Editorial 1/Billionth child
Editorial 2/Terror wins
A fund of theory
Letters to the Editor

If population growth could be seen as a matter of pride in India, the country should be celebrating today as its population crosses the one billion mark. Unfortunately, India does not belong among those countries which are tearing their hair over dropping fertility rates. The story of family planning in India has been one of its sorriest tales. Few countries have spent so much time and money on a project which fails so frighteningly. There have been any number of plans and projects to control the birth rate. What is problematic is that these have been sporadic, the political and bureaucratic interest in them inevitably slipping after a while. At the other extreme, such plans have pushed too hard. The measures implemented by Sanjay Gandhi destroyed the people’s trust in the government’s intentions for a long time. A persistent lack of political will is of course one explanation. But political apathy towards an issue so vital to the development of the nation is too amazing to be adequate.

One major problem about family planning policies is that they really cannot be made in isolation. A population policy, to be effective, must be linked to other broad developmental goals. Education, for example. Material incentives for panchayats to reduce fertility rates may make little sense to a poor and uneducated rural family. The national population policy broached three months ago touched on the question of incentives, without really going into hard detail or reviewing how many times governments have failed to maintain such programmes. The biggest problem, of course, is poverty. As long as more hands in the house mean a little more daily income, family planning will remain a rich man’s luxury. There are cultural and social usages too. More sons mean more dowry acquisition in many parts of the country. Female infanticide is an offshoot of this. A multi-religious community such as India’s faces other realities as well. As long as one religious community feels family planning goes against its faith, other communities feel nervous about reducing their own fertility rates. Mutual distrust, financial insecurity, ignorance about health and nutritional needs can all be dealt with. But only with a clearly worked out population policy and practical implementation of detail. Plans like that of the Madhya Pradesh government to stop the promotion of government servants with more than two children will always be rejected as impractical. Now that India is crossing the one billion mark, perhaps the Centre and state governments will feel the urge to pay full attention to what is now a crisis.    

Elections, intrinsic to democracy, could sometimes arbitrate against its fundamental principles. In Tripura, the run up to the recent Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council elections has been consistently violent. The endless rehearsal of massacres, abductions, torture, arson and extortion has persisted through the polls and is now going through its abated post-poll phase. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura has emerged triumphant, dramatically ousting the Left Front which has been in power since 1978, winning every council election so far by a comfortable majority. This catastrophic electoral displacement marks the reinstatement of a particularly alarming form of indigenized politics in Tripura. The entire course of the elections has been determined by the concertedly violent coercive tactics of the National Liberation Front of Tripura, a banned organization of tribal militants widely believed to be backing the IPFT.

The history of ethnic discord between indigenous tribals and immigrant nontribals in Tripura finds its focus in the status of the Autonomous District Council itself, a product of vested political interests right from its inception. Created by the Left Front in 1982 along a convoluted legislative route in order to secure tribal interests, its formation in Tripura endorsed an already existing ethnic schism caused by the reservation of three fourths of the state’s territory for only a quarter of its population. This was further heightened by the 1993 peace accord between the Left Front and the All Tripura Tribal Front, by which the number of seats in the council reserved for nontribals was reduced from seven to three. Since the formation of the autonomous council, the percentage of nontribals in the state has fallen from 31 to 23. The initiatives of the Left Front are therefore tied up with the origins of the move towards tribal autonomy in Tripura. From 1982 to 1995, when the council elections were last held, the Left Front has consistently retained its majority in the council. Therefore, its recent ouster indicates a complete change in these perceived allegiances. The rejection of the Left Front establishes a total severing of its identification with the tribal interest, as perceived by the militant tribal hegemony controlling the polls. The Left Front is now quite definitively identified with the interests of the nontribal minority. More specifically, like elsewhere in the Northeast, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is now associated with the Bengali interest in the indigenous consciousness and is therefore perceived as inimical to tribal autonomy. This is, of course, compounded with the Left Front’s persistent failure to negotiate, bilaterally with the Centre, any sort of understanding with a single extremist tribal outfit in the state. The instatement of a party backed by such a triumphantly violent outfit in a state, whose economy and civil society are in a shambles, raises profoundly disturbing questions regarding the quality of the autonomy it may have achieved in the process.    

Every year, high officials of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank meet in Washington to review the international economic order and to discuss possibilities of coordinating future strategies. These annual meetings are more or less routine and attract very little media attention.

This year’s meeting was held recently and was anything but routine. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Washington to protest against the policies being pursued by these institutions. The demonstrators felt that these institutions acted essentially as agents of the developed countries and were completely unsympathetic to the interests of the third world. They demanded a greater flow of developmental assistance and higher debt relief.

Of course, none of these allegations is new. They have been voiced from time to time by individual countries as well as at meetings of third world countries. Judging from the complete absence of any previous reaction, neither the Bank nor the IMF seems to have taken past protests very seriously. The IMF in particular has almost always followed its own brand of orthodoxy, almost completely impervious to all criticism. But, the current round of protest has at last evoked some response from both the organizations. Officials of the Bank and the Fund have been reaching out to the media, trying to convince everyone that they have been doing a great job.

The sheer scale of the current round of protests could have prompted this defensive action. These have dwarfed similar demonstrations, except possibly the demonstrations in Seattle last year during the meeting of the World Trade Organization. However, the somewhat atypical reaction of these august institutions could be due to a completely different reason. For the first time, a distinguished “insider” (or one of their own) has joined the band of protesters.

Joe Stiglitz is a distinguished economist who has figured consistently in many economists’ short lists for the Nobel Prize. Perhaps more importantly in the present context, Stiglitz has served as the chief economist of the World Bank for three years or more, resigning only last November. In a recent article in the New Republic, Stiglitz has launched a vitriolic attack against the Fund for following wrong economic policies during the east Asian crisis. Of course, Stiglitz and the street protesters are on a completely different wavelength. The most important difference is that Stiglitz does not attribute any mala fide intentions on the part of either the Bank or the Fund. He simply accuses the Fund of gross incompetence. In fact, in what many people may consider a blow below the belt, he states that the IMF staff “frequently consists of third-rank students from first-rate universities”. Another notable difference between Stiglitz and the protestors is that his ire is directed solely against the Fund. After all, he could hardly accuse the Bank of being staffed by incompetent economists since he was their chief economist.

One of the main points of Stiglitz’s criticism is that the Fund was wrong in forcing east Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia to impose austerity measures during the crisis. According to Stiglitz, this prescription had worked in the late Eighties during the financial crises in Latin America. This was largely because the Latin American crisis was created or at least aggravated by blatantly expansionary government policies. These resulted in bloated public deficits and loose monetary policies. Under these circumstances, the IMF was right in imposing fiscal orthodoxy in the form of tight monetary policies. This cooled down the over-heated economies, restored international confidence in their economies, and gave domestic governments the breathing space they needed to bring other corrective forces into play.

Stiglitz claims that the situation was vastly different during the east Asian crisis. For instance, countries such as Thailand were already running budget surpluses when the crisis broke out. So, the government was already following contractionary policies. These were already starving the economy of investment in avenues such as infrastructure, which are so essential for economic growth. So existing government policies, even without any encouragement from the IMF, were already threatening to stifle any inherent tendencies in the economy to compensate for the contractionary policies. The fiscal austerity sought to be imposed by the IMF simply aggravated the dormant forces which were already stifling the east Asian countries. In other words, the disease was different — it was foolish to prescribe the same medicine.

Others have also alleged that the IMF is extremely dogmatic and inflexible and hence wrong. For instance, the IMF is said to be heavily in favour of policies which remove all quantitative restrictions on inter-country capital movements. This view is of particular importance to Indians. At the time that the east Asian crisis broke out, the issue of capital account convertibility was being hotly debated in India.

Many pro-reformers were arguing vociferously in favour of capital account convertibility. There was really very little logic in these arguments since no one offered any convincing argument as to why an individual country such as India could gain by removing impediments to the free flow of capital. The common feeling seemed to be that “the market always knows best”, and hence capital account convertibility was desirable simply because it allowed greater play to market forces.

Subsequent events actually showed that China and India were the two Asian countries which were relatively successful in insulating themselves from the Asian meltdown. It is probably not a coincidence that these were the two countries which did not blindly impose capital account convertibility. The restrictions on export of capital flows enabled them to protect the external value of their currencies more successfully than other Asian countries. For instance, the rupee has remained stable at around Rs 43 to the dollar for a remarkably long time.

The IMF has certainly betrayed a singular lack of flexibility. It prescribes the same medicine whatever the disease. This is very like the ancient practice of using leeches on patients to extract blood, no matter what the ailment. Of course, very few patients survived. And the leeches played no role in determining who survived and who did not.

But, one could also play the devil’s advocate and argue that the IMF cannot be blamed beyond a certain point. The truth of the matter is that economic theory still has to come to grips with an international scenario where different national economies are so closely linked to one another. Events have simply moved faster than theories. The theories which seemed to work reasonably well in the first half or three-quarters of the 20th century are misleading in the 21st century.

Perhaps the main reason for this is that countries have very little flexibility to follow independent macroeconomic policies. There is a very real sense in which we are now in one big and gigantic world economy, where all countries have to coordinate policies. Of course, this implies a greater and not diminished role for international agencies such as the IMF. However, the policies that the IMF and World Bank prescribe in the new international economic order have to be radically different from those they advocated in the past. If these institutions do not absorb this basic truth, then most countries are wasting their tax revenues in preserving these white elephants.

The author is an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi    


Mission impossible

Sir — One need not be reminded that Mani Shankar Aiyar is back in the Congress propaganda machinery. He would not only have us believe Indian “experiences” in Sri Lanka in the Eighties were not that bad after all, but would like to see India get into another mess by sending another “peace keeping” mission to its southern neighbour (“Sri Lanka: the issues at stake”, May 9). Let’s have it straight. For one, Aiyar’s reasons are far less patriotic than he pretends. His concern is not Pakistan stealing a march over India in Sri Lanka affairs, but the Congress losing a chance to keep its fingers in an old pie. If the National Democratic Alliance washes its hands of the imbroglio, the Congress would have less opportunity to bully it in Parliament over doing something about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins. Aiyar argues that the Indian peacekeeping force had done well as mediators, he implies it was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which blew it. Wrong. The IPKF was a political and military blunder India better not be reminded about.

Yours faithfully,
S. Chandraswami, Calcutta

Inferior state

Sir — As Madhushree C. Bhowmik pointed out in her article, “States of division and misrule” (April 14), residents of Deogarh district, particularly the Bengalis, are averse to inclusion in Jharkhand. The excuse offered is that the mixed culture of the north Biharis and Bengalis is sharply distinct from that of the tribals. Under the same pretext the residents of Dhanbad, Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Hazaribagh and Giridih can also object to being part of the proposed state. What Bengali and Bihari settlers in the north think in this context is completely irrelevant. Only the tribal people, the real sons of the soil, can take a decision regarding the status of the region.

India is a free country where the citizens can settle in any part of it. The demographic change of any region is not fully unexpected, given constant migration from one region to another. However, if the migrant majority has the final say in every affair and the indigenous minority is given the cold shoulder, it will not augur well for the country. This will make every ethnic group wary of the other groups for the fear of being dispossessed of rights and culture in its homeland. The unity of the country will then be jeopardized.

The migrant community should always remain respectful of the culture and people of the adopted region and aim for peaceful coexistence instead of superseding the latter or dictating to it. Only tribal residents of these regions are entitled to demarcate the boundaries of the state and say whether it should be named Jharkhand or Vananchal.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — It is amazing that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is opposing the creation of a separate Jharkhand state. The party does not seem to recognize that the tribal people in the Jharkhand area, which includes parts of Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, are distinct ethnic groups with their own language, culture and belief system. They deserve to have a state of their own. Perhaps the CPI(M), being the ruling party in West Bengal, is afraid that a few districts of West Bengal will have to be eventually merged with the new Jharkhand state.

Yours faithfully,
Yogesh Gupta, Hyderabad

Sir — I deplore the decision to bifurcate Bihar. If south Bihar is ceded, what will remain of the erstwhile state? Nothing but recurrent famines, droughts, flood, dacoity, loot and rape. All minerals and forest products, which now fetch crores of rupees for the Bihar government, will go to the new state. A dying Bihar will finally die.

The proposal to create Jharkhand only goes to show how ideologically bankrupt India’s political leaders are. They will do anything for the sake of power and money. It was Laloo Prasad Yadav, now the strongest champion of Jharkhand, who had once fought the demand tooth and nail. His volte face is remarkable.

The creation of Jharkhand will be an irreparable loss to Bihar. There is no guarantee the problem of the adivasis will be solved either. Over and above all, it will start a chain reaction of discontent and disruption. Other regions like Chattisgarh, Purvanchal and Kamtapur will also clamour for statehood. The president should use his discretionary powers to stall the process and save Bihar from impending peril.

Yours faithfully,
R.P. Sharma, Katihar

Sir — Recently three politicians were gunned down in south Bihar. Gurudas Chatterjee of the Marxist Coordination Committee and member of the legislative assembly since 1990 from Nirsa of Dhanbad district, was shot dead in broad daylight on April 14. The crime apparently was committed by the coal mafiosi of the region. A trade union leader, Chatterjee was waging a war against the latter. A few days earlier, a former Congress member of parliament, Vijoy Singh Soye, was killed inside a shop in Chakradharpur. Fingers were pointed at some notorious politicians of West Singhbhum district. The brother of the state minister of adivasi welfare, Bagun Sambrui, was also murdered.

These murders show the complete lawlessness in the state. Bihar police apparently did not have the guts to stand up against the criminals. The ruler at Patna, Rabri Devi, is either incapable or unwilling to stop the criminalization of politics and the politicization of criminals. The conflict between the higher castes and the Dalits in central Bihar causes the death of hundreds of innocent people every year. The chief minister always washes her hands of any responsibility by announcing ex-gratia payment of a few lakhs of rupees for the relatives of the dead. Murder, rape, dacoity, kidnapping and similar activities have become the hallmark of Bihar. The low literacy rate might be one possible factor behind the absence of law and order in the state.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur.

What price change?

Sir — It is not difficult to appreciate the government’s concern regarding the growing oil pool deficit and the need for cuts in subsidies in various sectors of the economy. However, it is difficult to understand what took the government so long to wake up to the situation and why it is in such a tearing hurry now. Of course, politics is one answer. But the government could have shown a bit more concern for citizens by carefully spacing implementation over a longer period of time. After all, consumers need time to adjust their propensity to consume with the rise in the price index which normally follows such harsh measures. Instead of trying to get rid of the subsidy regime at one stroke, the government could have administered piecemeal doses of economic antidotes in instalments.

The government obviously waited for an opportune moment when the harsh measures would not spoil its electoral chances. One way of cleaning up the sorry mess would be for the government to begin pruning its size — and thereby its monumental expenses. The good intentions of the government are not in doubt, its methods are.

Yours faithfully,
Ignatius Gomes, Calcutta

Sir — Given India’s per capita income, the market prices of foodgrains here seem very high compared to international standards (“Food for thought”, April 28). The government’s intervention in the foodgrains market favours prosperous producers far more than consumers. There is so much marketable surplus of foodgrains because of skewed land ownership, with rich farmers juxtaposed with poor farmers and landless labourers. Land reforms are a strategic intervention needed to give food security to the poor. The public disribution system also must be linked to other employment generation schemes to be effective.

Yours faithfully,
Jaydev Jana, Calcutta
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