Editorial 1/ Line of action
Editorial 2/ Cut ot the quick
Enron revisited
Musharraf at home and on the road
At the top of the international agenda
fifth column/ growing more food on less land
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ LINE OF ACTION 
 
 
 
 
Neither excessive optimism nor sheer folly can be adequate excuse for the hope that the militants in the Kashmir valley will change their spots. Yet 15 men from a village in Kishtwar in the district of Doda seem to have fallen victim to some such hope. It was clear from the dramatic killings of Amarnath pilgrims and the murder of villagers in the Doda district immediately after the Agra summit that there is now more, not less, need for vigilance in the valley. The failure of the Agra summit was obviously a gift for the militants. In the first place, no check on their activities was likely to come from Pakistan. On the contrary, continued murder and destruction in the valley would help vindicate the Pakistan president’s insistence that bilateral talks cannot proceed without identifying Kashmir, and only Kashmir, as the central issue. Mr Pervez Musharraf’s pious outrage at the latest massacre sounds hollow when placed in the context of his declared belief in the genuineness of the jihad. As does that of the Hizbul Mujahedin. Their insistence that the militancy is an expression of the Kashmiri people’s aspirations has long lost its sting. A people’s aspiration cannot be brought to fruition by systematically killing them off. The strong communal bias in the murders gives these incidents a further disruptive dimension. By keeping the blood flowing in Kashmir, directly or indirectly, Pakistan can keep its own people from looking too carefully at their own condition. This double game of politics and terrorism can be played out only in a free field of helpless victims. The militants, whether of the Lashkar-e-Toiba or some other group, are enthusiastic participants in the game. And the villagers in the valley, with the poor provision of village defence groups armed with shoddy firepower, still provide the necessary fodder.

It is strange that a parliamentary committee on home affairs should comment anew on the “unending plight” of the people of Kashmir and plan defences afresh. It has to be admitted that the enormous deployment of military and paramilitary forces in Kashmir has not been able to achieve all that it should. There is still a shocking failure of intelligence. There has been enough time to push vigilance and armed resistance to fever pitch, and arrange for meticulous coordination between intelligence gathering and preventive action. After Amarnath, and the first post-summit bout of killings in Doda, there can be no excuse for this one. Not that there has been no violence in the interlude. Cross-border terrorism, on the scale that it occurs in Kashmir, is not easy to tackle. But it is neither new nor unexpected. Without an unflinching strategy of counter-terror, innocent people will keep on dying violent deaths in the valley.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ CUT OT THE QUICK 
 
 
 
 
It is always disconcerting to be jolted out of a habit of dependence. Vice-chancellors of several universities in West Bengal have recently expressed alarm and indignation with the state government for having cut down, quite drastically, its grants to these universities. This has been done suddenly, and most of these grants were towards the salaries of the teachers and other staff. In some cases the amount, compared to the last financial year, has been reduced by as much as Rs 12 crore. The consequent anxieties touch upon not only the payment of salaries, but also the sustenance of essential research facilities and even such basic expenses as the payment of electricity bills. The situation feels desperate enough to most of these vice-chancellors for them to have appealed to the minister for higher education in the state asking for a 10 per cent raise in the grants, as used to be the custom in each budget.

This feeling of having been left in the lurch is understandable. But the fact remains that the universities will have to now learn to think of working themselves out of the subsidies mindset. The delinking of certain institutions from the umbrella of the state is not simply a matter of implementing essential economic reforms, but involves larger questions of other kinds of autonomy. It is true that the state must not make its manner of withdrawal arbitrary and opaque. The habit of dependence from which the universities are being weaned had been nurtured, in the first place, by the state itself. Hence, it certainly has some rudimentary responsibilities in easing the process for these institutions. But arranging for and sustaining alternative sources of funding call for a concerted innovativeness in the administrators of these universities. Vice-chancellors will have to think of themselves as active fundraisers. Devising new means of raising money could be an entirely good thing for most of these institutions. This could involve not only optimizing the use of university-owned property (particularly applicable to the University of Calcutta), but also thinking up ways of tapping into the generosity and resourcefulness of, say, the alumni. This has yielded rich dividends in American and European universities, and there is no reason why such methods could not be initiated in Bengal. There could be another advantage of this withdrawal of subsidies. The universities can now legitimately hope to have to put up with less political intervention from the Left Front government in their running. The profoundly unhealthy influence of certain political parties in the matter of recruitment at every level of the teaching and non-teaching staff has been inimical to academic excellence in most of these institutions. Universities learning to fend for themselves could be a very good way of rooting out this malaise. The vice-chancellors will have to think, and act, beyond the habitual and the myopic.

   

 
 
ENRON REVISITED 
 
 
BY S. VENKITARAMANAN
 
 
The Enron controversy has become a matter of national and international significance. The controversy has led to doubts being cast on the credibility of the government of India’s guarantees and therefore caused erosion in the confidence of foreign investors. The United States has, in its recent discussions with various Indian delegations, highlighted its serious concern on the fallout of India’s reneging on its counter-guarantee for the Enron project.

It is important that India acts upon the responsibility, which it has taken, as a consequence of the counter-guarantee it issued to the project. The counter-guarantee, in effect, assures that payments would be made to Enron as and when due according to the power project agreements. It is, indeed, regrettable that the magnitude of the impact of the potential violation of the agreement does not seem to have been realized in full by the government of India.

In this context, it is worthwhile looking into the history of the negotiations with the Dabhol Power Company. I do so with special reference to the judgment of the Bombay high court, delivered on the public interest litigation raised before it on the project. While the judgment of the Bombay high court did not give the sought-for relief to the petitioners by throwing out the power project agreement, it had sufficient sting in its obiter dicta to make the government hang its head in shame.

The Bombay high court particularly referred to the committee under the chairmanship of Gopinath Munde, former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. The judges of the Bombay high court had quoted the committee as saying: “The entire negotiation with Enron is an illustration of how not to negotiate, not to take a weak position and how not to leave it to initiate to the other side”.

The Munde committee had gone hammer and tongs at the lack of competitive bidding by the Sharad Pawar government. It also hinted darkly at “several unseen factors and forces, which seem to have worked to get Enron what it wanted”. Presenting his deputy’s report to the assembly, the then chief minister, Manohar Joshi, had observed with a flourish that the process by which this agreement had been speedily finalized could be described as “Enron came, Enron saw and Enron conquered.”

After an elaborate analysis of the problems done by the Madhav Godbole committee, which included a representative of the government of India, a detailed report has been drawn up which, amongst other things, recommends a renegotiation to reduce the unconscionably high tariff indicated by the DPC and conceded by the government of Maharashtra. One hopes that the renegotiators learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.

The Bombay high court judgment particularly refers to the speed with which the negotiations were conducted by the Parikh committee, appointed by the Maharashtra government. The judgment deserves to be quoted in extenso: “The speed with which the negotiating group studied the project, made a proposal for renegotiation, which was accepted by Dabhol, and submitted its report, is unprecedented. The negotiating group was constituted by the government of Maharashtra on 8th November, 1995. It was asked to submit its report to the state government by 7th December 1995. The committee, we are told, examined the project, collected data on various similar other projects as well as internal bids, including data on a similar project executed by Enron in the United Kingdom, held considerable negotiations, settled the terms of the revival of the project, got the consent of Enron and Dabhol to the same on 15th November 1995, just within a week of its constitution, and submitted its exhaustive report along with data and details to the government of Maharashtra on 19th November 1995, just 11 days after its formation, much before 7th December 1995, by which date it was required to submit the same. The speed at which the whole thing was done by the negotiating group is unprecedented. What would stop one to say, as was said by the chief minister in the context of the original PPA, Enron revisited, Enron saw and Enron conquered, much more than what it did earlier.”

We are now revisiting the Enron project. I do hope that the Godbole committee, with its tremendous reservoir of experience and integrity, will not invite comments of the type that the Bombay high court had made on the Parikh committee negotiations.

Negotiations with a foreign power company need to be conducted with a great deal of legal preparations. Shardul Shroff, who participated in a seminar at that time in Chennai, had pointed out that foreign power companies are usually assisted by a battery of competent lawyers when they come for negotiations. This contrasts with the rather weak legal assistance, which the Indian side usually has. It is worth re-emphasizing that in the current re-negotiations of tariffs, the Godbole committee should bring to its help an eminent group of lawyers both from inside and outside the country.

It is surprising that the government of India has seemingly kept itself at a distance from the negotiations. It has a great deal at stake in the negotiations. Apart from the impact, which the Enron negotiations will have on future foreign direct investment flows, the direct financial impact on the government’s treasury is itself quite substantial. The defaults of the government of Maharashtra have to be made good by the Centre under the terms of the counter-guarantee.

Even more important is the fact that the financial institutions and the various banks, which are also owned by the government of India, will stand to lose massive sums of money if Enron decides to terminate its contract. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that the government of India takes all this into account when formulating its strategic response to the crisis.

One of the problems is that Maharashtra is not able to absorb all the power that Dabhol produces and hence the tariff is high. Fortunately or unfortunately for us, the country is still in need of power, particularly peaking power. What prevents the surplus power which Maharashtra is unwilling to take from Enron from being sold to other states?

More important than legal impediments, whose solution can be worked out, is the lack of adequate transmission capacity to wheel the power from Maharashtra to other states. The government of India should immediately devise legal and other arrangements and, in particular, strengthen the transmission network to transmit the surplus power to the states in need. Other states will need to agree to pay a reasonable price for the power sold. If the government views this as a national crisis — which it is — it should spare no effort and no expense to make the arrangement to transmit the excess power from the DPC to the national network. This will have two effects. First, it will reduce the amount that the Maharashtra government itself has to find to pay to the DPC. Second, it will bring down the tariff the DPC charges as a result of the plant operating at a higher plant load factor.

Faced by a group of states arguing for lower tariffs, the DPC will surely modify its stance. Both the government of India and the government of Maharashtra have a great deal at stake. Even the misfortune of the Dabhol dilemma would have served a good purpose if it hastens the emergence of an efficient national transmission network.

The Godbole committee has a difficult task. At the same time, the Enron group has few alternatives except the costly one, of termination of contract. It is in the interest of Enron itself to reach a solution. The government of India should proactively exercise its right to participate in the negotiations with full consciousness of its strength and of the benefits that a successful renegotiation will bring not only to Maharashtra but also to the Centre.

Much more is at stake than the interest of the state electricity board. The prestige of the country and large sums of money are involved. Default in the sense of reneging on the contract can lead to downgrading of the credit rating of India itself. As a counter-guarantor, the government of India has the right to make its voice heard in the renegotiation. It has also got the instrumentalities, like the Power Trading Corporation, which can help in the sale of surplus power to other states. A consciously-designed strategy to optimize the results of the negotiation has to be worked out in advance by the finance ministry and the ministry of power before entering into re-negotiations with the DPC.

Here is to wishing the Godbole committee success in its complex task of renegotiating the most expensive agreement ever entered into in India’s history. Any failure of renegotiation will spell disaster for the entire investment climate and spoil the fiscal health of Maharashtra and India. On the contrary, its success can send a positive signal to all foreign direct investors, apart from relieving the fragile finances of both the governments of India and Maharashtra.

The author is former governor, Reserve Bank of India

   

 
 
MUSHARRAF AT HOME AND ON THE ROAD 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
 
Two structures — grand, glamorous and hugely wasteful — symbolize the interregnum over which Pervez Musharraf presides at home. One is the magnificent, imposing prime minister’s house in Islamabad that Benazir Bhutto began building and Nawaz Sharif completed but never lived in. The other is the 350-kilometre, eight-lane Islamabad-Lahore motorway, the only one of its kind in south Asia and comparable to the highways of the West. This too was Sharif’s glamorous gift to Pakistan — and his home province of Punjab — and cost 12 billion Pakistani rupees. The entire 350-km stretch is fenced off on either side to prevent people and vehicles from straying on to the highway, which is connected to smaller cities on the way. “It’s not a highway, but a symbol of the life of the Pakistani ruling elite — powerful, corrupt, and full of empty grandeur,’’ says Mubashir Hasan, finance minister of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government of the late Seventies.

Just as the empty prime minister’s house symbolizes the vacuum in the political scene, the showpiece motorway, with its thin passenger — and thinner business — traffic, bears an eloquent testimony to the nowhere road of the economy. While the majority of the people still take the old Grand Trunk Road, it is usually the rich in their Japanese cars who travel along the motorway built by a South Korean conglomerate. The real Pakistan lies fenced off on two sides, as if the motorway is a Disneyland strictly out of bounds for the common people. Common people too ride the buses on it, but the image of the grand illusion sticks.

That precisely was what brought him in, General Musharraf has been saying ever since he showed Sharif the door and took over power, first as chief executive in October, 1999, and last June, as president. He was the messiah who had the job thrust upon him to save country and people from the abyss of emptiness to which Sharif had pushed them. True, the economy was tottering and a month before Sharif’s ouster, the International Monetary Fund suspended its lendings to the country for its failure to honour earlier commitments. So Sharif, the hero who rode to power in 1997 with a two-thirds majority for his Pakistan Muslim League in the national assembly, had gone under in a remarkably short time.

Public memory being proverbially short in any country, Musharraf’s men now conveniently suppress the scenario in which Sharif walked. The pre-Sharif economy was as gloomy. When he took over as prime minister in 1997, Pakistan’s total debt was an incredible $51 billion, $30 billion of it owed to foreigners. Debt servicing alone consumed more than 50 per cent of the total taxes collected and 35 per cent of the budget spending. With payments of $3 billion due to foreign lenders within months of his assuming office, Sharif was left with only about $900 million in the national treasury. Sharif’s financial philanderings left the people angry and frustrated, but the mess certainly was not all of his own making. It was a case of institutional collapse.

That precisely was the diagnosis that Musharraf dished out when he came out with his plan for “Devolution of Power and Responsibility’’ in March, 2000. The document opens with a gloomy picture of the nation’s ills, “The non-use, misuse and abuse of our political and administrative systems have led to a profound institutional crisis...The political system has deteriorated as a result of horse-trading and cronyism, the politics of postings and transfers in the bureaucracy, and corruption in licences, contracts, taxes...The political and administrative systems have collapsed.’’

Obviously, the very people who had conspired to make the collapse near-complete were its beneficiaries. The politicians, the civil servants and the army top brass prospered as the people’s sufferings got worse. Nearly two years after Musharraf’s coup, the scene looks hardly less bleak. The growth in the gross domestic product is around 2.6 per cent, one of the lowest since 1988 when Pakistan initiated the IMF-funded structural adjustment programme.

But it was at least better than 1.3 per cent of 1996-97. The first year of Musharraf’s reign (2000-2001) presented the same old picture of revenue shortfalls, current expenditure overruns and development expenditure cuts with a budget deficit of Rs 23.9 billion. An analysis of the federal budget for 2001-2002 shows that unemployment has increased from an average of 3.5 per cent in the Eighties to 5.7 per cent in the Nineties, 6.2 per cent in 1990-2000 and to 6.7 per cent in 2000-2001.

With public sector employment falling sharply due to the restructuring agenda, unemployment is assuming unmanageable proportions. The same budget analysis suggests that poverty has increased from an average of 23.2 per cent in the Eighties to 26 per cent in the Nineties to 35.9 per cent in 1999-2000 and to 40.1 per cent in 2000-2001.

It is curious that, in the backdrop of such official data, the World Bank’s latest report has given a clean chit to Musharraf for getting the economy back on track. The bank approved credit of $ 350 million through the International Development Association in June and another $300-350 million would be made available till June, 2002. According to the report, the Pakistan government is now aiming at an “exceptional financing’’ of $6 billion over the next four years from the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other bilateral donors.

But noted Pakistani analysts do not give much credence to this recovery plan. They argue that the country should make the long overdue transition from a dependent, donor-driven economy to a self-sustaining one. They, in fact, fear that the fresh lease of credits would drive the country deeper into the debt trap. Economists recall that the IMF had agreed to a $1.6 billion three-year loan and other creditors promised an additional $750 million to help Sharif stave off the crisis in late 1997. But neither Sharif nor the economy was saved.

People and pundits are just as worried whether Musharraf’s political and administrative restructuring would save the institutions. Taking the cue from Ayub Khan’s non-party, elected “basic democracy’’, Musharraf has initiated the process of his much-vaunted grassroots democracy. His scale is much larger — Ayub sought to overhaul the political system with about 80,000 “basic democrats’’ (the number was later raised to 120,000); in Musharraf’s scheme of things, there will be 200,000 of the “grassroots democrats’’. Ayub’s “democracy’’ did not work because he did not change the laws to empower his democrats.

Now, analysts wonder if the “grassroots’’ activists were being given too many arbitrary powers that would get them into conflicts not only with the people they are supposed to serve, but also with the provincial assemblies and governments. And there have been allegations of widespread rigging and other manipulations to ensure the victory of government-backed candidates in the local elections.

Leaders of the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, the 13-party platform opposing his rule, fear that the fraud in local elections has been a dress rehearsal for next year’s national assembly polls, after which Musharraf is supposed to hand over power to the civilian government. Not only will he remain president for five years, as he announced when he took over the presidency, but he will also have a government of his choice.

The ruling classes may have cheered his Kashmir bluster and India-bashing. But at home, he has a worse battle on hand than his Kashmir jihad.

   

 
 
AT THE TOP OF THE INTERNATIONAL AGENDA 
 
 
 
 
Global funding for HIV/AIDS programmes is too small, too slow, too fragmented, and comes with high transaction costs. Global cooperation is growing, but remains piecemeal and is sometimes at odds in substance with country priorities. UNAIDS estimates that a basic HIV/AIDS programme in all developing countries would cost at least $9.2 billion per year — six times the current level of investment. To turn back the epidemic and reduce its impact, funding from all sources needs to increase substantially, new partners need to be enlisted, and a country-centred approach needs to become the norm.

To what extent have developing countries assigned HIV/AIDS high priority in their development programmes and budgets or in their requests for external support?...Few national HIV/ AIDS programmes have sufficient scope, authority, and resources to underpin an adequate absorption capacity in the countries receiving assistance. Do these factors create disincentives for donors to increase their commitments?

Overall external aid declined throughout the Nineties to a new low as a share of donor countries’ collective gross domestic products. Although the proportion of ODA committed to HIV/AIDS grew during this time, this growth was largely offset by the overall decline in aid. Estimates remain uncertain, but it seems likely that developing countries and their partners will invest about $1.5 billion on HIV/AIDS efforts this year. UNAIDS forecasts that a basic programme of prevention, care, support and treatment in all developing countries would cost about $9.2 billion per year by 2006. This estimate does not include the cost of improving the health infrastructure in developing countries, an important ingredient for a successful response. Can this goal be met?...

A large share of support for HIV/AIDS still takes the form of discrete projects, which often have their own priorities, timetables and reporting requirements. To what extent is the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS programmes undermined by these methods of delivery? ...

To what extent does the lack of a widely accepted global funding mechanism complicate partnerships, limit contributions from foundations and smaller donors, create the potential for gaps and overlaps in funding, and increase transaction costs?

How many countries have mechanisms for strategically involving communities and civil society or channelling resources to them in sustained and accountable ways?

The past year has brought a sea change in the political context of the global response to HIV/AIDS. At a political level, more developing countries than ever before have publicly addressed the epidemic, and many have increased their own investments. Three landmark sessions with heads of government have taken place in the past six months alone: in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In external funding, many bilateral and multilateral donors have increased their contributions substantially, and a host of foundations and private sector entities have made major new pledges. The international community has also made considerable progress towards establishing a global fund for HIV/AIDS and global health issues. The epidemic now tops the international agenda.

With regard to cooperation, the past five years have seen progress. At the international level, the founding of UNAIDS in 1996 has brought about unprecedented collaboration and consistency in the support of the United Nations system (including the World Bank) to affected countries. The millennium summit development goals, which include HIV/AIDS targets, have been very widely endorsed — the first time that measurable goals for the epidemic have been globally agreed. At the regional level, a number of partnerships have arisen in the past few years, including the Caribbean Regional Task Force on HIV/AIDS (comprising CARICOM and a host of regional institutions and United Nations agencies), the West Africa Initiative, and the International Partnership Against AIDS in Africa (comprising governments of African states, UNAIDS co-sponsors, multilateral organizations, and the private sector). Important specialized partnerships have also been formed among governments, international agencies, bilateral agencies, vaccine manufacturers, research and public health institutions, technical agencies, foundations, and private firms.

This is, in short, the threshold of a new era of global cooperation against the epidemic. The challenge now is to convert this mounting interest rapidly into broader partnerships and new resources.

Extracts from the report of the special session of the United Nations general assembly on HIV/AIDS

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ GROWING MORE FOOD ON LESS LAND 
 
 
BY JAYDEV JANA
 
 
During the last 50 years, the total production of food grains in India has jumped from 51 million tonnes in 1950-51 to the current level of 206 million tonnes, resulting in a self-sufficiency in food. The green revolution ushered in a “reductionist agriculture” which led at first to rapid growth in productivity but has now created crops that are increasingly dependent on higher, more costly and less efficient doses of fertilizer and pesticide.

Indian cultivators are showering their crops with an estimated 90,000 tonnes of around 140 odd pesticides every year. These pesticides leave residues that linger on crops and soil, leach into ground water and streams, get magnified biologically and are an environmental concern. Subsistence and sustainable agriculture are pushed onto marginalized or less productive land, leading to deforestation and erosion. In a recent survey, 75 per cent of food and vegetable samples collected from markets in Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were found to contain significant levels of pesticide residues. In 70 per cent of milk bottles in Maharashtra, DDT and Dieldrin residues have been found to be 4.8 – 6.3 ppm and 1.9 – 6.3 ppm respectively, while the permissible limit for both is 0.66 ppm. According to the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, India accounts for one-third of pesticide poisoning reported from the developing countries.

Double green

The Indian population is likely to reach 1300 crore by 2020 for which about 300 million tonnes of food grains are required. India will therefore be required to produce an additional 5-6 million tonnes of food grains annually. But the green revolution has started waning, making it difficult to obtain the required incremental food production. In the 21st century, ecological access to food seems to be the biggest challenge because of the damage being done to land, flora and the atmosphere. What we need is a new “double green revolution” — environmentally sustainable as well as yield-increasing. It should aim to reap benefits from genetic revolution based on cutting-edge work associated with genetic mapping, molecular markers and biotechnology.

Biotechnology is the tool that will allow us to produce more food on less land, with reduced depletion and damage to water resources and bio-diversity. This technology is not a substitute for conventional plant breeding methods. It is a supplementary tool for producing tailor-made genetically modified or transgenic crops. Insertion of a carefully selected gene into a plant is safer than introducing thousands of genes at once, as commonly occurs during conventional crossbreeding.

Safety first

There are many advantages to GM crops over traditional and crossbred crops. Pest-resistant GM crops, like the Bt crop, limit pesticide usage. Similarly, herbicide-resistant GM crops are also available. The most common GM crops cultivated are soyabean, corn, cotton and canola.

GM crops have a five to 15 per cent increase in yield over non-GM crops. Consumers will also benefit from the development of micronutrients-rich GM food. Golden rice that has been genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, is a case in point. Tata Energy Research Institute in India is collaborating with Monsanto Company on the development of a product related to golden rice — golden mustard oil — that may help alleviate Vitamin A deficiencies in areas where mustard oil is a staple in local diets.

GM crops that appropriate to varied adverse environmental conditions might also be evolved. A scientist at the Bose Institute, Calcutta, has been able to identify the gene responsible for producing a specific enzyme that helps wild rice survive in saline conditions. By inserting the same gene any rice variety can therefore be made salt-resistant. This finding raises the hope for utilization of the long stretches of coastline in India for rice production. With liberal support from the United Nations and the World Bank, a number of transgenic cultivators, that are currently undergoing testing, have been developed in India.

The safety and choice of GM foods have triggered fears and ethical debates, although there is very little evidence so far. GM foods should be marketed only after proper safety testing, quality control and label declaration.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Reluctant to learn

Sir— The Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, may have for the time being successfully silenced his critics with his offer to step down as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance government. But his troubles are far from over. Vajpayee’s unwillingness to learn from past mistakes may have cost him the respect he use to command as a veteran politician. In fact, the downslide began with the Tehelka scandal which exposed the undue influence exerted by officials belonging to the prime minister’s office on the NDA government. Next came the controversial decision to extend the ceasefire without territorial limits with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). The editorial, “Resigned to stay” (Aug 1), is right in pointing out that the prime minister should resign irrespective of all allegations if he thinks he is no longer capable of providing an able government. But using his health and age as excuses is beneath him.
Yours faithfully,
Joyita Saha, via email

Hares and hounds

Sir — With the Congress snapping its ties with the Trinamool Congress and the latter seeking to renew its relations with the National Democratic Alliance, the political scene in West Bengal seems to have changed (“Mamata stability hand for Atal”, Aug 2). The inability of the Congress and the Trinamool Congress to sort out their differences for the welfare of the people of West Bengal has led to the death of the alliance. However, by returning to the NDA fold, Banerjee may run the risk of being seen as bowing down before the wishes of the rebel partyman, Ajit Panja. With Banerjee determined to discipline Panja, unity in the Trinamool Congress seems out of question. Without the Congress, it is doubtful whether Banerjee will be of much use to the people of Bengal whose interests she claims to protect.
Yours faithfully,
Nita Singh, via email

Sir — Very few people will be surprised by Mamata Banerjee’s desire to return to the NDA. The Trinamool Congress leader has never been known for her constancy. She is in the habit of switching loyalties as frequently as it suits her purposes. Even though the honeymoon between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress seems to be over, there is a remote possibility that Banerjee might be persuaded to go back if Sonia Gandhi has her way.

Banerjee’s fickleness has come to the aid of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which had the last laugh in the assembly elections. Not so long ago, she had described the Congress as a natural ally. By describing the Congress as a burden now, Banerjee is undermining her own credibility.

Yours faithfully,
Mohammad Ahtesham Ahmad, Andul

Sir — Her eagerness to rejoin the NDA notwithstanding, Mamata Banerjee seems to be a little lost ever since her party’s defeat in the assembly polls. Instead of planning to return to the NDA, Banerjee should have concentrated on working out her differences with the Congress. Once again, Banerjee has allowed her ego and her lack of political insight to stand in the way of her success in the state.

Yours faithfully,
Udayan Ray, Calcutta

Insensitive

Sir — Providing access to people with disability has been one of the primary concerns of the disability movement. I had travelled by the Indian Airlines flight 402 to New Delhi to attend a National Trust meeting. After landing at Palam Airport, I approached the cabin crew for help. I told them that I could manage the stairs on my own and only required assistance to carry my hand luggage. They reacted as if I had made an illogical suggestion even though an ambu-lift was being provided for disabled persons according to their norms. An elderly person in a wheelchair was also waiting with me.

We had to wait for another 20 minutes for the ambu-lift which then proceeded to pick up two more passengers from another aeroplane. When I finally reached the lounge, almost an hour had passed. My friend who had come to receive me had already left after being misinformed by the Indian Airlines help desk that I had left. While I waited in the lounge, the Indian Airlines personnel started accusing my family and friends of being irresponsible and of leaving a “helpless” and “disabled” girl at the airport at night. My desire to be independent probably did not make much sense to them.

This incident made be realize that very few people in our country possess the sensitivity to understand the problems that are unique to persons with disability. The disabled are usually clubbed together in one category and are referred to as “handicapped”. It is time for the government to take steps that would make it mandatory for officials in all governmental and non-governmental organizations to extend help to the disabled.

Yours faithfully,
Jeeja Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — I am 18 years old. Seven years ago I was on a school excursion in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, with 30 other students. While hiking in the mountains, we were hit by an avalanche. Owing to the accident, I was paralysed from waist down. After spending months recuperating in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, I went to Britain for further rehabilitation. It was there that I saw the facilities provided for disabled people. They are made to feel at ease in restaurants, shopping centres, and hotels.

After taking my A levels from Calcutta International School, I will go abroad for further studies. During the interim I want to do what I can to spread awareness about disability. I enjoy visiting restaurants but find it disheartening to see how many of them are inaccessible owing to narrow flights of stairs, doorways or lifts. Ramps would rectify these problems. It is disturbing to see that even the newly constructed shopping complexes have not made arrangements for handicapped parking. Despite much talk about Calcutta becoming a haven for investors and improving its image as a pro-development city, ignorance coupled with prejudice denies the city’s disabled the simple pleasures of life.

In spite of the existence of the Persons with Disability Act, 1995, not much has happened. The lack of awareness and the apathy of the Central and state governments has led to serious violations of the rights of disabled people.

Yours faithfully,
Snehal Sidhu, via email

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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Calcutta 700 001
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