Editorial / Those women in white
Belated dividends
People / Yashwant Sinha
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / THOSE WOMEN IN WHITE 
 
 
 
 
Invisibility is a convenient weapon, as long as it is social consensus which decides who should remain invisible. The enormous population of Indian widows, 33 million by the 1991 census, has been bequeathed the mantle of invisibility by society. Even human rights groups and women’s organizations have taken a while to penetrate that mantle. This shows how much Indian society takes widows for granted. People disturbed by everyday injustices and conducting campaigns against them may yet remain oblivious to the woman in white at home. The finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, has proposed in the Union budget 2000-2001 that widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi be benefited by microcredit schemes through the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh. The best thing about the proposal is that it has brought widows into national focus. A society which is particularly nasty to its womenfolk whenever it gets the chance finds, in its widows, the most easily exploited victims. Traditional and modern laws notwithstanding, the widow is pauperized, or almost so, in an overwhelmingly large number of households, by being deprived of her property and income rights in her husband’s home. She is marginalized socially and domestically, often compelled to follow dress codes which border on the barbaric and follow a diet aimed at killing her vitality. Naturally enough, the mortality rate of widows over 45 is 85 per cent higher than other women of the same age group. They are also the obvious targets of sexual abuse and violence in the home. Society takes care to cripple them physically, psychologically and financially. Widows are, ultimately, the easiest throwaways. Their only luggage is guilt, for the death of their spouses, and for taking up space in a world that finds no use for them.

Mr Sinha has done well to bring widows to the forefront of the nation’s conscience. But paternalistic gestures are not the way out. Microcredit for widows such as those in Vrindavan and Varanasi creates more problems than it resolves. For one, it aids the illusion that widows living outside their homes are the only problem. It also leaves out of reckoning non-Hindu widows. A salve to society’s conscience is certainly not welcome. It is a painful discrimination, because it ignores the plight of widows living in households and whose humanity is devalued with equal cruelty.

There is a far more important dimension. The deprivation of rights to property and decent maintenance that widows are subject to is not only a social evil but is also illegal. It is true that an unlettered widow, confined to the house and without independent resources cannot make use of the law. At the same time, this is exactly the situation that must be made to change, however difficult the task. Intervention, if it must come at all, must make this the target area. Quickfix solutions do not help in human development, the section under which the finance minister has placed his welfare scheme. Only a multi-pronged attack, which should include far more stringent use of the laws protecting widows’ property, can be meaningful.

Behind all this, lies the fundamental issue of the family’s responsibility. There is no reason why the state should help the family evade its basic human duties. Poverty brutalizes, it is true, but the sad fact is that it is not the widows in really poor families who are worst off. If households refuse to look after their widows, they must be made to do so. It is not as if awareness levels are terribly low in this case. The carefully constructed cloak of invisibility suggests that exploitation of widows is far from unconscious. Laws that help protect the rights of women and try to ensure gender justice could be amended by bringing widows into the forefront of the discourse. Mr Sinha’s proposal is well-intentioned but inadequate — and may even cause harm. A quick brushstroke of whitewash simply will not do; society, and the state which represents it, need to correct the way they see their women.

   

 
 
BELATED DIVIDENDS 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Between the Tweedledum of Tony Blair and the Tweedledee of William Hague, British general elections — expected this spring, though not due until May next year — are a dead bore. What is not is Britain’s gradual dwindling to Third World status while Blair extols the Third Way, and the residue of empire rising to the rescue.

This is painful to those who grew up with an exalted image of Britain, and find reality slipping away. It is still one of the pleasantest places on earth but not for reasons of efficiency or good service. As I shut my ears to the peremptory demand for “change” (“Enjoy your evening!” snapped a beggar as my wife and I walked past), and grit my teeth over a leading bank’s incompetence, I am reminded of Lee Kuan Yew’s wistful lament that the Britain whose memory he treasured had vanished off the face of the earth.

I could tell horror stories that would make Rabri Devi’s Bihar look like a dotcom idyll of brisk efficiency. The difference is that the Biharis know they are at the bottom while hordes of economic immigrants and asylum-seekers conspire to convince the British that their country works. No land can be written off as rundown if dozens of young Chinese are willing to be suffocated in a container to get into it, or thousands of Serbs, Bosnians and Kurds are driven by the same goal to cram into leaky steamers that run aground.

A country taxi-driver in Hertfordshire asked me what Singapore, where I then lived, was like. “Clean” I replied, wishing to avoid controversy. “Cleaner than London?” he asked, oblivious of the squatters on litter-strewn pavements in what was once the world’s first city. When I said that London was dirty, the man took both hands off the wheel to turn and stare at me in open-mouthed astonishment. Such is the power of myth and memory.

One sure sign of a developed country’s decline is when its newspapers start talking of themselves (in a morally destitute under-developed country they attack Western imperialism). In Britain they do little else. The style at the moment is to lunge at the Daily Mail which, it must be admitted, punches back with interest. In between these bouts, they boast of themselves. Most respectable Indian newspapers, deriving from an older generation of British journalism, still fight shy of publicizing a columnist. Here, media triumphalism is a form of national narcissism.

It is not the only sign of faltering. Other evidence ranges from the serious to the ridiculous. Britain is the developed world’s second most crime-ridden country. But the police force is so shortstaffed that the home secretary is considering engaging private security firms to patrol troublesome areas. The revelation that one-fifth of British adults are obese reminded me of Malcolm Muggeridge’s claim that only Shaheed Suhrawardy’s large teeth betrayed what a big man he would have been if, uncharacteristically for a Bengali, he had not watched his weight.

Everybody complains that privatization has made a mess of the railways, with several companies owning and running trains, and Railtrack, which owns the lines, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. With the profit motive closing lines (no allowance here for John Kenneth Galbraith’s “post office socialism”), large parts of the country are accessible only by private car so that I cannot visit a stricken Tony Hayday who was British deputy high commissioner in Calcutta in the Eighties. London’s underground breaks down as frequently. But the government is deeply divided over a revival plan and over engaging an American expert who ran the Boston and New York subways.

Someone remarked brightly that Britain has been spared the really awful crises – Chernobyl laid low the Ukraine, HIV has affected one-fifth of South Africa’s population and the Congo is a bloody battlefield. Such consolation only highlights the curious response of the British themselves which I would docket in three categories labelled Indifference, Superstition and Politics, like the three horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Most people shrug off the instances of delay and dilatoriness that I find so exasperating. A sympathetic shake of the head and a mumbled “Yes, I’m afraid its quite usual nowadays” is all the change I can get from colleagues in the senior common room. Friends rightly warn me not to waste time writing stormy letters of complaint. They are not read. If read, they are not answered.

Indifference might be born of, or overlap with, superstition as Britain reels under one calamity after another. It started with mad cow disease. Then came last year’s lashing floods. Now, flames from the funeral pyres of thousands of cattle, pigs and sheep, slaughtered in a desperate attempt to curb foot and mouth disease, prompt comparison with 17th-century London’s Great Plague and the Great Fire, and provoke equally dangerous speculation about causes.

The Dutch were accused of bringing the plague virus in their clothes. The suggested reasons for foot and mouth range from imported swill to germ warfare, with the poison dropped from aircraft flying low over grazing grounds. Some suspect Kurdish refugees, straight from the pastures of tainted Iraq, of being the carriers. However, it came, it has spread across the water to Ireland and the continent. At home, it is devastating morale.

Attention focuses on a government that is implicitly blamed for heaven’s curse even in the statement that Wednesday’s train accident was not its fault. The charges are endless. A sleazy regime covered in ugly warts squandered money on the Millennium Dome. Blair curried favour with George Bush by misleading him on the proposed European army. The rugby authorities who cancelled fixtures, the turf club which suspended racing and the millions of country people who called off their “liberty and livelihood march” in defence of hunting all showed greater sensitivity than a prime minister who places party above people.

The reason for this charge is that he wanted elections in May apparently only because the going was thought to be good for New Labour, with prospects expected to improve after next week’s budget which is predicted to be a giveaway. If Blair waits — so argue his critics — crime, joblessness and chaos will overwhelm the land. It’s a grim picture that enables New Labour’s opponents to take sour pleasure in the disasters that afflict Britain. Surely, the prime minister cannot still go ahead and demand a fresh mandate amidst such catastrophe? If he does, he would very likely get it, though mainly by default and probably not the majority of 179 that he now enjoys. Since pollsters predict a lower turnout than even in 1997 which was the lowest since the Thirties, the Tories say it will be a flawed mandate.

In the midst of all this, the empire has struck back. No, I do not mean Keith Vaz or the Hindujas, but small-time workers from the Indian subcontinent who, like the valiant mercenaries of the poem, hold the sum of things for pay. It is admitted that Indian doctors saved the National Health Service in the Sixties when Caribbean immigrants kept state buses going. That pattern is being repeated.

Thwarted at the main post office, I wended my way to a news agent that doubles up as postal agency where Mr and Mrs Shah were the soul of helpful courtesy, solving my problem of mailing books to India. Driven from fax pillar to e-mail post in the company that is supposed to repair luggage that was damaged on the flight, I chanced at last on Rahim who promises me full satisfaction. I can understand why the BBC chief wants to change his staff complexion which he calls “hideously white”. In the courtesy and efficiency of immigrants, which no native matches, lies a delayed but not so small dividend of empire.

   

 
 
PEOPLE / YASHWANT SINHA 
 
 
 
 

Time life

Finance ministers, like Aesop’s famously busy ant, never rest. Take the case of Yashwant Sinha. After burning the midnight oil over the best part of a year, most expected him to put his weary feet up on his document-laden table in North Block.

No way. The minister is now busy with something that sounds suspiciously like a scrapbook, for which a Trinamul Member of Parliament has been put to work as well. A day after the budget, the minister told the MP: “I believe Bengali papers have been praising the budget. Can you get me a copy of the Ananda Bazar Patrika?”

Sinha’s table must be overflowing with newspapers, for every daily worth its newsprint has gone to town with The Budget. Suddenly, Yashwant Sinha — lampooned just a year ago as the minister for rollbacks — is no longer Yash-don’t-want Sinha. Today, the Bihari kayastha is the best thing after the computer chip.

The change was palpable even when he presented the budget on Wednesday. Quite significantly, those in the know of things point out, he wore a bandh-gala in powder blue — a colour that’s often described as Power-Blue. Equally significantly, it’s the colour of Manmohan Singh’s turban as well. And, if anyone is interested, it’s the colour of most government reports.

On Thursday night, at a traditional dinner for finance ministry scribes, the minister oozed confidence. He zig-zagged his way through tables full of pilaf and mutton korma, shaking someone’s hand warmly, placing his own on a scribe’s shoulder, enquiring after someone’s health and nodding seriously to reactions to the budget. “He is extremely happy with the press he’s got. More so since he can’t stand criticism,” says a Sinha watcher.

Yashwant Sinha has never been this garrulous. Last month those watching Sony’s Movers and Shakers were more than a little surprised to see the usually sombre minister burst into a Bhojpuri folk song. Full throated like a professional and as clear as a bell, Sinha, 63, sang with a lot of spirit and passion — if, on occasions, a little off-key. The response, at the end of it, was nearly as ecstatic as that evoked by his budget.

Sinha, clearly, is getting to be a master at pulling such rabbits out of the hat. Budget 2001 was merely another of those ones. When the entire nation had almost resigned itself to a dose of stiff taxation, he came out with a budget that had most squealing with delight. It was, everyone agrees, an unqualified triumph for a finance minister marking a decade of liberalisation.

A triumph, because the minister — at the end of the day — has managed to override some inherent contradictions. A former bureaucrat, he talks smoothly of downsizing the bureaucracy. A small-towner, he focuses on the city-dweller. And a self-proclaimed agriculturist at heart, his budget fawns over the industry. “But, at an economic meeting, I remember how he wanted us to get a farmer to attend it. When we suggested that we invite a farmer leader, he said: No, no. Go get me those men who wear pagdis,” says an aide in his ministry.

Even as a bureaucrat, Sinha often had a surprise or two in store for the people. Right in the middle of a cushy life in the administrative service — Sinha belonged to the 1960 batch — he quit the IAS to join politics. “But because he was a bureaucrat, he knows the system. Unlike some ministers who want things to happen at once, Sinha knows all the limitations,” says an official of the finance ministry. “And that helps us in moving ahead.”

Sinha’s stint in the government was not really a memorable one. He served a lackadaisical term in the ministries of commerce, industry and surface transport. Many merely remember him as the man in charge of the bankrupt Delhi Transport Corporation.

The next stage — his early years as a minister — is not likely to find a place in his selective memoirs either. Sinha left the IAS for the Janata Party in 1984 and later went on to join hands with V.P. Singh. It is said that he was on his way to Rashtrapati Bhavan to be sworn in as a minister when V.P. Singh came to power, but went back in a huff when he heard that he had been given the status of a minister of state. A year later, he left the party with Chandra Shekhar, and was his short-lived finance minister. Again, much to his consternation, he is mostly remembered as the minister who could not place a budget but pledged the nation’s gold to keep the economy going.

That was then. His rise in the Bharatiya Janata Party — a party that he vigorously attacked after the Babri Masjid demolition and then went on to join in 1994 — has been meteoric. “The ovation he got when he was made the president of BJP’s Bihar Unit was overwhelming,” says BJP leader J.P. Mathur. In 1998, Sinha, who represents the Hazaribagh Lok Sabha constituency in Parliament, was again made the finance minister, edging out Atal Behari Vajpayee’s own favourite, Jaswant Singh. Sinha, it was said, had the support of the biggest in Indian industry.

His friends describe him as soft-spoken and courteous, if a little dry. But every now and then, just when Sinha is being written off as an old fogey, he jumps up with some spirit and colour. In recent years, the zestful Holi bash at his residence has become quite a tradition. Sinha, now well entrenched in a party that believes in religious custom and tradition, recently walked a 90-km stretch from Sultanganj to Deogarh as part of a pilgrimage — carrying an urn of Ganga water.

For someone who neither had the stature of Manmohan Singh nor the style of P. Chidambaram, Sinha has managed to carve out his own space — but for one thing. An aide says that unlike his predecessors, the bureaucrat-turned-minister finds it difficult to strike a rapport with his secretaries. In the last four years, there have been five finance secretaries and several private secretaries. Even the junior bureaucracy has been chopped and changed.

But, with the new budget, Sinha seems like a different man. “After Wednesday, his image has gone up in the party,” says Mathur. Convenor of BJP’s economic cell Jagdish Shettigar concedes, “He is much more experienced now.”

Not surprisingly, the new, improved Sinha was at his best in the Shekhar Suman show. “I asked him, what kind of a budget will this one be,” Suman recalls. “Will it be jor ka jhatka dheerey sey lagey, I asked.”

The finance minister — who has brought down the prices of soft-drinks in this budget — had clearly heard the popular Mirinda catchline. “No,” he said, “dheerey ka jhatka, dheerey sey lagey.”

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Whose cake is it anyway?

Yashwant Sinha, quite literally, had his cake, but did he eat it too? It seems not. That is because someone else stole it. We are talking about a particular performance put up by NK Singh, the high profile secretary in the prime minister’s office. The top-notch bureaucrat — famous as much for his back-slapping friendship with the captains of commerce and industry as for his designer Italian suits — was seen to hog most of the limelight on B-Day when it should have been the finance minister and the senior babus of his department doing the rounds in the telly circuit. Singh was everywhere in the post-Budget hours, selling Sinha’s pleasant package. But what apparently rankled the higher echelons of the finance ministry was when the well-known Star TV anchor, Prannoy Roy, introduced Singh as the “real architect of the budget”. But worse was to follow. Nandubabu did not demur at the comment. He merely smirked, quite obviously accepting what was a very misplaced credit. Well, some things always go unaccounted for.

Flying with the colours

Another self-projection. The Union home minister, LK Advani, paid a recent visit to the Northeast. Arunachal Pradesh, to be more precise. And it was a rare sight to see him thoroughly enjoy himself. The host, chief minister Mukut Methi, set the tone singing a ghazal, “Yeh hawain yeh fizain tumhein bula rahi hai”. Advani took the cue and returned the invitation with a popular Hindi song, “Tum ne pukara aur hum chale aye”. But the songs obviously did not say it all. There were also words with equally profound meanings. If Sindhudarshan was behind his steady rise as home minister, Advani was heard quoting the Jammu and Kashmir CM, what would be in store for him after the Brahmaputradarshan? The man himself dropped the question. Quite obviously, no one hazarded a guess. But then even words cannot say it all. The darshan concluded with a fashion show which, if seen by the FTV fellas, would have had them scurrying to the information and broadcasting minister, Sushma Swaraj, for a rethink on the lid put on the lingerie channel. When Arunachali beauties romped on the ramp, did this question also assail the mind of the Hindutva culture czar, Giriraj Kishore?

Great expectations

The failure of not being able to project oneself too well. The recent Congress rally in New Delhi turned out to be a flop show after all. Only about 50,000 faithfuls reached the Ramlila ground to hear madam. The poor turnout obviously disappointed Sonia Gandhi who wanted it to be a grand show to be seen and envied by her political adversaries and be convincing enough to earn the parched Congress some political allies for the elections. Yet, no less than nine chief ministers had been pressed into action. But the navratans could not muster strength anywhere close to her target of 400,000. There were, however, some distinctions among the failed. Madam thanked the Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, who alone got about 20,000 people from his state. The cold shoulder went to the Delhi chief minister, Shiela Dixit, and the Madhya Pradesh CM, Digvijay Singh. The AICC general secretary, Kamal Nath, in charge of Delhi, was also at a loss to explain why the 50 odd MLAs from Delhi hadn’t managed to persuade 500 persons each to come to the rally. A groping Kamal Nath explained, “I am too new to the job”. Also new to the job of rallying people around?

Find him his voice

More bad news for madam. Despite pinning so much hopes on him, the newly appointed Congress spokesperson and former third front man, S Jaipal Reddy, is yet to get an authoritative voice. An outsider, Reddy, is apparently having serious problems in gaining access in the Congress. As a result of this, Reddy has been cancelling regular press briefings. “I have nothing to say”, he quipped when asked why the routine press conference was cancelled. “But, sir, we have a lot to ask”, a disgruntled scribe blurted out. Naturally, given that promises had been made only days ago that the media cell of the party, as well as the spokesman himself, would be at the service of the media “day and night”. Funnily, the high-powered AICC media panel consisting of professionals like Abhishek Singhvi, Rajeev Desai and Vishwabandhu Gupta meets each day, without fail agreeing to avoid the press. Are they trying to shut out the media or the spokesman himself?

Footnote / The grand plan of action

After the aces in New Delhi, it is back to the well-worn tracks of West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress have apparently chalked out a new strategy to ensure the defeat of the candidates of the ruling CPI(M). Trinamool leaders say didi has already told her associates that the party will back those CPI(M) dissidents who contest as independents in the forthcoming assembly elections. Mamata, in fact, is allegedly toying with the idea of backing Samir Putatunda if he enters the fray as an independent against the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in the Jadavpur assembly constituency.

Putatunda left the CPI(M) as district secretary of the South 24 Parganas only days ago to join Saifuddin Chowdhury’s Party for Democratic Socialism. The Trinamool Congress has also reportedly planned not to put up a candidate against former CPI(M) dissident, Chowdhury. Similarly, Mamata may not field her party nominees against some of the Congress veterans, including those loyal to the Congress MP from Malda, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury. That’s good budgeting.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

A captain and his excuses

Sir — Despite the pre-match hype and exchange of words between the Indian skipper, Sourav Ganguly, and his Australian counterpart, Steve Waugh, the Indians surrendered meekly to the Australians (“Aussies open with three-day rout”, March 2). The difference between the two teams was only too obvious in their body language and in their attitude on the field. The Australians played with their usual aggressiveness, determined to pay a fitting tribute to Donald Bradman. Sourav Ganguly’s admission that the Indians were outplayed in every aspect of the game will no longer suffice. If he really wants to be successful as a captain, he must be able to analyse what went wrong and then address that.
Yours faithfully,
Ramesh Agarwal, via email

Dismal prospects

Sir — The article, “Nourishing thoughts” (Feb 20), has painted a dismal picture of poverty in India. It is unbelievable that a country that has produced eminent doctors, scientists and economists, should have areas where people are so impoverished that they are unable to get a decent meal for days. That millions should go hungry in a country where there has been a surplus in foodgrains, is an indica-tion of the critical state of affairs.

Sharma has rightly pointed out the economic disparity that exists in our country — on the one hand there are people who are ultra rich and have never suffered from the want of anything, and, on the other, there are those who live in utter poverty and deprivation. It is disgusting to watch our politicians trying to outdo one another while trying to woo the public just before the elections. Once the elections are over, all promises are forgotten and nothing is done for the poor in India.

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Guha, Burnpur

Sir — Devinder Sharma has rightly pointed out that the government should facilitate the proper distribution of surplus food stock to feed the poor and the starving. The public distribution system which provides food at low prices is a subject of concern. It has failed to reach the poor and people in faraway places. Only the urban areas have benefited from this system, with the majority of the rural poor still out of its reach because of the lack of proper transportation. The poor in the cities are an equally unfortunate lot and are also left out because they do not possess ration cards.

The allocation of PDS supplies in big cities is larger than in rural areas. The PDS needs to be streamlined. Also if one takes into consideration the excess production of foodgrains on the one hand and the dismal poverty on the other, one would realize that in this scenario it would be better to make the PDS group-oriented.

Yours faithfully,
Nilanjan Biswas, Malda

Sir — Despite the government’s policy of economic liberalization, poverty continues to be one of India’s major problems. Recently a father was forced to dump the body of his 10 year old daughter because he did not have enough money to cremate her body (“Penury pushes father to dump dead daughter”, Feb 21). In a similar incident, a family in the Bolangir district of Orissa was forced to sell their daughter to a money lender. These incidents are a painful reminder of the failure of our government in providing either food, education or healthcare to its citizens. The gleaming new cars on our roads should not be taken as a yardstick for our economic development.

Yours faithfully,
Sukla Das, Jamshedpur

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