Editorial 1/ Office matters
Editorial 2/ Carrots galore
Democracy assistance
Reasons for pessimism
Document/ Towards a more complete life
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ OFFICE MATTERS 
 
 
 
 
Holding office almost always prevails over ideology. This is evident from the statement of the sangh parivar that it would not like the government of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee to be destabilized. The comment was made in the context of the ultimatum issued by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad about the construction of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. Mr Vajpayee has already declared his helplessness in resolving the dispute. Sections of the sangh parivar are conscious of the political compulsions that inform Mr Vajpyee’s decisions on the matter. Mr Vajpayee heads a coalition government and his allies are not in the least interested in Hindutva. This, together with Mr Vajpayee’s own predilections, have kept the temple issue out of the agenda of the National Democratic Alliance. No policy statement of the NDA has a mention of Hindutva. Even in the programme of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindutva and Ram mandir get nothing more than a token nod. Mr Vajpayee has also seen to it that government decisions on most crucial matters are outside the influence of Nagpur, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It would be simplistic from all this to conclude that the BJP has gone secular. On the contrary, the BJP recognizes the need to keep Hindutva on the shelf, to preserve the NDA and to govern India. And it knows that these aims cannot be met by promoting Hindutva and the construction of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. Hence, the decision to relegate ideology to the margins.

Other sections of the sangh parivar are also coming round to priorities that have been recognized by the BJP. There are reports that the RSS is keen to broker an understanding between the government and the VHP so that there is no disruption that might pose problems for Mr Vajpayee. The very search for a compromise on the part of the RSS is an indicator that it has climbed down from its ideological high horse. The RSS knows that there is more to gain from the BJP in government than from the BJP out of power. Being in office provides access to resources and patronage which cannot be ignored. The RSS realizes this and is willing to persuade the more extremist wings of the sangh parivar about this. Destabilizing the NDA government will be foolhardy and self-defeating. Senior members of the BJP also remember what happened to the Janata government in the late Seventies when the Jan Sangh left the government on an ideological issue, i.e. the question of dual membership. In 1978, the Jan Sangh — the previous incarnation of the BJP — under pressure from Nagpur put ideology over office. The RSS is unlikely to put similar pressure on the BJP this time round. Putting the BJP out of office would be like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ CARROTS GALORE 
 
 
 
 
Rewards for doing the right thing are best confined to the training of pets. Creatures born with an ethical sense — like taxpayers and policemen — normally prefer to be above the indignity of sops. Not so in West Bengal. The police here seem to thrive on an elaborate system of “good service marks” for doing the most ordinary jobs, like moving files up to a senior’s table in time. The entire tradition of being rewarded for doing what one is being paid to do has got so out of hand in the state police that the director general has now firmly vetoed all such senseless rewards. All ranks from constable to inspector are entitled to these marks, which earn the recipient special privileges, including money prizes, on promotion. These are sanctioned through a hierarchical system of recommendations and approvals which works upwards from the officer-in-charge to the superintendent. Usually, the capture of a deadly criminal or cache of weapons, or an outstanding act of courage is supposed to be rewarded according to this code. But over the years an entirely arbitrary system of favours, privileges and prizes has evolved within the police, by which such everyday tasks as serving in a VIP convoy or doing escort duty get rewarded regularly and generously. In the North 24 Parganas district, more than 850 policemen have been rewarded for doing nothing particularly remarkable. As part of the general uplift of work ethics in the state, the chief minister had called for a system of punishments in order to foster an ethos based on professional accountability. This could, of course, be just as undignified and open to abuse. But given the sloth, inefficiency, politicking and corruption pervading the state’s healthcare, education, policing and bureaucracy, being punitive makes more sense than being bountiful.

Perhaps the most outrageous expression of this “prize ceremony” mentality was the honouring, last month in Calcutta by the income tax department, of wealthy taxpayers for doing nothing other than paying their taxes. The likes of Mr K.K. Birla, Mr P.R.S. Oberoi and Mr M.K. Damani were pompously felicitated for setting a good example by “fully discharging their legal obligation”. The Union minister of state for finance, while presenting these honours, pointed out that the spirit of paying one’s legitimate dues to the government is still the exception rather than the rule; that the “fundamental values” of a democratic system are “still in the making”. By stopping indiscriminate rewards for ordinary tasks done and honouring rich taxpayers for paying their taxes, the police and income tax departments, respectively, are certainly contributing to the making, and unmaking, of these basic ethical values.

   

 
 
DEMOCRACY ASSISTANCE 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
There are far fewer jokes about General Pervez Musharraf than about his predecessor in uniform, General Zia-ul-Haq. But one joke which did the rounds extensively during the Pakistan president’s visit to Washington last week was about Musharraf’s encounters with his barber.

The barber, goes the joke, repeatedly quizzes Musharraf about elections in Pakistan whenever he is at the presidential mansion to work on the general’s hair. Musharraf patiently outlines his poll time-table for Pakistan, but the same question pops up again and again: until the general asks the barber why he is repeating his query about elections. The barber replies that it enables him to give Musharraf a better hair-cut. Every time elections are mentioned, the general’s hair stands on end, making it easier to cut it.

The joke was popular in Washington because the spectre of elections followed Musharraf all the way to the White House last week. Not in terms of any pressure on him to hold the polls: the Americans would rather deal with men in uniform in Islamabad than any elected politician at this time when they want to change Pakistan into an entity which it intrinsically cannot be.

President George W. Bush and some others made pro forma references to democracy in Pakistan. That would not have bothered Musharraf at all. After all, he too is used to saying things he does not mean — and saying them well. But when the White House summed up the outcome of the Pakistani president’s visit to Washington in a “fact sheet”, the second item among the support programmes for Islamabad announced by Bush was two million dollars in “democracy assistance”. It envisages American technical support for conducting elections, training of election commissioners, domestic observers and political party monitors in addition to provision of election commodities. The irony of this announcement was not lost either on those who were narrating the popular joke about Musharraf and his barber or on those who were enjoying its narration.

Provision of election commodities by the United States of America for Pakistan? The goodies to be shipped by the Americans for the general’s poll games in Islamabad were never specified, but would these include America’s world famous “hanging chad” voting machines which produced an inconclusive presidential election result in the US in November 2000?

Even as Musharraf was holding talks with America’s leaders in Washington, a federal court in Los Angeles ordered California’s secretary of state to replace, by the next presidential election in 2004, the punch-card voting machines which caused political chaos for both Bush and his Democratic rival, Al Gore. The original time-table for replacing these outmoded machines was July, 2005. In Florida’s Palm Beach county, which became globally known after the Bush-Gore election fracas, new touch-screen voting machines will replace the controversial old ones in a month for county-wide elections.

So, if these old machines are being phased out, would they be sent somewhere abroad in the spirit of “aid”? It would only be in the fitness of things if the US — where a huge credibility gap spans its electoral process — exports its poll culture to Pakistan, whose elections have been dubious even at the best of times. But more so now, since the Americans would very much like Musharraf to continue in power in Islamabad as long as a way can be found to pay lip-service to democracy in Pakistan.

The “democracy assistance” outlined in the fact sheet was a way for America to live with its “concerns” for democracy in Pakistan and for Musharraf to pursue his agenda as an unelected head of government without giving Washington or other Western governments a conscience. But such a perfect balance of demand and supply that was seen on the issue of democracy was not in evidence in several other areas of vital importance to Musharraf during his three-day stay in Washington. Which prompted the general to make an almost plaintive plea for unstinted support from Washington when he appeared before the house of representatives international relations committee.

“As I sit here, the eyes of all Pakistanis...and our entire region are focussed on the physical manifestation of support that the US is giving to Pakistan”, the general said. “The more support they see from the US to me and my government, the more extremism goes down and my support increases”. It would be wrong to suggest, as some in India would have everyone believe, that Musharraf’s Washington sojourn was a failure. It was not, by any stretch of wishful thinking. But it was clear between the lines that a lot had changed since the general last met Bush in New York in November. From the president downwards, everyone in the Bush administration was then grateful to Musharraf for his support to the US in the war against the taliban and al Qaida. This has since been tempered by the realization that Musharraf was left with no choice in September last year. The Americans gave Musharraf all of one day to make his volte face and cast aside the taliban. And he did.

Two months ago, few congressmen or senators would put up with anything said against Musharraf even in private conversations. Members of the India Caucus, who have been New Delhi’s “best friends”, would accuse Indians who questioned Musharraf’s sincerity of pursuing a one-dimensional agenda without taking into account Washington’s interests. All that had changed by the time Musharraf went to Capitol Hill last week. At the house international relations committee, several members put him through the mill, something that would have been unimaginable three months ago.

The congressman, Joseph Crowley, a Democrat, questioned Musharraf’s credentials to be a member of the global coalition against terrorism until he convincingly demonstrated that terrorist threats from Pakistan were being identified and eliminated. Jim McDermott, the Democratic co-chairman of the Indian Caucus, inserted a statement in the congressional record, which called for Musharraf to seal his border with India to prevent infiltration of terrorists.

It would also have been clear to Musharraf during his conversations with key members of the Bush team that America’s priorities had changed between his November meeting with the US president and now. Then, Bush was obsessively interested in seeking and securing Islamabad’s help in changing Afghanistan. That having been achieved with military might, Washington’s new priority is to change Pakistan itself.

In such a situation, Musharraf finds himself at the receiving end of US pressure in a manner that is altogether different from what he faced soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks. What he will be called upon to do in the coming weeks and months will directly impinge on him. To that extent, it is far more challenging than anything which Musharraf faced in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Washington’s faith in Musharraf’s ability to transform Pakistan is based less on his courage of conviction than on realpolitik. Some Americans compare the general’s post-September 11 actions and his January 12 speech against religious extremism to positions taken by some of America’s southern leaders against racial discrimination in the Fifties and Sixties. Having burned their boats with former allies who were unwilling to support racial changes, there was no going back on a reformist agenda for these leaders who opted for change. The same, it is argued in the corridors of power, holds good for Musharraf.

Contrary to the general impression in India that he felt slighted by Washington’s refusal to give him the F-16 planes, which Pakistan had paid for, Musharraf was not unduly worried about that “contentious” issue. For the wily general, the F-16s are no more than a symbol — for public consumption in Pakistan — of the fighting effort he is undertaking with the Americans to guard Islamabad’s supreme national interest. The general’s hour of reckoning, it would seem, came during discussions between the Pakistanis and the Americans about the trade package for Pakistan. The trade benefits of $142 million outlined in the White House fact sheet was far less than what Musharraf had hoped for.

It was not that Bush was tight-fisted in offering a better package. The outlines of a package, which included big tariff concessions and market access for Pakistani textiles, had been discussed during a visit by Pakistan’s commerce minister, Razzak Dawood, a few months ago. Any such deal was, however, fiercely opposed by lawmakers from the textile-producing states of Georgia and North Carolina. What they threatened was blockage of a top presidential priority — the trade promotion authority, which would allow Bush to negotiate trade agreements which the Congress could approve or reject, but not amend. Nine senators, among them Republicans and Democrats, wrote to the commerce secretary, Don Evans, a fortnight before Musharraf arrived that “any agreement to construct an aid package to Pakistan that adversely impacts an ailing US industry is directly contrary to both administration policy and common sense”.

Bush could not, however, let Musharraf go home empty-handed on the textile issue. He, therefore, used his executive powers to let Pakistan utilize unfilled portions of existing quotas to export apparel worth $113 million. He also increased Pakistan’s base quotas by $29 million. There are two lessons to be learned from this. For Washington, its interests come above everything else. And secondly, US priorities keep shifting and leaders or governments who are not part of those priorities tend to fall by the wayside.

   

 
 
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM 
 
 
BY ACHIN VANAIK
 
 
It is in the nature of the Indian pro-nuclear bomb lobby that when one set of casual and superficial arguments in favour of the bomb falls flat, then another set of arguments in its favour is, with equal casualness, marshalled and put forward. After May 1998, there was a veritable flood of claims that regional stability would be enhanced by first India and then Pakistan going openly nuclear. The wondrous workings of nuclear deterrence would usher in not only greater nuclear security but would also reduce the likelihood of conventional military conflicts and tensions.

There were those in the anti-nuclear camp who pointed out that this was inverted logic. That militarization and nuclearization were the symptoms and expressions of political hostility and could not, by themselves, undo or decrease that hostility since they could never address the deeper causes sustaining those hostilities.

But their voices were simply ignored or dismissed. Three-and-a-half years down the line, who was right? Can anybody doubt or deny that relations between India and Pakistan are more embittered now than they have been in decades? That the presence of nuclear weapons, far from being the soothing balm they were purported to be, have simply added a new and dangerous layer of tension to a situation of abiding unease?

The easy way to explain away this deterioration in India-Pakistan relations is to assign all the blame to Pakistan — its perfidy, its abetment of terrorists, initiation of Kargil, and so on. But why then did the pro-bomb lobby in India claim such healing powers for the nuclearization of the region, a process which was initiated by India, not Pakistan?

But instead of admitting that they had it all wrong, this lobby has sought to provide new justifications. We are now told that the politics of nuclear brinkmanship, practised after December 13, 2001, has paid real dividends, showing how politically useful nuclear weapons can be. Yet, in May 1998 and for some time thereafter, our very same nuclear and strategic experts were telling us that, unlike during the Cold War, in south Asia there would be no danger of nuclear brinkmanship; that India, as a responsible nuclear power, would never dream of practising nuclear brinkmanship.

Drawing up a balance-sheet of the pluses and minuses of the politics of brinkmanship after December 13 is a more complicated affair than might appear at first. But attributing the “achievements” of such brinkmanship — like Pakistan’s acknowledgement of its role in fomenting terrorist activities in Kashmir, its curtailment of terrorists’ activities, Pervez Musharraf’s historic speech of January 12, 2002 — to the brandishing of nuclear weapons is totally off the mark.

The simplest way to recognize the fallacy of this claim is to ask what would have happened if the United States of America had not been in the picture and pressurizing Pakistan after the events of September 11, 2001? Could India have then got what it wanted from Pakistan by threatening a war that might possibly escalate to a nuclear confrontation? The answer should be obvious — it would not.

Furthermore, could India have realistically defied the US and waged a conventional war, keeping as a bargaining counter the possibility of using its nuclear weapons? Again, the answer is obvious. There is no way that India could have launched a war, though in such situations there is always a danger of the dynamics of militarist confrontation getting out of hand.

The key factors then were not India’s nuclear weapons or its so-called nuclear brinkmanship, but the US presence in Pakistan and the godsend provided by the December 13 attack, following as it did in the wake of September 11.

If the US could behave as it did after the September 11 terrorist attack, then how could it justifiably oppose similar behaviour by India? It did so, nonetheless. But to compensate for this, the US conceded what it had earlier refused to — it pressurized Musharraf to finally blacklist those terrorist organizations India had specified, and to take action against them domestically.

But can we now look forward more optimistically to a resolution of the Kashmir issue and thus a dramatic improvement in India-Pakistan relations? Far from it. After the May 1998 tests, the Kashmir issue, as a possible nuclear flashpoint, was automatically internationalized. Most Indian strategic experts, however, continued to insist that there would be no such internationalization, or that India would successfully resist such pressures.

Very soon however, a small minority of “experts” and commentators began, as expected, to argue that internationalization of the issue was now inevitable and that instead of opposing it, India should intervene to shape this “internationalization” in its favour. This minority has now seen its ranks swell. And this trend will continue because the fact of the matter is that there is now an irreversible change, especially after September 11 — Kashmir has become not so much internationalized as “Americanized”.

The implications of this have still not fully sunk into our “strategic community” nor into the common sense of our elite. So anxious is a large majority of the Indian elite to forge an alliance with the US that it is desperate to convince itself that this will be mutually beneficial. Such an arrangement cannot ever be between equals, but one in which the US will call all the shots.

The language that our strategic experts use to cover up this reality or to make it more palatable is the utterly foolish, indeed laughable, claim that there is an ever closer “convergence of national interests” between the two countries. The US will not sacrifice Pakistan for India or vice versa, but will manipulate both for its own purposes.

This will become increasingly clear with regard to the Kashmir issue. The US security establishment will now proceed to develop a range of policy options and perspectives with regard to “settling” the Kashmir issue in ways that link it to its own distinctive geo-strategic perspectives in central Asia. That these might coincide with the hopes of the Indian or Pakistani establishments, or with the aspirations for a truly just solution held by the Kashmiri people on both sides of the border is, to put it mildly, extremely unlikely.

If there is to be a just resolution of the Kashmir issue and with it the advent of a stable and peaceful relationship between India and Pakistan, then four preconditions have to be fulfilled.

First, Pakistan has to move in a more secular and democratic direction. Here Musharraf has made a historic beginning but his success is very much in question. Second, the Indian elite, who are becoming increasingly communal and hawkish, must move steadily in the opposite direction. This would require the decisive defeat of the forces of Hindutva, which is far from visible.

Third, the governments of both India and Pakistan have to adopt a more creative approach to resolving the Kashmir issue. This requires recognizing that the people of Kashmir themselves have a say in the determination of their future. Again, there is no serious evidence of any such trend. Fourth, India and Pakistan must stop trying to “partner” the US against each other. That is, they must not only seek to resolve the Kashmir issue independent of the US, but should also stop trying so desperately to ally with it.

The reality, however, is the very opposite. There are more reasons then to be pessimistic than optimistic about the future of the region.

The author has recently co-authored the book, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament

   

 
 
DOCUMENT/ TOWARDS A MORE COMPLETE LIFE 
 
 
 
 
The lacunae in policy and infrastructure, the negative or indifferent attitudes of employers and the limitations of employees all seem to be contributing to the dismal employment status of disabled people. Here are some of the challenges that many of the non-governmental organizations were facing: poor accessibility to and at work place; mismatch of available jobs and registered candidates; non-implementation of the Disability Act; lack of data on job profiles required and on persons seeking employment; lack of reservation policy and incentives for employers in private sector; lack of support for disabled entrepreneuers; fears and apprehensions of employers; lack of belief in the capacity of disabled people; absence of technology to enhance potential of persons with disability; and non-cooperation of labour unions. Many NGOs felt that there was a dearth of disabled people with relevant education, training and skills...sympathy and over-protection by parents was leading to a lack of confidence and initiative on the part of disabled persons. Many NGOs mentioned that the severity and type of disability of a person is a major factor, for example persons with hearing impairment or with mental retardation find it most difficult to find suitable jobs.

…There are 23 Special Employment Exchanges and 55 Special Cells for placement of disabled people in the regular employment exchanges in India. Out of the 119 organizations that took part in this research study, only 33.61 per cent register their beneficiaries with employment exchanges. This indicates a lack of faith on the part of NGOs in this channel and lack of networking between these two agencies working towards the same goal. In the last two years, only 212 beneficiaries were placed through this channel; 5.05 per cent of the total number of placements of disabled people....

According to a survey of 587 persons with disabilities in the slums of Vishakhapatnam, Bangalore and Calcutta, none of the disabled people interviewed in Vishakhapatnam and Bangalore had registered at the SEE. In Calcutta, only nine of the 113 adults interviewed had registered. However, none of the adults interviewed in the three cities had gained employment through this provision. There were reports of bribes being demanded for placements within the government disability quota.

…It is evident that the task of NGOs does not end with providing vocational training and placement service. Continuous follow-up is a crucial part of the employment process. About 84.62 per cent of the participating NGOs mentioned that they provide need-based support to the disabled people placed by them. The time frame of follow-up varied from three months to six years. Many of them give continuous follow-up support. Many of the beneficiaries getting vocational training in these organizations are placed in jobs by the efforts of the placement staff by matching the disabled person’s abilities and the job profile. However, if a person gets into regular employment, he/she needs to develop/acquire so many other skills in order to continue in the job. The follow-up services have a major role to play at this point...

As per data available from the research study, the drop-out rate is only 4.25 per cent. This could be due to the follow-up services provided by the concerned NGOs. However, many of the participating NGOs have mentioned that they do not have data on the drop-out rate. This indicates that they are not doing the follow-up faithfully.

…India has about 30 million disabled children, but less than one per cent have access to education. Unless disabled people are provided with appropriate education, they cannot aspire to suitable jobs. About 72.27 per cent of the participating NGOs responded that they provide educational services. About 18,768 disabled children were getting education through these NGOs. Out of these, 44.18 per cent of the students were getting integrated education while 43.90 per cent were under special education. Recently in India, there has been a major thrust on a shift away from special education to inclusive education.

...It is believed that special schools should be converted into resource centres to train children for integrated education, which is the best foundation for mainstreaming of disabled people. The responsibility for special education should be that of the total education system and not that of a separate system of education.

However, it is important to recognize that integration by itself cannot be a substitute for careful planning of interventions with regard to the special needs of disabled people. The ideal strategy would probably be to provide the disabled child with the best possible interventions in an integrated setting. If disabled children are expected to participate in and benefit from integrated schools, there is need...for equipping teachers with special skills, making curricula disability-sensitive, making school buildings accessible and addressing the attitudes and prejudices of other children and their parents. It is also important to recognize that there is a section of disabled people who need a different system of education and communication, like those with hearing and visual impairment. If they are trained in functional literacy and numeracy, the labour market needs to accept their capabilities in job profiles that do not require persons with formal education.

To be concluded

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

An unwillingness to act

Sir — Atal Bihari Vajpayee will have to come up with a better excuse for his inability to solve the deadlock on the Ayodhya issue, instead of blaming the two sides for not being able to arrive at a consensus (“Atal reaches a dead-end on Ayodhya”, Feb 17). The dispute is a decade old and the fact that little headway has so far been made towards reaching an amicable solution is an indication of the lackadaisical attitude of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Not surprisingly, the issue is raked up whenever the BJP is in danger of losing its upper-caste vote bank or is pressurized by the sangh parivar into making some sort of a commitment on Ayodhya. Vajpayee’s recent statement in favour of a court settlement is all the more unacceptable since it is an obvious ploy to buy time. It is time the Indian prime minister stops indulging in meaningless rhetoric to wriggle his way out of sticky situations and begins to accept responsibility for the actions of his government. He could start by placing the top Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders under preventive detention so as to stop them from disrupting law and order after March 15.
Yours faithfully,
Mandira Saha, Calcutta

Futile visit

Sir — The editorial, “The general drops by” (Feb 16), rightly points out that the visit of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, to the United States of America has exposed the fragility of the relationship between the two countries. Even as the US appreciates and acknowledges Pakistan’s role in its war against terrorism, it is not ready to do anything that might jeopardize its relations with New Delhi. Nor is it willing to play the role of mediator in the Kashmir dispute. Although Musharraf was given a warm reception in the White House, he was unable to secure the military and economic aid he had been hoping for. The wily general had to settle for an aid of 200 million dollars, instead of a loan waiver of almost three billion. The Pakistani president has also been unsuccessful in securing any military aid from the US. Though the US president, George W. Bush, and Musharraf addressed the media together, there was no joint declaration. India should take advantage of Pakistan’s diplomatic setback and exert pressure on Musharraf to yield to its demand regarding the handover of 20 hardcore terrorists.
Yours faithfully,
Mitul Sengupta, Calcutta

Sir — Pervez Musharraf’s visit to the US has not turned out the way he wanted it to. The general, who had gone to the US armed with a handful of lies and complaints against India, has returned home with practically nothing. Not only was he unable to prove India’s alleged involvement in the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, a journalist with The Wall Street Journal, but his claim that India had conducted another nuclear test also failed to attract much attention. Neither could Musharraf convince the US of the need for third-party intervention in Kashmir.

At the same time, the US seems to be ignoring all the evidence garnered by Indian intelligence agencies about Pakistan’s involvement in terrorist activities in India. Witness how the US officials were busy laying down the red carpet for the visiting Musharraf. Also, it is well known that it is the doles by the US government which are helping prop up the Musharraf regime. Perhaps the member countries of the United Nations can get together to tell off the US for its double standards.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and the subsequent investigations should tell the US what a fool it has been to trust Pakistan’s avowals of friendship. Pervez Musharraf might seem like a dependable ally to George W. Bush now, but that is only because the general needs the US’s help. Bush should know that it is better to have no friends than to have such dubious ones.

Yours faithfully,
Pinky Gupta, Howrah

Sir — It is high time New Delhi accepted the fact that Pakistan is crucial to US interests in southeast Asia (“Ready for Kashmir, not contraception”, Feb 16). Not only has the US forgotten the fact that Musharraf came to power by overthrowing the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif, but it has also taken pains to cover up its close assocation with Pakistan at the height of the Kargil conflict (“Kargil secret comes tumbling out of US closet”, Feb 15). Hence, it is not surprising that when the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, was asked by a Kashmiri youth whether he thought American lives were more precious than those of Kashmiris, he could only reply lamely that the US was doing all it could to diffuse the situation.

Yours faithfully,
Varsha Sharma, Calcutta

Sir — Talks between two countries can only be successful when they are ready to make some compromises so as to affect a breakthrough. Pervez Musharraf cannot, on the one hand, invite India for talks, and on the other, carry on about the freedom of the Kashmiri people and India’s alleged role in the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl. Also, in the absence of a democratic government in Pakistan, talks between the two countries are doomed to failure. Given that the US considers itself the self-proclaimed champion of democracy worldwide, it should first elicit an assurance from Musharraf about the restoration of the democratic process before giving any financial aid to Pakistan.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kumar, New Delhi

Off track

Sir — The demand for a direct train service between Calcutta and Kerala is almost a decade old. However, in spite of the innumerable representations made to the authorities concerned, no step has been taken in that direction. Moreover, Calcutta being the gateway to the northeastern states, a direct train service between Howrah and Kerala will be beneficial to the Malayali population scattered all over the Northeast. The existence of a smooth transport system will also boost inter-state tourism.

At present, there are two trains running on the Howrah-Thiruvanthapuram/Nagercoil route — one is a bi-monthly train and the other a weekly. Besides increasing the number of trains plying this route, the railway authorities should also try to reschedule the timings of the existing trains so that passengers are not inconvenienced either at arrival or at departure. If direct services cannot be introduced between Howrah and Thiruvananthapuram immediately, the authorities should ensure that as a stop-gap measure, two coaches are attached to the Coromandel Express on the days when the existing trains do not ply.

Further, the recent decision of the railway authorities to stop attaching the Mangalore coach to the Howrah-Thiruvananthapuram Express has caused inconvenience to passengers from the Malabar region. One is also shocked at the appalling condition of many of the coaches of the trains on this route.

Yours faithfully,
T.S.S. Nair, Calcutta

Sir — I was travelling from Chennai to Howrah on the Coromandel Express on January 3, 2002. I, along with some of my co-passengers, ordered vegetarian food. We were charged Rs 25 for it by the catering staff. However, at lunch time we had to settle for coarse rice and a measly amount of alu matar curry that was already rotting. I wrote a letter of complaint to the chief commercial officer, southeastern railways, and even obtained the signature of two of my co-passengers.

The superintendent of the train at first refused to accept the letter and instead asked me to sort out the matter with the official in charge of the pantry car. It was only after I persisted that he relented and signed my application, and assured me that he would forward it to the authorities concerned immediately. While I do not know whether the superintendent forwarded my letter, I was, however, given a money receipt by the cashier.

Yours faithfully,
Kalipada Basu, Hooghly

Sir — All hoardings and other information on the Subarnarekha Express from Dhanbad to Tatanagar are written in Hindi and English, even though the train covers a distance of 108 kilometers in West Bengal and only 80 kms in Jharkhand. The train stops at 10 stations between Dhanbad and Tatanagar, five of which are in West Bengal. Also, most travellers on this train are from West Bengal. It would help them if the instructions were written in Bengali.

Yours faithfully,
Anirban Bandopadhyay, Purulia

Sir — The poor infrastructure in West Bengal is best exemplified by the state of the railway network in the state. For example, the journey by train from Calcutta to New Alipurduar in the north takes nearly 24 hours, even though the distance covered is only 694 kilometers. Moreover, there is only a single unelectrified track along this route. Since the poor transport system hampers development in the region, the government should take immediate steps to double the railway tracks in this area. This will not only bring down the travel time between Howrah and New Alipurduar from 20 to 8 hours. But it will also facilitate the easy transportation of goods between Calcutta and the northeastern parts of the country. The government should view this project as an investment and not as an added drain on its exchequer. Is the railways minister listening?

Yours faithfully,
Biswajit M, Pune

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