Editorial 1 / Free channel
Editorial 2 / Back foot defence
Tehelka fallout
Fifth Column / Figuring out india’s poverty levels
Detection of the malaise
Why the greenbacks are keeping away
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / FREE CHANNEL 
 
 
 
 
It is an unwritten convention in India that whichever political party is in power has a kind of monopoly to use Doordarshan for its own purposes and to its own advantage. Thus there is some substance in the demand made by the Congress president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, that her party should also be allowed to address the nation. The context of this demand is important. In the aftermath of the disclosures made by tehelka.com, the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, addressed the nation on television to restore public confidence in his government. This was as it should be: the leader of the country should speak to the people in a crisis and explain his stand. What was surprising was that the then defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, was also given time on television to address the nation. Mr Fernandes is deeply implicated in the scandal that the Tehelka tapes have revealed. His party, his party’s president and his department are all shown to be accepting bribes, gifts and kickbacks. In the wake of these revelations, Mr Fernandes resigned as defence minister. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr Fernandes departed under a cloud from the cabinet. Yet, he was allowed to appear on television to explain his resignation and his innocence to the people. This is, indeed, an odd situation since if everything was above board, as Mr Fernandes claimed, his resignation remains inexplicable.

It is this peculiar situation that gives strength to Ms Gandhi’s demand. By any definition, save Mr Fernandes’s own, he had no moral right to remain a minister. If despite this, he was allowed time on Doordarshan, the Congress, as the principal opposition party, can also claim time on that channel. There is a refusal to recognize this in Mr Vajpayee’s passing the buck to the minister for information and broadcasting, Ms Sushma Swaraj. The Congress should be allowed its say on the Tehelka tapes and the state of Mr Vajpayee’s government. One very convenient way to avoid any kind of confrontation on this issue is to accede to Ms Gandhi’s demand. The other option is to do way away with the government’s control over Doordarshan. This will automatically end all such squabbles. Government control over television and radio, both prevalent in India, are out of tune with the times. Such control go back to the period when the state’s role and functions were so exaggerated as to infringe on all spheres of public life. This is not an issue which any political party will address. Ms Gandhi will be satisfied if her demand is met. She will not push her demand to its logical limit and call for ending government control over television and radio. It is perhaps a feature of India’s political culture that people are concerned with settling scores rather than with solving problems.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / BACK FOOT DEFENCE 
 
 
 
 
There can be no doubt that the worst victim of the Tehelka revelations has been the image of the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A close second comes the image of the ministry of defence. Mr Vajpayee’s image has suffered not because the finger of corruption has been pointed towards him but because of his ham-handed handling of the political fallout. He not only remained inactive and crestfallen for twenty four hours but even after he was galvanized into action, his decisions have not been marked by the sheerness of touch that one would expect from a politician of Mr Vajpayee’s vintage. He accepted, albeit too late, the resignation of Mr George Fernandes, the then defence minister. He followed it up by the announcement that Mr Jaswant Singh, the minister for external affairs, would also be in charge of the defence portfolio. Thus, at a time when the defence ministry is in urgent need of repair and cleaning, it will not have a full-time minister. Without underestimating Mr Singh’s abilities and energies, it has to be acknowledged that foreign affairs is a taxing portfolio and now he has another demanding job on his shoulders. This is unfair on the man and on the two concerned ministries.

The nature and the context of Mr Singh’s additional responsibility suggest that his presence in the defence ministry is only temporary. He is only holding the fort till the air is cleared of controversy and scandal. It is to be hoped that the prime minister is not thinking of re-inducting Mr Fernandes as defence minister after a suitable period of time has elapsed. Apart from the current slur on Mr Fernandes’s reputation, there are other reasons for not bringing him back as defence minister. The new full-time defence minister should come preferably from the Bharatiya Janata Party so that he is subject to party discipline and is under Mr Vajpayee’s direct control. Such an appointment will free a crucial ministry from the pressures of coalition politics. There is another reason for recommending such an appointment. If the Tehelka tapes have brought home one point, it is the need for reforms in the defence ministry. This is not a new need because experts, over a number of years, have been pressing for reforms. No action has ever been initiated. Now the whiff of scandal might prove to be the motor for change. If it does, then a crisis will become an opportunity for improvement. On current performance, it is hardly to be expected that Mr Vajpayee will seize the moment to make far-reaching changes. Rather he will play safe and not rock the boat. This might appear unfair to the prime minister. But he seems to have lost, not his marbles, but his initiative. The least he could do is to appoint a full-time defence minister. That cannot strike panic among the most ardent pro-changers in his camp.

   

 
 
TEHELKA FALLOUT 
 
 
BY SHAM LAL
 
 
The Vajpayee government’s problem is not how to survive the Tehelka videotapes exposé. It has enough numbers in the Lok Sabha to take care of any worry on that score. What has wiped the smile off its face is the disgrace it has to live down. What the tapes project on television is a political establishment covered from head to foot in sleaze. What other conclusion can be drawn by the millions who have seen the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bangaru Laxman, accepting a bribe of a lakh of rupees from a journalist posing as an arms dealer?

And what can the millions who have also seen a bogus arms dealer enter the house of the then defence minister, George Fernandes, offer to the Samata president, Jaya Jaitly, a sum of two lakh rupees which she directs him to hand over to someone in the party office, do but hang their heads in embarrassment? Those who have witnessed smaller sums being handed over to a clutch of both senior and junior army officers, who deal with procurement of weapons, can do nothing but feel sorry for the poor fellows who have been suspended. How is it that no one cares to look into the credentials of those who come to sell them arms?

There is no need for anyone to make conjectures about the fallout of the Tehelka exposé. Everyone can see how it has soiled the government’s image. It has made the prime minister more vulnerable to pressure from partners in the coalition. It will be more difficult than before for him to implement some of the recent decisions regarding stricter fiscal discipline and privatization. It will be harder still to build a broader consensus to make the current phase of the reform process less troublesome.

The Tehelka disclosures have opened a can of worms and the damage limitation exercise is intended to put the lid back on it. Unfortunately for the trouble shooters, worms are crawling all over the place and it is too late to erase from the tapes what has already been seen and heard by so many. It is precisely here that the government is on trial. If it is sincere about getting to the bottom of the matter, why does it not detain those who have confessed to having received huge sums for this party or that, presumably in the form of payoffs and kickbacks and have them grilled by the Central Bureau of Investigation to establish the identity of all those who made or received money?

R.K. Jain, who was treasurer of the Samata Party until recently, has claimed that the party received Rs 60 crores from arms dealers. Why is he not being charge-sheeted? If he is telling a lie, he should be held guilty of both perjury and defamation. If there is any semblance of truth in what he says, he should be asked to provide details of the shady transactions. Is the public so dumb as to dismiss the disclosure as baseless in the absence of a thorough probe by a senior judge or a joint committee of Parliament?

And what about the statement by R.P. Gupta, someone supposed to be close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh? Why is there no attempt to get from him all particulars of the payoffs he claims to have made to persons having links with the ruling establishment? Are outright denials or a deafening silence an adequate response to such grave charges? Or is the public to accept such things as an integral part of the prevailing political culture just as thefts of thousands of crores worth of electricity every year by secret cartels of electricity board officials, junior employees and consumers have come to be regarded as an essential part of the administration culture?

What has been perhaps most galling for the prime minister in the midst of a shoal of rumours about shady deals is that the sarsanghchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, should have chosen this moment to attack his principal secretary for his “incompetence” and taken the government to task for not pushing the plan to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya with due urgency. He has by now retracted part of his statement and tried to blame the media for reading into it meanings he never intended. Yet, he has not disowned so far his snide remarks about the prime minister’s most trusted aide.

This indirect way of pointing an accusing finger at the prime minister is by no means a freak happening. The relationship between the BJP and the RSS has been strained for a long time. On the one hand, the sarsanghchalak realizes that no one apart from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with his image as a moderate, will be acceptable to the National Democratic Alliance as the head of government. On the other hand, he resents the way the government has put the core parts of the BJP’s agenda on the backburner. The present crisis has only brought the love-hate relationship between the two men into sharper focus.

No attempt on the part of the head of the sangh parivar to foul his own nest, oblivious of the constraints under which the government is working, is going to make it function better. If anything it will encourage dissensions within the BJP, some of whose leaders, too, cannot stomach the fact that the prime minister should be swayed more by the advice of his aides on many sensitive or complicated issues than the views of his cabinet colleagues. So hurtful was the campaign of calumny that both Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh had to call a press conference to dismiss the charges made against them as baseless.

What do the opposition parties in this crisis hope to gain by obstructing the work of Parliament and press the demand for the government’s resignation when the government has a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha? They are in no position to provide an alternative and can hope for no more than marginal gains if fresh elections are held in the near future. The only plausible reason for their campaign is their desire to see the government grow so weak as to be unable to check the slidedown in the economy, and thus lose credibility.

Whether their calculations are right or wrong is immaterial. What makes the whole strategy crazy is their inability to see that such a scenario, even if it materializes, will also undermine the inner defences of the system, intensify inter-communal, inter-regional as well as inter-ethnic tensions, reduce the steering capacity of the state and make the country more ungovernable. Will an alternative coalition of disparate elements, each of them with a different chip on its shoulders, be able to work better in these circumstances than the one now in office?

The experience of the last 25 years, in which almost every party, big or small, has had some taste of power, has left not a shred of doubt that, whatever the differences in the constituencies they serve or in the complexion of their rhetoric, all parties share the same political cultu- re of sleaze, populism, rampant corruption, a lackadaisical work ethic and a forlorn hope that both high growth rates and social justice can be bought on the cheap.

This has made the political culture dangerously sick. The Tehelka tapes have given no more than a cursory glimpse into the nature of the malady. A thorough diagnosis will provide a far more nauseating and frightening picture. A tinkering with the system here and there or a judicial inquiry into a public scandal now and then can be of no avail. The remedy lies in a thorough overhaul of the political culture to strengthen the values of integrity in public life, stricter social discipline, and a more exacting work ethic. It calls for a joint endeavour by all political parties.

The same applies to the goal of rapid growth with justice which sounds more and more hollow with the passage of time and a steady increase in income disparities. Any reform process which sets out to achieve high growth rates even as it narrows these disparities, taking the need for liberalization for granted, is also something that cannot be achieved by the kind of policy packages sold over the last decade. Repeating parrot-like that coalition politics have come to stay is merely making virtue of necessity. Turning the dream into reality requires consensus politics underpinned by altogether different forms of both thought and action.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / FIGURING OUT INDIA’S POVERTY LEVELS 
 
 
BY SRINJAY CHAKRAVARTI
 
 
Poverty in India, according to planning commission figures, has seen a 10 per cent drop in the last six years. The percentage of people living below the poverty line has declined from 36 per cent in 1993-94 to 26.1 per cent in 1999-2000. The fall in the poverty ratio has been marginally higher in urban areas, where it has come down from 34 per cent to 23.62 per cent as compared to rural areas.

While this fall in poverty levels is heartening, it is still far short of the 16 per cent target set in the ninth five year plan. This would seem to confirm that the reductions in poverty achieved so far, particularly its bias in favour of urban areas, is because of the so-called trickle-down effect of economic growth. Undoubtedly, growth is not enough to make a long-lasting impact on poverty levels.

For that, direct anti-indigence measures need to be reformed and delivery mechanisms for drinking water, sanitation, rural healthcare, primary education and housing need to be upgraded.

The World Bank’s annual report for 2000-01 supports this view. It favours acceleration in rural development and poverty reduction through cuts in spending on poorly targeted input subsidies, investing in rural infrastructure, providing more effective rural services, especially to the poor and the socially marginalized. Other measures suggested include improving management of natural resources like water and forests and liberalizing the rural economy, including the rural financial system.

A dismal picture

The World Bank report has argued, “While India spends twice as much on agriculture as its east Asian neighbours, the composition of its public spending is not conducive to faster, labour-intensive rural growth and poverty reduction.”

The world development report of the World Bank has painted a dismal picture of poverty worldwide. It pointed out that the average income in the 20 richest countries is 37 times the average in the poorest 20, a gap that has doubled in the past 40 years.

Almost half the world’s population — 2.8 billion people — lives on less than two dollars a day. Of these, 1.2 billion live on the very brink of life, or less than one dollar a day — a situation of abject penury.

In east Asia, the number of people living on less than one dollar a day — which defines the so-called poverty line — fell from 420 million in 1987 to around 280 million in 1998.

India is home to the single largest bloc of poor people in the world, even after the substantial reductions in their numbers in the past six years. However, the World Bank has also conceded that national sample survey-based poverty figures are underestimating the improvement. This is crucial not only for the sake of collecting data, but also for designing policy. However, India has a stronger statistical tradition than many poor countries.

Controversies galore

Nevertheless, there are controversies galore over the NSS data. It is argued that the poverty line, calculated on the basis of calorie norms devised way back in the Sixties, is outdated and appropriate price deflators are not used. The NSS is also criticized for underestimating expenditure as well as for undertaking large samples at infrequent intervals.

Despite methodological problems, there is certainly evidence of a drop of at least 10 per cent in poverty levels in the country, although the drop has been very skewed across states. It has been achieved, it must be remembered, against the addition of some 16 to 17 million people to the total population each year.

India had pledged to the world food summit in Rome in 1996 and the world summit for social development (Copenhagen, 1995) that it would reduce the number of poor and malnourished by half by 2015. This appears to be a pipe dream, although such poverty reduction has been achieved in other countries like China.

The percentage of the undernourished population in India decreased from 38 per cent in 1979-81 to 26 per cent in 1990-92 and 21 per cent in 1996-98, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But China had reduced this percentage of the total population to 30, 17 and 11 per cent respectively during the corresponding period.

   

 
 
DETECTION OF THE MALAISE 
 
 
BY SANDHYA SRINIVASAN
 
 
Every five-star hospital worth its air-conditioning and hefty cash deposit hawks the “executive health check-up” — a one-stop testing expedition for various infections, diabetes, cholesterol, kidney and heart function, hormone levels, and so on. At one hospital one can choose from the “discount”, the regular or the deluxe package, adding tests for cancer, heart problems and HIV at extra cost. Question the rationale for the tests and you will be soothed by the chant: “The hospital’s health check-up is an assurance of your well-being”.

Physicians disagree with that assertion and with the manner in which packages of tests are marketed directly to the public. “There are thousands of things that could go wrong with the body,” says Yash Lokhandwalla, cardiologist, “How did they decide on the package? At what age should these tests be done? It’s a marketing gimmick.” Does anyone know if this ad hoc “fishing for illness” is worth the cost to the public?

The opportunities afforded by commercial enterprise have resulted in a flood of diagnostic services in cities like Mumbai. The impression is that patient health and good medical practice are not priorities. Doctors explain that diagnostic tests can provide useful information and are important — when prescribed by a doctor based on a person’s symptoms, medical history, family illnesses and risk factors. However, in a climate of unregulated medical practice, the testing fever seems to have little to do with improving people’s health.

This was illustrated some years ago when four magnetic resonance imaging scanners were set up within five minutes’ drive of each other in south Mumbai, with another three in the western suburbs, many bought by “research centres” availing of tax concessions. The financial institutions which loaned the money to buy these machines apparently did not investigate whether the machines met a need in the area. Faced with high overheads, but not enough well-off patients needing a scan, centres fought each other for a piece of the “scan cake” by paying “interpretation fees” to persuade doctors to refer patients to them. So people with simple headaches could merit MRIs — if they happened to visit an ethically challenged doctor.

For the same reasons, stomach pains can “call for” a sonography as every X-ray unit around the corner buys a sonography machine. The practice of doctor-driven testing is widespread. A well-known pathology laboratory in Mumbai arranges its records according to the prescribing doctor. Is it uncharitable to imagine that doctors who prescribe the most tests are also rewarded?

Health economist, V. Muraleedharan, has considered the “extent to which new medical technologies in a competitive market environment have influenced physicians’ behaviour against the interests of their patients, and how far this has resulted in higher costs of care.” He suggests that diagnostic or therapeutic services are used more often when the referring doctor has a financial interest in referring a patient to the service. One of his recommendations is to make technology evaluation an integral part of the health policy-making process.

Besides promoting unethical practices, the overabundance of such tests distorts the way even responsible doctors function. For example, as one doctor points out, a pain in the abdomen could be indigestion. Or it could be something more. Since sonograms are available, the doctor orders one. Sometimes, the test picks up spots on the liver which are almost always benign. But no one’s taking chances, so the patient is referred to a specialist who orders further investigations which cost money, cause trauma and rarely yield information that would have changed the course of treatment. This is not a uniquely Indian problem. Doctors in the United Kingdom routinely recommend radiography for patients with recurrent low backaches — and almost always to reassure themselves and their patients, rather than on the basis of any real suspicion.

Another test which has been promoted with “discount coupons” is the bone mineral density scan which is now being advocated by gynaecologists to all menopausal women — who can afford the Rs 1,500 — to find out if their bones are deteriorating with age. Women with low BMD are generally prescribed long-term pharmaceutical treatment with hormone replacement therapy or drugs which promote bone growth. While such benefits are accepted, what may be troubling is the tendency among many physicians to prescribe pharmaceutical “quick fixes” without discussing diet, exercise or other lifestyle changes. And this is certainly the norm.

In the West, medical guidelines exist for people to be tested for various conditions such as cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis or high blood pressure when they have no symptoms of these problems. This is known as screening. The principle is that early detection and treatment will reduce ill-health and mortality due to that disease. The decision to suggest screening for specific groups is made after evaluating the test’s accuracy, the chances of detecting disease where there is none, and missing the disease, and whether a programme of early detection and treatment will reduce illness and death due to that disease. A positive result is to be followed by a more accurate test. Evaluation of the screening test includes weighing the costs — physical, financial and emotional — of a false positive test. The test’s accuracy can also vary according to the standards of the laboratory and the skills of the person performing and interpreting the test.

With age, one is at a higher risk of developing certain diseases and tests for these conditions may be recommended by the physician. However, conducting screening on low-risk, asymptomatic people increases the chances of false positive results. Also, screening requires an infrastructure of quality equipment and trained technicians. Without guidelines, ad hoc “screening” can do more harm than good. However, there are no guidelines for screening in India, and the manner in which certain tests are promoted suggest that they are to be used as screening tests. At the same time, their increasing availability may be affecting the way the doctors practice, and not necessarily for the better.

Does media reporting have any link to the mushrooming of testing services and the obsession with tests for all problems? A recent study conducted in the United States analysed media coverage of three new drugs and found that 40 per cent did not give a concrete evaluation of the drugs’ benefits. Those which did, rarely described the benefit in terms comprehensible to the reader. Less than half the reports mentioned the drugs’ potential risks. Many quoted experts who had financial ties to the drug in question, usually without mentioning this link. The quality of health reporting in this country is hardly any better.

A recent magazine article on breast cancer states that the incidence of the disease is shooting up. The stress of the urban working woman’s life, better nutrition leading to early menses, a rush-hour diet of junk food and delayed child-bearing — all influence the body’s exposure to estrogen, a hormone linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. However, the article has no information on how important these factors are in increasing one’s risk of breast cancer, nor does it emphasize that some influences are beyond the woman’s control. There is no information on how common breast cancer is compared to other health problems Indian women face. While advocating regular screening for early detection, the article suggests screening as an option without evaluating the existing screening techniques. There is no mention of the psychological and other consequences of false positives and over-diagnosis. Nor does it mention that Indian radiologists are insufficiently prepared to screen for breast cancer.

It is not disputed here that diagnostic tests can save your life when properly prescribed and acted upon. What we are seeing here is hard-sell of these tests, done not in the interests of better health but simply in order to make money.

Why should we care if people have the money to burn? Because the industry plays on people’s fears and is supported in this by some doctors. Besides, people don’t have the money to burn: the money comes out of our own pockets. Finally, if tests do find a problem, the current set-up instead of encouraging a healthy diet and lifestyle changes, leads to a medical practice that is more commonly associated with promoting expensive drugs and therapies.

   

 
 
WHY THE GREENBACKS ARE KEEPING AWAY 
 
 
BY DEBAKI NANDAN MANDAL
 
 
Not long ago, Somnath Chatterjee, chairman of the West Bengal industrial development corporation, commented that the “negative image” of West Bengal projected by the media was harming the state immensely. The allegation is not new. Left leaders never fail to point an accusing finger at the print and electronic media for their “unfair” criticism of the Left Front government of West Bengal, which, they think, is responsible for the poor response to investment from foreigners and non-resident Indians.

Let us leave aside the grouse of our leaders for a moment and look at another picture. Several hundred Indian-Americans converged on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington on February 28 to urge a hundred million dollars in United States aid for the Gujarat earthquake relief. They received an additional $ 10 million, over the five million dollars announced by the US administration earlier.

Frustrating experience

Why wasn’t there any such attempt on the part of NRIs, particularly non-resident Bengalis, to raise funds for West Bengal when it was ravaged by floods last year? Is it because of an allergy towards anything that smacks of US imperialism? Or do our leaders prefer complaining of Central discrimination to lobbying aid from prosperous nations? In truth, it has to do with the perception of West Bengal outside the state.

The suspicion was confirmed by a Bengali statistician working at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The reaction of NRIs originating from West Bengal to investment in the state is one of frustration. They attribute this to red-tapism, trade-unionism and the government’s high-handedness and double standards. Since the final decision usually comes from the party high command, with an eye to its support base, decisions taken at the government level are often overruled. West Bengal, it is felt, is slow in responding to the changing economic order of the country.

Try elsewhere

But it would be wrong to think that the NRI opinion is moulded by the media. They get a fairly clear picture from relatives and acquaintances living in the state, besides seeing for themselves on their usual annual visits to the state.

What about the NRIs who are apparently investing or at least talking about investing in the state? It is conceded that in most cases, it is vested interest. Often, they are middlemen acting between some powerholders of Alimuddin Street and some middle and lower-level businessmen of their country of immigration. To these businessmen they paint a rosy picture of the enormous possibilities in the state. Excited by the prospect of big business, many of these businessmen talk to political leaders of the state and even sign memoranda of understanding. If they happen to visit other states and see for themselves the difference in infrastructure and attitudes, they start businesses there. Should it still surprise that they stop short of actually investing in West Bengal?

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Killing fields

Sir — While heaps of animal carcass burn, one is reminded of John Constable’s imagery of the rolling green English meadows dotted with fluffy, white sheep. And the awesome power that we, the human species, have assumed for ourselves. Experts believe that the foot and mouth disease is not a direct threat to human health. Yet it has almost wiped out a country’s livestock and ruined commerce. The logic behind the massive slaughter is, in the end these animals were meant to end on our plates. So what if they die differently? To stop the spread of contagion among men could we have thought up a similar solution? Ridiculous, one would say. Animals are animals after all. Yet, I wonder if man has such authority as to rear and kill, for food or for commerce, millions of other living forms. Is it absolutely unfashionable to propose an alternative food habit? Even if the stench of the barbecue in the English fields doesn’t elicit revulsion, perhaps the impractical few would pause to contemplate the silence of the lambs.
Yours faithfully,
Prosenjit Roy, via email

A case in point

Sir — Privatization of the Bharat Aluminium Company at the cost of Rs 551.5 crore was done in accordance with the normal procedures of trade and commerce. The hue and cry raised by the opposition, especially the chief minister of newly formed Chhattisgarh, Ajit Jogi, is a stark reminder of the government’s failure to push through with its programme of economic liberalization. However, the fact that the Central government has gone ahead in finalizing the deal with Sterlite, despite allegations of kickbacks and Jogi’s threats that he will stop supplies of water and electricity, shows its willingness. The Congress’s objection to privatization of public sector units, a step that was initiated by the Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao, shows the party’s hollowness.

Transparency of the deal, which was assessed by firms of international repute, has convinced the judiciary to intervene against moves by the state government to deprive the organization of essential services. If the Congress opposes privatization of Balco, how is it that the Congress governments of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka are going full steam with their own privatization programmes?

Besides the daily loss of crores of rupees, the strike by the Balco employees poses a serious problem for other PSUs booked for privatization. Chhattisgarh has seen violent agitation by workers in the past. But the militant trade unions should realize that they are responsible for misleading the workers and stalling industrialization in the state.

Yours faithfully,
C.M. Mahapatra, Visakhapatnam

Sir — The editorial, “Test case” (March 8), justifies privatization of Balco on the ground that this is one way of raising “greater revenue”. But nationalized industries are the property of the nation. To sell them lock, stock and barrel while neglecting the interests of the employees is something that goes against the principles of democracy. The government and the allies should first find out what people think of privatization before selling off the national assets.

Yours faithfully,
P.N. Pal, Calcutta

Sir — The chief minister of Chhattisgarh seems to have taken an exceptional interest in Balco. But is it because he feels workers’ interests are going to be jeopardized or is it because the state government wishes to own an asset which according to Ajit Jogi was sold for a song?

It is incredible to even think that Chhattisgarh can afford to pay a price higher than that paid by Sterlite for Balco, nor can it be expected to run it with its bunch of ministers and bureaucrats whose competence has already raised doubts.

Jogi should realize that the state should concentrate on the more important task of maintaining law and order and ensuring public welfare, leaving industry and business to the appropriate authorities. However, Jogi’s idea of prudence is itself questionable given that he reportedly wasted Rs 65 lakhs on his residence. If the Balco stalemate continues, the apex court should intervene in a more decisive manner.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — The Central government’s decision to approach the Supreme Court against the Chhattisgarh government’s non-cooperation on Balco and the subsequent intervention of the apex court have come as a slap on the face of the opposition.

But why should the Central government be hauled up for appealing to the judiciary when the states ruled by the opposition parties are doing the same at the drop of a hat? In Karnataka for example, the local bodies’ elections were not held on the scheduled time for the fear of defeat of the Congress state government. The high court of the state has ordered that the elections be held as soon as possible. The state government has decided to challenge this verdict in Supreme Court. In the case of Balco, judicial intervention seems to have come at the right time.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — The Balco controversy is hardly because of any true concern over the alleged under-valuation of the company, but simply because the opposition has found an opportunity to score a few brownie points. Instead of ensuring that Balco remains peaceful, Ajit Jogi has fuelled the dispute. However, there is no doubt that PSUs have to be privatized and the Centre has taken the right step in that direction. Playing with local sentiments is easy but going ahead with reforms is what is needed.

Yours faithfully,
Bedashruti Mitra, Raigarh

Medically unfit

Sir — The death of eight women in 14 days is not only tragic but also a matter of great concern. The editorial, “Normal deaths” (March 16), has correctly pointed to the abysmal inadequacy and inhuman callousness that exist in West Bengal’s healthcare system. The situation is especially grave for the poor who have to depend on state run hospitals for their treatment.

Under-paid and inexperienced doctors, dogs and cats loitering besides patients’ beds, dead bodies lying in the open, large scale theft of medicines and other medical equipment, trade in human organs are common occurrences in various hospitals run by the state. Most of the time costly medical equipment lie unused in the lack of skilled personnel or are out of order for one reason or the other. The condition of various morgues in the city and elsewhere in the state is not unknown either.

The immediate need of the hour is private participation in these hospitals without any political or trade union interference. The government can at best keep a watch on whether patients are getting efficient services for free or at reasonable rates where applicable.

Yours faithfully,
Sandeep Kumar Pachisia, via email

Sir — The editorial, “Bovine inaction” (March 15), is a timely warning against the spread of the dangerous foot and mouth disease. If the state government does not take adequate preventive steps keeping in mind the recent medical crisis in Siliguri, the intensity and magnitude of a future epidemic can be disastrous.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Pal, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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