Editorial 1 / Growth is prior
Editorial 2 / Labouring equals
A hero in eclipse
Fifth Column / What’s to be done with the taliban?
Playing the numbers game
It is so easy to get away with hijacking
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / GROWTH IS PRIOR 
 
 
 
 
One of the striking characteristics of much of the Nineties has been the remarkable price stability enjoyed by Indians. There have been minor blips in this distinguished record, and some, like the onion crisis a few years ago, have even played a role in bringing down the government. But, the overall consumer price index has remained much below the critical double-digit level for very long periods of time. So, the government has had the luxury of concentrating on policies which would help industrial recovery without having to worry about triggering off price instability. Unfortunately, this comfort may soon be denied to the government. There are predictions that the inflation rate based on the wholesale price index will creep up to nine per cent by the end of the current fiscal year.

The rise in prices has not attracted general attention because the rate of inflation has been inching up slowly for several weeks now — there has not been any sudden upsurge in prices. Of course, even the slow rise in prices is a cause for concern unless the trend can be reversed. This task would perhaps have been easier if there was a single well-identified underlying cause. This does not seem to be the case. The cascading effect of the hike in prices of petroleum products has been an important cause. But, the situation has been aggravated by a whole host of other factors such as the poor performance of the industrial sector, increase in money supply and erratic monsoons. The rise in prices comes at a time when the economy is at the crossroads. The overall rate of growth has been around six per cent. But there is no assurance that a steady rate of growth will be maintained in the future. Fortuitous circumstances, together with determined policies, may well result in a sharp upturn in economic activities. On the other hand, we may well witness a long period of stagnation if there are bad shocks such as an erratic monsoon. That is why the current increase in the rate of inflation is worrying. Industrialists have been crying for relief and assistance from the Central government. Several economists have also stressed that the time is right for “pump priming”, which is the classic Keynesian remedy of increasing government expenditure in order to stimulate aggregate demand.

Unfortunately, such attempts to stimulate aggregate demand are typically inflationary. In fact, this may well be one reason why the government is reported to have cut back on capital expenditure during this financial year. It wants to maintain the fiscal deficit to the targeted level, in order to rein in inflationary forces. However, this is really playing with fire. The government should not deliberately cut back on development expenditure since that can have such adverse effects on the long-term growth rate. It should curb the fiscal deficit by cutting back on wasteful subsidies. Perhaps, the best option in so far as the fight against inflation is concerned is for the Central government to focus on supply management. This essentially involves ensuring that greater quantities of goods reach the market. The Food Corporation of India is sitting on huge stocks of foodgrains. So, there is no reason for foodgrain prices to rise even if the next harvest is bad. The government can announce its willingness to import pulses and edible oils as soon as domestic prices rise above a certain level. This will at least keep the hoarders at bay.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / LABOURING EQUALS 
 
 
 
 
Equality is as much a matter of practicalities as of principle. The human resources development and labour ministries seem to have thought clearly and correctly about both these aspects of working women’s lives in their proposal to amend the Factories Act. It may be made legally possible for Indian women to work night shifts in factories. This is part of a larger set of changes to be announced by the Centre as the national policy on women. Progressive legislation on women’s and child labour has been extremely tardy since independence. This amendment, if it is allowed to go through without a hitch, will make a positive difference.

First, it gives women the right to choose when they want to come in to work. The ability to organize their working schedule according to their own convenience and wishes is fundamental to women’s empowerment, and the new Factories Act would enable this. It is important to note here that working night shifts will not be made compulsory, but will be offered as an option. This flexibility will certainly be a coveted advantage for most working women, particularly those in the low income group. The women’s organizations and trade unions who oppose this proposal on grounds of safety are perhaps losing sight of the principles at stake here — the abolition of discrimination at work. Such concern has often masked patronizing and reactionary thinking. But the changes in working patterns among women as a result of this amendment will have to be accompanied by changes in their working conditions. Safe transport, childcare facilities, general security and proper policies on sexual harassment are all issues on which most Indian employers have been culpably unthinking. Discriminations other than those based on gender operate behind such negligence. It is also quite pointless to see this proposal as not entirely disinterested. If the information technology sector wants to encourage its women workers to work nights, and if this leads to a change in discriminatory laws, then the net result can only be good. Given the holism that the concerned ministries are aspiring to in their handling of women’s issues, their attention should also be turning to the child labour laws with the same degree of sensitivity to the question of rights and wellbeing as they have shown in this case.

   

 
 
A HERO IN ECLIPSE 
 
 
BY MAHESH RANGARAJAN
 
 
The Andhra Pradesh chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu made a little-noticed comment during the rumpus over Ayodhya. India, he said, had little time to spare for non-issues that both the ruling combine and the opposition spent so much time on. The heart of the country lay in the villages, and his party was focusing all energies on the problems faced by the farming community. Naidu’s comments provide food for thought, and literally so.

The political backdrop to his concerns needs some elaboration. With its contingent of 29 members of parliament in the Lok Sabha, his formation is by far the largest non-Hindutva ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But it has kept a distance and never joined the National Democratic Alliance. Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Telugu Desam Party MPs, they could have the moon if they only entered the ministry. A senior MP quipped they had the moon in hand already. Making play of the “Chandra” in the chief minister’s own name conveyed another message: he is the captain of his ship and does not want a rival power centre emerging in his party.

The party has for some time been watching its poll ally try to expand its base in the state with some anxiety. There is clearly a vacuum, with the Congress having lost two successive assembly elections and the left in serious, and possibly long-term, decline. The opposition has tried to gain support via agitation against the power tariff hike, leading to a partial if temporary rollback on the part of the government.

The appointment of Bangaru Laxman as party chief was intended to send a powerful message to the Madigas, the most populous Dalit community in Andhra Pradesh, that they were being courted. M. Venkaiah Naidu as minister of rural development is doing all he can to cash in on political returns from projects funded by the Centre. Bandaru Datatreya seeks to woo the backward classes. Though it has grown in all the three regions of the state, the Hindutva force has built up its most impressive base in the Telengana region. For now, it cannot afford to go on its own, but it has become a significant presence in a province where it was once a marginal force.

But Naidu faces deeper challenges than those caused by the surface currents of party politics. In an interesting reversal of its past, the TDP is today the premier party of reform. This is the third incarnation of the organization, first founded in 1983 by the late N.T. Rama Rao, to reinforce a sense of atma gauravam or Telugu pride. Once out of power for a five-year spell in the Eighties, the late leader instead made a pro-poor appeal the centre-piece of his strategy. Rice at subsidized rates and prohibition were his twin planks, but once in power, the party soon found the coffers empty. It then embarked under Chandrababu Naidu on its present course of action.

Though known outside the state for his affinity for e-governance, the chief minister has had a second, possibly equally significant, track. His is a party traditionally led by the rural rich peasantry, with a sizeable marketable surplus and dominance over the institutions of local self-government. The coast, with its early start in the Green Revolution has been the fount of the TDP’s power, with the Kamma community’s enterprise having set the stage for its political ascendancy under non-Congress rule. Hence, the farmer’s markets, the creation of rural assets via voluntary labour and the encouragement of water-users’ associations.

In all this, the party is only facilitating the process of wealth creation in the countryside and trying to spread the benefits through collective institutions to reduce social tensions. Co-operatives have less red-tape to bother about and forest-users’ associations and women’s thrift groups have been given a helping hand.

The problem is these impulses are often in direct conflict with the demands of the rural poor and the lower middle classes. Unlike Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh or at least most of the interior has had a long tradition of landlord domination. Even today, it has more agricultural landless labourers than any other state in the Union, including Bihar. Much of its agricultural prosperity is more fragile than it looks. A shift in market trends or a series of natural calamities, and the entire picture changes for the worse.

For a variety of reasons, many unconnected with the present regime in Hyderabad, the state’s agricultural economy faces a crisis. Tobacco faces a glut. New crops once seen as harbingers of progress are facing unforeseen problems. Through the later Nineties, edible oil imports wiped out a nascent sunflower farming, which had much potential for linkages with industry. Oil palm cultivators have seen the price drop for two years in a row and do not know whom to turn to. Poultry, both eggs and chickens, had boomed but are now in downturn.

Worst of all, paddy is in poor shape. This explains the strident tone of the chief minister’s remarks, when he demanded parity with Punjab and Haryana. The Food Corporation of India has been quick to step up purchases of paddy. If N.T. Rama Rao coasted to office on the slogan of rice at two rupees a kilo, his son-in-law’s fate hinges to a great extent on how far he redresses the claims of paddy farmers. Unlike in the past, the drive to switch to alternative crops has run out of steam. Hence, the tug of war with the Centre in which the state rarely gives an inch. What are at stake are not just the rice cultivators’ fortunes, but also the fate of the local ruling party.

There is a counterpart more relevant to the forested parts of Telengana, the hotbed of left-wing extremism. Forest co-management aimed at giving adivasis and women a stake in forest wealth is being diluted seriously for the first time. Under pressure from large corporate houses, joint management is being used as a cover to hand over large tracts of land for market-led timber production. This has already led to strong local protests.

The dilemmas in the state are not unique, but the context is. Maharashtra has raised its tariffs in power and Karnataka is all set to do so, but neither is on the same scale. Conversely, no chief minister has courted industry as assiduously, but compared to his neighbours he has much less to show for all his efforts. Worst of all, unlike opposition-led state governments, he can hardly lay all the blame for his failings at the door of New Delhi. If Vajpayee’s ship sinks, Naidu will not find it so easy to land on the shore.

Andhra Pradesh, in any case, is not the easiest of provinces to preside over. Its sheer size makes for great disparity. Regions within the state have sharply contrasting social and economic profiles. The rich-poor gap is greater than in any southern state. And to add to it all, it has a highly centralized polity, with major decisions all flowing from the chief minister’s office.

Naidu has survived many turns in politics. He began in the Congress and joined the TDP after it came to power in 1983. He rose to a key party post and eventually ousted his father-in-law. More impressively, he made it a central player first in the United Front and now with the NDA. The test, however, will lie in how he tackles the crisis on the ground. Only effective redress of grievances can avoid a hard landing in the days and months to come.

The author is an independent researcher on ecology and political affairs and former fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum Library, New Delhi    


 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / WHAT’S TO BE DONE WITH THE TALIBAN? 
 
 
BY MURARI MOHAN MUKHERJEE
 
 
The taliban has threatened to launch a strike against Russia if Moscow continues to support anti-taliban forces. They are trying to gain control of the Afghan territory occupied by the forces of the Northern Alliance led by the Tajik warlord, General Ahmed Shah Masood. The latest offensive has brought the taliban face to face to with the Tajik and Russian forces deployed on Tajikistan’s border. According to sources, 1500 Islamic militants had crossed from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and more than 200 insurgents had slipped into Kyrghyzstan.

The Russian and the central Asian leaders who recently held a meeting at Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, have expressed concern with the growth of extremist powers under the taliban. They fear that a pan-Islamic movement in Afghanistan will propel insurgencies within their borders. Central Asia is becoming the capital of international terrorism, much to the concern of its leaders.

The continuing civil strife in Afghanistan will pose a serious threat to peace and stability in south Asia. While the Pakistan-backed taliban militia has consolidated its hold over large parts of Afghan territory, Ahmed Shah Masood is still holding out in Panjshir valley. The Northern Alliance, with the tacit support of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, and by the physical presence of approximately 20,000 Russian troops north of the Afghan border, can still influence the final military outcome in the country.

Bloody impasse

In view of the continuous blood-letting and Shia-baiting in Afghanistan, the likelihood of the present impasse resulting in an armed conflict cannot be entirely ruled out. An Iran-taliban war would inevitably snowball into a Shia-Sunni conflict, thereby destabilizing the region.

Moreover, in conjunction with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the Afghan terrorist outfits supported by them continue to spread fundamentalism. It has affected all areas from Jammu and Kashmir in the east to the central Asian republics and the Balkans in the west. After the bombing of the United States warship, USS Cole, in October last year, there is a strong possibility that the United States may launch missile attacks on the terrorist outfits in Afghanistan. This will further aggravate the already vitiated atmosphere in the region. Behind the present conflicts in the region lies the rivalry between the US, Russia, China and Pakistan for access to the abundant natural resources of the CARs.

Since the independence of the CARs, the strategic importance of Afghanistan has increased. India too has an interest in the region as it is an emerging market for Indian exports and it would be cost-effective for India to tap their large hydrocarbon resources.

Strategic pressure

It is hard to believe that in spite of the high stakes involved ,the international community is unwilling to help restore peace and stability in Afghanistan. The signing of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership agreement and the development of the Indo-US strategic ties serve one purpose — the combating of Afghan terrorism. By forming the Indo-US joint working group on terrorism, Washington is putting pressure on both Pakistan and Afgha- nistan to change their hostile attitude towards the West.

The Russian spokesman, Sergei Yastrazhemsky, has expressed concern over an anti-Russian conclave in Mazar-e Sharif involving the taliban, the Chechen rebel, Ashlan Mashadov, Osama bin Laden and the Uzbek militant, Juma Namangana. Considering that sustained military methods have failed to remove Vladimir Putin’s problem in Chechnya, it remains doubtful how much strikes in Afghanistan can achieve. Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan must be seriously countered. The installation of an elected government in Kabul would go a long way in ensuring an amicable solution.

India and Russia must take the initiative in finding a solution to the problem in consultation with the parties involved in the conflict. India should make use of its understanding with the US to solve this problem. India must push for a strong United Nations peace enforcement operation in Afghanistan and should be willing to participate in a chapter seven intervention.

   

 
 
PLAYING THE NUMBERS GAME 
 
 
BY SANTANU MITRA
 
 
The last commission for the purpose of delimitation of parliamentary and assembly constituencies was set up in December 1972 when the Delimitation Act, 1972 came into force. The order for the delimitation of constituencies passed in 1976 was based on the commission’s suggestions. Since then, no further steps has been taken in this regard as the Constitution Act, 1976 placed an embargo on undertaking fresh delimitation of constituencies until the 2001 census figures became available. The measure had been undertaken to boost family planning norms.

Now the Union government is being pressured to extend the embargo on the plea that some states, especially ones in the South, have achieved considerable success in family planning while others have failed miserably. Therefore, if a fresh delimitation is undertaken on the basis of new census figures, states which have achieved success in family planning will be losers in respect of number of seats in the Union legislatures. The government has thus decided to extend the current freeze till 2026 as part of its new national population policy strategy. This policy holds the freeze as necessary to enable state governments to pursue the agenda for population stabilization contained in the document. The policy envisages a number of measures like reward to panchayats and zilla parishads, continuation of the Balika Samridhi Yojana, maternity benefit scheme, health insurance plan and reward to couples below the poverty line.

The Union government, however, has initiated a dialogue with leaders of political parties to solve the problems caused by the uneven growth of population in different constituencies, rotation of reserved seats and so on. The government is also serious about amending the Constitution to change the number of seats reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in Parliament and legislative assemblies.

In this context, it is worth noting that even the law commission, headed by Jeevan Reddy, had recommended an embargo on delimitation of constituencies till 2025. The Election Commission too has informed the chief election commissioner agrees with the proposal to freeze the number of seats in the Lok Sabha.

There is no denying that there is a sound logic behind freezing the number of seats in legislatures in terms of the interests of those states which have been able to control the growth of population. But such an action is bound to seriously impair the capability of the Indian democracy to give due representation to the religious, linguistic and political minorities and the socially and economically weaker sections of the population.

As per the first-past-the-post system currently used for electing members to the Lok Sabha or the state legislatures, winning candidates are those who have more votes than any other candidate on a single count and this need not even be an absolute majority of the votes cast in a constituency. Furthermore, depending on the distribution of various communities in the constituencies, such a system can throw up an elected body without any representation from the sections mentioned. The probability that this should happen increases with the size of the constituencies. The greater the size of the constituency under the FPTP system, the lower the chance the weaker sections will have proportional representation in elected bodies.

Another distortion could occur. Implicitly, the vote cast by an elector in a large (in terms of the number of voters) constituency will have less weightage as compared to a vote in a smaller constituency. In other words, voters in states which have failed to contain population growth will have less importance than those in states which have succeeded in doing so. This anomaly will be magnified if the number of constituencies is kept fixed in the face of massive population growth.

That the minority sections should get less than proportionate representation in the legislatures under the FPTP system , particularly in the larger constituencies, certainly goes against the tenets of democracy. What is heard is the voice of only a part of the electorate. It would do well to remember that under the FPTP system, the government of the day has the support of not more than 50 per cent of the electorate. Which makes the legitimacy of the regime questionable.

The proportional representation system is much better than FPTP in this respect. Constitution-makers adopted the latter only because the probability of one political party getting an absolute majority in the legislature is much higher than in the latter system than in the former. But that probability comes down steadily once the political space gets fragmented and more than two major parties or groupings emerge. India has already reached that stage and doubts arise about the efficacy of the FPTP system.

However, it is not very easy to think of introducing the proportional representation system in India, especially since the status quoists have a strong presence here and in most states the political situation is not so fluid. Hence, major political parties are bound to oppose a change since the introduction of proportional representation in the states will lead to coalition governments in most of them. We therefore have to think of reforming the existing system.

Increase in population has its attendant problems not only in terms of the consequent increase in demand on scarce resources but also in terms of an increase in the aspirations of peoples and communities for their respective rights to be honoured. These legitimate demands and aspirations can be ignored by the state only at its own peril. At the same time, to uphold the spirit of democracy and to accord due importance to the minorities and weaker sections of the population, the number of seats in the legislative bodies, both at the Centre and the states, have to be increased.

However, there is no indication that any serious thought is being spared on the issue. Already, several Lok Sabha constituencies have more than 10 lakh voters. To put a moratorium on any increase in the number of seats till 2025, when the number of voters in most of these constituencies will go up to above 20 lakhs, is not a practical viewpoint.

That there is a need for increasing the total number of seats in the lower houses of the legislatures, given the increase in the size of the population, was admitted even by the law commission in its 170th report on the reform of electoral laws. It recommended the “list” system of election in addition to the existing one, for the the additional 25 per cent increase in the seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

The rationale of the list system is to translate directly a party’s share of the vote into an equivalent proportion of seats in parliament. The precise calculations will however be influenced by factors such as whether the country is treated as a single constituency for the purpose of voting, the allocation of seats (some systems involve the use of smaller, regional or sub-regional units) and the electoral formulae for the allocation of these seats. The only problem in implementing the recommendation of the law commission is that the combination of the FPTP system with the list system will certainly accentuate the dominance of the majority community even further.

The solution is a difficult one. What could be done is as an interim measure the number of seats in all the lower houses of the Union and the state legislatures can be increased in the same proportion which will correspond to the increase in the total population of the country between 1971 and 2001. Such an arrangement will however attach somewhat more importance to electors in states which have failed to contain the population growth rate since under such a dispensation, these states will gain more seats, in absolute terms, than the states that have succeeded in containing the population growth rate.

India should think of other options at the same time, including that of shifting to the proportional representation system with suitable modifications and delimitation of constituencies so that the legislatures represent synthesis of the opinions of both the minorities and of the majority. At the same time, the arrangement should be accompanied by efforts from the state governments to fulfil the objectives laid down in the NPP.

   

 
 
IT IS SO EASY TO GET AWAY WITH HIJACKING 
 
 
BY SAHELI MITRA
 
 
Security at major domestic and international airports across the country increases after extreme incidents like the hijack of IC-814 little more than a year ago. But most of us overlook the basic infrastructural loopholes that exist in the security system of the airports. Thanks to the negligence of some of the personnel on duty at stra- tegic points, our flights become an easy prey to hijackers.

Travelling by an international airline, whose handling agent happens to be Air India, to popular south-east Asian destinations from the Netaji Subhash International Airport at Dum Dum exposes such severe lapses in the security. Though the security cordon at the entry and exit points of the terminals are quite stringent, they seem to vanish quite easily once the passenger enters through the gate. And it turns into a complete farce when the baggage check is complete and the passengers are asked to proceed for the hand baggage and personal security checks.

Cash and carry

Though the personnel on duty are well-equipped with modern equipment and metal detectors, they seem to be more interested in how much Indian and foreign currency a passenger is carrying. This is supposed to be the responsibility of customs officials who have already checked the passports and foreign currency endorsements in the first place. But these security personnel have other things in mind. They start gossiping with the passengers about their destination and purpose of their visit. If they feel that the passenger is responsive and gullible, they do not hesitate to request the passenger to part with some of his cash to make them “happy”.

Their requests are made in an extremely gentle manner. Once a passenger parts with a few notes, these men are so keen on blessing him that they completely forget to check the hand baggage or even the person. These are reasons why many passengers easily get away with carrying battery operated toys, cameras and radio sets or music systems, although batteries are prohibited on board.

Serious concerns

With such practices being rampant at an international airport, any person with the intention to hijack an aircraft can just produce some cash and pass through with baggage containing arms.The same is true at the customs and immigration check while coming into the country from abroad. It take hours to come through as the officials seem to be more interested in the foreign goods the passenger is carrying than in checking his passport and other official documents. This too helps in smuggling in arms and drugs easily.

Even those at the baggage check-out points wait for passengers to part with the dollars they are carrying while returning home. This is again a request and not a demand. This is not just execrable work ethic, but a much more serious issue of national security.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Head on shoulders

Sir — After Mohammed Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly is the new pin-up boy of Indian cricket and a hot favourite with advertisers (“Coke loses Sourav to Pepsi”, Dec 30). After a lucrative contract with Coca Cola, he has signed a three-year contract with Pepsi. According to the industry grapevine, the contract was signed behind closed doors and is reportedly worth Rs 1 crore. Without taking anything away from Ganguly’s good fortune, one hopes that the fame will not go to his head. What has been most impressive about Ganguly from the very beginning is his level-headedness and it would be a pity to see him lose this amidst all the adulation. Media hype, awards and hero-worship have led to the downfall of more than one cricketer and one would not like to see Ganguly go that way. Instead of spending too much time in endorsing the latest brands, Ganguly should spend more time on his game. He may have proved himself as a captain, but there is a lot he can still learn.
Yours faithfully,
Tandra Roy Burman, Hyderabad

Gifts are hooks

Sir — The unhappy tone of the editorial, “Populism pays” (Dec 28), is difficult to understand, since both the schemes announced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee on December 25 are addressed to urgent needs of the weakest sections of the country. They are likely to prove immensely beneficial for the nation. The editorial agrees that “it is better to distribute surplus foodgrains to the poor rather than feed it to the rats or export it at a loss” and that “connecting all villages with all-weather roads is a laudable objective”. Given that the schemes are ultimately beneficial, why does the editorial sound so sceptical?

When a good thing is being done, it is not the time to ask why it was not done earlier. Further, the huge surplus of foodgrains is hardly a transitory problem. The doubts expressed in the editorial about the ability of the trade unions and the state government machinery to implement either of the schemes effectively are entirely valid. But that is not reason enough to speak against the intention of the schemes. Neither should they be shouted down just because they are announced on birthdays or because they may benefit the ruling party in forthcoming elections.

Yours faithfully
Alok Sarkar, Calcutta

Sir — The prime minister seems to have taken the cue from his alliance partners in matters of populism. If, as the editorial, “Populism pays”, points out, Andhra Pradesh has nearly gone bankrupt to provide rice at low prices, what guarantee is there that the same won’t happen to the Centre? Is it enough to win political mileage at the cost of incurring long-term losses?

Yours faithfully,
Vikrant Goel, Pune

Sir — Instead of receiving gifts on his birthday, Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to give (“Santa Atal gifts twin yojanas”, Dec 26). His gift of a garland of roads may become a bridge linking the rural world with the urban. Vajpayee’s latest gifts are capable of refuting the charges that the National Democratic Alliance government is a rich man’s sarkar.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — Even after more than 50 years of independence, rural India is largely deprived of electricity and proper roads. Once these two vital facilities are provided, along with primary education and healthcare centres, the rural population can lead a decent life and contribute much more to the national economy. The other scheme of providing wheat and rice at lower prices to the poorer sections of the rural population can in fact be discontinued once the facilities mentioned before are made available.

Another good move on the part of the Centre is the plan to issue tax-free rural road bonds to raise funds for the construction of roads. One hopes that the non-resident Indians will also be invited to invest in the project.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Mountain out of a molehill

Sir — It is sad that two lives were lost in Nepal on December 26 over a remark allegedly made by Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan in a television interview. A liberal society would have ignored this remark with a casual shrug. This is clearly a case of over-reaction. It is true that the greatness of a country and its people cannot be affected by the personal likes or dislikes of a filmstar.

In this case, Hrithik Roshan has denied ever having made the remark to any TV channel. Since this could be verified, the important thing was to get the facts straight before taking the issue to the streets and instigating violence. Unfortunately, nobody — not even the Nepalese government — has cared to do that.

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — How friendly are our neighbours in the Himalayan Hindu kingdom? The question has always dogged India from the time the concept of a friendly and neutral buffer state across our international boundaries was first propounded by the early Indian statesmen. Hrithik Roshan, no matter how popular he is around the world, would never have imagined getting dragged into an international diplomatic controversy.

That a report in a vernacular newspaper has nearly brought a national government to the brink of getting dismissed is also hard to digest. The actor himself and the Indian ambassador at Kathmandu have issued contradictory statements (“Hrithik sees mafia mischief”, Dec 28), which has done little to ease the situation. The incident also exposes the gullibility of the Nepalese people, besides bringing to light the tremendous impact of screen icons.

Yours faithfully,
Shitanshu Prasad, via email

Sir — There is every reason to feel that the whole agitation in Nepal was stirred up by anti-India elements. What is surprising is that the India-based All-India Nepalese Bhasha Sangram Parishad should also fall prey to this motivated slander campaign. Instead of joining the bandwagon, they should have asked the people to rein in their frenzy and investigated the matter.

Yours faithfully,
Sourav Dasgupta, Miami, US

What women do not want

Sir — Shuma Raha’s allusion to the recently released film, What Women Want, directed by Mel Gibson shows how one often misses the point that though columns and reels are spent on what women want, these are seldom “by the women and for the women”, and hence far from the truth (“Macho male redesigned”, Dec 17). As a result, women are often portrayed as strange and mysterious creatures with confusing likes and dislikes. Whatever women may want, the last thing would be to be experimented upon by thousands of men, striving to get an answer to what it is that women really want.

Yours faithfully,
Joita Roy, via email

Sir — It does not take the daylights to dim for atrocities against women to be committed. The rape of a 14-year-old girl in 1990 by an inspector general of police in broad daylight is a reminder of this (“DGP faces molest charge”, Nov 18). Such actions, especially when committed on minors, often abet suicides, as in this case. The startling fact is that the guilty was chargesheeted a decade later. No wonder there are more incidents like this that don’t get reported than those that do. The highly placed perpetrators of such crimes also have the assurance of getting away too easily. The punishment in this case should be exemplary. If the sentinels turn law-breakers there is little hope for the country.

Yours faithfully,
Sarita Kejriwal, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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