Editorial 1
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It’s not just the babies
Without fear or favour
Letters to the editor


Poorly priced

The news from the inflation front is slightly alarming. It has just been reported that the annual rate of inflation has shot up to a 73 week high of 6.3 per cent. It is true the Indian economy has in the past experienced higher rates of inflation for long periods of time. There was a time when concern about rising prices was expressed only when prices rose at rates higher than 10 per cent. This “double digit” inflation was what worried the government particularly if an election was just round the corner. However, prices have been remarkably stable for much of the Nineties and people have now become accustomed to significantly lower rates of inflation. Perhaps political tempers will now start rising when the rate of inflation crosses five per cent. So, it is perhaps time for New Delhi to wake up and think of corrective measures.

The current round of inflation has been caused mainly by sharp increases in petroleum products. There has also been some increase in food prices, the price of urad dal rising by seven per cent. Of particular concern is the fact prices of even coarse cereals have increased slightly. Since these are consumed mainly by the poor, the price rise in these items has a particularly adverse distributional impact. Perhaps the only silver lining is that prices of petroleum products are administered. There is now less pressure on international oil prices since demand for oil goes down in summer. This means the Indian government is not likely to raise these prices in the near future. To the extent petroleum products have made the largest contribution to the current price rise, it is reassuring to know their prices are likely to remain more or less stable in the immediate future. Nevertheless, the government will be under pressure, particularly from its regional allies, to reverse the rising trend in prices.

Some of this pressure may come in the form of demands to reduce prices of foodgrains sold through the public distribution system. However, this will be an extremely retrograde step, resulting in an increase in government subsidies. How is the government supposed to finance the subsidy? Either it will have to cut back development expenditure or it will have to resort to deficit financing. The former will act as a constraint on the rate of growth. The latter is a dangerous option at a time of rising prices — it may simply aggravate the inflationary pressures. Fortunately, the government seems to be thinking along the right lines. Speaking at the recent meeting of the interstate council, the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, warned once again that without a realistic attitude towards subsidies and fiscal discipline, the country could not attain a desired growth path. The only feasible option for the government is to practise effective supply management. The government must immediately identify those mass consumption goods for which demand is likely to outstrip supply, and take steps to increase supply. There is no reason why this should not be possible. It has a huge stock of foodgrain lying in Food Corporation of India warehouses. It can thus release large stocks of grain into the open market and control foodgrain prices. The country’s foreign exchange reserves can also be effectively used to import goods where domestic availability is a problem.    


Anxious counsel

When veteran leaders of higher education in West Bengal talk about transforming attitudes to sex in universities, it is difficult to decide whether to be amused or alarmed. The National Education Council had recently got together current and former vice-chancellors, writers, social activists, doctors and psychiatrists at Jadavpur University for a workshop on “adolescent health in a changing world”. The focus of alarm was the rise in teenage pregnancy, motivating a consensus on the need for trained counselling in colleges and universities. Lifting the taboo on discussing sex and the dissemination of information — apart from the usual support and advice — would have to be the main purpose of these counselling services, according to these educationists.

There are two causes of alarm here. First, the rudimentary sociological analysis on which this concern was premised betrays a combination of feudal-patriarchal conservatism and covert gender bias, the very mindset that fosters harmful sexual repression. The perils of modernity were identified as the breakdown of the joint family, working parents and that most pernicious form of evading responsibility, the invasion of “Western values”. Second, sexual counselling — either as giving advice or providing information — is far from a neutral and objective science. It can be a profoundly value-laden practice, in which all sorts of assumptions, attitudes, judgments and prejudices get codified into “scientific” facts and methods. This is no less true of medicine or psychiatry. In a society whose liberal middle classes remain pervasively, powerfully and savagely homophobic, with its most popular “feminist” vernacular magazine glibly recommending psychiatric treatment for a young man wanting to live with another young man, such progressive-sounding practices as counselling could very easily become yet another means of invasion, control and discrimination. That lifting sexual taboos is acceptable only on strictly selective principles has been amply proved by the silences and evasions that surround the incipient AIDS awareness campaigns in the state. If higher education authorities presume to hold themselves up as providers of support and guidances to students, then they must approach this delicate and daunting task with a genuine commitment to sexual and gender equality. Sadly, West Bengal — and India — have a very long way to go in this matter.    

When the government announced its new national population policy earlier this year, one of the papers commented that the new policy “has no teeth”. The idea that “strong measures” are needed to “control” population does not die easily, despite the fact that the few times they have been tried, as during the regrettable Sanjay Gandhi episode in North India, they have not only failed but put back the cause of population stabilization.

The pace of India’s population growth is slowing. This is largely due to falling fertility — and it is falling in ways not widely appreciated. There is a belief — which I share — that female education is a big factor; but it does not mean that everyone has to be educated before fertility falls. In fact, where education is generally more widespread, as in Kerala or Tamil Nadu, even poor, uneducated women are practising contraception: in those two states, the fertility of the uneducated is down to less than three children per couple, while in Uttar Pradesh that figure is over five. That is how fertility decline works — it may start with the better-off, urban middle classes, but once it is well entrenched it spreads to the less well-off, and can do so quickly.

It is happening in Andhra Pradesh as well, and indeed on a smaller scale in many parts of India. Attitudes change, wives acquire more power in the family, community norms alter, what grandmother or mother-in-law has to say carries less weight — no one is quite sure how it works. But it is clear that many people are ready to adopt contraception who do not yet practise it, and many more will. India’s family welfare programme doesn’t need teeth — it needs a smile.

The emphases in the new policy are right — to provide better quality of care and reproductive health services, not just contraception; to offer more methods; and to press forward with the rest of the human development agenda, especially education and health.

Where are India’s population numbers headed? Probably towards 1.4 billion by the middle of this century. The United Nations “medium” projection puts it at over 1.6 billion, but that is no longer widely believed. The average of their “low” and “medium” projections is probably closer to what may be expected. Fertility is going down faster than the UN assumed, and the fall may accelerate.

Less good news is that the fall in mortality may slow down too — the biggest uncertainty in forecasting at the moment is the role of AIDS. There are simply insufficient data to assess the situation with any accuracy. There are only what are called “sero-prevalence” figures for limited samples of the population: five per cent of women entering such-and-such a hospital with pregnancies are HIV positive, and so forth. One educated guess is that in the immediate years ahead there may be as many as 500,000 AIDS deaths a year (out of about eight million total annual deaths) — but it could be less; it could be more. The authorities, in public at least, do not seem to have grasped the seriousness of the problem, even to the extent of putting more resources into establishing prevalence rates, let alone to stepping up educational and preventive work.

What does this further population growth mean? One way to answer that is to look at how India has managed its growing numbers up to now. After all, the population has trebled in the last 60 years or so. The record is not all bad. The numbers of the poor have risen, but the proportion has fallen: it was over 50 per cent of the population at independence, compared with somewhere over 30 per cent now. Life expectancy has gone up to about 63 years. Employment has just about kept up with labour force growth — though it has not for most people been secure and well-rewarded employment.

The worst aspect of social development has been in education, with something like a third of children still receiving no schooling. Perhaps what people most think of as the population “problem” is deterioration of the physical environment. But there are questions in all these areas — what is due to population growth, what to other things?

Falling numbers of births mean fewer school entrants, fewer mothers and babies for health services to cover. But where performance has been so disappointing, one cannot be sanguine that smaller numbers will lead to greatly improved coverage.

The labour force is growing faster than the population as a whole: this year’s new labour force entrants were born years ago. It will take some time for diminishing births to feed through to slower labour force growth. Abundant labour is not a recipe for high wages. And with a huge proportion of the labour force uneducated and unskilled, as well as subject to discrimination, it is hard to foresee any swift change in the living standards of the poorer sections, even with the more rapid economic growth India is now enjoying. But slowing labour force growth will help labour conditions eventually.

As for the environment, well, try a thought experiment. Suppose India’s population stopped growing tomorrow — what would happen? A lot of India’s environmental problems are driven by economic growth, the distribution of income, the pattern of growth, technology, and the question of property rights. The use of commercial energy in India is growing at about seven per cent annually, nearly four times as fast as population.

Industry too is growing faster than population. The same is true of vehicle growth, which is (probably) responsible for most air pollution in cities: in New Delhi, perhaps India’s most air-polluted city, vehicle numbers have been increasing at 12 per cent a year, the human population at only four per cent. Population is acting as a background factor, contributing to the growth of demand for goods and services, but in these issues at least if current policies were to continue, things would get worse even without population growth.

Where population makes a big direct impact is in food and water. If the population grows to 1.4 billion, 40 per cent more food will be needed; and 70 to 80 per cent of fresh water in the country is used by agriculture. So if India wants to remain self-sufficient in food, it will have to achieve a big improvement in the efficiency of water use. That means — among other things — doing much more to control water pollution, and introducing effective water pricing and/or regulation — a tall order, if poor people are not to be harmed, and political constituencies are to be brought along.

But letting things continue as they are at present will inevitably lead to trouble — indeed, the trouble is already there, if the growing frequency of newspaper reports of water riots and disputes is anything to go by.

In the longer term many questions will have to be addressed, not least how a population even bigger than the current one can find adequate political representation. But immediately, millions of people are already having their health damaged by air and water pollution. And millions more do not have their educational needs met.

If “tough measures” are needed, this is where they should be directed. And implement the very sensible new national population policy — with a user-friendly family welfare programme and matching developmental progress, not with force. These would be high on my agenda for responding to India’s population problems.

The author is professor at the London School of Economics    

While participating in the first conference of writers and poets from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries organized by Ajit-Arpana Caur’s Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in Delhi recently, it occurred to me that doctors have their Hippocratic oath, lawyers their rules of professional conduct, but writers have no guidelines.

They don’t know when they have crossed limits prescribed by society and some find themselves hauled up before law courts, jailed or have their books banned. Some like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen are forced to go underground. However, any writer worth his salt must speak his mind fearlessly and accept the consequences. Or keep silent.

I recall a dialogue in James Joyce’s classic, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which could become the code of honour for anyone making his or her living out of writing. It goes as follows: “ ‘Look here, Cranly, he said. ‘You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence, the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.’

“Cranly seized his arm and steered him round so as to lead him back towards Leeson Park. He laughed almost slyly and pressed Stephen’s arm with an elder’s affection. ‘Cunning indeed!’ he said. ‘Is it you ? You poor poet, you!’

“‘And you made me confess to you,’ Stephen said, thrilled by his touch, ‘as I have confessed to you so many other things, have I not?’ ‘Yes, my child,’ Cranly said, still gaily.

“ ‘You made me confess, the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.’ ”

Note that in the first half of the dialogue Joyce exhorts the writer to rise above social norms, patriotism and religious considerations. And justifies the use of the three weapons a writer can use in his defence: he can refuse to say anything, run away (exile) or lie his way out of trouble (cunning).

In the second half he assures writers that they should never be afraid of making mistakes even if they put them in the dog-house for the rest of their lives.

On experiments with truth

About the most vivid description of Mahatma Gandhi is in a letter that French writer-philosopher and Nobel laureate, Romain Rolland, wrote to an American friend. Gandhi and his party stayed for five days in a villa close to Romain Rolland’s house overlooking Lake Geneva. They visited the Rolland household every day and even conducted their prayers there. Rolland wrote: “The little man, bespectacled and toothless, was wrapped in his white burnoose, but his legs, thin as a heron’s stilts, were bare. His shaven head with its few coarse hairs was uncovered and wet with rain. He came to me with a dry laugh, his mouth open, like a good dog panting, and flinging an arm around me leaned his cheek against my shoulder. I felt his grizzled head against my cheek. It was, I amuse myself thinking, the kiss of St Dominic and St Francis.

“Evening at seven o’ clock prayers were held in the first floor salon. With lights lowered, the Indians seated on the carpet, and a little assembly of the faithful grouped about, there was a suite of three beautiful chants — the first an extract from the Gita, the second an ancient hymn of the Sanskrit texts which Gandhi has translated and a third a canticle of Rama and Sita, intoned by the warm, grave voice of Mira.

“He was asked at Lausanne to define what he understood by God. He explained how, among the noblest attributes which the Hindu scriptures ascribed to God, he had in his youth chosen the word ‘truth’, as most truly defining the essential element. He had then said ‘God is Truth’. ‘But’, he added, ‘two years ago I advanced another step. I now say, Truth is God. For even the atheists do not doubt the necessity for the power of truth. In their passion for discovering the truth, the atheists have not hesitated to deny the existence of God, and, from their point of view, they are right.’

“You will understand from this single trait the boldness and independence of this religious spirit from the Orient. I noted in him traits similar to Vivekananda. And yet not a single political ruse catches him unprepared. And his own politics are to say everything that he thinks to everybody not concealing a thing.”

(From 100 Best Letters—1847-1947. Compiled by H.D. Sharma, HarperCollins).

Warm up to the cold

One ailment for which everyone has his or her own personal remedy is the common cold. It works for them for sometime but not for others. For many years I relied on heavy doses of vitamin C (and aspirin) washed down with large quantities of hot lime juice. It did not kill the cold but lessened its impact and duration from the usual five days to three.

In my younger days sore throat followed by sneezing and running nose were followed by a blocked nose followed by cough. It afflicted me at least four times in the year. Now In my eighties I seldom fall prey to the onslaught of cold more than twice a year. Apart from falling back on my tried prescriptions I find staying in bed for a day and ensuring a clear stomach by whatever means possible gives quick relief.

When I was in Goa recently at a dinner at the home of Commander Niranjan Singh, I ran into Mr Machado who was once speaker of the Goa legislative assembly. Somehow we got talking about common colds. He dictated to me what he described as a “sure fire” remedy to kill a cold: boil water with ginger, cloves, cinnamon and lots of sugar. After it has cooled add lime juice and boil again. Then add liberal quantities of cashewnut feni. The cold will be gone.”

I am going to try this prescription next time I go down with cold. But instead of sugar I’ll use honey and instead of feni rum or brandy. I feel sorry for those who don’t take alcohol; it has lots of medicinal properties.    


Pregnant realities

Sir — There is absolutely no basis for Lata Sinha’s optimism that Kya Kehna will herald a sexual revolution in Bollywood (“Just do it”, May 19). Showing that young individuals indulge in sex before marriage is no big deal: many actresses before Preity Zinta have done it, as Sinha herself accepts. The problem is that the middleclass moralism of Bollywood directors leads them to show how much the heroines must suffer for their sexual “indiscretion”. Invariably these heroines become pregnant and get thrown out of their homes. They either remain single ever after or are haunted by the incident throughout their lives. The fecundity of these heroines is amazing, since their pregnancy is usually the result of a one off sexual encounter. One wishes these faint-away misses had heard of contraceptives; at least the chivalrous heroes could have helped them out with condoms. This is no sexual revolution, only a sexual morality play, with incidental titillation provided by a camera homing in on the heroine en deshabille.

Yours faithfully,
Rahul Sinha,

Fable of Fiji

Sir — People of Indian origin have done us proud abroad. There were, till recently, four leaders of Indian origin heading their respective governments — B. Pandey in the Caribbeans, A. Ramgoolam in Mauritius, the president of Singapore, S.R. Nathan, and M. Chaudhry in Fiji. Current South African and Malaysian politics too is dominated by Indian influence. Indian influence and leadership will be prominent features in the 21st century across the globe. India should forge ties with such countries in order to strengthen its bilateral relationships. But it is also important to keep a conscious eye on the events in Fiji, where as a result of the coup, the prime minister, Chaudhry, has been ousted.

In the name of ethnic solidarity, an elected government is being displaced at gunpoint by some reckless men. India cannot and should not watch these developments passively. A proactive role should be adopted by the government immediately. If India can send forces to Sierra Leone and Somalia (under United Nations’ obligations) and Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, then why not Fiji?

In fact, India should host an annual summit with the leaders of these countries in order to improve bilateral relations, ensure favourable tax regimes for business and, more important, set up a security umbrella for one another. Here India must lead from the front. The amount of latent Japanese support enjoyed by Alberto Fujimori in Chile is an open secret. The Fijian experience cannot be allowed to go unattended. India must get its act together.

Yours faithfully,
Gaurang Jalan
, Calcutta

Sir — The disturbing events in Fiji, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka seem to be variations on the same pattern. It is important to note that these are occurring at a time when the whole world is deliberating on the pros and cons of globalization. The world should be more open and free where people will realize that the most significant value resides in acting simply as human beings. But if the world moves towards the selfish enhancement of political sentiments, regional and national, then there is much to fear.

As for Fiji, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, there is enough cause for worry. One understands that ethnic communities always feel threatened; after all, insecurity creeps in when one sees other communities prosper, while “indigenous” people wallow in economic squalor. Yet these very people must objectively sort out solutions, and not resort to coups and terrorist tactics. Africa best illustrates this. South Africa is, in a way, economically a success story, though the ethnic community is still struggling.

There is no doubt that colonization has left the majority of colonies ill equipped to cope with freedom. They need help and constant monitoring, so that gradual but certain empowerment takes place. The Commonwealth must play a more active role.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamils are fighting back. But they are alienating themselves with bloodshed and violence. Would gaining Jaffna put an end to the violence? In Zimbabwe, since the whites form the minority, there is all the more reason for them to initiate land reforms in such a way that both communities can coexist peacefully. One can only hope good sense prevails among all communities.

The recent events in Fiji are cause for serious concern to us, especially so because the victims there are Indians. It is obvious that resentment and marginalization among the ethnic Fijians have resulted in the coup.

It is clear that the moderate leaders are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate the demands of the aggressive Fijians. One wonders how long it will take for our attitude to such issues to change so as to evolve into our own nemesis, considering that Indians are scattered all over the world. That would indeed be a sad day for us.

Yours faithfully,
Sajni Koruth,
via e-mail

Unsporting chance

Sir — This is evidently not the best of times for Indian sports. Just when we were trying to deal with the shameful goings on in the cricket world, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi formally announced their split. An entire nation of sports fanatics has been affected by this loss. While both will defend their stance, they must also have a feel of the average Indian’s perspective on this.

As a nation, we have had our share of glory in sports. From a succession of Olympic gold medals in hockey to a thrilling win in 1983 at Lords, to the world’s number two chess player, we’ve had a taste of it all. We were also proud of the victories the duo of Paes and Bhupathi brought us consistently.

But when the world’s top doubles pair formally announced their split, one could not help wondering how two men who brought for their country the highest honours in the tennis world could just walk away and leave the nation gaping in disbelief. Indeed, this was not altogether unexpected. After all, there were rumours over the past year about the growing strain in their relationship, and this was a likely culmination. We wanted to believe that the two had the stuff heroes were made of; heroes who rise above fractious emotions and focus on the greater cause at hand. It seemed for a while that the two would prove us right. All along, one had been hoping that they would reconcile and wield the magic once more on the 78 feet by 27 ft surface.

Try as we might, we cannot think of “Lee and Hesh” as two separate people. It is a pity that we cannot watch the Grand Slams with the same patriotic feeling. The two talented men had taken us to the realms of success we had thought of as beyond our reach. One should possibly stop hoping for a miraculous reconciliation and instead accept that at least for the next year, we will have to watch Paes play with Jan Siemerink, and Bhupathi tie up with Wayne Arthurs. The only chance of watching the two together will be at the Sydney Olympics or the Davis Cup matches.

Meanwhile, the nation of sports freaks can only hope for better times ahead for the twosome — together.

Yours faithfully,
Radhika Mitra,

Wrong foundation

Sir — I would like to draw attention to the article, “Hills are alive” (May 21). I must clarify that the MacArthur Foundation did not read or clear any version of the report called “AIDS aur Hum”. The foundation praised not the controversial report on AIDS, but the work of the non-governmental organization, Sahyog. Moreover, your article talks of the Muttreja Foundation. There is no such foundation. What the reporter probably meant was the MacArthur Foundation.

Yours faithfully,
Poonam Muttreja,
country coordinator, The John D. and T. MacArthur Foundation
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