Editorial 1/ Looking at peace
Editorial 2/ Home breakers
Starvation amidst plenty
Fifth column
Old measures for the teeming billion
Letters to the editor

The announcement by the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, of a unilateral ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, during the holy month of Ramadan, should be widely welcomed by all those interested in a return of peace to the troubled state. There is little doubt also that the ceasefire will be greeted with enthusiasm by the vast majority of people in Jammu and Kashmir. It is particularly unfortunate, therefore, that some of the Pakistan-based militant groups have rejected this important and timely initiative by New Delhi. For more than a decade now, Kashmir has witnessed an unprecedented scale of violence. While a large number of security personnel and militants have been killed, the worst casualty has been the ordinary Kashmiri. Not only have thousands of innocents been killed, but also most Kashmiris have been deeply traumatized by the brutalization of their state and society. While now is not the time to apportion blame, it is clear that any attempt at restoring a semblance of normalcy in the state requires a major initiative by the Central government. The announcement of the ceasefire is one bold step. It follows a series of gestures which suggested that New Delhi was embarking on a new and more imaginative approach to win back the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people. These included the permission to two senior leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference to travel to the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference at Doha, and the decision to allow another important APHC politician, Mr Abdul Ghani Lone, to travel to Pakistan to attend the wedding of his son.

However, if the government’s decision to ceasefire is not to be as shortlived as the ceasefire offer by the Hizbul Mujahedin in August, it is important for the Centre to back this initiative with other equally imaginative measures. Most important, the Centre must make a determined effort to initiate a substantive political dialogue in Kashmir. A dialogue between the Centre and the Kashmiris should be as inclusive as possible, and no group or individual must be considered untouchable. Nor should any conditions be attached at the beginning of a dialogue. It is quite obvious that any negotiations the Centre conducts can in no way compromise the unity and integrity of India. Even separatists realise this, but any explicit conditionality makes it difficult for many to make the initial leap from the streets to the negotiating table. Equally, the Centre must promote an all-party debate on a package of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir.

It is often not realized that autonomy is synonymous with devolution or decentralization of power. The demand for greater decentralization has been part of the charter of virtually every Indian political party at one time or another. Indeed, it is not difficult to strike a harmonious balance between the need to integrate Jammu and Kashmir within the national mainstream, and the state’s demand for autonomous self-governance. Ultimately, however, there must be a realization that Kashmir is unique, and must be dealt with specially. This uniqueness is obvious for a variety of historical reasons, but Jammu and Kashmir’s singular importance to the very idea of India is often forgotten. A Muslim majority state that voluntarily acceded to India in 1947 lent tremendous strength to the construction of India as a vibrant, secular and pluralistic state. The battle, therefore, to win back the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people is critical not just for the recovery of the ideals that inspired Indian nationhood, but central to the war against obscurantism and fundamentalism.    

Fear grips Calcutta’s suburban homes. And a sense of being utterly unprotected, in this fear, by the keepers of law and order. The repeated and increasingly brutal robberies in Kasba are proving to be deeply unnerving for residents in the area. What is most frightening is the conjunction of petty theft, careful planning and extreme brutality. Killing comes easily to these criminals and the elderly are treated with obscene violence — for relatively insignificant spoils. This is yet another manifestation of the undertow of violence that haunts West Bengal at many levels.

In the city and its peripheries, an area covered by seven police stations has had 14 robberies in the last three months. A clear pattern of criminal behaviour emerges from a cursory analysis of a number of these incidents, particularly of the four identical attacks in the chief minister’s constituency. Yet the police has so far been completely ineffectual in tackling this serial menace, in spite of endless analysis and belated recognitions. The movements of the gang cover an area of operation served by both the district and the city police. But inadequate deployment, inefficient communication and poor coordination have managed to create, in the public, a lack of confidence in the protection assured by the police. Police officials and a prominent politician in the area have repeatedly suggested the formation of neighbourhood pressure groups, thereby expressing quite clearly their helplessness in the face of this burgeoning crime. Also, the chief minister’s touchiness about the media’s disproportionate focus on the incidents in his constituency is far from confidence-inspiring. With insurgency growing in north Bengal and partisan violence reaching new heights of preparedness with the imminent assembly polls, the entry of terror into the homes of ordinary citizens has to be acknowledged and tackled with an expertise in which there can be no place for the making of excuses.    

Thirty-five years ago, when the concepts of procurement and minimum support prices were introduced in Indian agriculture, the objective was straightforward. In difficult years, when the crop fell short of expectations and market prices ruled high, the majority of consumers in this poor country were unable to afford the market price prevailing for essential foodgrains. It was therefore considered the state’s duty and obligation to procure grain from producers and traders at a price lower than the going market price. At the same time, in years of good harvest, when market prices tended to dip, the government was pledged to offer the farmers a minimum support price for their crop, which covered not only the cost of production but also ensured a reasonable profit margin for the producers.

It was no happenstance that this dichotomy of procurement and minimum support prices was introduced as an adjunct of the new agricultural strategy, in popular parlance, the Green Revolution. High yielding varieties of seeds, together with regulated dosage of water and fertilizer and pesticide, were the kingpin of this strategy. The dramatic transformation in farm output was initiated with wheat and, after an interval of years, spread to paddy. The inferior grains remained outside the orbit of the strategy, for high yielding varieties were yet to be innovated in their case. That situation has not changed much in the course of the past three and a half decades.

The rationale of the twin policy of minimum support and procurement prices is easily explicable. The Green Revolution called for considerable outlay, on the part of the producers, on high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilizer, water, pesticide and so on, that is to say, it necessitated a stepping up of per hectare outlay. True, this was compensated by much larger output of the grain concerned from each hectare of land. But higher output, the law of the market suggests, leads to a lowering of market price. To save the enterprising farmers from possible loss, it was decided to institute a minimum support price to ensure an adequate profit for the farmer after fully covering his cost. At the same time, if perchance production was affected adversely either because of unsatisfactory rains or other factors, market prices were bound to soar.

The millions and millions of poor consumers in town and country would be unable to buy the grains at such high market prices. It was accordingly considered desirable to have the parallel institution of procurement price, which would be lower than the market price but higher than the minimum support price. The procurement price had obviously to be lower than the market price since the object of procurement operations was to supply foodgrains through the public distribution system at prices which the poor consumers could afford.

There was an element of social control in this scheme. The government happens to be the main supplier of water from the irrigation system, often at a subsidized price; the government also supplies fertilizer at a price lower than the cost of production and, of course, it takes the initiative to supply the farmers with high yielding varieties of seeds, again at throwaway prices. The farmers should, therefore, in exchange be agreeable to hand over to government agencies a part of their produce at a price higher than the minimum support price but still lower than the prevailing market price. Even for the part of the output that would be claimed by the government in the form of procurement, the farmers would be offered a remunerative price which would be higher than the minimum support price. For the sake of the nation, farmers should, however, remain satisfied with a price for the procured part of output which was less than the current market price.

To implement this two-part pricing policy, the agricultural prices commission was set up and it was assigned the task of announcing the minimum support and procurement prices for the main agricultural crops, including foodgrains. Nonetheless, things started going sour from the very beginning. Since the deployment of the new agricultural strategy called for relatively greater outlay of resources on the part of the farmers, it was only those with bigger-sized holdings who were fortunate enough to reap the advantage of it. In this unequal society, where 65 per cent of the total arable land is concentrated in the hands of only 10 per cent of the farmers, the new agricultural strategy became the exclusive monopoly of big farmers and rich peasants. The latter constituted a powerful political lobby; given their clout in the countryside, they exercised influence over a large section of the electorate.

In the areas where the experiment with the high yielding varieties seeds yielded lush dividends, the dominance of the farm lobby was therefore altogether pronounced. Very soon, pressure began to be exerted on the government that, never mind the decisions of the agricultural prices commission, procurement prices must be pushed up almost to the level of market prices. But the lobby did not even stop here. Even as the Green Revolution scaled new heights of success and still newer heights, the farm lobby grew even more vociferous in its demands. With ample foodgrains available in the areas where the new agricultural strategy succeeded beyond measure, the market price for grains tended to fall, and, in some instances, even fell below the level of procurement price.

A sensible public policy in this situation would have been to purchase grains at minimum support prices. Political forces were, however, at work, the kulak lobby would not hear of any such practice. Over the years, they bullied the government into buying grains at procurement prices that were higher than the market price as well as the minimum support price. And such procurement prices were not fixed by the agricultural prices commission, but at the initiative of the government itself.

The inevitable happened. To this inordinately high procurement price had to be added the distribution cost, including the cost of storage, so much so that the economic price at which the public distribution system could sell grains to the hard-up consumers was beyond their means.

The only way out in this circumstance was to subsidize the issue price of the publicly distributed grains. But here an increasing shadow has fallen of late. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Western governments had always been against the principle of subsidizing the supply of food to consumers. Now the World Trade Organization has entered the picture. It has issued the fiat that the public distribution system must not be run at a subsidy; it is a sin to sell grains by the government at a price lower than the market price, since such an arrangement affects the incentive of private producers and traders. The government of India is an extremely good boy; it never deviates from following directives laid down by the WTO, the World bank, the IMF and similar international agencies.

We have, therefore, arrived at the present scenario where the government has a stock of foodgrains of 40 million tonnes, the storage cost of maintaining these stocks is at least Rs 5,000 crore per annum, while the offtake from the public distribution system is hardly 10 to 15 per cent of the total stocks. The consumers cannot afford the price at which the grains are offered to be sold through the public distribution system and subsidy is out.

Our poor consumers, who include the overwhelming majority of landless peasants and small cultivators, would therefore starve while foodgrains would be stockpiled in government godowns in record quantities. This is not the end of the story though. The issue price cannot be subsidized for the consumers, but the government of India, as a special dispensation, has recently granted more than Rs 400 crore to the governments of Punjab and Haryana to enable them to offer further subsidies to the rich farmers in those states.

The bell nevertheless tolls for the producing farmers as well. There must be, the WTO has ordained, unbridled import of all kinds of farm output, including foodgrains, into our country from Europe and the United States. Our farmers, too, will then go to the wall, in the manner of our consumers.    

The sixth Calcutta Film Festival was a carnival of sorts. Between November 10 and 17, the Rabindra Sadan-Sisir Mancha-Nandan campus resembled a fair ground. But no one is complaining. This chaos is what festivals are all about. If you cared enough to listen to the million voices that drifted all over the Nandan complex like the aroma of freshly ground coffee, you would inevitably have heard, “Oh, this is unthinkable in Cannes” or, “In Berlin they will never allow this to happen.”

Everybody who happened to be somebody — and going by the number of delegate, guest and press cards that were being flaunted, there were many such — had an opinion about how matters really should be handled.

The media meets were reduced to a farce because of the banal questions the mediapersons put forward. One could only pretend to look away in disgust while the directors and filmmakers, especially the foreigners, were forced to field mandatory questions on Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. But, the good thing is at least the press desisted from quizzing the directors on Amartya Sen’s theories or trivia on Rabindranath Tagore.

A common complaint throughout the festival was about the tight security checks. A young, fashionably dressed man was spotted with his companion in tow, involved in a heated debate with an official. The gentleman’s grouse was that he was being “heckled” by the official who had actually stopped him from carrying his mobile phone into the auditorium. His behaviour was generally symptomatic of a section of the crowd who thronged the festival just to be seen there.

Cine bureaucracy

And this is the section that gives festivals a bad name. At every instance, it expects to be treated like royalty whereas its claim to film wisdom could well be limited to an acquaintance with a few “right” men in the bureaucracy. The festival, a number of media reports suggested, was a non-show as far as producers were concerned. This is not the organizers’ fault.

If the crowds flocked to watch certain kinds of films, the distributors ought to be blamed for being blind enough to lose out on potential revenue by not appropriating the distribution rights of these films soon enough. Besides, films should not be selected on the basis of the money they rake in.

Moreover, much of the audience found itself at the festival less because of the quality of the films and more because of the possibility of sexually provocative scenes in these films.

The package of films selected this time offered a window to contemporary world cinema for the numerous film enthusiasts in the state. Going by the enthusiasm with which the people welcomed it, the festival deserved every bit of the hype it received.

Visual pleasure

Never known for their courtesy or customer-friendly approach, a host of festival officials pleasantly surprised many at the Sisir Mancha entrance by handing out each viewer a neatly photocopied handout of the extract of Eliseo Subiela’s Little Miracles, an Argentine film in Spanish with German and French subtitles. It is beside the point that the handout did little to explain the complexities of the abstruse film; at least the gesture went a long way in creating a favourable impression.

The brochure produced on the occasion was a handsome one. Surprisingly, even normally frugal Calcuttans coughed up Rs 100 for each of these, despite the fact that no receipts were being given out for it. One will never know if the money actually reached the festival coffers and indirectly to flood relief. But the brochure was beautifully designed. This is quite an achievement if one considers the fact that the organizers were scouting for good films (and accompanying literature) even until the week before the festival opened.

Despite the several failings, and innumerable slips in organizational efficiency, the Calcutta Film Festival deserves to be complimented. This is a fairly new festival, but the lessons are being picked up real quickly.

The event certainly placed the city firmly in the map of world cinema. Notwithstanding all the grumbling and grouses, one feels certain that when the festival is back next year, the queues will be just as long and the pitch just as feverish.    

The national population policy announced by the government of India in February 2000, lays down three objectives — immediate, medium and long term. The immediate objective of the NPP is to address the unmet needs for contraception, healthcare infrastructure and health personnel and to provide integrated service delivery for basic reproductive and child healthcare. The medium term objective is to bring the total fertility rate to replacement levels by 2010, through vigorous implementation of the intersectoral operational strategies. The long term objective is to achieve a stable population by 2045, at a level consistent with the requirements of sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental protection.

The long term objective of the NPP is the most important assertion made in the policy statement. This is because population per se is not a problem for any country or ecosystem. Population becomes an issue only when its size becomes unsustainable vis-à-vis the available natural resources of the country for not only the present, but also for the future. The long term objective of the NPP is critical and needs to be examined with all its implications. This is, however, missing from the NPP.

This long term objective clearly implies that the sustainability of the environment and of socio-economic development depends on population size, which must not exceed a certain optimum limit.

The silence of the NPP about India’s sustainable population size makes the document just a hollow statement of the kind which the nation is now accustomed to listening to from our politicians and planners. Population stabilization is a long process and for the NPP to be credible, it must be clear about its long term objectives.

The NPP should have been more specific about two things — what the stable population of India would be with the successful implementation of the NPP and whether it would be possible to sustain this population size throughout the country. The NPP is oblivious of these two cardinal points.

In order to estimate India’s population size by 2045 we should be aware that even after achieving a TFR of 2.1 it takes about three to four more decades to stabilize the voluntary family programme as proposed in the NPP. Kerala achieved the TFR of 2.1 in 1998 when its population was about 2.7 crore and it is expected to stabilize at four crore by the year 2025 approximately.

It should be obvious that even after achieving the TRP of 2.1 by 2010 as stipulated in the NPP, India’s population will continue to grow until its stabilization by the year 2045. There is no chance of any reduction in our population size till at least 2045, even if this NPP is implemented with all seriousness by the authorities.

M.S Swaminathan, the reputed agricultural scientist who has made a significant contribution in shaping and formulating the NPP, feels that the carrying capacity of the world, at an adequate standard of living, may not be greater than two to three billion. When asked about a corresponding sustainable population size for India, Swaminathan replied, “We do not have the precise calculation for India.” The population supporting capacity of an eco-system depends upon the concept of standard of living. This statement of Swaminathan came only a few weeks before the announcement of NPP in February 2000.

This means that the exercise to estimate the sizeable population of India was not done while drafting the NPP and nobody has a clue as to what is the limit at which the NPP desires to stabilize India’s population by the year 2045.

In order to comprehend the sustainability of India’s population size we must look at the state of the three basic elements that are most critical for human survival — air, water and land.

Food is absolutely necessary for sustaining life and nearly 99 per cent of the human food supply comes from the land. It is generally accepted that to adequately feed the present world population, about 0.5 hectare of arable land per capita is needed. India has about 170 million hectare of arable land, but only about 140 million hectare of it is for cultivation. Thus, the per capita availability of arable land in India is now only 0.14 hectare, which is extremely inadequate because India has 12.5 per cent of the world’s share of arable land in spite of having only 2.5 per cent of the world’s total land area.

Moreover India’s cultural productivity is in no way better than the corresponding world averages. The availability of only 0.14 hectare of arable land per capita is of grave concern. Out of the 140 million hectare, about 80 million hectare is substantially degraded by erosion, salinity, waterlogging and depletion of nutrients.

Water is even more critical for our survival. We require water for our domestic need, agriculture, power generation, industrial use and so on. India is actually a water-deficient country, though there remains a false impression that nature has provided us with an abundance of it. Since 75 to 80 per cent of total water requirement is for agriculture alone, the right parameter to judge the status of water availability would be the percentage of arable land area and not of the total land area. Our arable land area is 12.5 per cent of that of the world and with only four per cent of the world’s water area, India is indeed deficient. India also has to manage 16 per cent of the world’s human population and about 15 per cent of its animal population.

The total amount of utilizable fresh water resources available per year is about 1,150 cubic kilometres. But 29 per cent of this utilizable fresh water is available in the Brahmaputra basin alone which constitutes only 6 per cent of India’s land area and only 3 per cent of our population live in the basin. Therefore, only 820 cu km of fresh water is available for the rest of India.

It has been estimated that the current requirement of water is about 720 cu km for the rest of India. By the year 2025, the total water requirement will exceed the availability of water. It is worth mentioning that even though the present water requirement of about 720 cu km per year in the rest of India has not exceeded the fresh water availability of 820 cu km per year, about 10 crore people spread over six of our states suffered from an acute shortage of water last year, despite the fact that the country has been getting a normal monsoon for the past 11 years.

With the growing population and the increasing demand for foodgrains, several Indian states are likely to face an acute water crisis over the coming years. It is really unfortunate that the NPP does not state the fact that the population size has exceeded the sustainable limit.

Instead the NPP reiterates the same old measures which the planning commission and the governments have been advocating for the last few years without success. One sincerely hopes the national population commission can save the nation from the Malthusian catastrophe, symptoms of which have already started appearing in our country.    


Valley of pipedreams

Sir — Will peace ever return to the Kashmir valley? One wonders whether the government’s decision to announce a unilateral ceasefire will be enough to restart dialogue between India and the different militant outfits (“Second Shot at peace in Kashmir”, Nov 20). The declaration of a ceasefire which has coincided with Ramadan is the olive branch extended to the militants. However, one cannot but take the news with a pinch of salt considering the fact that the last attempt made by the government had backfired and resulted in a bloodbath. There is also a difference of opinion in the government ranks with the Union home minister initially opposing such a move. To make matters worse, the Al-Badr has already rejected the offer and it is likely that the other militant groups might respond in the same way. Will the militants ever understand that several wrongs do not make a right and that dialogue will only succeed in an atmosphere of cooperation and conciliation, and not of hate?
Yours faithfully,
A.N. Roychowdhury, via email

Serious reservations

Sir — With her pro-minority speech at the Muslim convention at Netaji Indoor Stadium, Calcutta, Mamata Banerjee has shown her preference for Islam over secularism (“ Mamata woos minorities, warns majority partner”, Nov 15).

She has never attended any Hindu convention or given any speech in support of a Hindu cause. If she calls the Bharatiya Janata Party pro-Hindu, she cannot justify why her party should similarly not be branded a patently pro-Muslim outfit. The BJP is, at least, making some visible attempts at wooing Muslims into its fold. Banerjee has never thought of wooing Hindus.

The logical extension of her premise is that the complete Islamization of the country is the best way to guarantee secularism in India. It is because of leaders like her that people have become disenchanted with secularism.

Yours faithfully,
Robin Kumar, via email

Sir — The call for reservation on the basis of religion by the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, is bringing back the century-old British theory of “two-nations” based on the Hindu-Muslim divide. Banerjee, touted as the next chief minister of West Bengal, is trying to play the minority card to gain political advantage on the eve of the forthcoming assembly polls in the state.

But Banerjee is definitely banking on short term gains. Her courage and honesty have so far earned her a respectable political status. But when it comes to administration and policymaking, her performance has been less than commendable. Even her recent comments justifying her neglect of the Union railways ministry show that she is desperately eyeing the hot seat in West Bengal. Unless she rises above these petty sentiments and has a vision of the future, she will find it difficult to become a true leader of the masses.

Yours faithfully,
Dhrubajyoti De, via email

Sir — Mamata Banerjee, on declaring reservations for minorities if her party forms the government in West Bengal, has perhaps gone too far in her bid to gain cheap popularity. She must remember that a similar act of reservation proved fatal for the Janata Dal government not so long ago. If she thinks that she will benefit from gaining minority votes in this manner she should also consider the number of votes she will lose from the majority population. Is she under the impression that reservation on the basis of religion amounts to secularism? The chief minister of West Bengal was right in pointing out that this could provoke communalism.

Yours faithfully,
Kaustav Sinha Ray, Calcutta

Sir — Fifty years of pseudo-secularist politics has cost the country dearly on all fronts. The Congress was shown the door with its skewed secularism and casteist policies. Now it is Mamata Banerjee’s turn. The people of West Bengal have had enough of her histrionics and opportunism. They can see that the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are actually two sides of the same coin. If politics to these people means wooing minorities, then they should be prepared to be dumped by the majority. It is time the leaders of these parties read the writing on the wall.

Yours faithfully,
S. Dutta, Indiana, US

Public sector woes

Sir — That the ministry of finance and the public sector bank unions are at loggerheads is quite disturbing (“Strike cripples banks”, Nov 16). The government’s attitude is unrelenting and it is determined to bring down its equity stake in banks to 33 per cent. The recalcitrant banks had gone on strike on November 15 to protest against what they have described as the anti-labour policy of the government. Even though the special secretary, banking, has reiterated that the government would do nothing to change the public sector character of the banks, the unions’ concerns seem legitimate.

The present woes of the public sector banks can be traced back to the neglect and mismanagement of these sectors by the government which had allowed the nonperforming assets to accumulate. One feels that the government will not change its stance specially after the statement of the World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, about promoting globalization for the development of the third world. In the current economic scenario of rising inflation coupled with the continuous fluctuation of the rupee, a solution based on consensus and conciliation will be welcome.

Yours faithfully,
Phani Bhusan Saha, South Dinajpur

Sir — Public sector banks should be given the liberty to improve their business so that we do not have to depend on foreign banks. The government should allow public sector banks to mobilize their funds by issuing shares, debentures and fixed deposits from the public. They should be given the liberty to issue credit cards, ATM cards, home loans and so on. At present only the State Bank of India, Allahabad bank, Bank of Baroda and a few others have these facilities. This will also help these banks to make more profit and to serve better.

Yours faithfully,
Keshab Kumar Chowdhury, Calcutta

Sir — It is shocking that the banking sector is at present carrying non-performing assets worth Rs 54,000 crore (“Government firm on paring stake in banks”, Nov 15). NPAs are in effect unpaid loans. A substantial portion of these defaulters are high profile corporations. They may cry for lowering interest rates, but do not repay their dues. In order to pressurize defaulters, the Reserve Bank of India should publish at periodic intervals a list of defaulters so that the public is informed about who is squandering funds. This will be in line with the strategy of the central vigilance commission which published on the internet the names of the accused.

Yours faithfully,
Aniruddha Sen, via email

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