The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Letters to Editor

Entry by invitation only

Sir — The first phase of polling in Jammu and Kashmir seems to have passed off fine, but why is the Indian government so inexplicably touchy about “foreign observers”' As it turned out, foreigners by the carloads seemed to have been in the state during the elections — the Centre itself made all arrangements for 28 diplomats to go to the valley and there were many mediapersons from all over the world (“EC invites envoys to Valley”, Sep 16). What are they if not “foreign observers”, on whose testimony the world will decide whether or not the elections were free and fair' So why the reticence, at the official level, on foreigners' Or was that merely for the domestic audience' The government must have a very poor opinion of the average Indian’s intelligence if it believes that he will be taken in by such a ruse. In the event, all that the government's “no foreign observers” stance has done is to make it seem capricious and laughable in international circles.

Yours faithfully,
R. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Go slow

Sir — Know-it-all votaries of economic reforms seem to think that disinvestment and privatization are the answer to all our economic ills. This view is bereft of all common-sense, let alone economic logic. Such economists and intellectuals display the same kind of herd-mentality they showed during the boom in the “new-economy” stocks not so long ago. None of these pro-reformists, or even the media, considers how the disinvestment proceeds will be used. The knowledge that they are being put into the consolidated fund of India is hardly reassuring. Remember how the large cache of nearly Rs 10,000 crore, raised under the voluntary disclosure of income scheme, was wasted in paying increased salaries to government employees as per the directives of the fifth pay commission despite pious intentions of using the money for infrastructure-building.

The present government resembles a pauper rummaging the closet for any remaining family silver. But unless the government controls its fiscal deficit, disinvestment will simply mean an easy source of cash — to be spent on its army of employees for salaries and other current expenditures. If this continues, we will end up selling off all our public sector undertakings without any long-term benefits, as happened in Argentina. A method should be devised whereby the divestment proceeds can be “locked-up”, say in an escrow account, so that it can be used only for the purpose it is intended — which may be to finance infrastructure projects or retire high cost debt. The lack of checks on how disinvestment proceeds are being utilized is a dangerous, even fatal, flaw in a country where profligacy comes first and accountabilty last.

Yours faithfully,
Anand Kumar Jhunjhunwala, Calcutta

Sir — In sports, players can ask for “time-out” to recoup if things are not going their way. Perhaps, we need a time-out on the disinvestment process. The process is in a critical stage and many business houses are eager to grab the companies being divested, especially the public sector oil companies, which have been making huge profits as a result of administered price structures. But the business houses who have evinced interest in these PSUs have dubious reputations. Some have defaulted on bank loans and corporate taxes, others have ferreted money away in foreign banks.

All loan-defaulting companies should be declared ineligible to take part in the bidding process. In fact, Arun Shourie might be given the responsibility to recover non-performing assets. After all, the money got from selling off PSUs is pocket change compared to the money that can be recovered this way. Only loss-making PSUs should be opened up for disinvestment and the money earned should be spent on voluntary retirement schemes for sick PSU employees and infrastructure development.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Kumar, Udupi

Sir — The Orissa state government is doing nothing about the government’s plans to disinvest a majority stake in the profit-making National Aluminium Corporation. This will harm Orissa, since Nalco is one of the major sources of revenue for the state. Besides, the company is in the expansion stage and thousands of persons who were assured of jobs would be deprived. Numerous ancillary industries thriving on Nalco would have to shut down after privatization. Naveen Patnaik, whose party supports the Centre, should take up the issue before it is too late.

Yours faithfully,
R. Sekar, Angul

To make a point

Sir — The editorial, “Losing track” (Sept 12), states that the inquiry following the accident of 2402 Down Shramjeevi Express found the cause to be “human error”. This is incorrect. A statutory inquiry held by G.P. Garg, commissioner of railway safety, Northern Circle, under the ministry of civil aviation, concluded that the accident was caused by “tampering with track” by unknown persons. The commissioner of railway safety has sent his preliminary report for the consideration of the Central government.

It is pointed out that the railways has a system of annual inspection of all railway bridges by engineers. The Dhawa bridge near Rafigunj under Eastern Railway’s Mughalsarai division was also inspected by an engineer on March 9, 2002. The engineer, during his inspection, had rated the condition of this bridge as “sound”. The restoration of the down line at Dhawa bridge near Rafigunj has been done on the same pier after thorough inspection, even after the accident. This only indicates that the condition of the pier on the bridge was very good and that there was no problem with the piers. They were good enough to take full load even after the impact of the disaster.

There is also a factual error in the editorial, which states that the “Sealdah Express passed over the same stretch 20 minutes earlier”. In fact, the 3151 Up Sealdah-Jammu-Tawi Express passed Rafigunj at 9.45 pm and the Rajdhani at 10.40 pm. In between, a goods train had passed at 9.57 pm.

It must also be mentioned that the inquiry into the Rajdhani accident will be done by an independent body — the commissioner of railway safety, Eastern Circle, who is under the ministry of civil aviation.

Yours faithfully,
S. Majumdar, chief public relations officer, Eastern Railway, Calcutta and D.P.S. Sandhu, chief PRO, Northern Railway, New Delhi

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