Editorial 1 / Step up reforms
Editorial 2 / Steal frame
A different kind of challenge
Book review / Seeing a hedge when it isn’t there
Book Review / The Fall, again
Book Review / Theology without frontiers
Book Review / Big brother problems
Editor’s choice / Into the heart of darkness
Paperback pickings / Conversations with a few goo
Letters to the editor

For much of the last six months, economists, thinktanks and various industry organizations have been talking of a slowdown in the economy. Much of this was based on “informed guesses” or somewhat flimsy evidence, although the National Council of Applied Economic Research put forth more “hard” evidence in the form of its business confidence index which also revealed that businessmen were pessimistic about the future prospects of the economy and were thus reluctant to carry out fresh investment. The Central Statistical Organization has just released the first authentic piece of evidence essentially corroborating apprehensions about the economy. The CSO reports that the country’s economic growth will slow down to six per cent this financial year from 6.4 per cent in 1999-2000. These are advance estimates and are quite likely to be revised in due course. However, the chances are that the revision will be in the downward direction because the CSO estimates obviously ignore the impact of the Gujarat earthquake. That is bound to have a non-negligible impact on the rate of growth because Gujarat contributes a significant fraction of the economy’s manufacturing output and it is doubtful whether the state will produce much during the rest of the financial year.

The slowdown is mainly on account of deceleration in the manufacturing sector together with a negligible growth in farm output. The only silver linings are the strong performances of the service sectors and the export sector. In fact, the growth in exports will exceed that of imports for the year as a whole, a phenomenon which one does not observe too often in India. As far as the service sector is concerned, the sterling performance of the software industries has obviously been the driving force. If this trend continues, there may be a time in the foreseeable future when the service sector will determine the fortunes of the Indian economy. Unfortunately, that is still some way down the line. In the short run, the health of the economy depends crucially on what happens to agriculture and manufacturing.

Despite much talk, the government is yet to raise public investment in agriculture to the required levels. In the absence of adequate irrigation facilities, Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on rainfall — a bad monsoon can cause a steep drop in harvests. Instead of investing heavily in rural infrastructure, the government takes recourse to short-term and ill-advised palliatives such as high procurement prices. These distort market prices and send wrong signals to farmers. The errors of omission and commission have also been repeated in policies affecting the industrial sector. For instance, there is a huge gap between needs and availability as far as infrastructure is concerned — roads are in an abominable state, power supply is erratic, port facilities are primitive. The government has been extremely passive in its approach to the creation of infrastructure. It has not taken a very active role, and neither has it provided adequate incentives to the private sector to invest in this sector. Paradoxically, it continues to intervene in areas where private enterprise should be allowed free play. Of course, one could ask how the economy has performed so well in the mid-Nineties under more or less the same public environment. The answer must be that the earlier phase of growth was made possible by the first generation reforms. All the slack has now been taken up, and the economy can only progress rapidly on the back of second generation reforms.


There is a common misconception in India that business and charity are synonymous. Notions like this form the basis of the demand that executives of the Indian Iron and Steel Company should be paid at par with the other executives of the Steel Authority of India Limited. Not only the executives of Iisco, but even their wives and children have begun a sit-in against the decision of the Sail authorities not to give Iisco executives wages similar to those posted in other plants and subsidiaries of Sail. Officers have threatened that they will resort to fast-unto-death from the end of February. This is the kind of blackmail that can sound the death knell of any business venture. The fact of the matter is that Iisco and the other plants under Sail are not comparable. For one thing, Iisco has been sick for a very long time. It follows that in terms of productivity, the Iisco executives do not do the kind of work that their counterparts do in the other steel plants under Sail. Rewards in a business firm have to bear some relationship with productivity and profitability. To forget this simple premise is to treat a business venture as a charitable institution. In fact, it was precisely because Iisco was not treated as a business venture that it became sick in the first place.

The agitation that is now under way in Burnpur has no basis in reason. It is based on emotion and sentiment. That is why the agitation is unfair and the demand it articulates, unreasonable. To have wives and children joining a protest might help to catch the limelight but their presence does not add substance to the demand. Officers of Iisco and their family members must appreciate that as things stand today, Iisco represents a drain on the exchequer. There exists no justification for maintaining a steel plant at the cost of the taxpayer. It is an antiquated notion that the state should go on subsidizing loss-making enterprises. In the first place, the state should not own industries. And in the second place, if it cannot divest itself of Iisco, it should in no way pay more than what it does now. Some people, whether they like it or not, have to learn basic economic realities.


Two events since the election of George W. Bush as the new president of the United States highlight both the opportunities and the pitfalls of dealing with the new set-up in Washington. First, about the opportunities. It was just as well that the first high level contact between the Bush administration and New Delhi was scheduled at the level of India’s national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and the new US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, at the 37th conference on security policy — a Davos-type world forum on security — in Wehrkunde near Munich.

Last week, Indian journalists in Washington were somewhat amused that the Pentagon spokesman who briefed reporters on the plans for a Mishra-Rumsfeld meeting in Wehrkunde could not get the Indian national security adviser’s first name in the face of persistent queries by American reporters. What was not missed, though, was that the Pentagon found the meeting with Mishra important enough to be mentioned as a key event in Rumsfeld’s itinerary in its pre-trip briefing.

Now the pitfalls. The first and only Indian minister to visit the US since the election of the new Republican president was the petroleum minister, Ram Naik. (Accompanying him was Santosh Gangwar, minister of state for petroleum and parliamentary affairs.) Good enough, since oil is now a powerful element in the new White House. President Bush is from Texas, the fountainhead of the US oil industry. His father, the former president, has longstanding oil connections in Texas and Dick Cheney, the vice-president and regent of the inexperienced new presidency, is an oil man of high standing.

Up until his election as Bush’s running mate, Cheney was head of the oil giant, Halliburton. The talk of the town in the US capital is that the Texas fatcats are back in Washington. But Naik’s problem was that all the fatcats were actually in Washington and none was in Texas when the Indian minister arrived in Houston on January 19. A day before the inauguration of the Texas governor as the 43rd US president, anyone in Texas who mattered and thousands of Texans who did not matter were all in Washington.

Indeed, the Indian embassy in the US had warned Naik’s ministry that the minister’s visit would be pointless since he wouldn’t be able to meet anyone in Texas connected with the oil industry during the week when Bush was being sworn in as president. But who would listen in New Delhi’s ministerial corridors to logic and common sense when there was the prospect of going on a foreign tour? So Naik came, did some sightseeing and went back to India.

Notwithstanding the blossoming of India-US relations in the last one year, the change of guard at the White House is about to transform the nature of ties between New Delhi and Washington. In the afterglow of Bill Clinton’s visit to India a year ago, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ministers have been hopping in and out of the US: some of these visits, like that of the information technology minister, Pramod Mahajan, have produced results. But as Naik’s visit on Bush’s inaugural eve suggests, the camaraderie of the last year between India and the US is about to give way to a more businesslike relationship where sentiment and goodwill is to be replaced by give and take.

That is what makes the choice of the national security adviser as New Delhi’s initial interlocutor to probe the new US administration very important. Mishra’s foreign policy assessments and the Indian government’s responses based on those assessments have so far stood the Vajpayee government in good stead on the external affairs front.

But in dealing with the new set-up in Washington, Mishra’s tested diplomatic skills will be severely tried — a test that will eventually be as trying as the one that followed the Pokhran nuclear tests in May 1998. Of course, under a Bush dispensation, there will be less lecturing from Washington on issues like human rights, non-proliferation or labour standards. The new president has himself said: “One way for us to end up being viewed as the Ugly American is for us to go around the world saying ‘We do it this way, so should you’.”

But the price that countries like India will have to pay for any easing of pressure on hitherto contentious issues is the demand to be more and more sensitive to what the Bush White House perceives as the US’s vital interests. In the flush of satisfaction over last year’s India-US bonhomie, it is often forgotten in retrospect, that the relationship was, in some ways, a one way love affair.

Although Clinton’s visit in March last year took the sting out of anti-Americanism in India, the Vajpayee government itself bargained hard to get what it wanted out of the US. To the credit of Vajpayee and his foreign policy aides, they succeeded in changing the US’s Kashmir policy which has been a thorn in India-US relations ever since independence. On the nuclear issue too, Washington’s willingness to engage New Delhi in a non-proliferation dialogue made most other key countries follow suit in dealing with the Pokhran tests.

Quite unexpectedly, the Clinton administration also belatedly accepted the Indian position that Pakistan was largely responsible for the terror in Kashmir even though it stopped short of declaring Islamabad as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

The catalyst in the emerging relationship came when Clinton summoned the former Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and virtually ordered him to pull Pakistan troops out of Kargil. But what is significant about all this is that the Clinton policy package that favoured India was delivered to the Vajpayee government without demanding anything significant in return from New Delhi.

It is not to be doubted that there were key people on the Capitol Hill and at all levels in the state department, in the national security council and elsewhere in the Clinton administration who were persuaded by the way India argued its case in Washington.

But an overriding factor that influenced events was Clinton’s belief that a trip to India was a missing link in the former president’s life. Accounts by his wife, now senator, Hillary Clinton, of her two visits to India also influenced the president, for she was, in many ways, his secretary of state as well. India now has no such presidential goodwill to rely on in Bush, never mind the telephone conversation he had with Vajpayee a few days ago or his letter to the president, K.R. Narayanan. In fact, indications so far are that Bush is more comfortable leaving world affairs in the hands of his foreign policy team. After all, the overseas trips that Bush has made in his entire life can be counted on one’s fingers.

The new president’s foreign policy team believes that the US must retain its leadership role in the world, but unlike the Clinton administration, it will seek to do this without incurring any cost for the American people. To start with, the Bush administration is obsessed with threats to the US, as reflected in the new determination in Washington to build the national missile defence system — a variation of Ronald Reagan’s strategic defence initiative — in complete insensitivity to Europe’s reservations about the project and the outright opposition from China and Russia.

Secondly, the Bush White House envisages a peace in the world that is maintained on the US’s behalf by others who are beholden to Washington. It would like the experience in East Timor — where Australians keep the peace — to be repeated elsewhere. In the Balkans, the Bush presidency is in favour of pulling out even the small number of US soldiers on the ground, leaving the peace-keeping to Europeans. In this context, it is interesting that the new secretary of state, Colin Powell, outlined a regional peace enforcement role for India in the Indian Ocean region when he testified before the senate foreign relations committee for his confirmation.

If at all Clinton demanded anything from India — as in the suggestion that New Delhi should take over the chairmanship of the Community of Democracies and whip “errant” democracies which were not to Washington’s liking — the Vajpayee government was able to stand up and say “no” to Washington.

The demands from Bush, though, will not be on the comprehensive test ban treaty or human rights or democracy. When he makes them, they will be about US interests in Asia. And if India refuses those demands, then the US’s relationship with India may not remain as cosy as it has been in the last one year. Washington is still full of people who have not lived down what they see as India’s half-century-old intransigence towards the West. They still see India as a potential delinquent in their community of nations.

These influential men and women will not hesitate to stir up trouble in India-US relations. The challenge to Indian diplomacy is that these people will then be backed by countries which are not comfortable with the way India-US ties have evolved in the last year.


By Roy Moxham,
Constable, £ 14.99

Dabbling can be dangerous. Self delusion even more so. This book is proof of both statements.

Roy Moxham has been a tea planter and gallery owner and is now a book conservator. At Quinto, the famous second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road he chanced upon a copy of W.H. Sleeman’s Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, a book with which most historians of 19th century India are familiar. In the book, he came across a footnote added by the editor of the volume. It was from a book by John Strachey, an Indian civil servant and father of Lytton. From the quotation he learnt about the salt tax in India, about the Customs Line the British had established to prevent salt smuggling and that the line was 2,300 miles long and “consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny tress and bushes”.

Thus was born a magnificent obsession. The idea of a gigantic hedge across the heart of India gave wings to Moxham’s imagination. He began scouring books and documents in the India Office Library (then on Blackfriars Road near Waterloo station) and in the British Museum. He found references to the hedge but not to its precise location.

Moxham decided to begin his own search. Armed with maps, an old army compass and a Global Positioning Systems navigator (bought for £ 125), he set off to India to find the remnants of the hedge. With the help of friends he tramped around the areas around Jhansi, Gwalior, Etawah and the Jamuna-Chambal doab. This book in large measure is a description of those travels interspersed with histories of the salt tax, smuggling and the Customs Line. There is also the wide-eyed discovery of an Englishman that his country, when it ruled India, set in place monstrous systems of exploitation and oppression.

Also, it must be given to Moxham that in the quest for his Holy Grail, he took an enormous amount of pain and trouble. He moved across the rough terrain of Bundelkhand in private and government buses, on tempo, matador and tonga, rode side-saddle on a cycle, did his morning ablutions out in the open like any Indian villager, slept on charpoys and ate delicious meals of rotis, yoghurt and vegetables. Very few urban Indians — let alone foreigners — would go through all this even for the love of money. Moxham was driven.

Did he find the hedge? You might well ask. Somewhere, after a long walk along the banks of the Chambal, an old villager points out the remains of the “parmat lain”: “there between the fields, ran a narrow strip of grassy land. It was slightly raised and about twenty feet wide.” Further on, he finds clusters of “thorny acacias topped the embankment. Some 20 feet high. Thorn-covered plum trees barred the way. It was impossible to tell whether the trees were original or re-seedings. Whichever they were, it was the Customs Hedge.’’ Moxham thus convinced himself that he had made a major discovery. Very few of his readers will be thus convinced.

Administrators of the Raj did conceive in the late 1860s of a Great Hedge to stop salt smuggling from the princely states. The project was abandoned because it was unviable and because by 1879, the Customs Line was removed. This is the principal reason why no historian has ever been concerned about the existence of the hedge or of its significance. History cannot be written out of obsessions.

Any social scientist, Indian, European or Hottentot, who has done field work in rural India knows the pitfalls of taking seriously all that an Indian villager says. Moxham, because he is dabbling in history as a complete amateur, is innocent of all such scepticism. There is something almost child-like about his sense of discovery. A raised grassy embankment becomes the Customs Line on the testimony of a villager. A line on a map does not become a hedge on the ground.


By Matthew Kneale,
Hamish Hamilton, £ 15.99

If some of the English passengers of Matthew Kneale’s novel had had their way, the Garden of Eden would serve as an outpost of the British empire. The year is 1857 and it is all right for religion and science to act as agents of the colonial enterprise. It is left to an Englishman, Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, MA (Cantab), to defend the truth of the Bible’s chronology against the atheisms of geologists and prove the existence of Paradise. The Reverend sets out for Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania), convinced that Eden lies in the British colony. With him is Dr Thomas Potter, surgeon, who has joined the voyage with the sole motive of collecting human specimens, preferably dead, of all sorts to compile his sinister thesis, “The Destiny of Nations”. It would prove once and for all the absolute superiority of the Saxon race and their right to be the natural rulers of the world.

It is quite another thing that they don’t know that the ship bearing them southwards, called Sincerity, is carrying smuggled brandy, tobacco and pornography. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter, for irony is lost on presumption.

Their conscience sparkling, they reach Van Diemen’s Land, impervious to the fact that the place where Eden is supposed to be is the scene of one of the most shameful events of history. White men — convicts, settlers, Christian missionaries — have exterminated aboriginals like vermin, sometimes with their Christianizing mission, sometimes only for sport. The quest for Paradise takes on surreal tones.

English Passengers, this year’s Whitbread prize winner, chronicles the story of the Fall again, but as the author writes his hugely enjoyable epic novel spread over decades and continents with the audacity of a dramatist, his own ambition becomes clear.

If all Europe contributed to the making of Mistah Kurtz, Kneale tries to write its British chapter. But the author also directs a giant cast of 20-odd characters, making each of them tell his or her own story, but with an insidious intent. Kneale seems to pit the many voices against each other to laugh at the idea of one historical truth in a “historical” novel.

Most of the voices are hollow at the core like the great Victorian experiments that have been undertaken. There’s the harlequin priest — one can almost hear his shrill tones complaining endlessly about the surgeon, who is competition. There’s Jack Harp, one of the convicts transported to Down Under as a Victorian excess, only as brutish as the prisons he has been flung into. There’s Dr Potter, who makes entries in his diary on the natural traits of races with the fatality of Madame Defarge knitting the name of aristocrats. There’s Mr Robson, the self-appointed saviour of aboriginal souls, who makes a terrific career in God’s service.

It’s satire at its most savage as they condemn themselves out of their own mouth. But there’s also the caustic Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his crew of macho Manxmen, their quaint English flavoured with Celtic, a counterpoint to the prissy perfection of the Queen’s English parrotted by the Reverend. They are only too happy to sharpen their tongues on the Englishmen on board. The voices fill the novel like echoes in a huge haunted house.

But if the book has a soul, it is Peevay. He is a half-caste who is waging a futile war single-handedly against the colonizers. His weapon: the very language the white men are using to fight the invaders’ code. His special skill: endurance.

Herded off with others of his tribe to a conversion camp where the living conditions would have done a Nazi concentration camp proud and where everyone is dying, he learns to resist, teaching himself a strange English which Kneale feels is how an aboriginal, “intelligent and interested in words”, would speak after absorbing English phrases that were common in the 1830s. It is the only thing that survives for Peevay, apart from his dignity.

He falls in love, which makes him realize he must live, “which I almost forgot till then”, but death does the girl in quicker. Peevay starts writing letters to the authorities, one after the other, hoping for redress, and enduring, which was his special skill always. Till one day, when his world turns upside down. Embodying in his person the destiny of his people, Peevay alone could have been the novel.

But if English Passengers is a tour de force, it is one with some unnecessary stops. The several voices, which give the novel its high-vaulting pitch, can also prove to be its undoing. The host of governors, secretaries and prison officials in Her Majesty’s imperial service tends to sound like each other, while a pair of Twiddledee and Twiddledum seems to be quite enough for the book’s purpose. As a result, the novel is anaemic in parts, though the blood courses through its veins when Captain Kewley speaks.

But English Passengers also suffers from a more fundamental weakness. It has to do with the novelist’s cool, postmodern gaze. If the absence of irony proves disastrous for some of Kneale’s men, an excess of it proves harmful for the writer. While dealing with an already barely-remembered episode of shame, Kneale allows everything to be mediated by his contemporary consciousness, also reflected in the cover of the book which shows a globe flanked by a ship on one end and three presumably English gentlemen on the other.

It’s good fun, but the technique shows. It’s like the boom appearing in the frames of an otherwise excellently edited movie.


By Raymond Brady Williams,
Cambridge, Price not mentioned

Religion is an integral part of the cultural identity of a nation even in this technocratic era. There is a covert mechanism by which this relationship is determined. Both religion and culture have common parameters, and both have well-disguised political agenda. Few critics of the politicization of religion realize that that it is merely a form of aggrandizement of the politics already ingrained in religion.

But, there are major differences in religion and culture as well. While culture remains a multifocal and largely dispersive phenomenon, religion has a predominantly central tendency. And this centre is sometimes embodied in the larger-than-life image of a godman, around whom a community revolves. The emergence of such leaders does not, however, take place ex nihilo. There are certain socio-political factors which contribute to it. It, therefore, should not be looked upon as an accident that a host of Hindu religious leaders emerged in 19th century colonial India.

Sahajanand Swami or Swaminarayan (1781-1830) came to Gujarat at a time when it was bandit-infested and famine-ravaged. Swaminarayan rose into prominence in this milieu and coincidentally — and this is interesting — this was also about the time when the British East India Company got entry into the state.

While the former managed to give it some kind of social order, the latter gave the region political stability. British governors also sought Swaminarayan’s assistance to bring into effect social reforms like the abolition of sati.

In the book, An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism, Raymond Brady Williams makes a comprehensive study of this form of Hinduism. The seven chapters of this book systematically explore the salient features of this sect. Williams also displays admirable balance in sifting through legends, myths and historical records to construct a biographical profile of the man.

The first chapter brings to the fore the social conditions which proved conducive to the germination of Swaminarayan Hinduism in Gujarat. The second deals with the administrative problems that Swaminarayan had to face vis-à-vis power-struggles within the sect.

The third chapter analyses the basic structure of the Swaminarayan theology which projects him as the greatest manifestation of god and as an iconographic variation of Krishna. Chapter five inspects the broader social implications of the moral codes laid down in shiksapatri, which is a charter of mandatory rules meant to be observed by both householders and ascetics. An egregious caste-consciousness and gender-bias permeate these rules.

One of the striking features of Swaminarayan Hinduism is its transnational character. Apart from Gujarat, this sect has gained a firm foothold in countries like Britain and the United States. In chapter seven, Williams points out several factors which encouraged Indian immigration to these countries which ultimately helped spread the religion overseas.

In an interesting afterword, Williams delves into the etymological root of the word, “tradition”, which, to him, means both “handing down” and “reaching across”. Williams considers Swaminarayan Hinduism to be performing both functions with perfection.

Williams also brands this form of Hinduism as “ethical/hierarchical”, as distinguished from the “national/ecumenical” model adopted by pugnacious Hindutvawadis. Though steering safely clear of any value-judgments, Williams does not want this distinction to be blurred at any cost.


By Sharat Kumar and Praveen,
Shipra, Rs 795

“Jamshedpur: The power tussle over the bifurcation of the Bihar State Electricity Board has compounded with the Jharkhand government announcing its plans to set up its own grid for the state. Bihar and its sibling, Jharkhand, crossed swords after the latter unilaterally declared the formation of the Jharkhand State Electricity Board, carved out of the BSEB. The Bihar government termed it unconstitutional.

The Jharkhand power minister has been eager to stop the outflow of Rs 100 crore that the BSEB has been mopping up every year from the newly-created Jharkhand...”

It is altogether another matter that the proposed Jharkhand state electricity board has hit the legal barrier. But this news item, which appeared in a national daily a couple of weeks ago sums up the problems — and in a strange way, the prospects — of Bihar and Jharkhand in the post-bifurcation era.

Barely has the dust settled over the din generated by bifurcation, academicians and politicians are already vying with each other to offer instant solutions to several vexed issues. The consequence: a slew of publications, pamphlets enumerating the problems and prospects of divided Bihar and Jharkhand.

The book, Development of Bihar and Jharkhand: Problems and Prospects, is one such run-of-the mill anthology of statistics, facts, jargon and clichéd solutions.

Divided into five parts, it pans on the state of the economy by touching upon the development perspectives, agriculture and forestry, industry and mines, irrigation, power and credit and fiscal reforms in the region.

Though the title promises a meticulous dissemination of state-wise data and analyses of the economic problems in the post-bifurcation era, the contents dispel this notion. Weighed down by a mountain of archaic statistics, spanning the period between 1981 and 1995, the book misleads the reader.

The bulk of the material is however only relevant for undivided Bihar because the “exhaustive” research is based on the state’s economic affairs during the Eighties and the early Nineties. This is justified, for such a mammoth compilation of figures could not have been made possible overnight with all the latest updates.

But the authors could have at least added a few more chapters on Jharkhand. The lone “essay’’ exploring the development avenues of the tribal state, “Development Strategy for Tribals in Jharkhand”, offers a bird’s eye view of the ongoing development schemes, the demographic pattern, the workforce participation and the general state of the people and their economy, with a profusion of charts and supporting statistics.

In many ways a guide for students of economics, the book fails to take into account the socio-economic dynamics of the two states — specially at the grassroots level. For instance, the authors recommend emulation of tenancy reforms like recording of share-croppers on the lines of Operation Barga to create an atmosphere conducive for higher private investment.

But the land distribution pattern in Bihar is rather eclectic. While the land holdings in northern districts like Purnea, Muzaffarpur, Katihar, Sitamarhi, Champaran and Begusarai are large, in central and south Bihar, the land-man ratio is skewed. The plots are small and the pattern of cropping — labour-intensive.

The farmers grow a variety of crops all the year round on a rotational basis but this system of multi-cropping fails to yield the desired results. The mechanized north always stays ahead of the “relatively progressive and equitable’’ south where the ultra-left forces have ensured distribution of surplus land among the landless on the lines of Operation Barga.

In north Bihar, where the “progressive forces’’ have not been able to make inroads primarily because of the absence of a Dalit support base, land has not undergone intensive division. Though most of the holdings are “benami’’—fraudulently registered in the names of landlords’ kin to escape the surplus dragnet — they are tilled by one landowner. As a consequence, the cropping pattern is capital-intensive and mono-cropping ensures bumper yield. Often dubbed the rice-bowl of Bihar, these large holdings employ the Dalit farm hands as marginal labourers.

So the author’s contention that “as high as 46 per cent of holdings during 1985-86 was less than the size of two hectares’’ is applicable to only central Bihar and Jharkhand. The sprawling croplands in the riverine north Bihar district accounts for a meagre eight per cent. Hence the Operation Barga-type model, though logically feasible, going by the dynamics of land and foodgrains production presented by the author, would in reality be a partial solution to the land distribution problem.

However, the book offers interesting factfiles on tenancy reforms, state of forests and small scale industries: poverty amidst institutional plenty.

A “must-read’’ for those with a penchant for statistics, but for the discerning reader, the lopsided approach to the economics of development leaves behind a sense of “inadequacy.’’


By John le Carré,
Hodder, £ 8.50

“Half angels fighting half devils” is how Connie Sachs had described the Cold War in Smiley’s People. There were no heroes and no villains in the fictional world that le Carré had created around the Circus and its secret wars. Hence, the moral ambiguity of his Smiley novels and the bitter cynicism inherent in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Smiley’s victory over Karla was without triumph because Smiley knew “On Karla had descended the curse of Smiley’s compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla’s fanaticism. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his.” The end of the Cold War took away from le Carré the landscape he had made uniquely his own.

There is little or no ambiguity in le Carré’s post-Cold War novels. The angels and the devils are clearly identifiable. It is no longer two ruthless systems pitted against each other. Now on one side are the drug cartels, the arms dealers, the mafia, and the back room boys in dark suits exploiting the helpless and the gullible to make huge profits. Against them are a few good individuals trying to salvage all that goes by the name of decency. These individuals allow us not to abandon all hope. Jonathan in The Night Manager, Larry in Our Game or Oliver in Single & Singleshare this common desire to rid the world of some evil men.

Justin Quayle, a quiet and loyal British diplomat in Nairobi, had no such intentions till his wife, Tessa, was found beheaded in a remote corner of Kenya. Tessa was cut from the same cloth as Jonathan, Larry and Oliver. Naïve and sentimental, she was committed to exposing the harm and the corruption that a big pharmaceutical company was perpetuating in Kenya. Reeling from the shock and escaping from his service, Justin begins to retrace the steps his wife had taken.

Thus begins le Carré’s relentless exposé of the big pharmas in contemporary Africa. In a rare authorial comment on his own text, le Carré writes in the acknowledgments, “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.” The jungle he explores spreads far into human habitation and civilization. Its wildlife can be found in universities, in research institutions, in the board rooms of companies, in clubs and among doctors, lawyers and bureaucrats. The jungle is frightening because it seems to be omnipresent.

Justin, unlike Tessa, knows that he cannot clean up the world and that he is, in fact, journeying to his doom. Indeed, he wills his end. It is also the story of one man’s emergence from his own cloistered existence into the real world of intrigue, corruption and violence. Not every one Justin encounters in his voyage of discovery is bad. There are doctors and researchers who have realized their own mistakes; aid workers, Tessa’s friends some of them, willing to take him where she went. Ordinary people, making cameo appearances in the novel but sketched lovingly by le Carré.

Le Carré’s prose has varied from novel to novel, from the elaborateness of The Honourable Schoolboy to the sparseness of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Here he uses both modes with great effect. The narration of machinations are without frills. But there are evocative descriptions of nature. Here is one: “The mountain stood black against the darkening sky, and the sky was a mess of racing cloud, perverse island winds and February rain. The snake road was strewn with pebbles...Sometimes it became a tunnel of overhanging pine branches and sometimes it was a precipice with a free fall to the steaming Mediterranean a thousand feet below.’’

This is a novel about the dark heart of capitalism and about a few precious souls ranged against it.


Subhoranjan Dasgupta speaks with four nobel laureates
(Dasgupta, Rs 55)

Subhoranjan Dasgupta’s Dialogues to Remember transcribes a series of interviews with Amartya Sen, Willy Brandt, Günter Grass and William Golding. When Dasgupta had spoken to Brandt in 1984 and to Golding in 1987, they were already peace and literature laureates respectively. Sen was interviewed in 1986 (two long evenings in Shantiniketan) and Grass twice in the mid-Eighties. These are extremely substantial conversations, although they do tend to be slightly dated. Particularly with Sen, whose preoccupations have moved on considerably since the Eighties, although the intellectual origins of the “economist-philosopher” — particularly his engagement with the ethics of utilitarianism — are always fascinating to ponder. Grass on Indian fatalism, Brandt on Ostpolitik and Golding on the idiocy of his critics (“he was too dumb to understand”) are a pleasure to read. Dasgupta’s questions are impeccably impersonal and the conversations remain indefatigably “solid”. One misses somewhat the everyday “feel” of these personalities. An interesting little book, with a foreword by Amiya Kumar Bagchi.


Edited by Shormishtha Panja
(Worldview, Rs 135)

Shormishtha Panja’s Many Indias, Many Literatures: New Critical Essays is an “intentionally heteroglot” collection on the diversity of Indian writing in English and in some vernaculars. The essays range across poetry, drama and fiction: the poems of Jayanta Mahapatra and Nissim Ezekiel, Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal, Tagore’s Ghore-Baire (and Ray’s film), Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, the Hindi-Urdu short story and the writings of Ambai, who “heralded the feminist voice in Tamil fiction”. The critical methods are also eclectic. The cover reproduces a rather mischievous painting, Madhu Gupta’s “Tea at International Centre” — the god, Krishna, very lavender-hued, is world-wearily sipping tea with a Delhiite who looks as if she has just emerged from a conference on “Re-presenting post/colonial literature(s)”.


By R.K. Narayan
(Picador, Rs 195)

R.K. Narayan’s My Days: A Memoir is the first of a series of Indian classics in English Picador intends to bring back into print for a wider audience. Together with the new Penguin reissue of the novels and memoir (Tunnel of Time) of Narayan’s brother, the cartoonist and writer, R.K. Laxman, this book might inspire a long overdue revaluation of a kind of English fiction nobody seems to be able to write any more. Spare, entirely original, inimitably Indian, full of strange stories beautifully told, the work of Narayan and Laxman predate the “Indo-Anglian” genre, and somehow elude the current frameworks of literary theory and cultural studies. Written in the Seventies, the unmisgiving candour and “mischievous modesty” (John Updike’s phrase) of Narayan’s prose transform a rather uneventful writer’s life into pure felicity: “My needs were nil, I did not have plans, there was a delight in being just alive and free from employment.”



High on technology

Sir — It’s time for Sam Pitroda to play again (“Prize catch for Mamata”, Feb 7). If he could play for Rajiv Gandhi, he could, presumably, play for Mamata Banerjee as well. The problem is that both Banerjee and Pitroda have forgotten the noises that were created the last time this “technology guru” tried to perform. The reforms in the department of telecommunications introduced courtesy Pitroda were subject of a major controversy in the Rajiv Gandhi era. Indian markets have been liberalized since then, but it is doubtful if Indian minds have been. High cost technology transfer to the poor man’s means of transport is one thing that is sure to be thwarted, especially if it takes place under the instructions of a guru whose previous political associations were distinctly different. The saffron family is bound to make an issue of it and so is the opposition, particularly because it will be accompanied by a hike in rail fares as well. The music, if Sam plays after all, is likely to be as unpleasant as before.
Yours faithfully,
Pabitra Sen, Calcutta

Involuntary loopholes

Sir — According to the available figures, 14 public sector banks have offered voluntary retirement schemes to their total staff of 6,35,852. The banks seem to have received applications from more than 73,300 employees, that is to say more than 11.5 per cent of the total workforce. Going by the various schemes offered, the average cost to be incurred by the banks per employee is in the region of Rs 10 lakh. The total cost, therefore, would be more than Rs 7,000 crore.

A number of issues need to be considered. One, of the total population of the employed in this country, barely seven per cent are in the organized sector. Bank employees belong to that small category. Two, the plethora of labour laws that we have protect the employees of the organized sector only. Three, all trade union activity in this country is centred around employees of the organized sector only. Four, the payout of VRS funds would lead to large erosion of capital of the public sector banks which means that huge amounts of government funds would be depleted. Finally, the banks certainly would not accept the VRS applications of their efficient and promising employees.

So a handsome VRS package would mean rewarding a section of employees for their inefficiency. This group of people has had the best benefits of employment for years. Nationalized banks have offered some of the best pay packets and perquisites to their employees. Thanks to trade unionism, there have been periodic increases in emoluments and easing of job pressures. As for the returns, one only has to look at the quality of service bank customers get and the finances of these banks. Is it, therefore, fair on the part of banks to inflict more hardship on the public by offering additional rewards to this segment of their employees? Or should they simply be asked to perform for the remaining part of their service according to more stringent standards, or quit voluntarily?

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Chanda, via email

Sir — The voluntary retirement scheme merits an in-depth study by the management and top banking officials (“VRS seekers exceed SBI estimate”, Feb 1). The scheme does not necessarily come as a boon. The services offered by banks, despite the widespread use of computers, are likely to suffer. The bank where I hold an account has suffered a loss as one of the supervisors opted for VRS. The customers admit he was an efficient worker. The figure of 14 per cent reduction in staff may look good on paper, but the State Bank of India might lose its popularity in the process.

Yours faithfully,
Shyamal Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Reform bank” (Jan 19), is well-balanced with its emphasis on the need for the government to reduce its control on the nationalized banking sector to enable it to survive globalized competition better. The basic malady in this sector are the whopping non-performing assets which now amount to Rs 54,000 crore. The measures to tackle the problem have proved inadequate. Consistent recovery drives, compromised settlements, establishment of debt recovery tribunals and so on are not producing the desired results.

What is required is a serious effort on the part of the government. Wilful default should be treated as a criminal offence. Banks should be armed with the power to confiscate the properties of defaulters and auction them for the repayment of loans. If the central vigilance commission can post the names of corrupt public servants on the internet, why is the Reserve Bank of India dithering on publicizing the names of defaulters? The company law too needs to be modified so the practice of changing names of companies to evade loans or swindle banks is banned.

Yours faithfully,
P.N. Pal, Calcutta

Great wall, small holes

Sir — There is no doubt that the recent visit of the Chinese premier, Li Peng, provided the occasion to enhance friendly ties between the two nations. But questions can be raised about the efficacy of the diplomatic move given Chinese inroads into the Indian economy. The recent Chinese invasion of the Indian market by way of dumping of its goods — from needles to electronic goods — is a dangerous trend. India’s strong economy, together with its leadership in information technology, has put many countries far behind in the race. China’s way of getting back is by destroying the Indian market from within.

The purchase of Chinese goods will continue till Indians decide consciously to buy goods made in India only and this cannot happen till each citizen becomes aware of China’s ulterior motives. We also need to negotiate with Nepal to prevent the smuggling of goods through Nepal into India. For this, India needs to mend its relations with Nepal first. This has been seriously affected by the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu and the furore over Hrithik Roshan.

Yours faithfully,
Nitin B. Hoskote, Mumbai

Sir — India is reported to have said “Farewell to Li Peng with Agni II testfire” (Jan 18). The Chinese must have got the message clearly that India today is very different from what it was in the Sixties when our forces armed with crude guns fled the border and China swallowed up Tibet. If India and China remain earnest in preserving peace on the subcontinent, Asia will have a brighter future in the eco-cultural front. For this China will soon have to stop arming and backing Pakistan vis à vis India. Agni II will put our neighbours on their guard.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

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