Editorial 1/ deschooling state
Editorial 2/ on a minority key
Know thy place
Fifth Column/ Remember, this is only the beginning
Acting out injustice
No solace for the workers of a lesser god
Letters to the editor

There is a general agreement among modern theorists of education that school children should not be put under too much pressure. Carrying this to its logical absurd limit, some argue that a schoolgoing child should not be exposed to any examination. The framework for a new school curriculum drawn by the National Council of Educational Research and Training draws upon this logic tout ensemble. It suggests that no student should be declared passed or failed up to Class X. One implication of this is that students will get promoted from class to class irrespective of their merit. This will make a mockery of the entire educational process since all students will automatically make it up to Class X. The parallel of this in higher education is the system of promoting college and university teachers on the basis of their seniority or years in service. It is one thing to say that marks should not be allotted to school children and another to say that they will not be passed or failed. The NCERT�s recommendations seem to suggest both except that instead of marks it recommends the giving of grades. It is clear that policymakers in the NCERT have no idea of the rationale behind grades. The latter is not based on merely converting marks into grades. Grades are premised on the belief that except in the exact sciences it is not possible to put an exact numeral on an answer script. The NCERT seems oblivious of this dimension.

But behind the recommendations of the NCERT hides an important issue which might escape the public eye. The NCERT assumes under the guise of modern theories of education that it has the right to recommend a national policy for education. There is something antiquated about this kind of centralized thinking. It harks back to India�s socialist past when the state took a position or drew up policies on matters from the economy to society to culture to education. The model for this was, of course, the erstwhile Soviet Union. But in India, even those who claim themselves to be anti-communist or anti-socialist harbour such a maximalist role of the state. In the economic realm the realization has dawned that state intervention does not produce any dividends: it creates imbalances and erodes efficiency and productivity. It is time the state withdrew from education. It is not the job of the state to run schools, colleges and universities. All matters, especially syllabi, evaluation and methods of teaching, should be left to individual institutions. These should not be matters on which the state should have even powers to recommend. There is a tendency in India to standardize through centralized policy-making. This mindset should be jettisoned and more autonomy should be granted to educational institutions. The NCERT, if it is serious about education, should, before it suggests anything else, recommend its own dissolution.    

The bell has begun to toll for Ms Mamata Banerjee. That was obvious from the warmth the Trinamool Congress leader exuded in the direction of the Muslims in West Bengal in the meeting organized by the West Bengal Pradesh Quami Tanzeem. The burden of Ms Banerjee�s song was predictable, given that most of her recent gambles have not reaped the rewards she expected. She assured the religious minority that she was still their friend, and should the Bharatiya Janata Party do something to their disadvantage, she would walk out of the National Democratic Alliance. Extreme statements are Ms Banerjee�s forte. And the context she finds herself in probably demands a dramatic pronouncement. The assembly elections are looming inescapably on the horizon, and songs composed by Ms Banerjee sung on trains will not get her votes. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has managed to live down the Keshpur killings without the NDA being able to impose president�s rule on the state or declare the region a disturbed area � much to Ms Banerjee�s disappointment. Her excited slip when she claimed that the hideous floods in the state were manmade provoked derision rather than political sympathy. Her demands for the rollback in oil prices have been met so far with pacific explanations and polite delays. That is the one card she is still waving around: it may or may not work. But she must know that success is unlikely on this count. The regional carrot Ms Banerjee holds out to the BJP is no bigger than those held out by the other NDA partners. And she will need them with her if she wants oil prices reduced.

But most of all, behind her insecurity about the Muslim vote in the state lies her primal sin. That she chose the BJP as ally and helped it enter a state in which it had had no previous presence is something the minority community may not have forgotten. The CPI(M)�s foolishness and overconfidence prevented it from cashing in on this. It was too busy messing up its own turf. Now Ms Banerjee has a bouquet of promises to offer. Reservations in jobs and educational institutions for Muslims, and Urdu as second language in all schools. The mayor, Mr Subrata Mukherjee, has gone a step further, promising 50 per cent reservations for Muslims in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. It cannot be that Ms Banerjee does not know such promises are wild, since the Constitution prohibits discrimination � that is, positive or negative � on the basis of religion. Ironically, while going out on a limb to woo Muslims and promising to leave the NDA, Ms Banerjee has actually taken a leaf out of the book of the BJP president, Mr Bangaru Laxman. He started singing the Muslim brotherhood tune first.    

Being a convalescent, the prime minister is not quite his old self yet. This does not, however, excuse the shillyshallying on the part of the government he heads as it stumbles from one half-measure to another, keeping enough room for revisions and re-revisions under duress. The all too frequent policy changes with regard to the infrastructure, the information technology sector, privatization and the opening up of new areas to foreign investors keep the whole scene in soft focus and under a cloud of uncertainty about the future.

It was always a situation cut out for slipshod decisionmaking, with the government having to contend with pulls and counter-pulls from coalition partners representing different regional and caste interests. A new and more serious factor, which has made the government machinery more creaky in recent months, is a new divide in the sangh parivar, of which the leading party in the ruling coalition is the political wing. The differences between the hardliners headed by the sarsanghchalak and the moderates led by the prime minister now constitute a new political theatre.

The prospects of the cold war in the parivar turning hot are pretty slim at the moment since no one wants to push the Bharatiya Janata Party to the brink or risk cutting short its term in office, with the vast powers of patronage which go with it. All the same, an increasing number of cadres, who have worked hard to extend the BJP�s support base in the country, feel demoralized. Many, like their chief mentor, have begun to wonder whether wielding political power is worth the price that is being paid for it in terms of loss of identity and the giving up of the main policy objectives of the extended ideological family.

The prime minister may put a brave face on the deepening divide between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and his government, knowing that the sarsanghchalak is not so daft as not to realize that the line he advocates is a prescription for disrupting the ruling coalition. It will be a different story altogether if the RSS, in a fit of fanaticism, decides that the sangh parivar as a whole will have a better chance of implementing its programme once the BJP is out of power than by letting the exigencies of coalition politics and the compulsions of integrating the national economy into the world market tie its hands.

As it happens, the RSS leadership�s fear of losing its old raison d��tre is a counsel of despair. The limitations of a badly fragmented polity will not disappear even if the sangh parivar forces the BJP to cut short the ruling coalition�s life. As it is, the BJP�s base has been shrinking in the Hindi heartland and its allies in the South will not allow the party to poach on their preserves. Any yearning to return to the heady rathyatra days will only alienate it further from the religious minorities and those occupying lowly slots in the Hindu caste hierarchy.

The government is already at its wits� end as it strives to remove the obstacles in the way of reform, rationalize its stinginess in allocations for education and healthcare and stem the tide of discontent among those who lose their jobs or their homes as a result of new policy packages. Yet, it has some reason to count its small blessings. The spectre of a recession may still haunt the national scene but even if the rate of growth this year turns out to be near six per cent, India�s would still figure among the fastest developing economies.

Yet, while there is everything to be said for the government�s feeble ploys to keep up its morale in the face of forbidding odds, there is no alibi for its taking refuge every now and then in a world of makebelieve. The present rate of growth does not compensate for the widening income inequalities, the alarming evidence that surfaces all too often of corruption in high places, and the slovenly management of the internal situation, with no let up in the cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, the insurgencies in the northeastern states or the increase in crimes of violence.

The management of external relations is also somewhat perfunctory and the government needs to be a little more chary of passing off uncertain gains as triumphs of a new diplomacy. The post-Kargil scenario has meant an enormous addition to the defence bill. Despite the vaunted cooperation with the United States administration in checking terrorism, there is no visible decline in militant incursions from across the line of control in Kashmir. The Chinese are getting impatient of marking time and want India to address the business of demarcating the disputed border. It will be quixotic to assume that they would settle for converting the line of actual control into an international border.

The recent report sent by Bill Clinton to the US congress ought moreover to bring home to policymakers here that there has been no substantial change in the US�s stance towards most matters of concern to this country. Its policy on nonproliferation is still what it was at the time of the Pokhran tests. There is no sign that Washington is more inclined than before to favour India�s admission to the UN security council as a permanent member.

Some of the sanctions imposed in 1998 are still in place and the expectation of massive US investment in infrastructure and other priority sectors has yet to materialize. The warm welcome accorded to the Indian prime minister during his return visit to the US and the oozing goodwill towards the largest democracy did seem to add up to a new degree of cordiality on the surface. But the chill reality behind it had an entirely different look.

It is nice to hear the US president talk about a natural community of interests between the world�s two biggest democracies. The trouble is that realpolitik has little use for such sentiments packaged for display on ceremonial occasions. When it comes to brass tacks, what determines US policy is the perception at the given time of its strategic interests. If the interests of other parties involved are taken into account at all, the decisive factor is their place in the new hierarchies of military clout, economic power and technological capability.

If the US commitment to democracy and concern over abuse of human rights were half as sincere as its spokesmen claim, Washington would have assumed the leading role, after the Cold War was over and neo-liberalism became the reigning philosophy, in a dramatic diversion of resources from investment in further refinement in high-tech weaponry to reconstruction of the poorer regions of the world. And if a country�s democratic credentials counted for something in American eyes, would China, despite its record in transferring the knowhow regarding nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, have access to certain US technologies denied to India?

There is no room for any misconception on the score that US policy is designed primarily to maintain the country�s overwhelming military superiority and economic strength to underpin its status as the only superpower. The European Union would not have striven so hard to enlarge itself, increase its political cohesion and even float a common currency if it had not felt intimidated by American dominance. If this is the case with its own allies, with two of the members of the group of five with a right to veto any United Nations decision and with a legal monopoly of nuclear weap- onry, what about the smaller fry? All that is expected of the poorer states is that they should know their place in the new hierarchies and behave accordingly.

This is not intended to berate the great expense of spirit the present government here is incurring in trying to normalize relations with the US and overcoming the legacy of the Cold War. It is more meant to warn it against any comforting notion that normalization can ever mean equal relationship or a shared perception of security concerns of the two. Even for putting an end to cross-border terrorism, New Delhi will have to depend more on its own capacity to manage Kashmir�s internal politics � which has alienated large sections of the state�s population and made them easy prey to the machinations of militant outfits � than on active US help.

This is, however, only a small part of the challenge facing the government. The more crucial test it confronts is the management of change in the country at large where the quality of political life is deteriorating at an alarming pace and things are getting out of control. One easy way to massage the national ego is to set more ambitious economic goals as the finance minister has done by projecting an export target of 50 billion dollars for software and an equivalent figure for textiles and garments before the end of the next decade.

But can these objectives be achieved under the auspices of a debilitated political culture whose patrons have no clue to the real character of the forces at both local and global levels they have to contend against?    

Experience shows the bigger a state, the lower is its rate of development. As a matter of fact, in a large state the more prosperous areas become a hindrance to the growth of the less prosperous parts. The government�s attention remains centred on the former. Private investment also remains confined to places already developed. Over time, there is a cumulative neglect of the less developed regions. This creates a strange kind of dualism. This happens most often when the administrative area is large.

This reasoning was used when smaller, manageable states were carved out of the large provinces like Madras or Bombay. Development was fast in the new, smaller states. When the old Bombay province was bifurcated and Gujarat came into existence, the new state developed at a faster rate than before. The four southern states created out of the Madras province also shared the same experience.

Haryana, before it came into being, was a part of Punjab and was relatively more backward than the rest of the state. The region had its own language and culture and was distinctly different from the rest of Punjab. It was only after it became a separate state of Haryana, under the auspices of the Punjabi Suba movement, that its prosperity began. Today, Haryana�s development is even faster than that of its erstwhile rich brother, Punjab.

Split personality

In a similar vein, the language movement benefited Himachal Pradesh by acceding to it a major chunk of hill area, constituting the erstwhile Kangra district and adjoining areas. The new area constituted almost one-third of the state�s total area. This used to be a vastly neglected region under the earlier administration which used this area for punishing errant officers by transferring them to this place. It had very little means of communication, education and health facilities. This was very similar to how Punjab used the most backward parts of Haryana.

The Indian government has also acceded to the division of Assam into smaller northeastern states to satisfy the specific demands of tribals like the Nagas and Mizos. Surprisingly, the experience has been different here. The small and economically non-viable areas in the Northeast probably prevented the government from looking into the demands for new states in the most populous region in the country � the Hindi belt comprising Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which had come to acquire the rightful status of �Bimaru� � literally meaning permanently sick states.

Most districts in Uttar Pradesh could be further split for administrative convenience. Bihar, although rich in resources, is probably the most backward state in the country and Madhya Pradesh despite having the largest area is highly backward.

Newness of being

These three states together share about 40 per cent of the members of parliament in the country. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi got immense support from these states. Naturally, they, and other politicians who have followed, were not interested in upsetting the equation by creating any new states.

But such neglect on their part has caused immense suffering for the people of these states � particularly those living in comparatively backward regions. The rich mineral belt in Bihar has contributed substantially to the country�s prosperity and provided enormous revenue to Bihar governments. But the people of this region are amongst the most impoverished in the country. A similar situation exists in the hill areas of Uttar Pradesh and the creation of Uttaranchal is unlikely to solve all the problems.

With the creation of the new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal, greater attention is likely to be paid to the specific local problems of these regions. This will particularly help develop local agriculture and other important areas of socio-economic life. With the rich mineral wealth, these states should eventually be able to carve out their fortunes.

But, a word of caution should also be added. The mere possession of resources does not imply development. Growth-friendly policies have to be drafted by the governments in these new states. Political stability in these regions, therefore, will become an imperative in the coming years.    

There is no doubt that the controversial Illegal Migrants� (Determination by Tribunal) Act in Assam is discriminatory. It is a double-edged piece of legislation that is known to have shielded �foreigners� from being deported, while its purpose was quite the contrary.

There is also no doubt that the IM(DT) Act is a �customized� law attuned to the needs of a particular section of politicians and their �engineered citizens�. The unfair law must be buried in the better interests of the nation.

Once scrapped, it is hoped that the process of determining �foreigners� in the state will become easier and, since Assam is supposed to be deluged by �foreigners�, mass expulsion would follow.

This in brief is the status of the infamous migrants� law in the state. On the fringes are issues like the minority vote bank created and sustained by the IM(DT) Act, the cut-off date for determining a �foreigner� and so on. All this we know.

What we do not know, however, is the answer to the all important question: which minority is �foreign�? Effectively, influxes into Assam are of a multi-ethnic kind, and not community-specific. Regional observers have seldom taken a holistic view of the phenomenon.

This is because all the attention regarding influx into the state has been south-ward bound. Seeing all infiltrators coming from Bangladesh as Muslims alone is a myopic view. If one sees through the magnifying glass, the broad spectrum becomes visible. Nepalis from Bangladesh and Myanmar continue to pour in. A string of Nepali colonies dot Bangla districts including Sylhet. Whenever floods devastate the milk-based enterprises of this community, drowning cows and buffaloes, Assam is the last refuge.

Hindu refugees crossing over to Assam from Bangladesh make straight for Cooch Behar and other Hindu settlements on the Assam-West Bengal border. There they find it easier to be assimilated into the indigenous community and hence are difficult to detect because of common religion, culture and language, much in the same way that the Muslim infiltrators find safe refuge in the south Assam districts, particularly Cachar and Hailakandi.

There is a particular magistrate in south Assam�s Silchar district who goes to Bangladesh for his annual holidays. He avoids being transferred elsewhere because Silchar, being closer to Bangladesh, is closer home. The magistrate in question is not a Muslim.

International borders everywhere have always been inviolable. Germans do not have a free run in Austria and vice versa even though it will be impossible to tell a German from an Austrian because both the countries belong to a common cultural matrix. The two European nations share a long, but rather tranquil, boundary. It is, therefore, a peculiar southeastern Asian phenomenon that a Bangladeshi will work in India and live in Bangladesh.

There is more disturbing news in store when we take into account the strategies being adopted by the �foreigners� (Muslims in this case) to legitimize their stay in Assam.

Last year, a Guwahati dweller was woken up from an afternoon siesta by three maulvis, who at the first sight looked like members of the taliban. They had landed up straight from Kandahar. They were looking for money for a purpose. Clerics scouting for money in Muslim homes to build mosques in the city are ubiquitous and usually not welcome.

The clerics from Hailakandi in south Assam said that the three madrassas under their charge were �doing fine�. The schools, they said, were being directly funded by the Mussadiq International in Dhaka, which is headquartered in Jeddah and has a branch in Karachi. Officials from the Mussadiq visit the madrassas once a year. They flew from Dhaka to Calcutta and then to Silchar, the clerics said.

There need be nothing wrong in this, since it can be presumed they had valid papers. There is nothing wrong in foreign funding either, like the Western funding of the Indian church, provided they adhere to foreign exchange regulations.

But consider this: the Mussadiq International �instructed� the clerics to spread agents throughout semi-urban areas of the state and Guwahati to tell mainstream Muslims �how safe Islam was in the hands of migrant clerics from Bangladesh�. Since local Muslims were �too liberated to be busy with only Islam�, a �new class of people who would keep the religion alive in Assam was needed�.

Bangladeshi clerics were, therefore, best suited to accomplish the divine job. �Therefore,� the clerics told me, �we need a little support from you.�

This was a rather shocking declassification. Is it not a matter of shame for an Indian to employ a �foreigner� to perform his religious duties in a country supposed to be the second largest Muslim nation in the world, next to Indonesia?

What mainstream Muslims in Assam have failed to realize is that Bangladeshi infiltrators have usurped the former�s religious rights. An educated Muslim will seldom send his offspring to a religious school. Therefore, a majority of madrassas in Assam have been flooded with Bangladeshi students, who graduate to become professional clerics. A cleric in a city mosque is paid anything between Rs 2,000 to 3,000.

Not surprisingly, religion has become the cottage industry of the illegal migrants in Assam. The remedy, obviously, lies not in abandoning Islam, but in practising one�s own religion oneself .

However, at the other end of the spectrum, there are even more alarming issues that need to be taken care of. For one, genuine Indian Muslims are absolutely unsafe if the IM(DT) is scrapped. That is why the act has been referred to as double-edged weapon.

This is not a mere apprehension. On several occasions, Indian Muslims have been deported. Miscarriages of justice have occurred. While a few have been �taken back�, the cases of the others are pending. And given the paranoid section of the local media (for whom the act is the journalistic barometer of distinguishing news from what is not) and other fundamental organizations, the mainstream Muslim may well be cornered.

The influx has often been subjected to swirling rumours. It had been reported that Muslims in certain districts of Assam formed the majority. This is rather alarming because the fertility rate of Assamese Muslims was never so high so as to swamp the Hindus. The director of census operations was approached to verify the reports. Records showed that in not a single district were Muslims the majority.

The social set up in Assam exhibits trends of the �ethnic deconstruction� found in several assimilative cultures of the world. The bitter truth is that the Assamese-speaking mainstream Muslims have rarely been looked upon as �Assamese� by the Hindu majority in the state. Are not Kashmiri pundits �Kashmiris�?

Ethnic deconstruction is not a post-colonial development. The Inca tribe in Peru meted out the same subclass treatment to other minority tribes before the dismantling of the ethnic pyramid there by the Spanish conquest. There are more examples. Twenty per cent of the Israeli population is Arab. This minority is also at the receiving end, despite being as patriotic as its Jewish counterpart.

However, this ominous trend has led to a feeling of alienation among the Assamese Muslims, which is why the community fears harassment if a new law does not replace the IM(DT) Act. But despite such aberrations that have to be fought with the help of existing laws, Muslims in Assam have to exhibit a solid, unambiguous stand on the IM(DT) Act �that it must go, in the best interests of the nation.

A new legislation, therefore, is a must. The purpose of the new law would be twofold: to show the foreigner the door and at the same time to protect true Indians � Hindus and Muslims alike.    

Rolling bidis, weaving carpets, minding a baby or serving tea when what they ought to be doing is going to school or playing. Extreme poverty forces millions of children in India into child labour. Child labour is banned according to the directive principles, of the Indian Constitution. In 1986, a voluntary organization, the Concerned for Working Children, proposed a bill to legalize child labour. The justification offered was that in the prevailing context of poverty, child labour must be tolerated as a �necessary evil�. The government of India took it seriously and in turn proposed to pass a law legalizing child labour.

Within the bill, the government maintained: �We have to tackle the problem of child labour in a realistic manner. Children are forced to work because of economic necessity. It is necessary to make the laws more realistic.� But, why is there the economic necessity for a child to work? Can laws solve this problem?

Too many laws

Though estimates vary, we have about 20 to 100 million child labourers in India vesting in it the dubious distinction of being the country with the largest number of child labourers in the world. According to the 1991 census, there are 12.7 million fulltime child labourers in India of which 214,000 are bonded labourers. Every fourth child in the five to 15 age-group is employed in some way or another. Each such child is caught in the trap of a destiny written out for him not by himself, but by the poverty of the country which no government has been able to do anything about. Non-governmental organizations seem to lose the zeal they have begun with after some time � probably because they find themselves trapped in a no-win situation. Despite the existence of 12 pieces of legislation that specifically deal with child labour in one form or another, the acts and statutes are violated with impunity. The major statutes are the Children Act, 1955, the Employment of Children Act 1938, the Minimum Wages Act 1938 and the Factories Act, 1981.

None of these has been imposed strictly. Nor have the various laws pertaining to child labour been consolidated into one comprehensive code with uniform definitions. Working in dhabas, brick-kilns, coal mines, bangle factories, carpet-weaving, these children have no childhood. Their childhood is sacrificed for two square meals a day.

Woven in with sorrow

Concerted action on the issue began around a decade ago, when United Nations agencies initiated a global summit on children. In this period, the Indian government outlined policies, drafted legislation and created institutions and programmes in collaboration with international agencies and civil organizations.

In 1987, the government adopted the national child labour policy, distinguishing between �work� and �labour�, initiating legal action and local and national development programmes. Local projects were launched in 1990, focussing on surveys, enforcement of protective laws, non-formal education, income generation for adult family members and public awareness.

B.N. Juyal wrote a damning report on child labour in 1987, which, for the first time, authentically documented the exploitation of children in the carpet belt of Bhadohi where immigrant child labour from the poorest pockets of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were being persistently exploited in the carpet-weaving industry.

However, all these policies, reports and programmes have remained largely on paper. It is extremely difficult to control and monitor child labour in India. Legislation has only managed to push child labour out from the organized sector and into the unorganized sector.    


Bullet through the ballot

Sir � Congressmen have proudly proclaimed that by conducting presidential elections, the party has established its democratic credentials firmly. The event has been offset all the more by the current deadlock in the United States presidential elections, prompting Congressmen to feel smug in the knowledge that the Congress follows the same pattern, sans hitches, as the US. But surely the members of one of the world�s oldest political parties must know that the basic principle of a democracy is the secret ballot system. Most of the Congress leaders violated this. Sheila Dixit, the Delhi chief minister, even held up her ballot paper after casting her vote before the camera. Another leader said nobody could blame him for not voting for Sonia Gandhi. Why should anybody be blamed in a democracy for not voting for a particular candidate? The Congress proudly claims that this election was like a general election. Does that mean this election was ridden with the same irregularities one associates with the general elections in India?
Yours faithfully,
Srijita Chakravarty, via email

Seeds of discord

Sir � The decision of the National Democratic Alliance to lower the usual standards of procurement of the Food Corporation of India in order to buy out the substandard paddy produced by Punjab farmers at the minimum support price is devoid of any rationale (�Bulging granaries�, Oct 27). The plea that refusing to accede to the demand of the farmers would lead to a revival of terrorism in the state cannot be accepted. Of late, governments, both at the Centre and the states, are showing a dangerous tendency to bow to pressure or find shortcuts to solving problems without realizing the end result will be disastrous. Already, Haryana farmers are pressing similar demands and the government, quite naturally, will have no option but to oblige.

Since Punjab farmers are rich compared to their counterparts elsewhere in India, they could have set a precedent by taking the loss in their stride without burdening the public exchequer. Why should a nation, which is already under severe financial strain, give benefits to farmers when it does not have enough money to provide basic facilities to people who have lost everything in natural calamities? Left parties have reportedly supported the Punjab farmers. A party which claims to be the saviour of the downtrodden is now espousing the cause of rich farmers.

Now that the paddy has been procured, how does the government propose to dispose of it? Will rice-eating states be forced to take the substandard foodgrains from the public distribution system? If parties prioritize political expediency disregarding national interest, they will retard India�s growth.

Yours faithfully,
E.M. Adithyan, Edapal

Sir � The recent floods in West Bengal have devastated farmers. The government, as it normally does, will spend a huge sum of money to provide substandard seeds free of cost as the �minikit� to these farmers at a very inopportune time.

The West Bengal State Seed Corporation, a brainchild of the agriculture department of the state government, is meant to supply these seeds free. But the organization does not produce its own seeds. It purchases seeds from local businessmen who are neither producers nor regular sellers. These businessmen supply the corporation in the name of a few cooperatives through a process so tailored by the state corporation that no genuine seed producer can enter the ring. Can nobody redress this silent draining of millions of rupees from the public exchequer that ultimately reach the pockets of these businessmen, highly placed government officials and politicians? A thorough inquiry needs to be undertaken to expose the scandal.

Yours faithfully,
Prabhat Kumar Nandy, Calcutta

Sir � Strange are the ways of the government. It decided to offer �Cheaper grain to shed food flab� (Oct 19) on the one hand, and declared �No PDS sugar for taxpayers� on the same day. Taxpayers too are Indian citizens and have the right to eat sugar at affordable prices. To lay out penal clauses for taxpayers who do not inform the ration office of their credentials and to consider his family ineligible for the sugar from the fair price shops if he fails to submit the declaration in time are humiliating. Why should taxpayers have to pay more than the market rate for food?

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Cheap ring

Sir � No one ever imagined the internet node at Munger will prove to be a nightmare to the internet surfers of this district of Bihar. Internet service commenced at Munger in October 1999 when access was provided through the Patna node. Although the connectivity was far from satisfactory, at least consumers had some means of accessing vast resources of information. The Munger node was made operational in July 2000 and since then internet users are being taken for a ride by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. Most of the time the node is out of order and when it is operational, there is very little chance that even a speed of 50 bytes per second will be available. Users cannot open even a single page or exchange mail for hours together.

This is a clever way of deceiving customers who spend not only internet account hours but also pay the telephone bills. Does not BSNL have a system of monitoring the connectivity performance of a node? If it does not, maybe it is the time it looked into the matter.

The BSNL, a service provider, is far from being customer friendly. I deposited Rs 2,153 for the renewal of the transport control protocol/internet protocol account. It took more than 100 days to renew the account and it was carried out only after my renewal form was retrieved from under a stack of files. Meanwhile, the renewal fee was reduced to Rs 750. I not only lost Rs 1,400, I also could not use the internet for three months because I had no hours in my account.

A service provider who does not treat the customer as the king will behave the way BSNL is doing. For customers in backward areas, information technology is still a distant dream.

Yours faithfully,
Subrato Nath, Munger

Sir � Sometime back the minister of telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had said telephone charges for internet surfers would be brought down. The promise has just remained a promise. The sending and receiving of email is not cheap since it takes a number of attempts to get online. Earlier, there was no restriction on the duration of local calls. With the restriction of three minutes, the internet is no longer cheap for surfers and students.

While the government is trying to promote information technology it is surprising it has not taken any initiative to reduce internet call charges, which are higher than in most countries. Will the minister concerned and TRAI look into the matter?

Yours faithfully,
Imtiaz Ahmed, Calcutta

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