Editorial 1/ Financial advice
Editorial 2/Ceasefire in blood
The billionth mother
Fifth column/ Feed and be fed on breast milk
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ FINANCIAL ADVICE 
 
 
 
 
Finance commission recommendations are not mandatory, so the eleventh finance commission’s recommendations may or may not be accepted by the government in their entirety. The recommendations represent a mixed bag. Some are sensible, others less so. No sensible person ought to argue that agricultural incomes should not be taxed and such taxation has been recommended by the FC, as opposed to the recently announced agriculture policy, which vetoes such taxation. The problem with taxing agricultural incomes is that such decisions are constitutionally under the purview of states and states have been reluctant to introduce such measures because of the fear of losing votes. The FC has avoided this political economy problem by suggesting that local bodies should tax agricultural incomes, a recommendation of doubtful operational significance. One of the problems with introducing value-added tax is existence of local body taxes like octroi. The FC has the laudable suggestion that there should be greater devolution of revenue to local bodies, so that octroi and other local taxes can be scrapped. There should also be a widening of service sector taxation and appropriate user charges for utilities, to be inflation indexed. There also needs to be greater control over state government expenditure, supplemented perhaps by constitution of state-level finance commissions. These recommendations are unexceptionable, as is the suggestion of aggregating all tax revenue into a common divisible pool. When the seventh schedule to the Constitution was drafted, services were unimportant and the Constitution is unclear on who can tax services, the Centre or states.

The Centre has been taxing services under residual powers and services now account for half of national income. However, the Constitution is silent on whether these revenues have to devolve to states. The practice of devolving Central excise and income tax, while retaining customs revenue at the Centre, is also irrational. Therefore, a common divisible pool makes sense and the FC has pegged devolution to states at 29.5 per cent of aggregate tax revenue. However, it has recommended that this figure be net (deducting collection charges) rather than gross. Much is being made of this suggestion, although the quantitative impact is only around Rs 2000 crore, about one percent of total gross tax collection. There will also be a grant to compensate this loss, over and above usual grants.

More controversial is the 37.5 percent figure (which is arbitrary and not justified), given as a cap on devolution to states, inclusive of grants. Grants in aid will be linked to fiscal discipline at state-level and memoranda of understanding are being signed with 10 states. While state-level fiscal deficits are a serious issue and a recent paper by Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia has also drawn attention to deterioration in state-level finances, this is not the best way to address the problem. Statutory transfers cannot be linked to conditionalities, not until the Constitution is amended. There is also lack of transparency in how fiscal discipline at state-level can be measured and it is doubtful if objective criteria can ever be evolved. In addition, there is a moral hazard issue, because profligate states are assured of a certain level of transfers regardless of what they do on fiscal discipline. If this reallocation is accepted, gainers will be states like West Bengal and Bihar, while losers will be states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. Since these states have access to private capital, there is of course nothing wrong in the FC recommending an attempt to reduce inter-state inequalities, barring the moral hazard issue.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/CEASEFIRE IN BLOOD 
 
 
 
 
The bloodbath that has claimed over 100 lives in Jammu and Kashmir in the past few days is neither mindless nor purposeless. The attacks on Amarnath pilgrims, Bihari labourers and other civilians in different parts of the state may seem to be examples of homicidal mania. In fact, they are a deliberate plan to discredit the ceasefire between the Hizbul Mujahedin and the Indian government. The Hizbul’s decision to holster its guns and talk with New Delhi has infuriated other militant groups — mainly those dominated by non-Kashmiri mercenaries. The Hizbul have been expelled from the militant umbrella group, the United Jihad Council. These opponents of the ceasefire are behind the present attacks. If the murders continue unabated, they will leave the ceasefire’s credibility in tatters. The hardline militants will want to turn the public mood in the valley which is presently inclined towards finding a political accommodation with New Delhi. The killers probably hope to provoke the security forces to retaliate against Kashmiris and trigger communal violence elsewhere in India. None of this is surprising. Elsewhere in the world, opponents to peace moves have tried to derail them through indiscriminate violence. Islamicists nearly succeeded in wrecking the Oslo peace process. Shootings by extremist Catholic and Protestant groups tried to do the same in Northern Ireland.

New Delhi should avoid overreacting after the event. The security forces have a particularly difficult role. They will have to blunt the wave of killings before the dialogue is damaged. And they will also have to differentiate members of Hizbul from those of other groups. Pakistan’s role is still unclear. Islamabad greeted the Hizbul ceasefire with cautious approval. Yet the militant groups closest to the Inter-services Intelligence are the prime suspects in the present killings. But New Delhi’s key task will be to communicate to the Indian and Kashmiri public that they should not fall prey to the doubts and fury these killings are designed to sow.    


 
 
THE BILLIONTH MOTHER 
 
 
BY NIRMALA BANERJEE
 
 
Stop beating about the bush, Mr Prime Minister! With the birth of the billionth Indian baby, it was to be expected that the government will come out with some new measures for population control. Sure enough, there is a “new” population policy setting up a national commission on population, and at its first meeting, the prime minister has initiated a new fund — the national population stabilization fund — for stopping the “runaway growth of population” specially in the BIMARU states, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. As for the causes of this predicament, he has mentioned the usual package: absence of healthcare facilities for all, low literacy rates, and high child mortality rates.

While nobody would deny the need for improving India’s performance in all those respects, it is really heart-breaking that policymakers are still refusing to face the reality: that it is not women who need to be persuaded or made aware of the urgency of population control. Though they bear the children and therefore can be identified as the immediate culprits, they are not the main actors in this drama. There is now ample evidence from academic surveys and reports from nongovernmental organizations to show that almost always, the family size desired by women is significantly smaller than that desired by their husbands.

This should not surprise anybody since it is women who carry the entire physical burden of bearing and rearing children. In poor households, they also end up with the responsibility for finding extra resources for feeding the growing family. That they still continue to have numerous children is because in this country, very few of them have any control over how their bodies are used.

Consider the officially provided evidence: in the mid-Nineties, the mean age at marriage for women at least in the BIMARU states was less than 19 years. In 1991, 36 per cent of all rural women in the age group 15 to 19 were already married. Even in West Bengal we have found that most rural families are happy to get their daughters married as soon as possible after they are 15 years old Apparently, early marriages reduce the demands for dowry. This adolescent girl, with little education and even less exposure to the outside world, is usually married to a man five or more years her senior. Therefore, she seldom has any say, in the early years of marriage, in when and how many children she is to have.

Official data on age-wise fertility rates highlight two important facts. While the fertility rates of older women have fallen in recent years, those for younger women (15 to 24 years) still remain high. Also, most acceptors of contraception are older families who already have two or more children.

Although in 95 per cent of the cases the devices used for the purpose are practised by women — abortions, intrauterine devices, pills and ligations — they have to wait to do so till they have borne sufficient number of children of the right sex to satisfy their families. The younger the woman, the less her say in the matter.

Second, their use of contraceptives does not by itself show that women have control over their bodies. Decisions about abortions, still the commonest method of contraception, are usually family decisions. In our family counselling work, we came across many cases where husbands had accepted the need for family planning but did not allow their wives to use any standard contraceptive except repeated abortions. This way they could keep track of the wife’s sexual activities.

Now, with the spread of amniocentesis tests, abortion is once again the method used by families to ensure the right sex for their unborn child. Thus not only do women not have the right to select their own contraceptive, but even abortions and ligations of their fallopian tubes are rarely at their own initiative. They cannot refuse to undergo what the families decide for them, no matter what the depredations of those operations on their bodies may be.

If now there is a fresh thrust through this new fund for population control, it will no doubt result in an ever-widening network of ligation and abortion camps targeting desperate women. There will be more pressure on them to accept suspect drugs like Depo Provera; the government will keep turning a blind eye to practitioners inserting quinocrine pellets into women. In other words, as before, all the agents will continue to treat women as criminals indulging in anti- national activities and force them to undergo all kinds of indignities and physical hazards. However, for the same reasons as before, none of these measures can be expected to have more than a marginal impact. In a country as vast as India, arbitrary force can reach only a small section of the population. For universal coverage, there has to be a major shift in each community’s perceptions about family and reproduction. And since these are mainly male perceptions, it is time for policymakers to accept that henceforth it is men, not women, at whom programmes are to be directed.

It is men who have to be made aware of the dangers of the population explosion. It is they who have to be persuaded to stop indulging in irresponsible sex at home or outside and accept that within the family their wives too have a say in sex and reproduction. They have to be repeatedly assured that vasectomies do not reduce either their sexual prowess or capacity to work.

Since the Emergency and its aftermath, such ideas are a taboo for all politicians and therefore for state policies. By avoiding the issue, the state has allowed the bogey of male reactions to grow out of proportion. It has also allowed unscrupulous political leaders to use it for fanning communal paranoia. But Sanjay Gandhi’s is surely not the only method available to the state for involving men in this mission.

Twenty five years down the road, the country should be much better equipped for the task. Surely, the media, which has become such a force to reckon with, can be harnessed to use its universal appeal for this cause? Also, as a first step, can the state not enforce its own laws about the minimum age at marriage for girls? Child marriages not only add to the bride’s helplessness but also narrow the inter-generation gap and thereby lead to an accelerated population growth rate.

Any protest against population policies by women’s movements is always interpreted as an instance of their trivializing serious national concerns. But actually, for women, these are very real issues not just at national, but also at immediate personal levels. However, to be effective agents of the cause, they must have autonomy over their own bodies. Just removing their illiteracy or giving them a few more years of schooling would be of little use unless that helps to give them some more autonomy, if only by postponing marriages.

Similarly, a better network of health services too will be ineffective unless it helps to bring to the doorstep of each woman a real choice about the contraceptives she can use. Let us not fool ourselves any more. To change something as basic as patterns of family and reproduction, the measures to be used will have to be equally radical and imaginative.

The author is professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta    


 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ FEED AND BE FED ON BREAST MILK 
 
 
ANCHITA GHATAK
 
 
A mother with a suckling baby is perhaps one of the most evocative images of human civilization. It embodies unconditional love and security for the infant. For some time now, human rights activists have been focussing on the fact that the rights of women and children are intertwined in many cases. The right to breastfeed and the right to be breastfed comprise an example of such interdependence.

The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, along with several other international and local bodies, observes August 1 to August 7 as world breastfeeding week. The theme for WBW 2000 is breastfeeding is a human right. Several research studies show that it is not possible for infants and their mothers to achieve optimal health unless women are allowed to practise exclusive breastfeeding for about six months and to continue for several months more, while providing adequate complementary foods.

Breastmilk is the best food for infants. It provides a nutritionally balanced food for children, reducing the chance of certain diseases, including diarrhoea, infections of the respiratory tract and of the ear and the urinary tract. The act of breastfeeding is an essential component of childcare, contributing to healthy growth and psychosocial development. Breastfeeding contributes to women’s right to health by reducing her risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anaemia, and hip fracture.

Mother’s right

The issue of breastfeeding became contested with strong medicalization of pregnancy, childbirth and infant care. Sections of the medical profession worked to reduce women’s control over their own bodies and the different processes of childbirth and infant care. The nexus between medical practitioners and the infant food industry became too strong for individual women and households to combat.

The Sixties had seen a worldwide devaluation of breastfeeding. Women in large numbers were medically advised to go in for infant formulas leading to an undermining of women’s faith in their abilities to nurture their infants.

Fortunately, by the mid-Seventies, the folly of this was apparent. Campaigns to reinstate breastfeeding began. However, many of these campaigns lost sight of the fact that a woman has the right to breastfeed as much as a baby has the right to be breastfed. Campaigns focussed on the duties of mothers to guarantee good health for their children.

Organizations such as WABA are now campaigning to set the record straight on this count. A woman has the right to breastfeed. Several international instruments like the International Labour Organization conventions, No 3 (1919) and No 103 (1952) and others acknowledge this and can be used to serve the cause of breastfeeding.

And the baby’s

Indian feminists have been dismayed by government advertisements that show women giving up their jobs so they may breastfeed their babies. Campaigners for the right to breastfeed wish to guard against this relegating of women’s reproductive work to the sphere of the individual and the family.

Positioning breastfeeding as a woman’s right as opposed to her duty has several implications. It is an acknowledgement of a woman’s right over her own body and reproductive functions. India has progressive legislation without the mechanism to allow smooth implementation of laws. There is provision for paid maternity leave for four months but hardly any measure to ensure that employers do not flout these norms. The issues of paternity leave and childcare provisions in most sectors of employment are yet to be addressed.

Specific steps will help ensure that women are informed of the advantages of breastfeeding both for themselves and their children. The state, communities, families and individuals have to be equipped to fight the medical establishment’s attempts to control women’s reproduction. Creches close to women’s workplaces will allow women to breastfeed their children.

The nutritional requirement of a lactating woman is higher than her requirement during pregnancy. The need for adequate food and rest during this stage of a woman’s life cannot be overemphasized. A focus on reproductive health should not be limited to distribution of contraceptives. Poverty alleviation programmes have to be implemented effectively to guarantee women and children’s right to food and health.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Make your own way

Sir — Even before one gets the chance to agree with Mohua Mitra’s exposition on feminism within the family, one is appalled by her explanation of what she calls “the fate” of the working woman in Satyajit Ray’sMahanagar.The ill-fated woman in the film, Mitra argues, apparently gave up the job for “peace within the family”. Wrong. She gave up the job to protest her boss’s misdemeanour with respect to another female colleague, and at a time when both she and her family needed her to keep the job desperately. If you wish, you could call that feminism within the family. But Mitra and her seminarists would not. They would stop at seeing the family’s “use” of the woman, not her innate ability and power to make her own space and her own decisions, even within a repressive social system. Much of the “establishing of the human identity” of the woman within the family has to do with the woman herself. And more often than not she succeeds, in her own way.
Yours faithfully,
J.B. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Roots of death

Sir — The chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, reportedly said he has nothing to say on the killings at Nanoor. Comments such as these no longer disturb the people of the state. They will have to bear with such statements till the “real” democratic process is revived in West Bengal. We have heard of such senile observations earlier on after the incidents at Sai Bari, Bantola, and Keshpur. During the food movement in 1965-66, Basu voiced his protests against police firing, and criticized the government for not tackling the problem through administrative measures. He even called the government barbaric and uncivilized for its administrative failure. Of course, he was in the opposition then and had the right to criticize the government.

So what does he have to say when his own party workers indulge in killings? The rules are simple: when a person uses arms for killing, he is not to be given shelter as a party worker. He is simply a criminal and should be treated according to the law of the land. And when a government fails to protect the life of a citizen, fails to stop hooligans from perpetrating violence, it must explain the reasons for such failure.

Any government, if it comes to power through the democratic process, is accountable to the public for its failure in maintaining law and order. The arrogance of the so called Marxists can be felt through meaningless comments as Basu’s. This government is rightly an initiator of “jungle raj”.

One can only hope that sanity would prevail in the minds of powermongering politicians. Let the government understand its constitutional obligations and let the leaders allow the law to take its own course. Party politics and administration are two different things and when a government is elected to power, it is responsible also to the people, not merely to the party. Can one deny that there is not much difference between the governments of Jyoti Basu and Rabri Devi?

Yours faithfully,
Amar Lahiri Majumdar, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Have guns will win” (July 30), rightly observes that the preservation of law and order and the maintenance of the institution of civil society are not issues of any relevance to the rulers of the state. This has led to West Bengal being caught up in a cycle of violence. No wonder then that the financial sector in the state has reached a cul de sac. Not only financial decay, but the state is also faced with all kinds of decline, including that of morals.

During the Kargil war last year, when Pakistanis brutally killed captive Indian soldiers, the former were branded barbarous. How is it that acts no better are being committed by the very man who were so critical of the Pakistanis? The Birbhum massacre is even worse than the Pakistani army did. Reacting to the ghastly killings, the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, has reportedly said that she will neither forgive nor forget the incident. One cannot blame her, for no one can tolerate such offences towards one’s party workers.

For ordinary people this means that such violence will never come to an end if no one treats such acts with the strictness it deserves. But the common man craves peace, and in the unending violence only the precious lives of innocent men and women are lost. Also, the families of those killed have to go on living in a situation where the ruling party and the opposition are both rooted in a culture of brutality. For both the bereaved and the fearful, living in such a society becomes unendurable after a time.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Sir — The bloodshed in Birbhum reminds one of the massacre of the 13 young men who were killed in police firing when they were marching towards the Writers’ Buildings in 1993. Politicians today use the common man as a political tool. Busy with power-grabbing, politicians pay little attention to the value of human lives. Gradually all political action in the state has come to mean gross violence. This was never the situation in West Bengal even a decade ago. The lives of ordinary men are now full of insecurity. Politicians in the country have gone on cashing in on the helplessness of the poor for too long now. It is beginning to show everywhere.. The situation in West Bengal has never before been so terrifying.

Yours faithfully,
D.K. Chakravarti, Calcutta

Unappeased ,

Sir — If one agrees with K. Srinivas’s view expressed in “Who will bell the tiger” (July 25), one would have to confess that in the absence of political vendetta, the arrest of Bal Thackeray would not have been insisted on. There is no doubt that in our political system every move has some compulsion. But that doesn’t mean a right move taken, for whatever reason, shouldn’t be applauded. What happened in 1992-93 was not a mere riot, it was a massacre. Around 900 people were killed, according to official reports. According to the Srikrishna commission report, Thackeray had much to do with instigating the violence.

The content of Srinivas’s letter is communal, to say the least. Dawood Ibrahim is not a leader of any community. He is a fugitive and is wanted by the Indian authorities. Syed Abdullah Bukhari has never dug the pitch of any cricket ground or disrupted any cultural musical show. True, Muslims are bound by Islamic principles, but Islam doesn’t pursue any divisive ideology as it does not allow the rule of man over man, which is a prominent feature of Brahminical society. It is a shame to call Thackeray, who proudly acknowledges the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a defender of India’s unity.

Yours faithfully,
M. Arif Faridi, New Delhi

Sir — R.H. Putran must understand that proceeding against Bal Thackeray is not Hindu bashing, although it seems to be a policy of appeasement. To balance this act, Abu Asim Azmi, a Muslim leader, had also been named for arrest. It should be noted that Thackeray was not only the editor of a newspaper during the Mumbai riots, but also that the paper commanded a substantial following. It is in this perspective that his editorial should be seen and judged.

Further, Putran must also note that the majority of those detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act were Muslims and most of them were innocent. Would one call this Muslim appeasement? If Putran’s argument is stretched even the arrest of Dara Singh, the alleged killer of Graham Staines and his sons, would be termed Hindu bashing.

The Nationalist Congress Party-Congress government of Maharashtra should not let itself be hijacked by the supporters of the Shiv Sena. It should appeal to the higher courts in earnest to right a wrong. Punishment for the Shiv Sena chief will help the Muslim community regain its lost faith and confidence in the government.

Yours faithfully,
M. Azhar Islam, via email

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