Editorial 1 / Price of folly
Editorial 2 / Nestle in
Festival of democracy
Fifth Column / Land of perpetual darkness
Learning it the hard way
Document /Let us spread the good word
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / PRICE OF FOLLY 
 
 
 
 
Incompetence is not coloured by ideology. Thus, the fact that the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi, is a die hard advocate of Hindutva may not have anything to do with his delay in taking action to suppress the rioting in Ahmedabad which had Muslims as its principal targets. The communal riots were a disaster waiting to happen once the train carrying kar sevaks was burnt down at the Godhra railway station. But Mr Modi took no pre-emptive action. He allowed Ahmedabad to burn for 48 hours before a reluctant police force was galvanized into action. The word reluctant is used advisedly because it was clear from the pictures and reports that came in that the police were in many cases mere bystanders while the crowds went on a rampage against Muslims. Senior police officers of Ahmedabad even provided elaborate sociological justification of the police’s inactivity. One of the main duties of the government is to protect the lives and properties of the people. Mr Modi’s government has failed in this duty. History will decide in the future whether this failure was deliberate or not. If it is proved to be deliberate, Mr Modi will end up in the rogue’s gallery of independent India. But even without such proof, Mr Modi’s failure is stark. He might win public certificates from his patron in New Delhi, Mr L.K.Advani, the Union home minister, but in the public mind, the facts are indisputable and the failure indelibly etched. For a chief minister, there can only be one price for this kind of failure: resignation. Mr Modi has lost the moral right to rule. He should go. If the Bharatiya Janata party has an iota of self-respect, it should remove Mr Modi from power.

The removal of Mr Modi will not be an unprecedented act. Similar steps were taken in the aftermath of the three big communal riots in recent memory: Delhi in 1984, Uttar Pradesh in 1992 and Maharashtra in 1992. Mr Modi’s incompetence may be doubly compounded because there is some evidence to suggest that the grisly incident at Godhra could have been averted with quick and effective action. Reports indicate that at the railway station, a large number of people had gathered armed with the instruments of arson. The local administration took no steps to disperse that crowd. Arson at Godhra led directly to the riots. This only underlines Mr Modi’s incompetence.

The removal of Mr Modi and of other officials who failed to do their duty will not eradicate what is emerging as a major problem within Indian administration. This is the failure or the unwillingness of government servants, especially members of the police force, to act in an impartial manner whenever there is a communal conflict involving Hindus. In 1984, the police did not act against Hindus killing Sikhs; in Ahmedabad, the police did not move against Hindu mobs. There is taking place a slow but steady communalization of the police force in favour of the majority community. The process is facilitated by the fact that most members of the police are drawn from the Hindu community. It is nurtured by the crude majoritarian ideology that the sangh parivar peddles. This trend challenges the very idea of secular India.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / NESTLE IN 
 
 
 
 
An axe splitting up the word, “neutrality”. Switzerland has been plastered, by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, with posters depicting this loud emblem of what would happen to it if it joined the United Nations. But to no avail. Fifty-five per cent of the Swiss have voted in favour of joining the UN. This is a remarkable change from the overwhelmingly negative response to the 1986 referendum on joining the UN. Switzerland will therefore become the UN’s 190th member. The great Swiss tradition of neutrality goes back to the 16th century; and from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, through the 1920 League of Nations and World War II, this country of excellent diplomats has maintained its political isolationism. It has refused to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and remains the hole in the European carpet by staying out of the European Union. This tradition of sovereignty and independence, embodied in the principles of direct democracy and federalism, makes Switzerland not only wealthy and peaceful, but also “proud, neutral and rather cautious”, in the words of the British foreign minister for the UN. It would certainly be a good feather in the UN’s cap.

This referendum is also significant from the point of view of Switzerland’s sense of its own identity as a nation and of its place in the world. At a more philosophical, and more pragmatic, level, it questions the very idea of neutrality itself in a world which is both globalized and polarized. The predominantly urban, French-speaking and moneyed pro-UN lobby would agree with the government’s view that joining the UN would enable Switzerland to safeguard its interests as well as assume responsibilities in the world. The more conservative German- and Italian-speaking cantons fear not only the financial costs of joining the UN, but also the implications of having to obey the UN security council, dominated by the United States of America. Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition, as well as its hugely successful multinational companies like Nestlé have opted for internationalism. Last year, Switzerland had also signed the UN convention against terrorism. The imperatives of globalization have brought Switzerland into the UN. It will now have to confront the prospect of joining the EU.

   

 
 
FESTIVAL OF DEMOCRACY 
 
 
BY MAHESH RANGARAJAN
 
 
The assembly elections of 2002 were a festival of democracy in the true sense of the term. The ruling parties in four states were voted out of office. The National Democratic Alliance’s bid to play the patriotic card, to drown out the issues of governance with the drum-beat of war hysteria did not work. The outcome has significant implications for long-term political alignments, often in unexpected ways.

The most astounding result has hardly been commented upon. Not only did the Bharatiya Janata Party and its odd assortment of allies lose resoundingly in Uttar Pradesh, but also for the first time since the fateful Ram mandir wave of the summer of 1991, the party itself could not even reach the three-digit mark. It fell behind its old arch rival, the Samajwadi Party, and a revitalized Bahujan Samaj Party as well. A paltry 88 seats out of 403 is all the state leaders have to show for all the tall claims on the dynamism of the “Rajnath plus Vajpayee” card. Nothing stings like failure, and this faltering in the valley of the Ganga, the heartland of resurgent Hindutva is a blow that will take some time to take effect.

The results are an even greater setback than the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Derisive terms like the “cow belt” and “Bimaru” often used to describe Hindi-speaking India do little justice to the acumen and maturity of its voters. Even while much of India succumbed to the Kargil card, UP gave the BJP a thumbs-down signal. Since then, the chief rivals of the party went out on the stump, and this spring it is they who are counting a harvest of votes.

It is sobering to note how much has changed so fast. Only a decade and a half ago, the Congress swept everything in sight. The advocates of the temple eventually supplanted it ten years ago. But it is now clear that the green shoots of change lay elsewhere. Already by the 1991 polls, the various parties led by the Mandal and Dalit castes and communities mustered over 40 per cent of the votes. Over time, each of these constituencies has solidified and then attempted its own hegemonic project.

An other backward classes leader at the helm of affairs is nothing new in Indian politics. It was first attempted in the south by Kamaraj Nadar in Tamil Nadu, and has been perfected in neighbouring Bihar by Laloo Prasad Yadav. What makes UP special is that it is now the first ever Indian state where a Mandalite leads the biggest bloc and the main challenger is a Dalit-led grouping. Mayavati has indeed come a long way. The original agenda of the old Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, as the party was known earlier, was one of open antagonism to upper-caste oppressors. Few have forgotten the slogan that equated the priestly, warrior and upper castes with “chors”or thieves. Not only has the BSP crafted a formidable Dalit vote-bank ranging across the pyramid of income groups from salaried government class I officers to the landless poor, but it has also managed something even more remarkable: it has brought into its fold significant groups from other communities. Forward class members of legislative assemblies rub shoulders with Muslims, and OBCs with the Dalits themselves. Nowhere else in India has a Dalit leadership emerged at the apex of such an alliance.

It is this outcome which is as significant as the defeat of the BJP. If anything it is the savarna Hindu voter who is splintered and fractured. Some went with the Congress, others to Mayavati and a few even to Mulayam Singh Yadav. The game plan of a slice of reservations for the lower backwards did not dent their cross-caste affiliations. And the elusive mirage of the Ram temple that did not see a single brick put in place in nearly five years of BJP rule drove home the opportunism about religion which has so often marked the party L.K. Advani built so assiduously.

Many may stop to ask if the Samajwadi Party and the BSP can again combine as they once did in 1993. But the fissures that run through these two parties are too deep to be bridged. Even now, the sheer arithmetic of the new house is such that Mulayam can only hope to form a government if he can break the BSP. Conversely, Mayavati would prefer to drive a really hard bargain with the saffron party to win a monopoly of power and a free hand in the state. Whoever is in power will face an onslaught from the cadre of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. A better, or should we say worse, crown of thorns can hardly be imagined. A fragmented legislature is combined with a society in which a strong sectarian group with patronage from powerful forces in New Delhi tries to overwhelm all with brute power.

Where India goes next will hinge to an extent on the events as they spin out in Uttar Pradesh. Once again, as in 1989, when the anti-Congress forces coalesced to dethrone the ruling party, and in 1991 and 1993, when Hindutva won and then lost, the key battleground in the literal sense is the valley of the Ganga. It has become fashionable to comment on its increasing irrelevance owing to the rise of the south and the west, but UP is of enduring importance for more than sheer numerical reasons.

At critical moments in the past, it has been the site of major developments. It was here that the movements for Hindi and Urdu gained pace over a century ago, and the seeds of Partition ripened fastest a generation down the line. The state subsequently became the main bastion of the old Congress order and then a bridgehead for the emergence of Hindutva into the nucleus of the alliance that now rules India. What happens here does matter and to all those with a stake in India’s democracy. The verdict is both clear and ambiguous. It is evident that the voters have had enough of the BJP, of its jumbo cabinets and history-sheeter ministers, of its flip-flops and non-governance. But if the old world is dying, the new is yet to emerge fully formed. Neither the Dalit-led bloc nor the Mandal-inspired one has achieved its full potential. They cannot combine and will not cohere.

Hindutva is down but not out. The question is how it can play itself back into the game and whether there is any card left, other than the mandir one. What no one is willing to say is what happens if that too does not work. Cards have a way of yielding diminishing returns. What then, or as we may have to say after the middle of March, what now? This was the first time since 1998 that the BJP, and not its allies, was under frontal and direct assault in an assembly poll. A weakened and declining force, it will not have to measure every step, count every blessing. Reduced to ruling just four states, it is already a shadow of what it was a few years ago. A fresh round of polarization on secular versus communal lines may help the VHP in Lucknow, but will prove tricky, if not fatal, for its sister organization in New Delhi. Atal Bihari Vajpayee may propose but Ashok Singhal will dispose.

None of this makes the outcomes of the impending battles easy to predict. But there is little doubt that both for Hindutva and the politics of lower-caste assertion, the last month was a turning point. And the country will watch with bated breath who comes out at the top of the heap and at what price.

The author is an independent political analyst and a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University, Ithaca

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / LAND OF PERPETUAL DARKNESS 
 
 
BY ANURADHA KUMAR
 
 
Early in February, Jonas Savimbi, the rebel Angolan guerrilla leader, was gunned down by Angolan troops, signaling the end of yet another phase in the country’s 41-year long guerrilla war. The last gory phase of this war was financed by diamond traders and not the Central Intelligence Agency, which earlier backed Savimbi under the orders of successive American presidents, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Clearly, Savimbi and his band of tribal guerrillas, UNITA, could not keep up the fight against the larger resources of the Angolan government which controls much of the country’s lucrative petroleum deposits.

Wars nowadays — in Angola and elsewhere — are fought not over ideological or political issues, but to seek control over diamond mines, petroleum wells, even poppy fields. Such brutal wars for control over minerals have been waged in many African nations like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo.

The assassination of the Congolese strongman, Laurent Kabila, barely a year ago can be seen as part of the ethnic tensions that have long defined Congo’s history, but his death was followed by rival regimes squabbling for control over the country’s rich mineral resources.

Leaders of straw

Kabila himself came to power after toppling Mobuto Sese Seko, a western stooge and a product of the Cold War. In his three-decade rule, the extremely corrupt regime over which Sese Seko presided had stripped the country of much of its assets. Kabila, unfortunately, was no different. He granted liberal concessions to mining companies like South Africa’s De Beers and American Mineral Fields in return for generous monetary help for his army. The conflict in Congo — involving soldiers from six African countries — rages on, having taken a toll of nearly 2.5 million people in the past three years alone.

To ease the conflict, there has been an attempt to create categories of “conflict goods”, a measure that has served little purpose. When “conflict diamonds” from UNITA-controlled Angola became illegal, Savimbi and his men were strapped for resources. But smuggling continues as before, under bogus companies run by suspicious front men, believed to be part of a wider terrorist network.

During a recent visit to west Africa, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, called for a new African initiative by the developed world. But his speeches, peppered with assurances of increased assistance, did not go into why this region of Africa has been embroiled in a seemingly unending conflict. Pious pronouncements apart, the West remains as indifferent as ever to developments in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

The West has no clue

The political analyst, Mahmood Mandani, says ethnic conflicts in Africa are not between the resource-rich and the resource-poor; but between those who have the right of citizenship and those who do not, and thus fight for such rights. This is a legacy of the colonial times, when administrators granted citizenship to groups they saw as indigenous, while disenfranchizing those they considered ethnically not indigenous to an area, even if they were born there.

Conflicts also grew because of the skewed structural adjustment programmes initiated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at the height of the Cold War. In the earlier decades after independence, many African countries did achieve some progress. But when drastic state intervention in the form of welfare measures was needed, SAP limited the state’s role and opened up the markets. Domestic savings in several African countries fell from 25 per cent to a low of 10 per cent. Sadly, most of this outflow goes in buying weapons from western companies, which only furthers this futile cycle of violence.

Africa needs not dollops of cash, but a change in policy context. By undercutting the state’s role as the provider of social services, the SAPs had turned the relationship between the state and the population into one of intimidation through security and armed services. What African nations need is to re-affirm the state’s autonomy — an autonomy that is sustained by strong roots in local democracy and provides social security to all its citizens.

   

 
 
LEARNING IT THE HARD WAY 
 
 
BY PARIMAL BHATTACHARYA
 
 
Sometime in the middle of February, the campus of a Barasat college turned into a battleground as a section of its students clashed with “outsiders” armed with sticks and iron rods. More than a dozen boys were injured. Days before this incident, a private management institute located in Durgapur closed down indefinitely following violent clashes between its students and, again, “outsiders”. Similar violence had rocked Shibpur BE College last December, forcing the authorities to order 1,700 odd students to vacate the hostels under police vigil. Normal classes are yet to resume there.

The string of incidents, following each other so quickly, puts before us a disturbing question: how safe are our campuses? In West Bengal, violence in college and university campuses has had a long and chequered history. Those who had been students or teachers during the unquiet days of the Sixties and the Seventies have memories of gheraos gone berserk and pitched battles between policemen and student activists. Those who came to the scene a little later saw the remains of those days in the leftover graffities, disfigured busts of great men and the presence of khaki on the campuses. Without doubt, it was during the Sixties and the Seventies that the atmosphere in colleges and universities in Calcutta and the surrounding areas underwent a radical change. Quiet campuses populated by disciplined students and venerable teachers became the baggage of a nostalgic past as the temples of higher learning mutated into bloody arenas of agitation and activism.

In fact, those campus days have become a part of our recent political history. Presidency College and the Calcutta University were the hotbeds of the Naxalite movement and that part of history has been well documented. However, those who witnessed the unfolding of a violent movement from close quarters agree on one point: students were still students and they considered teachers as teachers.

Violence in the campus had a predictable nature; it mostly played itself out within certain political and cultural paradigms. However, as the Naxalite movement began to disintegrate, that phase soon gave way to a form of hooliganism. A free and fair examination system was the first casualty as mass copying and terrorizing invigilators became the order of the day. During this period, a number of colleges in the city and its fringes came into prominence as dens of those indulging in criminal activities. By then, elected students’ unions in colleges and universities had become springboards for professional politicians.

After the Left Front came to power, a semblance of order was restored in educational institutions. But it was also accompanied by a gradual politicization of various academic bodies. By the mid-Eighties this process was almost complete, and it first showed its ugly head during the tenure of a Calcutta University vice-chancellor who did not enjoy the support of the ruling party. Protest and agitation were a daily occurrence, and the vice-chancellor was often forced to run his office from home. The casualty this time was the dignity of the high office of the vice-chancellor.

Over the years, there has been a transformation in the social and psychological climate in most college campuses. The incidents referred to at the beginning illustrate this point. At Shibpur, a rampaging mob attacked the vice-chancellor’s car inside the institute premises and tried to set it on fire. At Durgapur, on the other hand, violence was sparked off by an incident of eve-teasing. And yet these are not isolated incidents. Violence, in one form or another, occurs in college premises with disquieting frequency. Most of the time they go unreported because the authorities are reluctant to call in the police and meet the crisis head on. Often, the larger forces at work are outside their reach. But be it the attempted lynching of the head of an institute or the molestation of a girl student, they point to one significant thing: the lumpenization of a part of the student body.

In the districts, most degree colleges suffer from poor infrastructure and lack of other facilities. And yet, every year, they give in to various local pressures and admit a large number of applicants. Colleges unfit to accommodate more than a few hundred students are often burdened with a yearly enrolment running up to a couple of thousand. It is not rare for a college to have two hundred students admitted to an honours course. Classroom teaching thus becomes a farce and colleges turn into extended processing counters of universities. Consequently, the institute premises become the haunt for idlers, drifters and even drug addicts and eve-teasers. The campus degenerates into a public space where the youth — a most volatile and combustible section of the society — converge and commingle. A single provocation can turn them into a potential lynch mob, as it happened a few years ago at the Sealdah station, where students of a nearby college went on a violent rampage over the harassment of a ticketless teacher. The police moved in and in the shootout that followed, a number of innocent commuters were killed.

The most common reaction is to blame increasing political interference inside campuses. In fact, in two of the incidents referred to at the outset, the “outsiders” turned out to be local toughies owing allegiance to political parties. But the problem, it seems, is far more complex. Perhaps one reason why campuses are becoming the haunts of anti-social forces is the unconcern among the majority of the students towards the political system. In an age of fierce competition and dwindling employment opportunities, the better students take their college or university days as a portal to the prospective job market and not as a phase of life for some form of engagement with the socio-political matrix. As a result, the elected students’ union councils in colleges and universities almost never represent the interests of the student body. They function as an arm of lumpen forces under the aegis of different political parties.

Exceptions happen, especially when students group themselves on specific academic issues affecting them and work towards a consciously non-political formation. It happened in two of our universities in recent years and worked well for some time. But in the absence of a sustained programme or broader engagement, they could not function for long.

The subject of violence on the campuses inevitably leads to the administrative aspect of the issue. The scenario here is not very encouraging. In most state-run colleges, the post of principal lies vacant for years and senior teachers take charge on an ad hoc basis. But teachers-in-charge do not enjoy the administrative powers of a full-time principal and, in many cases, the support of the staff. Thus, while the administrative machinery of the institute suffers, the civil authority too often stays away in moments of crisis because the student community as a whole wields enormous emotional power over society. The manhandling of a single student at the hands of policemen can give rise to serious law and order problems.

Where, then, does the remedy lie? Can an able administrator with an iron fist ensure peace in the campus? A few years ago, Aligarh Muslim University got a vice-chancellor who was a former Indian administrative service officer and had served in Kashmir. He possessed a gun and moved around with Z-category security. Unfortunately, this gun-toting vice-chancellor’s tenure has been dubbed as one of the most turbulent phases in the history of this eminent university.

Such lessons remind us of the need for a broader perspective while dealing with campus disturbances. The campus of an educational institute holds the key to the society’s political, economic and moral future. The warranty of that future hinges on a proper engagement with the present and a correct reading of the past.

   

 
 
DOCUMENT /LET US SPREAD THE GOOD WORD 
 
 
 
 
The programme areas/ issues of Agenda 21 which require most immediate attention for bilateral/multilateral cooperation are the fulfilment of obligations of transfer of technology, financial assistance, capacity-building, public participation, the involvement of nongovernmental organizations and private sector, research and development institutions and the scientific/business community.

Some of the major challenges in building partnerships with NGOs and the private sector scientific community are: recognizing sustainable development as a mutual goal, the lack of understanding of issues for achieving sustainable development, the development of various tools/instruments and their implementation, and paucity of financial resources.

The Directorate General of Foreign Trade, inter-ministerial committees, core groups and the Bureau of Indian Standards are responsible for various types of standards setting. The committees/ agencies coordinate with each other and also interact with international agencies to avoid technical barriers in the flow of trade.

The following initiatives have been taken to promote public awareness on environmental issues in general...

Since the environment for sustainable development is a broad-ranging, multi-disciplinary subject, a comprehensive information system on environment necessarily involves the effective participation of...institutions/organizations in the country that are actively engaged in work relating to different areas of environment. Realizing the importance of environmental information, the government of India, in December 1982, established an Environmental Information System...The focus of ENVIS since inception has been on providing environmental information to decision-makers, policy planners, scientists and engineers, research workers, and so on, all over the country. A large number of nodes, known as ENVIS centres, has been established...to cover the broad areas of environment.

Similarly, the Sustainable Development Networking Programme is an United Nations Development Programme and International Development Resource Centre initiative launched worldwide in 1990 to make relevant information...readily available to decision-makers responsible for planning sustainable development strategies. SDNP-India is being implemented by the ENVIS... over a period of three years.

Capacity-building initiatives by the government of India in various sectors relating to the environment are an ongoing process and form an integral part of most programmes on sustainable development. Steps are taken to involve NGOs in organizing orientation training courses for teachers. The two centres of excellence, namely the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, and the CPR Environment Education Centre, Chennai, provide backup support to NGOs.

The government of India’s efforts towards non-formal environmental education and awareness include the National Environment Awareness Campaign, eco-clubs, Paryavaran Vahinis, seminars/symposia/conferences/workshops, publicity through state transport bus panels, films on environment related areas, communication and awareness programmes of NAEB, the early childhood education scheme started in 1982 to reduce drop out rates and to improve the rate of retention of children in primary schools in educationally backward areas in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tripura and West Bengal.

None of the actions of the government and civil society would mean much without the media...The ministry of information and broadcasting, through the mass communication media consisting of radio, television, films, the press, publications, advertising and traditional mode of dance and drama, plays a significant part in helping the people to have access to a free flow of information on issues including environmental protection.

To be concluded

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Fast losing ground

n Sir — If morning indeed shows the day, then the beginning of the year portends only ill for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its foreign policy is precariously poised following the murder of Daniel Pearl and the consequent difficulty in gauging the American stance vis-a-vis India and Pakistan. The assembly elections to four states failed to bring any message of hope, with the party losing out in all of them, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. And then the double blow of the hard-hitting rail and Union budgets and the carnage in Gujarat. Given that Gujarat is one of the three states in which the party still holds power, the communal violence there following the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra presages the losing of yet another state. What has been relegated to the background in the midst of this frenzy is the news that the party has recommended the dissolution of the Goa assembly, in which it enjoyed a majority, “fearing a revolt in the party demoralized by the poor showing in UP”. Is there any more ground left for the party to lose?

Yours faithfully,
Bashishtha Basu, Calcutta

On the wrong track

Sir — I agree with Mamata Banerjee that the 2002-03 railway budget is “a positive budget for the business class and a negative one for the common people” (“Nitish collects Mamata dues”, Feb 27). The Union minister for railways, Nitish Kumar, has decided to gather an additional revenue of Rs 1,360 crore per annum by increasing freight charges as well as passenger fares. Earlier, railways ministers raised additional revenues by increasing freight rates and leaving passenger fares untouched. Kumar seems an exception. Passenger fares have been raised by 12 per cent to 40 per cent and the minister hopes to collect an extra Rs 910 crore through this fare increase.

While the attempt to make additional revenue is fair, Kumar should keep in mind that his crores will ultimately come from the pockets of the ordinary man who can ill afford to part with the money. The extra fare could have been justified only by improvement of railway facilities. But this is not the case. To expect regular passengers to pay extra for the same slipshod service is asking for too much.

The only positive aspect of the rail budget seems to be the freight rationalization for commodities like salt and pulses, freight-hikes on which are unusual. One hopes that the change will not negatively affect passengers and will provide at least a part of the excess revenue needed.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — The rail budget is unnerving, to say the least. While Mamata Banerjee had introduced her populist budget to woo the public just before the elections in Bengal, Nitish Kumar seems to have had no such compulsions. Yet, Kumar could have tapped alternative sources of revenue and left passengers fares alone. Passengers also miss benefits like free travel to another city for job interviews that were introduced by Banerjee. Notwithstanding this, the special consideration given to the Northeast in the allocation of new trains is praiseworthy. It is commendable that Kumar has not focussed only on his home state.

Yours faithfully,
Bijoy Ranjan Dey, Tinsukia, Assam

Sir — What could have come over our ministers, both finance and railways? The budgets presented this time are unbelievably realistic, particularly the railways. Passenger fares have been smoothened out by hikes across the different classes. This needed to be done earlier. The increase in freights was also practical. But instead of concentrating on the two invariable scape-goats, the railways probably needs to look elsewhere as well for revenue generation. For one, railway properties can yield a lot more revenue than expected. And this area has remained completely unexplored. Also, instead of targetting ticket-holders to cough up more money, the railways need to clamp down more severely on ticketless travellers who enjoy a free ride at others’ expense.

Yours faithfully,
Anamitra Chatterjee, Calcutta

Lingua fracas

Sir — The findings of the study, Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, are shocking (“3,000 languages under threat”, Feb 21). The study states that dominant languages like English, French, Spanish, Russian and mainstream Chinese are drowning out the minority ones at an alarming pace. Although Hindi is not mentioned as a dominant language, the process it has set forth is similar. The acceptance of Hindi as the official language of India has led to the neglect of other Indian languages.

Since Hindi has emerged as the language used by the majority of Indians, a sizeable section of non-Hindi speakers are shunning their respective dialects to learn the “official” language. It is surprising that the research group has overlooked the inevitability of non-Hindi languages meeting the same fate as the Celtic languages in Britain.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — It is unfortunate that as many as 3,000 languages are under the threat of extinction, thanks to certain dominant languages. Most of the languages under threat are spoken by either aboriginal or tribal people. Their extinction would lead to the loss of a storehouse of information on tropical medicines and herbs available in only these languages. Since many of these tribal languages have already become extinct, the surviving few should be protected. The report was also surprisingly silent on the Indian scenario and on how Hindi and English are bulldozing other Indian languages.

Yours faithfully,
Sujit De, Sodepur

Better roads

Sir — The number of bus-stops in Calcutta are far too many, the distance between any two being barely 150 to 200 metres. These stops hinder the flow of traffic. The minimum distance between two bus-stops should be increased to at least 500 metres. Moreover, buses should be stopped from halting anywhere to pick up and drop passengers. Further, all errant bus-drivers and passengers should be penalized for not adhering to rules.

Yours faithfully,
Pradipta Bhattacharyya, Calcutta

Sir — The traffic in Calcutta is bad enough without the added trouble of potholes. The roads are continuously dug up by the telephone department, the electricity department, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation and the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority. It may be necessary to dig up the roads to repair faulty wiring and pipes, but the problem arises when the holes are not filled up. The public works department seems oblivious to its duty of looking after the roads.

Yours faithfully,
N.R. Venkateswaran, Calcutta

Sir — Potholes, diversions, illegal constructions and encroachments are part of road travel. But one does not expect national highways like the Grand Trunk Road to suffer from similar conditions. While driving on the G.T. Road from Uttarpara and Liluah, I was shocked to see how many potholes littered the road. The GT road has to be maintained by the states through which it runs. It is obvious that the states are neglecting their duty.

Yours faithfully,
N. Bose, Konnagar, Hooghly

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