Editorial/Cross the gulf
Editorial 2/Room to kill
Nowhere to go but down
Letters to the Editor

In the past there has been little substance to India’s relations with Iran. The recent visit of the Indian external affairs minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, to the Islamic republic reflects the belief in New Delhi and Tehran that the two now have a lot in common. The two nations believe they share interests in both geopolitics and economics. The mutual security concern is the taliban of Afghanistan. Iran holds the taliban’s patrons, Pakistan, partly to blame for the persecution of Afghan Shiites and the killing of Iranian diplomats by the taliban last year. India and Iran are not out to overthrow the Kandahar regime. Their interest lies in containing the rogue state until it is tamed. The reformist regime of Mr Mohammad Khatami is wary of being drawn into an armed conflict with the taliban because a jehad would strengthen his chief rivals, Iran’s hardline mullahs. Both countries fret about Afghanistan’s becoming a source of terrorism, India’s primary concern, and heroin, most of which passes through Iran.

The other interest is economic. Hence the recent revival of the 1993 plan to build a natural gas pipeline between Iran and India. India’s recent burst of economic growth has made it the most important energy market in this part of the world. Iran, on the other hand, is sitting on some of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world for which it needs infrastructure and customers to pay for it. The pipeline is still a blueprint, in part because it must run via Pakistan. Iran also hopes to host many of the pipelines that will be siphoning the petroleum riches of the Caspian and Caucasus. Again, it will help if it has a large customer nearby. Iran and India have had troubled relations in the past. Under the shah, Iran and Pakistan were on the same side of the Cold War. For a brief three or four years the Islamic republic trained and supported militants in Kashmir. Then in 1994 it signalled a shift in its position by persuading Pakistan to withdraw a resolution on human rights violations in Kashmir. As the taliban cast a shadow across Afghanistan, talk of Iran acting as Pakistan’s strategic backyard went out the window. In addition, the Islamic revolution begun to lose much of its fervour. The recent electoral evidence of enormous popular support for Mr Khatami’s liberal Islamism makes it easier for democratic India to come closer to Tehran. Far from defying the West, India is de facto paving the way for the United States and other Western nations who are waiting for Mr Khatami to push aside the mullahs. Iran’s revolution has burnt itself out. Tehran now sees an Islamic revolution next door as a threat and is preparing to end its decades of diplomatic and economic isolation. India is and should be at the forefront of this process.    

It is time to ask what the ideal of empowerment of women really means in a country almost completely desensitized to dowry deaths. The desensitization has to be acknowledged. Dowry-related violence and deaths are old crimes. Laws have been made, some police action occasionally recorded, yet statistics show the steady escalation of this particular form of torture on women. India patted itself on the back when the secretary general’s report in the Commonwealth conference of ministers in charge of women’s affairs lauded the nation for its efforts to right gender imbalance. The nation must therefore also ask itself how Ms Jyoti Dhawan can languish in a locked room for two years, being starved to death by her in-laws. Ms Dhawan represents a huge population of women, starved, tortured, beaten, emotionally and psychologically tormented and very often — oftener than is ever recorded — murdered for dowry. The system of dowry itself is proof and practice of an ineradicable gender imbalance. It represents, unfortunately, an area of serious failure on the part of women’s and human rights organizations. Somehow or other, everyone is used to dowry-related violence. Until there is murder — and most often such murder is put down to accidental death by fire — planned and regular torture for dowry merges indistinguishably into domestic violence. And domestic violence comes under a different category of corrective or palliative measures altogether.

One of the obvious spurs to uncontrolled violence in this sphere is the abysmally low conviction rate in courts. This is possible only because society is perfectly amenable to the barter system with woman as counter. Parents would rather have their distressed daughters try to make a go of it in their in-laws’ houses than come back home. A daughter’s return and a divorce seem a waste of the resources used up in the wedding and the dowry. There is the additional social stigma of a separation or divorce. In all this, violence is taken for granted. That is what is so puzzling. Women from all strata of society are equally devalued by virtue of this one system. There is much being done about the anti-rape laws throughout the country by women’s organizations and lawyers. If their recommendations are accepted the conviction rate for rape might improve. There is no such countrywide effort to stop dowry-related violence. One problem is of course the deep entrenchment of the system in the economics of a predominantly agrarian society. But the practice itself has moved far away from its roots, and become woven into the dangerous gender inequity which determines everyday social and domestic usage. As long as this combination of money and cruelty dogs women’s lives, India cannot claim to have achieved anything in the sphere of gender balance.    

Obviously enough, the season for speculation is still at an incipient stage. The Indian middle class is in a haze. Perhaps as many as a million youngsters are enjoying a gala time because of their association with some aspects of information technology activities. India, it will hardly do to forget, is the largest producer of software after the United States.

This is wonderful tiding; a small footnote nonetheless rears its head, modifying the mystique of the ground reality. The overwhelming part of software production takes place because of the linkage, formal or informal, of branch units with parent units incorporated in the US or some other foreign country. The reason is simple. Technology graduates are available in the Indian market at fantastically low wages, which is a bonanza for North American and European corporate units.

Young graduates from ordinary Indian middle class homes are experiencing a demand, long distance, for their services from foreign firms specializing in information technology. This will persist till as long as the Indian graduates offer their services at adequately low wages. But such a situation cannot last indefinitely. The process is predictable. Once the technology graduates from poor countries, such as India, learn global facts, they will venture to hike their supply price. At some juncture the multinational corporations will do their calculations afresh and go for new collaborative arrangements with young graduates from some other underdeveloped countries lagging behind India.

In case that happens, the general industrial crisis in India following globalization is bound to affect in equal measure the software business too. The overall milieu will settle down to a pattern of declining growth rate encompassing both agriculture and industry. The industrial growth rate will decline because public sector units will keep closing one after another, those that somehow survive will be denied both bank and fiscal credit. Unrestricted imports will sound the death knell for other industries as well, including those in the small scale sector. Tariff and nontariff barriers will be off for the farm sector.

But this will be so only in the developing countries. The developed countries in North America and Europe control the International Monetary Fund-World Bank-World Trade Organization trinity, the transnational corporations have their roots there. The cumulative impact of their activities will be the reappearance of the colonial order. But Newtonian physics says every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Will the colonial renaissance lead to a revival of the anticolonial revolutionary clan as well? One honestly does not know. There will perhaps be some tension within each recolonized country, the middle class will stand divided, a small fraction from among them, those associated with infotech activities, will be happy to stay globalized. The very large majority of the population will however have a different kind of experience. Elimination of tariff where there were barriers previously will emerge as an outstanding phenomenon. The threat will loom of lowering tariffs all the way to zero per cent across the board. These are all part of the commitments, the nation will be told, following the signing of the Marrakesh treaty and the establishment of the WTO.

The general attitude of the authorities in New Delhi — cynical, with a hint of the comprador ethos — is easily summarized. True, the rate of unemployment is steadily increasing in the system. Everyday, some more industrial units are going to the wall, which is all a great pity. Nothing however can be done about it, we have made our pledges to the WTO, and that is the last word in the matter: it is not the national interest, but the interest of foreigners that is to prevail in every instance.

Do the official spokesmen who dish out such garbage realize the meaning of meaning? What they are stating amounts to an open declaration of a return to the 18th century. The overall picture could not be any gloomier. The banks and insurance companies are in the process of being handed over to foreigners. Public undertakings, responsible in a major way for the aggregate economic growth that has taken place over the past half a century, are being sent to the gallows. As stated above, they are being starved of funds, both budgetary funds and liquidity from the financial sector. Banks and financial institutions are under instruction to concentrate on speculation and dubious transactions in the stock exchanges. Advisors from distinguished financial institutions have kept drilling the lesson that speculation is the central source of national welfare.

The other underlying assumption is that the economy will take off consequent to the inflow of investment funds from overseas; the local tribes who have money to spend should therefore focus on consumption and not savings. The hard data now available indicates that the assumption should not be taken seriously, long term investment in the system has struck a sluggish patch since the initiation of “reforms”. It is as if the colonial-comprador arrangement is back with a bang: the comfortably placed among the local populace should use their funds exclusively for high consumption.

Investment in the system, this model says, is to be left to the exclusive care of foreign parties. That the foreign parties are not performing the job expected of them is seemingly nobody’s affair to keep track of. The fact the rate of foodgrain output has again fallen below the rate of population growth in the course of the past decade does not cause any concern to those in charge nor does the prospect of massive unemployment in the cottage and farm sectors in the wake of compliance with the WTO’s directives on the withdrawal of trade barriers.

This lassitude of the mind is, in fact, the hallmark of the colonial epoch. Our fate is being determined by decisions taken elsewhere. The Europeans and the North Americans know how to take care of themselves. Or rather, since they themselves have written the WTO’s documents, the world trade body’s long arm does not reach them. The developing countries in contrast continue to be in the soup. The proceedings have been planned that way. India is, at the moment, being compelled to give up nontariff barriers of all descriptions on a whole range of commodities. Article XVIIIb of the Marrakesh treaty, allowing special dispensations for balance of payments reasons for the poor countries, has been divested of all its relevance.

Both Europeans and North Americans can get around the proscriptive clause concerning farm subsidies even when such subsidies are close to 100 per cent of the total cost. In contrast, the swords and choppers are out the moment a poor country like India suggests even a 10 per cent subsidy for its farm products or for publicly distributed foodgrains with the object of protecting the level of the poorest segments of its population.

This is an absurd, unfair regime the WTO is determined to impose on the global system. It may be the century of infotech. It may be claimed to be, thanks to the website, the freest of the free market ambience. None of this can however obliterate the harsher facts of life. India’s rate of economic growth is declining. The distribution of income and assets is getting further tilted away against the poor. But as long as members of the comfortably placed middle class, who have implanted themselves next to the website, are disinterested to listen to the roster of travails experienced by the numerically dominant population groups inconvenienced by the challenge of technological advances, it will be a toss up of the severest kind.

A dicey circumstance all told, with the realization by some of us that we live another day because we have been allowed to do so. This further extension of longevity, there should be no illusion, is something for which we cannot post any claim. We survive. That is all. We survive for today, the agenda could well be different tomorrow.    


Your slip is showing

Sir — You might pooh pooh Mamata Banerjee’s claims that Trinamool Congress is the real Congress, but you still have to believe Banerjee remains the only true-blue Congress leader around the place. It is not only by way of her usually torn sari and worn out sandals that Banerjee keeps her Gandhian links. She is increasingly bringing another Gandhian tactic in her political dealings — turning the other cheek to the political adversary. Take her attitude to the left on the issue of railway expansion to north Bengal. Leftist barbs about the underdevelopment of the region were quietly admitted and a carping municipal affairs minister, Asoke Bhattacharya, welcomed to hold the stage (“Mamata, Left trade barbs on new trains”, May 22). Add to this Banerjee’s gesture of sending a separate railway coach to the rescue of octogenarian Jyoti Basu and you have a scene so touching that you might want to weep. One only wished occasional slips of this garb of decency did not have to result in carnages as severe as Keshpur.

Yours faithfully,
M. Majumdar, Calcutta

Net gains and losses

Sir — As trade and commerce flourishes, legislation concerning the same is an obvious sequel. The inherent spirit of such enactment should be to regulate the functioning of such trade, so as to enable players in the market to conduct their business on disciplined lines, thus facilitating the manifold development of industry. But the fact is that in the past 50 years the Indian government has lost sight of this spirit. On the contrary, its laws hamstring industrial growth.

This is amply reflected in the draconian clauses, like the clause allowing inspector raj, contained in the Information Technology Act recently passed by the Lok Sabha. India is in the process of becoming a major global software player. Any sensible government would capitalize on this godsend opportunity to elevate India’s economy to international levels. New Delhi should seek out means to boost the sector and ensure that it faces no obstructions from government machinery. Laws should be formulated accordingly.

Yours faithfully,
P. Balaji, Calcutta

Sir — The new law proposed by the government to keep a check on cyber traffic is ridiculous and also represents an attempt to take a person’s fundamental rights. The restrictive policing measures the new bill allows are nothing but another way for the government officials to make money by harassing internet users and cybercafe owners.

Yours faithfully,
Anupam Raizada, via e-mail

Sir — It is reported the department of telecommunications and the department of telecom services are against software technology parks giving international internet gateway connectivity to internet service providers. The reason they give is that the STPs cannot monitor the transmission of voiceover internet protocols through the gateways. They also argue the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited should retain its monopoly over international connectivity until 2004 . They add that such parks should separate operations for software exporting companies from international internet connectivity.

These are just flimsy arguments designed to protect greedy monopolizers. Technology parks, as government bodies, can be relied upon to implement official directives. They can also obtain bandwidth from several competing satellite systems in the region and sell them to the ISPs at lower prices. If VSNL is not separating its various activities, why should the STPs? The prime minister must overrule the DoT’s directives. The newly formed ministry of information technology should ensure there is competition against the DoT, just as China allows competition between its two state owned enterprises. The people of India should not be held hostage to the inefficiency, delays and power games of the DoT and DTS.

Yours faithfully,
A. Sujatha, Hyderabad

Weakly defensive

Sir — India’s response to the Kashmir issue never goes beyond a defensive posture. Meanwhile Pakistan, which described the shooting down of its Atlantique aircraft in Gujarat as an “act of military aggression” over Pakistani territory, has taken the issue to the International Court of Justice, where proceedings have now begun. So Pakistan would again have succeeded in internationalizing Kashmir while forcing India to take a defensive stance.

The incident occurred after Kargil. We had insisted to the world that the Pakistani army was involved in this attack on Indian territory. We captured a few Pakistani soldiers who were well fed and looked after and produced documents to show the involvement of the Pakistani army in the attack. Subsequently, Pakistan honoured many of its soldiers who did well in that war. Meanwhile, many of our soldiers were brutally tortured and killed. Crores of rupees were spent to throw out Pakistani sponsored insurgents. India’s leadership never tried to take Pakistan to the ICJ for this aggression.

The torture and killing of Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia and a few other soldiers were instances of gross human rights violation. Squadron leader Ajay Ahuja was shot dead while descending by parachute. And while we pat ourselves on the back for Bill Clinton’s censure of Pakistan, it scores again by taking India to the Hague.

Yours faithfully,
Manoj Kumar, New Delhi

Sir — L.K. Advani recently gloated over the success of the Kargil war and dubbed it the most glorious episode in the history of the Indian army after the Bangladesh war. Advani wants to appropriate the success of the jawans, but he should also be equally ready to accept the brickbats due to the Intelligence Bureau for its failures. Had it functioned as it should, the country would not have had to pay such a heavy price in terms of money and lives. Advani should see to it that the promises made to the families of the dead and injured are kept.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — It was appalling negligence on the part of senior armed personnel that led to the fire in the Bharatpur ammunitions depot. India’s armymen were once known for their bravery, innovativeness and ability to win against heavy odds. What has happened to that spirit? Pakistan had been planning the Kargil incursions for a long time — we knew nothing about it.

It is perhaps worse that we allowed 12,000 tonnes of ammunition to go up in smoke. The excuse that the stockpile reached criticality when the temperature shot up to 44 degrees celsius is laughable. If that were so, how is ammunition stored in north Africa?

Is the public to believe that the dry grass accidentally caught fire? That there were no external instigators cunningly used to make the thing look like a bush fire? That the enemy had no hand in it? There are many more such questions. What was the capacity of the depot?

Why was it so poorly maintained? One hopes that the national security advisor and the defence minister know the answers. The immense losses cannot be made good by courtmartialling a few officers. The armed forces should be careful to live up to their reputation.

Yours faithfully,
Soumen Roychowdhury, Calcutta

Maintained by Web Development Company