Editorial 1/ More than a joke
Editorial 2/ Special white ants
Doctor round the corner
Dream in the pipeline
Document/ Dealing with errors of emmission
Fifth Column/ To be Muslim and modern
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ MORE THAN A JOKE 
 
 
 
 
A tissue of lies forcefully woven together is always in imminent danger of tearing. The chief election commissioner has pulled apart the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fine weave of lies about Gujarat. The CEC, Mr J.M. Lyngdoh, did not like what he saw during his short reconnaissance trip to assess the state’s poll-preparedness. The nine-member election panel team that had toured the state a week previously had reportedly felt that the conditions were “not conducive” for early elections. The CEC evidently discovered that for himself. Refusing to take the route determined by the administration, Mr Lyngdoh and his colleagues visited camps and housing estates, which resulted in a barrage of rebukes from the CEC to the district collector because the latter had misled the Election Commission about the extent of damage in Baroda. The lies about the camps are perhaps the most extensive and glaring. Nobody wants elections there, they want their houses rebuilt, compensations paid and assurances that their localities are secure. The inhabitants of the camps are angry and alienated. Unable to find safety in their homes, some people have come back to the camps and large numbers have migrated. The demographic balance is likely to have changed for at least 75 assembly segments. The CEC also found that the electoral rolls, witness reports and the administration’s accounts tell completely different stories. It is very clear from the CEC’s reactions that he has found the Gujarat government’s ideas of “normalcy” quite unacceptable, and he may be sympathetic to the All India Milli Council’s view that early elections would destroy the chances of voting for 45 lakh members of the minority community.

Such a plainspoken exposé as provided by the CEC is not likely to have pleased the deputy prime minister. Mr L.K. Advani’s response to the CEC’s critical remarks has been quick and defensive. He is reported to have underlined the ineffectuality of the EC from the point of view of implementation. According to Mr Advani, it is up to the state government and the Centre to decide whether elections can be held in Gujarat. The suggestion of a challenge here is rather ugly. He is also quoted to have said that the BJP would win hands down in Gujarat anyway, irrespective of the time the elections are held. Curiously enough, the deputy prime minister does not mind exposing the extent of the Union cabinet’s backing of the Gujarat government, nor does he mind dishonouring the chair of the CEC in the process. The message is very clear: no watchdog body will be allowed a say, never mind if the state pretends to be a democracy. Perhaps Mr Advani should be asked why, if the BJP will always win in Gujarat, there is such haste for the elections.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ SPECIAL WHITE ANTS 
 
 
 
 
A division bench of Supreme Court judges recently found themselves having to pronounce over the blackest comedy of inhumanity. When asked to produce documents in court relating to the custodial death of Bapi Biswas in West Bengal, the state’s criminal investigation department came up with the outrageous explanation that white ants had eaten up the relevant papers. The public brazenness of such a lie has elicited the sharpest reprimand from the bench. The state government’s long reputation of “manufacturing records” has been publicly declared in court. One of the judges has even talked of “special white ants” manufactured for this specific purpose. This bizarre and humiliating exposé lays bare an entire network of malpractice and criminal abuse of power. Biswas was picked up by the police at night in 1997 and brought dead to a government hospital the next morning. The first information report lodged by his father was claimed lost by the police, although it was found with the case file in court. The doctors who conducted the post mortem alleged that the police pressured them into issuing a false medical certificate. The case was later resumed with the records kept by the West Bengal human rights commission. The picture that emerges is one of a complete and sordid disunity of action, principle and powers between the state government, its criminal investigation department, the WBHRC and the courts, with the last looking on appalled and in some sort of despair.

A very similar conjunction of factors could be identified in the Malda lock-up episode. The buck, in this case, is shuttling between the police and the judicial department. The police were supposed to look after the accused, whereas the district court was responsible for the state of the lock-up. The state government had been notified of the conditions in the lock-up nearly two months ago, but nothing at all was done. In the meantime, human beings were being herded together with impunity in cells without ventilation, lavatories and drinking water. And this was not just in the districts, but in the city court lock-ups as well. When the lock-ups were full, people were stuffed in police vans converted into lockers. Here again, the callousness is collaborative, shared out and passed around between the government, the judicial department and the police, with the bar association looking on ineffectually. The WBHRC has been around to inspect the Malda lock-ups and found them “very old”. What these two instances show up is a barbaric failure of public administration, with every department of the state government implicated in a nexus of corruption, inefficiency and sheer criminal brutality.

   

 
 
DOCTOR ROUND THE CORNER 
 
 
BY S.L. RAO
 
 
The data on healthcare in India is sparse and very dated. Survey results from the National Sample Survey are released after years, and are not the stuff that makes for newspaper headlines. When I was in the National Council for Applied Economic Research, we were conducting large sample surveys covering every district in India and with a sample of 500,000 (later reduced to 300,000) households, to study the trends in consumption of selected manufactured consumer goods. This information also threw up data on income distribution by broad categories, and enabled me to project the Indian market as large, growing fast, and with a huge potential among the poor and in rural India.

It was a key factor in attracting the attention of foreign investors to the potential of the Indian market. Since we were going to so many households for the survey, I thought that it was a good opportunity to find out something about household expenditures on health in the same survey. We did it twice, and the data was analysed and released within a year of the surveys. It was the first attempt outside the NSS to conduct such a study, and it was very timely, since the NSS data that was available was over five years old.

The NCAER survey showed that poor rural households spent a larger portion of their incomes on health than others. This was despite the comprehensive structure of healthcare that had been built up over the years by governments. For the poor, healthcare was meant to be free. The primary health centre was to be supported by referral hospitals for more complicated ailments and treatments. The primary health centre would have a doctor, supply medicines and be able to diagnose and treat the majority of common ailments. The hospitals would deal with illnesses requiring hospitalization, which would be free, and would also supply medicines.

We found that the reality was very different in the primary health centres and in the hospitals. The patient spent a good deal of money on medicines, and in the primary health centre, and the doctors were rarely available. When they were, they had in most cases, to be paid. Medicines were not freely available and had to be bought. The patient also had to wait interminably, to be attended. Since most of the poor are daily wage casual workers, they could not afford to lose even a day’s work. They therefore avoided the “free” government service and instead went to the private practitioner. This was also the reason that they preferred allopathy, since the chemical drugs gave them quick relief and hence prevented the loss of work and wages.

These private practitioners call themselves RMPs or registered medical practitioners, a title to which most are not entitled, since legally, it is meant to stand for those with an MBBS degree. According to a study in 1995 by Hema Vishwanathan, 50 per cent of them had completed only middle school, 40 per cent had completed high school, and only 4 per cent had attended college, though they did not hold a degree. No medical diploma or degree was held by 74 per cent, 11 per cent were trained in ayurveda, 6 per cent in unani, 4 per cent in homeopathy and 1 per cent were pharmacists.

Thus, though the overwhelming number of these practitioners used allopathic medicines, they were not qualified for their use, not trained for the purpose. It has been estimated that there are one million such quacks, unqualified people, practising medicine. They use intravenous fluids, antibiotics, steroids, give dental treatment, treat infants, set fractures, and also treat arthritis, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual problems, for none of which they have any competence or qualification.

Pharmaceutical companies woo these practitioners with free samples of their products, since they constitute a large source for prescription and use of their products. Retailers sell such products freely to them and to others. So do nursing homes since the quacks refer any complications in their patients to them. Giving samples to unqualified people, paying touts to send patients, stocking and selling prescription drugs without prescriptions by qualified medical practitioners, are practices not permitted by law. The law tries to protect the patient. The practice is the opposite. The drug control authorities over the country are understaffed, impotent. Many are on the payroll of practitioners and manufacturers. What is worse is that there is a huge fake drug manufacturing industry in India, producing between Rs 1,500 crore and Rs 3,900 crore in a year, and accounting for up to 30 per cent of the total industry production. These fakes look like the genuine articles except that they do not have enough of the active ingredients (and many times not at all), to make the drugs effective. The customers for these are mostly the poor, who are looking for low costs.

The facts are that the poor, especially in rural India, prefer allopathy since it prevents loss of wages. The allopathic practice (hospitals, doctors, nurses, chemists, availability of medicines) is concentrated in urban India and in larger towns and cities. The government structure of healthcare is largely corrupt and ineffective in giving prompt attention to patients. There is a gap and it has to be filled. Unqualified private practitioners meet it. What can be done to improve the quality of healthcare for the poor and especially in rural India?

The drug control apparatus over the country must be strengthened, with more and better qualified staff, oversight of their work by independent regulatory bodies free of government interference, with far stronger penal powers than they have now, which would allow them to receive and deal with information on violations. Manufacturers, chemists, private hospitals and nursing homes must be made to observe the law. Small-scale manufacture of drugs, the chief source of fake and sub-standard drugs, must be shut down.

Cross-practice, for example, ayurveds prescribing antibiotics must be prevented. But these will not solve the problem of inadequate and unqualified medical care. For this, the primary health centres must come under the village or gram panchayat so that the absence of the doctor or unavailability of medicines can be noticed and dealt with locally. India must put out a list of basic generic drugs that can deal with the majority of poor people’s ailments, usually respiratory infections, coughs and colds, fevers and diarrhoea. These drugs must be under price control so that the manufacturers do not exploit the poor.

The quality should be strictly monitored, with only selected and reputable manufacturers being permitted to make them. He should refer other illnesses that do not fall under the symptoms of any of these, to the nearest hospital. The quacks should be brought under a registration scheme subject to getting basic training that should be organized by the registering authority, with regular updating of their knowledge. Each hospital and primary health centre must have a local board of overseers who can reflect the needs of the community and have disciplinary powers over the staff.

Our healthcare system is able to provide a service to the community. It has a large “illegal” sector, rather like black money in the economy, because the absence of good service from the government provided alternatives. It is not that enough is not spent on healthcare. Indeed the expense is excessive. But it is badly spent and much of it is stolen. The problem is one of good governance and management. If there is a will, it can be fixed easily and quickly.

The author is former director general, National Council for Applied Economic Research [email protected]

   

 
 
DREAM IN THE PIPELINE 
 
 
BY HAPPYMON JACOB
 
 
Recent reports from Iran, Pakistan and India seem to suggest that the much talked about Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project has lost its momentum. The abandonment of the project would mean an end to all talks of economic interests rising above war-mongering, regional economic collaboration paving the way towards peaceful co-existence. Although official sources claim that the contracts for feasibility studies, awarded to different firms by the Indian and Iran governments, have not ceased and reports are expected in a short while, the laying of the pipeline seems to be a distant dream.

There are various reasons for this pessimism. For one, the on-going India-Pakistan tension is not proving to be conducive to any fruitful discussion, leave alone projects that involve mutual trust. Second, the Indian government has initiated a search for gas through the Coal Bed Methane reserves. India has also decided to build terminals for liquified natural gas imports from Qatar. Third, perhaps because it knows that the pipeline project may not come through, the Iran government has been seriously thinking of buying boat tankers to export LNG to India.

It needs to be remembered that it is not the first time that a pipeline project through Pakistani territory has come to nought. Earlier, an Oman-India pipeline, which was supposed to pass through Pakistan, was cancelled by the Indian government due to security reasons despite the fact that Pakistan was ready to address India’s concerns.

The Indo-Iran energy diplomacy began way back in 1993 when Iran proposed the export of natural gas from Iran to India. This was after a few years of search for possible buyers of its natural gas since Iran’s vast reserves of gas had been discovered in 1988 in the South Paras fields. The 1993 proposal was to export natural gas to Pakistan’s major cities of Karachi and Multan and then to Delhi. The agreement signed between Pakistan and Iran included a gas pipeline of 2,670 kilometre which would hold gas worth $3 billion. Pakistan would benefit between $500-700 million as transit fees and save $200 million by purchasing gas from this pipeline project on concessionary rates.

A number of meetings and diplomatic activities in 1999 between Indian and Iran government officials resulted in the setting up of various committees to further explore the feasibility of the pipeline project. In February 1999, Iran signed an agreement of bilateral cooperation with India. In April 1999, a bilateral taskforce, which included business and government officials, was established to evaluate the economic and industrial prospects of the project. In September 1999, further discussions were held by a two-member delegation of the National Iranian Gas Company with the Gas Authority of India and the ministry of petroleum. Pervez Musharraf visited Teheran in 1999 to discuss the project with the Iranian authorities. Visits by diplomatic and business delegations continued between Iran and Pakistan and Iran and India in the following year as well. The fourth meeting of the Indo-Iranian joint working group held in 2001 agreed on a feasibility study of an overland pipeline through Pakistan. Again in February 2002, Iran and Pakistan agreed to a pre-feasibility study for the pipeline project.

Iranian gas can be brought to India in four ways. The first and most preferred option is an overland pipeline through Pakistan. The second one is a shallow-water pipeline through Pakistani territory, which again has the same security problem as that of the overland pipeline. The third option is to bring the gas through a deep-sea pipeline. But the Iranians do not find this viable and also, this option has never been tried anywhere in the world. The fourth and last option is to ship the gas in LNG form from Iran to India for which the Iran government is already making the required infrastructure.

According to a 2001 Iranian formula, 30 per cent of the gas would be destined for Pakistan and 70 per cent for India, giving both countries a stake in maintaining the flow. Capital spending for the project, according to the overland pipeline proposal, would be shared with Iran investing 48 per cent, Pakistan 32 per cent and India 20 per cent of the costs.

While there are fears in India’s strategic circles about the security of the pipeline passing through hostile territory, there are several reasons why India should go ahead with the overland pipeline project. One, India is in acute need of a continuous flow of cheap and clean energy for its rapidly growing industrial sector. India is the world’s fifth largest energy consumer. The current demand in India for natural gas is almost 120 million cubic meters a day, and only 67 mcmd is domestically available. More important, India’s energy demand is growing at 6 to 7 per cent a year. And yet India cannot afford to import gas at very high rates. Iran’s own estimates put the offshore option at three times the cost of the $3.5 billion overland pipeline. Moreover, in the case of an offshore pipeline, 70 per cent of the cost would be borne by India. In an overland pipeline, this would drop to 20 per cent.

Second, it has been observed that a natural gas deal between India, Iran and Pakistan has the potential to radically transform the existing geo-political, strategic and historic realities of the three countries. It can be seen as a confidence-building measure in an era when money and markets matter the most. Not many analysts think that in the event of a conflict between India and Pakistan the latter will actually cut off the pipeline to India, for the proposed pipeline would be a larger concern of a number of international players.

Third, one of the most vocal advocates of the pipeline project has been Pakistan’s petroleum minister, Usman Aminuddin. The Pakistan government, according to him, has confirmed the security of the pipeline in writing to Iran as, he thinks, the project is immensely beneficial to Pakistan. In a letter to his counterpart in Iran he had reportedly written, “Pakistan is prepared to address all concerns of the Indian government in this regard and extend all guarantees they require.”

Fourth, historical examples show that vital and strategic economic interests are unlikely to suffer during a conflict. It has been well known that the Soviet Union was the chief supplier of gas to the west European countries even during the heights of the Cold War. Closer home, we have still better examples. The Indus water treaty, which was arbitrated by the World Bank in 1960 and survived all the India-Pakistan conflicts, is an example of the fact that good sense can actually prevail despite war mongering and mud slinging.

Fifth, Musharraf, who is widely considered to be a man of economic concerns and practical politics, is reportedly enthusiastic about the project. He has categorically said that he is in favour of an overland pipeline since “it is in the economic interests of all the three. We are responsible enough to understand the significance of this.” Musharraf has assured India that Pakistan would welcome any agreement for the security of the pipeline.

Sixth, the Indian government has been pinning its hopes on the possibility of a gas pipeline, brokered by the United States of America, from Bangladesh to India. Though the Bangladesh prime minister and the energy minister are reportedly in favour of the project, the committee looking into the matter has recently recommended the government not to sell gas to India. While Indian leaders were certain about the deal coming through, the negative response has come as a setback to India’s plans. Therefore, it is important that India looks for other options.

Last, but not the least, Pakistan’s faltering economy stands to gain substantially from the project. Pakistan also has a stated policy of replacing oil with gas wherever possible, thus reducing the country’s enormous oil import bills. Therefore, Pakistan would actually welcome gas at a concessionary rate, which it would gain from this project. This can also be an opportunity for Musharraf to show international investors that he means business and that it is safe to invest in Pakistan.

India can ask Iran to invest in building the pipeline and offer to pay for the gas that it receives at its doorstep. India and Iran can seek investment from international players, especially US companies, if a solution can be found for the current US sanctions against Iran. This will create multiple beneficiaries of the project. An arrangement like that can keep Pakistan away from any possible interference with gas flow across its territory. Moreover, arrangements, which include international players like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank are no pipedreams. Last week, the ADB, for example, indicated its keenness about developing a gas pipeline project involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and India. Which means it is worthwhile for India to have a go at the project with Pakistan.

   

 
 
DOCUMENT/ DEALING WITH ERRORS OF EMMISSION 
 
 
 
 
Alarge number of small industries are clustered in different densely populated areas within the Calcutta municipal area. Rubber industries, dyeing and bleaching units, small pharmaceutical units, paper board manufacturing units and so on, in the eastern and northern parts of Calcutta use various sizes of coalfired boilers. Clusters of small scale foundries and rolling mills in Howrah, lead smelting units in the eastern fringes of Calcutta and coalfired ceramic units in North 24 Parganas contribute significantly towards atmospheric pollution in...Calcutta and Howrah. Though such units consume only 4 per cent of the total coal consumed by industrial units, their contribution towards air pollution is around 30 per cent. These units, running on old technology, discharge huge emissions. In most cases, the pollution control systems adopted by them are inadequate to meet the standards fixed...

Another problem in this sector is keeping the PCS idle to save recurring expenditure on electricity. A good number of such units were running without consent and without adopting any PCS. The use of furnace oil-fired heating systems in different industries also contributes greatly to increasing sulphur dioxide levels in the city. However, neither the department nor the board formulated any programme for monitoring and corrective action for improving the pollution standards of such units. The government directed (July 2001) units using small boilers, ceramic units and rolling mills to use cleaner fuel like oil, gas and so on, and said that it would provide financial help for such change in heating equipment....

About 31 units within the Calcutta municipal area use battery scraps and lead dross as raw material and discharge flue gases containing lead which pollute the ambient air quality of the area. It was seen from stack analysis reports that the concentration of lead in the ambient air rose upto 9 times higher than the standard set for residential and sensitive areas. The concentration of lead in the ambient air in working zones was also found upto 14 times higher than the set standard.

A study undertaken by the School of Environment Studies, Jadavpur University, in 1995 revealed that in and around the Picnic Garden area in Calcutta the concentration of lead in the dust collected from the roof-tops varied from 30,000 to 60,000 microgram per gram of dust; in the soil around the lead factory it varied from 1,890 to 21,330 micrograms per gram of soil; and in the sediment of the local ponds it was 6,347 to 11,380 micrograms of lead per gram of sediment.

Lead is especially harmful for the developing brain of fetuses and young children as children absorb lead more readily. Blood lead levels as low as 10 microgram/decilitre are associated with har-mful effects on a child’s learning process and behaviour.

A study by the George Foundation in 1999 disclosed that in Calcutta, of 294 children below 12 years of age, 164 (55.8 per cent) had blood lead levels more than 10 microgram/decilitre and 55 children (18.7 per cent) had blood lead levels more than 20 microgram/decilitre. The government stated (July 2001) that increased blood lead levels in children were not only due to emission of lead from secondary lead smelting units but also due to the lead present in automobile exhaust. Now supply of unleaded (0.013 per cent gram of lead/litre) petrol has been arranged in the state from February 2000.

...About 1,213 industrial units (Red-693, Orange-440 and Green-80) are located here [Durgapur-Asansol Industrial zone] and Durgapur town, which have been identified by the Central Pollution Control Board as critically polluted zones. Besides coal mines, several chemical, steel and ancillary industries and thermal power stations are major contributors of air pollution. Pollution status of steel plants are as under:

Durgapur steel plant... consistently failed to maintain pollution standards. The report of a surprise check conducted in May 1999 by a team led by the adviser to the ministry of environment and forests, government of India, disclosed fugitive emission from the coke oven, the sintering plant was not working and leakage through the door, lid and off-take points were much beyond the standard. Monthly inspection reports by the board for 1999 and 2000 revealed that stack emissions were all along unsatisfactory. The concentration of suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the ambient air was also much higher than the standards set for residential areas. The government stated (July 2001) that directions had been issued for compliance with emission norms by December 31, 2001.

To be concluded

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ TO BE MUSLIM AND MODERN 
 
 
BY GWYNNE DYER
 
 
Ten years ago, when Algerians were about to elect an Islamist government, the army cancelled the elections. The country has been ravaged by a terrorist war ever since. Five years ago, when the Islamist “Welfare” party came to power in Turkey, the Turkish army forced the Islamists out and the courts banned their party. Islam in politics really frightens pro-Western armies. Turkey is going to the polls again in November, an election precipitated by the country’s acute political and economic crisis. A new Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, may well emerge as the biggest party and coalition leader in the new government, so panic buttons are being pressed both in the West and in Turkey.

But there is another way of looking at the political earthquake in Turkey. If the Justice and Development Party (AK) were a classic radical Islamic organization, fanatically anti-Western, fiercely intolerant, and instinctively authoritarian, then there would obviously be exciting days ahead for Turkey. But the AK insists that it is nothing of the sort.

Instead, it claims to be just a conservative, “pro-family” party that favours religious freedom. Party leader, Tayyip Erdogan, was once jailed for inciting religious hatred, but he insists that he has undergone a transformation. “Ideology is a thing of the past,” he says, and his party even approves of Turkish membership in the European Union.

New messiah

Many people worry that once in power Erdogan might turn out to be an old-fashioned fanatic who would try to force a deeply conservative form of Islam down everybody’s throats. Given the secular and even anti-religious constitution that was Kemal Ataturk’s legacy to the country, and the army’s habit of intervening against anyone who threatens its vision of a modern, “European” Turkey, Erdogan has to say he has changed, but why trust him?

But a remarkably large number of Turks are willing to take Erdogan at his word: 72 per cent of potential AK voters, according to opinion polls, have never voted Islamist in the past. Besides, if he does turn out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the army would doubtless intervene as usual. But if he isn’t a fraud, then some interesting possibilities open up for Turkey.

The crisis that has given Erdogan his chance may herald the collapse of the old political class whose Byzantine games have held the country back for so long. The prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, whose refusal to retire despite crippling illness caused the existing coalition government to explode, first came to power almost 30 years ago. Power was the only name of the game, which is why the main coalition partner of Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party could be the far-right Nationalist Action Party — a perfect recipe for stalemate and inaction.

Old war horses

Turks are so fed up that none of the three parties in Ecevit’s coalition would get the 10 per cent of the national vote needed to win representation in the next parliament. A new political spectrum is taking shape in which the dominant parties may be Erdogan’s AK on the right and a new moderate left party, “New Turkey”, founded on the ruins of the Democratic Left Party by Ismail Cem, a Westward-looking politician untainted by corruption.

The first benefits of this realignment may appear at once. It was the right-wing Nationalist Action Party that blocked the legal changes — ending the death penalty, giving the Kurdish minority full language rights, and other human rights reforms — needed to make Turkey eligible for EU membership. But every other party is in favour, and it is but natural that the parliament would approve of the reform package last week, well in time for Turkey to be accepted as a full candidate at the EU’s December summit in Copenhagen. That would let it enter EU well before the end of this decade.

The bigger transformation may be a reconciliation between the secular and the religious traditions in Turkish society. The same struggle still rages even in the West, but somebody needs to demonstrate that there is no problem with being Muslim, modern and democratic all at the same time, and the Turks are probably best placed to do it.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Which colour do you choose?

Sir — The mukhota is still in place, but there seems to be less and less shame in showing the true face of the party. As usual, there were no qualms felt in holding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ritual yearly get-together at the house of a junior minister, I.D. Swami ("Sangh gurudakshina at minister house", Aug 8). But what really bothers is the presence of the Biju Janata Dal legislator, Prasanna Acharya, at an internal sangh function. It could be that Acharya had a special message to deliver to his partymen back home by attending the gathering. He could also have been a special guest at the function. Yet the saffron attire of Acharya sends chills down the spine. Progressively, politicians of indifferent hues have been throwing their weight behind the sangh to gain political brownie points. If even two of every ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to change colour, it would mean that in 2004 the BJP would no longer be bound by National Democratic Alliance opinion.
Yours faithfully,
J. Sen, Calcutta

Lighten the burden

Sir — If the new finance minister, Jaswant Singh, wants to woo back the middle classes to the stock exchanges, he must first remove the irritants they face. First, there is compulsory dematerialization of shares, introduced by the government at the instance of big brokers and foreign institutional investors. Small investors would much rather have the shares in the physical form. Then, in order to save litigation problems, mentioning joint names were made mandatory. And now all those mentioned in the share certificate have to have separate accounts for each file. They are required to pay for opening account, demat, pay the buying and selling commission, also maintenance charges. For those who do not visit stock exchanges frequently, this has become a bothersome exercise. Which means only speculators actually benefit from the compulsory demat. If one needs to sell shares to meet social obligations, one cannot do so. There are many long-term investors who find the system difficult. The demat should be made optional.
Yours faithfully,
Mohan Damani, Calcutta

Sir — While assuming office, the new finance minister, Jaswant Singh, had said that the functions of the finance minister were not the same as a policeman’s. Simply put, he had to do everything that would would ensure food for the poor and more spending power for the citizens of the country. If Singh truly manages to do all that, he will be considered the best finance minister of the country and also improve the sagging image of his party. His predecessor’s reign will be remembered for scandals, non-performing assets in banks, reduction of interest on deposits, increase of postal rates and so on. To improve matters, Singh must give his full support to the Central Bureau of Investigation which is investigating into many financial scandals, to the lok ayukta and judiciary which are looking into corruption cases. Besides rolling back schemes that hurt the middle classes and the pensionless, Singh also needs to concentrate on tax evaders and the corrupt in his own department before he thinks of expanding the tax net.

Yours faithfully,
B.S. Ganesh, Bangalore

Sir — As the editorial, “Savings grace” (Aug 5), points out, Jaswant Singh’s promise to give back money to the middle classes has been honoured to some extent by his offer of tax relief that will cost the exchequer an extra Rs 1,000 crore. However, the offer is not significant enough. Most people were unhappy about the imposition of tax on dividend. The only relief on this count has been the increase of the 80L deduction from Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 and the threshold for exemption from tax deducted at source on dividend income being increased from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,500. This is hardly sufficient.

The tax on dividends is already unfair. By the Finance Act, 1997, P. Chidambaram, then finance minister, had withdrawn the tax on dividends, agreeing that the tax on dividends doubly taxed the recipient. The income of a partner of a partnership firm is not taxed as it is paid out of the firm’s taxed income and is thus exempted under section 10(2A) of the Income Tax Act, 1961. In what way is the recipient of dividend different from a partner of a firm?

Singh ought to have considered the matter as such taxation is counterproductive and will discourage corporatization of business. The threshold for exemption from tax deducted at source should have also been increased to Rs 5,000, considering the difficulty of getting refunds of TDS. Singh’s assurance that the Unit Trust of India’s commitments will be honoured is welcome. But over two crore investors are yet to get their dividends for the year. The UTI should also provide its subscribers some benefits of the recent Rs 500 crore government bailout package by paying some dividend to middle investors of its US-64 scheme.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Forgotten

Sir — We, together with other officers of the Indian Oil Corporation who have retired in the last 20 years, have served the organization when it faced competition from multinational oil giants like Burmah Shell, Esso, Caltex, Indo-British Petroleum, Assam Oil Company in the early Sixties and Seventies. Those were the formative years of IOC in independent India. A section of the officers had joined the company with two principles — to serve a national company as Indians who had gained their experience in foreign oil companies; and to outmanoeuvre the foreign oil companies so that they surrendered to IOC. We became successful in our mission by 1978-79.

We were quite senior when we joined IOC. In fact, the management had literally pulled us out from the foreign oil companies to strengthen the hands of IOC. When we joined, we had to sign a contract to serve the company for 60 years. During 1967-68, after serving the company for a couple of years, the management suddenly reduced our service age arbitrarily to 58 years. The general employees were upgraded for retirement to 60 years. Meanwhile, IOC introduced some cut off dates like 1.11.87 and 15.06.95. These two dates brought tremendous financial benefits to those officers and employees who joined the company much later than us. Most of us retired after putting in around 20 years with IOC. With pension, bonus, annual dividend benefits, IOC has secured the future of its employees. But a few of the senior officers were left in the lurch by some technical excuses offered by the management. Haven’t we done anything for the organization to deserve some justice? The IOC is involved in a lot of philanthropic work now. Can’t it do something for its own officers? The Reserve Bank of India, the Port Trust authorities, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission have come out bravely to stand by their needy former employees. Should the petroleum ministry and IOC continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of those who have served the industry for a considerable period of time?

Yours faithfully,
Prasun Chowdhuri, M.R. Bhattacharjee and A.B. Roy, Madhyamgram and Calcutta

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Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
All letters [including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender
   
 

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