Editorial 1/ Starshine
Editorial 2/ Seventh seal
Blood will have blood
Fifth column/ When the going is slow, get going
New focus on treatment
The politics of procuring food
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ STARSHINE 
 
 
 
 
The failings of the University of Calcutta are common knowledge. That they are also part of the factfile of the university administration was made evident during the frenetic brightening-up phase it went through immediately after Jadavpur University was named a centre of excellence by the University Grants Commission. So it is a little startling to find that the national assessment accreditation committee has awarded the University of Calcutta five-star status. Those exasperated with the functioning of the university, its outdated syllabi, unwieldy examination procedures, delay in publication of results and the general air of seediness in its main campus would find this most puzzling. A NAAC listing will determine how much UGC funding a university will get in the next five years. It can be argued that an educational institution should not rely on central funding at all. Different ways to lessen this dependence are being thought of, which include higher fees and closer interaction with industry and government on various projects. But the scene cannot be changed at a stroke. As long as the UGC has a say in the fund allocation, the NAAC list cannot be ignored. The UGC’s idea is to pool scarce resources, so the right institutions get appropriate funding for the right reasons. The NAAC, therefore, has some checkpoints. The University of Calcutta obviously makes it past some very important ones, because it fails quite visibly at the others.

There are few to match this old university in terms of assets. It is not merely land, buildings and equipment that the university is rich in. From law and medicine, to the pure sciences, humanities and languages, the university offers an array of disciplines not comparable to any other in the eastern region. It has its own museum and an extraordinary library. What it fails in is the upkeep of its treasures. It would be logical for the UGC to direct its funding to an institution which has this kind of infrastructure if it could ensure the proper use of the money in terms of maintenance and productivity. This would be difficult in any case, given the centralized structure of the gigantic institution. Calcutta University hinders administrative efficiency simply by being what it is. Yet the output from some departments, like physics and the other pure sciences, is comparable to the best in other leading universities. That the scholars who give the university its reputation are sometimes forced to leave is something that the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, might care to consider. He has recently denied the charge that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) interferes in university appointments. Unfortunately, the decline of the work environment and the marginalizing of serious scholars can largely be put down to the heavy proportion of political appointments. These factors make the university’s five-star status worrying. Increased resources could be put to good use. The question is, whether the university will be able to do so.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ SEVENTH SEAL 
 
 
 
 
If mindless repetition is one of the features of the lowest farce, then Manipur has certainly mastered the art. Seven impositions of president’s rule in less than thirty years of statehood is a truly splendid achievement, and Manipur is preparing for the latest dose with with jaded expertise. Even the fact that most people in the state seem to be welcoming this generally undesirable measure shows the desperate optimism that could come upon a people whose government has repeatedly failed it. The Centre has unanimously recommended the imposition of president’s rule in Manipur and the assembly is about to go into “suspended animation”. The run-up to this ignoble collapse was also appropriately absurdist, although the political repercussions seem to have made the National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi sit up a trifle anxiously. Relations between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samata Party have been through twists and turns at the Centre because of the shifting dynamics of the BJP’s support of Mr Radha Binod Koijam’s Samata Party-led government. The irony — farcical too — is that both the BJP and the Samata Party in the assembly are largely a bunch of crossover time-servers, changing political identity with dizzying frequency. To invoke the notion of stability in such a context would be to carry optimism too far. Legislatorial ethos in the state has, by now, been made part of the pervasive ridiculousness of Manipur politics, and that the Centre, particularly the BJP, has important stakes in this bizarre situation shows what coalition politics could reduce normally self-important parties to.

Yet certain sections of the people are still pinning their hopes on a situation that seems not to have worked enough number of times to have made such hopefulness impossible to revive yet again. But this is a state whose finances and civil infrastructure have been collapsing almost since their inception. It is quite normal for the governor to be making the right noises regarding the revival of the state. But the people of Manipur are wondering if president’s rule would make some difference to insurgency in the state, or to corruption in public offices. The suspension of the assembly also augurs to some the saving of a great deal of money that would be otherwise drained out by ministers and legislators. Perhaps the Centre would be able to salvage Manipur’s severely impoverished coffers. The tightening of the rule of law might also mean the revival of an almost non-functioning police. Paradoxically, Manipur is also the best illustration of the futility of president’s rule, and the popular demand for fresh polls is perhaps the most reassuring political statement made in Manipur in years.

   

 
 
BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
The 19th-century British Resident at Kathmandu who reported that Mr Nepal, Mrs Nepal and Master Nepal ran the kingdom would not have been surprised by Friday’s horrendous massacre in the Narayanhity palace. For even if details vary, there is a grim repetitiveness about a sequence that can only play into the hands of Comrade Prachanda of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who holds that his country’s ultimate destiny will be to wage a “national” war against India.

History repeats itself over and over again. The name Prachanda figured 70 years ago in an anti-Rana organization that the Ranas crushed. A sad photograph shows a chubby four-year-old at the salute, shadowed by an adult who holds the massive pearl and plumed crown on his head. It is Prince Gyanendra, the late king’s surviving brother, whom Mohan Shumshere Jang Bahadur Rana, the last hereditary prime minister, placed upon the throne on November 7, 1950. The charade collapsed because while Britain and the United States hesitated to legitimize the little puppet, India announced firmly that it recognized Tribhuvan and no one else. Now, 51 years later, tragedy has again called Gyanendra to the fate that eluded him then.

India’s complicity in overthrowing the Ranas has not yet been described authoritatively (Tribhuvan’s European masseuse would have us believe that it was all her doing), but sanctuary obviously played a crucial part in that thrilling drama. It enabled the king to escape to New Delhi “for medical treatment” and then, with Jawaharlal Nehru’s powerful backing, to bargain with the Ranas while the Nepali Congress mukti sena, aided by India’s Congress Socialists, attacked Birwal, Biratnagar and Butwal. After 104 years in power, the regime crumbled in 104 days.

Once before, too, a Nepalese sovereign had sought diplomatic asylum. But unlike the Indian ambassador 104 years later, the British Resident refused to open his door to a harrowed King Rajendra, fleeing his vengeful and vicious junior queen, Laxmi Devi, whose lover had been murdered by his orders. Told curtly that Europeans did not receive guests at such a late hour, the monarch returned dejectedly to his palace on the night of the long knives of the Kot massacre — September 15, 1846 — in which the Rana ascendancy was born.

At least 25 nobles including the prime minister, Fateh Jang Shah, and scores of soldiers were slaughtered, and hundreds more purged. There had been other such bloodbaths — 93 royals were butchered in 1806 — but Kot enabled the 29-year-old Jang Bahadur Konwar, a Gurkha adventurer who had earlier shot dead his uncle, benefactor and prime minister, Mathbar Singh Thapa, in cold blood, to establish his dynasty. With the carnage continuing, Laxmi Devi made him prime minister and commander in chief. Two years later he got the captive king to formally recognize an apocryphal genealogy claiming descent from the 14th century Ranas of Chittor. Jang Bahadur also calculatedly promoted the concept of the king being an avatar of Vishnu, the better to be able to exclude him from temporal concerns.

Known henceforth as Rana, the Konwars steadily usurped royal privileges and equally diligently intermarried with the royal family so that bloodlines between the Teen Sri (prime minister) and Panch Sri (king) became inextricably crossed. Great-grandchildren of Juddha Shumshere, the last absolute prime minister, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya were both descended from Jang Bahadur’s brother, Dhir.

So is the girl whom reports place at the heart of the quarrel. Her Haileyburian father, Pashupati Rana, is one of the most articulate and blistering critics of misgovernment; through her mother, a sister of Madhavrao Scindia’s, she is also descended from Khadga Shumshere who murdered his uncle and prime minister, Ranaudip Singh, possibly despatched two other uncles as well, and was exiled to Madhya Pradesh for plotting to overthrow the next prime minister, his brother Bir Shumshere.

Blood feuds run deep and strong in a bitterly divided and incestuous elite. Probably recognizing the power of these ancient enmities, Morarji Desai offered Scindia any embassy he liked save Nepal. Brother against brother, uncle against nephew, well-meaning but weak maharajas saddled with arrogant, authoritarian and murderous maharanis, treason and torture, eviction, expropriation and exile, the Shah-Rana chronicles make doleful reading. Pashupati is not the only Rana to challenge his own order. Subarna and Mahabir Shumshere, once popular figures in Calcutta society whose families had been excluded from power in the purge of 1934, were staunch allies of Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala. Mahabir owned the Lighthouse, and it was said that he had “accepted” Burma in lieu of a gaming debt during World War II at either the 300 Club or the Golden Slipper.

From time to time, even the isolated kings made feeble attempts to assert their authority. Prithvi Bir (1881-1911) stalked out of Narayanhity palace in high dudgeon but went back about a month later. A royal collateral launched the Prachanda Gorkha organization. Tribhuvan more daringly connived with the Raktapat Mandal, Bloodshed Group. Often, a disaffected aristocrat would flirt with the Nepal Praja Parishad, Nepal Civil Rights Committee, All-India Nepali National League, All-India Gorkha League, Nepali National Congress, Nepali Democratic Congress, Nepal Praja Panchayat or the Nepali Congress.

These organizations spoke of frustration and anger at poverty and illiteracy while Rolls Royce assembled cars for the aristocracy, and even the “liberal” constitution of 1948 declared that it was “for all time unalterable and inalienable” that a Rana should be the prime minister. About 40 Rana palaces dominated the Kathmandu landscape with their courtyards and Corinthian columns, halls of Italian marble stuffed with Belgian mirrors, Venetian chandeliers, French tapestry and Chinese porcelain. In contrast, the royal abode, Narayanhity, redesigned by Benjamin Polk, an American architect who used to live in Calcutta, looked like a cross between a railway terminus and a fun fair.

It is a feature of public life that the grab is most greedy when there is least to grab. In Nepal there was — and is — pitifully little. Laying the foundation stone of the Tribhuvan-Chandra college in 1919, Chandra Shumshere, the prime minister of the day, remarked that he was opening the way to the demise of his order. Education was as feared as religious reform and political enlightenment. Previous Ranas would not allow even a library.

Reports indicate that the authors of the People’s War had no connection with Friday’s murders. That may well be. But Prachanda, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, would be a poor sort of Maoist tactician if he did not make the most of an opportunity that has fallen into his lap. Distress has always been there. Nepal boasts few black-top roads, fewer railways, a high population growth, scanty foreign exchange reserves and no industry to speak of. The main natural resource of water power is barely tapped. The rub lies in parliamentary democracy not making a difference.

There have been 10 cabinets since 1990; as faction-ridden as the durbar ever was, the Nepali Congress has only a slim majority and is burdened with charges of mismanagement and corruption. Prachanda, who is committed to a “People’s Republic of Nepal” and sees war as “a great process of construction”, was gleeful when the army was deployed to contain his rebellion which has spread to 35 districts and now embraces two-thirds of the population. Military measures would “practically end the political role of the parliament and parliamentary groups” he exulted. Birendra’s prestige and experience held the ship of state, a fragile and porous state, to some sort of course. Now that guiding hand is gone.

If the king was felled by another royal hand, one can only say with Euripides, “Whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad.” But denying deity, Prachanda, who could hardly have hoped for better, would no doubt attribute this turn of the wheel to dialectical materialism’s inevitable triumph.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ WHEN THE GOING IS SLOW, GET GOING 
 
 
BY ARUN PRATAP SINGH
 
 
The Indian economy has not yet shown any signs of recovering from the economic slowdown that has gripped most countries of the world in the past few months. Even banking activity has slowed down. The data now available shows that during the year 2000-2001, foreign capital inflow, commercial banking credit, capital market equity and bond issues have all declined when compared to the previous year. The non-food bank credit growth has decelerated to 14.3 per cent from 16.5 per cent in the previous year. While exports have shown considerable growth, other sectors of the economy have performed miserably.

In fact, the biggest indicator of the slowdown is the fall in gross domestic product growth, which has come down from 6.4 per cent in the year 1999-2000 to six per cent during 2000-2001. Whenever productivity, which is measured by the incremental capital input ratio, has slipped, there has also been a decline in real GDP growth.

One reason for a higher growth in exports has been the economic sluggishness at home. The exports have grown at 20 per cent against the target of 18 per cent. This may lead one to think that this performance has also been reflected in the domestic market. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Down all the way

According to the data now available, it is clear that the slowdown in non-food credit expansion occurred sharply in the second half of the year, thus making the already visible signs of recession more pronounced. Estimates indicate that funds mobilized from the capital markets by the industry through bonds and equities have declined in absolute terms. The sluggish offtake of industrial funds is reflected in a slowdown in growth during the year 2000-2001. Even the foreign capital inflows were much lower at around $2212 million during the period between April-December 2000 as against $3405 million the previous year.

Apprehensions about the fall in global demands owing to a slowdown in the United States and Japanese economies were confirmed when India’s export growth virtually halved to 10.46 per cent in February 2001 compared to 20 per cent during the previous months of 2000-01. After months of relative stability, the rupee once again showed its volatility by registering an all-time low in May, which was followed by the plunging of stocks.

Out of 132 sectors, only 11 have shown production growth of over 20 per cent — textile machinery, refineries, personal computers, software and hardware. Thirty-one of the 132 sectors have exhibited negative growth. Industries manufacturing nylon filament yarn, energy meters, crude oil, refractors, textile machinery, three-wheelers and rubber footwear have, however, registered positive growth.

Borrow and use

Most sectors are exhibiting higher growth rates in exports over production. The number of sectors that have shown excellent growth has increased from 10 in the previous year to 14 this year. High-growth sectors have increased from 13 to 15 and the number of negative growth sectors have declined. The worry is that if the global slowdown persists, the performance of exports could also dip.

What are the basic causes of the present slowdown? After a decade of economic liberalization, things are far from satisfactory. Economic reforms should have led to the elimination of outdated technologies and generated higher energy and material efficiency in the industrial sector. This has not happened. And the efficiency and productivity of sectors like irrigation, mining, power, railways and communications have not gone up significantly.

The government should try to rejuvenate the economy by financing the additional capital expenditure even if it has to downsize the bureaucracy. Borrowing money from international sources may help solve the problem temporarily, but it can also lead to a much larger fiscal deficit. The reluctance of the private sector to invest in the development of infrastructure does not help matters. Measures like low interest credit have done very little to boost the economy.

If the borrowings made from foreign countries are utilized properly, they can help jump-start the economy. Public funding can actually boost private investment.The only way that the government can attract more investment is by reducing red-tapism and bringing early clearance to most projects.

   

 
 
NEW FOCUS ON TREATMENT 
 
 
BY MONI NAG
 
 
AIDS is a fatal disease that threatens human population all over the world. It represents the late clinical stage of infection with a virus called HIV which caused 30 lakh deaths globally in 2000 alone. According to the United Nations programme for AIDS’ estimate, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in India at the end of 1999 was 37 lakh, second only to South Africa’s 41 lakh.

Despite billions of dollars spent on bio-medical research, so far there is no curative drug or preventive vaccine for AIDS. But during the last three to four years, a few drugs, which can prolong the productive life of people living with HIV/AIDS, have been discovered and patented by some multinational corporations in Western countries.

But these drugs, which have to be taken in various combinations a few times every day, are so expensive (about $7,000 to $15,000 per patient a year in the United States) that countries like India have not so far even considered using them in their AIDS control programmes. Most developing countries, however, have by now initiated AIDS prevention programmes with varied degrees of success.

Three recent events have changed the perspective regarding HIV/AIDS in developing countries. A few Indian drug manufacturers have offered to sell anti-AIDS drugs at significantly lower prices than those of Western MNCs. Some powerful MNCs— possessing patents of anti-AIDS drug cocktails— have withdrawn a long-standing lawsuit against the South African government’s legislation allowing import of generic substitutes at much lower costs. And the UN has announced a general assembly special session on AIDS to be held in New York during June 25-27. These three events have been widely publicized and have raised realistic hopes that developing countries can also start limited programmes for the care and treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS along with their expanded prevention programmes.

In early February this year, Cipla, a major player in the Indian pharmaceutical industry, offered to sell a cocktail of three generic anti-AIDS drugs — stavudine, lamivudine and nevirapine — for $350 per patient a year to the Nobel prize-winning non-governmental organization called Medicin Sans Frontières and for $600 to interested countries. Mumbai-based Cipla was established in 1935 and has by now factories in four locations approved by the World Health Organization, United States federal drug agency and a few other foreign agencies.

MNCs manufacturing anti-AIDS drugs justify their extraordinary high profit margin in the name of huge expenditure incurred by them in inventing new drugs. But immediately after Cipla made its offer, the prices started coming down drastically. Three big drug-makers— Merck, Abbott and Bristol-Meyers Sqibb— came up with one international price ($750) for the developing countries.

Cipla’s offer has not yet been matched by any MNC. However, two other Indian firms have done so. Hetero has offered the package for $347 and Aurobindo Pharma for $297. Dr. Y.K.Hamied, the founder-chairman of Cipla, is confident that by 2003 the drug cocktail could cost little less than $200. The MSF has already started using the drug obtained from Cipla in its AIDS treatment project in Cambodia and proposes to do so in about 10 other countries. These developments have changed the concept of HIV/AIDS care in the third world. Until recently, international agencies, governments, donors, NGOs, academics, physicians and AIDS-activists were talking only of how to prevent HIV/AIDS in developing countries. Now they have started to also discuss care of those who are already infected in terms of treatment — a privilege limited so far mostly to those infected in the industrialized countries.

The second important event was the decision taken on March 20 by some powerful MNCs possessing patents for anti-AIDS drugs to drop their protracted lawsuit against the legislative efforts of the South African government to import generic versions of anti-AIDS drugs available at considerably lower prices. The MNCs argued that some companies in developing countries are unfairly copying drugs that cost them millions of dollars for several years of research conducted by very high-level scientists and for marketing the products. But worldwide pressure of numerous NGOs, governments and international agencies on MNCs to withdraw their lawsuit compelled them to do so. It has paved the way for other developing countries handicapped by MNCs’ patent rights on branded anti-AIDS drugs to follow South Africa’s example.

The third event raising some hope for people living with HIV/AIDS and also for its prevention programmes is the announcement that a UNGASS on AIDS will be held in New York during June 25-27. This is the first time that the UN has called for a special general assembly session on a specific disease. In a speech delivered at the African summit on HIV/AIDS held in Nigeria during the last week of April, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, laid out a solid basis for a global attack on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. He called for a global fund to fight these diseases and added, “At a minimum, we need to be able to spend an additional seven-to-ten billion dollars a year on the struggle against HIV/AIDS in the world as a whole, over an extended period of time.”

The total amount of money spent on AIDS in developing countries last year was $1 billion — a sum not even sufficient for adequate prevention programmes. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the group of world’s seven largest industrialized countries have already endorsed the idea of a global fund. Bill Clinton has suggested that the US government should contribute a quarter of the global fund proposed by Annan. It is hoped that the fund will be formally established in the forthcoming UNGASS on AIDS.

A critical issue likely to be debated in the UNGASS is how much of the total fund available for HIV/AIDS is to be spent on its prevention and how much on the care, including treatment, of those already living with HIV/AIDS. Some AIDS experts in developing countries have expressed their concern that the recent publicity about price reduction of anti-AIDS drug cocktails may divert attention from the urgent need of expanding and strengthening prevention programmes. For example, Fred As, the top AIDS expert in Ghana, commented that the devastation caused by AIDS cannot be overcome by drug cocktails and that it can only be done by “education, preventive health measures and creating better health standards”.

According to J.V.R. Prasada Rao, the director of the Indian government’s National AIDS Control Organization, the estimated cost of treating only five per cent of people living with HIV/AIDS in India even at the reduced rate would be around Rs 1,300 crore annually. This is more than the Central government’s total annual budget for public health. He hopes, however, that a limited treatment programme for a few specific categories of HIV-infected people, who need immediate treatment but cannot afford its expense, would be possible with assistance from the proposed global fund.

In a meeting of 30 AIDS experts held in Mont Perelin, Switzerland, in the second week of May, Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS, said: “The world does not need to make a choice as to whether to care for AIDS patients or prevent the spread of AIDS” because “ the two are complementary and work in tandem — this is not an either/or situation.” This statement will hopefully set the tone of discussion in the UNGASS on AIDS. Presuming that a global fund would be established in the UNGASS, the needed contributions from expected donor agencies would be readily available and funds would be allocated fairly to countries according to their needs, and each of these countries has to set its own priorities regarding AIDS prevention and care.

The ultimate eradication of HIV/AIDS is only possible through long-term, comprehensive and effective prevention programmes, but those already infected with HIV should not be left totally uncared-for and abandoned to a wasting death when anti-AIDS drugs are not as unaffordable as in the recent past and drugs for treating the opportunistic diseases related to HIV/AIDS are not very expensive.

   

 
 
THE POLITICS OF PROCURING FOOD 
 
 
BY DEVINDER SHARMA
 
 
For a change, the chief ministers deserve praise for stalling the Centre’s dismantling of the country’s remarkable food security network — a massive infrastructure for foodgrain procurement and public distribution.

The threat to dismantle the foodgrain procurement system is real, as the recent developments in Pakistan prove. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Pakistan’s military government has begun lifting its decades-long support price system for key commodities despite protests that this would be disastrous for small farmers.

Once the Indian government withdraws from announcing procurement prices for agricultural commodities, it is under no obligation to purchase the surplus that flows into the mandis. Farmers would thus be left at the mercy of the market forces, thereby threatening the country’s food self-sufficiency, so assiduously built over the past three decades.

The prime minister’s call to the state governments to adopt the system of decentralization of the procurement of foodgrains and distribution was also designed with the objective of dismantling the major plank of the country’s food security system. Addressing the chief ministers at the recent day-long conference in New Delhi, Vajpayee was actually seeking political support, by exhorting the chief ministers to rise above party politics, for a “consensus action plan on some crucial imperatives.”

Stating that World Trade Organization and food management issues were central to the country’s agriculture and the national economy, Vajpayee spelled out an agenda for action, which in reality is nothing short of a recipe for disaster. He proposed to restructure the Food Corporation of India, besides unveiling a new system of decentralized, state-level procurement and distribution. Instead of providing subsidized foodgrains from the Central pool, financial assistance will be provided to the state governments to enable them to procure and distribute subsidized foodgrains to families below the poverty line.

What the prime minister did not specify was that like Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf, he too is under tremendous pressure from the IMF and the World Bank to do away with the foodgrains procurement system. Still worse, the WTO makes it imperative for countries like India to knock down the procurement machinery. Accordingly, grains for the food buffer have to be purchased at the market price and the releases from the buffer have also to be at the market prices, except to those living below the poverty line. In the past two years, the government has tried to “restructure” the public distribution system according to the WTO norms by removing the “above the poverty line” families from being a recipient of the subsidized rations.

The next stage in the process of dismantling the food procurement system is to “decentralize” it. The chief ministers rejected the proposal on grounds that they neither had the required financial resources nor infrastructure to procure, store and distribute foodgrains on their own. Punjab’s Prakash Singh Badal has argued strongly in favour of continuing the present system of procurement.

Badal’s views found strong support from the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu. Naidu felt that the emphasis should be more on increasing FCI’s efficiency rather than on decentralizing procurement and distribution operations. The chief ministers also viewed the WTO regime as a threat to the country’s agriculture.

What prompted the chief ministers to reject the prime minister’s proposal was not only sensible economics but also a kind of politics. The chief ministers have to shoulder the responsibilities for their states. They are aware of the rising dissent against the pro-WTO policies of the Central government. For the chief ministers, accepting the policy of decentralizing food procurement systems, would be equal to committing political hara-kiri. Take, for instance, the recent electoral debacle in Kerala. The Congress’s return to power can be attributed to the growing disenchantment with the communist government’s policy of import of cheaper edible oil, which ruined the income prospects of several households dependent on coconut farming.

In Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had done nothing to counter the negative impact of cheaper agricultural imports as well the rising unemployment from WTO-related policies. Thousands of small-scale weavers were driven out of their meagre jobs, and finally led to suicide.

The likes of Badal and Naidu know that any tinkering with the food management system will have an immediate negative impact on the farmers as well as the consumers.

Food procurement was one of the planks of the “famine-avoidance” strategy that India had adopted in the wake of the Green Revolution. This policy, along with others, helped India to emerge from the dark days of ship-to-mouth existence. The IMF and the World Bank have their reasons to oppose it. India’s massive food production is coming in the way of the expansion of the food trade that the United States and the European Union are looking for. If the US does not find an assured food market in India, with one sixth of the world’s population, the chances are that its own agriculture will collapse under the artificial weight of its own federal subsidies.

The US knows its economic interests. Sadly, while the US is trying to protect its own farmers, India seems bent on protecting the interests of the American farmers. This is the crux of the problem.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Manning the cabinet

Sir — For all Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s talk of transparency and accountability, his cabinet is unlikely to be any different from that of his predecessor, Jyoti Basu, in terms of being remote-controlled from a building in Alimuddin Street. In fact, given that Bhattacharjee does not have the towering public stature of Basu, his proposals will probably be vetoed at will by the Alimuddin Street powermongers. This was made amply clear on the day the new cabinet was sworn in, with the second most prestigious ministry going to “organization man” Nirupam Sen. And now, by orders from Anil Biswas, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ministers have been asked to set targets for their ministries and submit their plans not to the chief minister, but to Nirupam Sen. Call it division of labour, but that does not adequately explain why the responsibility had to be given to a first-time minister, and not to a senior minister. This is just another way of letting people know that the red reins are not likely to slacken yet.
Yours faithfully,
Debkanta Maitra, Calcutta

Retire in style

Sir — Available figures reveal that more than 11.5 per cent of the 6.36 lakh employees of public sector banks have opted for voluntary retirement schemes. The average cost per employee works out to Rs 10 lakh. Some foreign banks have offered Rs 19 lakh to each of their non-executive staff who opt for VRS. All this is to downsize the staff of banks where managements feel that the workload per employee is far below optimum.

Side by side, we come across recruitment advertisements by private sector banks looking for VRS optees. Thanks to government policies, the banking sector is opening up and job opportunities are going up for former bank employees, irrespective of their performance so far. Post-VRS, the trade unions of various categories of employees of the State Bank of India are agitating for fresh recruitments in place of VRS optees.

With the payments to meet VRS commitments, there is going to be a vast erosion of the capital of public sector banks, and that will comprise public money. Many retired employees are going to be re-employed with a mid-career bonanza of millions of rupees, while there will hardly be any jobs for qualified unemployed young people without experience.

The Indian labour laws protect only employees of the organized sector, including bank employees, who comprise barely seven per cent of the total employed population. Coupled with that is the preference of the managements of banks for former bank employees over freshers. This way, there is unlikely to be any drastic improvement in the performance of banks.

Perhaps there was no need to implement VRS when the bank employees had, in any case, the choice of opting for jobs in other banks.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Chanda, Calcutta

Sir — Jawaharlal Nehru, who dreamt of transforming India into a socialist state, established public sector units as the core sector of the economy. New townships and industrial centres, schools and hospitals were set up by each PSU to achieve the social objective. The dream was to put public sector organizations in commanding positions in the economy, as the foundation of an egalitarian society.

This vision has gone awry in the last few decades with the growth of militant trade unions and the decline in work culture. Most PSUs have fallen sick or have become heavily dependent on government patronage. With the burden of subsidy growing, the government plan of voluntary retirement to prune surplus labour came into being in 1991-92, around the same time that the liberalization schemes were introduced. Never has the scheme received an encouraging response from the trade unions. Over time, changes have been made in the VRS schemes to make them more attractive to the workers, so that they opt for it rather than face eventual retrenchment.

Of late, workers have realized, despite the trade unions saying otherwise, that the pay packets and privileges that VRS offers are better than the prospect of eventual retrenchment. The response of the employees of nationalized banks has provided a tremendous boost to the VRS scheme. Eight thousand employees of nationalized banks have accepted it. The workers and managers of Hindustan Vegetable Oil Corporation welcomed the introduction of VRS within 90 days of the operations of the scheme.

This development cannot be considered a victory for the government. The closure of the large Hindustan Oil Corporation, with huge land assets, will help the government plug the continuous cash loss on account of the sick PSUs. The government cannot expect spectacular results here, but it must exhibit the political courage to retrench surplus employees if they refuse to accept the VRS.

State governments put obstacles in the way of privatization and the effective implementation of VRS schemes in their states for purely political reasons. The industrial policy of 1991 must be carried further to arrest the drain on the public exchequer. The national renewal fund, initiated by Manmohan Singh and withdrawn by the present government, needs to be re-introduced to provide post-retirement back-up in the form of re-training and deployment of skilled persons opting for the VRS.

Yours faithfully,
C.M. Mahapatra, Vishakhapatnam

Wrong station

Sir — In “Copter home truths for Fernandes” (April 18), Kay Benedict reports that “To help [George] Fernandes’ chopper to land, Mamata had got the railways to build a helipad in Midnapore.” This is not correct.

As Midnapore station falls within the jurisdiction of South Eastern Railways, it is unequivocally stated that the railway authorities did not construct a helipad in Midnapore for the landing of the helicopter of the former defence minister, George Fernandes. It may be further clarified that there were no instructions whatsoever from Mamata Banerjee, the then minister for railways, to any railway authority to construct such a helipad in Midnapore. The helicopter landed in a helipad of West Bengal and the entire coordination of the trip was done by the government of West Bengal. Therefore, the railway administration was in no way concerned with the helicopter trip of Fernandes, neither did it construct any helipad in Midnapore for this purpose.

Yours faithfully,
B.K. Joshi, Chief public relations officer, South Eastern Railway

Sir — I am surprised at the way government railway police conducts itself when the railway police force takes action against unauthorized hawkers, encroachers and other anti-social elements. Although both aim at maintaining order in areas under the jurisdiction of the Indian Railways, it is disturbing that when the RPF takes action, the GRP often refuses to cooperate citing area of operation or jurisdiction as excuse. Recently the RPF caught a constable running away with a passenger’s suitcase. When the constable was caught, the GRP refused to register the complaint. Again, when the chief security officer (railways) was beaten up by some hawkers at Howrah station, the GRP refused to register the complaint. It would be practical to merge the GRP/RPF to form a unified “railway police force”. Besides eliminating unnecessary controversy, this will also help the state government save superfluous expenditure.

Yours faithfully,
A.S. Mehta, via email

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