Editorial 1/ Old style politics
Editorial 2/ Status symbol
Price of keeping up
Fifth Column/ Disasters, natural and Political
They that have power to sign
Letters to the editor

The Trinamool Congress leader, Ms Mamata Banerjee, has declared her belief that economic reforms make for bad politics. By resigning from the Union cabinet on the issue of the hike in oil prices, Ms Banerjee has made it clear that she is a worshipper at the altar of populism. She has sought the cheapest route to popularity. This is good politics of a sort. Ms Banerjee has got her eyes firmly fixed on the top job in Writers� Buildings in Calcutta. She is thus eager to expand her support base in West Bengal. Her resignation serves this purpose in two ways. First, it is the initial step towards getting rid of the Bharatiya Janata Party tag which Ms Banerjee still wears around her neck. Such a tag keeps away the Muslim voters. By distancing herself from the BJP-led government, Ms Banerjee is clearing the path to woo Muslim voters and perhaps to come closer to the West Bengal unit of the Congress. She moves a step closer towards forming an anti-left alliance. Second, by making the rise in oil price and the its inflationary impact on prices of essential commodities a bone of contention, she is also trying to project herself as a leader who values the hardship of the people more than her own individual power and position. It would be utterly simplistic to treat Ms Banerjee�s resignation as a piece of political blackmail against the National Democratic Alliance. Ms Banerjee is making a political point and is also making it in a way that will bring dividends to her. It is unfortunate � and this is a curse on Indian politics � that she has articulated her protest and her ambitions only through populism and a blind opposition to economic reforms. The hike in oil prices announced by the government of India has been spurred by a rise in the international price of oil. The prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee or any other Indian political leader has nothing to with this. India has to pay this higher price to buy oil in the international market and therefore has to raise the money to meet this higher cost. Every single instrument available to meet the increased cost � printing of more notes, increased public debt, lowering of taxes on oil to keep the price down � will, one way or the other, have an inflationary impact on the economy. As long as the state, instead of the market, fixes the price of oil, the issue will remain complicated, fuzzy and controversial. It is one of the principal objectives of the economic reforms that the price of oil should be determined by market forces. Mr Vajpayee has refused to accept this logic and continues to cling to the state�s regulatory role. It is this that should be the target of criticism not the hike in prices. Ms Banerjee poses as a challenger to old style politicians but her political attire is cut from the cloth of populism.    

The blow is doubly weighted. Losing its national status and having the right to its election symbol limited to the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura is bad enough for the Communist Party of India (Marxist). On top of that, the Election Commission�s decision comes a few months before the West Bengal and Kerala assembly elections. This is a loss of image for the party that all its 32 members of parliament in the Lok Sabha cannot compensate for. The EC has simply gone by the book. And the CPI(M) has found that being the third largest in parliamentary strength does not prevent a party from losing its national status if it cannot get even six per cent votes in four assemblies. There is another irony in the CPI(M)�s demotion, perhaps even more piercing for its leaders in some ways. The Communist Party of India retains its national status, although the CPI boasts only two Lok Sabha MPs. This is an unkind historical irony, given both the origin of the CPI(M) and the present hierarchy of parties in the Left Front. The only saving grace has been the party�s dignified acceptance of the EC�s decision, which is in contrast to the petulant reactions of the two Janata Dal groups, one led by Mr Sharad Yadav and the other by Mr H.D. Deve Gowda. The EC has decided to reduce these two groups to regional status too.

The sad thing is that the CPI(M) really cannot be compared to either of the Janata Dal groups, although technically they are now of similar status. The history of the CPI(M)�s emergence and growth, its activity, its links with the other left parties, and the fact that for many it still represents the most visible face of the left movement in India make this reduction of status rather incongruous. While it can be said that the left is dead or dying all over the world, the unique conditions of India � its turbulent political equations and its immense economic, regional, ethnic, religious and caste differences � have given the local left movement a life after death. Yet the CPI(M)�s lowered status seems to echo the humbling of left parties in much of the world. For the CPI(M) in West Bengal, the blow is really a bad one. Mr Jyoti Basu, the chief minister, is likely to retire soon, and succession is unlikely to be smooth. Intra-party dissidence not only persists but seems to be gathering strength. The party has become identified with violent oppression. The pitched battles over turf in the districts have brought down ministers and inspection teams from the Centre and evoked loud calls for the imposition of Article 356 from the Trinamool Congress leader, Ms Mamata Banerjee. In these bad days, the CPI(M) will have to work overtime if it wishes to build anything positive out of the loss of its status and prestige.    

A newspaper headline reported that the prime minister was clearing files in a hurry since he was going to be out of circulation for some time because of surgery on his knee. The report mentioned that the prime minister was working overtime because he did not want files to pile up during his absence. This suggests that efficient decisionmaking is one of the first priorities of the National Democratic Alliance government. Unfortunately, only the closest supporters of the government will believe that this is anything like a true image � there are simply too many instances where the government seems to fritter away time, pondering over non-existent options.

Nothing illustrates the government�s hesitation to take unpopular decisions better than the petroleum price issue. International crude prices have been hovering at levels close to historical highs for almost six weeks. Since crude prices ballooned even before the onset of winter when global demand for oil peaks (because of increased demand on account of heating oil), only a generous increase in world production of crude could bring down prices.

However, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has consistently maintained that the countries have no intention of effecting a dramatic increase in production. So, the Indian government must have known more than a month ago that the crude oil imports would have to be made at exorbitant prices. Consequently, domestic petro-products were at unsustainably low prices.

However, the government has allowed the deficit on the oil pool account to keep on increasing for a month before finally announcing the higher price structure. Usually such delays occur in coalition decisionmaking because different parties in the ruling coalition take conflicting positions on crucial issues. This time around, the delay seems to have been caused by infighting among different ministries rather than among different coalition partners. The petroleum and the finance ministries have been bickering with each other, with the former calling for a reduction in excise and customs duties so as to ensure that a moderate increase in the final price paid by consumers would still make a large dent in the oil pool deficit.

On the other hand, finance ministry officials dug in their heels, at least initially, and refused to lower duties. While their attitude is easily explicable � after all they want to ensure as small a deficit as possible � it will have earned them few friends. The budget for the fiscal year assumed that crude oil would be available at roughly $ 20 a barrel. Since the duties are on an ad valorem basis, the higher price of crude has meant a bonanza for the finance ministry. So, a lower rate of duty will not translate into a fall in the absolute volume of revenue accruing to the government.

The eventual decision has been a compromise. The actual increase in prices will cover about a third of the deficit, while lower duties will account for another third. The remaining third will be financed by �oil bonds�, which will be given to the domestic oil companies by the government. Of course, the last is a bit of financial jugglery since government debt will go up in one form or another.

The composition of the price increases is also along expected lines. Although petroleum and aviation fuel were both heavily overpriced even before September 29, they have not been spared since the government does not want to appear pro-rich. Liquid petroleum gas cylinders will be costlier by more than Rs 30. While this may seem a large absolute increase, it actually represents a modest increase of roughly 16 per cent. More important, LPG will continue to be heavily subsidized.

Perhaps the only surprise element has been the 50 per cent increase in the price of kerosene. The issue of raising kerosene prices has become something of a sacred cow, with the widespread feeling that kerosene is the poor man�s fuel. However, studies indicate that only a third of the total consumption of kerosene is accounted for by the poor. Most middle class families use kerosene as a substitute fuel, at least during the days when they are waiting for Indane to replace their empty gas cylinders. The absurdly low price of kerosene also makes it an ideal input for adulterators. Thus, the rather large subsidy on kerosene is arguably the worst targeted of all the subsidies in India.

Fortunately, the government has resisted the temptation to indulge in some populism. One can only hope that the opposition parties as well as some members of the ruling coalition will not castigate the government for the price rise by labelling it �anti-poor�. There was really no other option open to the government.

One must remember that large deficits also have an adverse effect on the poor. The government finances the deficit partly by restricting its expenditure in various sectors. Typically, the first casualty of any such exercise is either expenditure on the social sectors or development expenditure. The poor are large beneficiaries of government expenditure in the social sectors. And despite the arguments about the failure of the trickle-down mechanism, rapid development is a crucial component of any anti-poverty package. So, the poor do stand to lose out if there is any reduction in social sector or development expenditure.

The immediate impact of the government�s decision to raise petro-product prices must be inflationary. In particular, the hike in the price of diesel will make commodities which are moved long distances by road transportation relatively costlier. However, in the past, the inflationary impact of an increase in diesel prices has been quite modest. Since the current rate of inflation is also not unduly high, the overall situation as far as inflation is concerned is not going to be very gloomy.

However, to the extent that there will be some increase in the general price level, the timing could not have been worse. The Central Statistical Organization has just reported a slump in the overall rate of growth of the economy in the first quarter of the current year, compared to the corresponding period last year. A Confederation of Indian Industry survey also indicates that there is very little evidence of an industrial revival. A large number of industrial sectors, including cement and consumer durables, have experienced very low rates of growth. The automobiles industry has actually recorded a negative rate of growth. The slowdown in Indian industry occurred despite a dramatically improved performance from the export sector.

Since fears have been expressed that the spurt in crude oil prices may result in a global recession, there is the possibility that Indian exports may also face a demand constraint. Given this rather dismal backdrop, domestic price stability is now doubly important for industrial revival. One can only hope that effective supply management will restrict the price rise as far as possible.    

Flood Y2K. An event marking West Bengal�s progress into the new millennium. Millions affected by the still receding waters, the ever-increasing number of the dead, the cries for help � all this apart, the four-day deluge has already raked up its quota of controversy. It was not much after news trickled in that district after district in south Bengal was being engulfed by sheets of water that fingers were being pointed at probable reasons on why the deluge was allowed to assume such alarming proportions.

The Trinamool Congress termed the disaster as a man-made event. The CPM-led Left Front pointed its finger at an erroneously put together weather forecast it received from the regional meteorological office. Others blamed the state irrigation department for poor control of the water stored in its reservoirs. So what was the actual reason behind this devastation? In fact, people who are technically involved with flood management and control, term the happenings between September 18 to September 21, 2000, as the �mother of all floods.� If one sits in judgment on the issue, not only is one left without a clear answer but one is perplexed with more questions about how the heavy rainfall and its impact on the land and its people assumed such a magnitude.

It is true that the weather forecast did not have a warning about such heavy rainfall in the Bihar plateau and the top half of the southern Bengal districts. But the meteorological department is hamstrung by its own database. It still calculates and predicts rainfall all over the country on the basis of annual averages for the districts which are in turn based on records from 1901 to 1950.

Perplexing magnitude

During the past half-a-century, rainfall patterns have changed significantly in India. That famous spot, Cherrapunji, no longer holds the record for receiving the highest rainfall. There is definitely the need to re-calibrate the met office database to get to the proper picture as it stands today.

When it began to pour on September 18, who would have the idea that the heavens would pour forth the annual quota of rainfall expected in a particular region in the space of just 72 hours? Take the case of Murshidabad. The rain gauge at Berhampore recorded a rainfall of 1,115 mm of rainfall in the space of three days. The annual average for the district is 1349 mm.

Irrigation engineers are talking about too much volume in too small a period. In fact, this is the reason why Flood Y2K is being ranked even above the 1978 deluge. In 1978, the intensity of rainfall was lesser but more widespread.

This year, the catchment areas of the Damodar valley carried down this large quantity of water endangering the Massanjore Dam. There is a contention that the dam was the villain of the piece. However, such a large load of water after a significantly dry spell put the engineers in a tizzy.

Human interference

Water had to be released from the dam in order to prevent an even greater danger. It is upto the imagination to conceive of the consequences of the dam collapsing. If it did, it would have unleashed over 500,000 acre feet of water into south Bengal obliterating the towns under several feet of silt and causing havoc. Not that it was in no danger of giving way. The water level at Massanjore dam rose to 402 feet on September 21, while the safe holding level is set at 398 feet.

Yes, there is one aspect of the flood damage that is indeed man-made. Over the years, the natural dynamics of the Gangetic delta has been intruded upon by unchecked human interference. Not only dams, but constructions like roads and railway tracks have become the death knell for people and produce when rivers overflow. Gone are the natural overflowing channels that the Ganges, the Hooghly and their tributaries enjoy. Thus, when the rains come, the water, with nowhere else to flow into, floods the naturally low-lying areas.

The other factor is population growth and the resultant need for habitation. Villages have come up in hundreds on the natural flood plains of the riverine system, making the inhabitants hapless victims of nature�s wrath. In fact, floods will gradually become an annual feature with increasing impact on the region�s people and economy, pushing a once prosperous state into misery.    

Is �national consensus� synonymous with �political consensus�? The significance of this question seems to have been lost � and that is unfortunate � in the euphoria over the recent visit of the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to the United States. During this visit, Vajpayee has done something that warrants a national debate. The issue in question is India and the comprehensive test ban treaty.

It may be noted that around this time last year, the Vajpayee government was talking of evolving a national consensus before deciding on whether or not to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty. In the October 18, 1999 issue of the Newsweek, Vajpayee said in an interview, �We were in the process of building a national consensus on the issue of signing the CTBT when domestic political developments forced mid-term general election. That process of securing a national consensus will now be resumed once a new government is in place. Some matching action by our key interlocutors will help build the consensus�.

However, soon after the Vajpayee government got a fresh mandate from the people, the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, subtly modified this commitment. Talking to journalists on October 17, he said that as far as the CTBT was concerned, the government would �strive for the widest possible consensus on the treaty�. Subsequently, on various occasions, the officials in the ministry of external affairs further clarified their minister�s statement by emphasising that India�s decision on the CTBT would follow the �broadest possible national consensus�.

It is against this background that Vajpayee�s promise to the US president, Bill Clinton, during his visit that India would do everything possible towards putting the CTBT into force assumes significance. The promise, totally oblivious of �a national consensus�, was very much reflected in the joint India-US statement, signed on September 15.

The relevant part of the statement reads: �The United States and India seek to advance their dialogue on security and nonproliferation issues, building upon the joint statement signed during President Clinton�s visit to India in March. They reiterated their respective commitments to forgo nuclear explosive tests. India reaffirmed that, subject to its supreme national interests, it will continue its voluntary moratorium until the CTBT comes into effect. The United States reaffirmed its intention to work for ratification of the treaty at the earliest possible date. The Indian government will continue efforts to develop a broad political consensus on the issue of the treaty, with the purpose of bringing these discussions to a successful conclusion. India also reconfirmed its commitment not to block entry into force of the treaty. India expects that all other countries, as included in article XIV of CTBT, will adhere to this treaty without reservations�.

Significantly, the joint statement has talked of �a political consensus� not �a national consensus�. The two are not the same. A national consensus goes beyond the country�s political class. It involves the country�s intelligentsia, scientific community and the military leadership as well. The military of �a nuclear-weapon power� like India should contribute their views to the debate on the CTBT, since ultimately it is the soldiers who will be using the nuclear weapons, if required.

Meanwhile, no less a person than the former chairman of the Indian atomic energy commission, P.K. Iyengar, has argued that India�s stated goal of developing a credible nuclear deterrent cannot be achieved without further testing. He is not convinced that our nuclear tests in 1998 have given us enough data to develop a credible nuclear weapon system, having accuracy and safety. So, imagine a situation when the Indian soldiers are given untested weapons. One dreads such a prospect, unless the government, in a transparent national debate, comes out with convincing assurances that the country has in its possession credible weaponized nuclear deterrence.

Naturally, in any debate on CTBT, some important questions need to be answered. These are whether India should continue the present standstill policy of honouring its declared moratorium but continue laboratory work to refine the warheads, or whether it should resume testing and then enter the CTBT. For instance, many scientists and knowledgeable senior military personnel with whom this writer has interacted argue that India should sign a limited CTBT, which would not impose a blanket ban, but would cap the number of tests and the yield for such tests over an agreed period of time.

Obviously, each of these options has its attendant costs and benefits. The process of hammering out a national consensus cannot shirk addressing these issues. In fact, Iyengar, who has been in the business of nuclear science since 1952, has a point when he demands that the government must first come out with a method of arriving at �national consensus�. As he told this writer recently, �There are two ways of arriving at a national consensus: conducting a national referendum on the issue or asking the parliament to pass a resolution. The government must adopt one of these methods. I do not think a few people sitting in the Union cabinet represent national consensus on CTBT�.

In fact, now that the Vajpayee government is undertaking a study of reviewing the country�s Constitution, it is appropriate that the treaty-making power of the government, which is unlimited at the moment, should be put under adequate checks and balances. After all, a democratic India has an undemocratic provision by which the executive, free from the influences of the legislature and the judiciary, has got the sweeping power to sign a treaty, ratify it and implement it.

One can well imagine a situation when a government, without the confidence of the Parliament, signs a treaty and immediately ratifies it, thereby imposing its decision on its successors and the whole country. Because, under international law, the successor government has to abide by the international agreements made by its predecessor.

Viewed thus, the Vajpayee government�s latest preference for �political consensus� could be construed as a clear move to avoid a larger debate on the CTBT. It is obvious that the government will only try to convince the Congress party, with the notion that if the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party agree on the matter then the consensus is said to be arrived at.

In a way, if the Congress agrees on such a consensus, it will be taken for a big ride by the Vajpayee government. Because, by reaffirming in black and white that �[India] will continue its voluntary moratorium until the CTBT comes into effect�, the Vajpayee government has virtually become a party to the treaty.

Since once the CTBT comes into effect, India cannot conduct any nuclear tests, by committing that it would not even test before actually signing the treaty, Vajpayee has ensured India�s concurrence with the treaty. Viewed thus, his advocacy for a political consensus is nothing but a redundant exercise. In other words, what the government wants is the support of the Congress for legitimizing its commitment to the Clinton administration on the CTBT.

Few would buy the government�s logic about the so-called escape clause in this commitment, that India�s moratorium of nuclear tests is �subject to its supreme national interests�. After all, all the international treaties have a similar clause. Even the nuclear nonproliferation treaty has this clause. Why is it then that the Vajpayee government is not talking of acceding to the NPT?

Under the US laws, India can get the necessary technology and other material assistance, now denied under various sanctions, only when it becomes party to the NPT, and not to the CTBT. It is not surprising, therefore, that even after all the hype over India and the US becoming �natural allies�, there has been no breakthrough in the two countries agreeing on the renewal of military assistance, exchange of military and strategic personnel and in the removal of all the sanctions and interactions in the field of the civilian nuclear programme.

Undeniably, Vajpayee�s visit has improved the �atmosphere� of Indo-US relations. However, as any observer of diplomacy knows, �atmosphere�, unaccompanied by a breakthrough, is always vulnerable to �change�.    


Stranger to technology

Sir � Was it too long ago that gurdari ka lal, Laloo Prasad Yadav, had mockingly referred to the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu, as a petty computerwallah? Was Laloo Yadav�s visit to the India Internet World 2000 a way of eating his own words, with the familiar betel leaves (�Internet fails Laloo language test�, Sept 28)? However much Laloo Yadav would like to cover up Bihar�s poor performance by ridiculing others� technological advancement, it is the seasoned politician in him speaking. But the village boy behind the chief minister�s persona is still fascinated by the wizardry of modern technology. This was evident when, lost in the glitz of the exhibition, he exclaimed, �Its like a foreign country!� This fascination for novelty could help the Bihar chief minister to pull his state out of its present dumps. Instead of ridiculing those who have gone ahead, he should try and beat them at their own game. But for that to be possible, all pretensions have to be shed first.
Yours faithfully,
Iftekar Mohammed, Durgapur

Down there on a visit

Sir � What has been achieved through the visit of the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to the United States and through his meeting with Bill Clinton? There will be the usual round of mutual back-patting for the �successes� the two heads of state have apparently registered.

Clinton has tried to show off the political acumen of his wife, Hillary, to the Indian community in the US. Hillary Clinton simply cannot do without the support, both in terms of finances and votes, of the Indians living in the US if she harbours hopes of getting elected to the senate. It is evident why Clinton went out of his way to please Vajpayee, to the extent of restraining himself from uttering anything unpleasant about the Kashmir issue.

Talking about concrete achievements it can be said that the scoresheet is blank. For, the president of the world�s most powerful nation, his European allies, and the prime minister of the world�s largest democracy together have not been able to check the steeply rising prices of petroleum products. It seems that the Western multinational companies, which own most of the refineries and control the oil trade, have formed a cartel with a common vested interest in raising the prices of petroleum products.

Yet Vajpayee, his finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, and petroleum minister, Ram Naik, believe in the so-called globalization and liberalization so that multinational companies can fleece this third world country more thoroughly.

Could the hike in oil prices not have been checked in India if crores of rupees had not been wasted on the likes of the prime minister�s US visit, which achieved nothing in the end?

Yours faithfully,
Ashok T. Jaisinghani, Pune

Sir � The very day the Indian prime minister graced the �biggest dinner for a foreign visitor in the history of the White House� with his presence, a noted painter in India was manhandled and virtually thrown out of a temple because she refused to pay for the darshan. And this was only one of the innumerable incidents of this kind that repeat themselves in the hands of our self-acclaimed keepers of faith.

Sitting with the most powerful president in the world, the Indian prime minister could well have behaved like a teenager promised a brand new computer. In his excitement, he even made a faux pas that Christopher Columbus (and not Amerigo Vespucci) had discovered America. It was also rather strange that when, at the dinner, the dessert in the shape of a lotus was served, some in the Indian delegation pointed out that it was the election symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party. How could they forget that before being the election symbol of a political party, the lotus is first the national flower of India?

Yours faithfully,
Neelanjan Bhattacharji, via email

Sir � Before setting off to attend the United Nations millennium summit, Atal Behari Vajpayee promised to promote India as a confident democracy and a stable economy, and hence entitled to a place in the security council. In making this statement, Vajpayee may have won the hearts of several Indians, including the supporters of the BJP, but no one knows better than him that this description of the country is far from the reality.

A country with more than half of its population below the poverty line can hardly boast of a thriving economy. Rigged elections, widespread political violence and corruption cannot be the signs of a healthy democracy. Vajpayee should concentrate on improving the lives of the poor, rather than projecting the condition of a fraction of the country�s population as the general picture.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir � The prime minister�s visit to the US has undoubtedly enhanced India�s prestige in the world. Atal Behari Vajpayee was welcomed warmly in the US. His speeches were listened to with great interest. Vajpayee must also be congratulated for his frank statements made during the visit. His handling of the occasion befits a true world leader.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Spoil sport

Sir � Why can�t Doordarshan let Indians enjoy the Olympics which happens only once every four years? It is welcome to have the rights of telecast, but it should let some professional sports channel do the actual telecasting. Let�s face it, Doordarshan is not equipped to bring to its viewers the same quality of sporting action as ESPN or Star Sports does. Long after a match is over, the camera stays focussed on the stadium, where there is no action. What�s more, a certain Indonesian channel which has been bringing more live matches, has been banned. When will Doordarshan admit there are people out there who can do a better job?
Yours faithfully,
Sam Medora, via email

Sir � It is a matter of pride that the state-owned television channel, Doordarshan, had acquired the sole rights of bringing the proceedings of the Sydney Olympics to the whole nation. But as on several similar occasions in the past, Indian viewers managed to catch very little action from Sydney. Doordarshan impractically chose to air the first highlights of the day�s action between 6.30 and 7.00 pm. Most viewers missed this telecast.

On September 22, when I happened to watch this programme, I was shocked to find that a large part of it was taken up to provide detailed information of how to advertise on this programme, and a large part of the rest was spent in educating viewers on the extraction of gold from the various goldmines of Australia for the preparation of the Olympic gold medal. At the end of the show, the audience was left guessing what had actually happened in Sydney on that day.

Is this the way the telecast of an international event of the magnitude of the millennial Olympics should be handled? After all, it comes only once in four years, and it is nothing short of a crime to deprive the spectators of a competent telecast.

Yours faithfully,
P.K. Shome, Rourkela

Sir � The monopoly of Doordarshan in Indian TV-viewing is fast coming to an end, with more than 40 Indian channels and several more foreign channels becoming accessible.

Instead of trying to pack in news, sports, entertainment and features in each of its channels, Doordarshan should increase the number of its channels and have each target a particular section of the audience.

Yours faithfully,
T. Mani Chowdary, Secunderabad

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