Editorial / Lords of the flies
Truth is the best policy
People / Premander Kumar Gupta
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / LORDS OF THE FLIES 
 
 
 
 
What is to be done with droves of brutalized orphans? Most of them are not even in their teens, their families have been massacred in front of their eyes, their schools have been taken over by the army, and they are simply too young to figure out what to do with their compensation money or jobs. Modern Bihar, where they drift blankly, is vastly distant from 18th century Ireland. But the normalcy which takes these children in its stride is not unlike the savage indifference that provoked Jonathan Swift to propose modestly that England and Ireland’s starving children would suffer infinitely less if they were fattened and sold for food: “A young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.”

Ms Sonkali and her husband, Mr Daleram, from Biharipur in Uttar Pradesh, would have been ideal candidates for Swift’s experiment. They have produced 22 children; 14 have survived and another one is on its way. Biharipur’s couples are all blithely prolific, no family sporting less than 12 members. In the absence of electricity, roads, schools, health centres, television and radio, making babies is their idea of fun. They also believe that the government will reward them if they carry on making lots of babies. This conjunction of benightedness and the complete failure of government policy is part of the same teeming and jaded world in which Bihar’s young survivors are silently turning manic depressive, aggressive, insomniac or autistic. The violence cradling them is rooted in caste, their families razed by the upper caste Ranbir Sena. Apart from a few desultory surveys, most social organizations are too scared to involve them in rehabilitation projects. Some of the boys, made eligible by their compensations, have even found little wives.

There is, of course, an expanding terrorist market that could absorb these drifting, damaged hordes. There is a brutal logic to this cycle of violence. Extremist outfits, like the Maoist Communist Centre in Bihar and Jharkhand, and Naxalite groups in Andhra Pradesh, are major recruitors of children, indoctrinating and training them in guerrilla warfare. The Northeast, with its families and schools ravaged by insurgency, is also proving to be a nursery for terror. But children could be creatures of violence in other, more mundane, ways too. The other side of Biharipur’s brazen fecundity is the series of instances, in the heart of Calcutta, in which baby girls were disposed of like surgical refuse. In fact, recycling waste is the process that comes to mind (as Swift had thought of eating) when considering the prevalent forms of child labour. House work, factory work, sex work and various other bits of the unorganized sector consume children in ways that directly implicate the two fabled havens of nurture: the family and the state.

The urban middle class family cherishes the notion of the child as the antidote to all evil. But it could often end up perpetuating a system of inequality, prejudice, evasion and indifference of which the victims are children. Adoption, for instance, still manages to bring out its deepest fears, in spite of the legalities having become simpler. The survivors of the Orissa floods — orphaned children and bereft adults — have recently shown how new forms of coexistence, based on mutual need and the instinct for survival, can grow out of utter dereliction. These children had to survive not only a natural catastrophe, but also the inhumanity of the state which prefers to subsidize liquid petroleum gas and value education as worthier guarantors of democracy. The economics of social opportunity defines freedom as a person’s range of options in deciding what kind of life to lead. For the abandoned baby guarded overnight in a Calcutta street by dogs — whose foster parents backed out after she turned out to be deaf, mute and blind — for her, another, more terrible, vision of choice would perhaps ring truer. Trying to imagine a world “with no coercion”, a poet had wondered once if it might be one “where a foetus is able to refuse to be born”.    


 
 
TRUTH IS THE BEST POLICY 
 
 
BY BHASKAR GHOSE
 
 
In the years when I was in the ministry of information and broadcasting, a distraught secretary, rural development, burst into my room one day. He told me gloomily that he gave reams of information to the media on the work being done in the field to help the rural unemployed or underemployed, but not one word appeared in a newspaper; not even a passing mention was made in the private television news bulletins. “But,” he said bitterly, “let a BDO get caught embezzling Rs 500 and it’s big news.”

I sympathized as best I could, but he refused to be comforted. So much is being done, he said, our people are working so hard, and these presswallahs just don’t give a damn. Then he smiled cynically and said, “I suppose worrying about development is our business, our responsibility. No one else cares. All they’re interested in are scandals, gossip — you know, juicy stuff.” Then he leaned forward and glared at me. “And what are you doing about it?” he demanded.

I told him there was little I could do. The press, and the private television networks, were free to take what they wanted as news. “Oh yes,” he said, “I know. AIR and Doordarshan carry these stories. But people think that’s all propaganda.” I said nothing, because nothing I said would have got through his indignation and sense of injustice.

A few days later he brought the matter up again, this time in a meeting called by the prime minister. The information and broadcasting ministry is doing nothing, he said, to inform people of the work we’re doing. A clever little manoeuvre — he meant, firstly, the press, not the people, and that we may have been telling the press, but we weren’t able to make them carry any of it. After some discussions I was asked to organize “suitable” campaigns to tell people of the achievements of the rural development ministry.

Looking back on this now, I cannot help feeling that there was some truth in what the secretary had said then. News supplied by government agencies to the media is taken with a large bag of salt, and success stories on All India Radio and Doordarshan provoke derision, or, at best, indifference. Small wonder, then, that various ministries and government offices take out full page advertisements in newspapers to publicize their achievements.

Logically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what the government says about what it’s achieved is untrue, or only partially true. But that’s how people perceive official statements, and it is really a great pity, because it doesn’t have to be so. A basic distinction needs to be made. There are some statements that are statements of policy, and these reflect the government’s thinking, its stand on a particular issue, and have to be taken as such. The statements issued by the ministry of external affairs, are examples of this; they declare the government’s position, and are, in fact, accepted as such without question.

The trouble arises when other ministries issue statements of achievements, of the work they’ve done in a particular sector, or in a particular year. So many thousand tubewells have been sunk in so many villages, a press handout says. So many villages have been electrified, another handout says. Neither is believed, and both end up in the waste basket. Years and years of purveying half-truths, or plain untruths, has resulted in this kind of across-the-board reaction. Often they haven’t been done deliberately, but out of an excess of zeal to show that good work has been done.

The key lies in placing the facts in their context. There may be 235,000 villages which don’t have tubewells. If 25,000 have been sunk, then it has to be said in the context of the enormity of what remains to be done. This has to be a basic principle in giving the press, and people, information. And that’s not all. How many of the 25,000 tubewells are actually working? Obviously not all of them. It may not be possible to find out exactly how many aren’t working, but it can and must be said that some of these may not be working, and will you please tell us if the tubewell in your village is working or not? The fact that the government is aware of and accepts the fact that some of the tubewells may not be working gives the press, and local people, confidence that things aren’t always as rosy as the facts may make them out to be and the government knows it. That’s enough to plant the seeds of confidence.

It is, of course, not enough to make the seed grow into a sapling; that will only happen when deeds and words match, and not match more or less — they must match exactly. A secretary, or a district magistrate in his district, may think, “Well, there may be some slippages here and there but on the whole that’s what we’ve achieved.” A fatal mistake. The macro view must be based on an exact compilation of information at the micro level; if that’s not possible, the inexactitude of the macro report must be made very clear.

Add to these a third factor; silence. Often silence is propaganda as much as a partly true or slanted report. The flow of information needs to be regular, as it needs to be frank and accurate.

So why, then, one might very well ask, did I not do all this when I could? For a very simple reason; the other ministries simply wouldn’t hear of it. And the facts, good and bad, had to come from them. Within the limitations of one’s mandate one did what one could. The directorate of field publicity, which has or is supposed to have an audio-visual unit and an officer covering two districts of each state, was asked to report back on what the inhabitants of the districts they covered really felt was their greatest need. A sort of rough and ready information gathering, if you like. The answer was unambiguous: the need in the vast majority of villages in every district was drinking water. I passed this information on to the secretary, rural development, he who had despaired of the “truth” ever getting to people. Total silence. Or perhaps he knew already.

One person who saw this was Bimal Jalan, then member secretary of the planning commission. He sought my reactions to some ideas he had about information programmes on television and specifically talked of the possibility of having some programmes made which told the actual story — what has been achieved, and what has not been. And he wanted this done for exactly the same reasons — if our information has to be credible, he said, it must tell the whole story. But then he went on to higher things, and nothing came of these fine ideas.

But, frankly, it’s no use looking at the secretaries and other officers; the prime movers must be the policymakers, the council of ministers. They have to have the will to tell the people the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Only then will government handouts begin, gradually, to be treated with respect, and what they say be believed. Only then will the statements given to the media be seen as true indices of progress.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


 
 
PEOPLE / PREMANDER KUMAR GUPTA 
 
 
 
 

Out town

At first glance, Viswas Nagar appears to be little different from the numerous rundown colonies in East Delhi. Narrow bylanes, overflowing gutters, loosely dangling electricity wires — they look much the same. It is the acrid stench in the air that marks out this huge urban cluster from the others.

The foul odour is that of polluting gases emerging from many homes in this area. About 95 per cent of them double up as small factories producing a variety of commodities. Ball bearings, electrical appliances, cable wires, copper wires, PVC pipes, cycle tyres — the denizens of this locality produce it all. And their small factories, both legal and illegal, contribute significantly to air and water pollution in these parts.

Here on the second-floor of a small congested flat in Patel Gali, Premander Kumar Gupta, 60 years and swarthy, has been running his own small assembling and manufacturing unit since 1980. Every morning he trundles in without fail, on his rickety Bajaj scooter from the equally dingy locality of Vivek Vihar, where he lives in a rented house with his family.

Son of an electronics engineer, he hated going to school and dropped out by the time he was in Class 8. His family owned an electrical goods shop in Chandni Chowk. It is here that Gupta started out. When the profits from the shop started to dwindle, he started the factory in Viswas Nagar. Eight workers assemble electrical main switches and manufacture PVC pipes here which helps Gupta profit Rs 10,000 per month and also offers them a passable livelihood. Over the years Gupta managed to save enough money to pay for the wedding of three of his four daughters. His only son, is a physiotherapist.

But the unchanged routine of the last 20 years might soon be coming to an end. Early last month, Gupta received a government notice asking him to shift his assembly plant by March 31, 2001, to Bawana, a village bordering Haryana, about 30 kilometres away. The relocation is part of the Delhi’s government’s plan to shift small industrial units — many of them in non-conforming areas and most of them adding to the Capital’s unbearable pollution — away from the city.

However, relocating the factory by the stipulated date is next to impossible for Gupta and many others in the firing line. He received the land allotment letter only a couple of weeks ago. “But there is no infrastructure available in Bawana. Even the land has not been levelled. How can one shift thousands of factories there in such a short period?,” wonders Gupta.

That’s not all. Gupta has no money to buy the 100 square metres plot, worth Rs 4,200 per square metre, though in principle, the Delhi Finance Corporation has agreed to finance businessmen like him. But what about the cost of setting up the unit and installing the machinery? There is no subsidy available. And from the government, there are no answers forthcoming.

But shortage of finance is only one aspect of the problem. “To reach Bawana, you have to travel two hours by bus. You need skilled labour for my kind of work. Who will go there?”

“Mine is mainly an assembling unit. It doesn’t cause much pollution. So people like us should be allowed to stay on,” he says. After all, he has renewed his ad hoc corporation license every year and paid his income tax and electricity bills on time.

Gupta insists that he is one of the few who play by the rules. “More than 50 per cent of the industry owners are illegal. They evade sales tax and pay no income tax.” Dodging house tax, other payable tariffs has enabled them to sell their goods at more competitive rates and muscle out the honest and scrupulous operators. “Some of them earn around Rs 1 crore and even keep armed security guards to protect themselves,” says Gupta not without a tinge of jealousy in his voice.

“The worst offenders are the electricity department and the water supply officials. It is they, and not the policemen, who make the maximum money. If you don’t pay them up, they can cut off your electricity or stop your water supply.” The issue is also politically sensitive. In all, there are about 1.5 lakh industrial units in Delhi providing employment to at least two million people. No surprise then that with eyes firmly on the vote bank, successive Delhi state governments — both of the BJP and the Congress — have preferred to bypass the issue rather than confront it with purpose. “They are birds of the same feather,” blurts Gupta.

Back in 1995-96, the Supreme Court had asked the government to shift 97,600 units, as per a survey conducted by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. Only 52,000 units applied for fresh plots in conforming areas. Of them, only 24,000 were thought eligible for allotment of plots. But apart from that there was no attempt to set the relocation process in motion. Ironically, as late as 1995, the Delhi government had allowed factory owners to raise their power consumption so long as they were willing to pay the bills.

So, when last week, following the express directive of the Supreme Court, the Delhi government set about shutting down industrial units, there was predictable all around outrage. Some factory owners too, especially those with polluting units, have already removed their machines, shut shop and vanished. But there are others, like Gupta himself, who are carrying on regardless.

On Thursday, even as government officials went on sealing a few polluting units under armed police protection, Gupta quietly went about with his work. “I am struggling to stay back,” he says. “One can fight an enemy in the neighbourhood, one can fight tough competition but how can one fight the government? In the end, one has to lose.”

But many questions are yet to be answered. Back in 1956, when Gupta had first visited the Viswas Nagar area, it was full of trees, almost resembling a jungle. He wants to know the fate of Bawana once it turns into a concrete jungle like Viswas Nagar today. “After all, at the rate Delhi is growing it is only a matter of time before, Bawana too becomes a part of the city. Where shall we be asked to move out then?”    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Star wars

Star gazing might not exactly be the Congress president’s idea of fun, but honestly it isn’t for entertainment that madam is advised to undertake the exercise. It’s to protect her turf, as assiduously as she does it (Jitendra Prasada can provide the details), from the rising star and the new claimant to the Nehru-Gandhi legacy — Feroze Varun Gandhi. With chances that Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into the ring prior to the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh might upset the applecarts of all contending parties, both the Samajwadi Party and the BJP are making desperate attempts to rope in the real waris of the Nehru-Gandhis to give the ladies a surprise gift. Varun obviously has other plans. He will settle for nothing but his share of the family fortunes. So at present he’s concentrating on picking up the necessary political skills. Since Hindi newspapers have the largest reach in the Hindi belt, Varun is trying his hand in cultivating Hindi journalists. He gave his first interview to Aaj Tak, and has since spoken to almost all Hindi dailies. At a private housewarming party of a member of his favoured breed, Varun was the chief guest. The journalist with close links with the RSS is said to be one of the many grooming Varun for the obstacle race ahead. Another famous guest to the party was Sonia herself who was there for a brief while. Unfortunately, the aunt and the nephew did not meet. Probably it’s destined by the stars for a bigger audience.

Change of guard

An openly displayed vote obviously cannot buy you love. The reigning Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dixit, might soon realize this cardinal truth. Sonia Gandhi, having mauled dissent in the party, is in a no-nonsense mood. The decisions are flowing at breakneck speed from the old but new party president. Soon after the farce of the elections was behind her, Sonia instructed all Congress chief ministers — not many of them around, but nevertheless — to implement schemes for the backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and the minorities and set them a time limit. After the Congress working committee is back in business, Sonia also plans to replace the CMs of Maharashtra and Delhi. And here is where we started. Madam apparently is not too happy with Sheila’s performance, the vote display notwithstanding. Though Sonia patronized her for a long time, the pressure from party MLAs is mounting. There is one possible filler — Ambika Soni, former general secretary of the party who is out and out a Sonia loyalist. So loyalty also has its shades?

Heartache city

Apart from being a dying city, Calcutta holds another distinction for its political suitors — it’s sorely disappointing. Till date it has sent back countless political emissaries disheartened. One to return to the capital recently was BJP all India vice-president, Jana Krishnamurthy, who was here to broker peace with party dissidents. He was dumbstruck to find rebels holding a parallel meeting to show their strength, and this despite the former state unit president and his long time associate, Sukumar Banerjee, having promised to call the meeting off. Worse, the next day, Banerjee led the rebels to Mahajati Sadan where they grilled state BJP leaders. As typically, Krishnamurthy was criticized for putting up with a party leader at his Salt Lake residence and prompted to shift house. Back in New Delhi, Krishnamurthy blamed the Union minister of state for communications, Tapan Sikdar, for the recent spurt in intra-party squabbles. No trouble with Calcutta’s environs?

The family man and I

Same party, different man. BJP MP from Mumbai, Kirit Somiaya, has a problem. Each time the Lok Sabha speaker, GMC Balayogi, calls him in the house, “Kirit” invariably becomes “Kirti”, much to the amusement of parliamentarians. The other day Balayogi apologized for his frequent error. But the chartered accountant turned politician, Somiaya, declared he had no objection to the chair addressing him as Kirti, but added that he wondered why the extra “i” should be added to his name. The speaker sheepishly informed the house that his daughter was named Kirti and that was the reason for the slip of tongue. A true family man heading another house.

Cost of a flop show

So the Sawal Dus Crore Ka has proved a non-starter. There will be no more recordings apparently, but the 100 episodes in the can will be telecast. And Manisha Koirala and Anupam Kher will be given their dues. A matter of crores, but will it be more than dus?

Footnote / Keep a strict watch

Nightmares never cease in Alimuddin Street. Soon after it got over its worries over the chief ministership of the state, there is a new nightmare visiting the party headquarters. The minister of state for environment, Manab Mukherjee, has been caught eulogizing the rebel and former central committee member of the party, Saifuddin Chowdhury. Mukherjee apparently told a press conference in New Delhi that he still had high regard for “Saifida” and wanted to work with him. CPI(M) leaders have taken strong exception to his comments about a dissident who has already dissociated himself from the party and floated his own organization. Even the former chief minister, Jyoti Basu, has taken note of this slip. Alarmed by the incident, the party leadership is supposed to have intensified its vigil on “vulnerable” party members like the transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty and the party secretary of South 24 Parganas, Samir Putatunda, who has shown a rebellious streak before. Alimuddin Street also has information that several disgruntled members will be joining Saifuddin soon. More nightguards needed then.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Choice of equals

Sir — After the last few weeks of drama and excitement, George W. Bush was declared the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes, though not without Al Gore going to court. The question that India needs to ask is whether we will benefit more from a Republican president or a Democratic one. The editorial, “One in the Bush” (Nov 29), has rightly drawn attention to this problem. The good work begun during Bill Clinton’s regime will continue if Gore comes to power. But there will be more pressure on India to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty. If Bush comes to power this pressure may lessen. Either way, India should tread cautiously and not place too much hope in the newborn India-United States relations.
Yours faithfully,
Sunanda Guha, Calcutta

Just beat ’em up

Sir — The recent findings on wife-beating are an eyeopener (“Silent acceptance of violence at home”, Nov 17). Of course it had been established a long time back that wife-beating was widely prevalent among the so-called educated section of our society. What is very surprising and also horrifying is that 56 per cent of Indian women feel that wife-beating is justified.

This is symptomatic of the position of women in a society like India’s where the husband is seen as the guardian of his wife, and hence, is expected to extract respect from the latter. It would be interesting to know what these women have to say about the married men who regularly frequent red light areas or carry on extramarital affairs themselves. Should they also be punished in the manner that the women interviewed for the survey think fit for erring women?

Yours faithfully
Srijita Chakravarty, via email

Sir — It has been observed that, cutting across regional and religious borders, domestic violence is accepted by women as inevitable. In particular, women belonging to the lower income and lower literacy groups have been found to accept it readily.

But the other side of the spectrum — that is, the higher income, urban, educated section — presents a different picture altogether. The more educated and elite the household, the greater the advantage taken by the daughters-in-law in the name of women’s liberation. They do not seem concerned at all about their children and the husbands.

Cases of husband-beating are on the rise, though no statistical data will probably be available to prove this. Cataloguing instances of violence on women by men is fashionable these days, what with the growth of women’s studies departments around the world. But unfortunately, no attempt is made to conduct similar surveys of domestic violence on men. Who knows, the results of such a survey may send more shock waves than the recent one did.

Yours faithfully,
Diptimoy Ghosh, Calcutta

Launch to nowhere

Sir — The front page article, “Arms pile in poll-set Bengal” (Nov 19), was intensely funny. That a round-up before the assembly elections has led to the discovery of arms in Arambagh is hardly surprising. But finding rocket launchers is a bit much. Can one ask how these rocket launchers were intended to be used by whoever the accused were? Or were the arms not meant for violent use in the region but were being used for the purely commercial exercise of smuggling?
Yours faithfully,
Provat Kumar Chatterjee, Purulia

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