Editorial 1/ Planning for what
Editorial 2/ Dial a policy
Return to chaos
A belaboured economy
Cross the border into amity
Fifth Column/ Work Shorter hours, Get more jobs
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ PLANNING FOR WHAT 
 
 
 
 
The planning commission, in a meeting chaired by the prime minister, discussed the approach paper to the tenth five year plan. The approach paper has targeted an annual growth rate of eight per cent for the five year period. The prime minister has accepted this figure, but it seems reluctantly. In his statement, he goes on to say that “even this figure is less than the expectations that have been raised in our society”. It is important to realize that very few countries have managed to grow at such high rates over a five year period, and certainly no country which is as fractured in its views about economic policy as India. It is also possible that very few countries are as enthralled with “target” growth rates as India. Every time that the planning commission releases its approach paper for a new five year plan, there is much discussion of whether the “target” growth rate is an appropriate one. Much of this discussion almost completely ignores the fact that India has hardly ever achieved the targeted figures.

An important reason for this is that the planning commission documents are typically “state of the art” as far as internal consistency is concerned — sectoral figures match to the second decimal point, intersectoral balances are cross-checked, and so on. Unfortunately, this degree of sophistication in consistency is not matched by a corresponding degree of realism. Growth targets may be worked out on the assumption that the savings rate will grow at a stipulated level. But, does the commission bother to spell out the specific policies which will ensure that the country’s savings rate will actually move according to its wishes? After all, the national savings rate depends on the behaviour of a large number of individual households and companies. The rather dismal record in achieving growth targets in the past suggests that the commission spends more time in checking whether its assumptions are realistic.

The current scenario also casts doubts on the very relevance of detailed five year plans of the type that exist in India. The public sector no longer occupies the commanding heights of the economy. Production decisions even in major sectors such as cement, steel and petrochemicals, having a lot of forward and backward linkages, are increasingly being taken by the private sector. This means that the government finds it difficult to control the pattern of resource allocation. It can only seek to influence it indirectly through tax policy. This problem is aggravated by the growing integration of the world economy. What happens in the United States or in the European Union has a profound impact on other economies. Hence, this gives individual countries significantly less freedom to chart out their own growth rates. All this suggests that the planning commission would be better occupied in focussing attention on specific sectors. For instance, it could draw up detailed blueprints to ensure availability of drinking water and healthcare facilities all over the country, eradication of illiteracy, and the like. The planning commission also has an important role to play in drawing up projections about infrastructure requirements both for industry and agriculture. These are less glamorous tasks than preparing economy-wide plans, and so it is almost certain that the commission members and its bureaucracy will fight tooth and nail to oppose any attempts to restrict their activities. But that is undoubtedly the direction in which national priorities lie.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ DIAL A POLICY 
 
 
 
 
It’s always good to talk. And politicians can sometimes be good listeners, particularly if there are distressed women on the other end. If the technology is state-of-the-art, then all the better. Women from all over the country recently “communicated”, in a rather ceremonial tele-conference, with women parliamentarians and chairpersons of important national women’s bodies. The human resources development minister was also present. Alarmed by the adverse male-female ratio shown in the latest census report, this was an attempt to put politicians in touch with women “at the grassroots level”, and also to inform these women of the various government policies, programmes and legal provisions regarding problem areas in their lives. The conference lasted for two and a half hours.

Such a pageant reveals significant bureaucratic attitudes. First, the attitude to women. This is characterized by a display of magnanimity, concerned noises regarding domestic violence, dowry, sati and pornography and a firm hope that the public reiteration of words like law, policy and grassroots would somehow stand in for a grasp of, or a sustained commitment to, the complex realities of women’s lives. Second, this reveals common notions of communication between politicians and the public. What is envisaged is a hi-tech diwan-i-aam, a celebration of unabashed tokenism, in which nothing new is heard or said on either side. Third, the immense distance, in India, between “grassroots” complexities and acts or policies calls for nothing short of satellite technology for trying to connect these separate realms. Fourth, the attitude to new technology in the dissemination of information, and in governance. There is a touchingly child-like fascination with, and faith in, such gadgetry as video conferencing, laptops and satellite links that make the dreary business of being a politician or bureaucrat so much more impressive, and also a lot more fun. Invitations to playing agony aunts in phone-in shows might occasionally liven up the human resources drill. When faced with these entertaining options, such basic solutions as the spread of literacy, healthcare and the clearing of judicial backlog, to mention a few, would look very dull indeed.

   

 
 
RETURN TO CHAOS 
 
 
BY S.L. RAO
 
 
This column has been provoked by newspaper reports that V.P. Singh, the former prime minister of India, was reentering active politics after an absence due to ill-health over most of the last decade.

Most of us have successfully pushed into a remote corner of our minds the chaos and confusion of those months in 1990 when V.P. Singh was prime minister of India. We only remember that he was personally an honest man, against whom there have been no charges of corruption except those that were cooked up and seen to be so. Many of us welcomed his selection as prime minister, under the mistaken impression that he was going to lead India into a new era of economic liberalization, with far less of a role for government in the economy.

This was because as the finance minister under Rajiv Gandhi, he took in his budget the first tentative steps towards liberalization and the opening of the economy to outside influences. But it was Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, who took the policy decision. V.P. Singh as finance minister implemented it. We credited the wrong person. We should have realized this when V.P. Singh started the “raid raj”, with indiscriminate raids on businessmen and selective leaks to the press. This unleashing of raids on businessmen was in retrospect, not merely “the law taking its course”, but deliberate. He was positioning himself cleverly.

At that time in India, being anti-rich and apparently therefore pro-poor, was the accepted nostrum for political success. That you were a former raja, or lived an affluent lifestyle, was not the relevant issue. What you said was more important. After all, V.P. Singh’s mentor was Indira Gandhi, who by preaching garibi hatao, won an election on a mere slogan, without any rational policies to achieve the goal.

Also, this was a man who was accustomed to condoning and supporting strong arm tactics. He was part of the Sanjay Gandhi crowd, and supported the Emergency. He was the Union commerce minister who signed the order for the takeover of the management of textile mills in Bombay and Ahmedabad, with no compensation being paid, and no agreement on paying creditors and suppliers.

We ignored the fact that he became prime minister by denying the preferred candidate, Chandra Sekhar, and thereby unleashed a chain of events that led to the fall of his government. He struck a deal with party-pooper Devi Lal to become prime minister. That should have given us an idea of the nature of the man.

As prime minister, we saw him paying little attention to the precipitous decline of the economy. But he did create a fateful precedent by releasing terrorists caught after much loss of lives, in exchange for the release of his home minister’s daughter. The release more recently of the Indian Airlines hostages in Kandahar, which many have criticized, followed this precedent, but was unavoidable because so many lives were at stake. The ransom apparently paid to secure the release last year of a film star who was kidnapped because he violated security guidelines given to him, was a direct successor to the V.P. Singh decision about exchanging criminals for his home minister’s daughter.

V.P. Singh promises now to unleash the Mandal report once again, the implementation of which he obviously considers the centrepiece of his contribution to Indian polity.

Let us recall that the Mandal report was based on outdated data. After the 1931 census, questions about caste were not asked, and there was never any certainty that the answers were truthful, and that people did not claim higher caste status than the one to which they were born. Mandal enabled reservation of jobs in government for the “backward” tribes and castes. It has not led to any sizeable increase in their employment in government. It has introduced the principle that jobs, even technical ones, and promotions should be based on birth, and not on merit. Meanwhile precious little was done by V.P. Singh to build capability by improving the opportunities for educational advancement of such people. The rise of these “backwards” to political power in many states cannot be credited to him. It was a natural development in a democracy where they are the majority.

Indeed, the irresponsible government that he ran during a world oil crisis resulted in a loss of credibility in the Indian economy. Foreign exchange reserves fell to almost nothing, there were severe shortages of fuel, inflation was hurting the poor, the government deficit was rising, but the government was like Nero, playing the Mandal fiddle while the country was literally burning. The riots on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere were filmed and shown on television screens around the world, conveying a picture of chaos and confusion, and a breakdown of government.

In subsequent years and whenever he was well enough and not sojourning with a large entourage in London or elsewhere at government expense, Singh continued to preach anarchy. He was against clearing slum clusters on land owned by the government or others. He preferred that families lived dangerously along railway lines or below railway platforms, than that they were evicted and relocated elsewhere. He propagated that the few economic policy changes that had taken place in the Nineties and were labelled as “reforms” had hurt the poor and agriculture.

He is now going to take up the problems of agriculturists. On past record this will mean a continuing rise in procurement prices and subsidies on fertilizers, free or cheap and unmetered electricity to farmers, no rise in water charges, unbridled freedom to farmers to tap ground water, and so on. Of course he will be all for the continuing ownership of even loss-making public enterprises by the government, and the reservation of many products for the small-scale sector. What he will not do is to look responsibly at the tasks of governance and the imperative need to improve social and physical infrastructure in the country, tasks which have to be undertaken by governments.

In the years that we have learnt to do without a politically active V.P. Singh, there has been some movement towards understanding the basics of India’s economic situation by our politicians. By reviving Mandal, Mr Singh will once again make politics and caste the centrepiece of Indian policy, and not economic and other national security concerns. He will probably make contentious political issues about our participation in the World Trade Organization, foreign investment, tax reforms, financial sector reforms, adequate user charges for electricity, water, fuels, and so on, and generally do everything to take us back to the early Eighties.

It is not that I expect a great movement behind Mr Singh as happened with J.P. But we should not underestimate his capacity for creating chaos, given the large number of political groupings, and that so many of their leaders were at one time his followers.

India is slowly emerging from the chaos of the prime minister V.P. Singh years. There is much that needs to be done if our economy is to be productive, efficient and on a continuing path of growth. We cannot afford the wild posturings and pretensions to social engineering of V.P. Singh. Our problem is to improve the living conditions of our people. Their social status will improve only as they get educated and become productive members of society.

The author is former director-general, National Council for Applied Economic Research [email protected]

   

 
 
A BELABOURED ECONOMY 
 
 
BY ABHIJIT BANERJEE, PRANAB BARDHAN, KAUSHIK BASU, MRINAL DATTA CHAUDHURI, MAITREESH GHATAK, ASHOK SANJAY GUHA, MUKUL MAJUMDAR, DILIP MOOKHERJEE AND DEBRAJ RAY
 
 

Perhaps one day we will learn the full story of industrial decline in West Bengal. On current evidence, however, it is not easy to say when things started going really awry. It is true that changes in technology and demand patterns, and the rise and fall of industrial centres are facts of life in a market economy — the Manchesters and the Pittsburghs of the world fade away, yielding place to the Silicon Valleys.

Still, the crude facts of the last twenty years about the relative position of West Bengal are nothing short of stunning. In 1980-81, West Bengal produced 9.8 per cent of the industrial output produced in India. In 1997-98, which is the latest year for which we have the numbers, the share was 5.1 per cent, up from a nadir of 4.7 per cent in 1995-96. Organized sector employment actually declined in West Bengal over the period 1980-97; in particular, employment in the organized private sector went down from 10.84 lakhs all the way to 7.99 lakhs.

A similar pattern shows up when we look at foreign trade: in 1985-86, the Calcutta airport and port handled about 10 per cent of the imports and exports from the country while in 1998-99 that fraction was around 4 per cent. Or to take a measure of the vibrancy of trade, in 1999-2000 the value of cheques cleared in Calcutta was just 6 per cent of the value in Mumbai, compared to 38 per cent in 1980-81. Even in the mid-Sixties, West Bengal was the second most industrialized of the larger states. By 1995-96, West Bengal was a long way down in that list, behind Karnataka and just ahead of Uttar Pradesh in terms of the share of output from industry.

What makes these numbers even more striking is the fact that this industrial meltdown happened in a period of relative peace and political stability in the state after the turbulent Sixties and the repressive Seventies. According to the report, Crime In India 1997, West Bengal was 30th among 32 states and Union territories in terms of the rate of Indian penal code crime (this category includes almost all crimes against private persons and private property) and Calcutta was 23rd among the 23 largest cities. Moreover, this was a period when incomes and therefore demand was growing: per capita gross state domestic product grew at 2.6 per cent per annum in the Eighties and an impressive 5 per cent in the Nineties.

Most remarkably, all this happened in a period when the industrial growth rate in the country as a whole accelerated: the rate of growth of industry value added was 7 per cent in the Eighties and 6.7 per cent in the Nineties compared to 5.5 per cent in the Sixties and Seventies. This was after all the period of the software boom and liberalization, the period that put Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Delhi on the industrial map of India. It would almost seem that West Bengal opted to step off the bus just as everyone else was getting on.

The cliché about West Bengal, the most familiar story of how things could come to such a pass, is of course poor labour relations — who would invest in West Bengal, when they could invest in Maharashtra and Gujarat and buy themselves a much more docile labour force? This is certainly not what jumps out when we turn to the evidence on labour disputes. There was indeed a rash of strikes in the early Eighties: according to the West Bengal labour commissioner there were 78 strikes in 1980, as compared to an average of 22 per year over the period 1990-97. The average number of man-days lost due to strikes in the eight years from 1990 to 1997 was just below 17 lakh. And if we leave out 1992, the one year when there was a really big strike, the average comes down to 6 lakh, which amounts to less than one day per private organized sector employee in a year. The median number is even lower at 3.2 lakh.

It is worth putting these numbers in the context of other Indian states. The one year for which we have data from the other states is 1996. The Indian Labour Handbook tells us that West Bengal had only 16 strikes in that year, which puts it lowest among all the major states. These 16 strikes affected 27000 workers, compared to 143 strikes in Tamil Nadu that affected 37,000 workers, or 129 strikes in Gujarat affecting 120,000 workers.

Now there are a number of possible reasons why these numbers might be misleading. Employers might have had to make huge concessions to avoid strikes, which would of course discourage future investment. This, however, is not what people say about industrial relations in West Bengal. Moreover, it seems inconsistent with the ready willingness of employers in West Bengal to declare lock-outs. On average about 2 crore man-days were lost each year due to lock-outs in the early Nineties. And while that number has come down since, it was still over a crore a year at the end of the Nineties. Indeed in 1996, the one year we can make an inter-state comparison, West Bengal was the national runner-up in lockouts, with 80 lockouts according to the Indian Labour Handbook (and 144 according to the revised numbers issued by the state government). The government of West Bengal numbers also tell us that the number of lockouts in any year in the Nineties did not go below 120 when the median number of lockouts in the other states was less than 20. In 1996, West Bengal was also the state with the highest number of man-days lost due to lockouts.

The fact that there were so many lock-outs suggests a rather different story —- that there were relatively few strikes because employers in West Bengal are very willing to declare lockouts, which put the workers in a relatively weak bargaining position. Employers do not usually like to preemptively lock out a profitable business — the fact that lock-outs were being used so heavily suggests that doing business in West Bengal was not particularly profitable.

A recent joint study by the World Bank and Confederation of Indian Industry based on data from over a thousand firms, provides some support for this view. They only report data for the group of what they call the poor investment climate states. West Bengal, tellingly, is in this group, along with Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. Value added per worker in these states is at least 30 per cent lower compared to what the study calls the best investment climate states (Maharashtra and Gujarat).

Low profitability is however less a cause than a consequence of deeper sources of malaise. The World Bank-CII study tries to assess the contribution of various factors towards low profitability in the so-called poor investment climate states. Their assessments are based on the opinions of surveyed entrepreneurs. It is particularly notable that the entrepreneurs themselves believed that labour market rigidities, represented by over-manning of factories, is less important in these particular states than it is elsewhere in India (excluding the best climate states).

While this is consistent with the evidence, cited above, on the relative weakness of workers in West Bengal, it should not be read as saying that the West Bengal government does not need to grapple with the issues of industrial relations. For even according to these numbers, firms in Maharashtra and Gujarat are much leaner than their counterparts in West Bengal. Moreover, a part of the reason why workers are in a weak position now may be that employers have chosen not to make use of labour-intensive technologies — which of course hurts both workers and employers. And the fact that workers in West Bengal are less aggressive than they used to be after all these years of industrial decline, is no guarantee that industrial strife will not pick up as soon as growth revives.

Finally and most important, strikes and over-manning are not the only cost of poor labour relations. If poor relations within the factory translate into a lazy or opportunistic labour force, productivity will suffer. If management has a lot of bargaining power, this might not hurt them so much; it will be the workers who will pay the price in terms of lower wages. Indeed we learn from the World Bank-CII report that wages are 25 per cent lower in the poor industrial climate states compared to the best states.

Instead of labour relations, the report goes on to cite over-regulation, poor infrastructure and lack of skills as the most important problems faced by the poor industrial climate states. Over-regulation is measured in the survey by the average number of visits to an industrial unit by a government inspector. There are almost twice as many visits in any given year in the poor investment climate states compared to the best states. While it is true that these visits are often a waste of time and have the potential of leading to corruption, it is somewhat difficult to believe that it is the visits themselves that are holding these states back (except perhaps in the case of very small firms, an issue which we will touch upon later in this article). One suspects that the direct effect of these regulations is dwarfed by the effects of what they represent — a government that is regulation-happy is much less likely to cooperate effectively with investors. Eliminating inspector visits will only help if it signals a true commitment to investor-friendly governance.

   

 
 
CROSS THE BORDER INTO AMITY 
 
 
BY N.K. PANT
 
 
The summit between the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, is still a few days away and it is not surprising to see the Indian media going berserk about the “momentous” event. From the day the prime minister sent his historic invitation to the general for talks in New Delhi, there has been no dearth of news stories and front page coverage of the event in our newspapers.

Now that Musharraf’s mid-July itinerary has been finalized, the places he will visit at Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Ajmer are being cleaned up with unprecedented vigour. Of course, this facelift comes much to the relief of the hapless local residents, who could never have hoped for this otherwise. Five- star hotels in Agra are competing with one another for the honour of offering the prestigious presidential suite to the guest from Islamabad. This has, by and large, created an atmosphere of friendliness and cordiality towards Pakistan among the people.

The most surprising development was sparked off by Musharraf himself, hitherto the self-appointed chief executive of the country, who decided to “promote” himself to the post of president for a five year term. This has unsettled many in Pakistan and outside. Most Western democracies have not yet been able to come to terms with it. But India has displayed more than enthusiasm about it. Perhaps New Delhi has no other alternative because it seriously intends to do business with the president who also happens to be the chief of army staff.

But what business can India do with Pakistan over Kashmir? The external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, has already made his intentions clear by declaring that the entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir including the portion occupied by Pakistan is an integral part of India and that Parliament had passed a resolution to this effect. In a spirit of give and take, New Delhi can let Pakistan retain the portion occupied by it. The idea will possibly appear preposterous to Islamabad but it should be keen to accept it.

President Musharraf, if he has the backing of the army, should be in a position to hold aloft the olive branch and display the political will to accept such an arrangement. In the past, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is reported to have given verbal assurances to this effect.

There will certainly be a violent backlash in Pakistan if such an arrangement of maintaining the status quo is accepted at the summit. If this happens, Pakistan should be able to withstand the turmoil. The mainstream political parties may protest just for the sake of it but the rightist fundamentalist parties and jihadi groups may resort to violence. But with time, people will come to terms with the circumstances in the interest of peace and economic progress. When politicians like Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif were at the helm of affairs, they did not dare to take such bold decisions in the face of disapproval from the military, which was then opposed to the normalization of ties with India.

The alternative is to put Kashmir in the freezer, and to concentrate on confidence-building measures. Trade is one area which needs attention. While India had accorded the “most favoured nation” status to Pakistan in matters of trade, Pakistan is yet to reciprocate. It will benefit immensely from such an arrangement.

There have been positive signals from Pakistan about allowing the proposed 2,700 kilometre long Indo-Iran gas pipeline to pass through its territory. Iran has reportedly promised to pay eight billion dollars as transit fee. The project could fetch an income of 14 billion dollars for Pakistan in the next three decades.

There is also a need to evolve a reliable mechanism against a possible nuclear flare-up in the subcontinent. Also, both the nations need to combat the threats of terrorism, drug and arms trafficking together. They can also cooperate in the fields of environmental protection, flood control and power generation.

The foremost requirement at the moment is the initiation of CBMs because distrust has taken very deep root since Partition. Pakistan is under intense pressure, not only from the United States and the European Union but also from influential Arab countries to make peace with New Delhi.

China has a serious dispute with India over the Himalayan borders. But the Chinese policy of late has been to concentrate on normalization of relations in other spheres while going slow on the border row. Pakistan should take a lesson from Chinese realpolitik.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ WORK SHORTER HOURS, GET MORE JOBS 
 
 
BY GWYNNE DYER
 
 
For Americans who work long hours, get only two weeks holiday a year, and live under a system that defines job security as a Socialist Vice, the apparent success of the French experiment is a puzzle and an affront. For Japanese, who work even longer hours, don’t dare to take even the miserable ration of holidays they are entitled to, and are busily dismantling their old system of lifetime jobs, it is as alien as the work patterns of the Ottoman seraglio.

But it seems to be working.

Three years ago Martine Aubry, then employment minister in the French government, sponsored a law that reduced the working week in France from 39 hours to 35 hours — with no corresponding cut in wages. All the orthodox economists predicted that it would wreck French competitiveness, discourage foreign investment, and destroy jobs.

President Jacques Chirac, a rightwing politician compelled to “cohabit” with a leftwing parliamentary majority, condemned Aubry’s law as “ideologically obsolete”. She pushed the law through anyway, and it has already been applied to six million employees of larger French companies. There will be little opposition when the law is extended to firms employing less than twenty people next year, for the economy is doing just fine.

French wisdom

The French economy has grown at a healthy rate every year since the present centre-left government led by the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, came to power in 1997, and France is second only to Britain among European countries in attracting foreign investors. As for the key issue of creating new jobs (Aubry’s main motive for cutting the working week), France’s unemployment rate has come down from 12.6 per cent in 1997 to 8.5 per cent.

This flies in the face of what the French would call “Anglo-Saxon” economic wisdom: the rightwing consensus, ushered in by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, which holds that in economic matters, less is more. Less regulation and lower taxes are the secret to higher profits and faster growth and thus — on the “horse-and-sparrow” theory of economics — ultimately to higher employment and better wages even for the poor.

Nothing could be less Anglo-Saxon than cutting the work-week in order to spread the jobs around. To decree that people must go on earning the same amount for their 35-hour week — or, to be strictly accurate, their 1,600-hour year — as they used to get for a 39-hour week is state intervention with hobnailed boots. How annoying when it actually works.

France now has the lowest unemployment rate for 18 years, and Jospin’s government claims that the shorter work week has helped to bring it down. Last year the French created about 500,000 new jobs, and supporters of the 35-hour week claim that it is responsible for around 280,000 of them.

Believe in the best

It’s not just spreading around the existing jobs, either. All that extra leisure time is creating a new demand for leisure services, from gyms to restaurants to do-it-yourself stores — especially because so many people have used the new flexibility on hours to shift to a four-day working week.

The new flexibility may also help to explain France’s recent big gains in productivity, for renegotiating the working hours has let many firms get rid of old restrictive practices. In return for fewer total hours per year, workers are open to new deals on weekend work, longer shifts, even working during the sacred month of August. Most important, two-thirds of the people on a shorter work-week (including an overwhelming majority of women workers) say that it has improved their lives.

In an analysis of the French strategy, Charlotte Thorne of the Industrial Society, a British-based think tank, concludes that “despite breaking all the rules in the Anglo-Saxon economics text book, the French are winning their battle with unemployment”. But she adds that “Britain is still in the mind-set that we have to work incredibly long hours....Practically, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have a 35-hour week here, but culturally we are a million miles away”.

If Britain is a million miles away, then the US is at least ten million. As for Japan, we are talking light-years. These arguments aren’t really about economics. They’re about culture, values and belief.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

The cruellest mother of all

Sir — J. Jayalalitha is like a thorn in the National Democratic Alliance’s side (“Avenger Amma’s revenge raj”, July 1). When in the NDA, she proved to be a trouble-maker and an embarrassment to the alliance, and when out of it, she is none the better. Irrespective of the corruption cases filed against the erstwhile chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, nobody can deny that the way in which he and some other ministers have been assaulted and manhandled by the state police was in blatant violation of human rights. Jayalalitha has an election to fight in the coming months to prove her legitimacy and nobody knows what will come out of it. Naturally, she is keen on getting her promised revenge in case and before her time runs out. If she is allowed to get away with this and it becomes the leitmotif of her government’s policies, there is very little hope for Tamil Nadu politics. The NDA is once again in a tight spot about the constitutionality and legality of her actions and has to devise ways and means of getting out of this new crisis.
Yours faithfully,
Rina Chawla, Calcutta

A sense of belonging

Sir — The Telegraph, when it brought out the Guwahati edition, was like a breath of fresh air to newspaper readers in Guwahati. Before long, it became very popular. But Chandrima Pal’s article, “I am a legal alien” (Jun 23), has left me depressed. That a paper of your stature should carry such an article was disappointing.

I wonder what message Pal was trying to send across by persuading a few people, supposedly from Assam, to whinge about the pitiable conditions they live in in the big cities. Ipshita Baruah, Vidisha Baruah and Madhumita Baruah of Assam cannot be the representatives of all the young people of the Northeast.

If indeed these students have become objects of curiosity in the campuses of Delhi and Calcutta, so are the youngsters from Delhi and Calcutta in the college and university campuses across the globe in cities like New York, London and Melbourne. Most young Assamese people and those from the other states of the Northeast who are working and studying outside the region, in the country and abroad, are no less intelligent, smart or modern in their worldviews.

They are also independent — something that cannot generally be said about the rest of the country with their innumerable problems with eating habits, social inhibitions (which are explained away conveniently as being ways of retaining one’s culture).

Young people from the Northeast live all over the world and are employed in a variety of professions such as engineering, bus-driving and flying aircraft. Some are even employed as soldiers. In fact, they have adapted themselves to the societies of developed countries with much more ease than the others from the rest of the Indian mainland. And perhaps because of that, they are not as conspicuous to the other Indians abroad who have themselves become objects of curiosity.

If a Vidisha Baruah from Assam is scared to open her mouth because of the fear of making a fool of herself, before those whom she perceives to be smarter than she, and suffers from a feeling that she “comes from nowhere”, it speaks of a problem with her own intellectual development and self-confidence and not that of the young people of the Northeast in general. It is unfortunate that Chandrima Pal chanced upon three such unfortunate young girls from Assam who were also perhaps looking out for an agony aunt when they met her.

Even more appalling was a letter subsequently published in The Telegraph by Arundhati Kakati, “Foreigners in the city” (June 28), in which she describes her discomfiture because the Assamese are expected to “look” different.

Yours faithfully
Dhruba Jyoti Sarma, Guwahati

Sir — In discussing an issue related to the lives of students who come to big cities from the Northeast, this article was a sensible gesture from The Telegraph. For years, newspapers have completely ignored these students who come from other states but live here because they attend institutions of higher learning. More than the contents of the article, what is impressive is that such an issue has been given this coverage.

Many of us, who are students, feel a sense of belonging to the mainstream if the media bring up issues related to us, and especially so, if a national newspaper takes up our case. Most other students from the Northeast, at least those I know, have read the article. But these token gestures will not go too far unless a deeper discrimination by “mainstream” Indians is not curbed.

Yours faithfully,
Laldinkima Sailo, Calcutta

Take them to task

Sir — I found the article by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, “Of mice and men” (June 22), an incisive and thought-provoking piece of writing. One wonders if anyone in the “do it now” ministry of West Bengal would bother to read it and infer the message it attempts to send out. In all likelihood this will not happen and we will continue to witness the meaningless sloganeering the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has started unleashing. However, in his excellent article, Mukherjee makes an unsettling comment.

He writes, “Teachers of Jadavpur University have to now undergo the humiliation of signing attendance registers.” While it is very well understood that intellectual output cannot be measured by the hours spent at the place of work, it should not become axiomatic that members of the intelligentsia remain outside the ambit of discipline and work ethics. Why should college and university teachers not sign attendance registers? Are they so exalted that they cannot be subjected to the most minimal form of regulation?

If they are outside the campus on some legitimate work such as research, academic seminars and the like, they may very well explain their absence from campus and ask for leave. However, in the current milieu such “humiliations” can hardly be imposed upon these people. Unfortunate is the taxpayer who pays for their salaries and perquisites.

Yours faithfully
Joydeep Nondy, via email

Sir — It was heartening to hear about Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee being very generous by promising to allot a piece of land to the celebrated beautician, Shahnaz Hussain, to enable her to develop a centre for Ayurvedic treatment (“At home with business and beauty”, June 17).

Even though this Ayurvedic treatment would not be a complete remedy for all problems, it could surely reduce the intake of allopathic drugs, most of which have harmful side effects. If chief ministers like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee encourage the growth of Ayurveda, it will not take much time for the advancement of research in this area.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — The news item, “Fortune favours the first” (June 29) reflected the truth. I am an avid viewer of quiz shows, especially Kaun Banega Crorepati and Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke. There is no doubt in my mind that KBC is a better show in comparison with JCPK. Besides, the way KBC is conducted displays an openness which is lacking in JCPK. More than six months have passed since the time this programme has started being telecast, but how the participants are selected is still a big mystery. I remember only one instance when Sony asked for the names of participants which was about four months ago. There is no address given, either postal or electronic, to which viewers can write in order to express their views and comments.
Yours faithfully
N. Sarkar, via email

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