Editorial 1/ Wobbly Promises
Editorial 2/ Bad Example
Patently confusing
For the new trade wind in the sail
Document/ Each to his own kind of modernity
Fifth Column/ Why food for all remains an ideal
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ WOBBLY PROMISES 
 
 
 
 
The budget promises, with all the reformist hype in part A of the speech, amounted to a masterly exercise in public relations, marketing and packaging. It is not surprising that industry chambers and reformist commentators were happy. Nor is it surprising that with withdrawal sentiments from reform having set in, the backlash has started. The two most significant policy changes announced in the budget were in agriculture and in labour laws. Neither has got off the ground. States have vetoed the idea of the public distribution system being handed over to them, and ally states like Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh have been arguing for hikes in procurement prices over and above those recommended by the committee on agricultural costs and prices. Labour law reforms are stuck because of opposition from trade unions. With elections pending in states such as Uttar Pradesh, power sector reforms and user charges are out of the question. So the 100 per cent metering promised by December 2001 will not happen. Neither has anything happened on implementing the downsizing of government recommendations made by the expenditure reforms commission. Some of these were promised by July 2001, but affected ministries and departments are loath to downsize. This includes the finance ministry.

The less said of disinvestments, the better. Many of the Centrally sponsored schemes, announced with a great deal of fanfare, have failed to get off the ground. The finance minister’s record on these policy changes is thus abysmal. Although equated since 1991 with policy changes, the budget is essentially just a compilation of the government’s annual receipts and expenditure, and the finance minister’s track record on this is worse than abysmal. Following the fiscal responsibility and budget management bill, an attempt was made to slash the fiscal deficit to 4.7 per cent of the gross domestic product and the revenue deficit to 3.2 per cent of the GDP. In all fairness, this was on the basis of tax revenue figures till October, subsequent revenue figures not being available at the time of budget formulation. Subsequent figures have been nothing short of disaster.

The actual estimates for 2000-01 have grown crazy and have two implications for the budget estimates for 2001-02. First, since the base level deficit figures are higher, the promised deficit reductions in 2001-02 become more difficult to attain. Second, since the tax revenue slowdown is bound to continue, the projected 14 per cent growth in gross tax revenues over the revised estimates for 2000-01 (and 22 per cent growth over the now available actual estimates for 2001-02) are impossible. Nor are the non-tax revenue projections likely. The fiscal deficit in 2000-01 was kept under some control by deferring items of capital expenditure. This is not a feasible option this year. In addition, lower GDP figures will blow up the denominator. Hence, what the fiscal and revenue deficits will be in 2001-02 is anyone’s guess and no sleight of hand will bring it down significantly. Use of the new GDP series helps a bit. But otherwise, indications are that the fiscal deficit is at its worst level since 1990-91, which suggests a ratio to GDP of 7 per cent. The GDP growth target of 7 per cent and the fiscal deficit target of 5 per cent have simply got interchanged. Standard and Poor and Moody’s were simply echoing this concern.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ BAD EXAMPLE 
 
 
 
 
Identity is often a matter of self-perception. What the Communist Party of India (Marxist) thinks of itself will determine how it is seen by others. It would appear that the CPI(M) is confused about its own identity. One kind of self-perception is being projected by the chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. According to this, the CPI(M) appears as a responsible party, operating within the limits set by the Indian constitution and keen to draw in investment in West Bengal, the state over which the party rules. But this sits uneasily with the decision to loot the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India to get food for the starving poor. The latter is a feature of a militant party which disregards the rule of law and the constitution. The militancy could only be a matter of rhetoric. But it sounds a message strong enough to alienate investors with an interest in West Bengal. It also assaults the very notion of governance which Mr Bhattacharjee is trying valiantly to establish in West Bengal. What is worse, the CPI(M) is appearing as a role model for other political parties eager to eschew constitutional means of solving problems.

This exemplary position might work to the disadvantage of the CPI(M) in West Bengal. The chief opponent of the Left Front in the state is the leader of the Trinamool Congress, Ms Mamata Banerjee, who needs very little prodding to take to the streets to protest against something or the other. Ms Banerjee now only needs to take a leaf out of the CPI(M)’s books to flout the rule of law. Such actions on her part will not only embarrass the Left Front government but will also give West Bengal a bad name. The last thing that Mr Bhattacharjee needs is the reputation that law and order in West Bengal is fragile and life in the state is frequently disrupted by political demonstrations. Yet, he will have very little to say since his party is showing the way. There is clearly a divergence within the CPI(M) between the responsibilities of governance and the setting of a political agenda. In West Bengal, it is a dilemma of its own making since it has worked towards blurring the distinctions between party and government. How Mr Bhattacharjee and his party resolves this dilemma will determine the identity of the CPI(M).

   

 
 
PATENTLY CONFUSING 
 
 
BY BIBEK DEBROY
 
 
In the basmati heat, myth needs to be separated from reality. There is a patent issue, there is a trademark issue and there is a geographical indication issue and all three are being freely mixed up, contributing to further confusion.

First, under the Uruguay round’s trade-related intellectual property rights agreement, plant and seed varieties must be protected. Article 27.3 of TRIPS says this quite clearly. They have to be protected through patents or a sui generis system (which can be weaker) or a combination, as long as the item under consideration is new, involves an inventive step (is non-obvious) and is capable of industrial application (is useful). It is completely irrelevant that we have messed up internally and the plant and seed varieties bill is languishing somewhere.

Whether we protect plant and seed varieties in India is neither here nor there. The United States does. The Plant Patent Act has protected asexually reproduced varieties since 1930 and the Plant Variety Protection Act has protected sexually reproduced varieties since 1970. Since the Diamond versus Chakraborty case in 1980, genetically engineered plants or seeds have also been patentable, as long as the tests of patentability are satisfied.

In September 1997, RiceTec obtained a patent on basmati rice lines and grains. The US is obsessed with the patent culture. (How many countries have patents built into the constitution?) Patent offices go a bit overboard in granting patent claims. Hence, RiceTec obtained a patent on the basis of 20 sweeping claims. Had these gone unchallenged, imports of basmati to the US could only have been channelled through RiceTec.

Unfortunately, the US patent office does not invite third party objections before granting a patent. Often, the only way to find out whether there has indeed been an invention is to invite objections from rivals and competitors, who are technically more in the know than patent examiners. Indeed, there is a case for India arguing at the World Trade Organization that if intellectual property norms are being harmonized and standardized across the globe, so must the procedures. There must be third party objections, as is the case in India. But as of now, there are no third party objections in the US. Patents can only be challenged after grant, and this imposes sizeable legal and other transaction costs on those who are mounting the challenge. Lawyers don’t come cheap. But if there is a successful challenge, as happen ed with haldi, patents can indeed be revoked.

Through the Agricultural Products Export Development Authority, India challenged the original RiceTec patent in April 2000. Several things happened next. In June 2000, RiceTec withdrew some exaggerated claims. This it did on its own. The US patent office knocked down some other exaggerated claims. And in the August 2001 decision, which has triggered the present controversy, the patent office upheld five claims, numbered 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13 in the original list of claims. Of these, only claims 8, 9 and 11 matter, since these concern the new basmati lines that have improved and new characteristics that were not present in original basmati.

The hybrid strains are different from original basmati in that they are shorter, so that they can withstand high winds in the US. They have also been modified to take care of shorter day durations in the US. Plus, they are better because they have higher yields. They apparently also have better aroma and cooking quality. These three new basmati lines are named Bas 867, RT 1117 and RT 1121, Bas standing for basmati and RT standing for RiceTec. Claims 12 and 13 are for seeds and grains of these new rice lines and are therefore of secondary concern.

Now that the sweeping claims have been whittled down, there should be no objection to the patent. No intellectual property law anywhere in the world, including India, will prevent modifications to existing varieties or disallow patents if there is a significant inventive step. The Indian Agriculture Research Institute has similar hybrid strains of basmati that it now plans to patent. Nor is the fact that the original parental genes came from Pakistan of great relevance. The IARI has used dwarf genes from a Taiwanese variety.

All that has happened is the grant of patents to three new hybrid lines of rice. This is distinct from the issue of what these varieties of rice can be called. Basmati is not exclusively grown in India or Pakistan. It is also grown in the US and Thailand. For 20 years, RiceTec has sold American basmati in the US. Relatively inferior varieties are sold as Texmati, described as American-style basmati rice, while relatively better varieties are sold as Kasmati, described as Indian-style basmati rice. Notice that the grant of the patent has nothing to say about what this rice will be called, except in a very limited way. One of the lines is named Bas 867, with an implicit reference to basmati. Otherwise, the name becomes a trademark or geographical indication issue.

What is a trademark? Defined in article 15 of TRIPS, “any sign, or any combination of signs, capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings, shall be capable of constituting a trademark”. This is, therefore, a company-specific, rather than a country-specific, issue. Trademarks are protected in the US under the Lanham Act of 1946.

A trademark does not have to be registered, although it always helps to do so. 10 per cent of India’s basmati rice exports go to the US. Who exports them? Are they exported as branded products? Have these brands been registered as trademarks in the US, and have these trademarks been used? I suspect there has been no such registration. Or even if there has been a registration, the trademarks are not used.

Had this not been the case, one might have been able to argue that RiceTec is indulging in unfair competition by using the basmati name. It is causing confusion and deception and passing off something as something else. But because of what I have just said, I suspect there can be no case of infringement.

Besides, there is the question of limitation. RiceTec has been using the trademarks Texmati and Kasmati for twenty years and we have not objected. RiceTec’s trademarks can of course be cancelled and this is easier than sustaining an infringement suit. But it is unlikely that we have a case there either.

This leaves geographical indications, defined in article 22 of TRIPS as “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin”. Basmati is not a geographical indication in the sense that Darjeeling tea, Kanjeepuram silk, Alphonso mangoes or Kolhapuri chappals are geographical indications.

There is an expression known as appellations of origin, which is a bit broader than geographical indications and enables one to plug in product attributes. Had this expression (instead of geographical indications) been used in Article 22, we might have been able to throw in basmati and khadi. Article 23 of TRIPS has higher standards of protection for wines and spirits. Had these higher standards prevailed for other forms of geographical indication, life might have been easier. These are issues for further negotiation.

As of now, we don’t protect basmati as a geographical indication in India. For that matter, the Protection of Geographical Indications of Goods Act may have been passed in 1999, but the rules are still awaited. Of course, what happens in India does not have a direct impact on what happens in the US, except in one way. Article 24(9) of TRIPS says that a geographical indication need not be protected unless it is protected in the country of origin.

TRIPS does not require specific statutes on geographical indications. It is sufficient as long as these are protected, through some statute or the other. The US does it through the certifi- cate mark system under the Lanham Act. Registration is again not mandatory, but it helps. Darjeeling tea has been registered as a certificate mark in the US. But no such attempt has been made for basmati, quite independent of the fact that the US might argue that the word basmati is generic.

A NGO did file a case on basmati and this was thrown out by the US federal trade commission in May 2001. The Americans argued that there were no statutory or regula- tory bars on American rice being called basmati. Absolutely right. Unfortunately, through a legislative and knowl edge vacuum, the problem is largely our own creation.

The author is director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, New Delhi

   

 
 
FOR THE NEW TRADE WIND IN THE SAIL 
 
 
BY P.K. VASUDEVA
 
 
Eager to avoid repeating the humiliating failure in Seattle in 1999 at the third ministerial meet, the World Trade Organization moved on July 31 at Geneva to rescue foundering negotiations on a new global round of trade talks by offering concessions to developing country members. The 142-nation trade body in a two-day meeting assured that the November ministerial gathering at Doha, Qatar, where the ninth round of international trade talks is to be inaugurated would go smoothly.

Heading the drive for a new round is the United States, which would like to see further reduction in barriers to its exports of industrial goods as well as more progress in the ongoing negotiations on freeing trade in agriculture and services. Any acceleration in trade liberalization on these fronts, it feels, can only be achieved by incorporating negotiations on these matters into a new round of talks that cannot but end with agreement on free trade.

Interestingly, only a few nations are convinced by the US’s proclaimed commitment to free trade. It not only continues to support its agriculture sector with huge transfers that fall outside the scope of the definition of subsidies under the agreement on agriculture, but it has also buckled under domestic political pressure to provide virtually no concessions to developing country exports of textiles. It has unwarrantedly used anti-dumping levies to protect domestic producers of commodities such as steel, against competition from developing country exporters. The net effect is that movements in world trade are not in keeping with the expectations of the developing countries.

The US trade representative, Robert B. Zoellick, during his visit to India in the first week of August hoped that India would work with the US and other supporting countries to ensure a successful launch of a new round of global trade negotiations at the forthcoming ministerial meet. “A new round will be a win-win for India. A failure to launch a new round of global trade negotiations will hurt India,” said Zoellick while talking to the Indian industry players at the Confederation of Indian Industry, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Associated Chambers of Commerce meeting in Delhi.

“It won’t be good for us if the new round is not launched. The US represents 20-25 per cent of world trade. We will manage even if the new round is not launched. We will still move ahead through our regional and bilateral arrangements with some of the countries. If some countries are not keen to proceed with trade liberalization, we will proceed with those who are our friends in trade,” he said.

He held that an active and constructive participation in a new trading round would provide India with the opportunity to amplify its voice and help shape the rules of the globalization. “Withdrawal will leave the field to others. The sooner India supports new negotiations, the more influential it will be,” he continued.

On India’s concerns over implementation issues of the AoA, agreement on textiles and clothing, trade related aspects of intellectual property rights, trade related investment measures and general agreement on trade in services, Zoellick said that the US was working with other developed countries to address legitimate implementation concerns in the coming months and has already offered adjustments. When confronted with the Byrd amendment regarding anti-dumping, whi- ch is against the rules of the WTO, the USTR said that the matter is already with the WTO.

On the one hand, the US allowed duty-free imports of 42 items from India and the very next day the USTR issued a stiff warning to India that it had better agree to a new trade round at Doha, if it did not want to be left out of the process of global trade liberalization. This stick and carrot method will certainly not be acceptable to India. The Bush administration must ask that if the US is holding 20-25 per cent of the world economy, how about the health of the rest of the 75-80 per cent of the economy of the world? This will be dependent on the pursuit of the multilaterism in world trade issues instead of the earlier unilateralist approach.The Indian stand has been stated by the commerce and industry minister, Murasoli Maran, that there is little point in launching a new round when agreements signed in the previous round have not been implemented to the entire satisfaction of the developing counties.

There are, in fact, as many as, 93 issues on the implementation agenda from the earlier round that need sorting out and hence, the work of the Uruguay round is far from complete.

Nripendra Mishra, special secretary, WTO in the ministry of commerce in an interview to the CII said that implementation-related concerns of the developing countries, which are the legacy of the Uruguay round of agreements should be resolved without being linked to any new round of the negotiations. Moreover, the built-in agenda “which consists of ongoing negotiations on agriculture and services and the mandated review of the several multilateral trade agreement should by themselves be significant for a multilateral trade framework within the WTO”. Dispelling perceptions that India will gain by pushing the implementation issues into a new round, Mishra stated that any new and enhanced work programme in the WTO should be adopted only after there is a full convergence of views among the entire WTO membership and its predictability in terms of scope and range of commitments.

Such a convergence can come about only if implementation issues are resolved satisfactorily and contentious non-trade issues are kept off the table. These concerns of the developing countries should receive top priority in the next ministerial.

Deliberating on India’s stand on investment, competition policy, and trade facilitation, Mishra said that India has a very open and liberal foreign direct investment regime for attracting investment in-flows. How-ever, there are three issues, which India needs to ponder on as regards multilateral rules on investment. Is such an agreement necessary? Is the WTO the appropriate forum? Is the TRIMS pertaining to investment and trade that already exists in the WTO not adequate? In fact there is no justification for replacing the existing system with the multilateral system, which could take away the freedom and ability of the developing countries to pursue their developmental goals.

Elaborating on India’s agenda for the TRIPS review, Mishra said that India has proposed the extension of a higher level of protection to the geographical indicators for additional products, especially agricultural items like rice, tea, mangoes among others on par with what is provided to wines and spirits under the TRIPS agreement.

India, along with 46 other develop- ing countries, has already submitted a joint paper on TRIPS and public health in a special session of the TRIPS council. In the paper, India and other developing countries have demanded that the WTO should ensure that the TRIPS agree- ment does not undermine the right of the WTO members to formulate their own public health policies and adopt measures for providing affordable access to medicines, especially highly costly life-saving medicines for diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer.

At a trade ministers’ meet held in Mexico in September 2, it was stated that the meeting held to iron out differences in the new round of global trade talks had been very positive, although they did not reach any kind of agreement. Maran said that India was still pushing to resolve disputes from the 1994 agreement before agreeing to a new round. He also said that about a dozen developing countries planned to meet later this month in Geneva to discuss their concerns.

In another Cairn group held at Uruguay on September 3, Brazil’s minister said the world’s agriculture exporting nations would no longer stand for export subsidies, domestic farm support, or trade barriers based on questionable science. These countries emphasized that if agriculture reform is not part of the November talks in Qatar, then there should not be another round at all.

The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific is to organize a “pre-Doha ministerial” meeting in Bangkok from September 27-29 to sensitize its member countries on the possible agenda for the forthcoming ministerial conference of the WTO. “At the Bangkok conference, we will place before the members the possible agenda that may be taken up at Doha. We will also provide them with the positions of developed and developing countries on various important areas like AoA, TRIPS and TRIMS. The idea is to help the members take an informed decision on various issues,” said Kim Hak-Su, executive secretary of ESCAP.

The developed countries should be realistic rather than selfish and must sort out the concerns of the developing countries regarding implementation issues before taking on the new round at Doha.

The author is chairman, Institute of Development Studies and Training, Chandigarh

   

 
 
DOCUMENT/ EACH TO HIS OWN KIND OF MODERNITY 
 
 
 
 
The UNESCO has always emphasized the linkages between culture and the broader aims of human endeavour. This has been part of its core constitutional mandate of “advancing, through the educational, scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of peace and the common welfare of mankind”.

The organization’s early work emphasized intercultural dialogue as a key strategy for peace-building, for example, the “Unity and diversity of cultures” survey of the world’s different cultures... carried out in the Fifties and the celebrated “Major project on mutual appreciation of Eastern and Western cultural values” launched in 1957.

This vision of the importance of culture took on a new dimension in the Sixties, the decade of decolonization...The political emancipation of peoples led to a keen awareness of their own ways of life and they began to challenge the idea that modernization had to mean Westernization. Rather, they claimed the right to contribute to “ modernity” in the terms of their own traditions. The claim was endorsed in 1966 when UNESCO’s general conference adopted the Declaration of the Principles of International Cultural Co-operation...It thus became UNESCO’s responsibility...to stimulate a process of worldwide reflection on how cultural policies could be integrated into development strategies.

The intergovernmental conference in Venice in 1970 marked the first of a series of international conferences which began the still evolving process of bringing culture to the heart of the policy-making agenda...The Venice conference affirmed clearly that “the diversity of national cultures, their uniqueness and originality are an essential basis for human progress and the development of world culture” and recommended a variety of measures both to governments and to UNESCO.

European governments were the first to follow up on the Venice gathering and an intergovernmental conference ...was organized in Helsinki in June 1972. The Helsinki conference stressed cultural co-operation and exchange at the regional level. It also observed that economic growth “leads to imbalances, shown mainly in man’s becoming increasingly out of tune with his environment and in quantitative progress being set as the primary target, whereas society’s development should tend towards the qualitative improvement of life.”

Just 16 months later, the Yogyakarta conference in Indonesia took the principles adopted in Venice and Helsinki a step further by inviting states “to determine their economic and social objectives within a wider cultural context and to reassert those values which contribute towards realizing a human society.”

Two years later, at the Accra intergovernmental conference on cultural policies in Africa, the declaration adopted stressed that “cultural authenticity and technical progress, in the reciprocity and complementarity of their efforts, are the surest guarantee of cultural development.”

The final such regional gathering was the intergovernmental conference...held in Bogotá, Colombia in January 1978. The Bogotá Declaration, adopted by the participants stressed that cultural development had to take into account “an overall betterment of the life of individuals and peoples” as well as “cultural identity, from which it derives and whose furtherance and affirmation it promotes...”

This rapidly evolving culture and development agenda came to a head four years later, in Mexico City, where the world conference on cultural policies, MONDIACULT, adopted the celebrated broad definition of culture that linked culture so irrevocably to development: “Culture...is...the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

MONDIACULT also affirmed that “balanced development can only be ensured by making cultural factors an integral part of the strategies designed to achieve it.” It was to attain this objective that UNESCO conceived the idea of the world decade for cultural development (1988-1997). During the period...UNESCO mobilized the international community to pursue four key objectives — acknowledging the cultural dimension of development; affirming and enriching cultural identities; broadening participation in cultural life; and promoting international cultural co-operation. During the decade, more than 1,200 projects were launched in practically every country of the world by governmental as well as local communities and private bodies...

In practical terms, the decade fostered new networks in this field. It also reinforced inter-agency partnerships which provided policy advisory services to governments and strengthened endogenous capacities, especially in the domain of cultural management. It led to the launching of special projects such as the African Itinerant College on Culture and Development, It set in motion a research programme on the methodological problems of integrating cultural considerations in development planning processes...The crowning achievement of the decade, however, was the creation and work of the independent world commission on culture and development, which completed its work at the end of 1995.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ WHY FOOD FOR ALL REMAINS AN IDEAL 
 
 
BY JAYDEV JANA
 
 
Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman, had predicted two centuries ago that the population would persistently outstrip food supplies and warned of cyclical disasters, especially famines. Ever since, we have wondered what the prognosis is for feeding the future. Although the world food situation is not as grim as apprehended by the Malthusians and neo-Malthusians, we are living in a state of persistent hunger, widespread malnutrition and occasional famine. About 800 million people — 15 per cent of the world’s population — in developing countries live on less than 2,000 calories a day, lead a life of permanent or intermittent hunger, and are chronically undernourished. Around 150 million pre-schoolers are malnourished.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, by 2020 the number of malnourished pre-schoolers will still be 135 million in the developing countries while the world population will increase by 25 per cent to 7.5 billion. There will be an average addition of 73 million people annually in the developing countries. Consequently, there will be an additional demand for about 190 million tonnes of foodgrains. To provide food security to the projected 7.5 billion people, the world would have to double its current level of food production. In most underdeveloped countries, average grain yields are a half of what they are in developed countries.

Boosting yield

Biotechnology has brought some promising and unthinkable developments in agriculture, such as a new strain of superior rice and corn capable of boosting yield by 25 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. People now seem to be a liability only in a certain kind of economic system. Marginality, hunger and high birth rates are all symptoms of insecurity, non-availability of family planning and an inefficient food system.

The physiological requirement of food for a given population generally depends on its profile of age, gender, height, weight and activity level. Indeed, in any localized situation, health intervention seems to be more effective than increasing food supply for determination of physiological food requirements. Economic factors, particularly prices and incomes are the determinants of diets. Globally, 20 per cent of the world population living in the highest income countries account for 86 per cent of the private consumption expenditure whereas the poorest 20 per cent account for a mere 1.5 per cent.

In Africa, for example, people derive two thirds of their calories from less expensive starchy staple and a mere 6 per cent from animal products. In Europe, people derive 33 per cent of their calories from animal products and less than 33 per cent from starchy food.

Too poor to buy

Encouraging the people of the “rich world” to consume less meat will reduce the pressure on global agricultural systems. While one acre of land devoted to cattle ranching barely yields 50 pounds of meat, the same land can produce over 1,200 pounds of grain. There is no dearth of necessary resources in the world to feed the population.

Global food requirement depends on the efficiency with which food is marketed and distributed. A substantial portion of food gets lost during storage, processing and consumption. Losses from end-use inefficiency equal 30 to 70 per cent of the amount actually consumed. Comparable income countries like Finland, Japan and Sweden waste about 35 per cent, and Italy and Belgium-Luxembourg waste nearly 60 per cent.

Food scarcity can neither be measured in terms of grain reserves nor by production figures. The number of hungry people can grow despite the increase in a nation’s per capita food production. The balance of food and population is a very bad determinant of hunger and starvation. A shortfall in availability of food in deficit regions can be met by import from the food surplus regions. If millions are hungry today, it is not because of a lack of food, but because they are unable to pay for it. No fewer than 82 countries lack the purchasing power to import food from food-surplus countries. The economist, Amartya Sen, has rightly said, “Hunger is primarily a problem of general poverty and of deprivation of food entitlement and adequate health and social care — not just of the size of food production”.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Beat the system

Sir — The article, “Hullabaloo in the campus” (Aug 20), painted an unbiased picture of the corruption that passes for Indian higher education. What in British India started as a glorified clerk-generating system has now been turned into a mammoth institution producing black money and political cadre, thanks to the enterprising politicians and educationists working together. More than a thousand crore of rupees are collected annually by educators for passing on secrets of securing marks. The example of China placing greater emphasis on basic education than on higher education looks like the right sort of thing to do. The emphasis should indeed be on school education and not solely on college and university education. A developing nation’s coffers should not be emptied so wastefully. In this connection, the recent fee hike in colleges and universities seems to be propelling the education system of the country in the right direction.
Yours faithfully,
Atanu Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Starred study

Sir — The decision by the University Grants Commission to permit Indian universities to open departments for the teaching and research of Vedic astrology has been covered in great detail by various newspapers all over the country. Recently, Lucknow University has decided to go ahead with the setting up of an astrology department by the end of the month and has been criticized for this decision (“Caste fate uncertain, varsity takes astrology plunge”, Sept 5). Unfortunately, most of the coverage regarding the introduction of astrology has been in the form of criticism of the UGC decision. The absence of favourable reports does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of scientists or the people of India.

It is important to examine the issue from a scientific premise rather than from one based on one’s beliefs and pre-conceived notions. For example, weather predictions are made possible because of a large amount of compiled data. Scientists are not certain how this data influences the weather. All that is known is that if certain parameters are met, a certain type of weather can be observed. Does this lack of specific factors make weather forecasting unscientific?

Our ancient scientists accumulated a lot of data on human behaviour together with specific factors such as the time, place and date of birth. They then tried to use the data to understand human behaviour. Astrology led to horoscopes since these scientists used to correlate their findings to star positions. This is not to say that stars were controlling human behaviour. They merely realized that when stars are in a specific position, human behaviour follows a certain trend. This is a statistical prediction and like any other science the accuracy of the prediction is related to the standard of deviation and, therefore, there is always a chance of the predictions being incorrect.

It seems that India is waiting for Western scientists to give their stamp of approval to astrology as a science. If the top universities in the United States can study paranormal behaviour and the after-life why can we not study astrology? Another reason for the dismissal of astrology by educators is the fear that the West might not take the Indian education system seriously if Vedic science is introduced at the university level. It is time we start believing in ourselves and have faith in our own education system.

Yours faithfully,
Maheshwar Sharon, Mumbai

Sir — Many people believe that there is nothing wrong in astrology courses being introduced at the university level. I strongly agree with Khushwant Singh when he states that those who believe in astrology are “Maha murkh”. It is also commendable that one of the consumer courts has decided that if money is charged for astrological predictions and the predictions prove false, compensation can be claimed from the astrologer. Those who wish to study astrology should pursue it as a hobby instead of wasting public money on such a dubious pursuit.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kapasi, via email

A ticket to ride

Sir — The hike in rail fares has followed Mamata Banerjee’s return to the National Democratic Alliance (“Fare hike gift on Mamata return”, Aug 29). The surcharge being introduced by the Indian railways is expected to garner Rs 5,000 crores in 6 years. This amount will be used to improve the condition of the railways and its infrastructure. It is absurd to assume that safety measures for the railways cannot be achieved unless every railway minister resorts to an increase in passenger fares. Giving credit where it is due, Banerjee had indeed put up a fight for the non-introduction of the surcharge with the finance minister during her tenure as minister for railways. This might also be the reason why the introduction of a hike in fares followed her re-entry into the NDA.

It would also be of interest to know what contribution and suggestions have been made by the railways minister, Nitish Kumar, regarding the safety of the passengers, other than an increase in the fares and the introduction of a safety surcharge

Yours faithfully,
Monojit Sanyal, Chandernagore

Sir — For a senior citizen like me, it was distressing to read the report, “Fare hike gift on Mamata return”. To travel to New Delhi by Rajdhani air-conditioned three tier, I now have to pay an extra amount of Rs 42 besides the additional expense for the ticket reservation.

The prime minister seems to have nothing to offer the senior citizens of India. He has reduced the interest rates of fixed deposits which are their main source of income. There has been an increase in the cost of all essential commodities and a hike in postal charges. Nitish Kumar should at least increase the concessions offered to senior citizens for rail travel from 30 to 50 per cent, the concession rate given by the Indian Airlines.

Yours faithfully,
Arabinda Bose, Calcutta

Sir — It is strange and indeed unfair that people who had bought their rail tickets before the fare hike now have to pay the extra amount to the ticket collector on the train on the way to their destination. Why are the public being made to pay in retrospect?

Yours faithfully,
B. Basu, Calcutta

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