Editorial/Quietly does not do it
Rogue calculus
Letters to the Editor

The West Bengal government has begun reforming its power sector. Unfortunately, it is doing it as quietly and surreptitiously as possible. For example, the West Bengal Power Development Corporation has been instructed to take over the Bandel and Santaldih power plants from the state electricity board. The Left Front is thus following in the footsteps of states like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh in having power generation, transmission and distribution handled by separate enterprises. Over time, the cancer of subsidies can be curbed and each function made self financing and competitive.

When other states initiate such changes, they do so with fanfare. Andhra Pradesh�s chief minister, Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, ceaselessly broadcasts a message that he represents dynamic change. Other state leaders, from Mr Digvijay Singh to Mr M. Karunanidhi, have also leveraged their reforms to enhance their images. West Bengal alone remains diffident. Alimuddin Street believes a leftist regime must treat economic reforms like a mad uncle � to be tolerated but never acknowledged. Even the few green shoots in West Bengal�s industrial wasteland like some agricultural sectors and services like healthcare and computer education thrive in anonymity.

Some believe that given the sort of opposition economic reforms can inspire, changes on the sly are good. They are wrong, for three reasons.

First, whether they enter through the kitchen window or walk through the front door, reforms cause social displacement. If an economy had no surplus workers or inefficient factories, reforms would by definition not be necessary. Pain must be inflicted in the short term or else, long term economic growth is impossible. The West Bengal government is already wrestling with what do with the thousands of workers its power restructuring will leave surplus. With or without noise, restructuring means unavoidable tough decisions.

Second, carrying out reforms is a calculated political risk. The party in power essentially decides it can survive the initial unemployment and recession that reforms entail long enough to reap the benefits from the subsequent job creation and sustained growth. That is why it makes political sense to carry out reforms quickly and on many fronts, that way the good times arrive that much faster. But such forward movement is possible if the government tells the public what it has in mind. Mr Naidu, for example, is a master of publicly debating and explaining a coming reform. His recent decision to subsidize the power tariff was a fallout of the state electricity regulatory commission�s increasing prices without giving him time to do the spadework. Such debate is only possible if a government wears its reform intentions on its sleeves, proclaiming it loudly from the mountaintops.

Finally, though charisma is derided, in India it cannot be discounted. Reforms go a lot easier if a politician converts the necessity of change into an image of personal dynamism. By merging reforms with a vision of a better future, leaders like Mr Ronald Reagan and Mrs Margaret Thatcher were able to turn their nations upside down and boost their popularity. This requires not only a brazen proclamation of the intention to reform, but making a near religion of free markets, individual enterprise and minimal statism.

It is not only the general public that notices. As Mr Naidu has shown, erecting a dynamic image on a reform platform also catches the eye of investors. Infusions of foreign capital make it easier to get a reforming economy out of its initial slump into its boom period. No surprise then that the most openly pro-reform states � Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu � have cornered the bulk of India�s foreign investment. Not only that, they have cornered most of the financing doled out by domestic financial concerns. States like West Bengal, who hide their reforms behind a veil, receive dribs and drabs. Economic change goes smoother with transparency and goes further with unabashed commitment.    

The Cold War is over. Long live the Cold War! India, which probably suffered more than any other country from the end of superpower struggle, need not necessarily lament the implications of Bill Clinton�s recent message to Moscow.

What he had to say there suggested the beginnings of another arms race. The contestants are the same but military rivalry is contained this time by a close-knit web of economic interaction. It is a masterstroke of realpolitik that a permanent Sino-American trade relationship should pave the way for China�s entry into the World Trade Organization just as plans are being considered for an anti-missile shield that the Chinese might view as belligerent interference in their domestic affairs.

Why does the United States still feel the need for this modified version of Ronald Reagan�s strategic defence initiative or �star wars�, especially after the nuclear big five piously reaffirmed their commitment to disarmament at the indefinitely extended nuclear nonproliferation treaty�s review conference only the previous week? The world received its answer when the Americans ignored Vladimir Putin�s counter-proposal of a joint missile defence system. But suspicion of even an enfeebled born-again Russia was obvious enough when the US expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and provocatively pushed it right up to Russia�s borders though the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded.

Clearly, Washington entertains misgivings about what the men who wield power in Moscow and Beijing might be up to once they have got over their present difficulties. The list of potential targets does not end there. US analysts go beyond conventional adversaries to talk of �rogue states� that must be disciplined. The world may be unipolar now but there is no guarantee that it will always remain so. Future planning is based on the emergence of several power centres, among which the US includes India.

A number of war games and policy papers have specifically referred to India�s �hegemonic� intentions, to the possibility of hostilities in Kashmir calling for outside intervention, and the need to deploy missiles to take out Indian arsenals. In the fashionable jargon of our times, these are �scenarios�: imaginary certainly, but not � or so Pentagon policymakers, Washington think tanks and weapons manu- facturers claim � beyond the realm of possibility.

I have not come across similar strategies or exercises in relation to Pakistan or Israel, which are also nuclear states. The possible US targets of the future are countries that have been denounced for sponsoring terrorism (Sudan, Libya and Iran), the two unpredictable entities, North Korea and Iraq � and the world�s much-vaunted largest democracy which is often hailed as a natural ally of the world�s oldest. What the Americans imply is that they cannot be confident about India because it has �yet to assume a role commensurate with its size on the international political stage,� a phrase that Henry Kissinger uses.

The Clinton administration�s concern about India�s nuclear and missile programmes is, therefore, pragmatic and precautionary, though packaged in proliferation piety. Despite Kargil, Clinton�s visit, and the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue, there is little evidence of any radical shift in this basic perception.

The US state department has always held that India must behave �responsibly� if its size, history, geopolitical advantage and potential are to receive due acknowledgement. For �responsibly,� read India must sign the nuclear nonproliferation and comprehensive test ban treaties (or, at least, the latter), join negotiations for the still distant fissile materials cut-off treaty, continue liberalization to strengthen the national economy and integrate it with the world�s, and adopt coherent and consistent policies on a range of international issues from China to Kosovo.

�Responsible� behaviour would also include a demonstration of peaceable intentions towards Pakistan, perhaps through cast iron confidence-building measures and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Washington�s south Asian policy has been pivoted from before 1947 on the calculation that Pakistan needs protection from regional predators.

To reject these proposals simply because the US demands them would be like cutting one�s nose to spite one�s face. Statesmanship lies in independently assessing India�s needs, deciding the extent to which they can be served through cooperation with the US and then extracting the best price for support. There may be new scope for negotiations, for instance, in the American need to mobilize world opinion in favour of amending the 1972 anti-ballistic missiles treaty and 1974 protocol to legitimize a missile defence shield.

Both forbid space based interceptors. They also limit the Americans and Russians to no more than 100 interceptors at one location for defence against long-range ballistic missiles. Whatever launchers the Americans use, Clinton�s plan would violate treaty and protocol. Yet, both the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls reportedly support it. There is even talk of extending protection to US troops and allies in Asia, which would mean Japan, South Korea and, possibly, Taiwan.

At one level, the plan is to be deplored. It flies in the face of Clinton�s highly publicized commitment to nonproliferation. It indicates that the global peacemaker is anxious to play to the chauvinist gallery at home. The consequences could be expensive and dangerous. Putin�s past career and present anger do not rule out a military response � or would not have if Russia, too, could afford similar extravagance. China might begin to consider its own protective shield against missile attack. Another and more elaborate arms race cannot be ruled out.

But nothing is to be gained by voicing moral outrage. Jawaharlal Nehru�s disapproval made little impression on Cold War contestants. Rajiv Gandhi�s action plan on disarmament did not become less ineffective for being enthusiastically endorsed by the nonaligned nations� Cartagena summit. India�s obligation is to what it has achieved and what it must still achieve, not to unrealizable abstractions.

That means exploring the space for manoeuvre in this new triangular contest without turning its back on Russia or allowing itself to be drawn into Sino-American controversy. China�s capacity for mischief must never be underestimated. Nor the challenge of its nuclear warheads in Tibet, its reconnaissance base in the Little Coco island only 30 miles or so from the Andamans and its military promotion of Pakistan.

The sights and sounds of K.R. Narayanan�s trip should not lull us into a false sense of euphoria. The Americans knew even when Jiang Zemin promised Clinton that Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles would no longer target US cities that they could be swung back to their original position in a matter of minutes.

Beijing may do just that if the proposed missile defence shield is extended to Taiwan, which it regards as an irredentist province of China. India will have to rethink its entire defence strategy on the basis of Beijing�s response to the Clinton plan, but, this time, without the anti-Chinese rhetoric.

In some ways, the anti-missile plan illustrates the limits of economic engagement. Trade and markets create a commonalty of interests. As the struggle between England and France or the Japanese grievances that led to the Pacific war, showed, they can also engender intense and bitter competition.

Russia and China need the US, which, in turn, needs both. China, in particular, helps to sustain Middle America�s jobs and lifestyle through its imports of aircraft and heavy machinery and its export of cheap clothes, footwear, electronics and toys. Yet, suspicion lingers. This is an argument not for deprecating commerce but for reflecting on how much worse Sino-American relations might have been without commercial bonding.

There is a lesson here for potential �rogue states.� If they cannot win acceptance of their economic needs through nuclear tests, economic regeneration might enable them to win acceptance of their nuclear status. Success in that game will depend to some extent on India�s ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this revival of global polarization. The Cold War did not serve India too badly.    


Power to the centre

Sir � The elation over the proposed nuclear power plant in West Bengal was evidently premature (�Naidu butts into nuclear race�, June 7). Not surprising, given that the state in question is West Bengal. But the blatant show of alliance arithmetic in the whole issue is appalling. N. Chandrababu Naidu can walk away with the nuclear cake even if Andhra Pradesh does not have good enough sites to offer, simply because he contributes 29 members of parliament in support of the alliance at the Centre. Soon half truths will be invented to project his state as the best possible option. The ways of alliance politics are truly strange. Should we still wonder what goes wrong with the development projects in India?

Yours faithfully,
Sarit Majumdar, via email

High water mark

Sir � There is an element of sensationalism in the Rs 700 crore project report of Senbo Engineering Limited to stem erosion along the Bhagirathi (�Flood alert over river shift�, April 21). The report predicts absolute doom for Calcutta in the next two to three years when the Bhagirathi flows into the Padma following the erosion of the present delicate 600 metre barrier between the two rivers. The main flow of the Ganga has, over the years, been diverted towards the east into the Padma along �preferred slopes� and the flow into the Bhagirathi-Hooghly has progressively decreased. This situation necessitated the construction of the Farakka Barrage to augment the original flow into the Bhagirathi-Hooghly. The difference in bed levels between the Padma and the other two rivers is about 15 m, with the Padma on the lower level.

The problem with the Ganga is manifold. The reckless misuse of its waters in the upper reaches and the excessive erosion and deterioration of the catchment areas have played havoc with the river�s hydraulics. The situation has been made worse by the lack of any long term control and training measures. Erosion, sedimentation and changes in course are natural processes in the case of meandering rivers. But this does not mean one should sit by and wait for the worst. The present situation is no doubt grim. Hundreds of hectares of prime agricultural land and many village settlements have already been lost in Malda and Murshidabad districts. The government stop being callous and undertake proper protection measures urgently.

Yours faithfully,
Dilip Kumar Roy, Calcutta

Sir � In 1928, a British water management expert, William Wilcox, made a detailed study of the entire river system in erstwhile Bengal. He suggested setting up a barrage at Nadia to effectively control the Ganga-Padma complex and its associated tributaries. But no action was taken by the authorities at the time. His suggestions were reexamined by Indian experts in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and found to be viable. Kapil Bhattacharjee�s paper on the subject drew much attention. However the plan was shelved in the view of the upcoming Farakka Barrage.

It would be prudent now to activate the Wilcox plan to save south Bengal from inundation and worse. Bangladesh should also be involved � the waterflow affects that country too � in a joint venture with India to set up the Nadia barrage. Simultaneously, large scale dredging operations need to be undertaken to desilt the waterways. Since it would be foolish to depend solely on the government, the private sector must be inducted. Else, Calcutta may literally experience Writers� Buildings� swansong, �Apr�s nous le d�luge�.

Yours faithfully,
Jayanta Kumar Dutt, Calcutta

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