

Party affiliations mean less and less when it comes to support for economic reforms. Consider the present attempts by various political leaders to reduce the burden of the Indian state. On the one hand there is Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders struggling to trim a bloated public sector and stem the widening fiscal deficit. They are being lambasted by a populist coalition of the Congress, some BJP legislators and coalition allies. On the other, there are reform minded Congress chief ministers like Mr Digvijay Singh being brickbatted by both BJP and Congress leaders for doing exactly the same thing in Madhya Pradesh. The real divide is between reformers and populists. Though reformers have both economics and common sense on their side, they are increasingly on the defensive before loud unions and shortsighted politicians. Under socialism, the Indian state devolved from an instrument of nation building to being a leech on the country’s economy. It is replete with ministries and government agencies that have no purpose. No Western democracy has an information and broadcasting ministry, let alone with 60,000 employees. Since 1971 government employees’ wages have risen more than twice as fast as consumer prices. In return, the country has been poorly served. A global survey by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy last month declared India’s bureaucracy the most inefficient and corrupt in Asia. This only confirms Transparency International’s contention that India’s government is among the five most corrupt in the world. The minister of state administrative reform, Mr Arun Shourie, had proposed a downsizing plan but the idea never made it past the cabinet. Under the BJP regime, the Indian state has continued its inexorable growth. Armed forces aside, New Delhi will have 3.82 million employees this year. The figure will go up another 28,000 next year. In addition the government is increasingly top heavy. The number of secretaries has jumped by a third in the past three years. Thanks to the fifth pay commission, New Delhi’s payroll costs will rise from Rs 300 billion last year to Rs 387 billion this year. The government at least rejected the commission’s recommended pension increase. The state governments are in worse shape. Saddled with 7.46 million employees, they are hiring faster than the Centre. The result is enormous indebtedness. Given this, Mr Singh was right to refuse to regularize thousands of casual workers. There have been the normal cries about the social costs of curtailing government jobs. The real issue should be the social costs of hiring so many people to do almost no work. The more the Indian state spends on salaries the less it has to spend on what it should be doing: education, healthcare and infrastructure. What is worse, the Centre and the states are, for all practical purposes, bankrupt. This means further social costs like inflation, higher interest rates and lost private sector growth. Problems, incidentally, that government employees are cushioned against. After the budget, the finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, was denounced for not cutting government expenditure. His plan seems to have been to wield the knife afterwards. But the edge of his blade, already blunt, is fast losing its lustre under pressure from the usual vested interests.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2 
 
 
 
 

Win some, lose some

The Shiv Sena is unhappy. It has reason to be. It cannot be pleasant to have four high profile activists murdered, and that too since Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh took office as chief minister of Maharashtra. The defeat of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in the state naturally hit the former harder. The Shiv Sena has virtually no existence outside Maharashtra, never mind the posturings of its chief, Mr Bal Thackeray. The BJP has a lot more fish to fry, and is, professedly, willing to hold back until the next assembly elections in 2004 before making a bid for the Maharashtra assembly. This in itself is galling for the Shiv Sena. It has been trying to find chinks in Mr Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party to see whether the Democratic Front government can be made to teeter. The BJP does not seem interested. Besides being a far bigger party outside the state, it is expanding its base within. Its political calculations make the Shiv Sena somewhat peripheral, since it has to reckon with the Congress and even the NCP, either by conflict or reconciliation. Given the strain between the BJP and the Shiv Sena towards the end of their coalition rule in Maharashtra, this distancing is hardly surprising. Mr Thackeray has lost his sheen a little.

This is all the more reason to fear violence as retaliation for the killing of the Shiv Sena men. Apparently, leaders have asked activists “not to hold back” in case they find the murderers. A frustrated, excitable, violence-prone party can be quite a handful, as the state home ministry realizes. More so, because the killings are allegedly to do with rivalries over the control of cable television distribution rights. The last two Shiv Sena men to be killed were apparently at loggerheads over the rights to local distribution. The two main cable distributors in the state, Win Cable and In Cable, had to give in to Shiv Sena leaders as far as local distribution was concerned. It is not clear how far the murders are the result of intra-party hostilities springing from rival claims to ill-gotten wealth. The Congress and the NCP are naturally being accused by the Shiv Sena of trying to wrest control of distribution rights, leaving murder and mayhem in their wake. But Mr Thackeray will have to think harder to capture the sympathy and chauvinism of the electorate in order to recover some of his waning popularity.    


 
 
SOFTWARE UBER ALLES 
 
 
BY PRAMIT PAL CHAUDHURI
 
 
Welcome to eurosclerosis dotcom. The European Union’s leaders made it official when they held a summit in Lisbon and swore on floppy disks to bring the new economy to the continent. Brussels is quietly panicking as the United States economy soars into the stratosphere for the eighth straight year. Why is Europe not sprouting digital wings? If you want one big fat reason, just look at the Lisbon manifesto. It’s 5,000 words long and studiously avoids the word “immigration.”

The new economy is about unlocking enormous wealth and job creating energy through technology. The key to technology is knowledge. Knowledge means brains. The truth is Europe doesn’t have enough of them. The International Data Corporation of London is blunt. When it comes to the new economy and Europe, “The one big inhibitor is the shortage of skilled labour.”

So no surprises that after Lisbon, the German chancellor and new economy advocate, Gerhard Schroeder, said Berlin would issue 20,000 temporary work visas “to help in healing the gaps which exist in the information technology industry”. He made it clear where he expected the visa holders would come from. “I am thinking here particularly of expertise from India and east Europe.”

Blood vessels began popping. A conservative politician, Juergen Reuttgers, began waving an anti-immigration banner. Kinder statt Inder, he cried. Our children, not Indians. There are 30,000 German infotech engineers on the dole, he said. German industry was equally apoplectic — with Reuttgers. The head of the high technology Jena Optik firm called the anti-visa campaign “buffoonery.” One of Reuttgers’s own partymen denounced him. “The German economy must search for the best talent worldwide.”

More interesting was the concern over Schroeder’s announcement in Washington. Berlin had modelled its so called green card on the US’s H1-B visa under which hundreds of thousands of foreign software programmers come to work in the US. But the US is worried. The Information Technology Association of America released a survey indicating that despite the H1-B hordes, the US had nearly 850,000 infotech job vacancies. And no one to fill them. From Microsoft to the Pentagon everyone was screaming for foreign imports.

That Germany was going to fish in the same pond did not go down well in the US. The ITAA president warned that Berlin and others were “going to attract Indian hi-tech workers.” He spoke of a “battle for brains.” A Republican congressman from Texas called for the abolition of the ceiling on the numbers of H1-B visas. “Let the market determine how many foreign skilled workers we need.”

The brains foremost on the minds of Berlin and Washington were largely unmoved. The federal employment agency in Bonn admitted it had received only 46 desultory e-mail inquiries from Indians. The German embassy in New Delhi found a paltry 100 applications in the mail.

Globalization has begun its assault on protectionism’s last stronghold: the market for labour. The story of the German green card shows how the South can end up holding the cards. Welcome to the new world migration order.

Continental Europe has resisted the deep structural changes carried out by the US and the United Kingdom in the Eighties and Nineties. Its labour markets remain rigid. Its financial markets overregulated. Among the Western economies its is the most protectionist. The net result has been permanent 10 per cent unemployment and creeping, inflation prone economic growth. Europe is being persuaded by leaders like Schroeder and the UK’s Tony Blair to recognize the US model as the future.

In particular, Europe shows evidence of lagging behind in the hi-tech areas which are driving the US success story. There are exceptions, notably Scandinavia and Ireland, but overall Europe is falling behind. Its share of global science based exports dropped 15 per cent from 1970 to 1995. Its export profile is becoming stuffed with agricultural and primary products — the stuff third world countries deal in. Or simpler still. Think of the top 20 infotech brands. Notice how few are European. As for the continent’s Bill Gates equivalent, he doesn’t exist.

The past several months have seen analysts dredge up evidence that greenshoots of a new economy may be sprouting in Europe. But the obstacles in Europe are great: language, strong labour unions and weak venture capital flows. Many wonder if the US miracle is replicable in the continent. But the real killer is brain power. “The biggest constraint,” wrote BusinessWeek recently, is “finding enough highly skilled and computer literate workers.”

Germany is particularly frustrated at the thought of becoming a technological backwater. Studies show it needs 100,000 knowledge workers a year to become an infotech contender. It produces barely one third that number. Industry groups are fretting. Hi-tech investment is starting to avoid the country. A Microsoft executive warned that German firms were not upgrading their technology for lack of skilled hands. With the telecommunications and infotech sectors alone running manpower deficits of 75,000 a year, the German ambassador to India recently wrote his government “is determined not to let this labour shortfall jeopardize the industry’s future.” Hence the green card.

Markets don’t get tighter than this. Europe as a whole is looking at a 1.3 million infotech job vacancies next year. The US department of commerce predicts half the country’s jobs will be infotech based by 2006. Everyone wonders who will fill the posts. Even insular Japan is talking about opening its borders to computer savvy migrants. India is also a consumer of digital brainpower. The National Association for Software and Service Companies has warned India’s universities will be able to provide only half the programmers and such needed this year. By 2008, India will need 2.2 million knowledge workers in its own right.

If only Karl Marx was alive. The workers’ paradise is arriving through a modem connection. Top of the line software specialists today dictate terms, work wherever they want, own shares in the firms they join and look forward to becoming entrepreneurs in their own right. Workers of the world programme. You have only your stock options to lose.

Temporary software programmers may seem small fare. The computer migration is triggering a change in overall immigration policies. It is also forcing a change in mindset regarding the nature of nationality itself. The globalization of skilled labour is contagious.

The first fallout is the increasing acceptance that human capital of any variety is worth importing. The US, the most immigrant friendly of the Western countries, is planning a H-1 visa category for nurses. It is also debating a brand new T visa category for any cranium with technological capability. Australia and Canada have geared their immigration policies for the new economy: have education, get visa.

Second, the sheer discrepancy between demand and supply for knowledge workers means countries have to provide more incentives to migrants than simply salary cheque. A lot more value addition is required.

Germany overflows with disincentives for an Indian programmer. Besides language, hostile politicians and a lack of tandoori joints, Germany has stuck to a pre-Enlightenment concept of ethnicity based citizenship. Unlike in the US, an Indian infotech worker cannot aspire to hold a German passport. Germany will get its 20,000 visa holders — if only because the US H1-B visa quota will be exhausted in a few months. But, crow US analysts, it will get the “dregs.”

More damaging is that Germany will never get the entrepreneurs and real innovators. Asians do not merely work as employees in silicon valley. One third of the startups there are owned by people of Indian or Chinese origin. It takes more than a visa or two to get these types. It requires a whole new national mindset regarding what immigration is about in a global knowledge economy.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Crime beyond punishment

Sir — The line introducing “To kill a mocking bird”(16 April), which deliberates over the pros and cons of capital punishment for rapists, exemplifies a striking Freudian slip. It says, “Opinion: death penalty for rape victims”. After all, those who are for or against the death sentence for rapists nowhere mention that the victims, instead of the rapists, should be executed. Sushma Swaraj claims that since “rape is worse than murder”, and the rape victim like a “zinda lash”, capital punishment is best. Is it on account of this that rape victims are being thought of, unconsciously, as deserving of the death penalty? When feminists in the West are attempting to “deglamorize” rape, neither the zinda lash concept, nor capital punishment for rape, is a meaningful response. Indeed, it is time the traditional way of equating death and rape is replaced by a more radical and practical approach. Only then can opinions on the death sentence for rapists be significant and Freudian slips around them be avoided.

Yours faithfully,
Subhra Sen,
Calcutta

Great divide

Sir — The West Bengal government deserves to be congratulated for its decision to introduce Bengali as the official language of the state. It is unfortunate that the language that enthrals the world with its rich literature, language and films is being neglected on its own soil. At last it has been granted its rightful place. It is strange to see a certain section of Bengalis and part of the media cry themselves hoarse over the decision. Yet they remain steadfastly silent about the imposition of Hindi. They choose not to raise their voices when announcements in Bengali are terminated in certain railway stations or when the Metro channel is hijacked by the Hindi brigade. They are also the people who mob a rising Bollywood star whilst forgetting the irreparable loss of a legend, Kanika Bandopadhyay, the same day.

When all the states are asserting their regional identities, there is no reason why West Bengal should not. Those shedding crocodile tears for the “plight” of the non-Bengali residents of the state should instead advocate the latter’s adoption of the state’s language and culture — of course that without completely giving up their own.

In his article, “Kolkata remains in Calcutta” (April 15), Sunanda K. Datta-Ray mocks the linguistic patriotism of the government while the Bengali community in general has slowly drifted towards English. This is precisely why more stress should be laid on Bengali. If Bengalis had remained truthful to their language as in the past, there would have been no need to rejuvenate it. The Bengali intelligentsia and the government have risen to the occasion at the right time. Had they not, Bangladesh would have remained the sole custodian of the language in future.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee,
Dhanbad

Sir — The West Bengal government’s decision to introduce Bengali as official language from Poila Baisakh, 1407 (April 14), is shocking. A state ruled by Karl Marx’s disciples for the last 23 years, West Bengal has been crippled in industry, education and technology. The Left Front’s much vaunted success in agriculture and land reforms is eclipsed by the hardliners’ fanatic attachment to old, rotten theories. The left’s slogans were vociferous against computers, globalization and even Bill Clinton’s visit to India. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) forgets that India’s supremacy in information technology depends on the Indians’ command over English.

West Bengal leftists should think before taking backward steps which will drag this state to the pits.

Yours faithfully,
Tamal Mukherjee,
Howrah

Sir — Avijit Nandi Majumdar’s report, “Lalbazar gasps in language lockjaw” (April 20), regarding senior officers’ inability to effectively communicate in Bengali is in bad taste. It is based on fictitious sources but nevertheless intends to malign serving officers. It will not be entirely out of place to say that the report smacks of linguistic chauvinism and betrays the writer’s prejudice against all non-Bengali all-India service officers.

Let me question Nandi Majumdar’s authority in fabricating government records and ascribing them to officers by name. I, for instance, never received any “frayed yellow file” with correspondence on a traffic accident on Wednesday. I am deputy commissioner of armed police and therefore not entitled to receive any file on a traffic accident. Besides I was on law and order duty on April 19 in Esplanade and could not even visit my office. Also, how does Nandi Majumdar presume that all persons with Singh as their surname were born in Punjab?

Coming to the facts about “our” Bengali training, I, as also most other “non-Bengali” All India Services officers passed the stipulated Bengali examination conducted by the public service commission in the first two years of our posting in the state. The examination includes written questions from such classics as Kapalkundala. Besides, before joining Calcutta Police most of us have spent seven to eight years in the rural heartland of Bengal where most correspondence and petitions in any case are in Bengali. In fact, the years in districts make us reasonably more amenable to chaste Bengali than, say, a person born and brought up in Calcutta.

I hope it is not Nandi Majumdar’s brief to suggest in Bal Thackeresque tradition that “non-Bengali officers” should not be posted in city police posts. By categorizing all India services officers in this manner he has done his bit to create a schism between brother officers. Prejudices apart, any linguistic expert will bear me out on the point that efforts made to over chastise any language does not further the cause of the language. To rename control room as niyantran kaksha or sub-inspector as agradhikarik will in no way make communication within the police easier, nor will it enrich the Bengali language.

Yours faithfully
Herman Prit Singh,
Calcutta

Avijit Nandi Majumdar replies: Nowhere in my article do I intend to drive a wedge between Bengali and non-Bengali Indian Police Service officers. All that I have said is that non-Bengali officers are facing a certain amount of difficulty with the introduction of Bengali as the official language here, and that they resent it. This in fact has been corroborated by Singh himself in the last paragraph of his letter when he says that this move will not enrich the Bengali language. Second, I did not mention in my report that the “frayed yellow file” was examined by Singh on Wednesday. All I said was that it was placed on his desk on that day— a fact confirmed by senior officers of the Lalbazar traffic department.

Last word

Sir — The left must be utterly frustrated now that communism is all set to be thrown into history’s garbage dump. Its members are now desperately looking for a scapegoat to transfer the blame (“Nasty, brutish, middle class”, April 20). And Achin Vanaik has found a handy culprit: this time — the Indian professionals.That is a change of course. Usually the culprit is always the Central Intelligence Agency, or the big bad American imperialists. But then, it would be wrong to expect reason from the left. After all, the leftists have to protect their “faith” with their lives, however absurd it might be. So don’t ask them why their red empire collapsed like a house of cards in Europe, why Soviet tanks had to crush the Czech struggle for democracy, why China readily accepted market economy, why North Korea faces a famine, why Cuba is among the nations with the worst record of human rights abuses.

Yours faithfully,
Pratik Bhattacharya,
Calcutta
Letters to the editor should be sent to:
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Calcutta 700 001
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