Editorial 1/Statecraft
Editorial 2/Tiger’s elephant
A hundred indecisions
Letters to the Editor

The Bihar assembly, in the midst of unremittingly farcical tumult, occasionally finds time to make significant history. The legislature has almost unanimously ratified the Bihar reorganization bill, making the creation of a separate Jharkhand state possible at last. Home to at least 55 indigenous tribes and comprising 18 districts of south and central Bihar, Jharkhand has come to embody a political movement the various phases of whose long history have been unified through the evolution of a heterogeneous tribal identity. This identity has principally expressed itself through a singleminded drive for separate statehood. The region, and the economic, political and ethnic issues that cohere around it — crystallizing in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, led by Mr Shibu Soren — have been central to the configurations of Bihar politics since the recent formation of the uneasy Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance in the state. Politically, arithmetic still holds the key. In the new Jharkhand assembly, the National Democratic Alliance will certainly have an absolute majority. But without the Jharkhand block, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav will have little difficulty in proving his majority on the floor of the existing Bihar house, reducing the Bharatiya Janata Party to a secondary oppositional force compared to the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United). This will certainly change the direction of power politics in Bihar, just as Bihar’s severance from this mineral-rich and forested terrain will result in huge revenue losses, giving rise to justified — though unrealistic — demands for compensation made by Ms Rabri Devi’s ministry.

But the now imminent creation of Jharkhand — particularly if its political character continues to be defined by Mr Soren’s pragmatic, but obsessive, politics — signifies two important developments for the Indian polity. First, in the context of the ethnic chauvinism of the original tribal movement, Mr Soren’s joining hands with the NDA marks the shift from a politics based on ethnicity to a more broad-spectrum leadership under which his party’s mandate breaks up to include not just tribals and the backward classes, but a Rajput and a Bhumihar. But this lost purity is for the sake of separate statehood, the everfixed mark in his otherwise often dubiously self-transforming politics. Second, the creation of Jharkhand will be an important landmark in the evolution of regionalism within the Indian democracy, and in the increasingly complex federal character of, and pressures or fissures within, the Indian polity. With Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand waiting in the wings, although in different stages of implementation, the immediate and particular demands of the “regional” will continue to qualify and complicate the hegemony of a centralizing mode of governance.    

In losing control of the strategic Elephant Pass following a sustained offensive by fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan army has suffered a severe military reversal. The damage is accentuated by the suddenness and unexpectedness of the defeat. The pass controls access to the narrow isthmus leading to Jaffna, the unofficial capital of the Tamil populated northern and eastern parts of the island. When the Sri Lankan army dislodged the LTTE from Jaffna in 1996 it was believed that dreams of a separate Tamil state had finally been buried. The LTTE has repeatedly tried to storm the Lankan positions at the base of the isthmus since, to little avail. When the latest offensive was launched this March, it was generally believed the two divisions encamped at the base of the pass would see off the LTTE assault once again. Instead the Sri Lankan military proved wanting in a way not seen for several years.

A difficult time now faces the Sri Lankan prime minister, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga. Until the debacle she had been slowly doing the spadework for peace talks with the LTTE. She had brought in Norway as a neutral facilitator. Even the Tamil guerrillas seemed prepared to negotiate, only sparring over preconditions. She was also close to agreeing on a common agenda for the talks with the opposition United National Party. If the LTTE now reduces Jaffna, Ms Kumaratunga will be entering into negotiations in a much weakened state. With Jaffna in their hands, the Tamil secessionists are likely to demand far more autonomy — close to outright independence — than Colombo is presently in a position to grant them. Ms Kumaratunga cannot make too many concessions on that front without watching her agreement with the UNP disintegrate. She will also be vulnerable to the already vitriolic criticisms of the country’s hardline Sinhalese Buddhist clergy. The prime minister seems to be facing two equally unpalatable options. One is to press on with the talks and hope the Elephant Pass victory does not escalate LTTE demands to unreasonable levels. The other is to go back to the battlefield and try to seize back the military high ground once again. It is likely she will attempt to do both simultaneously — wage a fullscale war on the ground even as she tries to meet the LTTE over a table. The worst, but at present unlikely, scenario would be for the LTTE to simply decide its military successes mean it could possibly win independence through force of arms. It is normal for military rivals to try one last assault or land grabbing operation just before negotiations. But rarely are such blows as devastating as this week’s battle for Elephant Pass. The possibilities for peace are now even more distant than before.    

Their air-conditioned homes and offices may be proof against the all too frequent power cuts in New Delhi. Yet, neither the prime minister nor his colleagues in the government can do anything about their continuous exposure to political heat from both allies and opponents and the battering of their eardrums by a barrage of protests. What ruffled the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, most was ironically the grilling he received from members of his own party over the raising of the prices of wheat and rice under the public distribution system and thus sullying the pro-poor image they were trying to project.

Whether the government will have the nerve to hold fast to its decision in the face of cries of outrage from all sides remains to be seen. If it refuses to relent, it will run the risk of increasing tensions in the ruling coalition and providing its enemies as well as dissidents in the sangh parivar one more excuse to berate it. If it backtracks in panic, as on many occasions in the past, it will make the fiscal situation, already getting out of control, go haywire. Whatever its choice, it will further reduce its capacity to manage change.

The dilemma facing the Atal Behari Vajpayee government is by no means of its own making. For years policymakers at the Centre have had recourse to an agricultural prices policy designed to store trouble for the future. It raised procurement prices year after year under pressure from the powerful farmers’ lobby and failed to make any compensatory increase in those of cereals sold under the public distribution system because of fear of alienating the poor. The cumulative result was to push up the cost of food subsidies to an unsustainable level.

The most piquant irony of the story is that, even without the increase in the PDS prices, the pro-poor face of the scheme had been badly smudged by the tortuous bureaucratic procedures which made it impossible for many of the intended beneficiaries to secure a ration card. But then this has been true of most poor relief projects. Whether it is distribution of free saris to destitute women, loan melas in villages or public works to provide temporary jobs to victims of natural calamities, the administration is invariably riddled with corruption.

The ruling coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party has no reason, however, to whine about its troublesome legacy since it has also been the main gainer from previous policy failures which led to the erosion of the Congress support base in the country and the splintering of the Janata Dal. The prevailing confusion in its ranks as it tries to cope with the problems confronting it is more the result of its inability to rally the disparate elements constituting the National Democratic Alliance round an economic policy based on more stringent fiscal discipline and aimed at ensuring both higher and more equitable growth.

The so called common agenda of the NDA has turned out to be a dud guide to action in the face of problems where the choice is very often between equally hard options. Invoking the phrase “coalition dharma” in the current context is something of a wry joke. What the new government policy decisions have brought to the fore are serious differences between coalition partners over a wide range of economic issues. It is not only the PDS food prices which sorely divide the BJP’s own ranks as well as its allies. The propriety of the budget proposal concerning large scale disinvestment in the public sector has been, in fact, questioned by the ministers concerned whose powers of patronage will be drastically curtailed if it goes through.

The atmosphere in the country is so thick by now with gnawing uncertainties surrounding economic, internal security, defence and foreign policy issues that one can cut it with a knife. This is largely the result of an increasing fracturing of public life and coalition politics of a kind which rules out a national perspective on problems which cut across divisions of region, community, caste and ethnicity. Even as more and more danger signals go up, the pulls on the government by a wide diversity of vested interests, pressure groups and powerful lobbies get more exasperating, undermining its capacity for both hard decisions and urgent action.

There is no plan or machinery in place to deal with emergencies like the one which arose in Orissa last year when a killer cyclone devastated large parts of the state and the terrible drought which has now hit many districts in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. Wells in thousands of villages have dried up, leaving the people without drinking water and forcing many to flee their homes because of the government’s failure to organize a prompt relief operation. The wells could not have dried up overnight. Why did it take the state governments concerned and the Centre so long to notice the looming catastrophe? If this is the situation at the very beginning of summer, how will the stricken villages survive the blistering heat of May and June?

Curiously enough, there is a host of ministries at the Centre that is supposed to monitor water resources in various parts of the country and do something to avert the sort of crisis situation that has developed in three states at the same time. Did they have no arrangement for feedback information? Was there no clear division of responsibility? Or was it just one more case of an excess of government, with one ministry passing the buck to the others, resulting in no government? It is a disgrace that, with so large a food stock in the government’s silos, so many people in the drought affected areas should go without not only water but wheat and rice as well.

This is, however, the way the slovenly government works here. Its members always assume, in the words of a poet, that there is “time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions”. Maybe it is pointless to blame the government which is itself the product of a system devised by men who could not possibly envisage the grave distortions it would suffer as a result of the growing population pressure, the overload of demands from hitherto submerged sections of the people, the increased fragmentation of political life and the widening of inequalities, both between and within nations, because of the on-going technological revolution.

Paradoxically, the BJP is also a victim of the very fractured polity which has got it into power. If many members of its extended ideological family are unhappy over the way the government is working, it is because they are unable to accept the constraints which sharing power with many other parties, the extreme paucity of investment resources, the worsening internal security situation and the difficult international environment impose on it and put in question their own identity. In any case, a coalition is not a merger. Its members have different constituencies to nurse and divergent interests to promote. In this situation, it is inevitable for contentious issues to produce confused counsels and messy compromises.

Even so, the Vajpayee government has no cause to feel insecure. Its critics in the ruling coalition may badger it at times, subject it to contrary pulls, give it anxious moments and even make it lose face. All of them have nonetheless a stake in its survival. By cutting short its life, they realize, they will also be putting a premature end to their own parliamentary career. As things are, no party either in the ruling coalition or in the opposition can hope to fare better in fresh elections.

That is why the opposition parties, too, will think twice before trying to vote the government out even on issues where its policies are as distasteful to many coalition partners as to the Congress and the Left Front. Joining the chorus of protests is one thing and risking a defeat of the government in a division is quite another. In any case, the Congress has seldom before been so demoralized as it is today.

The many reverses suffered by the party in recent months have taken much of the sheen off Sonia Gandhi’s public image and dashed all hopes of its early revival. Her loosening grip on the party is apparent from her inability to discipline its squabbling factions in several states and to take a clear stand on contentious issues like the proposed mahajot in West Bengal. That many Congressmen can defy the leadership with impunity today is no surprise when the party’s working committee is packed with persons with no worthwhile social base in their own states.

The best anyone can expect in this situation is a scenario in which the government lurches from crisis to crisis, or from one half-measure to another, amidst a lot of mutual bickering. The Congress has to lump it, being unable to turn to its own advantage the prevailing confusion in the ruling coalition. As for the Left Front, it remains a prisoner of its past, refusing even to see that much of its ideological baggage has been rubbished by the dialectic of history to which it once claimed to have the key.    


Aids in recovery

Sir — As a nation, South Africa must be curiously insecure. As a country that, post-apartheid, is still in the process of redefining itself, it has been hit hard by the Hansie Cronje scandal. But surely Thabo Mbeki cannot upset global research on AIDS merely to restore South Africa’s “moral supremacy” (“AIDS to rescue of Cronje-hit Mbeki”, April 23)? Is this supremacy to be measured against the panic created in the rich Western nations sponsoring AIDS research, primarily the United States? And what is the connection between cricket and AIDS? AIDS is an African concern only in that the disease originated in Africa. It has since spread so far and so fast that Mbeki’s claim that it is a “uniquely African catastrophe” is incredibly foolish and short-sighted. Mbeki’s statement can be likened to cutting off the nose to spite the face. Already 4.1 million South Africans die of AIDS annually. In the anxiety to regain lost pride, it seems Mbeki does not mind how many more millions die before a cure is developed for the disease.

Yours faithfully,
Shoumik Gupta, Calcutta

Perils of pop science

Sir — C.S. Prakash’s article “Greens means genes” (March 31), is a good example of dangerous pop science, laden with misinformation in the garb of “science for the good of the poor”.

First, the claim that “only biotechnology” can give more food is grossly unscientific and illogical. More spurious is the opinion that “public perceptions in Europe are being manipulated by sensationalist tactics by fringe groups.” This is flatly offensive to the large community of European scientists who are a part of the “fringe groups”. That the entire European Union and Japan have called a moratorium on genetically engineered organisms because of the mounting scientific evidence of environmental and health damages from GEO is cleverly suppressed in Prakash’s article.

Prakash goes on to call the movement “irresponsible, because it sends a false message that such food products are unsafe.” I wonder how, and in whose interest, Prakash dares call scientific findings published in reputed international journals a “false message”. Biotechnology is surely a great achievement of modern science, but that does not obviate the need for extreme caution in releasing GEO into any country before appropriate testing is done by responsible scientists. This concern is expressed by many conscientious intellectuals, including M.S. Swaminathan, V. Kurien, P.M. Bhargava and V. Shiva in India, at the risk of their appearing “irresponsible” in the eyes of Prakash and his biotech corporate ally.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — C.S. Prakash’s article proves how biotechnology myths, spun by multinational biotech companies, distort public understanding of science. The fallacies in the argument that “only biotechnology can increase food production” are many.

First, production of staple food crops is increased by directing more nutrients to reproductive structures like seeds, at the cost of vegetative structures. Conventional breeding techniques have achieved this by producing dwarf high yield crop varieties. Because the highest physiological potential of seed production has already been approximated, further stepping up grain yield by using gene technology is hardly possible.

Second, none of the genetically engineered crops has ever been produced with an aim to feeding the hungry and the poor. GE cotton is not a food. GE soya is primarily grown for luxury foods like ice cream. GE canola is not a staple in any country. GE maize is grown in the West as cattle and poultry fodder. GE rice (such as Bt rice) have been proved to be harmful to a wide range of lifeforms. And none of them has yields better than non-GE varieties.

Third, biotechnology does have the potential to create new crop varieties with high protein content or disease-resistance which would be beneficial to the malnourished in poor countries. In practice, biotech companies are more interested in developing GE crops to promote sale of their own agrochemicals.

Four, opponents of harmful GE crops are not necessarily opponents of biotechnology as tools of science. Nobody objects to producing cheaper GE insulin, but ignoring the mounting scientific evidence of health risks from GE crops in the name of scientific advancement, bolsters profits of biotech companies, not grain yield for the hungry millions.

Yours faithfully,
Debal Deb, Barrackpore

Sir — C.S Prakash’s article remains to me something of a mystery. In 1943, the poor of Bengal died in millions despite the granaries being full. Since then, despite periods of low food production, famine has been avoided due to government intervention in local distribution.

Even under today’s improved system, high production on its own does not necessarily increase the affordability and accessibility of food. For instance, it was reported last February that the exceptionally high production of potatoes led initially to a greater supply in the market. But then there was a sharp fall in price — so low that farmers committed suicide — and crops rotted in the fields. Eventually decreased supply led to higher prices again. Thus more than just high production is needed to ensure availability of food. Amartya Sen shows that all famines, with perhaps one exception, have been caused by poor distribution rather than by inadequate supply.

Yet Prakash seems to mock this view without providing a reasoned argument. The importance of redistribution must be analysed in terms of social justice. There should be an inbuilt system of entitlement in each economy to provide food security. Prakash is not justified in dismissing this.

Yours faithfully,
Martyn Brown, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial “Book of human life” (April 9) and Stefan Collini’s article, “End of the known world” (April 8) revived the hope that some day in the future, geneticists and medical practitioners, combining their knowledge and skill, will be able to realize the vision of immortality.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

Sir — The report, “Site signal puts Bengal in race for eastern nuclear power plant” (April 20) contained avoidable errors. The report states that if the project comes through, it will be the first nuclear power plant in over a decade, the last having come up at Narora in Rajasthan.Actually, the last nuclear power plant (unit 3 of the Rajasthan Atomic Power Project) became critical on December 24, 1999 and is located at Rawatbhata. After two reactors were built at Narora, two more reactors came up at Kakrapar in Gujarat and one reactor at Kaiga in Karnataka.

Also, Narora is not in Rajasthan, but in Uttar Pradesh.

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Parthasarathy, via e mail
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