Editorial 1/Arms without men
Editorial 2/Fly freedom
Letters to the Editor

The fire and explosions at the Kanjouli Lines ammunitions depot in Bharatpur last week came painfully close to the first anniversary of the “official” beginning of the war in Kargil on May 3, 1999. Painfully so, if only because the wastage of precious defence and army training material has been enormous. And it was avoidable. Ammunition worth Rs 376 crore has gone up in smoke. That is the official figure. Defence experts put the estimate at Rs 2,000 crore, a staggering amount compared to the puny Rs 200 crore the government allocated to the modernizing of all arms depots this year. Air defence missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, artillery ammunition, tank and small ammunition and explosives have all been destroyed. The loss amounted to one-third of the Southern Command’s requirement in the desert area, officially speaking, and, according to a senior ordnance corps officer, half of what was used for the 155 mm, 130 mm, 105 mm field guns during the Kargil conflict. This informal inventory is necessary, for it is important to appreciate the scale of the wastage. For this is one more example of the lethal consequences of government apathy. According to a parliamentary panel report issued a few days ago, there has been at least a 10 year delay in the modernizing of the seven central ordnance depots in spite of repeated warnings by experts and committees. It is amazing that a government should pay such little attention to the needs of modernization and relocation of its largest ordnance depots, when large sections of the country’s people are uncomfortable about the growing defence expenditure in the budget.

The Bharatpur depot will take three to five years to replenish its stock, never mind modernization expenses. The only hope is that perhaps the elephant grass will be cut regularly. Because one of the explanations being given for the fire — besides the mandatory sabotage — is that the elephant grass that grows around the depot had been allowed to grow uncut within the premises this year and it caught fire. Ironically, it is nature again which acted as part redeemer. The “mud traverse” around the area prevented the rockets and missiles from flying out and causing complete havoc for miles around. Perhaps villagers living close to Kanjouli Lines should be thankful that the government had actually left the ammunition depot to the tender mercies of nature. But ironies apart, it seems incredible that the people of the nation are constantly exposed to unknown dangers caused by government indifference and negligence. It can only be hoped that the inquiry committee report brings about some serious changes, and is not shrouded in the mystery that surrounds all such documents. Transparency breeds accountability, and is especially important where defence establishments touch civil life.    

There seems to be a contradiction in the air. The Union civil aviation minister, Mr Sharad Yadav, had last month announced plans to open up India’s skies to foreign airlines and bring an end to the desperate drought of airplane seats to and from the country. Even as the Indian civil aviation industry was debating this policy, two international carriers, British Airways and the indigenous Air India, announced they would drop Calcutta from their flight schedules. British Airways gave a straightforward explanation. It was only allowed 16 flights into India. Though the Calcutta route was profitable, it was less of a moneymaker than other metropolises. It is a reminder that whatever Calcutta’s attempts at economic revival, its policies will always be found wanting if they lag behind those of other cities. It is also a testimony to the sort of damage that can arise from the mollycoddling of decrepit public sector firms. The best prospect for Calcutta and its recently renovated and increasingly empty international terminal building is that Mr Yadav actually succeeds in implementing his variation of an open skies policy.

There is no shortage of foreign airlines who would like to fly to India, covering as many cities as possible. They cannot because New Delhi has insisted on reciprocal landing rights for Indian airplanes to these foreign countries. The obstacle: the tiny, antiquated fleets of Indian Airlines and Air India are incapable of using so many landing rights. The government has declined to hand out these rights to large private Indian carriers. In any case, there are only two of them. Here is an example of double protectionism. The Indian civil aviation industry is grossly protected from foreign competition. On top of this, the public sector airlines are protected from both domestic and foreign rivals. Unsurprisingly, during peak season, flying in and out of India is a nightmare of bumped passengers, huge queues, pulled strings and bribes. Industries ranging from software to tourism suffer from the lack of flights. With so few foreign flights allowed, tertiary destinations like Calcutta are quietly abandoned. A sensible policy would be to encourage both foreign airlines and a bevy of private Indian airlines to fill the skies. The latter could bid for the landing rights to foreign countries that are going waste. Customers, employees, government revenue and the economy as a whole would benefit. Mr Yadav has put forward a half solution. It will benefit Indian customers, but not Indian airlines. His ministry remains dedicated to strangling the potential for a thriving private Indian airline industry. There is some poetic justice that a Left Front regime, champion of the public sector, should be the first to suffer from a policy designed to do nothing except keep two sick nationalized airlines flying.    


In the name of justice

Sir — “Innocent amid jailbirds for 20 years” (April 28), reminds me of a similar report months back which described a beggar’s experience. The report was extraordinary since beggars do not move us anymore. A little boy had been caught by the police and sent to jail for six months for stealing Rs 600. Sound justice. If there is crime, there should be punishment. But it struck me that the “bright fellow” (as P.V. Narasimha Rao once described him), Harshad Mehta, had allegedly stolen crores of rupees from banks and he could not be sent to jail even for six days. If you have money, muscle power and the right connections, you can get away with murder in this country. Look at Bihar. How many of the killers of Belchi, Dehelchuk, Jehanabad and other carnages have been sent to jail? Many of them have become legislators by now. The judiciary and the police have become instruments of repression. Were Bhikari Paswan’s killers brought to book? No. They are the respectable and influential people of society.

Yours faithfully,
Som Dutt, Calcutta

Skin off no one’s back

Sir — The editorial, “Hell for leather” (April 21) states that an order of ethics is necessary, that there should be a “hierarchy of human response”, that in the face of social and human and considerations “tough minded prioritization” is required. Human responses first. Isn’t this the very crux of every problem humanity faces today? Environmental pollution, deforestation, the extinction of species — need one make an inventory of manmade problems that threaten the existence of the entire planet? In an Indian context, strictly, our leaders and the electorate need to focus on the fact that selfishness and apathy in every human endeavour is solely responsible for the exploitation of children, poverty, unemployment, the creation of criminals and so on.

Plants and animals can take the second and the third positions if you wish. But we should have learnt by now that things have to work in tandem to achieve the near impossible state of ecological harmony. Mankind has to learn to consume and demand less. If there is to be any solution, all the branches of government must function as a whole and put the entire machinery into gear .

As regards the demonstrations against leather being a lesser species issue, and so needing to be relegated to the backburners, pay heed to Maneka Gandhi’s recent interview where she said we can either have leather products or safe drinking water. She was referring to the effluents of this industry being discharged directly into the Ganges. The toxicity to workers from hazardous chemicals used in this industry is another human consideration to add to the list in the call for boycott of leather. Cheap human labour and absence of guidelines for the health of the workers is human exploitation by rich exporters and richer nations. The menace of Tangra’s tanneries and the economic clout behind them which keeps them in place is an example.

As for the statement that international activist groups and retailers have greater lobbying and economic powers, it seems inappropriate to lump them together when the retailers have forgone their profit based concerns because of the commitment of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. Economic power does not ensure victory. Concern and caring do. That is what PeTA has called for. And PeTA is a United States, not a United Kingdom based, organization, though its campaigns are global.

Yours faithfully,
Nirguna Awatramani, via e-mail

Sir — Kudos for “Hell for leather”. The editorial very pithily exposes a catch 22 situation in fixing priorities — to undo deplorable child labour in the garment or carpet industry first or to end the appalling cruelty to livestock in West Bengal and Kerala. If India is earning foreign exchange through leather exports, thereby perpetuating the cruelty to its animals, soon lobbyists for animals will move the World Trade Organization or the United Nations to impose a ban on imports. This has already been done in the case of Indian garments and carpets made using child labour. The media could initiate a debate on the issue or encourage experts on dairy and livestock to undertake a study so that the question can be sorted out.

Yours faithfully,
Monoranjan Dasgupta, Calcutta

Unconstitutional reflections

Sir — The president, K.R. Narayanan, has rightly stated that “what needs to be examined is whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether it is we who have failed the Constitution”. The president obviously believes that this should be considered first in the context of so much of talk about reviewing the Constitution.

Unfortunately, although our Constitution has successfully completed 50 years, we have failed to either respect it or abide by it. For instance, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been pursuing its hidden agenda through the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government of sabotaging the Constitution and destroying the secular setup of our pluralistic society, Also, the late M.S. Golwalkar, chief ideologue of the RSS, had condemned the Constitution in his Why Hindu Rashtra? and We and Our Nationhood Defined.

Moreover, the BJP is committed to the RSS’s brand of Hindutva which stands for one religion, one culture and one civil code. This doctrine is not only based on intolerance and violence but is also antithetical to our Constitution that ensures religious and social freedom. Thus, the RSS has been violating the Constitution by insisting on creating a “Hindu Rashtra” which is obviously damaging to the secular nature of the Constitution. And if the BJP reframes the Constitution based on its brand of Hindutva it could well endanger the country’s unity and integrity.

Yours faithfully,
G. Hasnain Kaif, Bhandara

Sir — The move by the BJP-led government to amend the Constitution is justifiable. The need is especially felt in the instances of hung Parliament and hung assemblies. In this context, the section in the Constitution on the formation of government after elections needs to be amended. The president or the governor should be entrusted with the power to select the prime minister or the chief minister as the case may be from elected MPs and MLAs. The selected candidate can then select his council of ministers.

Second, an amendment must also be made regarding the voting of an elected government out of power. The parties that want the government out of office should first convince the president or the governor about their ability to form an alternative government. Only then should the president or governor allow the parties to show their strength on the floor of the house.

Yours faithfully,
Kausik Guha, Calcutta
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