Editorial 1 / Mindless in zodiac
Editorial 2 / Proven wrong
Massacre of innocents
Fifth Column / Security personnel under amnesty
Mani Talk / The hunger pangs of Naveen Patnaik
Letters to the editor

Electoral calculations lead to bizarre compromises. The Congress with an eye to the ballot box has declared that it has nothing against astrology being taught as an academic discipline in universities. A Congress spokesman had no qualms about describing astrology as a science. This elevation of astrology by the Congress should be read in the context of an assessment that Ms Sonia Gandhi should address all sections of Hindus in the run up to the elections in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress obviously does not want to miss out on the upper caste votes in UP. With the Bharatiya Janata Party in a corner in India’s largest state, the Congress is eager to cash in on the situation. To do this, it is even willing to sacrifice its principal ideological marker vis a vis the BJP: secularism. If the Congress believes that astrology and other such elements which are being passed off as “the wisdom of ancient India’’ should be part of university syllabi, where is it different from its rival? Other religious communities also have their traditional texts and fountains of wisdom; these are being neglected and the Hindu tradition is being imposed because it is being equated with India. The Congress throughout its history has always objected to such an equation. It has now acquiesced as it wants to win elections. The challenge before Indian universities is to make their own curriculum more rigorously modern. The proposal to teach astrology which has been backed by the Congress is a regressive step.

What is worse is that the Congress’s advocacy of astrology is a cycnical political move. It does not grow out of a set of firmly held views. Even while disagreeing with Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, it can be appreciated that his policies grow out of his commitments. Similarly, all critics of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) accept that its ideology is not a matter of convenience but an intrinsic part of a view of history and society. Thus, one knows most of the time where these parties stand on various issues. The problem with the Congress under Ms Gandhi is that nobody ever knows where the party stands on a particular issue. Yesterday’s secularist is today’s advocate of astrology. A large part of this problem lies with Ms Gandhi herself. She has never clarified to anybody what she believes in, and her vision of India’s future. She has preferred to remain reticent and enigmatic. The silence and the evident ad hocism in policy matters convey the impression that she is easily swayed by pressure groups within her party. This is not the sign of leadership. A leader cannot be seen to be an empty vessel into which others pour their ideas. A leader has to imprint her own views and ideology on the matter. There is no ground to believe that Ms Gandhi has done this. The Congress has thus become a party without a mind.


All those who had believed that Fiji would achieve political stability after the recent general election have already been proven wrong. A new political crisis is beginning to threaten the shaky coalition government of the prime minister, Mr Laisenia Qarase. While the problems may, on the surface, be related to issues of governance and power-sharing, the roots of the crisis are in the gulf of mistrust that exists between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians. It is this deep suspicion and growing antipathy between the two principal communities inhabiting the island-state that has been responsible for dividing what was once a relatively harmonious multicultural society. The ruling coalition led by Mr Qarase’s Fijian People’s Party, representative of the indigenous Fijians, is constitutionally mandated to invite all parties that won more than 10 per cent of the votes in the general election to become part of the government. And this means including the opposition, the Fiji Labour Party of the former premier, Mr Mahendra Chaudhry, which secured 27 seats in the 71-seat house (compared with the SDL’s tally of 31) and is supported by the Indians. Although Mr Qarase, constitutionally bound as he is, has invited the FLP, he has made it clear that he would rather not have them as part of the government. Mr Chaudhry is, however, unwilling to relent and has claimed that his party will occupy the cabinet posts due to them. In one respect, Mr Qarase is right. The differences between the SDL and the FLP are so wide that having the latter as part of the government will effectively make the process of governance and decision-making extremely difficult, if not impossible. Mr Chaudhry’s insistence, however, is in part related to the suspicion that the new government could push through policies that would be detrimental to the interests of the Indo-Fijians, and rooted in the events of the past two years.

The government of the former prime minister, Chaudhry, was brought down in a siege led by ultra-Fijian nationalists in May 2000. A court order declared the removal of Chaudhry as illegal, and after a complicated process of negotiations a general election was held in August this year. However, there was no clear resolution of the underlying tensions. Indians and Fijians continue to be deeply divided, and the Indian community is beginning to feel so threatened that there is a slow emigration out of Fiji. Moreover, the new prime minister does not give much hope or confidence to the Indians. Mr Qarase, a former banker, who was interim prime minister before the election, is viewed by many as an ultra-nationalist who is determined to amend the constitution to ensure that an ethnic Indian never becomes prime minister again. Many of the problems that have ravaged Fiji’s economy and its civic culture are unlikely to go away, at least not in the short-term.


Modern man will have to witness perhaps many times, and in many versions, the re-enacting of the massacre of the innocents. One of its latest manifestations may be what has been happening to children having to take the school final examinations in India.

It was more or less both a sentient and a learning society that we had inherited from our ancestors. What we have been doing to it since, is that by trading modest, old-fashioned learning for mind-boggling memorizing inspired by mindless quizzing, we are relentlessly pushing that society (with all its admittedly glaring limitations) forward on to the road to some dreaded moronic society of the future.

The current victims are, ironically, the more fortunate children of India — those who can go to regular schools and supposedly are the beneficiaries of the “system”. A minuscule number of them in the very best schools are thankfully still partially protected from the virus that has crept into the system; but their reprieve too may be only temporary. For even to them the same signals are being sent out regularly as to everybody else: “Do not let on that you can think. And do not speak out a word more than you are permitted to remember, there will be negative markings if you do either.”

Since a great controversy is currently raging at the highest levels of governance on what ethical values (coloured saffron, green, red and so on) children should or should not be allowed to inculcate through school education, I hasten to add that I dare not enter here the bemusing KBC-type guessing games now favoured in the exalted political circles of Delhi and the states on whether, to take one popular example, astrology can be called (A) a science or (B) an art or (C) a type of useful conmanship that can be learnt as a regular university discipline or (D) none of the three.

But I do dare to draw attention to perhaps a more basic value judgement implicit in my definition of education per se. This basic value simply demands that education and educationists try relentlessly to open the human mind and not close it. This is a value to be cherished both when society deals with the phenomenon of excellence — the learning experience of the top students, and when it has to deal with the humdrum learning experiences of all the others, including those who have failed their tests but are trying again.

The compartmental exam paper, I believe, was always supposed to be of the same standard as the regular one as it is now. But if I recall my childhood more or less correctly, the paper-setter did remember that the entire population being examined consisted of students of modest aptitude and there was little point in setting complicated or vaguely framed questions for them.

I remember one of my revered elders, a solid stickler for impartial standards otherwise, accepting this onerous job thinking only of the many non-schoolgoing girls who used to appear as private candidates those days. He was a passionate advocate of what would be later called positive discrimination in education in favour of women. Conditions would not have changed much in these fifty years for the girls as a whole; as for those others who do have the opportunity of attending school regularly, the conditions of the “below average” student may be considerably worse, for most schools would be either unable or unwilling to help them out.

Nothing reveals more of what society really means by “education” than a look into the examination system through which its children have to pass. I will stick only to the recently held secondary compartmentals of an all-India board taken by those who failed to clear the earlier main examination in the concerned subject. And I will talk only of four questions in the compulsory paper on the social sciences.

It consists of history (35 marks), civics (20), geography (35) and economics (10). I have selected one question from each “subject”. Since I once wrote a small textbook myself on economics at this level, I was a little shaken to see my favourite universe of discourse apparently being drastically cut down to size. But in this surmise I was thoroughly mistaken, as you will see below. I think I have said enough and will end with my four questions as exhibits.

History: Explain four aspects of the Vietnamese struggle for freedom (max 80 words).Civics: Why is the demand for disarmament increasing for human progress? Give four reasons to support your answer (max 80 words). Geography: Why is the iron and steel industry called basic or key industries? Explain three reasons for its development mainly in the public sector (max 30+60 words). Economics: “The environmental protection and dwindling supply of energy are the great challenges before us”.How can we overcome these challenges (max 30 words)?

I have selected these out of one particular set of 29 questions from the last social science compartmentals, meant for those who failed to clear the subject in the main secondary examination. Each such set is drawn for every zone, from a much larger national question pool carefully prepared by some of the country’s best experts in this field, which is a commendable statistical job meticulously performed every year.

But I hope the readers will see for themselves how the questions can also be part of the problem. Why do we have to force our fifteen-year olds to learn by rote only the pat and definitive answers to what are blatantly leading questions at best, often also misleading questions, and sometimes ones that are questionable themselves. And this universally simplifying format is not for the poor under-achievers only but for everybody. This is how the 21st century’s largest student body in the world is being raised — one wonders to what purpose.

The author is professor emeritus of economics, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


There has understandably been a hue and cry among human rights groups ever since the Union home minister, L.K. Advani, made public the government’s intention to provide legal relief to security personnel involved in human rights violations while combating terrorists. Although the government was cautious, saying that the steps taken would be strictly within legal parameters, there is an element of fear among human rights activists with regard to disturbed areas like Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states and Naxalite-infested areas elsewhere in India.

That the widespread criticism has not deterred Advani is seen in an all India police chiefs’ conference on September 5, which indicated the government’s determination to go ahead with the idea of putting safeguards in the statute book. The ministry of home affairs has already referred the controversial proposal to the law ministry, which is studying the implications of amending the legal process in this regard.

Legal experts find Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees protection to human life and liberty, as the principal obstacle to the proposition. Suitable changes have to be enacted in the prevailing law to provide the security personnel protection for their “bona fide actions while fighting terrorism”. Advani justifies this in the name of national interest. He compares the example of open war with a hostile nation, when the security forces have legal and constitutional safeguards, with that of a proxy war such as is being waged in Kashmir, when these measures are not in place.

Proxy wars

The proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir and insurgency in the northeastern states has taken a heavy toll on security personnel. Terrorists often use civilians as human shields while attacking the security forces and take shelter in houses and religious places in populated areas. In an exchange of fire some civilian casualties are inevitable. But security forces are criticized and often legal proceedings initiated against them.

This is true of police in Punjab after the insurgency era. Although some of the atrocities were committed by some bad eggs, in most cases, killing of civilians was accidental. K.P.S. Gill, the then director general of police in Punjab, has offered himself for prosecution in place of the policemen who operated under his command.

The forthcoming assembly election in Punjab has compelled the chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal, not to lend his support to Advani’s idea of amnesty to security personnel. Likewise in Jammu and Kashmir, both the Hurriyat leaders and the ruling National Conference have criticized the home minister’s move.

Tread a fine line

In a democratic polity, human rights should be respected. But what should the men in uniform do when fired upon in a populated area by a determined enemy? If they do not retaliate, they will be either killed by guns or be lynched by the mob. The risk of casualty deaths has to be taken. If the affected persons decide to take legal action against the troops, should it not be the government’s responsibility to provide them with legal aid? But troops found guilty of rape, burning and looting must be duly punished by the law..

Compared to other countries, India has shown transparency in this regard. In Punjab, serious abuses of the early Nineties were acknowledged and condemned by the Supreme Court and investigation still continues. The International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed prison visits in Jammu and Kashmir, demonstrating official transparency on human rights problems. The Indian army too has a human rights cell at its apex headquarters and institutes legal proceedings when necessary.

Advani was at pains to deny that he in his earlier statement had favoured a blanket reprieve for the security personnel accused of human rights violations in anti-terrorist operations. His emphasis was on the government’s resolve that deliberate violations will never be tolerated and persons responsible for such actions will be duly punished. Security force personnel need to be enlightened so that they respect fellow citizens in disturbed areas, but they would also need a legal umbrella if an unfortunate incident takes place in the heat of the moment.


Doon School is actually quite a good place to learn about hunger. Chhota haazri is not always adequate. So, Naveen Patnaik can hardly trot out the excuse of a privileged upbringing for the incomprehension with which he so earnestly explains that the people of Kashipur block in Orissa are popping off because they spread the caviar too thin on their canapes.

The debate on endemic hunger in the rain-shadow of western Orissa is derailed by argument over whether people are dying of what might technically be termed starvation or an eccentric culinary preference for mango kernels and red ants. Nor is perennial hunger in western Orissa to be explained, as the chief minister seeks to educate us, as a social boycott of overflowing ration shops by the poor of Kalahandi.

The root cause of hunger in western Orissa is its geographic location on the wrong side of the hills which separate Chhattisgarh from Orissa. When the south-west monsoon crosses Raipur and heads out towards Kalahandi, it encounters the hills before it reaches Kashipur. Much of the time, the clouds complete their precipitation before they are quite over the range. Occasionally they make it. When they do, Kashipur agriculture flourishes. When they do not, agriculture withers — unless cultivation is adapted to crops needing relatively little water.

Ragi — the locally grown millet — is not a thirsty crop. Rice is. But rice is tastier and considerably more nourishing than ragi. So, the kisan in this belt throws his dice. He grows paddy because his family prefers rice — and the surplus, if any, is more readily marketable and fetches a much better price than ragi. But if the rains fail, as they often do in the rain-shadow, crop failure is unavoidable. Traditionally, therefore, ragi, not rice, has been the staple in the region. But modernization has resulted in widespread exposure to rice. And this is what makes so much of agriculture in Kalahandi akin to stepping into the Casino at Monte Carlo. I use the example advisedly. Naveen Patnaik is rather more familiar with the French Riviera than he is with the tiresome detail of distant Kashipur.

The answer to the conundrum is simple. Ragi must remain the staple crop but rice must be available both abundantly — and cheaply. Massive malnutrition leading to widespread mortality is the consequence of rice being available abundantly — but not cheaply.

With 50 million tonnes of foodgrains rotting in the granaries of the Food Corporation of India, it is hardly surprising that Patnaik’s spot-inspections of the ration shops in Kalahandi have revealed more food on the shelves than in Jacqueline Kennedy’s salon. So, even as Patnaik had grabbed a passing olive at her soirees in New York, the chief minister asks in some bewilderment why the wretched of Kalahandi area do not go shopping to the food malls of Bhawanipur, the district headquarters.

Elementary, my dear Patnaik. They do not have the money to buy the grain available. That has little to do with Patnaik — and everything to do with the duo of Yashwant Sinha, Central minister of finance, and his cabinet colleague, the minister of food and civil supplies, one Shanta Kumar of whom you might have heard. He was once chief minister of Himachal Pradesh and is now the presiding deity over the humungous food stocks his government apparently knows not what to do with.

This Laurel and Hardy team decided in Budget 2000-2001 that what the economy needed was a smack of firm governance. They, therefore, agreed to freeze the food subsidy at a whisker below Rs 9,000 crore per annum. Now, for those of us who are not Tapan Sikdar, nine thousand crore is such a huge amount of money that we went along with the finance minister’s little lecture about how subsidies were bankrupting the country and, therefore, nine thousand crore was really too excessive for the country to be paying towards feeding its poor.

Food Minister Shanta Kumar thus came up with a novel scheme of feeding the poor without straining further the finances of the finance minister. First, said he, raise the issue price (that is, the price at which the damn thing is sold) of foodgrains for families above the poverty line to the “economic cost” — the cost which the FCI bears for reaching grain to ration shops around the country, thus eliminating subsidies for this category of consumers.

Then, increasing by some 60 per cent the issue price for BPL families but simultaneously doubling the quantity they may buy at this subsidized price. This, Shanta Kumar calculated, and repeatedly assured Parliament, would so substantially augment subsidized rice for the poor that death would never stalk Kalahandi.

We of the opposition warned him that his scheme would be a disaster because there would be no point in doubling the availability of foodgrains to the BPL unless it was at a price that the BPL could afford to pay. Patiently, we tried to explain that on a 60 per cent hike in issue prices, the bottom layer of the BPL — those in real and desperate need, like the wretched of Kashipur block — would simply not be able to go shopping. The argument fell on deaf ears. The consequence is the obscene spectacle of the really poor — such as the miserable denizens of the rain-shadow of western Orissa — going to bed every night with hunger pangs gnawing at their vitals while Himalayas of foodgrains mount in FCI godowns because the prices are too high for the poor to pick up.

The moral responsibility for this disaster lies at Yashwant Sinha’s door. How much of the Centre’s budget should be spent on driving hunger from the bellies of the poor? 10 per cent? Five per cent? Four? Three? Answer this yourself. The Central budget outlay is around Rs 3,25,000 crore. Ten per cent of that is Rs 32,500 crore — enough for every Indian to match the calorific intake of Naveen’s friend, the last bride of Aristotle Onassis. At five per cent that drops to Rs 16,000 crore. Too much by Sinha’s standards. At three per cent, we would still be ahead of Sinha’s generosity.

The Central government has pegged expenditure on food for the hungry at a little more than 2 per cent of budgetary outlay, just two per cent. They spend many times that on fancy airports. It is the twisted morality of this kind of economics that is leading to perennial malnutrition in Kalahandi and the occasional starvation-related death. Patnaik could return to his cocktail parties on Central Park West if there were a mite more of Mahatma Gandhi and a mite less of CII, Assocham and Ficci in what passes for Yashwant Sinha’s soul.



A state of collapse

Sir — The report, “Death crush under cinema shelter”(Sept 11), only shows the utter callousness of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. The poor maintenance of public buildings such as movie halls, theatres, schools and colleges only results in such unfortunate incidents. This is not the first time such a mishap has taken place in the heart of Calcutta. The collapse of one of the oldest theatres, Rangmahal, tells the same sordid tale of apathy. Not only are ruins proliferating in the process, but also the extent of dilapidation is proving to be fatal. Last night’s occurrence revealed not only the dangerous neglect but also the lack of coordination among the concerned authorities in case of an emergency. Although rescue operations were carried on till late in the night, it proved to be too late for some of those who were trapped underneath the fallen structure. It is high time the state, especially its municipal departments, sits up to such shocking irresponsibility and mismanagement.

Yours faithfully,
Snigdha Ghosh, Calcutta

Power relations

Sir — One thing is clear in the continuing fracas between the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, and the West Bengal State Electricity Board — that toughness pays. Once it was clear to the bosses in CESC that the State Electricity Board and the government was serious about collecting their dues, the matter was resolved, albeit temporarily. It is amazing that CESC is allowed to run up such huge amounts as dues whereas the utility is quick to disconnect the supply to the consumer if more than three or four bills remain unpaid. No thought is given to the fact that the consumers’ costly equipment might collapse on sudden power cuts. No schedules for area-wise power cuts is announced. CESC should have its licence cancelled in case of default of payment and the SEB should supply power to us. One cannot wish anything more for a company which in the last few years has fallen prey to private entrepreneurs, followed the path of public sector units and degenerated from a professionally managed, profit-making company to a firm saddled with huge losses.

Yours faithfully,
Sunil Garodia, via email

Sir — The West Bengal minister for power cuts a sorry figure for his attempt to stop frequent power cuts throughout the districts causing untold misery to some consumers. The appalling condition of electricity in the state is because of a reluctant authority and lack of proper maintenance. This is best illustrated by the situation in Bolpur district, where ward numbers 9, 10 and 11 are the worst sufferers of an indifferent local authority. It would be heartening to find adequate measures being adopted by the West Bengal Electricity Board to redress the plight of the inconvenienced consumer.

Yours faithfully,
Dhaneswar Banerjee, Bolpur

Sir — The power cuts in West Bengal are posing a great problem for the people of our state. Taking advantage of this, the kerosene dealers are selling at a higher price. Students are the worst affected because power cuts occur more during the evening and night. Besides the low voltage affects electrical gadgets at home. The government should act now if they want to avoid seriously putting off the people of West Bengal.

Yours faithfully,
Swapan Kumar Das, Midnapur

Hundred days

Sir — In politics it is never easy to come to a definite conclusion about the performance of any leader as there may exist opposing views on the same issue. This holds true of the West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who has completed hundred days of office. It is a fact that certain things in the past have not been up to the mark and the road to recovery had to be traversed fast to make up for the lost time.

Here Bhattacharjee deserves credit, as he not only admitted the problems endemic to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but also tried his best to implement his policies (“do it now”), aiming for the comprehensive improvement of West Bengal. The editorial, “One hundred days of promise”(Aug 25), rightly mentions that the chief minister has instilled what looks like new life into a languishing state.

In the sphere of administration, Bhattacharjee made accountability and punctuality a part of government offices — unheard of a few years ago. The chief minister has also admitted to the dismal condition of education and has made plans to overhaul the syllabus to ensure a job market for the students. Although all is not rosy with regard to law and order, health, transport and so on, the chief minister is trying his best to change the grim state of affairs.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Murshidabad

Sir — The editorial, “One hundred days of promise”, does not portray the real picture. It is true that a hundred days are not enough to judge the performance of a chief minister, but his attitude towards the endeavour should be questioned. The failure in the sphere of law and order stands out like a thorn among other failures during his tenure. The department of police is badly managed and the Khadim case surely says it all. Among others, the Chhota Angariah and Gaighata incidents tell the same disquieting and unresolved stories. The government has failed to do anything substantial in education and health.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should give up his partisan attitude and should take a more professional approach in his dealings with the administration in West Bengal.

Yours faithfully,
D.K. Mukhapadhayay, Midnapore

Sir — There is nothing unusual and alarming about the crossing of swords between the West Bengal chief minister and the general secretary of Centre for Indian Trade Unions, M.K. Pandhe, on issues such as globalization and liberalization (“CITU, CM cross reforms swords”, Sept 1). The media like to create an unnecessary and disproportionate clamour around the divergence of opinion and attitude between the CPI(M)’s administrative and trade union wings and gloat over it. Globalization is an inevitable phenomenon and cannot be reversed. Both Bhattacharjee and Pandhe, who are willing to move with the times, should work together to ensure that the benefits accruing from rapid scientific and technological achievements do not become one-sided.

Yours faithfully,
Phani Bhusan Saha, Balurghat

Sir — The editorial, “Call of the past” (Sept 9), is most appropriate. It is absolutely inexplicable why our ambitious and open-minded chief minister took so much time in realizing the fact that blockades of roads and railway tracks on flimsy grounds can no longer be carried out as a mark of protest. However, Bhattacharjee’s initiative to ban such disruptive activities should be appreciated. It remains to be seen whether he reacts in the same way with regard to his comrades, who have made it a habit to resort to rallies, strikes and squatting on the roads on any pretext.

Yours faithfully,
Arunava Bose Chowdhury, Barrackpore

Numbers game

Sir — There is widespread confusion in the city regarding the latest number-plate norms for vehicles. In the absence of any clearcut instructions from the government or the police, one does not know what exactly is to be done. Whereas most motorists seem to believe that it is merely the colour combination of the number plate that has to be changed, an article that appeared in The Telegraph, “Number plate norm change to curb crime” (Sept 5) talks of requirements like “hot-stamping”, “embossing”, “chromium-based hologram”, “non-removable snaplock fitting system” and so on. I approached a leading numberplate-maker in the city, but except “embossing”, which is common enough, all the other requirements were unknown to him. He said that probably the number-plates have to be “imported” to meet all these requirements.

The government should immediately clarify the matter by publishing detailed technical specifications for the new number plates and the deadline by which the changes have to be implemented. Otherwise, the whole thing will simply be another excuse for the police to harass hapless motorists.

Yours faithfully,
Debashis Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — Vehicles are merely changing the colour of their number plates. The other superior systems will take a long time, and there might be no such changes made in taxis.

Yours faithfully,
J. Mukherjee, Calcutta

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