Editorial 1 / Bad track record
Editorial 2 / Step across
A modernity gone sour
Fifth Column / Getting ready for the battle
Harder work for better standards
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / BAD TRACK RECORD 
 
 
 
 
The railways is under pressure. The finance ministry has indicated that market borrowings of the railways, estimated at Rs 3,668 crore this financial year, are unsustainable and there should be no further borrowings in the next budget. A part of the problem lies with accounting systems used, which are outdated and offer no indication of the true state of railway finances. Quite understandably, because of fiscal compulsions, Central support to the railways has been declining, at least in real terms, and the Rs 9,800 crore core plan support that the railways minister has asked for in 2000-2001, is unlikely to materialize. Both the finance minister and the planning commission are unsympathetic, unless the railways improves internal generation of funds and ensures that support or borrowing is used for capital expenditure and not for financing revenue needs. It is true that the Rs 9,800 crore asked for is ostensibly for financing expansion plans and for deferring dividends payable to the Centre, but there is no way to guarantee this.

It is a moot point whether there should be a separate railway budget at all. This is a legacy of the British system and the way railway companies evolved then. Apparently, no other country in the world retains such an anachronism. The railways does have alternative and non-traditional sources of revenue and indeed, attempts have been made to sell off surplus land, develop real estate, hawk commercial publicity on railway property and unbundle and privatize some services. Ms Mamata Banerjee also waxes eloquent on broadband information technology data sweeping down railway tracks. No one denies that these attempts are laudable, except that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In 2000-2001, the railways will raise less than half of what it targeted to raise through these non-traditional sources. The crucial question is whether these are enough, especially when the core issue of user charges is not addressed. For example, there is a planning commission estimate that in some sections, the cost of a season ticket for suburban railway services is less than the appropriate cost for three days of travel. Naturally, the railways is more charitable and estimates that costs of season tickets cover economic cost for five days of travel. Further grist to the mill has been provided by the recently submitted report of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, which argues for an increase in user charges. This does not mean freight rates, which are already so high that the railways lose out to road transport. The crux is unwarranted cross-subsidization of passenger fares, especially for second class fares and season tickets. Apparently, the railway bureaucracy is sold on the idea of hiking such fares to recover economic costs, and faces resistance from the minister. Even if the poor need to be subsidized, there are better ways of doing it than this across-the-board subsidization.

The general problem of populism has been compounded by imminent elections in West Bengal. Surely such myopic considerations should not be allowed to affect the health of a basic infrastructure like the railways, whose track record in modernization, gauge conversion and upgradation of equipment and prevention of accidents is anything but praiseworthy. Ideally, no individual with a vested interest in any state should be entrusted with the railways portfolio and usually, the eastern states offer ample testimony to vindicate this hypothesis. Failing that, perhaps a case can be worked out for hikes everywhere except for the states of West Bengal and Gujarat. That should be easy to sell and sauce for the gander will also become sauce for the goose.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / STEP ACROSS 
 
 
 
 
At first it looks like a little blip. The National Democratic Alliance will not suffer significantly with the departure of the Pattali Makkal Katchi. It is just one more instance of regional equations among political formations affecting the alignment at the Centre. But the fun has just begun in Tamil Nadu, with the PMK leader, Mr S. Ramadoss, announcing his decision to join the front led by Ms J. Jayalalitha’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Mr Ramadoss’s resentment is directed against the Tamil Nadu chief minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, Mr M. Karunanidhi, who has allegedly turned a deaf ear to the PMK’s complaints against the Mr Vazhapadi Ramamurthy-led Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress. The PMK’s step across the board from the DMK to the AIADMK is likely to set off a small storm, purely because of what the PMK represents. Among the most unabashed of Indian parties championing the cause of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, its presence in any alliance is bound to colour that front’s political image in the eyes of the electorate. Even in these days of ideological pallor, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi is too emotional and explosive an issue for any PMK partner to ignore.

The AIADMK, in spite of its welcoming noises, has now quite a bit on its plate. The Dalit Panthers of India has dropped the AIADMK alliance like a hot brick after the PMK’s arrival. The Tamil Maanila Congress, worried about Dalit support and the discomfort of being so close to a party which even Ms Jayalalitha once asked to be banned, may begin to teeter. The Congress is in a greater fix, having caused the fall of the I.K. Gujral government by refusing to countenance the DMK on the suspicion of pro-LTTE sentiments. Its prized electoral understanding with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu would be jeopardized if it remains consistent. In all this, the Bharatiya Janata Party may be able to reap again by doing what it does most fruitfully in the simmering southern state — wait and keep its arms wide open.

   

 
 
A MODERNITY GONE SOUR 
 
 
BY SHAM LAL
 
 
Writing a history of “the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind” is no lark. It calls for a firm grasp of the changes that have transformed the character, and extended the boundaries, of science, technology, social thought, art, literature and the media. It also demands a thorough probe into the ways in which the new physical, mental and moral environments have affected the nature of work and leisure and created new wants, challenges, fears and anxieties.

Putting together this story is like working on a jigsaw puzzle where the different pieces refuse to fit and make a coherent picture. This whale of a job is not the sort of assignment experts, specializing in a particular discipline, will undertake. Even thinktanks working out policy options for governments and multinationals will dismiss it as unmanageable. Such work is apt to attract only the amateur or the dilettante curious to know cursorily what is going on in a dozen different fields at the same time, without bothering to go into irksome details.

If Peter Watson, an archaeologist, has taken up this challenge and produced a highly readable 800-page work covering important developments during the last century in numerous areas, it is because his experience as a journalist has given him a flair for cutting out complexity and the knack of packaging difficult ideas, like fast foods, for easy consumption. In explaining to the common reader what makes the modern mind tick, he takes good care not to put him under much strain. Making difficult things simple is by now a stock recipe for promoting sales in the market for ideas.

That he should have thought up a catchy title for his book is no surprise. Even so, giving a history of ideas the label A Terrible Beauty will leave many readers rather flummoxed. The mystery is, however, soon resolved. The phrase is taken from a poem by W. B. Yeats where frantic change gives birth to what the title of the book flaunts. All the same, the reader is left wondering whether the femme fatale of the poet’s imagination is a metaphor for modernity which seduces the public by a proliferation of new goodies as well as bright images. Or, does it refer to the modern mind and to the high turnover of ideas designed to perplex or bewitch the unwary ?

As it happens, modernity has brought about a feverish growth of industry based on new technologies, spread of education, bureaucratization of life, separation of state and religion and erosion of traditional values and modes of life in varying degrees everywhere. The old colonial forms of domination have gone. And what has replaced them are hegemonies based on up-to-date weaponry, surplus capital and new technologies.

Thus the modern world as a coherent entity is no more than a figure of speech. It comprises over a hundred and fifty nations at different levels of development. Some have quite large resource bases and work on the frontiers of science and technology while there are many which can barely manage to survive. The globalization process is sucking most of them into the world market. This is supposed to make for closer interaction. In reality, the change gets translated in many cases into unequal exchange. As societies go hi-tech, the demand for unskilled labour or those with outdated know-how falls and many countries get almost excluded from the new global order at the very start of their brush with modernization.

The modern mind in this situation becomes something of a fiction. If it is an embodiment of reason it can have nothing to do with the creation of new wants, too frequent changes in styling of gadgets, frenzied competition, increasing job stress and excessive exposure of people to images meant to push fantasy buying. If its aim is to create a more humane world, it can have no truck with the present order of priorities in the affluent societies which make for overconsumption and colossal waste.

The modern mind, if there is such a thing, can neither function nor be taken seriously by a world which has lost its bearings. The latter can regain its sense of direction only by countering the forces that are causing the ever-increasing disparities of wealth, income and knowledge. At the philosophical level, this means putting an end to the split in reason and helping it to establish its control over both means and ends. As things are, the modern label means nothing since the poet, the sociologist, the philosopher, the politician and the business executive can appreciate it with an equal panache.

No one can deny either Margaret Thatcher or J.K. Galbraith the credentials of having a modern mind, though the one believes in supply-side economics and dismantling of the welfare state and the other passionately holds that the state should invest more in general well-being to end the cruel anomaly of private affluence and public squalor. How can the modern mind manage to accommodate the two contrary views with equal ease?

Again, there are moderns who implore people to go back to their roots, try hard to win back their lost sense of belonging to a community, and adapt their political institutions to the traditions and circumstances of their own society. There are others who argue with equal force that isolation from the new world order in the making can only spell stagnation and there is no escape from getting the national economy integrated into the world market. How does the modern mind manage to embrace this contradiction?

There are some thinkers that claim that science alone has a monopoly on truth since each one of its hypotheses has to be based on up-to-date evidence and revised in the light of refutation of any of its earlier conclusions as a result of new experiments. The trouble is that while it can tell us a lot about the physical world, it has no remedies for social and economic ills and no answers to existential problems. It can provide no arguments, for example, to back up the need for a massive diversion of resources from investment in hi-tech weaponry and wasteful ways of life to the poorer regions at home or abroad.

It is no use Watson’s gloating over the fantastic advances made in our conceptions of the universe and celebrating the leaps forward in genetic engineering or in information technology. The brief life sketches of the leading scientists responsible for prying into so many closely guarded secrets of nature make interesting reading. But is a better understanding of the physical world all that makes a mind truly modern?

All the gains made by science in the last century have not been able to prevent technology from infecting the modern mind with the virus of cynicism. The world is in fact undergoing incessant change to convert what was once a promise of reason holding sway over human affairs into a nightmare of irrationality. Ironically, the scientists have accepted a highly restricted role for themselves under the present dispensation.

They are concerned only with finding the best means to serve the ends set by governments and multinational executives.

If the project of modernity has produced a world riven by a thousand conflicts, mauled by mindless terrorist groups and mafia gangs, disoriented by a reckless consumerism both in affluent societies and among elite groups even in poor countries and forced to live amidst intolerable inequalities, it is because no one has thought of doing anything to end the split between the instrumental and normative sides of reason.

Watson has at least the sense to realize, like Noam Chomsky, that poets and novelists have a better idea of the loss of meaning in today’s world and of the hollowness of what passes off as the modern mind. He gives almost as much space to writers in his book as to scientists. He apparently senses that those who have something to say about existential problems have even more relevance for us than those who provide us with new means of control over nature and in the process create what a sociologist calls a risk society.

It is significant that an age that has produced a glut of goods in the affluent societies and provided their people with much greater social security has also impelled writers like T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett to take a dim view of both the human condition and contemporary life. Their pessimism only adds to the mystery surrounding the concept of the modern mind. Is it dedicated to consumerism? Or more concerned with the ills of a society whose religion is hedonism? Or is it stumped by the prevailing confusion?

For readers here Watson’s book is one more painful reminder of the country’s failure to contribute any worthwhile ideas in shaping the modern world. This is the tragedy of most developing societies. Not only are they desperately short of capital resources and often denied access to new technologies, but they also lack the capacity to think for themselves hard enough and adjust even such ideas and institutions as they borrow from abroad to their own needs and cultural backgrounds.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / GETTING READY FOR THE BATTLE 
 
 
BY KALIPADA BASU
 
 
The Awami League government in Bangladesh is likely to face its toughest challenge in the forthcoming elections in June. The popularity of the party has been waning and the Bangladesh National Party under Begum Khaleda Zia is determined to recapture power. The possibility of massive rigging has already been hinted by the BNP. Violence in fact seems to be inevitable during the elections. Donor countries like the United States, Britain, France, Japan and Canada have even expressed concern over the possibility of a military takeover. The election commissioner has been specifically asked by foreign diplomats to ensure a free and fair election.

The BNP alleges that each Awami League parliamentarian has his own armed group which virtually controls his constituency. Awami League legislators like Jainal Hazari, Swami Osman and Hazimukul Ahmed are said to have let loose a reign of terror. There are also corruption charges against Awami League leaders.

The BNP has been boycotting the parliament for the last 55 months on the plea that its members are not given the opportunity to voice their opinion. It also believes that the 1996 elections were rigged by the ruling party. BNP MPs attend parliament once in 90 days to prevent their membership from expiring.

War strategy

It is ironic that the BNP has been following the same tactics that were used by the Awami League when the former was in power. Intellectuals in Bangladesh feel the poor attendance in parliament is both undemocratic and unethical. Moreover, the grievances of the electorate do not get highlighted.

The Bangladesh economy is in bad shape. In the last five years, the value of the taka has been devalued 20 times. The inflation rate is six to eight per cent per annum. Rice is sold at taka 13 to 14 per kilogram. Prices of other essential commodities are very high. Industrial growth has been stagnant during the last few years. The agricultural growth rate is slow.

The once prosperous jute industry has been facing stiff competition in the international market. The share of this industry in the total exports has come down from 30 per cent in 1960 to 4.5 per cent in 1999. Under the presidency of H.M. Ershad, the garment industry had received a fillip. There are now 2,000 garment manufacturing units in the country and this industry contributes 75 per cent of the exports. However, the government’s liberalization policy has opened the industry to severe competition.

The uneven distribution of wealth has added to the problem. There is abject poverty on the one hand and extreme wealth on the other. According to an estimate by the World Bank, 50 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Unemployment and illiteracy have increased manifold.

Arms surrender

Bangladesh is a signatory to the World Trade Organization. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had initiated the process of nationalization, which was later revoked by Ershad in 1982. Sheikh Hasina Wajed has been accused of expediting privatization and succumbing to the pressure exerted by the capitalists. Nationalization of banks is alleged to have added to the woes of the private sector. The Awami League government’s decision to lease out gas to multinationals has also apparently made matters worse.

Opposition parties accuse the Awami League of politicizing the administration. The law and order situation in the country has deteriorated. The rate of corruption is high in Bangladesh according to the Transparency International survey. Public disillusionment with the police has also set in. Allegations of corruption have also been made against the judiciary, especially at the district level.

Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserve is at an all time low. Frequent devaluation of the taka, coupled with the process of liberalization and globalization, has made the situation critical. Ministers and government officials have been accused of taking frequent trips to foreign countries and draining the public exchequer.

Interestingly, both the parties depend rather heavily on minority votes. The BNP’s anti-India campaigns could however go against it. The Awami League still considers itself to be a friend of the minorities. It would be interesting to see which party ultimately carries the minorities with it.

   

 
 
HARDER WORK FOR BETTER STANDARDS 
 
 
BY SITA RAM BEHANI
 
 
The University Grants Commission had appointed a pay review committee consisting of 11 members under the chairmanship of R.P. Rastogi in September, 1994. The committee was supposed to submit its final recommendations to the Central government in harmony with the recommendations of the fifth pay commission. The report was submitted in May, 1997. It recommended higher pay structure for college and university teachers according them parity in pay with Central government group “A” employees. It further suggested measures which would make college and university teachers more accountable and involved in several spheres of education.

Linking increased pay with greater accountability is a universal practice. After considering the recommendations of the Rastogi committee and the UGC, the Centre approved a revised pay structure for college and university teachers in July 1998. Some states have already implemented the revised payscale, while some are yet to do so.

Over 330,000 teachers of about 230 universities and more than 10,000 affiliated colleges of India teaching more than 71 lakh students have been kept on tenterhooks for months with vacuous promises. But revised payscales are not enough to ensure a thorough toning up and reorientation of the educational system. That education at all levels cries out for radical change was acknowledged as early as 1948, when a commission was set up under Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to suggest measures for all-round improvement in the educational sphere. Consequently, in 1953, the UGC was formed with the object of raising the standard of higher education. Unfortunately, so far, it has done little more than act as a grant-doling agency. The result has been the discovery that much of India’s higher education, especially at the undergraduate level, has no relevance to the needs of a developing economy and the needs, aptitudes and abilities of our students. Student unrests spring largely from frustrations caused by old-fashioned syllabi and the age-old systems of examinations.

When teachers are content throughout the country with higher pay, they must come forward to rescue education from its present moribund condition. Teachers engaged in private tuitions and the sale of lecture notes can surely be expected to stop the practices after the pay revision.

Dedication and quality are on the downslide, with many teachers interested only in the pay package. Many prove to be incompetent not because they do not have sufficient academic qualifications, but because they lack the willingness to teach.

It must not be overlooked here that the Centre’s decision on the service conditions and work of teachers in many cases will only serve to discourage the whole teaching community. Teachers, for instance, are required to stay in their college or university beyond their working hours so that they might be available to their pupils for consultation and for their own studies. Few teachers will object to this. But at the same time, conditions congenial to student counselling and study must be made available to the teachers. They must be provided with separate rooms allotted for such work. Both the teachers and the government have to fulfil their obligations. Otherwise the pay revision will be counter-productive.

Further, invigilation and examinership, which are paid for at present, will henceforward be treated as part of a teacher’s normal duty. This stipulation may, with some reason, be applied to the fulltime teachers of colleges and universities. But it is simply impractical and unethical when applied to part-time teachers. They are given a measly monthly allowance of Rs 400, which was only Rs 125 not so long ago. Yet any colleges today depend on the services of part-time teachers. In West Bengal, more than 5,000 part-time teachers form part of the teaching community in more than 400 colleges, whereas dozens of posts of fulltime lecturers are lying vacant for years.

Through a UGC notification of December 24, 1998, it was suggested that the part-time teachers be paid Rs 2,000 per month. The recommendation is still flouted in most of the colleges of the state.

In addition to taking regular classes, a part-timer invigilates in examinations, sets questions, checks answer scripts and also takes part in various college activities just like their full-time counterparts, who draw much larger salaries than they do. Is it fair to expect dedication, sincerity, dutifulness and love for the cause of education from these ill-paid part-time teachers?

Students are no less responsible for disturbing the academic atmosphere. The legitimate demands of the students must be conceded to but undesirable activities must be stopped. The growing indiscipline among students, their unruly behaviour, cause grave concern. For example, students’ unions in many institutions have been guilty of corruption and irregularity.

The college and university authorities have to come to terms with them for the sake of “smooth administration”. The sway of college unions has recently extended to dictating to principals on issues like admission of students, fixing the dates of examinations, setting class routines, promotions to higher classes, and other allied matters.

What is more distressing are the monetary transactions by such unions. Besides the union fees, at the time of admissions, the freshers have to pay “admission fees” to the student organizations controlling the union. The unions collect huge funds from students although this is unauthorized extortion.

Surprisingly, in many colleges the admission forms are distributed through such unions, otherwise the forms are not entertained by the college authorities. Some college unions also extract large amounts from the incoming students as donations. In other cases, a percentage of seats is reserved for unions where aspirants who have not obtained the required qualifying marks are admitted at the dictate of the union leaders.

The disruptions caused by student unions result in occasions in which reputed colleges have to be closed by the authorities in the midst of a term, losing many useful working days. Students very often demand more classes, while they are responsible for taking away many working days on the pretext of feasts, college functions, sports, excursions, meetings, campaigns and so on to add to the existing list of holidays. Serious students thus become victims of college politics and pay for the weakening of the whole system.

So, the long and short of it all is that the enhancement of the salaries of the college and university teachers is merely one aspect of the many-faceted problem of education.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Blame game

Sir — What is the superboss — formally of West Bengal and informally of the state Communist Party of India (Marxist) — up to (“Basu apology on Midnapore”, Feb 4)? Is Jyoti Basu trying to promote Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s stewardship or his own? Before launching on his guilt trip, Basu should have realized Midnapore is not the only thing he should be sorry about. If he does “take the responsibility” because he was chief minister for 23 years, Basu has to own up for all that has gone wrong with West Bengal, which includes its flawed educational set up, its struggling economy, its pathetic work culture as much as its bloody political battles. Basu also does not realize that blaming the “administration” for the escalation of violence in many parts of the state ultimately betrays his own lack of competence. Yes, it was his administration for the past two decades that has made West Bengal into one of the most backward states in the country. And both he and his party owe the people of the state profuse apologies for that.
Yours faithfully,
Sucharita Sen, Calcutta

Mishandling a crisis

Sir — The report, “Mr Minister, if I can lift bodies, why can’t you” (Feb 2), gave occasion to mull over Sapna Elahi Pereira’s question to Gujarat’s industry minister, Khodabhai Patel, “Do you think it would take a government in foreign countries so long to clear debris?” We Indians as a race seem to be hyper-critical about ourselves and seem to be suffering from a perennial inferiority complex. Before comparing the relief operations with those abroad, let Pereira take into account the magnitude of our problems.

The earthquake is one of the most powerful to have struck anywhere. The density of our population is such that several thousands have been affected. The infrastructure is poor and this is inevitable given that our country is poor and has been ruled by foreigners for so many years. Taking these factors into account, I feel that we are doing a good job. I am actually proud that our government did not go with a begging bowl abroad but is trying to raise the resources locally for reconstruction work.

The army and the volunteers are doing a commendable job. Of course, there is scope for improvement. But let us not draw unfair comparisons with operations elsewhere. This only results in lowering the public morale. It also damages the country’s image in the foreign media which would lap up such statements and show them prominently in their broadcasts. There is no doubting Pereira’s sincerity, nor the reasons for her frustration. But that should not encourage a negative attitude about ourselves.

There are several instances where families, cutting across their caste and communal affiliations, have come forward to help others in the quake-hit city of Ahmedabad. The media should highlight the positive aspects of this distinctly Indian culture. Splashing views like Pereira’s will only antagonize the people towards the authorities.

Yours faithfully,
E.R. Shivaji, Saint Louis, US

Sir — “Mr Minister, if I can lift bodies, why can’t you” was like a slap on the face of the administration. The Central government is definitely on a backfoot when it comes to providing adequate aid and relief to the quake-hit victims of Gujarat. My heart goes out to Sapna Elahi Pereira who has taken enormous pains to deal with the devastation. It is shameful that the targets of Pereira’s outburst, the Keshubhai Patel government in particular, will remain unrepentant.

Yours faithfully,
T.R. Anand, Sarangbad

Sir — The Gujarat quake has galvanized Indians worldwide in doing their bit to help their stricken countrymen. Stationed in Santiago, Chile I too wanted to do something. Not owning a credit card which would allow online contributions, the only way open to me was to send a cheque to the prime minister’s relief fund. To this end I rang up the Indian embassy to be told that they do not have any provision for acceptance of donations as nobody has approached them in this regard. I was politely advised to contact the International Red Cross. Since the webpage of the prime minister’s office on the prime minister’s relief fund states “Contributors who live outside India may deposit their contributions with the nearest Indian Mission”, this comes as one more proof of the callousness of our pampered officials.

Yours faithfully,
S. Sengupta, Santiago, Chile

Sir — According to the state government, only about 15,000 to 20,000 deaths have occurred due to the earthquake. The defence minister, George Fernandes, in a bold statement, has declared that up to a lakh have died and around two lakh people have been injured.

Presumably, the state government wants to avoid the blame for the massive tragedy of Kutch which has been magnified because of its negligence and incompetence in face of the catastrophe. It seems to be fudging the figures. It may be suspected that the state government wants to prevent much of the relief funds from reaching Kutch, where they should actually go. An evasive state government cannot be trusted with all the funds that are meant for the relief of the survivors in Kutch which have been promised by national and foreign organizations and governments. There is no way of knowing if some of those funds are not being diverted to Ahmedabad and other big cities, instead of going the towns and villages in Kutch.

Many of the state’s bureaucrats and legislators are allegedly involved in fraud. They seem least worried about the security of life and property of the people of Gujarat, as has been clearly proved by the collapse of new buildings in Ahmedabad. How can people trust such a corrupt government to honestly and properly undertake the massive relief and rehabilitation programme in Kutch? There should be a presidential ordinance to declare a state of emergency in Kutch.

Yours faithfully,
Ashok T. Jaisinghani, Pune

Sir — That some of the senior bureaucrats have failed to rise to the occasion at times of such calamity as in Gujarat is unfortunate. This is because they lack understanding of the people although they are trained to do so. The problem lies in the flaws of the selection procedure for the civil services. The recruited personnel are from elitist backgrounds and the process lays more stress on academic excellence than on the understanding of social problems and dedication to serving the people. The training of civil servants should be made more rigorous and promotions be made as difficult as they are in the army where performance is crucial.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

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