Editorial 1/ Developing ideas
Editorial 2/ Up in the air
Lessons in catching up
Fifth Column/ canker in the beauty myth
Letters to the editor
This above all/ Real life begins at sixty
It’s normal to be home alone

What exactly is the best means to accomplish development is still the subject of furious debate in academic and policy circles. This is no surprise. Most of the world’s people would not be living on less than a dollar a day if there was a ready formula for breaking free of the poverty trap. However, the past decade has seen theorizing on development evolve beyond the crude leftwing belief that the solution lay in income redistribution carried out by the government. Tax the rich and have the state spend the money on poverty alleviation programmes has been dogma for years, especially in India. It was the abject failure of such policies — again, especially in India — that led to rethinking about the link between poverty and development. It took a rightwing economist, Mr Gary Becker, to make the case for “social capital” — that the knowledge in people’s minds was a form of wealth. It took the Indian economist, Mr Amartya Sen, to debunk the claim development was more easily accomplished under dictators than democrats. His argument that ballots and legislators were a necessary component of development is a running theme in the United Nations Human Development Report 2000. India, which crawled forward four notches up the human development index from 132nd place to a marginally better 128th, gets a thumbs up for its record on civil and political rights.

Another facet of the development debate is the issue of economic growth. Opponents of the market argue growth by itself does not help the poor because the rich get the lion’s share of the wealth created. This is why the state must continue to play redistributor. This claim stands refuted. In a recent World Bank analysis of the question, two economists, Mr D. Dollar and Mr A. Kraay, studied 80 countries over 40 years to judge the impact of economic growth on inequality, incomes and so on. Their conclusion: in all but six of 108 cases the income of the poor rose as much as that of the rich. The top, the bottom and the nation as a whole rose together on a one for one basis. The study also showed that the sort of anti-poverty programmes loved by Indian politicians — handouts and subsidies — did a worse job of raising poor incomes than did overall economic growth. All this confirms what other studies have indicated. Namely, that 15 out of 17 points chopped off India’s poverty ratio between 1951-93 have come from economic growth. Collectively, these analyses further erode the hoary and bankrupt arguments that state intervention is the only means to break the poverty trap. Together they also further the argument that development is really about expanding individual choice in the market place, in the political sphere and in furthering personal potential.    

Uttar Pradesh is both prize and pain for any political party trying to hold on to it. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s efforts to keep the state in its clutches have been rewarded with only brief stretches of comparative tranquillity. The acrimonious exit of the former chief minister, Mr Kalyan Singh, and his defiant floating of a new political outfit simply deepened the existing divisions in both the party and the electorate. The installation of Mr Ram Prakash Gupta as chief minister seems to have heralded more trouble for the party. The panchayat elections in June, preceded and accompanied by violence, have made clear what the BJP was already nervously contemplating, the fact that the party is growing progressively unpopular. Factionalism within the party led to rebel candidates contesting in many of the districts that went to the polls. And this was after the BJP general secretary, Mr K.N. Govindacharya, had expelled a large number of members from the party for dissidence and indiscipline and made threatening noises to the rest. The scale of the growing disaster can be made out from the panchayat election results. The BJP’s general performance was miserable. Even in the panchayats that fall under Lucknow, the prime minister’s parliamentary constituency, the BJP nominees lost. This is not accidental. The BJP experienced destructive cross-voting during elections to the Rajya Sabha. The BJP candidate was defeated in the subsequent election to the state legislative council. And the candidate from Mr Kalyan Singh’s new Rashtriya Krantikari Party won the Soron byelection. In the last, the BJP was pushed to fourth position, and the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party appeared to be ascendant, a trajectory confirmed by the panchayat election results.

While corruption and factionalism are crucial factors in the disintegration of intra-party discipline, caste dictates the voting patterns in UP. Mr Kalyan Singh was a Lodh. Much of his backward classes following has gone with him, and with the coming of Mr Gupta, criticized as non-performing, the BSP and the Samajwadi Party have recovered some ground. The party’s anxiety to hold on to the backward classes vote has offended the upper castes — Mr Gupta not being an irresistible draw — and they seem to be drifting towards the Congress. A change of leadership appears likely, although New Delhi is not too happy about it. The two positions of chief minister and state party president have to be filled, one by an upper caste leader and the other by a backward classes member — if the right ones can be found. That, for the BJP, is the magic formula. The name of Mr Rajnath Singh, a Rajput, is being mentioned as possible chief minister. But the intra-party lobby against him is almost as strong as the one against Mr Gupta. And the BJP cannot afford to make another mistake before the assembly elections.    

Our economy is opening up to all sorts of modernity. Surprisingly, liberalization, privatization, disinvestment are no longer part of technical jargon; journalists, political leaders, even housewives are comfortable getting into lengthy debates on these new concepts. India is awakening into a new millennium and trying to keep up with the new world. The market is steadily being made open and free to almost all (foreign) entrants; and as an obvious consequence, multinational companies are flooding in. There are numerous debates at every level about whether what’s happening is good or bad for our society, our economy and our culture; political and economic arguments are flying all over.

One might wonder what privatization has to do with our higher education, other than the obvious issue of whether higher education itself is to be privatized or not. Putting that issue aside for a moment, one should have a careful look at our educated labour force, which is also changing its face in response to a new kind of global demand in human resources.

The purpose of being educated in our society, sadly, has always been to provide an elitist signal to potential employers in the market. We, Bengalis, tend to believe in the philosophy, lekhapora kore je garighora chore se (one who is educated, gets to ride). We always encourage our children to aim for degree programmes that would, at the end of the day, bring in a secure job with a healthy pay slip.

In the British raj, people used to graduate, in any subject, to get a safe clerical job. The scene changed a lot after independence when good students started going to medical and engineering schools only because of the financially lucrative future prospects. Now in the age of computers, the face of lucrative jobs has changed again. Our graduates, no matter which field they graduate in, are now getting trained either in software technology or in business administration for a bright future.

Higher education in our society has always been provided free of cost, or at least is highly subsidized, by the government using the public fund. It has, however, never been for everybody. Only a tiny fraction of those who pass beyond secondary school receives university education. Those who do, unfortunately, do not acquire enough skills, either academic or other desirable ones, to be employed, definitely not by the multinational firms. A vast majority of our graduates either goes for another master’s degree in their field or joins the unemployed graduate club.

Our top graduates, on the other hand, do gather enough academic skills. But they fail to satisfy any other criterion required by employers. A very frustrated employer once commented after an on-campus recruitment interview that those who can “talk” know nothing and those who know a good deal simply cannot talk. Consequently, and very understandably, good graduates go to computer or management schools to get some extra skills that would impress employers. This is where our first degrees from good universities serve the purpose of just a certificate, an entry ticket. Employers, particularly multinationals, then catch these students out of their computer and management schools. We, the taxpayers, are therefore paying for the running of universities in order that a minority of successful students is produced.

Our higher education has been like this for the last two decades and we do not seem to bother much. There has been, however, a sudden change in the demand in human resources in the new economy. In this open era, firms are offering fabulous jobs to those who have key desirable skills. Our economic policies are now successfully creating plenty of jobs, particularly in the urban sectors. Most of our graduates, therefore, are now looking for skills elsewhere, outside their universities. It is now time for our education policymakers to act accordingly and very quickly if we want to catch up with, if not stay ahead of, the game. When multinational companies come to our country to recruit, they obviously look for some basic practical skills in our students. Our university degrees do not provide any key non-academic skill such as communication and presentation skills, good writing skills, skills to work in a group as a leader or just as a member of the group, basic management and information technology skills. These are precisely the skills that employers, particularly multinationals, look for and for these they go straight to specialist schools.

Institutions such as management schools particularly encourage group activities, case studies, and provide key skills that are badly needed in any future career. The question, therefore, is: why don’t our universities provide such skills?

The same multinationals, while recruiting from developed countries, go to universities only to hire fresh graduates as the graduates there, with their first degrees, do acquire all these skills. Their graduates get the kinds of jobs that our graduates do after a specialized degree. In fact, education policymakers in the first world realize the need of such skills even at the school level and they are now changing their secondary school syllabi to incorporate IT and other key skills. “Computer for schools” is a popular slogan in those countries nowadays.

After 30 years of independence, in West Bengal, we came up with a new package of secondary and higher secondary programmes, while keeping the standard university degrees almost unchanged. The pathway, as a whole, seems to be academically very strong and has indeed produced a good many excellent scholars. We justifiably take pride in our schooling system. We are probably right to think that our secondary education is ideal and extremely good; and probably even better than those in the developed countries.

But even if we agree that our system is indeed the best in the world, it cannot have remained so over the last 20 years whilst the world has changed so much during that time. The world is changing too fast for us and we have to change our education policy just to keep up with the pace. More important, our secondary schooling system has to be coupled with an excellent higher education programme; a programme that would enable our students to get a job afterwards without going through another specialized programme.

We must have progressive changes at all levels. We have to create a new structure, a new environment, a new syllabus in our colleges and universities that would incorporate new desirable skills, both academic and non-academic. We have to produce graduates who will be readily employed. Those who would go for master’s degrees in the new system would do so not because they are otherwise unemployed but because they have the hunger and potential for more academic degrees. We should encourage entrepreneurial skills and effective self-employment. The new programme should reach a vast majority of students after high schools.

There are obvious costs involved but they are nominal compared to the enormous benefits we can get. Presumably, if students are employed right after their first degrees, there would be much less of a burden on our existing master’s programmes. Indeed, we may even think of introducing fees for all master’s programmes. The net gain would definitely be positive. We should thereby be able to use the funds to create more universities, presumably in the less developed parts of our country, and encourage potential employers to move there for readily employable graduates.

The author teaches economics at the University of York, UK    

Recently, the consumer magazine, Insight, published a story captioned “Dyeing or dying”, warning hair dye users of enhanced chances of developing cancer. Consumer Currents, a consumer magazine in the United Kingdom, indicated a strong link between the use of hair dyes and breast cancer. Utuson Konsumer, the official organ of the consumer association of Penang, Malaysia, in its March 1994 issue, stated that women who use hair colouring products, especially violet and red dyes, have 50 per cent more chances of developing cancers like Hodgkins lymphoma.

Hair dyes contain more than 30 chemicals like ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, coal tar dyes, p-phenylenediamine, toluene diamine, lead and so on, which are highly toxic.

Cosmetics are substances used to clean and beautify without affecting the body’s structure and functions. The assumption that cosmetics won’t harm the body because they are applied externally is completely wrong. Chemicals are absorbed through the skin, through inhalation of vapours and dust cosmetics emit and even ingestion in the case of lipsticks.

Crores are spent developing and advertising varieties of cosmetics that beautify different parts of the body. Face creams and lotions to keep the skin ever young and glowing, shampoos to keep hair shining and silky are the craze.

Good old soap

Take shampoos. The main ingredient in shampoos is detergent (the same used in cleaning utensils). Other ingredients are water, oil, aloe vera, protein. Reaction with the skin produces “nitrosamine”, which was proved to be carcinogenic by Miki Mimani, professor in Mye University, Japan.

Consumer unions in Japan have found that shampoos damage hair and result in hair loss. Soap is a better alternative because research reveals that shampoo users have hair thickness of 0.097 millimetres, and soap users 1.15 mm. Also, shampoo users have hair thinness of 0.072 mm and soap users, 0.1 mm.

Anti-dandruff shampoos contain two harmful chemicals — selenium sulphide and resorcinol, which cause difficulties in breathing and damage the kidney and stomach.

Eye liners, mascara, eyeshadow, surma contain toxic metals like lead, chromium and cadmium. Lead is a cumulative poison which causes nephritis, anaemia, paralysis; chromium raises blood pressure and damages the kidney while cadmium leads to bone fracture and intensive pain. Lipsticks contain polyvinyl pyrolidone plastic, lead, saccharine, mineral oil and artificial colours. All these chemicals are highly toxic.

Talcum powder is a fine powder of magnesium silicate. Medical evidence indicates that prolonged use of talcum powder induces p-neumosis (a lung disease caused by breathing in the dust).

Double standards

In addition, contamination of the body tissue with talc is liable to cause granulome (a tumour on the skin). Regular users of hair spray run the risk of a lung disease called thesaurosis which causes changes in blood cells. Nail polish contains harmful chemicals like toluene, phenol, formaldehyde and camphor, long exposure to which adversely affects mental faculties, behaviour and menstruation, hormone levels and foetuses.

The consumer association of Penang found in a survey in 1987 that face creams contain mercury 4,000 times more than the prescribed level. Some of these were imported from India. According to the World Health Organization, excess mercury can lead to cellular damage. Utoson Konsumer cites statistics to show that 884 of all chemicals used in cosmetics are toxic.

To protect citizens’ health and consumers’ rights, the Indian government enacted the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, and formulated the drugs and cosmetic rules, 1945. Rule 148 of the latter directs manufacturers to state the names and quantities of the ingredients used on both the inner and outer labels, especially that of the harmful chemicals, as well as instructions for their safe handling.

Except hair dyes, no manufacturer of cosmetic products follows these directives. The apathy of the regulatory authorities and the enforcing machinery needs to be checked immediately. Also standards should be fixed and the Indian Standards Institute mark made mandatory for all cosmetics.    


Not the salt of the earth

Sir — History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. The salt satyagraha had been an inspired political gambit by M.K. Gandhi which rang the death knell for the British raj in India while also enabling the Congress to seize the initiative in the struggle for national assertion and against imperialism. Seven decades later, another Gandhi is again trying to make an issue of salt. But with what a difference! The Congress led by Sonia Gandhi is moribund, and it is the sangh parivar which now wants to withdraw the compulsory use of iodized salt (“Sonia in salt satyagraha”, June 30). It argues that iodized salt is expensive because it is manufactured by big corporations, and thus inaccessible to the common Indian — a variation of the mahatma’s agenda. And it is Sonia who is pleading for iodized salt, because iodine deficiency leads to many diseases among Indians. Whether there is any merit in her argument or it is merely dissent for dissent’s sake is unclear. But one thing is for sure, the poor in India is not at issue here.
Yours faithfully,
Ramnath Saluka, Calcutta

In the shadow of the hills

Sir — Sujit Choudhury’s contention, “All Manipuri dance teachers in Santiniketan were Bishnupriyas....They further say that this is their tradition and that the Meiteis adopted it from them” is obviously the Bishnupriya viewpoint and thus hard to digest (“Ethnic storm over a suffix”, June 1). Here are some facts to set the record straight. Long before Rabindranath Tagore experienced the Manipuri dance in 1919 in Masimpur, he saw the ras lila performed at the palace of his friend, the maharaja of Tripura, Radhakishore Manikya. Deeply impressed with this intricate dance form, he decided to introduce it at Santiniketan. Following a request, the maharaja sent a teacher, Kumudsingh Thakur, to Santiniketan. He was followed by Nabakumar Singh and R.K. Chandrajit Singh, all from Agartala. Later the Padmashri awardee, Houban Guru Atomba Singh of Imphal took over. All these gurus taught during Tagore’s lifetime and not one of them was a Bishnupriya.

In the mid-Thirties, Uday Shankar had the occasion to watch Manipuri dance at Lakhipur in Cachar, following which a Manipuri dance troupe performed the ras lila at the New Empire in Calcutta. Needless to say, it won critical acclaim in the Calcutta dailies. A member of that troupe stayed back in Calcutta to teach the dance form. Among his pupils was Leela Desai, an actress who performed with the mridanga in a dance sequence in Pramathesh Barua’s film, Mukti. In the early Fifties, an Indian cultural troupe led by the former deputy finance minister of India, Anil Kumar Chanda, toured India and China and the Manipuri dancers of Imphal did India proud by winning worldwide acclaim. Among those who have helped spread the dance form abroad is Nabaghanasyam Singh of Krishnapur near Silchar town. He too is not a Bishnupriya.

The ras lila dance form was introduced by the rajarshi maharaja of Manipur, Bhagyachandra, in the late 18th century. Manipuri dance is an integral part of Meitei (a synonym of Manipuri) culture and rituals. The question of adopting it does not arise.

Yours faithfully,
Ch. Phanindra Singh, Shillong

Sir — Recently, a student outfit in Meghalaya imposed a “ban” on the English daily, The Shillong Times, because the paper published a letter which the outfit did not like. Although the ban has since been lifted, this action is fascist and needs to be condemned. Today it is The Shillong Times, tomorrow it may be any other newspaper. A few days before this incident, a student organization of Mizoram imposed a 48 hour ban on non-Mizos by asking them not to come out of their houses because a Mizo girl had been raped and murdered, allegedly by a non-Mizo. The crime was heinous, and no sane person, Mizo or non-Mizo, will condone it. But it is for the police and courts to apprehend and punish the culprits.

Even in Assam, student bodies intrude on the jurisdiction of administration and the law enforcement agencies, forgetting that as students, their goal is to study to become useful citizens. The time has come for legislators, administrators and politicians to reflect on their own weaknesses which have made these “student leaders” so powerful. If some serious thought is not given to this, and fast, we will soon live in state of anarchy and lawlessness.

Yours faithfully,
P.K. Gogoi, Guwahati

Sir — The editorial, “Terror wins” (May 11), made some important points. The triumph of the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura in the recent elections to the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council is a danger signal not only for the Left Front, but also for the 25 lakh non-tribal Hindu population of the state. Since the IPFT is patronized by Christian missionaries and the Inter-services Intelligence backed banned insurgent group, National Liberation Front of Tripura, hapless non-tribal Hindus of the state may soon be forced to migrate, like the Kashmiri Pandits, or embrace Christianity. This will upset the demographic and religious balance of the Northeast. The NLFT is now killing and abducting at will, besides looting, setting fire to property and extorting money. They run a parallel administration in the interior of the state. The Congress and the left parties had patronized the NLFT and the All Tripura Tiger Force in its early days. The tables have been turned now — it is the politicians who are at the mercy of the insurgents.

Yours faithfully,
Ram Narayan Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — It is time to check the activities of the present members of the autonomous council in the Haflong district of Assam. From the time the council was set up and the autonomous state demand committee voted to power, the situation in the district has started deteriorating.

The Telegraph reported allegations of a nexus between some politicians, the ISI and militant groups. Most people in the district are aware that some politicians, directly or indirectly, have been encouraging insurgency.

The army in North Cachar Hills has been doing a good job. But some incidents reported in a local newspaper have put it on its guard. The North Cachar Hills Council has done nothing for development in the region. It is time we faced the truth about these politicians and helped security forces restore peace and tranquillity in the district.

Yours faithfully,
Sudhir Bodo, Haflong

Sir — The news of the death of the socialist, Ajit Sharmah, should have received better coverage in The Telegraph’s Guwahati edition. Sharmah’s death was a loss to Assam. Surprisingly, The Telegraph did not even publish the news on June 12, while all other newspapers of the region gave it front page coverage.

Yours faithfully
D. Khaund, Jorhat

Sir — The news report, “Kidnappers send feelers” (June 19), about the peace negotiations between the Hmar People’s Convention (Democratic) leader, Lalhmingthang Sanate, and the Mizoram government is misleading. HPC(D) was responsible for the kidnapping of six North Eastern Electric Power Corporation officials, who were released after 74 days in captivity. The Mizoram home minister, Tawnluia, had invited the insurgents to surrender before negotiations could begin. After six years, the Hmar People’s Conference and the state government signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to set up a Hmar autonomous district council in north Mizoram. But this pact was devalued by the formation of the Sinlung Hills development council which has recently taken some controversial decisions. The Hmar youth have not forgotten the political and social suspicion they were subjected to by Mizoram. Thus the surrender of the Hmar leaders will not redress their grievances. The hidden grouses of the Hmars will only lead to more trouble.

Yours faithfully,
Jackie Khobung, Haflong

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]

Readers in the Northeast can write to:

Third Floor, Godrej Building,
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Guwahati 781007

You can’t do very much about old age. It creeps up on you at a snail’s pace to start with, then gathers speed in your middle age, and before you know it, you are an old man or an old woman. Symptoms appear in different people at different times: hair starts turning grey; some people start greying in their thirties, others in their fifties or sixties; some manage to have black hair into their seventies.

Many dye their hair and beards to appear younger than they are and manage to fool others for some time but not themselves. There are changes in the body which make you aware of the relentless march of time. Teeth begin to decay. Everytime you visit your dentist, he yanks one out till all are gone and he fits you with dentures which look whiter than the originals.

Once again, the age when people start losing their teeth vary enormously. Some lose them in their forties, others go to their graves or funeral pyres in their eighties or nineties taking all their 32 originals with them. The same applies to the eyes and ears; some wear glasses while still at school; others need no visual aid till the end of their days.

Some begin to be hard of hearing by middle age and need hearing aids; others never have hearing problems. The most important milestone in people’s lives is the state of their libido.

Both men and women regard declining interest in sex as sure indicators of ageing. With men, this is more dramatic than with women, who can enjoy sex long after their menopause. Men continue to fantasize about it all their lives but sometime after they have completed the biblical span of 70 years, they find their bodies unable to fulfil their desire; their minds remain as potent as ever, their organs let them down.

And they have to accept that they are into old age and fun has gone out of their lives. This is what men need most — as Nazeer Akbara Bedi put it: Har cheez se hota hai bura burhaapa/ Aashiq ko to Allah na dikhlaaye burhaapa. (Of all things that happen, the worst is old age/ May Allah never afflict a lover with old age.)

Men never give up hope of recovering their youth. They try all sorts of elixirs, aphrodisiacs (kushtas) and now Viagra to retain their potency. They may succeed in restoring a little self-confidence and ability to perform.

The quest for a permanent youth-restorer goes on and on: Jawani jaati rahee/ Aur hamein pata bhi na laga/ Isi ko dhoond rahe hai/ Kamar jhukaye huye. (Youth fled and I did not even know;/ It is my youth I keep looking for/ With my back bent low.)

Women find it harder than men to accept old age. They are prone to lying about it and use cosmetics liberally to hide their wrinkles. It takes a brave man to go on paying compliments to an old flame in her older incarnation: Begum, tere husn ke hukkay mein aanch nahin/ Ik hum hi hai ke phir bhi gurguraye jaate hai. (Begum, there is no fire left in the hubble-bubble of your beauty./ It is only I who will keep drawing on it.)

Very reluctantly men give up hope of recovering their youth. The French comedian and singer, Maurice Chevalier very rightly remarked, “When you hit seventy, you eat better, you sleep more soundly, you feel more active than when you were thirty. Obviously, it is healthier to have women on your mind than on your knees.”

Chevalier also has the ultimate answer: “Old age isn’t bad when you consider the alternative.”

Requiem for a loveable sod

A great gentleman and a great bore — that is how I thought of my friend of over 60 years, Danial Latifi, who died recently in Delhi. Good people tend to be somewhat tiresome and Danial was goodness personified. Having made this unkind introduction, let me also add that I vastly admired and loved him because he never lied, or ever said a hurtful thing about anyone. There won’t be another Danial Latifi.

I got to know Danial in my years in Lahore (1940- 47). He was the son of Sir Alma Latifi, ICS, one of a distinguished clan comprising of the Tyabjis, Futtehallys and Salim Ali.

He was a graduate from Oxford University and a barrister-at-law. Everyone expected him to start practice at the high court and end up as a judge. Instead, he joined the Communist Party of India and was in the bad books of the police and the criminal investigation department.

One night he was caught pasting subversive posters on city walls. He spent a while in jail. After release he shifted to the party headquarters. He lived on daal-roti. He was always lean and fragile; he became leaner and frailer; his long nose appeared longer — he had a vulpine profile. I persuaded him to move in with me. I had reason to regret my offer of hospitality.

Every morning as I sat down to enjoy my whiskey, Danial, who was a teetotaller, would start an endless monologue on Marxism, class struggle, imperialism et al. It ruined the taste of my good Scotch. One day when my cook and I were away, my mother turned up unexpectedly. She took Danial to be my servant, reprimanded him for sitting on the sofa and ordered him to get her luggage from the tonga and bring it up.

He did so without a word. When my mother discovered who he was, she was most embarrassed. He often teased her about it. It was in my flat that he met Sarah Itiyarah, a Syrian Christian teacher in Kinnaird college for women and as ardent a communist as he.

They fell in love and got married. Danial would often smile but rarely laugh. Sarah did neither. They were admirably suited to each other. The only thing they had in common was a passion for Marxism. They had no children. After Partition, the Latifis moved to Delhi. My father gave them a flat in the next block to mine. Once I told him that I was pestered by uninvited visitors.

He got me a spy glass to put in my door so that I could see the visitor and if I did not want to be seen I need not open the door. Danial was the first victim of his own gift.

Danial did not change except that he began to drink in modest quantities. Once I ran into him at a French embassy reception. He had a plateful of food in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. By then he had become quite an authority on Islamic law. I made the mistake of asking him how he reconciled imbibing liquor with Islam.

He proceeded to dilate at great length quoting verses from the Quran that the holy book did not forbid taking alcohol. And all this while we were being jostled and buffetted by the crowd milling around us.

Danial and Sarah did not live together very much. So when she died, he was not shattered. He was not designed for domesticity. So I was surprised when I heard a few years ago that he had married again — this time a princess of royal blood, a descendant of the great Mughals.    

With the growing number of working mothers, more and more children are falling into the category of “latchkey children”. They are so named because they must carry their own house keys with them. They come back home from school to an empty house, let themselves in and amuse themselves as best they can till their parents return in the evenings.

Sociologists have been studying the plight of latchkey children with growing concern. Although it is difficult to estimate their number, in the United States alone there are about 6.5 million of them.

There are three main reasons for the increase in the number: the rising divorce rate, which has led to more single parents who work; feminism, which has led more mothers to work because they want to; and harsh economic realities which have led more women to work because they have to. As a result, many children are compelled to return to an empty home, and help themselves to lunch.

The concept of latchkey children is not new, especially in the West. Years ago, when working mothers were relatively rare, they used to be regarded as misfits, who were somehow set apart from their schoolmates. Now they form almost the majority in most schools. Child care is perhaps the biggest problem for the working mother. In India, the joint family was a boon when it came to looking after children of working parents, since at any given point of time, some member of the family would remain at home. Not anymore.

The rise in the phenomenon of the latchkey child is certainly one of the most significant changes in the basic family structure and living patterns in society. It has wide and far reaching effects on children and their parents. Parents feel guilty for depriving their children of their company. To deal with this, some working women keep calling up their children back home, and in the process, lose concentration at work. Suffering from guilt, they tend to shower their children with expensive gifts as compensation. But this only makes the children selfish and materialistic.

Loneliness is the greatest enemy of these children. They become reticent and withdrawn, apathetic towards company, and develop complications in their personalities. “For children left alone,” says Shiela Kamerman of New York’s Columbia University, “and for their families, this loneliness can be devastating.” Fear is another enemy of these children, many of whom complain of hearing strange noises when they are alone.

Strict instructions from parents about safety fail to ease children. Instead, they tend to feel stifled in their own homes. This leads to problems in the emotional development of the child, according to a study conducted by the human services information centre in the US. Lynette Long, professor at Leyola College, Baltimore, and co-author of The Handbook for Latchkey Children and their Parents, says that many of these children would avoid going home if they could. Most are vulnerable to fear, loneliness and stress.

“The dissatisfaction...affects their personality as their psychological needs remain unfulfilled,” says P.K. Nanda, head of the department of psychiatry of the Ispat General Hospital at Rourkela.

Sociologists are worried that these children may turn into delinquents or criminals. They may take to drugs or alcohol, or fall into bad company. According to experts, they are also more prone to emotional problems.

“Rejection [from parents] faced by children affects them psychologically, and they feel uncared for,” says P.K. Patnaik, a psychologist. “Parents should guard against this, since it has long term effects,” he warns. Studies reveal that latchkey children often grow up into withdrawn adults.

The good sign is that as the number of such lonely children continues to increase, there is a corresponding rise in the number of organizations that hold activities which can involve children after their school hours. These include debating clubs, hobby centres, music groups and so on, which help them fight boredom and loneliness.    


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