Drooping red flag
Work oriented
Wages of modernity
Letters to the Editor

The results of the elections to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation will not please either of the two principal rivals, the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front. The latter has lost control over the CMC. It will be displeased but may not be surprised. That the left was losing support in Calcutta was obvious. The results merely confirm this conclusion. The Trinamool Congress stands a good chance of running the CMC but it will be disappointed that it cannot do so on its own steam. The Trinamool Congress will need the support of councillors owing allegiance to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The results have some important lessons for Ms Mamata Banerjee, the numero uno of the Trinamool Congress. Ms Banerjee is the sole spokesman of all anti-left forces and aspirations in West Bengal. Her moorings are in the urban areas, especially Calcutta, where, over the years, the left’s power and influence have been dwindling. Despite this she has not been able to record an overwhelming victory. It is clear from the results that there are pockets in Calcutta where the left remains strong. If Ms Banerjee really considers these elections to be a dress rehearsal for the assembly polls, she has a lot of work to do. The default of the left and its abuse of power can take the Trinamool Congress only so far and no further. Ms Banerjee will have to work out a programme for West Bengal which is perceived to be popular without it being populist.

In more ways than one, the results put Ms Banerjee at a crossroads. One of the reasons why the Trinamool Congress’s performance has been below expectation is the presence of the Congress as a splitter of anti-left votes. Ms Banerjee will have to rework her equations with the Congress not only to provide stability to the CMC but also to plan ahead for a consolidation of anti-left votes in the assembly polls. A major block in her way is the BJP with which the Trinamool Congress is in alliance. The BJP keeps Muslims away from the Trinamool Congress and acts as a barrier between the Congress and Ms Banerjee. She will be forced soon to choose. She cannot by any reckoning see her partnership with the BJP as one that fetches dividends. The Congress is her natural habitat and her exit from it was largely a matter of ego. If her aim is to defeat the left, as she proclaims again and again, she may have to give up a bit of her ego. The Congress, it is evident, is in no position to dictate terms. It can continue to live with the labels of being a spoiler and the left’s second eleven or reclaim its status as a political force under a fighting leader.

The left can now only lick its wounds. It refused to read the writing on the wall and continued to live in a wigwam of complacency and self-serving rhetoric. Every election announced that the urban electorate was tired of the left, tired of its incompetence, tired of its nepotism, tired of its intimidation and tired of its false promises. But Alimuddin Street, the centre of extra-constitutional power in West Bengal, remained impervious. Insensitized by power, the left refused to refashion itself. Out of power in the CMC, it can only be hoped that the left will not fall back on the disruptive tactics it had mastered during its years in opposition. The results of the CMC polls represent only the tip of the iceberg of grievances; the full iceberg can more than sink the left Titanic.    

Uselessness will have to pay its price. That seems to be the moral of the Supreme Court’s decision on the age of superannuation. Ruling on a petition by a lower court judge who had been asked to retire at 58 while the usual age of superannuation is 60, the court said that the retirement age of government employees could be reduced after review. Thus it has taken an important step towards improving the work culture and reconsidering the existing labour laws in a changing economic ambience. Merit and accountability in positions of responsibility have largely been associated with the private sector. On the other hand, Indian government and semi-government institutions are remarkable chiefly for their accommodating spirit. The enormous workforces in many of these organizations are matched only by their redtapism, tardiness and general inefficiency. These are the inevitable results of over-employment. By suggesting that government institutions make a start by thinning out senior employees, the Supreme Court has offered a practical, and not too radical, approach to a host of problems.

The crux of the ruling is the idea of the review. Such an assessment would be aimed at revealing the employee’s willingness to work, his efficiency and efforts at self-improvement, and how much he has contributed to and is needed by the organization. What is being assumed here is, of course, accountability, an item in astonishingly short supply in many institutions. A mandatory review would automatically improve work culture. What needs to be decided, however, is the age when the first such review might take place. Also the mechanics of putting a regulatory body in place so such assessments are made regularly and impartially. There is another obvious advantage that would follow from the implementation of this ruling. A faster movement on top would ultimately mean more frequent vacancies for young people. A nation struggling with vast armies of the educated unemployed would find at least one channel of employment if the country’s biggest employer starts easing out its useless staff. Such a change, which could be momentous in its effects, will obviously not take place overnight. The requirements of the time, however, will ensure that the Supreme Court’s verdict be taken seriously.    

The idea of modernity as the spread of rationality was always a bit suspect. Its main proponent, Max Weber, himself spoke derisively of the bureaucratized world it was creating as an iron cage. What he did not bargain for was its proneness to all too frequent outbursts of irrationality and the ravages of its homicidal mania which would claim more than a hundred million victims in wars, ideological purges, ethnic cleansings, and religious, sectarian and tribal conflicts.

Modernity may have provided the key to many secrets of nature, achieved marvels of productivity and created the welfare state in the more advanced industrial societies. But it has also promoted alienation and anomie even among its beneficiaries, set up new hegemonies and built a more unequal world order. It has turned millions of people into drudges or mere cogs in a machine. For third world societies, the encounter with modernity has been mostly disruptive or disorienting.

For many of them, the end of foreign occupation has meant subjection to more insidious forms of neo-colonialism. Their development plans have gone awry for lack of a right strategy or of a creative and honest leadership. The revolution of rising expectations and slow rates of economic growth have added to their feelings of frustration and deprivation. This has provided fertile ground for the growth of despotic regimes and the rise of new elite groups whose insensitivity to their surroundings has increasingly alienated them from their own people.

A large and diverse society like India which has somehow managed to keep a democratic system going, despite the distortions suffered by it, too, has by no means escaped the travails of modernity. The very opportunities for expression of dissent which have perhaps enabled the Centre to hold, also paradoxically weakened the forces of national integration. This is clear not only from a visible sharpening of religious, regional, caste and ethnic identities in recent years, but repeated fractured verdicts in parliamentary elections which get translated into ruling coalitions of disparate elements, subjecting national policymaking to contrary pulls most of the time.

It is hardly surprising in this situation if a hard pressed government at times loses not only its sense of direction but also its nerve as has recently happened in New Delhi’s handling of the Kashmir crisis. There can be no other explanation for its decision to start negotiations with the leaders of the outlawed All Party Hurriyat Conference in the state without giving a moment’s thought to the likely repercussions of this desperate move on the self-image, morale and stance of the other parties including its partner in the ruling coalition at the Centre, the National Conference, which runs the state government.

Was it panic caused by having come to the end of their tether in Kashmir which made the policymakers so dumb as not to realize that their initiative could only push the National Conference perilously near to the position of the Hurriyat and raise its stakes in autonomy to a point only a notch this side of azadi. It was what provoked the Kashmir assembly to pass the resolution it did. It wants nothing less than a return to the 1952 accession agreement, confining the Centre’s jurisdiction to defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications.

Blotting out the history of the last 48 years may be a dubious proposition. The relevant point today is that it was the Central government which unwittingly wrote the playscript for the drama that was staged in the Kashmir assembly. And that neither the timing nor the tenor of the debate could have been more unfortunate, and that nothing worse could have happened to queer the pitch for the Central government in its negotiations either with the Hurriyat or with the National Conference on the degree of autonomy that could be conceded to Kashmir without tying up New Delhi’s hand in dealing with other areas of active militancies or deepening the communal divide in the country.

It is hard to say how the government is going to get out of the corner into which it has driven itself. But whatever the expedient, it cannot avoid some loss of face nor rule out the possibility of the problem of militancy in Kashmir acquiring a more dangerous dimension. Some here will of course say that in any case the government could not have kept the question of Kashmir’s autonomy under wraps for all time, it had to burst into the open some time. Now that the question has exploded in the government’s face, it is better for the latter to state clearly how far it could go in meeting the National Conference’s demand. The catch here is that the prevailing climate of fear fed by intensified militancy and inflated political rhetoric in the state prevents policymakers from doing so. They cannot be rushed into finding an instant solution to a problem fraught with so many dangers.

As it is, not only the government and the opposition parties, but the Bharatiya Janata Party and many members of the sangh parivar are sorely divided on many crucial economic and social issues. Starting a national debate on autonomy for Kashmir at this time can only open a Pandora’s box and, far from producing a broad consensus, will make this as well as other contentious matters more unmanageable. Things being what they are, the government cannot often make even its decisions on less emotion-charged matters stick.

That the progress with its privatization plans should be slow and spasmodic is only to be expected. Privatization itself has two faces. While the government cannot afford to pay for the losses incurred by public sector units in the red year after year, neither can it risk the danger of growing unrest and violence implicit in swelling the ranks of the unemployed.

Much of the prevailing confusion arises from the tendency of the neo-liberals to ignore the challenge of creating enough new jobs in the economy to take care of those who enter the labour force every year, and the reluctance of the radicals to ask themselves where the massive resources needed to create work opportunities on the requisite scale come from. Development economics has yet to find how to meet the twin challenges of creating enough new jobs and achieving higher levels of productivity at the same time.

Does it mean that the encounter between tradition and modernity in a country like India has to be written off as a botched affair? The answer to the question is: certainly not. It is no small feat to have kept a democratic system going in a large society divided by a hundred barriers of religion, caste, region, language, class and ethnicity for so long despite the deformities suffered by the institutions of state. Nor is a threefold increase in grain production, enough to feed a billion people, something to be scoffed at.

The growing inequalities at both personal and regional levels, the continued fracturing of political life, the increasing isolation of the professional elite from the common people, and the rising crime graph all show that the system is under increasing strain. That the country can count, as in the past, on somehow muddling through as both internal unrest and the globalization pressures grow is mere wishful thinking. This brings us back to the flip side of modernity, the point from where this piece started.

We still have no more than a hazy understanding of the dynamics of modernity, which depend on the specific mix of strategic thinking, access to new technology, size of the local resource base in terms of both finance and human capital and the openness of the society concerned to new ideas. That is where unintended consequences of action come in. We can never be sure how a particular policy will fare as it goes into action, or in what way nature will wreak veng- eance on those who despoil it beyond a certain point. It is hard to draw a balance sheet of the emancipatory and destructive potentials of new technology which, as experience has shown, can be used sensibly or abused with equal ease.

Niklas Luhmann, a leading German social thinker, is one of the few to look on contingency as one of the defining characteristics of modernity. The wages of sin is death, says the Bible. According to Luhmann, the wages of modernity is uncertainty. He indeed goes so far as to contend that a society’s ability to cope with the challenges of modernity depends on its capacity to absorb uncertainty. This will hardly reassure those who regard a feverish growth of knowledge-based industries as the guarantee of a better future for mankind.

What these post-industrial utopians forget is that uncertainty cannot be conjured away by quixotic thinking. Since it always implies risk, we cannot even predict with accuracy the ramifications of a particular technology. The word “knowledge” itself is a decoy in the current context. It does not mean recovery by reason of its lost normative dimension but mere knowhow to make computers store more information and transmit it still faster. For all they know, the most advanced high-tech societies may soon have a lot of trouble coping with an overload of junk information. Their problems are, however, not half as harrowing as ours.    


Innocent abroad

Sir — Atal Behari Vajpayee seems to be truly playing with fire now. He has always pretended to have been ignorant of the reasons and motives behind the Christian killings. And now he expresses “serious concern” about the attacks on Christians on his visit to the Vatican, Rome and Lisbon. This kind of statement, however, is not going to be taken at face value back home. No wonder Dominic Emmanuel, spokesperson of public affairs for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said that only a statement will not make situations any better (“PM whip faces church reality test”, June 26). It is easy to recall how the spate of killings had dropped dramatically around the time that Bill Clinton visited the country. Yet there is supposedly no conscious design. Vajpayee, who has reiterated the charge that the church is giving a communal colour to all incidents involving the killings of Christians, might continue to maintain his stand while a graveyard is being vandalized in Andhra Pradesh. What price innocence?

Yours faithfully,
Meena Kar, Calcutta

Problems with justice

Sir — Justice is slowly becoming illusory for aggrieved citizens because of the tardiness of a diseased juridical mechanism (“A pile on in the road to justice”, May 1). A high court pronouncing judgment after 23 years may be an exception, but more than 2,50,000 cases are pending and about 20,000 add up annually.

The sharp difference in economic status within the population also poses a hindrance to justice, since most cannot afford to go to the higher courts. Merely filling up vacant posts of judges can be a short-term solution, but overhauling the entire system by making procedural changes is the only way to streamline the process. Instead of being divided into the civil and criminal categories, cases should be slotted according to merit. Proceedings should not be long drawn out for petty cases, though care must be taken to ensure a certain standard of judgment. Only a select category of cases should be referred to the Supreme Court.

All this needs time and a commission along the lines of the Constitution review commission. Among short term measures, filling up vacancies and reducing annual holidays are most important. There is a severe lack of infrastructure in the judiciary. Neither is there a mechanism to increase awareness among people. Though lok adalats have gained prominence in recent years, they need to be held regularly in every block and municipality.

Yours faithfully,
Partha Ghosh, Birbhum

Sir — The article, “Arms to a sentry without a sword” (June 13), by Indronil Roy Chowdhury contains a lot of misinformation on the West Bengal human rights commission. The WBHRC is headed by a retired chief justice and not a high court judge. It has four members — a retired judge of the high court, a retired district judge of the state higher judicial service and two other human rights experts.

Roy Chowdhury’s statement that the chairperson of the commission, M.G. Mukherji, said in the presence of the home (police) minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, that most recommendations were not accepted by the state government, is not true. On Human Rights Day, December 12, 1999, the minister claimed that almost all recommendations were accepted. Mukherji pointed out that in three recent cases the government had not done so because they involved veteran criminals. Mukherji retorted saying that even criminals had the right to the protection of life and property. It is also not true that Mukherji told a seminar in Mogra that 97 per cent of his recommendations had been accepted.

Roy Chowdhury also implies that the government cautioned Mukherji against speaking the truth. The commission’s annual report will make clear that it has always expressed its views independently and criticized the government on several matters. But the commission always tries to play a constructive role. Its last annual report cannot be made public because it is with the state legislative assembly and circulating it would amount to a breach of privilege.

He is also misinformed about the working of the commission. There are eight investigating officers (two posts are vacant) and numerous departmental officers to deal with law and research work. Each complaint, after it is taken cognizance of, is sent for investigation by either a government official of the rank of district magistrate or superintendent of police, or looked into by an investigating officer of the commission.

There is no provision for opening branches at the district level. It is also not correct that the public relations officer cannot look into complaints personally. There is also a registrar and his deputy, both judicial officers, on deputation to the commission, who look into the acceptability of the complaint.

Disputes between employer and employee, landlord and tenant, spouses or family members over property and matters, in which the cause of the action occurred more than a year ago or which are sub judice, are statutorily barred. Of 5,000 cases, the commission disposed of more than 1,100 with proper directions. In about 500, the commission’s direction resulted in police investigations and the framing of chargesheets.

Yours faithfully,
Rupayan Dey, public relations officer, West Bengal human rights commission, Calcutta

Sir — The Supreme Court of India turned down Jyoti Basu’s request for a circuit bench of the apex court in Calcutta on the grounds that it would lead to the number of cases shooting up (“Apex court no to Basu’s plea”, April 26). Pakistan’s population is a little more than 140 million, while India’s has crossed one billion. There is roughly one supreme court for every 10 million Pakistanis, compared to one for every 40 million Indians. If India were to follow the example of its neighbour, the number of cases would go down substantially, and not shoot up.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Dutt, Calcutta

Sir — Nirmalendu Bikash Rakshit rightly insists that judges should be recruited on the basis of merit alone, from among persons with both technical precision and personal wisdom (“Judge with a fair cast of mind”, May 11). The entry of persons with fewer talents in the judiciary will cause its politicization. Reservations in the judiciary will hamper its duties, for which a knowledge of both law and constitutional provisions is needed. Judges are not employees of the government. They have to ensure that the administration is impartial.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Azimganj

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