Editorial 1/ Ambushed Cause
Editorial 2/ Mixed Future
Face to face with reform
Fifth Column/ Should elections be a free for all?
This above all/ Those who have ears to the ground
Who will police the violent policemen?
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ AMBUSHED CAUSE 
 
 
 
 
The conflict within the Gorkhaland movement seems to have come to a head. With the ambush on Mr Subash Ghising — chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and head of the Gorkha National Liberation Front — north Bengal might see the outbreak of a new sequence of violence. It is significant that Mr Ghising was returning from a tripartite meeting — between the DGHC representatives, the West Bengal government and the Centre — which sought to review the Gorkha Hill Accord of 1988. The fraught issue of a hardline demand for separate statehood versus a “softer” approach through constitutional safeguards for the hill council is at the heart of this conflict. There are some ur-Gorkhaland factions who feel that Mr Ghising has diluted, waylaid and betrayed the movement’s original cause. Although Mr Ghising’s assailants remain unidentified, the prime suspect is the Gorkha Liberation Organization, an underground terrorist outfit led by Mr Ghising’s one-time lieutenant, the elusive Mr Chattray Subba.

Mr Subba and the terrorists he leads have, in a sense, been spawned by the original movement itself. Most of them were part of the Gorkha volunteer cell, formed during the movement’s peak with a number of well-armed and well-trained men. They quickly turned into an unofficial police force exercising considerable powers in the hills. Mr Ghising had marked the emergence of this cell and it was disbanded just before the forging of the hill accord. After the state government stepped in, post-1988, Mr Subba launched the GLO which agitated sporadically till the very early Nineties, after which he went into the wilderness, as it were, emerging from time to time to keep up the resistance. His previous, overtly violent, surfacing was in the Jaldhaka forest area in Kalimpong last November. The GLO, together with a group of anti-Ghising outfits, is being aided, as is most often the case in the Northeast, by disgruntled Naga mercenary militants from the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). Extremists based in Nepal are also suspected to be helping them. The GNLF’s backlash against the attempt on Mr Ghising’s life has already begun. Apart from an indefinite strike, the office of the pro-Gorkhaland All Gorkha Students’ Union has been set ablaze and there have been attacks on the property of the convener of the United Democratic Front. Mr Ghising’s idea of bringing the DGHC under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule is being perceived by these hardliners as the running to ground of the statehood ideal by playing into the hands of the state government. The DGHC remains unable, however, to bring about any perceptible development in the hill area, and the economic decline of Darjeeling continues. This latest schism, so violently expressed, turns a fraught and depressed area even further away from the realization of the kind of autonomy that Mr Ghising had originally envisaged for the hill council.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ MIXED FUTURE 
 
 
 
 
The victory of the Likud leader, Mr Ariel Sharon, in the recent election in Israel has, as expected, generated fears that the west Asia peace process, or whatever is left of it, will be permanently derailed. There is some basis to these apprehensions. Mr Sharon is a well-known hardliner, who has stridently opposed making any compromises with the Palestinians. It is often forgotten that Mr Sharon, who was born in Palestine, which was then governed under a mandate by the British government, was part of the struggle to create a separate Israel state. Not only was he part of the Jewish underground military group, Haganah, but also fought in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948-49. However, what is better known is Mr Sharon’s role — as defence minister — in Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The invasion resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps under Israeli control. Later, as housing minister in the early Nineties, he led a huge drive to build Jewish settlements in West Bank and Gaza. And it was Mr Sharon’s controversial visit last year to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem which was to spark off the second Palestinian intifada. Nearly 400 people — mostly Palestinians — have died in the months of violence since that visit.

Despite these apprehensions, there are limits to the degree of autonomy that Mr Sharon will enjoy as prime minister. For one, his legitimacy has been weakened by the low voter turnout, one of the lowest in Israeli history. For another, he will have to build a coalition to secure a majority in the parliament. Mr Sharon has called for a government of national unity and, hopefully, elements within the Labour Party — rather than the more orthodox Jewish parties — will join the new government and moderate Mr Sharon’s extremism. In addition, the United States will also seek to temper Mr Sharon and will, in all probability, seek to revive the peace process. Already, the US secretary of state, Mr Colin Powell, has announced that he will visit west Asia later this month, his first overseas tour since assuming office. The US — as the largest donor — continues to exercise tremendous influence over Israel, and the Republicans have been, in the past, less soft on the Israeli government. It is important for India, however, to continue to strike the right balance between its traditional support for the Palestinian cause and its new important relationship with Israel. Support for the Palestinians is important also because of the continued importance of the Arab world to India’s foreign policy. And yet, for the last few years, New Delhi has managed to forge a new partnership with Israel, particularly over key strategic issues. It is critical that this momentum given to bilateral ties is not jeopardized by knee jerk reactions to Mr Sharon’s government.

   

 
 
FACE TO FACE WITH REFORM 
 
 
BY JEFFREY D. SACHS & NIRUPAM BAJPAI
 
 
Last year several factors led one to believe that the Union budget for 2000-01 might usher in some hard reform measures, especially with regard to the fiscal situation. However, that did not turn out to be the case. Once again it’s budget time and the government needs to put together some bold decisions in the upcoming Union budget for 2001-02. There are several reasons why it is important to do so right now.

India’s political system is more than ever in consensus about the basic direction of reforms. A decade of opening of the economy has produced new dynamism, most dramatically in the information technology sector, but in others as well. The gross domestic product growth rates can be raised and sustained much beyond six to 6.5 per cent should certain critical reforms be implemented soon. In fact, India could certainly double its per capita income during the current decade — a goal that the prime minister announced in his Independence Day speech last year.

The government lost the opportunity to announce some key reforms during last year’s budget. The second budget may be a good time to undertake harsh measures: however, with several state assembly elections due in the next few months, the 2001-02 budget may also turn out to be a disappointing one as the one last year.

Keeping in view the fact that the fiscal deficit still remains very high, the process of fiscal consolidation needs to be pursued much more vigorously in the budget. In fact, as per the global competitiveness report, 2000, India ranks 52nd on fiscal deficit out of a total of 58 countries ranked in the report. Considering the excessive preemption of the community’s savings by the government, the potential for crowding out the requirements of the enterprise sector, the pressure on interest rates, and rising interest payments on government debt, it is essential to reduce the fiscal deficit, mainly by lowering the revenue deficit.

Correction of these deficits would, inter alia, require considerable refocussing and reduction of large hidden subsidies associated with underpricing in crucial areas, such as power, irrigation, urban transport, and higher education. Food and fertilizer subsidies are other major areas of expenditure control. Be that as it may, the process of fiscal consolidation needs to be accelerated through more qualitative adjustments to reduce government dis-savings.

India’s overall government spending, currently around 33 per cent of GDP, needs to be brought down substantially as a proportion of national product in order for India to achieve its reform goals of macroeconomic stability and long-term rapid growth. Persistent fiscal deficits in India are a serious cause for concern. There are several risks with high fiscal deficits. First, budget deficits could once again spill over into macroeconomic instability, if the government resorts again to inflationary finance. This would happen, for example, if the government meets increasingly onerous terms in financing the increasing stock of public debt on the open market, and turns to the Reserve Bank of India for increased financing.

Second, the budget deficits imperil national saving rates, thereby reducing overall aggregate investment, and jeopardizing the sustainability of high growth. The effects of low investment rates on overall GDP growth are not hard to see. Most directly, low levels of public investment have rendered India’s physical infrastructure incompatible with large increases in national product. Without an increase in the scale and rate of growth of infrastructure investment, growth rates in India are bound to remain moderate at best.

Third, the continuing large budget deficits, even if they do not spill over into macroeconomic instability in the short run, will require higher taxes in the long term, to cover the heavy burden of internal debt. High tax rates will place India at a significant disadvantage compared to other fast-growing countries.

Expenditure reform in India is critical in view of the fact that India’s government dis-saving and overall level of government spending remain high. There is probably little room to cut capital expenditures, in view of the fact that they have already been squeezed to a mere 2.4 per cent of GDP in 1999-2000. In the future, it should be the private sector rather than the government meeting most of the enormous infrastructure needs of a growing economy. Still, it is hard to imagine that rapid growth can be accomplished with public investment spending by government of less than the current rate relative to GDP.

Governmental action is needed in reducing expenditure under four major heads of current spending. With respect to internal public debt, there is one important mechanism that could substantially ameliorate the fiscal situation. Privatization of public enterprises could raise significant funds as a per cent of GDP, which could be used to buy down the public debt. Not only would the stock of debt itself be reduced, but also the interest costs of servicing the debt would surely decline as the debt stock itself is brought under control.

The cash value of these enterprises vastly exceeds the present value of profit flows that the state now collects on these assets. Public sector profits are dissipated in poor productivity, over-manning, excessive public sector salaries, soft budget constraints, and generally poor public-sector management. For this reason, sales of the enterprises to private sector buyers, if used to buy down the public debt, would yield annual saving in interest costs that far exceed the government revenues claimed by virtue of state ownership of the assets. This is especially true since many enterprises with significant positive market value are actually loss-makers in current cash flow, under state management.

The Central government currently has equity holdings in 240 enterprises, 27 banks, and two large insurance companies. Further spending cuts could come from liquidation of loss-making enterprises that have no positive net market value. Liquidation of these would imply a rise in domestic savings. Saving would be higher if there is salvage value in part or all of some of these enterprises. To capture these savings would require implementation of an exit policy so the government can close down these loss-making enterprises.

Reduction in Central government subsidies is another area of expenditure control. According to the discussion paper on subsidies brought out by the finance ministry in 1997, the total magnitude of subsidies given by Central and state governments was Rs 1,372 billion during 1994-95 constituting 14.4 per cent of GDP. The subsidies of Centre and states on non-merit goods and services (such as agriculture and allied activities, irrigation, power, industries and transport) amounted to 10.7 per cent of the GDP. The average all-India current recovery rate for non-merit goods and services was placed at 10.3 per cent in 1994-95, with the recovery rate for the Centre being slightly higher at 12.1 per cent than 9.3 per cent for states.

Reforms in the current subsidy regime should aim at reducing the overall scale of subsidies. The reforms should help make the subsidies transparent, and use them for well-defined economic objectives. Subsidies should focus on final goods and services with a view to maximizing their impact on the target population at the minimum cost. The key to subsidy reduction lies in phased increase in user charges in sectors such as power, transport, irrigation, agriculture and education.

Reducing the size of the public administration could also cut government spending. Some success in this direction might come from a freeze on new employment, matched by normal attrition through retirement. Existing functions could easily be met through modest improvements in computerization and information systems. Bolder — if less politically palatable — solutions could result in even larger savings.

While progress has been made in the area of tax reforms, the tax structure in India still remains complicated with high rates of both direct and indirect taxation. In direct taxation, while rates of personal income tax are in line with those outside India (as per the GCR 2000, India ranks third on median income tax rate). But corporate tax rates are high. In excise duties, there has been little progress in moving from the modified value added tax to a full value added tax. Under the Modvat scheme, credit of duty is allowed on inputs used for producing excisable finished products or intermediate products.

The ambit of Modvat has been extended to include more commodities/sectors. But the transformation of Modvat into a full-fledged central VAT up to the manufacturing stage is far from complete. Besides, import duties are still high and need to be brought down. While the country has come a long way from being a closed economy to a relatively open one, India still is a highly protected economy by current international standards. In fact, as per the GCR 2000, India ranked 59th out of a total of 59 countries ranked in the GCR on import fees and average tariff rate.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Center for International Development, Harvard University. Nirupam Bajpai is director of the Harvard India Program at the Center for International Development.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ SHOULD ELECTIONS BE A FREE FOR ALL? 
 
 
BY NIRMALENDU BIKASH RAKSHIT
 
 
In his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, the president of India, K.R. Narayanan, strongly criticized the Constitution review committee’s suggestion regarding the introduction of indirect elections from the panchayat level to the Lok Sabha. Earlier, the committee had said that we should think seriously about this idea in the present context and evaluate its applicability in our electoral system.

Unfortunately, the president reacted strongly to such a suggestion and observed that the adoption of such a system would bring India closer to the dictatorial regime of Ayub Khan. He reiterated that the framers of the Constitution had been wise in rejecting the system of indirect elections and restricted franchise, introduced by the British in the Government of India Act of 1935. He also warned that the revival of such a method could disrupt the fabric of our democracy.

The Government of India Act of 1935 had introduced a system of restricted franchise by which only 14 per cent of the population had gained the right to vote. Such limited franchise had formed the basis of the formation of the constituent assembly. However, the founders refused to accept the existence of such a limited franchise as they had wanted to create a democratic system in which the ultimate authority rests in the people.

The masses know best

There had been dissidents in the constituent assembly who had vehemently opposed the introduction of universal suffrage. They felt that universal education should precede the right to vote and were apprehensive about the misuse of this right by politicians. The members of the constituent assembly had, however, been unconvinced by such an argument and had expressed their faith in the common sense and intelligence of the masses.

According to critics and political observers, the folly of introducing adult franchise has been proved in many ways. First, the low turn-out in previous elections has been disappointing. Low turnouts reflect a disillusionment with the democratic system as well as low levels of literacy. Second, it was also discovered that an alarming number of voters had been unable to exercise this right properly. In the first general election in 1952, 50 per cent of the voters had cast their votes and as many as 16,35,000 ballot-papers had been invalidated. Even now, a large number of voters leave their ballot-papers on the floor instead of dropping them into the box.

Third, factors like religion, caste, language and provincialism also contribute to electoral behaviour. The contest between two candidates can turn into one between rival caste or language groups.

While much of this criticism is justified, there is another side to the issue. If education is to be the basis of such a franchise, then the term needs a clearer connotation. No standard of formal education can be a guide to the exercise of this right.

Educating the voter

A person who is educated but is politically immature may allow someone else to influence his choice while an illiterate voter with a strong political understanding and common sense may exercise his franchise judiciously. Further, it is the moral duty of the government to ensure the proper spread of education. In fact, the Indian electorate has more often than not, exercised this voting right with caution.

Sometimes, they have preferred the personality of a leader to his party. At other times, they have rejected a candidate in protest against the policies of his party. For example, as a protest against the misrule of the Congress during the Emergency, the masses had ousted the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and transferred power to the Janata Party.

On the whole, the voters have cast their votes cautiously and with definite purpose. They have exhibited great enthusiasm during the elections and have come out to vote in large numbers.

However, the defects of the system have outweighed its merits. Cunning politicians have manipulated the voters and used them to promote their selfish ends. The idea of granting universal adult franchise may not have been as successful as the framers of the Constitution would have liked it to be.

Getting rid of this system is not a solution though. The Constitution review committee can do its bit in re-evaluating the existing system and can suggest suitable changes.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL/ THOSE WHO HAVE EARS TO THE GROUND 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
Did any astrologer forecast the earthquake which devastated large parts of Gujarat on Republic Day? No, not one. They may be forgiven because none of them have yet got an MSc in astrology which our learned cabinet minister in charge of education, Murli Manohar Joshi, has promised them in the near future. Or perhaps the configuration of planets on which they rely to read the future did not send the message of doom in good time.

The truth of the matter is that astrologers are an ignorant lot who feed on the cupidity of masses more ignorant than they. Birds and animals including dogs, horses and donkeys are wiser than them because they are able to sense impending disasters before they strike. They do not waste time looking at stars but have their ears close to the earth and can hear the rumbles of an approaching earthquake before it shakes the ground overhead.

There are innumerable instances of birds and animals getting agitated before an earthquake strikes. I give just one instance recorded by chroniclers. This is about an earthquake which hit the town of Concepcion, 250 miles south of Santiago, the capital of Chile, in 1835.

At 10.30 am of the fateful day birds were seen flying out of trees screaming as they circled in the air; horses broke out of stables as did domestic cattle; donkeys ran out braying wildly, dogs fled their homes barking. An hour later the earth shook, flattening out most of Concepcion killing thousands of people.

There is another thing I would like to take up with astrologers and those who, like Murli Manohar Joshi, believe that it is a science. The majority of the unfortunate victims of the Gujarat earthquake must have had their horoscopes cast.

I will take a bet of one lakh rupees if anyone can produce one predicting their demise on January 26, 2001. If not, they should make a bonfire of all horoscopes: they are documents of falsehood on which millions of our countrymen mould their lives.

What I would love to do is to take on Murli Manohar Joshi and a panel of astrologers chosen by him in a public debate on a television channel. Let them try to prove that astrology is a science; I will do my best to demolish their arguments.

Joshiji, ex-professor of physics and chief patron of astrologers, when you appoint professors of astrology in different universities, please give serious thought to reserving some posts for sensitive animals, mostly donkeys, because they have longer ears.

A neighbour from next door

With the passage of time I have become a crusty old man, short of patience and quick to temper. I have always been a stickler for punctuality; now it has become a fetish. If anyone turns up five minutes later than the appointed time, I give him or her a tongue-lashing. More than late-comers, I dislike people who turn up without an appointment. I have a notice beside my door reading, “Please don’t ring the bell unless you are expected.” If someone dares to ring the bell, I do not open the door to let him or her in. If they try to impress me by giving my servant their visiting cards, I scribble on it, “Can’t you read English?” And that’s that.

However, one evening the bell rang and I prepared myself to be as rude as I could. The servant brought a piece of paper on which was scribbled the name, Deepti Naval. I have a soft corner for Deepti. Not only is she my notion of a pretty girl living next door, she, like Shababa Azmi, does not overact but acts natural. I opened the door myself to welcome her. With her was a tall, well- built, handsome man in his early forties. “This is Usman Peerzada, film director from Lahore. I wanted you to meet him. I am sorry I did not make an appointment as your phone was constantly engaged and he has to return to Pakistan tomorrow,” said Deepti.

Deepti had spent a week in Lahore acting in some film directed by Peerzada. And as is her habit, she spent her spare time taking photographs of the city: she is a very good photographer. Talking to Peerzada removed several misconceptions in my mind. I believed that in the process of being talibanized, Pakistan had stifled its creative arts, notably the state and the screen. Since Naheed it had not produced any dancers because mullahs did not approve of women dancing on stage. That is not strictly true. Pakistan has Kathak and Bharatnatyam dancers. And Pakistani films have begun to gain recognition in international film festivals. Usman Peerzada is the leading figure in putting Pakistanis of the stage and screen on the world map. He is a product of Lahore’s government college and when elected secretary of the dramatic society, won the award for best actor-producer. After college, he went on to TV to become its star attraction. He acted in several films co-produced by Sri Lankan and Indian producers. He is now a director, scriptwriter, producer and actor. He is president of the International Theatre and Festivals held in Pakistan every year. His crowning achievement was the production of Zargul, which was shown in the London Film Festival. Usman Peerzada spotted Deepti Naval’s unusual talent and looks. We may soon see Indo-Pak films on our screen. Meanwhile, I succeeded in persuading Deepti to mount an exhibition of her photographs of Lahore in Delhi and Mumbai.

And all falldown

I watched them tearing a building down,
a gang of men in a busy town.
With a ho-heave-ho and a lusty yell
they swung a beam and the sidewall fell.
I asked the foreman, “Are those men
skilled,
and the men you’d hire if you had to
build?”
He gave a laugh, said, “No, indeed;
just common labour is all I need
I can easily wreck in a day or two what builders have taken a year to do.”
I thought to myself as I went my way,
“Which of these roles have I tried to play
Am I a builder who works with care,
Measuring life by the rule and square?
Am I shaping my deeds to a well-made
plan,
patiently doing my best I can?
Or am I a wrecker, who walls the town
content with the labour of team!
(Contributed by Abha Sharma, Allahabad)

Get carried away

Santa’s daughter Pammy was to be married. But as the wedding day got closer, she grew more nervous. The same was noticed by her mother who asked her the reason.

“Its the thought of going away on honeymoon with him that’s worrying me,” replied Pammy.

“Don’t let that bother you”, assured her mother, “I went on my honeymoon after I got married. So its no big deal.”

“Ah! it was all right for you. Tussi papaji naal gaye see (you went away with Papaji).”

To cure sickness and ill health

A sticker on a Maruti Baleno in Mumbai: “Laugh at your problems — everyone else does!”

Seen in a pub in Bangalore: “Avoid hangovers — stay drunk!”

A traffic slogan on a hoarding in Mumbai: “If you take one for the road, your car may be lying with ‘bottoms up’ on that road!”

A board in front of a lady doctor’s chamber in Meerut: “Specialist in women and other diseases!”

(Contributed by Shashank Shekhar, Mumbai)

   

 
 
WHO WILL POLICE THE VIOLENT POLICEMEN? 
 
 
BY R.D. SHARMA
 
 
The use of brutal force and third degree methods on suspects and undertrial prisoners continues to be a major and at times the sole weapon of India’s police force. Reports from metropolitan cities and the states reveal that the nation’s custodians of law are among the chief perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Hundreds of people taken into custody are tortured, often resulting in grievous injuries or deaths. Police lock-ups and prison cells have virtually become death chambers and no part of the country is free from this.

In all, the national human rights commission received 30,631 complaints of human rights violations between April 1 and September 30, 2000. Out of these, the total number of deaths in police and judicial custody was 494, despite the NHRC’s watchful role and judicial ire against police brutality and repression.

Among the states, Bihar topped the list with 82 such deaths, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 61, Maharashtra 60, Andhra Pradesh with 43, Madhya Pradesh 38, Punjab 26, Orissa 25, Rajasthan 23, Karnataka 22, Delhi and Gujarat 19 each, Assam 15, Kerala 14, Haryana and Tamil Nadu 11 each. And this, with certain states still not reporting the incidents of custodial crime, according to the NHRC. Many such deaths are simply dubbed suicides or encounter killings by the police.

Third degree is generally a shortcut method of investigation by the police. Due to their inability to cope with rising crime and pressures from above, the police resort to it to produce quick results. Those subjected to such tortures often break down and confess to crimes they may never have committed. Offenders from the poor and vulnerable sections are the easiest victims.

The Supreme Court has observed that custodial deaths are tantamount to a calculated assault on human dignity. Many such observations have shamed top police functionaries in the past, but nothing seems to have changed at the ground level.

Proving custodial deaths within police stations, lock-ups and prisons remains a vulnerable facet of the criminal justice system. Since there are no eyewitnesses in most cases to contradict the version of the police in the case of custodial death, the accused often goes scot-free.

Even severe health problems of the prisoner are ignored. The recent death of an undertrial prisoner, Satnam Singh, in judicial custody and that of the biscuit baron, Rajan Pillai, for want of prompt medical care are glaring examples of this apathy.

Although third degree methods appear to be effective, they cannot be a substitute for scientific investigation, according to a national police commission report. This also recommended surprise checks by senior officials in police stations to deter use of excessive force against those in lock-ups. Besides, the law commission’s recommendation to treat every death in custody as murder and to place the onus of disproving it on the police is worth acting upon.

However, it is for the government and the legislature to give serious thought to the recommendations of these panels and bring about appropriate changes in the law not only to curb custodial crime but also to see that it does not go unpunished.

Not only does custodial violence infringe upon human rights, but the confessions so extracted often fail to stand up in court. Moreover, violence at the hands of the police is counterproductive. Traumatized by an insensitive police, many innocent suspects turn into hardcore criminals. The grouse they have against a particular policeman motivates them to rebel against the country as a whole, with all the resultant complications.

The government may boast it has the press and the judiciary as safeguards against human rights violations. But lack of media scrutiny in remote areas, coupled with the failure to hand down exemplary punishment to the perpetrators of violence has left the situation where it was.

Findings of inquiries are often shelved, transfers and suspensions made as routine measures to buy time. Once the public furore dies down, the cases are quietly buried. Citizens must insist that an inquiry is instituted and followed up with action.

Training and recruitment are other important areas that need prompt attention. Besides better training programmes, a positive improvement in working conditions could lessen the backlash of brutality.

Recommendations of the national police commission must be implemented to bring about greater accountability and transparency in the functioning of the police force. There is also a very strong case for insulating the force from political influence. It should operate under an independent commission where there is little scope for pressures from above.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Strange ways of patriotism

Sir — The ways of public opinion are peculiar. It is strange that most Indians appear to be supporting the testing of the Agni II, (“Farewell to Li Peng with Agni II testfire”, Jan 18), which is supposed to be able to target China. This is becoming increasingly clear from the kind of letters written to the editors of leading national dailies. Being a nuclear physicist myself, I am convinced that an explosion in Beijing will also affect parts of India. For some absurd reason people seem to relish the fact that their country has the power to destroy a neighbouring region and claim that this is some sort of patriotism. In this case, the rationale is that China is helping Pakistan develop its missile programme. Why is the Indian government so keen on participating in an arms race anyway? Nuclear fission has so many other uses. Why not devote more time and money exploring these? The products that science has offered us have gone into the hands of people who do not value them. This is very unfortunate.
Yours faithfully,
Bhaskar Sengupta, via email

Shaken and taxed

Sir — There are no words to express one’s sentiments on reading Chandan Nandy’s news report, “Bid to cut retirement age” (Feb 6). A former bureaucrat, the brain behind the earlier decision to raise the age limit, has all of a sudden realized the ineffectiveness of his idea. But this has come at a time when he has completed his own tenure of service and has been re-employed by the Centre. His whimsical economic strategies will jeopardize the careers and the promotional prospects of numerous officials. The earthquake in Gujarat is being used as an alibi to implement this decision. But a country as large as India cannot be expected to run on the basis of ad hoc economic policies. Even the families of the victims will be badly affected if this policy comes through. In May 1998 too, when the retirement age was actually raised for the short term benefit of the government, the prospective careers of thousands of young people were in danger.

What is even more alarming is the idea that the Centre should freeze all recruitment for a fixed period. If every time a natural calamity strikes the government ushers in severe economic policies, a day will soon come when the government will announce that a part of the population will have to be done away with altogether to compensate for some disaster or the other. This is becoming a bit of a joke.

Yours faithfully,
Seema Sengupta, Calcutta

Sir — Once again the middle-classes living in apartments have faced the worst blow in a natural disaster (“Rush to touch ground in quake capital”, Feb 3). While the whole world is offering whatever help they can, the government has not made any effort to provide them with mass accommodation. But it has not hesitated to decide upon the levy of a two per cent surcharge for Gujarat relief. This again will mainly be paid by the middle-classes, people in service.

The question here is whether this money will reach the needy. Most working people are ready to pay this tax but in return what should be demanded from the Central and the Gujarat governments is that the apartments of each and every person be reconstructed and the people reinstated. Some may have bought their apartments with a lifetime’s savings. Food and clothes are being supplied by many organizations but the broken buildings should be reconstructed as soon as possible. Only then will it be worth paying the surcharge.

Yours faithfully,
Purnima Vasudeva, via email

Sir — The Gujarat earthquake has taught us a number of lessons. First, most of the highrises that have collapsed in Ahmedabad were constructed in the last few years. Obviously there were flaws in the way they were built. Far from making them earthquake resistant, with extra reinforcement and adequate weight-bearing walls, most of these buildings were built to be death traps. Who is responsible for such corruption?

Any inquiry about these buildings should look into the possibility of a collusion between unscrupulous building promoters and the civic authorities. The guidelines laid down by seismographers must be considered before building commences in any region of Gujarat.

Moreover, it is well-known that enormous sums of money are regularly diverted from calamity relief funds. The Orissa supercyclone gave us a good idea of how poor planning and corruption make a mockery of relief. Measures must be taken to see that Gujarat does not follow Orissa in this.

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — Do we really need the government’s funds to restructure Gujarat? Already, funds are pouring in from every nook and corner of the world. Surely, if all this money reaches the victims it is not going to leave any great deficit for the government to fill up.

Before imposing more taxes, can the finance minister please disclose to us what funds are needed to rebuild the affected areas? Citizens also need to know how much the government has collected from donations and how much more will be received in the future.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kapasi, New Delhi

Framed weakly

Sir — The editorial, “Steal Frame” (Feb 9), is misinformed. The comments on productivity and productivity-related wages seem to ignore the consideration that productivity is also directly linked to technology. The comparatively younger Steel Authority of India Limited plants have been modernized in the late Eighties and Nineties at a colossal investment. Little has been done to upgrade the technology of the 80-year-old Burnpur Steel Plant which has been under Sail’s management for more than two decades now. So the Indian Iron and Steel Company’s continuing sickness and low productivity cannot be attributed to its workforce.

It should be noted that some of the seniormost Sail executives today are Iisco products. Iisco survives without any budgetary support from the government. Therefore the sweeping comment, “Iisco represents a drain on the exchequer”, is unfounded. Iisco’s executives and their families are not demanding doles or charity. They are asking for the restoration of parity, honour and pride.

Yours faithfully,
Shantanu Chakravarty, Burnpur

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