Editorial 1/ Waiting for what
Editorial 2/ Only way out
Service and its feedback
Book Review/Changing images, images of change
Book Review/ Life and times of god among men
Book Review/ Verses from the Oriental garden
Editor’s Choice/ What the mind cannot accept
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ WAITING FOR WHAT 
 
 
 
 
Waiting is a well-known political position. Politicians wait to find out which way the wind is blowing; they also wait to strike the best possible deal or to strike the worst possible blow. Some even wait to serve and be rewarded. All these facets of waiting in politics are now on display in India after the Bharatiya Janata Party decided unequivocally to stand by the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi. This support came in the midst of a clamour for Mr Modi’s resignation. The politician who led the charge against Mr Modi was none other than Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, the leader of the Telugu Desam Party whose support is crucial for the survival of the National Democratic Alliance which the BJP leads at the Centre. Mr Naidu demanded the removal of Mr Modi and put the NDA on red alert. It is clear that Mr Modi is not going to be removed, at least not immediately. But Mr Naidu is yet to spell out his next course of action. It is not clear what he intends doing if Mr Modi continues as chief minister of Gujarat. It is not unreasonable to assume that Mr Naidu is waiting for something: a gesture from the prime minister; a more opportune moment to pull the rug from under the BJP, who knows? He may even be appeased by the decision not to immediately dissolve the Gujarat government and hold mid-term elections. Mr Naidu continues to reiterate his demand for Mr Modi’s sacking and to assert that he will not compromise on ideology. But his waiting game suggests that he is protesting too much.

Two of the three famous ladies of Indian politics — Ms J. Jayalalithaa and Ms Mamata Banerjee — have also demanded the removal of Mr Modi. So has the third, Ms Sonia Gandhi, but she, unlike the other two, is not known for her affinity with the BJP. The lady from Tamil Nadu and the lady from West Bengal, following in the footsteps of Mr Naidu, have not clarified their course of action if their demand is not met. This refusal to clarify intentions is a political ploy. Ms Banerjee, left out in the cold by the BJP since she left the Union cabinet, is waiting for an offer of a suitable sop which bring her closer to the loaves and fishes of office. The supremo of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is waiting to use her threat as a bargaining chip. She may also be waiting to be wooed by the BJP when the NDA is under duress. It is clear that what is at issue is not ideology but calculations of office and, in Mr Naidu’s case, even votes. Questions of principle are being used as a convenient cover for mundane concerns. This is not new in the murky world of Indian politics. But this is the first time that politicians have waited for so little.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ ONLY WAY OUT 
 
 
 
 
Governments usually make bad finance managers, whose solutions are often worse than the problems. Assam’s chief minister, Mr Tarun Gogoi, faces the first crucial test for his nine-month-old government as it struggles to manage the state’s deepening financial crisis. The problem is that, like a drowning man clutching at a straw, the government tries to save the situation by increasing its overdraft from the Reserve Bank of India every month. That the state’s monthly overdraft soared to Rs 951.69 crore in February from Rs 299 crore a few months earlier should be a grim warning. Even this does not enable the government to pay salaries to its employees on time and forces it to keep most development projects on hold. Mr Gogoi has reasons to be worried over the threat by the state employees’ organization, Sadou Asam Karmachari Parishad, and the opposition Asom Gana Parishad to resume their agitation over non-payment of salaries after the Bihu festivities. But he should actually worry more about how to bring about some semblance of fiscal discipline in the state, instead of skirting the issue by blaming his political opponents for the financial mess. It is true his new government inherited the problem from the preceding governments run by both the AGP and his own party, the Congress. The state assembly’s committee on public accounts has revealed that a staggering Rs 16,000 crore had been “looted” from the state exchequer over the past 17 years because of “excess withdrawals” by various government departments. The impact of this massive fraud worsened manifold with every increase in government expenditure by way of upward revisions of salaries and allowances and debt servicing.

Mr Gogoi must plunge into firefighting straightaway. He has to realize that drawing a larger amount of overdraft every month will cause a deeper mess. Even if it means a period of painful transition, he has to drastically cut down government expenditure, reduce the state workforce and be more circumspect with disbursement of deficit grants to government-aided institutions. He made a beginning by reducing the allocation of such grants to colleges by 10 per cent and should not retreat under populist pressure. The government must seriously plan the reduction of its workforce. That the AGP government suffered politically because of a similar move should not deter Mr Gogoi if he has to end the financial chaos. No more time should be lost in implementing some recommendations of the committee on fiscal reforms, headed by former state chief secretary, Mr H.N. Das. Simultaneously, the state must look harder for avenues to raise its own resources by both introducing new taxes and improving collection of existing ones. Mr Gogoi may have his justification for pleading for Central help to tide over the crisis, but he has to start the cleaning-up.

   

 
 
SERVICE AND ITS FEEDBACK 
 
 
BY BIBEK DEBROY
 
 
“There is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes...The innovator makes enemies of all those who prosper under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.” This quote is from Nicolas Machiavelli’s The Prince and was written in 1513. I found the quote in the Public Affairs Centre’s brochure. The PAC is a research organ- ization based in Bangalore and was set up in 1994 as the brainchild of Samuel Paul, former director, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

The PAC does several things. What I find most interesting is the report cards on civic services. So far, these have been done for cities like Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi. I have always wondered, what does it take to replicate these surveys throughout the country?

I can stop wondering, because we now have what the PAC refers to as the millennial survey. This covered more than 33,000 households in 11 districts in 24 states. Over the years, Central and state governments have spent a lot of money on social sectors. Contrary to popular impression, per capita real expenditure on social sectors has increased during the Nineties. Per year, the per capita real expenditure was Rs 623 in 1990-91 and Rs 959 in 2000-01. Twenty seven per cent of budgetary allocations are for social sectors, revenue and capital. What do beneficiaries think of this expenditure?

So far, only the summary report of the millennial survey is available and is titled, “The State of India’s Public Services: Benchmarks for the New Millenium”. (Detailed reports, including state-level ones, will eventually become available.) The survey covers five public services — drinking water, health and sanitation, education and childcare, the public distribution system and road transport. These are evaluated on four heads — physical access to service, extent of usage, quality or reliability (this is somewhat objective) and user satisfaction with service delivery (this is somewhat subjective).

I must confess figures on physical access are better than what I had expected them to be. Fifty five per cent of households have a public protected source of drinking water within 100 meters of the house. Eighty seven per cent have a fair price shop within the village or area. Seventy three per cent have a medical facility within 3 kilometres of the place of residence. Sixty six per cent have an educational facility within 1 km of the place of residence. Fifty four per cent have access to public buses throughout the year.

These are average all-India figures. In general, the North, West and South do far better on physical access than the East. Physical access is a problem in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. I must also confess, a priori, I would have expected Kerala to perform better.

Physical access doesn’t mean respondents actually use these facilities. Eighty seven per cent of respondents use the PDS and 78 per cent send their children to government schools. Only 62 per cent use public protected drinking water sources. Fifty two per cent use government medical facilities and 35 per cent use public buses. Why don’t many more use public services? Obviously, quality and reliability are low. In the last three months, 76 per cent of respondents reported no breakdown of public drinking water sources and 70 per cent reported that doctors were present when they visited government health facilities. (Why did only 52 per cent use government medical facilities? Perhaps the answer will be clear from the detailed reports.) Sixteen per cent were satisfied with the behaviour of teachers in government primary schools, 23 per cent were satisfied with regular availability of staple foodgrains in PDS shops and 20 per cent were satisfied with punctuality of public buses.

Quality scores are higher for the South than for the East. On the relatively subjective satisfaction assessment of users, the range is from 8 per cent for PDS to 22 per cent for drinking water. That is, there is dissatisfaction with all five services, with slightly better scores for the South and the West, compared to the North and the East.

Since delivery is primarily a state-level subject, there is great variation across states. For example, West Bengal is around the middle in all public services except health care, where it performs better. In general, people are willing to pay more provided that quality improves. In any case, even though many of these services are supposed to be subsidized or gratis, bribery is common. Four per cent of respondents reported paying bribes in government health centres in West Bengal. That is, the higher price goes to a functionary rather than to the exchequer.

Not only is there great variation across states, there is a lot of intra-state variation as well. The greatest intra-state variation is in UP, followed by Bihar, Kerala (again a surprise) and West Bengal. If governance is equated with delivery of public services, the best-governed states are Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. The worst states are Assam, Punjab and Bihar. West Bengal is again in the middle. Why is there this variation across states? There is very little correlation between quality of governance and per capita income (domestic product) of the state, although there is some correlation between quality of governance and quality of rural infrastructure. (In the PAC’s rural infrastructure ranking, West Bengal is ranked ninth out of 22 states. In the governance parameter ranking, West Bengal is ranked seventh out of 22.)

It should be mentioned that since disadvantaged sections tend to rely more on public delivery, poor quality of government services has an adverse distributional angle. In addition, the PAC survey shows that disadvantaged groups often suffer from inferior quality of delivery, especially those with income disadvantages, C class villages or rural households.

Where do we go from here? The Machiavelli quote is relevant. Obviously, there are beneficiaries of the status quo, the old order, and they will be the enemies of economic reforms. Lukewarm support has been forthcoming from those who will prosper under the new order precisely because benefits have not so far been evident in areas like drinking water, health and sanitation, education and childcare, PDS and road transport. Yet economic reforms are also about improving delivery in such services. Historically, government success in delivering public services has been measured through the amount of expenditure made on such social sectors and broadening access. Quality, accountability and feedback from users haven’t been important. The PAC argues for decentralization, involvement of local communities of users, accountability and targeting states and areas where governance (interpreted in the sense mentioned earlier) is a problem. More important, exercises like the PAC help to catalyse demand for better services. Without demand by users, there is no reason for government delivery to improve. (The Administrative Staff College in Hyderabad has undertaken similar exercises and Loksatta, also in Hyderabad, has more of an activist role.)

Also significant is the desire to pay more for better services, provided quality improves. For example, 40 per cent of households are willing to pay more for better water supply. Although power was not covered by the PAC, similar responses are also forthcoming for power, such as in Punjab. Why else is there increasing recourse to private sources of supply? The Naandi experiment in Andhra Pradesh, which I have written about earlier, is yet another example of poor people willing to pay for toilets, provided these toilets are actually built.

This spills over into a broader issue that the PAC doesn’t directly address. Admitted that financing and subsidization of social sectors will have to come from government budgets. (This is under the assumption that subsidies are properly targeted and subsidies in the name of the poor are not garnered by urban middle classes.) Does this necessarily imply that provisioning and delivery will have to be done by the government, especially a centralized government? Models with public financing and private sector delivery are possible. The food coupons idea is an alternative to the PDS. Vouchers are possible in primary education and were mentioned by the prime minister’s economic advisory council’s report more than a year ago.

Splice this with the idea that users should have a right to decide what expenditure (made in their names) should be spent on. Should hiked expenditure on primary education be through increments to government schoolteachers who don’t teach or should the money be spent on chalk, blackboards and textbooks? As it is, 75 per cent of government expenditure on social sectors (it is higher for primary education) goes towards wages, salaries and pensions. Jan sunvais (public hearings) by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan illustrate efficiencies that can be brought about. Unfortunately, many of these reforms cannot be brought about without the support of states. How many states are willing to change? So far, not too many.

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

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/CHANGING IMAGES, IMAGES OF CHANGE 
 
 
BY SOUMITRA DAS
 
 
VISUAL WORLDS OF MODERN BENGAL
By Tapati Guha-Thakurta,
Seagull, Rs 200

The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, recently held an exhibition of the pictorial and photographic material in its documentation archive. Visual Worlds of Modern Bengal was published on that occasion. The author herself had curated the exhibition.

The CSSSC archive is quite a voluminous one, but few of the art works in it, including the photographs, are originals. They are bromide prints of photographed paintings, Kalighat pat, illustrations, bat-tala prints, oleographs, chromolithographs, and commercial and promotional material such as advertisements of cosmetics and cigarettes and other consumer products, catalogues of record companies and film pamphlets, which one could buy for a couple of annas in times past.

With a few exceptions, most of the photographs, too, are either originals rephotographed, or prints made from old negatives, and in certain cases, copy negatives. CSSSC has inherited the Hiteshranjan Sanyal collection of shots of temples in Bengal.

The book traces the history of art of Bengal in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second half is an essay on photography in its nascent form, and the narrative is continued up to the late Fifties, when photographers like Ahmed Ali had established themselves in the field of advertising. Both the narratives have been pieced together from this archival material, which still has many obvious gaps.

This is understandable, because CSSSC had to depend for this material either on virtually impenetrable institutions bound by red tape, or on the munificence of individual collectors. The fact that the exhibits are mere copies — once removed, or, in some cases twice, from reality — does not in any way undermine their worth as a rich source of material for research. Most of these have been scanned. So when the database is ready, scholars will be able to access it with the click of a mouse. This is the best way of giving the go-by to government institutions, where the bureaucrats, who are supposed to look after them, turn these into their personal fiefdoms.

The author has specialized on the art of this period and has a few insightful books on the subject to her credit. The text, quite understandably, is well-written. But nothing beyond what one would expect.

It does, however, throw light on two hitherto unknown women photographers. Particularly intriguing is the shadowy figure of Annapurna Datta, who was a professional and a mistress of this medium.

The section on advertising and promotional material appears to be sketchy, given its potential. What better index of our changing times than the radical manner in which advertisements, and the consumer products they try to sell, have undergone a change? Think of catalogues of gramophone records and pamphlets of films at a time when a compact disc is all you require for both visual and aural pleasure. This section is worthy of an entire volume.

However, given the weight that the author’s name carries in academic circles, and given the reputation of the publisher for bringing out well-produced books, this slim volume comes as a disappointment. It is not designed to please the eye. In certain pages, there is no breathing space between the pictures and the text. Pages look cluttered and crowded as a result. Pictures highlighted in every other book on the art history of Bengal, such as the Kalighat pat and other oft-seen paintings, are blown up, whereas the ones rarely seen have been shrunk to the size of postage stamps.

Since it is meant to be something of a catalogue, one expects it to be visually appealing. In spite of this shortcoming, the book does serve as a handy manual for art lovers.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ LIFE AND TIMES OF GOD AMONG MEN 
 
 
BY SAHELI MITRA
 
 
OH MY GOD: THE NATURE OF DIVINE FAULTLINES
By Shashi S. Sharma,
Rupa, Rs 495

“If religion is mere feeling it is innocuous…Faith as the state of ultimate concern claims the whole man and cannot be restricted to the subjectivity of mere feeling. It claims truth for its concern and commitment to it. It does not accept the situation “in the corner” of mere feeling…If the whole man is grasped, all his functions are grasped. If this claim of religion is denied, religion itself is denied… Faith is definite in its direction and concrete in its content. Therefore, it claims truth and commitment. Christianity and Islam are religions: Hinduism isn’t”, observed one of the greatest theologians of all time, Paul Tillich.

The same feeling is reflected in Oh My God, as the author, Shashi S. Sharma, examines various religions practised in Indian society by making a comparative study of the religious ideas. He attempts to understand the religions belonging to the Judaic family — Jewry, Christianity and Islam — and the notions about the various gods worshipped by the followers of sanatan dharma.

Sharma brings in the concepts of monotheism and polytheism and quotes from the Bible and the Quran to show how followers of Judaic religions are expected to enter into a fixed and immutable relationship with god. These religions expect complete loyalty from their followers to their own idea of god while rejecting the gods of other people. In the Bible, god declares: “I am the Lord. There is no other God.” Similar messages emanate from the Quran too. Sharma justifies that Hinduism is very different from the Judaic faiths. A Hindu’s dharma preaches tolerance and respect for other faiths. The unquestioning obedience expected from followers in other religions is absent in Hinduism.

A new class of Indians came to occupy the intellectual centrestage with the advent of the Europeans and English education by the end of the 18th century. This class was taught to criticize its own traditions. It believed that the body of doctrines that did not meet the demands of a monotheistic religious discourse was inferior and erroneous.

These Indians started teaching their fellow men that monotheism is the most important divinely ordained benchmark for judging all other religious traditions.

Sharma makes a detailed study of the ideas of Ram Mohun Roy, who had interpreted the Hindu scriptural sources so that they seemed to conform to the theistic interpretation of a single personal god of Christianity. However, some feel that Roy, while translating the Upanisads into Bengali, gave a monotheistic emphasis quite different from the the monism in the original Sanskrit texts.

If one is interested to know more about the idea of god as it has grown and developed in our country in the past five or six millennia, Oh My God will prove to be an enlightening and rewarding experience.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ VERSES FROM THE ORIENTAL GARDEN 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
LOVE SONNETS OF GHALIB
By Mirza Ghalib,
Rupa, Rs 995

As the translator, Sarfaraz K. Niazi, points out, Love Sonnets of Ghalib may be “the first complete English translation” of the greatest Urdu poet. There have been a number of translations of Ghalib’s poems, but most translators have backed out after dabbling in a few poems because of the enormity of the challenge in dealing with such a multi-faceted poet. Ghalib’s style was one that could only be admired, but could never be copied. Niazi’s effort at translating the entire body of Ghalib’s poems is commendable. Whether he has succeeded in rendering the true essence of the poet in English is a different question altogether.

The only Urdu poet who can be placed on the same pedestal as Shakespeare and Goethe, Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in 1797, and died at the age of 72 in 1869. Like Shakespeare, he was self-schooled and a long way ahead of his time. His works bear ample proof of the humour that was his second nature. His prose — though little read — was as powerful as his verse, but his singularity of thought and style are behind his popularity through the ages.

Ghalib was introduced to Europe by the French scholar, Gercin de Tassy, as early as in 1839. The want of good translations of Ghalib’s poems still stands in the way of a proper appreciation of his works outside the Urdu-speaking world. Niazi’s translation would at least help readers know more about the poet and his works.

Niazi takes up all the ghazals of Ghalib chronologically, and translates them literally, sometimes even word for word. The couplets or shers are also provided in the Urdu script. The innovation lies in the fact that Niazi does not confine himself to translation, but also attempts to provide explanations of all the verses. The explanatory passages may not aid those already familiar with Ghalib’s poetry, but it will be of immense help to those encountering Ghalib, as also the traditions of Urdu poetry, for the first time.

The translator is interested in making Ghalib more accessible to uninitiated readers. The thrust of the volume is therefore on presenting the poems as simply as possible. In his translations, Niazi refrains from using the verse form. The prose translations are easier to approach, but fail to convey the force of the original. The translator’s explanations help, though — to understand Ghalib’s world and to place him in the Eastern literary context.

There are flashes of brilliance in Niazi’s translations, especially in the relatively popular ghazals. His problems become evident in the difficult poems. At times, the translator tends to read more than there is between the lines, while at others, he evades explication.

On the whole, Niazi fails to rise above the average, although the introduction by Farman Fatehpuri and a helpful glossary are items to be treasured.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE/ WHAT THE MIND CANNOT ACCEPT 
 
 
 
 
This gripping but tantalizing novella can only be described, for want of a better word, as a Holocaust novel. The term demands some explanation. Through the Nineties, there has been a series of painful and poignant fictional reflections on the impact of the Nazi atrocities on Jews. These are not victims’ accounts, but introspective depictions of the way human beings try to cope with the violence and the inhumanity that the Holocaust embodied. Not all of these novels pass the test of good or great writing, but novels like Fugitive Pieces (by Anne Michaels), The Archivist (by Martha Cooley) or The Reader (by Bernard Schlink) have enriched the sensibilities of all lovers of good literature. The Quartet most definitely falls into this category because of the tautness of the narrative, the nature of the plot and the investigation of human psychology.

The narrator of the novel, Simon, was a psychologist in a multinational firm of German origin which he calls SC Farb (a thinly-veiled reference to IG Farben?). He was given the very sensitive and secret task of looking into the behaviour of the managing director, Mathias Just. Reports emanating from Just’s secretariat seemed to suggest that he was disintegrating from pressures unknown. Simon was not too sure of the motives of the deputy managing director, Karl Rose, who had assigned him the job to look into Just’s odd behaviour and the springs of his apparent eccentricities.

Simon’s investigations revealed to him a devastating reality which unsettled even his own world. The novel gets its name from an amateur quartet in which Just played. The quartet was brutally disbanded and the reasons for this formed part of the mystery that Simon had to solve. Just also had a secret life: his secretary who was his mistress and possibly also informed on him. His family life was angst-ridden by the memories of a stillborn child and a wife who was frightened and concerned about the changes she noticed in her husband’s behaviour.

The personal dossier the company held on Just provided enough evidence of Just’s mood swings, including the point at which his handwriting began to change. But Simon was haunted by the suspicion that the dossier had been meticulously prepared with an ulterior motive. His suspicions were reflected in Just’s growing paranoia. There were also anonymous letters directed first at Just and then at Simon himself.

But all this did not explain the complete breakdown that Just suffered and Simon’s inability to handle the horror that his investigations unearthed. Looming over the human tragedy are the events in Poland in 1942, when thousands of Jews were “transported” in vans in which they were gassed to death and then buried en masse in anonymous graves. Just’s father had been one of the supervisors of these operations. Just was unable to accept this when one of the quartet confronted him with the facts. Neither could Simon when he learnt the enormity of the inhumanity in which ordinary individuals had been involved.

Emmanuel’s writing is sparse. This gives the novella its pace. It reads almost like a thriller. Simon moves from a multinational company to work with autistic children. He moves away from the uncertain struggle against the shadows of the past. He comes to enjoy living in the fringes of society. It is from such a site that he reflects on the dark spaces embedded in human existence and history.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

There are jungles everywhere

SPELL OF THE TIGER: THE MAN-EATERS OF SUNDARBANS
By Sy Montgomery
(Penguin, Rs 295)

Spell of the tiger: The man-eaters of Sundarbans by Sy Montgomery explores the unique relationship between tigers and humankind in marshy jungles in southern Bengal. The author’s adventurous foray into the riverine forests is a journey into understanding not only of the Bengal tiger, but also of the myth-laden culture of the Hindu and Muslim villagers who live in peace with one another in and around the forest. One of the rituals central to their lives on the edge is the appeasement worship of Dakshin Ray and Bonobibi, in which both communities share. Written with freshness and wonder, the journal-like account full of descriptions and conversations is an unusual sociological document. Through it all, the tiger is always watching. Montgomery feels that the Sunderbans remain the only relatively unspoilt habitat of the tiger now, because the beast itself defends it fiercely from the depredations of man.

ANOTHER BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE?
By Jeremy Bullmore
(Penguin, Rs 95)

Another bad day at the office? by Jeremy Bullmore is a dinky little collection of questions and answers that has grown out of a monthly agony column for working people. Arranged into neat sections which include “being the boss” as well as managing him, the book touches upon the very human sources of the popular comic-strip situation in which one partner comes home exhausted, and the other asks, “Another bad day at the office, dear?”

FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY
By Sister Nivedita
(Rupa, Rs 70)

Footfalls of Indian History by Sister Nivedita gleams with the translucence of Margaret Noble’s prose and the kind of spiritual clarity that is characteristic of all her writing. It is a study of India’s cultural and religious heritage, in which the author studies with equal care all she finds relevant to her subject, ranging from the frescoes on the walls of the Ajanta caves to the history of the relationship among the various religions in India. Her formidable scholarship is lightly worn, whether she is talking of the recension of the Mahabharata or the problems of Indian research, or travelling to Bihar or Benares in search of elusive layers of Indian history. Classic in quality, this is also a travel book which examines the history of man as determined by place. “A map of a country is only a script produced by all the ages of its making,” Nivedita writes before she takes her readers on a cultural-aesthetic-spiritual journey.

THE MAKING OF A TEACHER: CONVERSATIONS WITH EKNATH EASWARAN
By Tim and Carol Flinders
(Penguin, Rs 200)

The making of a teacher: Conversations with Eknath Easwaran by Tim and Carol Flinders is another proof of the publisher’s recent love affair with meditation and spiritualism. Easwaran is a “born” teacher of meditation, who has learnt his best lessons from the wisest woman he has known, his grandmother. The book is market-friendly both in theme and arrangement, being a series of detailed conversations between Easwaran and the authors, through which emerges the social and intellectual ambience in which the teacher grew up. The market-friendliness of the book is enhanced by the themes of the wisdom of the Indian woman and meditation as the beginning of a spiritual journey.The USP of the volume is all there in the publisher’s blurb: Easwaran’s method of meditation “makes the best of Eastern spiritual wisdom accessible to active people.” Activity and Eastern spirituality being antithetical, of course.

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF GARDENING IN INDIA
By Meera Uberoi
(Penguin, Rs 295)

The Penguin Book of Gardening in India by Meera Uberoi would be a passionate gardener’s delight. It tells you not only what to grow in what kind of garden and how, but also the story of how different plants have travelled from place to place and adjusted themselves to different soils. Delicately designed boxes on the pages carry extra information, historical details and allusions or special features of particular plants or fertilizers. Vedic India is an important presence in the book. The most useful chapters define and explain “gardener’s jargon” and decorative features of large gardens. The volume could perhaps have done with fewer poems. But the rosepetal recipes are a must.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Look who’s talking now

Sir — Sports is supposed to be above politics, however turbulent. But the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series chairman, Abdul Rehman Bukhatir, does not seem to have heard of this aphorism (“We can host India without Pak: Bukhatir”, April 17). Or he wouldn’t have made the irresponsible statement that if India had reservations about playing in tournaments where Pakistan was participating, like the recently concluded one in Sharjah, then he would host a tournament without Pakistan. This is not only in poor taste, but also entirely uncalled for. As it is India has not played Pakistan in Sharjah — or anywhere else, for that matter — for the last three years, thanks to the Indian government’s stand not to engage with Pakistan in any arena, even sports, until relations with that country improved. Such a policy is not doing any good to the relations between the two countries, nor is it helping cricket any. The political leaders of the two countries must of course try to keep politics out of the cricket field, but a third party like Bukhatir had best keep mum about matters he has no understanding of.
Yours faithfully,
Saroj Jalan, Calcutta

Power network

Sir — A large number of hoardings have lately come up all over the city bearing the message that power theft is a punishable offence. These are part of a new drive by the power utilities to educate consumers about power theft. However, it is not unauthorized tapping but the losses during transmission that account for the sad financial condition of most public and private sector power companies. In many cases, transmission losses are as high as 50 per cent, mostly due to technical glitches. Also approximately 25 per cent of the power consumed is not paid for. Other causes for the revenue shortfall of these power companies are unpaid bills or under-billing on consumption of energy.

The first step towards reforming the power sector should be to ensure there is 100 per cent billing and that all bills are paid. This calls for no fresh investment. Also, there should be a drive against all un-authorized use of power. This can be achieved with the help of the police and the cooperation of the people. As for reforms in power distribution, strict compliance to payment schedules must be enforced. In case of default, the power supply of the consumer should be disconnected. All state and Central government offices must be compelled to clear their outstanding dues or re-schedule them in consultation with power suppliers. Often the accumulated dues of these offices add up to quite significant amounts. Clearing these will greatly help to improve the bottomlines of the state electricity boards and private sector distribution companies, as was recently seen in Orissa.

Success in power sector reforms will not only revive the power companies, it will also give some reassuring evidence of the strong political will to execute economic reforms. But the onus for this lies with state governments. They need to be convinced, through a carrot and stick policy, about the need to overcome populist pressures.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — For the past one and a half months the two important commercial districts of Orissa — Sambalpur and Jharsuguda — have been facing regular power cuts in the evenings. This is surprising since it is common knowledge that Orissa is a power surplus state.

Apparently, the recent spat between the Central Electricity Supply Company and the government is to blame for the power cuts, although government officials claim that power was being cut to maintain units.

Maybe CESCO, which receives a fixed sum from the government, has come up with this idea to reduce tariffs and distribution losses by supplying less power and, in turn, purchasing less power. So what if the common man suffers in the process.

Be that as it may, as a consumer I am entitled to a constant supply of electricity. I have no use for toothless regulators and inefficient private sector distribution companies cropping up every other day in the name of reform. These are a waste of the taxpayer’s (in this case, my) money.

It is well known that more than 25 per cent of the losses of these power companies is due to inefficient revenue collection. Hence, what is needed is the political will to empower authorities to take strict action against defaulters, and even serve prosecution notices where necessary.

Yours faithfully,
Amar Kedia, Jharsuguda

One side of the story

Sir — The article, “Live and let die” (April 6), gives only a part of the malaise that affects west Asia now. If the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, can rightly be accused of committing horrendous war crimes against the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat,the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, is no pitiable victim of Israeli aggression either. It was Arafat who engineered the Maalot massacre on May 15, 1974, in which several school children were injured in the gunfire and began the destructive trend of suicide bombings that continues even today.

Significantly, Arafat refuses to denounce or call for an end to suicide attacks, linking them to Israeli aggression. Arafat foolishly thinks that the suicide bombings will compel Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Both sides should realize that the solution to the current imbroglio lies in a sustained and serious dialogue held in an atmosphere of peace, trust and mutual respect.

Yours faithfully,
Rudrasish Datta, Howrah

Sir — The long-protracted war between the Palestinians and the Israelis has now acquired new dimensions. The media has criticized Israel for not showing restraint. A recent convention of Arab nations and 15 European countries condemned Israel and asked it to take measures to bring back peace. But very unfairly, the convention did not reserve a single word of condemnation for Yasser Arafat. The leader of the Palestinian Authority seems to have no control over his own men, least of all any over extremist elements like the Hamas and al Aqsa. If he finds it difficult to do this, he should seek the help of Israel. This in turn will weaken the reactionary elements in Israel and help further peace in west Asia.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Srivastava, Salboni

Sir — It is unfortunate that Yasser Arafat continues to remain confined to his office by Israeli troops (“Truce eludes Powell and Arafat”, April 15). Arafat has maintained cordial relations with India and has stood by us in troubled times. India must do all it can to help set the Palestine leader free by appealing to the Israeli government.

The international community and the United Nations must also take the initiative to bring peace between the two groups. This will end the long conflict, bring peace and economic stability and, above all, save many lives on both sides.

Yours faithfully,
P.V. Madhu, Secunderabad

Post haste

Sir — The sharp hike in postal tariffs announced in the budget makes one wonder. When the postal system was first introduced in the country by the British, earning revenues was not its sole purpose. The postal service was meant to help ordinary citizens communicate with distant areas and promote literacy and economic advancement. The postal department in those days was extremely efficient, which is something that can’t be said about it today. Not only are mails not delivered on time, very often they do not reach their destination at all, so that private sector courier services are considered more reliable nowadays. And yet the government has been increasing postal rates by leaps and bounds in every budget. No wonder, most people in the cities have been turning to faxes and the internet.
Yours faithfully,
K.K. Ghosh, New Delhi

Sir — The finance minister has done well to increase the prices of competition post cards by 100 per cent in this year’s budget. Every television channel nowadays has some gameshow or the other going, and viewers are invited to send in their answers on these postcards. Since everyone wants to be a television crorepati, millions respond. For the government this is a good way to fill its coffers by cashing in on greed.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjan Saha, Calcutta

Sir — A number of postage stamps are issued every year to highlight notable events, the remarkable natural and geographical diversity to be found in the country, our achievements in science and technology and of course, famous personalities. Thus it is surprising that no stamp has been issued on the Vidyasagar Setu yet. Commissioned in 1992 by the former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, this remarkable bridge will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year. The West Bengal government should look into the matter, not least because Vidyasagar Setu is the largest cable-stayed bridge in India.

Yours faithfully,
Diptimoy Ghosh, Calcutta

A correction

The article, “New lessons for a new economy” (Fifth column, April 17), was written by Chirantan Ganguly and Indrajit Ray, and not by Ray alone. The error is regretted.
— The Editor

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