August 28, 2009
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Month August 28, Edition 000283, collected & managed by durgesh kumar mishra, published by – manish manjul
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1. A JUDICIOUS MOVE
2. SECOND HAND POWER
3. PRIDE OF FEW, ENVY OF MANY-SUNANDA K DATTA-RAY
4. TAPE DOCTORED, SAYS COLOMBO!-GANES SELVA
5. AT THE END OF 100 DAYS...-KALYANI SHANKAR
6. GLORIFYING A CRIME-ANURADHA DUTT
7. PEACE A MIRAGE IN WEST ASIA-BARRY RUBIN
8. REFORM REGULATIONS TO MEET GLOBAL CHALLENGES-VINAYSHIL GAUTAM
THE TIMES OF INDIA
1. NO EXEMPTIONS PLEASE
2. KICK THE HABIT
3. EASE THE PAIN
4. 'BJP AFTER SARDAR BECAUSE IT NEEDS AN ICON WITH MASS APPEAL'
5. LITTLE ENGLAND-JUG SURAIYA
6. PICTURE PERFECT: OVER LAND, UNDER SEA-
1. LOOK BUT DON’T ASK
2. TOO LITTLE AID FOR TRADE
3. SO HARD TO DIGEST-PREETI SINGH
4. STUCK IN JODHPUR-ASHOK MALIK
1. THANKS, LORDSHIPS
2. TRADING PLACES
3. COLONEL’S MOMENT
4. THE BRETHREN-RAJEEV DHAVAN
5. THE KING IS DEAD-EJAZ HAIDER
6. ASSETS AND LIABILITIES-ABHINAV CHANDRACHUD
7. ALL ABOUT JINNAH?-SEEMA CHISHTI
8. WHERE POLITICS WINS BY AN INNINGS-KUNAL PRADHAN
THE FINENCIAL EXPRESS
1. TRADING PLACES
2. WHISTLE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
3. A BLIP IS NOT A TREND, CAPEX IS DOING WELL-MAHESH VYAS
4. WHAT TRADE POLICY FAILS TO ACCOUNT FOR ACCOUNT FOR-AMITENDU PALIT
5. THE NET EFFECT OF MSP-SANJEEB MUKHERJEE
1. TRADE POLICY IN DIFFICULT TIMES
2. RESPONSIBLE PROPERTY INVESTMENT
3. INDIAN INTERESTS IN REGIONAL SECURITY -M.K. BHADRAKUMAR
4. ALITS, THE POOR AND THE NREGA -ARUNA ROY AND NIKHIL DEY
7. ALEXANDRIA’S NEW LIBRARY TRIES CONSUMERISM -JACK SHENKER
THE ASIAN AGE
1. A PATHBREAKING MOVE BY JUDGES
2. KISAN INCORPORATED-G.V. RAMANJANEYULU & KAVITHA KURUGANTI
3. A MATTER OF TIME-SHEKHAR BHATIA
1. SAYING ‘YES’ TO DISCLOSURE
2. DEAL WITH THE BIG FISH
3. DEATH OF A KENNEDY
4. SAMAJWADIS WITHOUT DIRECTION-SHAHIRA NAIM
5. TESTS MAY CAUSE TOO MUCH RADIATION-BY THOMAS H. MAUGH II
6. RARE CAMPAIGN BATTLE HITS JAPAN-BY JOHN M. GLIONNA
THE ASSAM TRIBUNE
1. ENCEPHALITIS MENACE
2. MANIPUR’S TRAGEDY
3. STEEP PRICE-HIKE AND ITS IMPACT-DWAIPAYAN
4. HIGHER EDUCATION IN CHINA-DR. ARUP KUMAR HAZARIKA
THE ECONOMIC TIMES
1. A CAUTIOUS MOVE
2. CORE SECTOR DISAPPOINTS
3. CHEAP SHOT
4. PROACTIVE FARM POLICY NEEDED-RAJRISHI SINGHAL
1. A PATHBREAKING MOVE BY JUDGES
2. EXPLORE NOT THE ‘WHO’ BUT WHY OF PARTITION - BY BALBIR K. PUNJ
3. LET’S ACCEPT HISTORY, WITHOUT RESERVATIONS - BY I.A. REHMAN
4. KISAN INCORPORATED -BY G.V. RAMANJANEYULU & KAVITHA KURUGANTI
5. BE BIG -BY BY ROBIN SHARMA
1. LOOK WITHIN
2. ALL CLEAR
3. A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS -ASHOK MITRA
4. CLEAN UP THE CLUTTER -MALVIKA SINGH
1. CORRUPTION CURBS
2. NO WINNER, NO LOSER
3. TINKER AND TRAIN
4. CHINA TO REWARD PATRIOTIC
5. A RIVER UNDER THREAT -BHARAT DOGRA
1. IN YELLOW REVOLUTION, SEEDS OF A MISSION-BY Y P GUPTA
2. LADY IN THE LOOKING GLASS-BY LASYA SHASHIMOHAN
THE NEW YORK TIMES
1. ANOTHER WAY TO LOSE THE HOUSE
2. SHAME ON IRAN
3. MY LAI HAUNTS THE LIEUTENANT
4. TIME TO BE AFRAID OF THE WEB? -BY EDUARDO PORTER
5. THE GREAT GRADUALIST -BY DAVID BROOKS
6. TILL DEBT DOES ITS PART -BY PAUL KRUGMAN
7. THE STATE OF NEW ORLEANS: AN UPDATE -BY AMY LIU AND NIGEL HOLMES
8. SMART CHILD LEFT BEHIND -BY TOM LOVELESS AND MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
1. DIRTY DEEDS
2. BUGTI'S LEGACY
3. THE FLOUR FRONTLINE
1. IMF PAINTS A HORRIBLE SCENARIO
2. LETHAL AFGHANISTAN-ISRAEL WAR DEAL
3. SARKOZY SHOULD ASSERT MORE
1. TRIBUTE TO A TITAN
2. ENCOURAGING CREATIVITY
3. A ROSE FOR THE TEACHER…!ROBERT CLEMENTS
1. INDIGENOUS BODY IS NOT THE MAIN GAME
2. THE RIGHT DECISION
3. STATE OF INERTIA
THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
1. A KENNEDY, ON HIS OWN TERMS
2. MILITARY JUSTICE: ANOTHER FINE MESS
1. IN PRAISE OF... MOSSBOURNE COMMUNITY ACADEMY
2. LOCAL AUTHORITY FINANCE: COUNCILS OF DESPAIR
3. REFORMING FINANCE: DARING ADAIR
1. TAX-HIKE DEBATE MISSING
2. FACE UP TO THE PENSION CRISIS
3. AMERICAN PARANOIA INSULTS MUSLIMS' DIGNITY-BY GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN
4. ASEAN RIGHTS PANEL OFFERS SCANT DEFENSE OF VICTIMS-BY BENNY TEH CHENY GUAN
THE KOREA HERALD
1. CAUGHT UNPREPARED
2. OUT OF CONTROL
3. RETURN OF FRANCO-GERMAN LEADERSHIP -DOMINIQUE MOISI
4. CENTRAL EUROPE'S MISGUIDED DRUG WAR -KASIA MALINOWSKA-SEMPRUCH
1. HURDLES TO GROWTH
2. AGE OF CHALLENGES
3. PROPERTY DECLARATION: PROS & CONS
4. GREEN IS THE NEW CONSUMER MANTRA
THE JAKARTA POST
1. WHY SHOULD THERE BE SHARIA LAW IN INDONESIA?-KHAIRIL AZHAR
2. THE DECAY OF THE KPK
THE MOSCOW TIMES
1. THE BLACK SHEEP OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM-BY MICHELE A. BERDY
2. TOO EARLY TO BREAK OUT THE CHAMPAGNE-BY CHRIS WEAFER
A JUDICIOUS MOVE
JUDICIARY TO BE MORE TRANSPARENT
In a welcome development the judges of the Supreme Court on Wednesday responded to the mounting pressure on them to make their assets public by unanimously deciding to publish details of their personal wealth on the Supreme Court website. What makes this move a pleasant surprise is that it comes in the backdrop of the Chief Justice of India, Mr KG Balakrishnan’s recent comments that it would suffice if the judges of the higher judiciary were to simply declare their assets and liabilities to the CJI or the Chief Justices of the High Courts — which is currently the practice — who would then hold the information secret instead of making the details public. The stance of the Chief Justice on the issue, which was assumed to be congruent with the position of all the judges of the higher judiciary, had sparked an avoidable debate on the credibility of the judiciary. It may be recalled that earlier this year the Central Information Commission, acting on an application under the Right to Information Act, had directed judges of the higher judiciary to supply information about their assets and liabilities to the applicant, ruling that the office of the Chief Justice came within the ambit of the RTI Act and that the information of judges vested with him had to be made public. However, the Supreme Court chose to challenge the CIC’s order in the Delhi High Court, which resulted in the order being stayed. Nonetheless, the incident gave rise to demands from various quarters for greater probity and transparency among judges of the higher judiciary.
Earlier this month, the Government tried to introduce the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, 2009, in Parliament. The Bill was unacceptable not least because Clause 6 mischievously stated that the judges would be required to declare their assets to a ‘competent authority’ and that such a declaration would neither be made public nor be subject to questioning by any citizen. The clause, in effect, would have subverted the very purpose for which the Bill was intended. It was only right that Opposition MPs in the Rajya Sabha, where the Bill was sought to be introduced, opposed the key passage of the draft legislation, forcing the Government to withdraw it. It was only last week that a judge of the Karnataka High Court, Justice DV Shylendra Kumar, spoke out in favour of making his assets public, breaking the myth that all judges of the higher judiciary were opposed to such a move. Soon a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court followed suit, making it abundantly clear that there were strong voices within the judiciary for transparency in the information regarding the personal wealth of judges.
The decision of the judges of the apex court to voluntarily make available details of their assets in the public domain is a welcome reprieve for all — the judiciary, the Government and the people. It is a step that will hopefully set the trend for lower courts to follow. Nonetheless, a law that makes the public declaration of assets of judges mandatory must be passed for the sake of total transparency in the judiciary. Mere voluntary disclosure will not do. A legally-binding disclosure system will only enhance the credibility of the judiciary.
SECOND HAND POWER
OUTAGES COST US RS 100,000 CRORE
An interesting set of statistics related to the power sector has recently been the subject of much interest and debate, and rightly so. A study conducted for a power company, Wartsila India, is believed to have come to the conclusion that a whopping sum of Rs 1,00,000 crore is spent in this country on what has come to be known as ‘power back-up equipment’, which includes such essentials of modern life in India as gensets, batteries and inverters. In other words, power cuts faced by domestic and industrial consumers on account of insufficient generation of power, that too of uneven quality, come attached with a huge bill that is paid by the people. Had this money been invested in setting up power plants, it would have yielded a 20 per cent increment to the quantum of power produced at present. Or, we could look at it this way: There would be an additional 25,000 MW of power for consumers, which is about a quarter of the extra electricity that India will require by 2020 to maintain its growth momentum. The story, however, does not end here. The study is reported to have also revealed that consumers spend as much as Rs 30,000 crore every year to operate “inefficient ‘power back-ups’ using gensets which belch smoke and inverters that emit acid fumes”. The financial loss apart, we need to look at health issues linked to increasing pollution and environmental hazards. It would be silly to ignore a key finding of the study: Inefficient ‘power back-ups’, while lighting up homes and keeping factories running, generate 1.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. If the Power Grid Corporation of India is to be believed, the “value of lost opportunity” was a stunning Rs 2,89,000 crore in 2008-09.
The easiest solution to preventing such wasteful expenditure would be to ban ‘power back-ups’ and let people and industry suffer due to power shortage. But that would be silly — indeed, as silly as the Union Power Minister coming up with a cockamamie first-100-day agenda whose implementation would barely serve to light up no more than a village. True, India’s power crisis cannot be solved in 100 days or, for that matter, in 1,000 days. Decades of callous neglect, bureaucratic lethargy and an inefficient power sector’s terrible performance will require at least a decade to overcome. But that would happen only if the Centre and the States were to work to a co-ordinated programme, encouraging investment and removing bottlenecks which continue to hold up power plants from coming up on schedule or, even if they come up, performing at full capacity. But it is doubtful whether key policy-makers are even remotely concerned about either today’s power crisis or tomorrow’s projected requirement. So long as babus don’t have to suffer and Ministers are assured of uninterrupted power supply, our slothful Government will do nothing at all to give power to the people.
PRIDE OF FEW, ENVY OF MANY
SUNANDA K DATTA-RAY
Nothing is more phoney than the word ‘ethnic’ when used by Indians in India to describe things Indian. Which gives me a clue to why the Vedic Village International Resort and Spa in Kolkata’s outskirts is now licking its wounds instead of delicacies at its much-advertised Dhakai Fish Festival which opened last week and was scheduled to continue to September 14.
Lest some readers are confused, Vedic Village is an attractive luxury resort of bungalows, club, hotel, restaurants and ayurvedic and other therapeutic facilities idyllically sprawling over 150 acres that was consumed in an orgy of violence and arson last Sunday. The destruction holds several sombre lessons for the entire country, the most important being the need to curb greed, control ostentation and manage change with skill and sympathetic efficiency. Advance must be circumspect if more such clashes are to be avoided.
Land, like foodgrain during a famine, is hoarded as India marches ahead. Though the 16,000 tribals displaced in 1966 for the HAL-MiG factory in Orissa’s Koraput district have still not been resettled, about 75 per cent of the land acquired lies unused. Studies indicate that a factory to produce 1,000 cars needs an acre. Hindustan Motors was allotted 750 acres in 1952 but was using only 300 acres by 2002. Tatas could have been sold the remaining 400 acres instead of 997 acres at Singur of which they needed less than half to manufacture 350,000 Nanos. Tatas were luckier in Sanand, mainly because the Gujarat Agricultural University was sitting on 1,100 acres it did not need.
Land is an instrument of politics as well as economic development. Real estate means money which is why Singapore wants a share of the cake. With prices soaring — and this was part of the problem at Vedic Village — real estate also means speculation. Underworld operators dominate the construction industry. They and their masters are hand-in-glove with political parties. In the case of Vedic Village this means the CPI(M) which, as this column has noted earlier, local wits call CPI(Marwari). But other parties are also involved.
One shudders to think of the political manipulation, bribery, corruption and strong-arm tactics that must engulf the hundreds of proposed Special Economic Zones. Each SEZ can cover up to 5,000 hectares, with tourist resorts, hotels, townships and other lucrative commercial ventures permitted on half the land. No wonder companies with no experience in manufacturing for export are clamouring for a stake. They hope to reap a fortune from that horrible word of our times — ‘development’ — which conjures up a vision of poky little rooms in ugly brick monsters as well as glittering shopping malls.
Vedic Village is neither. It’s a pretty oasis blending mud and thatch with what estate agents call “all mod con” that I once considered as a retirement retreat. People I know have bought houses there. Others book accommodation for holidays. The manager told me that Thailand’s scholarly Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, learned in Sanskrit and Pali, spent some time there incognito. The papers say that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan also stayed there while shooting. It’s a venue for conferences.
The combination of rustic simplicity, albeit faked, comfort, and high-powered comings and goings made the resort the cynosure of surrounding villagers. Admiration often begets envy. The cultivators from whom Mr Raj Kishore Modi’s Vedic Realty, the holding company, bought 75 per cent of the land undoubtedly felt aggrieved as they watched the price spiral from between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000 a cottah to Rs 3 lakh and more. It was not a justified grievance for the price would not have soared if they had still cultivated the land, but greed and envy know no logic.
The immediate spark was a nearby football match in which the team sponsored by a local don and, reports claim, a Vedic Village employee, disputed an offside decision, lost the game, assaulted the referee and returned in strength (15 or 20 toughs in a Maruti Omni) to attack the football crowd with home-made guns and grenades, killing a 19-year-old youth. No one was killed when the resort was attacked in retaliation but the police discovered a room stacked with arms and ammunition, presumably the arsenal of local goons.
Much has been written about the rags to riches story of one of these mastaans (as these thugs are called in Bengali) and his two-storey house with Belgian glass windows, Bolero car and control of 21 villages. West Bengal’s Home Secretary, Mr Ardhendu Sen, calls him a “land shark”. The police say he is wanted in connection with several cases, including murder. But it is no secret that tycoons, whether in business or politics, employ such men for protection and to do their dirty work. The late Dr BC Roy notoriously used a goonda called Gopal Pantha.
Vedic Village needed such thugs if, as Mr Sen says, it was buying land “at gun point” for expansion. Denying any such plans, Mr Modi claims purchases ended “long ago”. One would imagine from these contradictory statements that he and the State Government are at loggerheads. Nothing of the kind. Another of Mr Modi’s companies, Sanjeevani Projects Ltd, is in a joint venture with Webel (the state-owned West Bengal Electronics) to buy 1,600 acres, establish the Kolkata Links IT park and township, and do business with Wipro and Infosys.
Perhaps these are the inevitable concomitants of growth. What is to be lamented is the abdication of sense and style wherever money is involved. I can excuse Vedic Village’s slogan, “The concept to attain Nirvana in the lap of luxury”, as a silly advertising gimmick, but its promised “ethnic environment” is absurd, demeaning, and typical of India’s semi-literate new elite. Hauz Khaz Village also boasts of being ethnic; so does Dilli Haat. They would have been ethnic in London or Paris. Here they are plain Indian. Only foreigners can call them ethnic.
Perhaps that’s what Third World prosperity is all about … pretending to be foreign at home. Which brings me to Vedic Village’s aborted Dhakai Fish Festival. I once tried to introduce the late Dawa Tsering, Bhutan’s long-time Foreign Minister, to that Anglo-Bengali delicacy, smoked hilsa, in Dhaka’s expensive Sonargaon Hotel. The Bangladeshi chef looked scornfully at me as he said, “We don’t serve local fish, sir. We only have smoked salmon.”
TAPE DOCTORED, SAYS COLOMBO!
It’s a graphic description that has appeared in media. One report was vivid. The man is young, naked, bound and blindfolded; a corpse lying across his legs. A soldier approaches him in what appears to be Sri Lankan Army uniform and shoots him at point-blank range, apparently amused at the death. “ It’s like he jumped,” he says. The footage, released this week, appears to show what the Tamil community and human rights campaigners have long alleged: That in its final surge against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan Army summarily killed prisoners.
Britain’s Channel 4, which showed the video, claims it was recorded by a Sri Lankan soldier on his mobile phone in January, when Government forces overwhelmed the stronghold of the LTTE stronghold at Kilinochchi. After the murder, the video, taken in daylight, pans out to show eight bound corpses, all shot in the head and all but one naked. Voices in the background speak Sinhalese; as the footage concludes, viewers see a ninth bound victim shot.
The capture of Kilinochchi was a milestone in the Sri Lankan Army’s final push against the Tamil Tigers, which triumphantly concluded a 27-year civil war in May. The Tamil Tigers fought for nearly three decades for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka, using suicide bombers, child recruits and soldiers trained to swallow cyanide rather than be caught.
As the end of the war approached, the Government was accused of almost equally brutal tactics including, according to the United Nations and documents leaked to The Times in May. The Sri Lankan High Commission in London has categorically denied “that the Sri Lankan armed forces engaged in atrocities against the Sri Lankan Tamil community. They were only engaged in a military offensive against the LTTE.” It added, “The High Commission has noted that in many instances in the past, various media institutions used doctored videos, photographs and documents to defame the Sri Lankan Government and armed forces. Therefore, we request you to verify the authenticity of the video footage.”
Reports in May said that Government soldiers killed two high-profile Tigers, Balasingham Nadesan, the head of the LTTE political wing, and Seevaratnam Pulidevan, who led its peace secretariat, as they approached bearing a white flag and having asked by text message to surrender. The body of the Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shown on Government video having been shot in the head.
What is the truth?
AT THE END OF 100 DAYS...
The UPA Government’s pre-poll promises of generating jobs, strengthening internal security and empowering women through electoral quotas, all to be fulfilled within the first 100 days, have proved to be no more than tallk talk. What happens next?
To rate a Government’s performance 100 days’ work may not be the right parameter. This becomes amply apparent in the case of the Congress-led UPA Government, which retained power on the strength of promises that it would fulfil its wishlist within the first 100 days of the Government.
While the official report card of the Government is yet to be known, general perception of the Manmohan Singh Government is that of a half empty-half full kind.
When the Cabinet was sworn in after the Lok Sabha election, there was a lot of feel-good factor for the Government. People’s expectations were high as the Congress emerged stronger, sending signals for a stable Government, and also because this time the Government was not to face any irksome opposition from its earstwhile Left partners. Except for the initial problem of finding berths for allies like the DMK, the Government formation was quite smooth.
The first broad contours of what the Manmohan Singh Government wanted to do during its second term were spelt out in the President’s address to the joint session of the 15th Lok Sabha on June 5.
The President listed 24 things the UPA Government would do in its first 100 days in office. They included internal security and preservation of communal harmony and stepping up of economic growth, particularly in agriculture, manufacturing and services. The President also mentioned consolidation of the existing flagship programmes for employment, education, health and rural infrastructure besides introduction of new food security and skill development programmes. Women empowerment, including early passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, and constitutional amendment to provide 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats and urban local bodies were also mentioned. Action for welfare of weaker sections and minorities besides disabled and senior citizens and governance reform were the other points covered in the President’s address. The other important areas were prudent fiscal management and energy security.
How much of these ambitious proposals have been concretised? While the Right to Education Bill and NREGA have become reality, we can only hear talks about women’s reservation. The Land Acquisition Bill has been shelved in the Budget session, following opposition from the UPA ally Trinamool congress and Judges Bill also could not be taken up.
As expected, the Left parties have ridiculed the performance of the UPA Government as a big flop, particularly in the areas of price rise, foreign policy and enactment of new laws in Parliament. Even the Right to Education Bill passed in both the Houses of Parliament came in for criticism.
The BJP too is quite dismissive of the Government’s performance.
One cannot entirely blame the Government as things beyond its control have made it difficult to implement some of the ambitious projects. Several Cabinet Ministers, especially those of agriculture, human resource development, minority affairs and rural development, have prepared ambitious agendas but not even half them could be taken up for Government’s consideration.
A cursory look at the performance of some key Ministries reveal that the Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee came up with a good Budget and also fulfilled the promise of a new direct tax code. The social sector got higher allocation. The Union ministry of rural development has already written to State Governments to send fresh proposals for allocation to be made in the NREGS and Backward Region Grant Fund for their States.
But the biggest setback for the Government plans on economy came from the failure of the monsoon, resulting in 171 districts declared as drought hit and the agriculture ministry battling with the drought. The kharif crops are lost and the only hope is the rabi crop for which the Government has hiked the minimum support price.
The second big jolt came from the price rise of essential commodities hitting the roof. With the festive season round the corner, the Government is set to draw flak if spiralling prices are not checked.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s joint statement with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh de-hyphenating action on terror from India-Pakistan talks caused the Government major embarrassment in the country from not only the Opposition parties but also from his own party leaders. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna was also in for criticism for not taking up the issue of racist attacks on Indian students in Australia. The MEA and the PMO failed to do any damage control.
On internal security issue, besides setting up NSG commando hubs in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata, nothing concrete has been done. Though Home Minister P Chidambaram has declared the Maoists as “terrorists”, much more needs to be done on the ground to counter the menace created by the Maoists. The ministry is in talks with State Governments on how to handle the threat.
GLORIFYING A CRIME
USE LAW TO DEMOLISH THE MYTH CALLED SATI
Last week in Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, locals gathered to pay homage to a woman who is reported to have committed suicide after her husband died. Her body, clad in wedding finery, was apparently retrieved from a well. Treating the diseased as a sati, and, therefore, an object of veneration as per orthodox tradition, women offered articles of worship such as sindoor, bangles and so on. Though glorification of sati under Commission of sati (Prevention) Act 1987 invites punitive action — jail term up to seven years and a fine of Rs 30,000 — the police refused to intercede on the grounds that it was not “a classical case of sati but a plain suicide”. This is because the conventional understanding of sati is a widow burnt to death on her diseased husband’s pyre.
Human rights lawyers, who find the anti-sati Act inadequate and decry Government failure to give it more teeth, observe that the police try to avoid action on such cases by dismissing them as suicide. One quotes from Maja Daruwala’s article, ‘Central sati Act: An Analysis’, published in The Lawyers in January 1988 after a young widow, Roop Kanwar, was reportedly coerced into burning alive in Rajasthan’s Deorala in 1987.
“Under the Indian Penal Code what is worrisome is the willingness of the authorities to treat cases of widow burning as suicide rather than murder or culpable homicide because, by its very definition, a classic sati is self-immolation. The result is that abettors are let off comparatively lightly and escape the ignominy and moral opprobrium that attaches to these. Of course, a great deal depends on the willingness of the police to pursue inquiries and lodge an appropriate FIR. Even in the Roop Kanwar case, one cannot help but feel that but for the hue and cry raised, the matter would not have been taken up...” However, the authorities failed to secure retribution for the perpetrators.
The Congress-led UPA Government during its previous tenure made an attempt to make the Act more stringent via an amendment, but apparently caved in to pressure by Minister of Mines Sis Ram Ola, who objected to some possible amendments. One related to the proposal to hold the entire community accountable for an act of sati. Another wanted abetment to become a non-bailable offence. A third, most importantly, would have done away with the rationale for sati shrines, vested in their glorification. Mr Ola allegedly insisted that only sati temples built after 1987 should be brought under its purview. He protested that people in Rajasthan would react strongly to any move to curb worship at these shrines, which attract lakhs of pilgrims and huge offerings. Section 7(1) of the 1987 Act empowers the State Government to “remove” old sati shrines. Even the district magistrate is empowered to do so under section7(2) of the Act.
Mr Ola is right when he argues that worship at these shrines cannot be ended as it is rooted in tradition. To interfere in this matter would be disastrous. But custodians of the law must ensure that those who abet acts of sati are punished.
Legend has it that sati gave up her body in the yagya kund to protest her father Daksh’s humiliation of Shiv, her consort, who was not invited by Daksh for the yagya . This could certainly not have been the precedent for ritual burning of widows on their diseased husbands’ pyres. The Rig Veda, in the pre-Christian millennium, referred to antyeshti, a funeral rite, whereby the widow lay beside her husband’s body on the unlit pyre, with his bow in one hand. She was then summoned back to the world of the living. Manusmriti did not refer to this custom at all, instead even permitting widow remarriage in certain circumstances. sati is essentially an alien custom, possibly brought in by Scythians, the White Huns, who began migrating into India from the 5th century AD. Between the 5th and 9th centuries AD, advocacy of sati appeared in dharmashastras such as Vishnu Smriti and Brihaspati Smriti. Some of the Muslim rulers tried to ban or restrict the practice and the British outlawed it in Bengal Presidency in 1829, with other provinces enforcing the ban in stages. But sati practice continues owing to feudal mores.
PEACE A MIRAGE IN WEST ASIA
THE WEST FEARS THAT BLAMING PALESTINIANS FOR THE PEACE TALKS DEADLOCK WILL MAKE MUSLIMS ANGRY AND THERE WILL BE MORE TERRORISM AND FEWER PROFITABLE DEALS AND INVESTMENTS
Here’s one of my favourite stories explaining how West Asia works. It was told by Muhammad Hussanein Heikal, the famed Egyptian journalist. Like all Heikal’s stories, it may or may not be true, which is also part of the lesson being taught.
When Muammar Gaddafi first became Libya’s dictator, Heikal was dispatched to meet and evaluate him by Egypt’s ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser. After returning to Cairo, Heikal was quickly ushered into the President’s office.
“Well,” said Egypt’s President, “what do you think of Gaddafi?”
“He’s a disaster! A catastrophe!”
“Why,” asked the President, “is he against us?”
“Oh no, far worse than that,” Heikal claims to have replied. “He’s for us and he really believes all the stuff we are saying!”
The point was that the Egyptian regime took the propaganda line out of self-interest that all Arabs should be united into one state under its leadership, all the Arab monarchies overthrown, Israel wiped off the map immediately, and Western influence expelled, but it knew itself incapable of achieving these goals and to try to do so would bring disaster. Indeed, when Nasser had tried to implement part of this programme in 1967, he provoked Israel into attacking and suffered his worst disaster.
Come to think of it, Arab regimes are still playing this game of systematically purveying radicalism, hatred, and unachievable goals to distract their populace, excuse their own failings, focus antagonism against foreign scapegoats and seek regional ambitions.
Western Governments do this kind of thing a bit differently.
In this regard, recent statements by a number of leaders including US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and others, establish an important principle:
Actually achieving West Asia peace is of no importance. The only thing that is important is saying that progress is being made and that peace will come soon.
I don’t mean that as a statement of cynicism but as an accurate analysis of what goes on in international affairs at present. What’s achieved by pretending there is progress and there will be success? Some very real and — in their way — important things:
World leaders are saying that they are doing a great job, doing the right things, remaining active and achieving success.
By saying peace is near, the issue is defused. Why fight if you are about to make a deal?
Israel (and anyone else from the region who joins in — see below) shows that it is cooperating so others should be patient and not put on pressure.
Since the West is taking care of business, Arab states supposedly will feel comfortable working with it on other issues, like Iran for example.
I want to stress that this behaviour is not as silly as it might seem. Often this is how indeed politics do work. Moreover, pretending is better than a sense of desperation which would lead to very bad mistakes being made by energetically doing stupid and dangerous things. Certainly, it inhibits strong pressure or sanctions against Israel.
The freeze on construction within settlements is a scam. If Israel gives something on this issue, the Western Governments declare victory and go home, so to speak. That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons for not doing so, but the virtually open cynicism of the US and European strategy is striking.
When the US President portrays the possibility of two tiny states, Oman and Qatar, letting one-man Israeli trade offices re-open as a major triumph in confidence-building , despite being his sole achievement after months of top-level diplomacy, what can one do but snicker?
Finally, since Israel-Palestinian peace is not within reach, pretending it is while knowing the truth is not such a bad alternative. It is certainly progress since the Obama Administration came into office and pursued a policy based on the idea that it could achieve peace in a matter of months.
What is the downside here?
There are three problems. The first is if Western leaders believe their own propaganda. Because if peace is ‘within reach’ but isn’t actually grasped, then someone must be blamed. That someone will, of course, be Israel.
Why? Because if the West blames the Palestinians, leaders presume that Arabs and Muslims will be angry and not cooperate on other matters. There could be more terrorism and fewer profitable deals and investments. They gain nothing.
But if they insist that everything is going well there is no need to blame anyone. This is the phase we are now entering.
The second problem, however, is that neither the Palestinians nor Arab regimes will join in the optimism. Their line is: The Palestinians are suffering! The situation is intolerable! Something must be done! And since we will make no concessions or compromises, the only solution is for the West to pressure Israel to give more and more while getting nothing in return.
Since this is not going to happen too much if Israel resists, they fall back on their alternative approach. Ok, so since you aren’t forcing Israel to give us what we want you have to give us other things, like money and you cannot demand we help you.
The best outcome is that certain Arab states, since they have other interests at stake, will downplay the conflict altogether and focus on more pragmatic needs. The radicals — principally Iran and Syria — will never do so, of course, and will claim that the situation shows how the West cannot be trusted and must be defeated.
What’s the third problem? That certain actions which might promote regional stability, or even Arab-Israeli peace, are not taken. These include two especially important tactics:
More energetic efforts to overthrow the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. As long as Hamas is running about half the Palestinian territories and outflanking Fatah in militancy, there won’t be any peace. Keeping Hamas from taking over the West Bank, isolating it, and maintaining sanctions against it is a good policy and can preserve the status quo. It is not, however, the best policy and the pressure on Hamas could erode over time.
More pressure on the Palestinian Authority to moderate and compromise. The PA and its positions are the main barriers to peace. As the PA possibly becomes more radical, the likelihood of violence increases. Thus, while in the short-to-medium-run the ‘feel good’ and status quo policy may work, it also has risks and limits.
Still, it is the best that can be expected at present.
The writer is director of the GLORIA Center, Tel Aviv, and editor of the MERIA journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader and The Truth About Syria.
REFORM REGULATIONS TO MEET GLOBAL CHALLENGES
CREDIT RATING, IN WHICH THE FINANCIAL SECTOR HAS PLACED ITS FAITH, IS INADEQUATE IN THE FACE OF ECONOMIC RECESSION
Various issues in the governance and regulation of the financial sector stand out so clearly that they urge immediate attention and action. Amusingly, one of them is the almost unquestionable faith that has been put in the credit rating. The other is the belief in the perceived magic of the Basil II Accord, the recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. I propose to take up the second one first.
It is obvious that the financial sector in India has inadequate regulation and it spills over into the issues of governance also. The Basil II Accord which has been the cornerstone of the banking industry of the last few years, clearly proved inadequate in rising to the demands of the recent financial crisis. Promoting as it did, the concept of self-regulation, credit risk models were actually developed, encouraged to be developed by big banks. The capital required for them would then actually work on the basis of a dialogue between the Central Bank, the regulator and the regulatee. It did not work in India because here the Reserve Bank decides almost single-handedly. They also moved away from a concept of standard leverage ratio ie the total movement of lending they can do in relation to the capital.
What has happened is that because of these and various legal provisions that were there in the Basil II Accord, there were institutions in the US which because of their exposure to other banking institutions and other financial intermediary, could run up a leverage. They could borrow 30 times or 40 times their capital. They made good money in the process. But when things went wrong, when asset prices crashed, housing prices crashed and certain other financial assets prices crashed, they had to mark to market those prices. They had to value their balance sheet. While assets shrunk, what was left was liability. Working through such a situation can be difficult. One had to bring more capital and there was this huge set of problems. Then the Government had to play a role in many of these cases. The whole idea of "too big to fail" stands buried. The case of Citi Bank alone was enough to set alarm bells ringing on policy options, because nearly 360billion dollar had to be pumped in.
A relook at Basil II Accord seems inherent in the situation.
Coming back to the faith in the Credit Rating Agencies, the story is equally interesting. There was quite a circle. If some agency was rated AAA, the capital given was negligible because the capital that one earmarked under the Basil II Accord was related to the rating that one had (The Rating Agencies were paid by the users). All the complex instruments were given very good rating, because more complex rating, the more they got and as the better ratings came more money was put. This was a sort of self-fulfilling process that went wrong in the real world. Further and far most serious, most of their risk assessment models were not futuristic. They were not anticipatory enough. They would go on the basis of the past data. They were not sufficiently proactive.
It is the same principle simplified. The role of the Rating Agencies is already under a scanner and their methodologies would not only have to be made more sophisticated but subject to a peer review.
Then there is a dichotomy between the International Regulation vs the Domestic Regulation. While Domestic Regulation could be in some countries functioning with varying degrees of sophistication and rigor, International Regulation and international cooperation amongst regulators and cross border regulator has also its place. Notwithstanding the various MoUs that have been signed amongst such agencies, information is not always seamlessly transferred. If the Reserve Bank wanted information from La Banque De France (the French Bank), it may not be there in the needed format and quality, as required. This makes the conduct of monitory policy, and concerted action a complicated affair. A globalised world cannot ignore these challenges.
In a globalised world, the actions of Citi Bank in the US affect us, for no fault of ours. It is equally true that many Indian companies and banks are not able to raise money abroad for no fault of theirs. The issue needs serious thought and action. There is need for more international regulations which work and facilitate the functioning of financial institutions. A coordinated approach would help.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
NO EXEMPTIONS PLEASE
The unanimous decision by Supreme Court judges to make personal assets and liabilities and those of their spouses and dependents public is a step in the right direction. This move by the apex court judges must spur their compatriots in high courts to follow suit.
However, the caveat that no queries will be entertained on the judges' disclosures is a dampener. Judges must not regard themselves as an exceptional category and seek exemptions and privileges that are not available to other public officials, including legislators. The principle of transparency and accountability demands full measures. The fear that interested parties could misuse the disclosures to embarrass the judiciary may be valid, but that ought to be addressed by incorporating stringent penalties in the law as a deterrent against any possible mischief.
Earlier this month, the government had to withdraw the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill in the Rajya Sabha after MPs objected to a provision that sought exemption for judges from being subjected to any query over disclosures. Their objection that the exemption clause violated the principle of equality before law spelt out in the Constitution was justified. Hopefully, the judiciary will recognise the sentiment. The government must now make necessary changes to the Bill and introduce it in Parliament. In the absence of a law, disclosure of assets will remain a voluntary option whereas it ought to become mandatory for all public officials.
Transparency and accountability form the bedrock of good governance. The legal architecture to facilitate good governance must include a law to protect whistleblowers in the system. The government reportedly is now ready with a draft law to protect whistleblowers. As per the draft law, a complaint of corruption can be made against a central government employee or any other central government-backed institution to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The CVC can withhold the identity of the complainant, order an investigation and, if necessary, provide security for the complainant.
Unfortunately, the draft law, prepared after public uproar over the murder of brave officials who exposed corruption in public works, is not without loopholes. One, the draft law's scope is limited to the public sector. Two, ministers will be exempted from investigations carried out under complaints registered under this law. These exemptions ought to be removed. Corruption can be an issue in the corporate sector as well: witness Satyam. Many corporate scams like the Enron scandal were exposed by whistleblowers. Similarly, ministers are at the apex of the public sector and an integral part of the decision-making mechanism. To exempt them from an anti-graft law is nothing but a subversion of its intent. As in the case of judges' wealth, exemptions and half-measures are unacceptable in this case too.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
KICK THE HABIT
This is one area where closing the gender gap is not advisable. But more women in India are turning smokers and oral users of tobacco. The third edition of the Tobacco Atlas, released in Dublin by the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation, says India has the third highest number of female tobacco users in the world. Of the estimated 11.9 million female consumers of tobacco in India, 5.4 million smoke it and the rest chew the leaves. Tobacco in any form can be life-threatening and so whether the leaf is smoked, chewed or consumed orally as gutka and other similar products, it is a health hazard.
The Atlas points out that worldwide, tobacco consumption could kill six million people in 2010, and one-third of those people would die of cancer. The report also says that 25 per cent of smokers die or become ill during their most productive years, adversely impacting families as well as economies. Tobacco kills more men than women worldwide only because historical smoking prevalence has been higher among men than women but that is changing slowly. Because smoking rates are increasing among women in many countries including India, and particularly among young women, that gap in tobacco death rates between men and women is closing. Female smokers in India are dying eight years earlier than their non-smoking peer group, the study adds.
Regular smokers tend to suffer from poor reproductive health. In men, it is known to cause impotence. In a woman, not only could smoking adversely affect the health of eggs produced; it could compromise the health of the expectant mother and the foetus. And this would be true for passive smokers as well. Tobacco consumers are more vulnerable to disease, especially cancer, and particularly to lung cancer.
There could be many reasons why more women in India are picking up the smoking habit. Smoking dulls the appetite and it is seen as a convenient and easy way of bolstering one's diet plan to help weight loss. Most developed countries are trying hard and succeeding to an extent to kick the habit through public awareness campaigns, deterrent legislation, high pricing and pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. India should do likewise, especially since public health is already a matter of high concern and poor delivery.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
EASE THE PAIN
As economic conditions have swung from high inflation to declining growth back to rising inflation during the past year, economic managers have been scrambling to adjust their policy stance to a rapidly changing economic scenario. At this time last year the price of crude oil had risen to an all-time high of $147 per barrel, following a spike in world food prices that had sparked food riots in several countries. The headline inflation rate in India was peaking at close to 13 per cent. The government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) were both focused on that challenge.
Then the scene changed dramatically from September 2008 onwards. The collapse of Lehman Brothers marked the onset of a massive global economic crisis. With recession in the developed countries the price of oil and other commodities collapsed, triggering fears of deflation. In India, a steep decline in export demand and domestic liquidity reduced growth from over 9 per cent to 6.7 per cent. Inflation had fallen to 0.7 per cent by end-March this year, and turned negative by end-June.
These developments called for a swift reversal in policy. The RBI quickly intervened to reverse the sharp decline in liquidity and reduced policy rates to induce growth. On the fiscal side, the embarrassment of a large deficit far exceeding the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management target now turned out to be a welcome fiscal stimulus and was beefed up through further stimulus packages to restore growth. Growth is also the main thrust of the 2009-10 federal budget.
The government and RBI have also been very careful to ensure that large government borrowing will not crowd out private investment, the main growth driver. Borrowing is likely to be trimmed through significant divestment of public enterprise equity. Three quarters of total borrowing will be completed by September, making room for the private sector during the busy season starting October. Higher external borrowing from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank will also ease domestic credit pressures. Finally, and most important, a part of the government draft on the capital market is being offset through de-sequestering of Market Stabilisation Scheme balances and RBI open market operations to increase liquidity.
Now the economic scenario is again shifting sharply, calling for yet another switch in the policy stance. With a faltering monsoon and rising food prices, the opposition has already started agitating about inflation. Though the headline Wholesale Price Index inflation rate remains low, the Consumer Price Index for agricultural and rural workers is already well above 11 per cent. This is the largest and poorest consumer group, with little capacity to absorb rising prices. But their cost of living especially the price of food will rise even further in the months ahead as the full impact of a weak monsoon hits us, leading to considerable distress in the countryside. Drought conditions have been declared in 141 out of around 600 districts in the country and prices of grains, pulses and vegetables have already started spiking. Globally, too, the prices of pulses and sugar have been rising sharply, factoring in adverse market conditions in India, and crude prices have firmed up to around $70 per barrel.
Clearly the policy focus must now shift from growth back to inflation. Indeed, the RBI has reacted fast. Its second quarterly review of July 28 took note of building inflationary pressures and the need to manage liquidity accordingly. A gradual reversal of its growth focused 'easy money' policy of the first quarterly review has already started. There has been no further easing of policy rates or the cash reserve ratio. Also, contrary to expectations of large-scale deficit monetisation through open market operations, this is now likely to be limited to only Rs 80,000 crore, keeping a tight leash on liquidity growth. However, the main policy intervention to contain distress and drought-driven inflation has to focus on supply management in foodgrains and relief operations.
Timely releases from 53 million tonnes of government food stocks can contain the rise in food prices till the next harvest provided hoarding can be prevented. The planned supply of cheap grain to poor families can be accelerated along with the proposed expansion of NREGA to minimise distress. If that proves administratively difficult, state governments should quickly initiate drought relief operations in affected districts, including food-for-work programmes, assured supply of drinking water, fodder provision and protection of livestock.
Can such a strategy actually work? Though the incidence of poverty usually shoots up in years of drought, sceptics were surprised to find that the proportion of poor people remarkably came down during the severe drought of 1997-98. The government had then followed a strategy of tight liquidity, combined with timely release of foodgrains, tight control on hoarding, and large-scale relief operations in the then worst affected states of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, similar to the approach outlined here. It's a lesson worth revisiting.
The writer is emeritus professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
'BJP AFTER SARDAR BECAUSE IT NEEDS AN ICON WITH MASS APPEAL'
Former president of the Indian History Congress and former professor of business history at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Dwijendra Tripathi was barely 17 when India achieved independence. His understanding of partition does not come from a book. He lived through it. Tripathi tells Robin David why he thinks the BJP has a skewed understanding of Sardar Patel and of history:
BJP says Jaswant Singh has insulted one of its icons Sardar Patel in his book on Jinnah
To see Sardar Patel as an icon of the BJP is a grave injustice to the memory of the man. He was a lifelong Congressman. His views on religion were different from Jawaharlal Nehru, but to call him a forerunner of modern-day Hindustan would be an insult to him. His views on Hinduism were closer to Swami Vivekananda who saw all religions as statements of God. Besides, it is not as if Sardar did not have options. The Hindu Mahasabha had already been formed.
Why does the BJP need Sardar?
Because it needs an icon with mass appeal. V D Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Madhav Golwalkar never had mass appeal in the real sense. The BJP had even tried to usurp Jayaprakash Narain in 1977 immediately after Emergency, but they failed. Again Narain was a staunch socialist who had vehemently demanded a ban on the RSS. The BJP feels that Sardar comes closest to what they believe in and has the mass appeal they are looking for.
Did Sardar Patel ban the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination under pressure from Nehru?
That is incorrect. Sardar was his own man who would not be pressurised by Gandhi, let alone Nehru. The truth is there was strong public sentiment, justifiably or unjustifiably, that the RSS was behind Gandhi's assassination. If Sardar bowed to anything, it was public pressure. In fact, Sardar had launched a scathing attack on the RSS while banning it.
Do you agree with Jaswant Singh's arguments in the book?
I don't have a copy, but from what i have read so far, the crux is that partition would not have taken place had Nehru and Sardar accepted the British Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. Jinnah would have agreed to it as it envisaged a unified India with the federal government having only limited powers, like foreign affairs, defence and communication under it while the rest went to the states. History, however, shows that India has disintegrated whenever the Centre has become weak. The regimes of Ashoka, Allauddin Khilji and Aurangzeb all became weak because their descendants were weak rulers. The plan would have led to the Balkanisation of India, as Nehru had said. Only God knows how many more Pakistans would have been created.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
Why, people often ask, do you keep going to England? It's so small. Compared with India, England is small, even if you throw in neighbouring Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. But its smallness is one of its attractions for me. For it proves the truism that sometimes it's better to arrive than to travel endlessly. In India if you want to go from Point A to Point B say from Delhi to Mussoorie by the time you've got to Point B it's taken so long, and you're so tired and hassled, that you no longer know why on earth you ever wanted to get to Point B to begin with and are already dreading the long, weary haul back to Point A. In Little England this problem doesn't arise. Largely or rather, small-ly because Point A and Point B are virtually one.
Take London, where Bunny and i generally base ourselves. First of all, London is not just one city but many cities: of Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus, of leafy parks and historic pubs, of cobbled streets and sleek towers of crystal and steel. But London is not just all these many cities in one: London is also an entire country; a springboard for the whole of Little England. Armed with a British Rail pass which gave us unlimited travel over a stipulated number of days, we picked excursionary destinations at random, like choosing which flavour to have next from a box of assorted chocolates. The littleness of Little England made possible a wide choice of day-trip destinations no more than an hour, or an hour and a half, away by train.
We went to Canterbury, the city where Thomas Becket was martyred, and which is visited by tourists and pilgrims from all over the world and which is a scant 90 minutes from London. We were there and back almost before we knew it. A couple of days later we decided to revisit Brighton, where we hadn't been for years. Brighton with its painfully pokey shingle beach on which generations of stoical sunbathers have lain like yogis on beds of nails, its pier of amusement arcades and shrieking children and shriekier adults on roller coasters, its Pavilion built by George IV when he was still Prince of Wales and which in unabashed vulgarity puts to shame the most uninhibited expressions of Bollywood Baroque is a mere 60 minutes from London. Fifty-five, if your train has a tail wind.
We went to Peterborough to meet my elder sister, Vasu, who lives there, and marks the day of my visit by allowing herself her single annual gin and tonic. It's a family tradition, faithfully maintained for years. Peterborough? Fifty minutes from London. We went to Bath, where we'd never been before. With its perfectly preserved Georgian architecture, terraced crescents of houses dating back to the 18th century, Bath is Britain's only officially declared Heritage City. We took a hop-on, hop-off tour bus to see the sights: the natural hot spring Roman baths, from which the city gets its name; the Pump Room where the highly mineralised and slightly smelly water, which once was believed to be a cure for all ailments from gout to dyspepsia, can be drunk for 50 pence a cupful; Sally Lunn's tea shop established in 1489, and the oldest building in the city where the famed Sally Lunn bun originated. Bath's pretty far from London, almost 90 minutes far.
We went to Oxford (60 minutes) to meet our friends Nili and Michael, who drove us to Pen-y-fai in Wales (120 minutes) where some more friends, Vijay and Isabelle, run the beautiful Court Colman Manor hotel. Returning from Wales to Oxford via the Cotswolds tiny villages of thatched-roof cottages made of yellow 'bottled sunshine' stone, riotously floral gardens, ancient inns with sagging roof beams we marvelled yet again at the agreeably surprising smallness of Little England. Which had one more agreeable surprise in store. In the taxi to Heathrow airport (60 minutes), the driver, George, asked where we were from. From Gurgaon, we replied. Why, we're practically neighbours then; i'm from Jullundur, George said in perfect Punjabi. Little England just got a little littler.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
PICTURE PERFECT: OVER LAND, UNDER SEA
To be able to travel by land across borders to other lands holds a charm of its own. This mode of travel offers the most intimate experience one can have of the changing landscapes. However, before getting on with the travel, one may need to cross other barriers first, like sorting out travel documents, acquiring working knowledge of the foreign language, learning about the culture and food of the country you are going to visit. At times this can prove to be a daunting task. I remember standing close to our border with Pakistan near Dera Baba Nanak, with a Pakistani village a stone's throw away. I had this temptation to step over to the other side to get a closer look. But better sense prevailed, thankfully. I was told later on that apart from the danger of being put behind bars as a suspected spy from India, landmines dotting the area posed a great danger.
It is easier to get around in Europe as most countries are well connected by excellent land routes and enjoy cordial relations with each other, with fewer literal and metaphorical landmines in-between. I was in London on a long visit and was fascinated at the thought of visiting Paris via Eurostar. But my French visa had expired and the embassy in London was in no mood to issue me a fresh one. My persistence paid off, however, and after several visits they issued me a visa for one week. I managed to get a reasonably priced return ticket on the Eurostar and boarded the train for the overnight trip to Paris. The train zoomed over land and under sea, touching speeds of 300 km per hour, and reached Paris in less than three hours.
Surprisingly, no one wanted to have a look at the French visa obtained with such difficulty. I quietly walked out of the station on to the streets of Paris and walked around the beautiful city, taking in the sight of Champs-Elysees, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Louvre. It was wonderful. However, my communication skills in French were put to the test when one tried to get directions to the nearest post office to mail home a picture postcard. My broken French and reasonably good English were of no help. I had to deliver the postcard personally to my family on my return to India, just like a worn-out postman on his delivery round on a hot and humid day.
LOOK BUT DON’T ASK
The opaque glass that screened all information about the assets of our judiciary has now been replaced with a clear one. But, you can only look through it from a distance. After years of wrangling, the Supreme Court has finally agreed to make public the assets and liabilities of its judges on a website. But this doesn’t mean that you can question these disclosures. Now you might ask what use it is for us to know whether a particular judge has got several times more money than he should have when we can’t ask him where he got it from. But, look at the bright side of things. Peer pressure will eventually ensure that such discrepancies are corrected. Or so we hope.
The move to disclose the assets of judges is akin to dipping their toes in water. As they get used to the temperature, we are sure that their lordships will have no objection to the humble public asking them a sharp question or two. After all, judges hold our fates in their hands and we’d be more comfortable if we knew that such hands are beyond reproach. The argument that transparency could leave judges open to malicious litigation is a bit thin on the ground. The judiciary has procedures to screen both malicious and frivolous litigation and we are sure that our judges can put any mala fide litigant in his place. At the end of the day, this ‘know your judge’ scheme will only strengthen faith in the judiciary which is already held in high regard in a country where most other institutions have been undermined. Now that the SC judges have decided to let it almost hang loose, the lower judiciary will have to follow suit.
If this trend catches on, you might ask why we journalists don’t also reveal our true colours since we feel free to comment on others’ conduct. Ah, we are safe for now because we aren’t public servants, you see. So we’ll just leave you to guess whether we are really as down in the mouth as we make out. Or perhaps our lordships will crack the whip and force us to come clean one of these days.
TOO LITTLE AID FOR TRADE
India has set itself an underwhelming trade target for the next five years, with hopes of matching its performance in the previous five riding on a global recovery.
The country has doubled its merchandise exports in the five years since 2004, and is content with redoubling them by 2014. Starting from an incredibly low base, we are targeting growth rates in the region of 20 per cent, while China is cruising a neat 10 percentage points higher. The comparison with our northern neighbour, if somewhat irrelevant, is inescapable: since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2000, it has more than quadrupled its exports to corner 10 per cent of world trade. India at 17 per cent is the odd man out in an emerging Asia that sells half its wares abroad.
Much of the Asian story is about the competitiveness of local manufacturing. With a hand from governments that have kept transaction costs down, developed facilitating infrastructure, waived taxes, and deliberately devalued their currencies. Apart from the last, the Indian State has a lot of catching up to do. The trade policy unveiled on Thursday critically exposes the government’s inability to push exports through fiscal giveaways. The little relief on offer is directed at the labour-intensive sectors where little can be done till demand revives. Again, our exporters cannot be weaned off the Western consumer who left his credit card at home by targeting Africa and Latin America where the wallets are not thick enough.
Asia itself is a big opportunity — half of what it exports remains within the continent — and bilateral trade agreements loaded in our favour ought to form the core of our Look East policy. India has, however, demonstrated in the treaties it has signed with Asean and South Korea it is prepared to yield on merchandise trade to gain deeper access for its services, where it has the competitive advantage. The policy environment thus makes even our modest trade gains appear fortuitous. Having lost the race when the going was good, India needed to grab a bigger share of a market shrinking in a global recession. This was a good opportunity to think how our exporters can give their customers more bang for their buck. The 10 months of consecutive export declines suggest we missed the bus, again.
SO HARD TO DIGEST
It tempted you to take a sneak peak between the covers. It was small and compact enough to fold comfortably and snuggle with for a quick giggle before drifting off to sleep. It was an adult past-time you were allowed to share and, for as long as I can remember, there was always one lying around the house somewhere to beat the blues.
As the Reader’s Digest turns another page to add a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to its 87-year-old existence, I can’t help but think that we might turn out to be the last generation with any memories of that pocket-sized magazine, having spent lazy childhood afternoons drowsily browsing faraway tales of triumph and loss; of gaining 20 pounds and graciously losing face — ‘All in a day’s work’.
I remember pitting my vocabulary against ‘Word Power’; smiling at the exploits of curmudgeonly matrons, cutesy antics of precocious brats and the flirtations of fresh-faced co-eds in ‘Life’s like that’ or ‘College rags’ and empathising with floundering young officers bested by cunningly witty generals in ‘Humour in uniform’. Real people, real stories: they seemed to egg you on to take life in its stride. ‘Well, it happened to me, no big deal!’ Embarrassment was cool; you could trade it for page space. At other times, the tragic stories of love and loss, or loss of life and limb, made you feel hopelessly inadequate for not having survived your very own life-altering trial by fire.
All in all, it was like wholesome chicken broth for the entire family, with sane advice for first-time mothers and tall tales of second chances. It could help you map out the highway to health or the road to marital bliss, while telling you how to save for that perfect getaway or dream home by dispensing quick-fix tricks to replace that unpredictable and pricy plumber. What’s more, each gut-wrenching tale left enough space for a rip-roaring gag at the bottom of the page.
And now a magazine — no, an institution — that taught us how to go out there and battle that stubborn plaque or the office bully, is fighting for its own survival. Its publisher, the Reader’s Digest Association, has filed for pre-packaged bankruptcy in the US to reduce part of its $1.6 billion in debt and strengthen finances. For now, it has been granted court approval to dip into a $150 million loan. But all is not well in Pleasantville. The good news is that we might not have to say goodbye to it just yet.
Which is just as well, for even though I stopped reading it a few years ago, opting instead for its more glossy or academic cousins, it’s difficult to imagine my mom’s bedside table without one.
STUCK IN JODHPUR
As hooks for controversy, personalities are more tempting than amorphous ideas. As such, much of the debate following Jaswant Singh’s new book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, has focused on the writer’s appraisal of key individuals. Singh’s book is sympathetic towards Muhammad Ali Jinnah, seeing him as a tragic hero. While not calling them villains, it pins equal, maybe greater, blame for Partition upon Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.
This ‘Jinnah good, Patel bad, Nehru very bad’ theatre is convenient for the media and for politicians who either support or oppose Singh. Yet, it takes away from the central underpinning of the book.
Depending on how you look at it, that central thesis is piquant, provocative or downright dangerous. If nothing else, it challenges the idea of India that is Nehru’s legacy. This leads to the question: have the many so-called latter-day Nehruvians who jumped to Singh’s defence even read the book?
In his biography of Jinnah, Singh approvingly quotes the well-regarded American academics and Indophiles Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph as writing: “The doctrine and practice of the Indian State preserved subordinate jurisdictions. It included, rather than eliminated, layered and segmented social and political power, and created a socially constrained negotiated order. This order was not merely a concession to the contingent and layered distribution of power among the regional kingdoms and local chiefs that prevailed through much of Indian history, or a consequence of limited technical means of control. It was also a principle of State formation and maintenance.”
In Singh’s view, India is a “multinational State”, rather than a sovereign nation as is commonly understood. Singh suggests such a conceptualisation of India is consistent with the vast autonomy that Jinnah demanded for Muslim provinces within a loosely connected Indian Union. This was in keeping with the traditional political organisation of India. However, it was not adequately appreciated by Patel or by Nehru who, as Singh told a television interviewer, wanted “a highly centralised polity”. The Darjeeling MP’s reading of federalism is severely flawed. Even so, it’s important to understand why he embraces it. An analogy would help.
Belgium comprises largely two linguistic groups — the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Today, it is possible to be a Walloon nationalist, a Belgian passport-holder and a citizen of the European Union (EU) all at the same time. The equation is not always simple. In recent years the Walloons and Flemish have been bitterly divided and considered partitioning Belgium. The two new nations would, however, have remained part of the EU.
This is the culmination of the European project — an evolution from tribes to kingdoms, nation-States and then a continental entity. In India’s case, Singh sees it as a beginning to have been made in 1947, the building block of modern state formation: a menagerie of kingdoms, provinces, religious and ethnic territorial communities that would become an EU-type confederation and completely bypass nation-Statehood.
Singh is intrinsically comfortable with the idea of multiple sovereignties. Why does this appeal to him? His background may offer a clue. He was born to a family that was a vassal of an ally of the British Raj. As he pointed out in his 2006 memoir, A Call to Honour, his father served in the Jodhpur State Forces and was part of the Jodhpur Lancers contingent that, during World War II, accompanied the British Indian Army and fought with the Allies in Iraq.
Did such a soldier owe allegiance to a feudatory of Jodhpur, to the Maharaja of Jodhpur or to the King-Emperor as represented by the government in New Delhi? That question is at the root of Singh’s argument.
In contrast, an Indian descended from a family in the old presidency towns (Calcutta, Bombay, Madras) or in the big urban centres of British India (Allahabad, Lahore) would be secure with only one sovereignty. In the 1940s, these cities threw up the middle class, intelligentsia and political leadership — which saw the independent Indian government as the sole successor to the Raj, with a nation-welding mission as its primary mandate.
Was another course possible? Partition could have been avoided by creating six Muslim-governed provinces — as the Muslim League demanded — over which the federal government would have near-zero control. States and provinces would have had extreme autonomy, going way beyond Article 370 and including the right to form sub-national collectives and constitutional structures as well as secede. In addition, 600-odd princely kingdoms would have demanded supremacy in their internal jurisdictions.
Does this sound like a recipe for “layered and segmented social and political power” and “a socially constrained negotiated order”? It is more likely India would have cracked within a decade. In the absence of a cohesive force, large parts of the young country would have become vulnerable to meddling by external powers. The north and northwest would inevitably have got enmeshed in the unending conflict of the Greater Middle East.
Far from being cussed and greedy for office, Nehru and Patel were visionaries. They saw a problem coming, and concluded a truncated India was better than the unviable chaos of a notionally united subcontinent. We can never thank them enough. Rather than weep over counterfactuals and imagined alternatives, let Jaswant Singh cherish the India that is. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only one we have.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer
The decision by Supreme Court judges to post details of their assets on the court’s website is welcome. It brings to an end weeks of debate that threatened to give the impression of the higher judiciary holding itself against not just the legislature, but also the drift of public opinion. The immense credibility that the judiciary enjoys is vital to the functioning of our democracy, and Wednesday’s development opens up lines of engagement on issues of transparency and accountability that could further strengthen the judiciary’s reputation.
That judges, like other public officials, must make their assets open to public scrutiny seems obvious. But the back story of this proposal highlights the sensitivities that were involved in reaching a compromise. In 1997, the SC unanimously agreed that judges’ assets would be declared to the chief justice. More than a decade later, when an RTI application sought this data, the SC opposed it, on the grounds that the 1997 declaration was non-binding. The sound and fury that the court’s reluctance provoked can still be heard today, with members of Parliament, even those from the ruling Congress, recently sinking an attempt to pass a compromise law that nonetheless shielded judicial assets from public scrutiny. It was not just the public and Parliament who were unsettled at what they perceived to be double standards. Dissent from within the judiciary was also heard. Former Chief Justice J.S. Verma (responsible for the 1997 declaration) and a sitting high court judge publicly disagreed with the Chief Justice of India’s reluctance to make assets public in the absence of a law. Wednesday’s SC resolution is only the latest curve in this rollercoaster ride. It is hoped the high courts follow with similar declarations of their own.
But accountability in the higher judiciary means more than just assets. There is, for instance, the Judges Inquiry Bill, aimed at making the process of disciplining a judge less cumbersome than the current impeachment option (not once successful), or the pointless transfers to remote courts (rarely effective). The Judges Inquiry Bill requires cooperation between the executive, legislature and judiciary, and will take some doing. But by voluntarily putting information about their assets in the public domain, SC judges have staved off the possibility of confrontation. For that, the judges can take a bow.
Of all the sections of the Indian economy hit by the global downturn, export-oriented units have been hit hardest. And while a smaller proportion of Indian output is exported than by, say, China — meaning the vulnerability of national income overall to crashing external demand is less here than elsewhere — there is little doubt that this is, nevertheless, a large sector which employs many and generates dynamism and innovation, but which is going through a very bad time right now. Which is why the announcement of the government’s trade policy for the coming five years would be even more closely scrutinised than normal.
The policy’s announcement, by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, did not come as a disappointment. It would be difficult, given fiscal space, to expect too much in terms of direct transfers; and difficult too, in terms of reformist policy orientation, to defend too much sector-specific tinkering. But the trade policy as drafted, by focusing on extending current tax credit schemes and by loosening some regulations, exte-nding the number of “focus markets” that are subject to export incentives, and enhancing single-window certification as well as cutting transaction costs, could act as a decent stimulus package for the besieged sector.
The general orientation of the policy is to encourage the export sector to develop further resistance to localised or temporary downturns. The adding of 25 more focus markets, economies identified as places where Indian exports could conceivably grow manifold, is part of that. The commerce ministry has correctly surmised that the Indian product mix at Indian price points would do well in markets in Central Asia and Latin America. Trade with these areas hasn’t grown fast enough, and needed a kick. More important, though, for those in immediate trouble: allowing units notified as being “export-oriented” to sell up to 90 per cent in the buoyant domestic market. India’s export sector has been too shaped by government policy and incentives; ideally, a reformist vision should see domestic producers able to quickly and dynamically shift between exporting and domestic markets — and, actually, between various external markets, too. This might be a decent first step in that direction.
This coming Tuesday will mark 40 years of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule in Libya and if his personality is an indication of what to expect, the international community will undoubtedly witness fanfare that would beggar most imaginations. However, what is known is that the Italian Air Force will mark this day with an extraordinary aerobatic performance by their best. One thus wonders how Muammar Qaddafi, previously ranking high in the bad books of most Western democracies, has managed to repair relations with his former adversaries. And now, the lens will be focused on the event furthermore, given that the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi has returned to Tripoli to somewhat of a hero’s welcome.
This hero’s welcome has caused considerable disquiet in the West. That an American airline was blown up in the air with no survivors is unlikely to be forgotten — and some are questioning why an accused stands free due to an independent Scottish decision on “compassionate” grounds. However, it is the image of a jubilant Megrahi with his hands thrust up by none other than the Colonel’s son that is a brutish reminder of what transpired on the fateful day in 1988 and of Tripoli’s haphazard past. Tripoli has however worked hard in rehabilitating itself vis-à-vis the international community, especially the West. First came the compensation to the Pam Am 103 victims, then Megrahi’s handover and finally in the wake of the Iraq War, the surrender of its nuclear weapons arsenal in a game-changing deal.
The prospect of a fully re-integrated Libya was not going to be an easy task; the internal dynamics of the country dictate this. Rather than being the monolithic entity Tripoli wants to appear as, there is evident friction right at the top. Note how Qaddafi was conspicuously absent from welcoming Megrahi, thereby placing the deal clearly within the ambit of his son. What needs to be watched is how Qaddafi responds to this situation and the criticism which accompanies it.
There is a myth about the brotherhood of judges. In India, the higher brotherhood consists of high court and Supreme Court judges. Although the Supreme Court is supreme, it is self-confessedly not infallible. Justice Reddy’s account of Keshvananda’s case is hilariously disturbing. The “right” and the “left” judges opened up in acerbic dispute. If words could wound, they did. Way back in the ‘60s, a Gujarat judge judicially declared that he was duty bound to follow the Constitution not the Supreme Court. The high court judges are bound to follow the law laid down by the Supreme Court (Article 141). But the brethren do not have to like each other. The pretence of doing so increases when high court judges have to be on their best behaviour if they want to be chief justices of high courts or on the Supreme Court. Chief justices are first amongst equals.
Public disagreement began when Justice D.V. Shylendra Kumar declared that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) could not speak for all the judges. Frankly, he was right. The judges were not individually consulted. There is no law that assets cannot be declared. The CJI probably does not even know the names of all the high court judges. True, as former CJI Verma put it, the CJI must lead, but he must lead by example. Perhaps, initially this is a case where the CJI should not have gone to the press at all especially as the issue was before Parliament and the Supreme Court itself was in litigation in respect of the Right to Information application before the courts. But the CJI is a public person and he is constantly asked questions by the press. So he answers their queries. Thus, without being controversial, he gets involved in a controversy.
But for the CJI to say of a brother judge that he was “publicity crazy” on August 23 seems embarrassing not just for the judge but also for the brethren. The CJI’s view that the declaration of assets should not be made public was defensive — seeking to avoid embarrassment for the brethren. But it so happened that the brethren were more embarrassed by the “half secret” strategy of declaration without publication. Some judges felt they had nothing to hide. In fact, this was the view of many Supreme Court judges — made clear in the conclave meeting of the Supreme brethren on August 26. The question in the public mind on merits was: which was more embarrassing, the half secret policy or the full disclosure policy? The judiciary has a lot of power which it exercises with both courage and craft as well as to ambitiously enlarge the judicial power. This has already made the Indian judiciary the most powerful in the world. But, in a democratic set-up in an open society, confidence for the judges and the judiciary has to be won. It does not fall like constitutional manna from heaven. The more ambitious an institution and the more broad-based its popular appeal, all the more essential that the confidence of the people be ignited and continued.
A small needle of suspicion in the minds of the people about hidden assets and the last bastion of the rule of law would collapse. It cannot be overlooked that there are already allegations of corruption against the judiciary. Enter the famous 1 in 5 (20 per cent) of judges are corrupt; former CJI Bharucha’s deprecatory, but flamboyant, estimate. From the Bombay crisis of the early ’90s to the Delhi crisis of the early 2000s and the recent lingering crises in Allahabad and Chandigarh, many controversies have surfaced. But what is worse is not the controversies that attracted publicity, but the rumours; and they are many. The worst way to quell these rumours is to have a half secret policy whereby the judges reveal assets to the CJI, who will keep it under lock and key.
The public are as curious about their judges as they are about parliamentarians. It is the Supreme Court in the Common Cause and Association of Democratic Reforms cases which set the norm for public disclosure. Why should judges not be part of this open policy? In fact, judges who collectively decide lakhs of cases every year have greater reason to declare that their income has not gone up during their tenure. Many judges were successful at the bar. Some were not. Marketplace selection does not always choose ability best. Judges sacrifice a lot to become judges. Earlier high court judges were often appointed in their 30s, now they are usually appointed in their 40s — some in their 50s. The sacrifice is immense — the life of cloistered virtue they have to lead. But the brethren, like Caesar’s wife, have to be above suspicion. In these troubled times, it is essential.
In my view, Justices D.V. Shylendra Kumar, K. Kannan, Chandru and B.H. Marlapalle led the way in stating their intention to declare their assets. We can cavil that they are “publicity seekers”. But, in this case, they have been rebels. They have, in fact, cut the Gordian knot of this long lingering controversy which has engaged the RTI authorities, the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court.
It is to the credit of the CJI that, even though he adopted a variant “half secret” view or “hidden-from-the-public” approach, he was amenable to listening to his colleagues and changing his mind to adopt the “full disclosure” approach. The Supreme Court’s conclave discussion of August 26 also shows the openness and balance that we expect from the judiciary. This is, in fact, the governing principle of judicial decision-making: firmness in decision-making but always with an open mind.
The Supreme Court has also made it clear that judges will not entertain queries from the disclosure made on the website. This stresses that the disclosure is for the public interest and not to enable litigants, lawyers and the media to harass judges.
The Supreme Court and the rest of the higher judiciary have still a long way to go in the matter of judicial appointments and oversight over judicial indiscipline (including corruption). Our present methods to deal with these issues are weak. We need a National Judicial Commission.
The writer is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court firstname.lastname@example.org
THE KING IS DEAD
Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the self-styled Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has finally been confirmed dead by the new leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Earlier, Taliban leaders had repeatedly denied official claims that BM had been killed in the August 5 Predator strike even after the captured Maulvi Umar, erstwhile spokesperson of the TTP, had informed interrogators that BM was indeed dead.
Between Hakimullah’s ascension to the TTP throne and BM’s removal from the scene had entered Faqir Mohammad, the Taliban leader from Bajaur who has been on the run since the Frontier Corps conducted the operation in that Agency. In an oblique manner, Faqir, who took over as acting head of the TTP, confirmed BM’s death when he said that he (Faqir) was taking over because BM “is very ill”.
One thing is certain, confirmed both by intelligence sources and reporters on the beat: the TTP is in disarray. There was a power struggle after BM’s killing with Faqir Mohammad, Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud vying for the crown. The government had also insisted that Wali and Hakimullah were dead, killed in a shootout during a meeting to decide the contentious leadership issue.
However, Wali and Hakimullah apparently called up TV channels on consecutive days and denied that there was a shootout or they were dead. The government’s riposte was that calls were made by people impersonating the two TTP leaders.
Even if they are not dead, and the Hakimullah who has taken over is not the twin brother of a dead Hakimullah, as Interior Minister Rehman Malik continues to claim, there is enough evidence to suggest that the TTP is on the backfoot and Mullah Omar and the Al Qaeda were, and are, trying to stitch up differences through Sirajuddin Haqqani to retain the TTP’s cohesion and make it operationally viable again.
Does this mean the TTP is down and out?
Down it might be, but it is far from out. It has had to suffer reverses in Swat, Buner, Lower Dir and Bajaur. Drone attacks have also signalled that aerial platforms can be effectively used to take out the Taliban leadership even in the craggy mountain redoubts where groundbased extraction operations can be a nightmare. Its cadre is more demoralised today than they were only two months ago, when they could, and did, strike at will, mixing insurgent tactics with terrorism in a deadly and fearsome combination.
To that extent, the offensive that began in Lower Dir in the northwest of Swat and in Buner in the south, and then went into the Upper and Lower Swat Valleys along three axes has been successful. The use of force has very largely translated into utility of force, not easy in irregular warfare. But South Waziristan remained and that’s where the centre of gravity lay. The COG has been hit and BM’s death is the prize.
But even bigger success has come in the cities of Pakistan where intelligence agencies have been able to bust many cells the TTP was using for terrorist strikes. This has helped bring down the number of terrorist incidents — thus easing public pressure on the government, which can now focus on the remote areas of FATA.
The war has been taken to the adversary but more needs to be done still. Swat, Buner and the adjoining areas are now entering the second, more crucial phase. The operation has created the space for the government to show its writ. Now, political activity has to begin; the capacity of the civil administration to maintain law and order has to be increased; and, most importantly, the people of the area have to be given a sense of community so they can make the extremists irrelevant.
The army would remain deployed to the area for another year and ensure that the Taliban do not reorganise. Meanwhile, the two Waziristan Agencies have to be dealt with because other areas are the periphery of this war. BM had forced the army into multiple engagements on the periphery. The government, in reactive mode until now, has regained the initiative.
Nonetheless, it’s too early to raise the glass to victory. There will be reprisals. The Taliban, as before, will change tactics to try to wrest the initiative away from the security forces. The real problem is tackling terrorism in the cities. On the plus side the intelligence agencies have now developed much better techniques to both pre-empt attacks and track down the perpetrators when they do manage to strike.
Much would also depend on how the political situation in the country unfolds and whether the opposition allows the government to remain focused on the job at hand. Political instability could be a spoiler.
The writer is op-ed editor of ‘Daily Times’, consulting editor of ‘The Friday Times’, Lahore. The views expressed are his own email@example.com
ASSETS AND LIABILITIES
If Indian courts were a listed entity, then perhaps portfolio management organisations would strongly advise their clients to wait and watch as the assets side of the judicial balance sheet makes its first visible, public appearance, following the recent historic decision of Supreme Court judges to disclose their assets. Consider what the judicial balance sheet would reflect on the liabilities side: delay, backlog, understaffing, and infrastructural inadequacies. Indian lawyers advising their clients sometimes venture to suggest that a civil suit in India can take between twelve to twenty years to be resolved. A document recently circulated to chief justices of high courts in India revealed that there were more than 3.8 million cases pending in the high courts of India, and more than 26.4 million cases pending in the subordinate courts as of 2008. The same document revealed that as on January 1, 2009 there were as many as 280 vacancies for the post of high court judge and as on December 31, 2008, as many as 3,129 vacancies for the post of subordinate court judge in India.
Consider next the assets side of India’s judicial balance sheet: then again, what assets side? Applying the corporate analogy, if Indian courts were a corporation, then, until the historic August 26 decision, the entire assets side of the judicial balance sheet would be redacted when shown to the Indian public. The decision to disclose assets came allegedly at a ‘full-court’ meeting, and was reportedly unanimous. Earlier, the historic Right to Information Act, 2005, was powerless when it came to the powerful Indian judiciary. The move mirrors a proposal made in The Indian Express written by noted jurist, F.S. Nariman, regarding the voluntary declaration of assets by judges, which was endorsed by a former Chief Justice of India, Justice J.S. Verma recently. The voluntariness of the assets declaration would not detract from its constitutional status. M.C. Setalvad had once said that the Indian Constitution has a “common law background and British origin”, and an ‘unwritten’ rule that judges must declare their assets certainly has the potential to crystalise into a constitutional convention. Such traditions are not unknown to Indian constitutionalism. While sporadic incidents of high court judges voluntarily disclosing their assets have been intermittently reported by the Indian media, the incidents have failed to take on the countenance of a wider movement, until now. That judges were earlier required under a code of conduct to disclose their assets to their respective chief justices — their administrative (but not judicial) superiors — a process shrouded in secrecy did not strengthen the case of judicial transparency and accountability, and begged the question of whom the balance sheets of chief justices would be scrutinised by.
The Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, 2009 provided that a declaration of assets made to a ‘competent authority’ could not be publicly disclosed. When the bill was introduced in Parliament, leader of the opposition, Arun Jaitley, observed that the provision was introduced because the bill had previously been circulated to the judicial institution itself, allegedly the ‘first time in history’ that this had happened.
The concern that adverse inferences will be drawn by persons who read judges’ balance sheets, especially in the light of the fact that many senior lawyers appointed as judges have significant wealth before their appointment, is not entirely justified. First, this position erroneously (and paternalistically) believes that information should be withheld because if people are given information, they won’t know how to use it: like banning a certain drug because consumers will not be able to read and understand for themselves the side effects incident to the use of the drug. This argument goes against the essence of free speech. Second, the contempt power of a constitutional court judge would be sufficient to ensure that such adverse comments are not lightly made. Every case in the adversarial system has a winning side and a losing side. The fear that the losing side will use publicly disclosed information about judges’ assets to spread malicious rumors about the judge, are preempted by the potent contempt powers wielded by a constitutional court judge.
The highly visible disagreement between the Chief Justice of India and a Karnataka High Court judge recently brought to light the darker side of the assets controversy. The chief justice replied that the Karnataka High Court judge ‘wants publicity’ and that judges should not be ‘publicity crazy’. On May 7, 1997, a ‘full bench’ of the Supreme Court of India had adopted a ‘Restatement of Values of Judicial Life’ in which it was declared that a judge should not express his views in public or political matters that are likely to arise for judicial determination. In the last few months, we have seen a striking departure from this norm, even if it was in an area which affected the judiciary at a deeply personal level. Although some high court judges have departed from this principle by writing for newspapers and in blogs, the example set by the Chief Justice of India, who has given at least more than one interview to the Indian media since assuming office, is hard to ignore.
The writer recently graduated from Harvard Law School, and is former law clerk to a Chief Justice of India
ALL ABOUT JINNAH?
The sequel to the release of BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, has given rise to sharp reactions in the Urdu Press. Jamaat-e-Islami’s official bi-weekly Daawat, in its front-page editorial comment (August 25), writes: “It is a very simplistic and unintelligent criticism by the BJP and its parivar that the party is opposing a research work and freedom of expression of one’s views, or that Sardar Patel was not a Sabhai or a Sanghi; he was a Congressman and he had imposed a ban on RSS in the capacity of home minister of the Congress government following the murder of Mahatma Gandhi: then, why does the BJP treat him as its hero while it considers Nehru and the Congress as its enemy? In fact it is not a question of the Congress or the BJP. What is pertinent is the mindset, the mindset that had created the conditions for Partition and had alienated a patriotic person like Mohammad Ali Jinnah from the fight for freedom by its acts of injustice, breach of promise, falsehood and cunningness.”
Kolkata and Delhi-based Akhbar-e-Mashriq has, in its editorial (August 23), expressed bewilderment at the fact that “Jaswant Singh has been found liable to be beheaded (qaabil-e-gardan zadani), but when L.K. Advani had said the same thing he had been pardoned.” The daily Sahafat, published from Delhi, Lucknow, Dehradun and Mumbai, in its editorial (August 22) entitled, ‘Vinash kaaley, vipreet buddhi’, has used this famous Sanskit phrase (meaning, when times are bad, you lose your mind) for the RSS whom it holds actually responsible for the expulsion of Jaswant Singh from the BJP. According to the paper, RSS, by this step, has given the message that “BJP is under its grip and the party will have to return to its agenda of Hindutva.” The paper says that “RSS has always been suspicious of leaders of the BJP without an RSS background.” Mention has been made, in this context, of Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie “for whom a limit had been set in the party howsoever vocal they might have been about Hindutva.” A columnist in Delhi-based daily Hamara Samaj (August 22) poses the question: “what has happened to the party advocating freedom of expression for Tasleema Nasreen’s book, to gag freedom of expression now?”
BACKLOG OF COURT CASES
Using the recent conference of CMs and chief justices of high courts as a peg, Hyderabad-based daily Rahnuma-e-Deccan, in an editorial on August 18, writes: “In our country the large number of pending court cases has always been a subject of discussion. But it is surprising that even though anxiety on these huge numbers has been expressed from the level of the President and the chief justice to all levels, the issue is not resolved. It is to be seen if the recent conference proves a milestone in this context or passes off as similar conferences of the past.” The paper points out that “11 per cent of positions of judicial authorities are lying vacant. The executive, more than the judiciary, is responsible for this situation. If funds are provided by the executive and hurdles in the process of appointments are removed, positions will not be vacant in such large numbers. For this, a well planned system of appointments is required.”
FACING A FAMINE?
Deficiency of rain in most parts of the country resulting in large-scale drought is causing great concern in Urdu papers. Sahafat, in an editorial (Aug 17), writes: “The obvious and serious truth is that our country is facing a famine.” What is causing great concern are reports of depleting sub-ground water levels in northern India. “The reason for all this is that the human being has indulged in creating havoc for the environment (qudrat se bahut khilwar kiya) and the government on its part, forgot agriculture because of its obsession with industry”. Hindustan Express (August 20) has drawn attention to the view expressed by “eminent economists like Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and research institutions in Europe and America that the big danger to India is hunger.” The paper refers to the report of Stockholm’s International Water Management Institute and pleads for planned use of water resources and wonders “if we can learn from China’s experience”.
WHERE POLITICS WINS BY AN INNINGS
It was one Delhi Test I’m not likely to forget — Sachin Tendulkar’s 35th century, Kumble and Muralitharan’s five-wicket hauls, and Sourav Ganguly’s omission for the next match despite 79 fairly crucial runs.
In the middle of those cricketing highlights, some romantic, some political, two tiny incidents made me throw my head back and laugh. First, the sight screen couldn’t be moved because its tyres had been tampered with; second, the super-sopper didn’t work because someone had removed the screws that held its engine together. It was sabotage of the most peculiar nature, and there were whispers that someone from the “enemy camp” had struck. But the funny thing was that fingers were being pointed in every direction because there were too many hostile groups within the never-boring Delhi and Districts Cricket Association (DDCA).
This past week, the same DDCA was in the middle of another, much bigger, controversy that threatened to envelop, perhaps even overthrow, its influential sports committee. And since it was triggered by Delhi cricket’s most celebrated son Virender Sehwag, everyone jumped in — current players, former players, fans, and the city’s cricket journalists (most of whom had run long campaigns against the association that had so far fallen on deaf ears).
The DDCA is an organisation that encourages, even inspires, cynicism. So the whole cricket fraternity was suddenly at its cynical best, remembering only in flashes that this was not just an opportunity to vent its frustration but also to examine, if not redress, some of the association’s systemic ills.
The DDCA functions on a two-tier system. First is the executive committee, elected by its members on the basis of the oft-maligned, universally derided, proxy votes. There have been allegations that some of the voters have been dead for years but little has been done to prove or disprove charges of fake polling. These executive committee members are not usually former cricketers, and are more interested in running the association’s administration (dhanda paani, they like to call it) rather than its on-field affairs.
Then there is the sports committee, which is elected by the affiliated cricket clubs. Constituted 15 years ago to play an advisory role, over time it casually, but carefully, grew in power to virtually take over the running of the game. Things reached a point that it has now become the all-important C in DDCA.
But while most of the charges of nepotism against it may hold water, those who want this committee abolished must also remember two important points:
1. The association’s problems are much older than the sports committee. It’s just a new name for the corruption that has existed in the system for years.
2. It is the only body within the DDCA that, at least constitutionally, represents people directly connected with cricket, and not politicians and businessmen. Ideally, a change within the committee, rather than doing away with it entirely, may be more suitable.
Having said that, there is no doubt that the sports committee needs to be brought down a few hundred notches. Since its members represent the local cricket clubs, allowing them inordinate power in selection matters causes a natural conflict of interest. Each member tries to get his own players into the team in order to maintain his club’s influence, to protect his position as the club’s representative in the DDCA, and because he gets his way so easily, to even slip in a family member or two.
Sehwag, joined by Gautam Gambhir and some of their other colleagues, wanted more than anything to clip the sports committee’s wings. And while the saga ended on Tuesday with lip service from DDCA president Arun Jaitley — who promised to hunt for people with “integrity” and “spine” — it’s logical to assume that Sehwag has been assured that at least a chunk of his demands will be met.
But the problem runs deeper than that. The bigger picture, which may remain ignored, is that the answer should not be a Sehwag-centric stop-gap arrangement. It cannot only be about the Delhi skipper getting his way while he’s playing for the team, but about finding a long-term solution for how badly Delhi cricket is being run.
In fact, since the agenda has been set, why restrict this discussion to Delhi? The degrees may wary — the DDCA is clearly the worst example — but the issues in every state association are strikingly similar. By rising up for whatever reason (his immediate provocation hasn’t yet been revealed), Sehwag has given Indian cricket a chance to introspect — a rare luxury in this frantic Twenty20 age.
The revolt could be forgotten as a small mutiny, but why not dwell on it for a while? Is it only about Delhi, or symptomatic of how Indian cricket, as a whole, is administered?
THE FINANCIAL EXPRESS
The commerce minister announced the government’s trade policy for the next five years on Thursday in the backdrop of ten continuous months of declining exports. Exporters were awaiting the policy keenly—this was their big hope for a massive government bailout that could solve their problems. In the end, though, the policy announcement probably left exporters disappointed. But it did a very good job of recognising reality—the scale of global recession and contraction in India’s export markets haven’t happened in recent history—and followed that reality by recognising the limited amount the government can do under the circumstances. After all, the government cannot make up for markets that have been lost through policy actions—not in monetary terms, in any case. Interestingly, the commerce minister sounded more ambivalent about the green-shoots-of-recovery hypothesis than many of his other ministerial colleagues, perhaps signalling a warning to exporters that difficult times still lie ahead. Perhaps, that is why the minister said that most measures announced would be reviewed after two years, and the trade policy for the remaining three years of the five-year period may be modified at that time. This time around, while extending the timeline of some sops—tax exemptions and duty refund—and introducing some limited new sops like concessions on importing capital goods, the minister chose to rightly focus on the bigger picture.
The real boost to trade will come not through fiscal sops, but through newer markets. And the commerce ministry seems to have understood that. The minister suggested that Indian exporters look to markets beyond the traditional US, EU and Japan, all of which will be sluggish for a while. He pointed to the free-trade agreement with Asean and progress in the Doha Round as two policy initiatives that will boost trade. He reiterated the government’s commitment to special economic zones. That is the right approach over the medium term. Government subsidies and support are simply not enough nor desirable for any length of time. The government has set itself ambitious targets—15% rate of export growth in FY 2011 and doubling of India’s exports by 2014. The government did not quite achieve the targets it announced in its last trade policy five years ago, but then 2008-09 turned out to be an unexpectedly bad year. To meet the next target, the government will need a quick recovery in its major markets in developed countries. It also needs to ensure that exporters use this period of lull to upgrade technologies, cut costs and become more competitive and ready to exploit the turnaround when it comes.
THE FINANCIAL EXPRESS
WHISTLE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
From the point of view of institutional transparency, this week has seen three notable developments so far: Supreme Court judges have finally agreed to make details of their financial assets public; the government has finalised a new law aimed at protecting whistleblowers; and the PM made a speech arguing that the malaise of corruption must be treated immediately and effectively, otherwise it will continue to impede our economic growth. While these developments are part of what’s clearly ‘work in progress’, they point to a positive trend towards transparency that we applaud. To begin with the Supreme Court, Karnataka High Court Justice DV Shylendra Kumar, writing in The Indian Express last week, had openly dissented against the chief justice of India’s stand on declaration of assets, which hitherto amounted to saying there is no provision in the Constitution or in law requiring the apex court’s judges to declare their assets. Now, a meeting between the 23 judges of the country’s highest court (which has eight vacancies at present) has yielded a landmark decision to voluntarily publish their financial assets on the Supreme Court’s website. It is expected that high court judges will follow suit. This is surely a milestone move, but it still leaves the Judges (Declaration of Assets & Liabilities) Bill in media res. The introduction of that Bill had recently faced cross-party opposition in Parliament based on its ‘confidentiality’ clauses that, among other things, gave judges immunity against an inquiry. Critics were especially concerned that the Bill violated the RTI Act. Those concerns have in some part been addressed by the judges’ initiative to make voluntary disclosures. But this doesn’t excuse the executive from initiating a law to this effect.
For a country whose institutions are accustomed to withholding rather than imparting information, the RTI Act marks a giant step forward. In less than half a decade, the Act has transformed citizen expectations. Of the many initiatives announced in a matching direction, a memorable one was the President’s June 4 address to the Lok Sabha in which she promised a public data policy that would put all ‘non-strategic’ information in the public domain, including an independent evaluation office for flagship programmes that would operate at an objective arm’s length from the government. The so-called whistleblowers can play an important role in exposing all that escapes today’s increased public scrutiny, which is what makes the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Bill, 2009, significant. It promises to protect the identities of people who file complaints against central government employees and institutions. One’s only problem is that Union ministers are reportedly outside the purview of the proposed law. Why?
THE FINANCIAL EXPRESS
A BLIP IS NOT A TREND, CAPEX IS DOING WELL
One of the enduring fears of recent times has been that investments are taking a serious beating. Even before the Global Liquidity Crisis (GLC), the woes were that interest rates are too high and the capital markets are dead. The GLC led to these arguments getting almost shrill .
CMIE pointed out in a special report in December 2008 that the financials of Indian corporates were robust and investment plans were on track, save for a few delays. The only serious re-thinking on investments then was on new project announcements. By March 2009, there was strong evidence that fears of investments being in deep danger were highly misplaced. Now once again, doubts are being raised regarding the investments boom. We deal with some of the evidences of the slowdown being forwarded: 1. Production and import of capital goods have been declining. Production declined y-o-y for three consecutive months between March 2009 and May 2009. Imports have been falling since October 2008. If these are evidences to show that investments are slowing down, then how does one reconcile them with the order books of capital goods companies that on an average equal 2.8 years of sales? Bhel has an order book of 4.4 years of its sales. Obviously, then, the fall in production and imports was not because of lack of domestic demand.
It is more likely that the fall in capital goods imports has more to do with the global recession since October ‘08. And, the production of capital goods grew by a handsome 11.8 per cent in June 2009. Has the trend reversed already? Well, the IIP is still being mended and there could be surprises.
2. New investment announcements as seen in CMIE’s capex database were down to a trickle in the April-June 2009 quarter. At Rs 1.2 trillion these were less than a quarter of the average seen in the preceding several quarters and was the lowest level since June 2005.
But, this is misunderstood to be a sign of slowing investments growth. If this does indicate a slowdown in investments, such a slowdown will occur after three years. For, in 2009-10, the same capex database shows a record completion of investment projects worth Rs 5.6 trillion. This is more than twice the projects commissioned in the previous year. And, such a high level of investments growth is expected to continue or even accelerate for at least another two years.
3. A study of 500 projects by rating agency, Crisil, shows that growth in capex spending will decline from 30 per cent per annum during the three years ended 08-09, to 7 per cent per annum in the coming three years. If this is indeed true it implies a very sharp fall in the growth of investments.
But, CMIE’s Prowess and capex databases do not agree with these figures. According to Prowess, Indian corporates have never seen their fixed assets grow by 30 per cent per annum in any three year period at least in the past two decades. And, in the three years from 2006-07 to 2008-09, the growth in fixed assets was a shade over 18 per cent per annum. The growth in the increase in gross fixed assets, which is a better measure of investments, grew by a shade less than 18 per cent per annum in the same three year period.
And, the capex database shows that investments will accelerate in the coming years. The database shows investments worth Rs 10-12 trillion getting commissioned in the next two years compared to the Rs 5.6 trillion worth of investments getting commissioned in the current year.
Given sufficient liquidity, the investments boom will continue for at least a few more years. Historically, interest rates have been less of a bother for enterprise’s hunger for investments. But, lack of liquidity has been a serious dampener of growth. In the mid-1990s, investments, as seen in the growth of gross fixed assets of companies grew at a handsome clip in spite of the sharp increase in interest costs. We use data from CMIE’s Prowess database to make this point.
The GFA of manufacturing companies grew by 20.4 per cent per annum between 1993-94 and 1997-98. That of all non-finance companies (ie including even the mining, construction, utilities and services companies but excluding banks and other finance companies) grew by 18.8 per cent per annum. During this time, interest rates were the highest. Corporates paid twice the rates then compared to the rates paid in recent years. This investment boom was cut short by a severe curtailment of liquidity beginning November 1997. CRR was raised in December 1997 and January 1998. As a result, in contrast to the mid-1990s, during the late-1990s, although interest rates were down to half their levels in the mid-1990s, the GFA growth of the corporates had slowed down to single digits. As liquidity improved in the mid-2000s thanks to access to overseas funds, investments picked up again.
The liquidity crisis in September-October 2008 could have derailed the current investments boom. The timely intervention of RBI to infuse liquidity saved the day and the investments rally has continued after a small, albeit severe interruption.
The author heads the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy
THE FINANCIAL EXPRESS
WHAT TRADE POLICY FAILS TO ACCOUNT FOR ACCOUNT FOR
India’s trade policies usually overlook a critical aspect of exports. They fail to realise that constraints affecting exports are more internal than external. The current policy is not an exception.
What are the internal constraints facing exporters? Many presume that these are confined to access to credit. However, credit is only a part of the exporters’ woes. Manufacturer exporters are affected by all constraints that impact overall manufacturing production. These include erratic supply of raw materials, particularly the imported inputs and intermediates and poor infrastructure.
In recent years, imported input prices have fluctuated sharply. Such fluctuations prevent rational assessment of costs. Exporters suffer from this problem more than others. Since they rely on trade credits for financing production, improper costing impedes assessment of credit requirements as well. However, national trade policies hardly address these difficulties. They also avoid infrastructure bottlenecks such as irregular electricity supplies that upset production schedules and increase costs.
Access to credit—both pre and post-shipment—remains an issue. Liberal credit terms are the need of the hour. Again, national trade policies do not address credit requirements since they are left to the purview of the RBI. While these are domestic supply-side difficulties, external problems pertain to the demand-side. In the context of the current trade policy, external demand is hardly a source of inspiration. However, optimistic news about global recovery suggests that export demand will recover in the medium term.
The policy envisages an export target of $200 billion by 2010-11. A recovery in demand might see this happening fairly easily. But the critical assumptions pertain to years thereafter—export of goods and services are to double by 2014. Furthermore, India’s share in global trade is expected to increase from its current level of 1.5 per cent to 3.0 per cent by 2020.
All these are laudable objectives. But how will they happen? Growth in exports is a function of competitiveness and barriers to market access. Resolution of the second depends on successful negotiations. The issue, again, has not been squarely addressed by the trade policy.
What about competitiveness? Higher competitiveness implies lowering costs without sacrificing quality. Access to imported inputs at cheap rates can partially help. Resolution of other domestic constraints can also make major differences. These include bringing down transportation and storage costs. But these are perhaps too ‘micro’ to be considered within the framework of a ‘macro’ trade policy!
There’s another key aspect to competitiveness whose omission from the policy is rather baffling. Which are the products that will dominate India’s export growth in the years to come? It does not make much sense to hang on to the traditional sectors—leather, textiles, handicrafts and the like—and expect them to perform miracles. It is important to identify products that have comparative advantages vis-à-vis competitors in different markets.
Comparative advantage of India’s exports will vary between markets and products. Unless these facts and details are clearly ascertained, there is little point in introducing sector-specific measures.
Refined petroleum product exports have been increasing at a rapid pace in recent times. They wouldn’t have grown the way they have unless they were competitive in global markets. But are there any conscious efforts to encourage these exports? The policy doesn’t appear to suggest so. Similarly, are there efforts to encourage export of products where India has got fresh market access through regional agreements? It is incorrect to assume that simple grant of access will automatically increase absorption of exports. With India’s competitors also enjoying similar access, competitiveness holds the key to market penetration. And competitiveness can improve through closer analysis and reduction of operation costs. Most of the internal constraints are oft-repeated and discussed. Better facilities and capacities will lower transaction costs. Certain generic improvements such as upgraded export infrastructure will help all product lines. Costs can also reduce through better alignment of national trade documentation practices with those of partner countries. This will help in wider use of bilateral trade pacts, some of which are avoided due to high usage costs.
But lowering transaction costs, again, is probably passé in an atmosphere of sops and subsidies. So export growth remains more a function of hope than economic parameters.
The author is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. These are his personal views
THE FINANCIAL EXPRESS
THE NET EFFECT OF MSP
The government recently increased the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy (de-husked rice) and pulses, two crops which have been in the news for very different reasons. While paddy is in the limelight because of the impact deficient monsoon has had on its sowing—latest data shows that sowing is now around 69 lakh hectares less than last year — pulses have been in the news due to the sharp rise in their retail price over the last few months.
Interestingly,the government has responded to both problems with the same policy instrument—minimum support price. The government raised the minimum support price of paddy by Rs 100 per quintal, while the MSP of pulses was increased by around Rs 240 per quintal. Ostensibly, the MSP of paddy was increased (inclusive of the Rs 50 per quintal bonus) to maximize the government’s rice procurement when the new crop season starts around October 1. This year there is a possibility of production falling by around 10 million tonnes. A production shortfall could push up retail prices. So the government is keen to build stock and control prices.
In the case of pulses, experts believe that the MSP was raised significantly to encourage growers to plant more lentils to recoup some of the losses incurred on account of low paddy sowing and to increase supplies which would bring down retail prices.
However, hiking MSP could have the perverse impact of raising prices further. And this will hurt many farmers who are also (often net) consumers of food. According to a NSSO survey of 2004-05, an average rural Indian spends around 55 paisa out of every rupee spent on food items, of which 18 paisa—the biggest chunk—is spent on cereals and cereal substitutes, while in urban areas, an average Indian spends around 43 paisa of every rupee on food items, again the biggest share being cereals that also include rice and pulses. It’s a tricky situation but hiking MSP is unlikely to be sustainable. In the medium term, the government must invest more on agriculture infrastructure, particularly irrigation.
TRADE POLICY IN DIFFICULT TIMES
The new Foreign Trade Policy (FTP) for the period 2009-14 unveiled by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma on Thursday aims at continuing the thrust of the previous FTP. The new policy is, however, realistic enough to admit that the goals set five years ago remain out of reach. The global recession has caused a sharp contraction in demand in India’s principal markets. The WTO and the IMF expect world trade in volume terms to contract by between 9 per cent and 11 per cent during 2009. In 2004, the FTP had set an ambitious target of doubling India’s share in world trade in five years. That has now been postponed to the year 2020. Given the continuing uncertainties in the world economy, the Commerce Minister has fixed short-term targets. He expects exports to touch $200 billion by 2011 when the five-year FTP will be reviewed. For 2009-10, the export target has been fixed at $168 billion, the level touched last year. The other major objective of generating economic growth and employment remains valid, although in the near term the key task is to arrest and reverse the declining trend in exports. While promising a special thrust to the employment-oriented sectors that have suffered job losses — especially textiles, leather, and handicrafts — the FTP is short on specific measures. Reducing transaction costs, improving infrastructure, and lowering the cost of export credit are key areas that depend on the performance of other ministries.
Exports have been contracting for 10 months in a row. Although the proportion of trade in India’s GDP is not large, the global recession has taken a toll on the external sector. One area of concern the FTP has not highlighted is the fall in imports in tandem with exports. In July, imports fell by about 36 per cent, continuing a decline that started six months ago. Lower non-oil imports indicate a slowdown in the domestic investment. Lower imports have narrowed the merchandise trade deficit in the balance of payments, an outcome that would be favourable had it been achieved through robust export performance. The FTP has extended the tax holiday for export units by one year and the duty refund scheme up to December 2010, besides enhancing the assistance for developing new markets. One other worry relates to growing protectionism abroad, especially in the developed countries. India which has recently concluded trade agreements with South Korea and Asean hopes to play a major role in restarting the Doha development round of talks. Some of India’s export promotion schemes such as the Duty Entitlement Pass Book Scheme are not compatible with the WTO rules and need to be taken up for review.
RESPONSIBLE PROPERTY INVESTMENT
The building sector has a big responsibility and role to play in combating global warming. In 2007, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report estimated that this sector, when it adopts suitable measures, can help reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 30 per cent to 40 per cent. In absolute terms, this amounts to a reduction of two billion tonnes of CO2 emissions during the Kyoto Protocol period. The UNEP has recently come with a tool kit to implement Responsible Property Investment (RPI), an innovative way to finance sustainable practices. The RPI urges corporate investors and fund and asset managers to factor in positive social and environmental attributes of a project in their decision to buy a property or finance construction. Financial performance alone is not adequate to assess a property. Existing regulatory practices and incentives, such as Certified Emission Reduction, focus on builders and the supply side of sustainable buildings, leaving out the buyers. The RPI initiative fills this crucial gap. Genuine changes in the way the multi-trillion-dollar global property industry invests will have a far-reaching environmental impact.
It also pays to be a responsible investor. Studies show that environmentally responsive buildings deliver ‘lower operating expenses and higher net operating incomes.’ A survey done in 2007 revealed that 80 per cent of corporate real estate professionals in the developed countries were willing to pay at least one per cent more rent for sustainable spaces. Against this background, what is clear is that the Indian property sector can do much more for the environment. Right now, it mostly responds to mandatory codes, which are weak and slow in coming. The delay in implementing the Energy Conservation Building Code is a case in point. A lackadaisical approach in adopting such good practices is not only detrimental to the environment; it also hurts a sector that attracts about Rs.20,000 crore (2008-09) in foreign direct investment. Much like the way consumers turn down products that exploit child labour and other unacceptable practices, the RPI initiative will soon compel investors to turn away from properties that are built to dubious environmental standards. In fact, this initiative goes beyond the environment to address issues such as fair labour practices and legal compliance. The Indian property sector must proactively adopt such progressive initiatives, voluntarily disclose its social and environmental performance, and stay in tune with changing investment norms and practices.
LEADER PAGE ARTICLES
INDIAN INTERESTS IN REGIONAL SECURITY
INDIA CANNOT REMAIN IMPERVIOUS TO THE THREAT OF SPREAD OF CHALLENGES FROM AFGHANISTAN TO NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES.
President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Tajikistan on September 2 provides a rare backdrop to pin our thoughts on India’s approach to regional security issues in South and Central Asia. The region is caught in the vortex of security challenges and threats that may appear episodic but are formative. The biggest threat to regional stability originates from Afghanistan in the activities of radical extremists and drug traffickers.
Islamic radicalism and its manifestations of separatism and extremism justifying terrorist methods of conflict add to the potential for instability in Central Asia. At the same time, a high level of strategic uncertainty has also appeared in the region, stemming, paradoxically, from big power rivalries, given the significant increase in its importance as a major source of petroleum resources and as an alternative to the volatile Middle East and Caspian regions.
Slowly but surely, the “outside” actors — principally Russia, the United States, China — are consolidating or increasing their presence in the region through complex modes of relationships that promote cooperation as well as trigger competition. A kind of polarisation of relations between Russia, on the one side, and the U.S., on the other, has been accelerating in the region. The strategic rivalry is compounded by the worsening security in Afghanistan. As militant Islamists infiltrate from across the Afghan border into Tajikistan, regional stability is coming under severe challenge. The result is a state of “strategic uncertainty” as a medium-term prospect.
Certainly, India will be averse to being the promoter or participant in a competing effort. However, it cannot but be affected by the outcome of the ongoing struggle for spheres of influence between the “pro-Russian” and “pro-American” vectors or among contending projects — Russia’s “Eurasia Space” project, America’s “Greater Middle East Initiative,” China’s “Assimilation” project, and the EU’s “Integration” project — and last but not least the potential entanglement of the region in the “World Islamic Caliphate” project. Again, regional security in Central Asia is currently multilevel and unstructured and often contradictory, which compels India to avoid military-political cooperation. Having said that, India, as an affected party, cannot remain impervious to the permanent threat of the spread of challenges from Afghanistan to neighbouring countries. The diplomatic challenge is that India is called upon to promote regional stability and bolster its anti-terrorist efforts without resorting to military-political modes of cooperation. The predicament is similar to China’s.
A redeeming feature of the Central Asian situation is that it is highly unlikely that any of the international players involved in regional projects will undermine the region’s stability, which is already quite fragile. From the Indian perspective, Washington’s continued focus on the “Greater Middle East Initiative” is of some particular interest. The U.S. thrust is on drawing the countries of the region into its sphere of influence as an “area of responsibility,” including Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan that constitute “areas of instability.” No doubt, the directions of the U.S. strategy to solve the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem directly impact on Indian interests.
The President’s visit to Tajikistan will come at a critical juncture when the effect of the Pakistan factor is simultaneously appearing on several templates. Unfortunately, the Indian discourses on the 8-year old Afghan war narrowly focussed on the “war on terror” and remained indifferent to the hidden American agenda of the war. The hidden agenda is the core agenda, which devolves upon the unfinished business of the Cold War and the U.S.’ global dominance in the 21st century.
We almost lost sight of a profound pre-9/11 background to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The U.S. intended to recognise the Taliban regime in Kabul in 1996. Senior Taliban officials were welcomed in the U.S. Big Oil financed the Taliban. The U.S. encouraged the Central Asian states to work with the Taliban. Key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — generously helped the Taliban and accorded it diplomatic recognition. A major NATO ally, Turkey, kept up official consultations with the Taliban regime right till 2001. Indeed, the then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel (who is reportedly being inducted into Richard Holbrooke’s team), used to enjoy privileged access to the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, and actively campaigned for the Taliban’s unique credentials as an indigenous force capable of stabilising Afghanistan, which posed no real threat to regional security.
The U.S. intent to strategically dominate the Central Asian region predates the military intervention in 2001. In sum, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has arrived for an open-ended stay in our region within the framework of the U.S. strategy to make it a global political organisation. How India’s interests will mesh with this geopolitical reality needs to be weighed. Especially so, as the U.S. is encouraging the build-up of Pakistan’s partnership ties with the NATO on a medium-term basis that goes beyond the call of the Afghan war.
Second, Islamism will remain a principal instrument of geo-strategy for the U.S. towards Central Asia, North Caucasus and Xinjiang. The rehabilitation of the Taliban in Afghan mainstream politics is on the cards — even without its formal “disarming.” India needs to factor in what the ascendance of political Islam in the region will entail for its security. Equally, there should be clarity of thinking to differentiate between shades of Islamism. The imperative of seriously engaging Russia, China, Iran and the Central Asian states on issues of regional security as powers affected by extremism emanating from the AfPak belt cannot but be stressed.
Ms Patil’s visit to Dushanbe takes place at a profound juncture when several tendencies are converging. No doubt, the U.S. hopes to manipulate in the coming weeks the creation of a power equation in Kabul, which is completely amenable to Washington’s agenda of reconciliation with the Taliban. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband underscored in his recent speech at the NATO headquarters that the U.S. and Britain are increasingly open-minded on reconciling with the Taliban. However, the Taliban’s regional acceptability still remains a hurdle. There has to be a broad regional acceptability. Washington can count on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to acquiesce in the process, apart from Pakistan, which roots for the Taliban’s reconciliation. Uzbekistan is a key player in the Amu Darya region — no less than Pakistan in the Pashtun heartland. An axis with Tashkent in northern Afghanistan and with Islamabad in southern and eastern Afghanistan will be what the U.S. needs as it addresses the Taliban’s reconciliation and return to mainstream political life in Afghanistan.
However, the U.S. is yet to strike the mother of all “grand bargains” critical to establish the Taliban’s regional acceptability — engaging Iran. Iran is a game changer on the Afghan chessboard — and potentially for Central Asian security. Tehran may be willing to work with the U.S. on the stabilisation of Afghanistan provided Washington makes a comprehensive engagement of Iran as a regional power.
India faces a strange regional security paradigm. On the one hand, anticipating the nearing endgame in the Afghan war and the inevitable shift in the regional alignments that may ensue as the U.S. presses ahead with its strategy towards Central Asia, Pakistan has done some smart geopolitical positioning. It can today take advantage of: a virtual U.S. guarantee against any “coercive diplomacy” on India’s part; burgeoning ties with the NATO; active regional diplomacy vis-À-vis Iran, Russia and the Central Asian states; and an “all-weather friendship” with China. Ironically, Pakistan has become a key interlocutor for regional countries today precisely due to its influence over radical Islamist groups. The “frontline” Central Asian states, Russia and Iran are under compulsion to seek out Pakistan not so much as the “epicentre of terrorism” but as an interlocutor in seeking a practical solution to the issues affecting their national security. They have formed bilateral and regional formats for engaging Pakistan on this front — including Russia. Meanwhile, Pakistan will remain an irreplaceable ally for the U.S. in the effective pursuit of its Central Asia strategy and the U.S. is under compulsion to strengthen Pakistani military capability. However, Pakistan continues to take a differentiated approach towards militant groups that threaten India’s security but does not confront the U.S. interests directly. There are limits beyond which the U.S. will not press India’s case in Islamabad.
In the coming months, as the U.S.’ political engagement of the Taliban gains traction, Washington will surely expect New Delhi to keep the Indian profile in Kabul below the parapet. All the above confronts India with a regional security paradigm with contradictory tendencies. Clearly, there is need to keep the lines of communication open with Pakistan — call it ‘dialogue’ or ‘exchanges’ or ‘consultations’ — no matter what our machos noisily demand. A saving grace is that, in retrospect, New Delhi rejected any Indian military deployment in Afghanistan, though sections of our strategic community rooted for some adventure in the Hindu Kush.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)
ALITS, THE POOR AND THE NREGA
BEFORE TINKERING WITH THE NREGA IN THE NAME OF REFORMS, THE GOVERNMENT MUST ENSURE THAT THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE SCHEME ARE STRENGTHENED. NO CHANGE SHOULD BE INTRODUCED WITHOUT A RIGOROUS DEBATE THAT CENTRALLY INVOLVES ITS PRIMARY CONSTITUENTS.
ARUNA ROY AND NIKHIL DEY
As the Union Ministry of Rural Development attempts to craft the architecture of what is being referred to as “NREGA 2,” the principles that constitute the basic foundation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act must be kept in mind. The NREGA evolved out of a political response to a people’s movement and the articulated needs of rural workers. It put the people’s right to seek work in a legal framework, and approached development through the economic and social empowerment of the poor and the marginalised. The focus was clear: work must be provided on demand. The assets created should benefit the poorest and most marginalised communities first. The work itself should create and sustain favourable conditions for providing minimum wage employment in a transparent and accountable manner. Plans, and even new programmes, should be suggested and endorsed by the people. With a large increase in fund flow, the gram sabha and the panchayat is finally in a position to actually build participatory democracy, and people’s planning can be developed, as Kerala did along with fund devolution.
Despite all the criticism with respect to corruption and leakages, the NREGA has actually drawn attention to the weaknesses of the delivery mechanism. And it has made a host of different sets of people apply their collective skills to repair them. It is true, however, that the achievements of the NREGA have been uneven: in many States even the job cards are yet to be properly issued. Its foundations still being weak, any immediate change must not burden the fragile success, and must strengthen its basic structure. Most important, no change should be introduced without rigorous debate, centrally involving its primary constituents.
Unfortunately, the first change was slipped through on July 22, 2009, when Schedule I of the NREGA was amended to allow the “provision of irrigation facility, horticulture plantation, and land development facilities to land owned by households belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes or below poverty line families or to beneficiaries of land reforms or to the beneficiaries of the Indira Awaas Yojana of the Government of India, or that of the small or marginal farmers as defined in the agriculture debt waiver and debt relief Scheme 2008.” (the amendments made are marked in italics). The definition of small and marginal farmer used here implies that anyone who owns up to five acres of arable land (over 80 per cent of farmers come in this category) will be eligible for assets on their land.
By removing the focus of such subsidies from Dalits and the poor, this deceptively benevolent looking amendment could fundamentally change the course of the NREGA. Yet it came about with no public consultation or debate: in fact without even placing the matter before the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC). What is its potential impact?
With all its shortcomings and failings, the limited benefit provided by the NREGA has been an important support structure for the poorest and most marginalised rural communities. Wage work has been open to all those who offer to do casual manual work on eight categories of work — most of which are designed to strengthen the natural resource base of those who are most dependent on such community assets for their livelihoods.
At a meeting with a group of farmers including small and marginal farmers who work on NREGA worksites, there was unanimous agreement that the amendment would place the controls of the NREGA in the hands of the landed peasantry. Another apprehension that was strongly articulated was the potential disintegration of the strong transparency and accountability provisions that have been woven into the NREGA, as collective work on community land is replaced by work on individual landholdings. Dalits and the below poverty line group, however, had a sharper and personalised reaction. One of them said: “We have just begun to get something out of this Act, and it seems everyone wants to find ways of taking it away from us. Dalits and the poorest farmers will be pushed out, and the landless will be left developing assets for others.”
So far, only a fraction of poor and Dalit farmers have been sanctioned works. There is no justification to include others, and move to the second generation when the priority group is still to be covered.
At a meeting at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi on August 20, Union Minister of Rural Development C.P. Joshi said the Ministry welcomed “discussion, debate and dissent.” Having received objections, he made the welcome announcement that the amendment would be kept in abeyance and re-examined, keeping in mind its potential impact on Dalits and the poor. However, the amendment itself needs to be withdrawn or suspended immediately, at the least, till lands of the first category are saturated.
One of the arguments used against the NREGA is that it has made farming difficult because farm labour have to be paid higher wages. This complaint is in fact one of the strongest endorsements the NREGA could receive. It is a law designed to support the poorest, and this criticism indicates that the NREGA has increased the bargaining power of rural labourers.
What about the farmer’s problem? The severe crisis in the agricultural sector must be addressed, and the viability of farming in India ensured. There are a slew of measures that are needed to ameliorate distress and increase the vibrancy of farming. These should include better support prices, more rational policies in international trade, special programmes and direct subsidies for agricultural revival including the building of farm ponds on every farm, better credit policies and effective crop insurance. Questions of credit, trade, and technology must be re-examined keeping the farmer’s long-term interests in mind. However, subsidising farmers through lower wages for agricultural labour, or transferring a share of resources meant for those who are worst-off in rural India, is the most unjust way to help the Indian farmer. The legitimate concerns of the farmers need to be separately addressed. The fragile success of an employment programme cannot bear the burden of lifting the entire rural economy out of the morass.
At a time when the spectre of drought looms large, the primary focus must be on providing work and wages on time. The NREGA is the first law in the country that put economic and social rights in a legal framework. Establishing such an alliance between the poorest citizen and the state on these most basic components, is the real blueprint of the NREGA.
We need to make sure this foundation is strong, and then carefully begin to construct NREGA II. There are strong legal provisions within the law that a citizen can initiate to demand work on 15 days, payment of wages in 15 days, and redress of grievances within seven days. In case of failure, workers can demand unemployment allowance, compensation and imposition of penalties.
Instead of trying to tinker with second-generation reforms, the government needs to first demonstrate that it can ensure an effective response to these demands across the country. An alliance between the ordinary citizen and the state is the roadmap of not just the NREGA, but of democratic governance.
(Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are social activists.)
ACROSS ANDHRA PRADESH, MYRIAD LITTLE BUSINESSES HAVE GONE BUST.
Thikkaswamy’s business is missing out on the recovery. It never gained from any stimulus package either. “I’m sunk,” he told us. Thikkaswamy is a pasukapari — a professional cowherd or caretaker, who looks after livestock entrusted to him by the villagers of Harekal in Andhra’s Kurnool district. “I was tending about 250 head of cattle,” he says. “People paid me, on average about Rs. 60 a month per cow to look after their animals.” On this Rs. 2 a day per animal, Thikkaswamy grazed, cleaned up and cared for the cows and buffaloes. “That brought in Rs. 15,000 a month, roughly.” With so many animals, he hired four men whom he paid Rs. 100 a day each. Leaving him, too, with about Rs. 3,000 a month plus a few fringe benefits by way of a little milk, manure, and the like.
Then came the price rise. People began withdrawing their cattle from the herd to save on the Rs. 60. With prices of almost everything rising, including fodder, Thikkaswamy’s earnings eroded. Monsoon failure struck next, sharpening fodder scarcity. A tractor load now costs around Rs. 11-12,000, ten times what it was some months ago. Then as both water and fodder disappeared, people began selling their cattle in distress. The pasukapari’s herd shrank to around 150. He could no longer pay his workers. “I am losing money every day,” he complains.
So Thikkaswamy sacked his four assistants and replaced them with young boys who could be paid half, or just Rs. 50 a day. “But fodder prices keep rising and where’s the water? I cannot sustain this much longer.” His is a tiny enterprise. But there are countless thousands of Thikkaswamys (and their assistants) in India’s villages, which are also home to some 600 million farm animals. Across Andhra Pradesh, in this water-starved period, myriad other little businesses too, have gone bust. If the state has averted great disaster, it is because a strong NREGs and rice at Rs. 2 a kilo have worked well to provide lifejackets.
The little businesses, though, have suffered anyway. In Palacherla village in Anantapur district’s Rapthadu mandal, Narayanamma fears her “Chicken Centre” won’t survive. “Chicken has gone up from Rs. 60 to over Rs. 100 a kilo,” she says glumly. So her weekly sales have fallen from 70 to less than 30 kg. “Besides, all items were getting costlier even before the drought. We eat less of everything at home. What to do if kandi pappu (tur dal) costs Rs. 100 a kilo?”
That price rise has hit the mid-day meals at schools and squeezed the SHGs that provide them at Rs. 3 per schoolchild each day. At the High School in A. Gokulapadu village of Kurnool, the SHG women say “We were getting 5-6 quintals of rice a month. Now just 2 or 3.” Which means servings are smaller. And the high cost of kandi pappu means the sambhar has become more watery. Any margin this SHG made on its service has vanished.
The diminutive shops that dot the villages all the way from Anantapur and Kurnool districts in Rayalaseema to Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda in Telangana, report huge falls in turnover. “Whatever people earn goes on food and even that they buy much less,” says Sujathamma. At her little store, a rickety cabin in Bundipally village of Mahbubnagar district, daily turnover “has fallen from Rs. 1000 to around Rs. 200.” B. Anjaneyulu, a borewell repairer, has “not been called in to repair a single one in three months.” His neighbour Jangalamma’s “hotel,” (a very small dhaba really), “used to have a turnover of Rs. 1,200 a day. Now down to Rs. 300.” Along the road, we run into a travelling peddler and his wife selling metal utensils by weight. “We used to sell around seven or eight kilos at Rs. 20 a kilo. We’re down to about four kilos a day.”
In Marlabeedu, Sreenivasalu Rao, a milk buyer collects “less than 100 litres a day in this village where it should be 300. Many of my clients have sold their cattle in distress.” One of those is M. Ramanna. “He used to sell me several litres a day. Now he buys milk from me.” Ramanna smiles: “I had to sell all my cows, that’s why.” He buys half a litre and walks off.
The rural towns show a similar pattern. In Kadiri town of Anantapur, those running the biggest “cotton cut-piece store,” say “we should have seen a daily turnover of more than Rs. 20,000 in this season. Now it’s under Rs.7,000 a day. Last year this time, we would not have had the time to talk to you.” (Families traditionally buy new clothes at the time of the Ganesh festival.) But now “I fear a day when we won’t open the cash box even once.” Nearby, the Satya Sai General Store owner P.S. Vishnu says: “price rise hit people before the drought did. They just stopped buying. ‘fancy items’ like costumes, soaps, powder, shampoo — they’re not selling at all. Our turnover has fallen by half. My seven employees were on their toes last year. Look at them now, no work to do.” And even the wine store — Sri Lakshmi Venkateswara Wines — says its turnover has collapsed “from between Rs. 80,000 to Rs. 1 lakh a day to around Rs. 40,000 a day.”
One sector, though, is doing well. Salesmen at what is perhaps Kadiri’s biggest pharmacy say “last month, we were selling goods worth Rs. 14,000 a day. Now that’s Rs. 19,000.” And the highest selling items: “Cardiac and BP related medicines.” Other pharmacies are not losing any money, either. “Maybe,” says one activist, “health is wealth after all.”
In Kodumuru town in Kurnool, M. Krishnamurthy speaking for the devastated community of weavers says: “Drought? Our drought came before your drought. Weavers have been suffering for years with no sales, no bank loans, captured by dalals. Our drought is more than a drought of rain. The latter only made things worse.”
It is almost 100 years ago that a 20-year-old lad from the north west of England, called Arthur Stanley Jefferson boarded a ship bound for America with a comedy troupe. The troupe’s main attraction was a rising London-born music hall star called Charles Chaplin. These two British lads were going to revolutionise film forever.
Though Chaplin took fewer than two years to find a foothold in the burgeoning new art form known as cinema, Jefferson needed a further 20 years, a name change to Stan Laurel, and being teamed with a studio player called Oliver Hardy to cement what is still regarded as the foremost comedy double act of all time.
I first “discovered” them, like most people, from the endless showings on television when I was about six years old and became — and remain — totally smitten. Back then, one of the joys of the summer and Christmas holidays was to be able to tune in to BBC TV, see fabulous double bills and hear the whole family laugh together. Today, alas, there are fewer telly programmes that can be a shared family experience, and classic comedy shorts are rarely to be found despite the plethora of channels.
Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick routines, simple dialogue and plots (mainly consisting of turning everyday tribulations into Herculean trials of endurance) were easily appealing to a kid. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the choreography of those routines and, more importantly, the sophistication of the sparse, spoken gags. At a time when screwball comedies were delivering comic verbal duelling at a pace that still impresses, Laurel and Hardy relied on the simplicity of a good line and an exasperated look directly into the camera.
This breaking of the fourth wall is as delightful and involving to a contemporary audience as it was intended to be almost a century ago. Stan and Ollie knew that to speak to the audience was to shatter the illusion and that too many glances would render them impotent. But catching Ollie’s eye after the umpteenth brick has landed on his head still comes as an unexpected surprise.
Much has been made of the fact that the Stan and Ollie characters were basically children in adult bodies, that they represented more innocent times, with simpler values. However, much of their output was under the dark clouds of the Great Depression and prohibition — hardly innocent and simple times. They represented the ordinary guy with no handout, no education and seemingly no prospects, who nevertheless strove forward dealing with life’s absurdities in an even more absurd manner.
The childlike curiosity of Stan — pressing the button marked “Do Not Press” — is the curiosity we’re born with but society knocks out of us. The pomposity of Ollie — one we all develop to varying degrees — is the riposte to society’s pressure to be an achiever. Both attitudes are constantly and remorselessly pricked in their movies. However, for me, the most engaging aspect of their movies is their relationship. Long before “The Simpsons” suggested that family dysfunction did not necessarily lead to decay, Laurel and Hardy’s on-screen friendship endured, no matter what comic calamities and infighting attempted to derail it. Part of the comfort in watching them was to know that by the end of the movie, the relationship would remain intact. Also, unlike Chaplin, there was no room for pathos. Stan Laurel was a writer and director as well, but only interested in comedy. Whereas Chaplin’s social themes and political thoughts were played out in his films, Laurel and Hardy’s sole focus was to make us laugh. Arguably, they rode the transition from silent movies to talkies better than anyone else and, more importantly, their relationship endured.
I rediscovered Laurel and Hardy about 10 years ago when I first invested in a plasma screen television. I set about watching my favourite films, enveloped in surround sound and crystal clear DVD technology. “Blade Runner,” “Apocalypse Now” and the James Bond films never felt so good. The biggest surprise, however, were those old black-and-white classics that I had only ever seen on a normal-sized telly at my parents’ house. Celebrated Laurel and Hardy shorts (such as “Blotto,” where Stan and Ollie get drunk on cold tea; “Busy Bodies,” where they make expected mayhem at a saw mill; and the feature classics “Sons of the Desert” and “Way Out West”) all seemed somehow funnier and more eventful on a big screen with big sound.
Now I have the opportunity to truly view these masterpieces as they were intended, on a cinema screen, with live entertainment and as a shared experience with an appreciative audience. As a benefit for the Slapstick film festival in Bristol in the west of England next month (Septeember) we decided to mark the 80th anniversary of Laurel and Hardy’s switch from silent film-making to sound and are lucky enough to have as a guest one of the few people surviving to have worked with Stan and Ollie — Jean Darling, an original member of the “Our Gang” series of films. By being in her presence, one can claim one degree of separation from the beloved comedy duo themselves.
(Sanjeev Bhaskar hosts Laurel and Hardy’s Comedy Mayhem at Bristol’s Colston Hall on September 9, as a benefit for the Slapstick film festival www.slapstick.org.uk )
ALEXANDRIA’S NEW LIBRARY TRIES CONSUMERISM
It was meant to be the library that recaptured the glories of Alexandria, providing a new home for the world’s knowledge almost 2,000 years after its predecessor was burned to the ground.
But whereas the old Egyptian library offered a rich diet of philosophy and history to the greatest thinkers of its age, including Euclid, Archimedes, and Herophilus, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina is attracting harsh criticism for serving up very different fare. A row has erupted over the decision to build a food court at the heart of Egypt’s self-proclaimed “window on the world,” with critics accusing the Bibliotheca’s trustees of selling out the library’s venerable legacy for short-term profit. Among the charges levelled at the £135m Bibliotheca, which opened seven years ago, is the accusation that secret plans are being hatched to allow McDonald’s to open a branch inside the complex, and that the library is putting brash consumerism ahead of serious scholarship.
Library authorities have denied the claims, insisting the food area is needed for the annual influx of 800,000 visitors.
Six firms have got licences to open stores in the food area and the library insists McDonald’s is not among them. Sharif Riad, PR director, said the court was sensitively designed with no logos visible.
But in a country that has seen multinational corporations proliferate rapidly in recent years the library’s assurances have left many unconvinced. Commentators link the invasion of brand names into Egypt’s most sacred cultural institution with broader ties between capitalists and politicians and the ensuing corruption scandals.
“I don’t know why everything promising, everything good, in this country must be destroyed by the government ...with their greed and cooperation with the businessmen,” said Zeinobia, a prominent blogger. Ismail Alexandrani, behind a 5,000-strong Facebook group vowing “cultural resistance” to the food court, wrote: “This is about money, money, money.”
The library’s building costs have also been criticised as a misuse of resources in a country with widespread poverty.
THE ASIAN AGE
A PATHBREAKING MOVE BY JUDGES
In the wake of a prolonged nationwide public debate, the judges of the Supreme Court decided by consensus on Wednesday to make their assets public. This is a history-making step by the highest level of the country’s judiciary: not only the assets of the judges themselves, but also those of their spouses and dependants, will be posted on the Supreme Court’s website. In terms of a resolution that they had passed in 1997, the Supreme Court judges were already declaring their assets to the Chief Justice of India. This too is a form of subjecting oneself to scrutiny. But the nation’s current mood, and the pathbreaking appeal of the Right to Information Act, almost demanded that the judges of the highest court not only declare their assets but also make them public. The debate on the issue was regrettably polemical, sanctimonious, and at times bitter.
Someone not familiar with Indian conditions could well have gained the view that the higher judiciary in this country was marked by corruption when, in fact, the opposite is widely accepted to be true. The first salvo was fired by MPs in the Rajya Sabha. Irrespective of the parties they belonged to, they protested against Section 6(1) of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, according to which their declaration of assets made before the competent authority was not to be made public or be put into question by any citizen, court or authority. This was in line with the thinking of the Chief Justice of India, who publicly expressed the view that judges could be drawn into vexatious or frivolous procedures by a disgruntled litigant if assets were to be made public. The MPs didn’t accept this point of view and the government was unable to move forward with the bill. The debate has mostly centred on two questions. One, if legislators must make their assets public before they become eligible to contest elections, why shouldn’t judges; and if judges are clean, why should they worry? Two, if judges draw their salary from the public exchequer, they should be accountable to the public. In the international discussion on the broad theme of judicial corruption, there is as yet no clarity on whether judges should be treated on par with other public servants, such as elected representatives and members of the executive. Indeed, only a few countries have specific legislation in respect of judges. American judges do declare their assets. Apparently, vexation from interested parties — which can impact the independence of the judiciary — has not been a problem. However, in this country, corruption has not been an issue in the higher judiciary although assets have not been posted in the public domain.
While American judges have not faced any difficulties on account of making their assets public, conditions everywhere are not the same. Now that the judges of our Supreme Court have agreed to go the same way, only time will tell if this has been a step in the right direction. Attorney-general Goolam Vahnavati has welcomed the new step, but has also expressed apprehension about how things will turn out. The Supreme Court judges have agreed to go public with their assets, but their unanimous resolution notes that the judges will not entertain any query relating to their assets and liabilities and over the manner of its increase or decrease. This would suggest that they remain concerned about malicious litigation. Besides, the caveat entered by the judges appears to be in line with the section of the proposed legislation that drew the ire of the MPs in the Upper House.
THE ASIAN AGE
G.V. RAMANJANEYULU & KAVITHA KURUGANTI
Some recent developments in India’s agri-related laws might make former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s infamous dream of seeing "only 15 per cent of Indians in villages" come true much faster than anyone thought possible. Moves are afoot to ensure large-scale displacement of farmers and agricultural workers — the most blatant move is already underway in Andhra Pradesh, under chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. An experiment under the garb of "farmers cooperative" was approved by the state Cabinet recently, not very different from what his rival Chandrababu Naidu attempted some years ago. The arguments too are old: small holdings lead to low productivity, low income, low investments and, this vicious cycle goes on.
This argument ignores the fact that more than 900 scientists from 110 countries have recently concluded an international process, called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), pointing out that small-holding ecological farming is the way forward. We are also familiar with the subsidies that prop up intensive, large-scale models of farming elsewhere, despite claims of efficiency. Numerous studies have confirmed the inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per unit.
A study from Turkey shows that farms less than a hectare are 20 times more productive than farms that are over 10 hectares! But why should anyone be looking at such data when the sizes of land holdings and their alleged low productivity is used as an excuse to grab land?
This is what the Andhra Pradesh chief minister is proposing: get farmers to pool their land into a cooperative/society/company. Farmers sell their land to the new entity in return for some shares, which will then take up all agricultural operations and pay dividends. Farmers can exit by selling their share to existing members and, if there are no takers, government will buy the shares at a pre-determined market price. Land cannot be obtained back. Though many questions remain unanswered — what will happen to the farmers and how will they take part in any decision-making? What will tenant farmers and agricultural workers do? Why will land not be returned to the farmers? — the state Cabinet has decided to take up a pilot project in 50 villages by investing Rs 5,000 crores and there are moves to introduce a new legislation along these lines.
To begin with, the entire reasoning that bashes small holdings is faulty. Two, an experiment taken up by Mr Naidu some years ago along these lines ("Kuppam Project") failed in delivering the promised benefits and had environmental repercussions. Most importantly, this move will take away land permanently from farmers and is truly an exit mechanism.
Incidentally, it is in Andhra Pradesh that the world’s largest ecological farming project is unfolding, supported by the state’s rural development department, which is proving that farming can indeed be made viable through alternative technologies and people’s organisations.
This programme, yielding results on more than 20 lakh acres, all small and marginal holdings, has attracted great attention already. Is it by design that the state government chose to ignore such vastly successful models and set about "to make farming viable" through proven-to-have-failed models?
While this is happening in Andhra Pradesh, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu a bill was introduced in the Assembly and supposedly passed on a day when 30 bills were passed without much discussion. This new legislation, called Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Council Act 2009, is about setting up a council that will be empowered to inspect agricultural institutions, courses of study, examinations etcetera, all to ensure that standards are conformed to.
"At present, there is no law to provide for the regulation of agricultural practice… it’s been considered necessary to regulate agricultural practice and registration of agricultural practitioners…" states the object of the legislation. Sounds inane enough? However, the law says that no one can render agricultural services unless his/her name is registered in the "Tamil Nadu Agricultural Practitioners Register" with a formal agricultural qualification from Tamil Nadu (outsiders can register within 90 days of their entry!).
In a country which has always had a rich tradition of farming based on an oral and experiential knowledge and in a state where paddy productivity levels are recorded to have been upto 13 tonnes per hectare (in 1807 in Coimbatore) without qualified agriculture scientists, this move is an outright rejection of the vast untapped knowledge of our farm women and men.
Worse, in the name of regulating agricultural services, this seems to be a way of controlling the farmer-to-farmer spread of ecological farming in the state, which is led by farmers themselves, their networks and other civil society groups. Tamil Nadu is also the state where the anti-genetically modified protests against Tamil Nadu Agriculture University’s unthinking capitulation to agro-MNCs like Monsanto are running at a high-pitched level. A connection between the resistance movement and this new law cannot be ruled out.
This new regulation of "agriculture services" will effectively provide more and more markets for particular kinds of technologies at the expense of farmers, as the advisories will be driven by the mindsets that prevail in the agriculture education/research system in the country and the commercial interests of the agri-services to be set up. This route of a "qualified" advisory system will obviously facilitate conflicting interests and help in improving exclusivity of "markets" by reducing competition, while ignoring the causes for the current agrarian crisis. While a law of this kind should regulate services provided by agricultural research and agri-business bodies to ensure accountability for their services, especially in relation to economic, environmental and social viability and sustainability of farming, it should not be used as a weapon to penalise farmers and civil society groups which are trying to promote sustainable farming.
These two initiatives in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are not to be seen as isolated attempts to create more markets for agri-businesses, but as an orchestrated move towards an unwritten "exit policy" for farmers.
These two moves will set a bad precedent for the rest of the country. Given that agriculture is contributing a lower and lower share in the country’s gross domestic product, its importance in the mainstream economic development model might be diminishing for many policymakers. However, this is a question of livelihood for millions of Indians — without ensuring access and control over basic productive resources and without moving towards sustainable production technologies, the current saga of agrarian distress, including suicides, will only increase.
Such legislations and programmes cannot be brought in without comprehensive debates and without the government clearly stating its vision for farming livelihoods and how they would be liable when things go wrong.
Dr G.V. Ramanjaneyulu is the executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and Kavitha Kuruganti is a trustee of Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab.
THE ASIAN AGE
A MATTER OF TIME
My father was an atheist, a sceptic and a rationalist. In short, a man of science and reason. One of his dying desires was to learn how to use a computer so that he could get on to the Internet and explore the wealth of information.
His knowledge came from books that he would buy from second-hand bookshops, pick up from my shelves and borrow from the various libraries he was a member of. He could often answer questions for which I would have to do a Google search. For example, the name of the planet shining at a given time, when to go to the beach to be just in time for the high tide, how to set the sundial we have outside our house, and which festival will fall on what date.
Diwali is early this year — compared to last year. It’s on Saturday, 17 October; last year it was on 28 October. All I had to do to get this information was get on to the Net. The first hit gave me the Diwali dates till the year 2022. My father, however, used to get the dates by looking them up in what I call his little blue book: "Lahiri’s Indian Ephemeris of Planets’ Positions".
An ephemeris is a set of charts that enable one to determine the position of astronomical objects in the sky at a given time. I never bothered to look inside the book until recently when a friend remarked that all festivals are early this year and Diwali is on a Saturday ("One holiday lost", she said), and I recalled how my father used to get the dates.
I found a copy of the 2008 edition (it’s updated every year) among my books. At first glance, the 180-page Ephemeris looks more like a scientific journal — page after page of complicated astronomy symbols, numbers and charts. On closer scrutiny, there is a mine of interesting information on the positions of the sun and the moon, stars and planets, on sunrise and sunset, and of course holidays. In fact it is the last word on festivals and holidays. And it also tells you about the marriage season and supposedly auspicious days based on the Hindu signs of the zodiac.
Until the mid-50s, there was no attempt to unify the various calendars being used in India. The administrative services largely used the Gregorian calendar, handed down from the British. There were also many religious calendars — the Islamic calendar is based on a lunar cycle and the Christians used the Gregorian calendar based on the solar cycle. The Hindus, however, had many religious calendars. Each state had its own set of charts that it followed to declare the dates for Hindu festivals and religious holidays. The result was total confusion.
In 1952, the government set up a Calendar Reform Committee to unify these assorted Hindu calendars in a scientific manner. The committee was chaired by eminent physicist Meghnad Saha, also the founder of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta that was later named after him.
In a four-year-long study, it identified 33 Hindu calendars that where in use in India — all of which were variants of the ancient treatise of Indian astronomy called Surya Siddhanta. The date of this treatise is uncertain — somewhere around 500 CE, at a time when Indian astronomy was co-enriched by advances in Babylonian and Greek astronomy. You will find references to it if you read about the 5th century Indian mathematician astronomer Aryabhata. The text describes a luni-solar calendar, a type of calendar that takes into account the phase of the moon as well as aspects of the solar cycle.
The committee sought to standardise an Indian system of calendars — to try and reconcile traditional practices with standard astronomical concepts. From what I gather from the blue book — and many subsequent searches on the net — it must have been a complicated and, perhaps, also controversial exercise, a mix and match of science and cultures, of astronomy and religion.
Their recommendation was to use the Gregorian solar calendar for civil purposes, and they created a unified luni-solar calendar for Hindu religious use. While this attempt at unification may not have entirely succeeded (different regions still adopt slightly different calendars), it was certainly a progressive step in the right direction.
Like calendars, most Indian cities used to keep their own time. Later, there was Calcutta time and Bombay time with an hour’s difference between the two, and after the British East India Company introduced railways to India in 1853, there was the in-between Madras time (also called "Railway time") — perhaps because the British had set up an observatory there. Every day, at a fixed time, the railways would send out — via telegraph — a time signal to synchronise clocks.
The calendar reform committee included a man named N.C. Lahiri, who was then in charge of what is now known as the Positional Astronomy Centre in Calcutta and who also published the first edition of the Indian Ephemeris, and whose 2008 edition is what I am referring to.
It’s not a book for a lay reader — in fact it’s quite technical, full of intimidating symbols, numbers and charts. But if you want to know the name of the shining object next to the moon, when is the next eclipse and the best place to view it, or have a basic interest in astronomy, it’s worth the Rs 80. If you are inclined towards astrology, it also tells you how to "erect" your birth chart. But most of all, it’s the last word on holidays.
Shekhar Bhatia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
SAYING ‘YES’ TO DISCLOSURE
WISDOM PREVAILS AT THE SUPREME COURT
It augurs well for the judiciary that the Supreme Court judges have now agreed to disclose their assets. Undoubtedly, it will boost transparency and accountability in the judiciary and enhance the people’s respect for it. The fact that all 23 serving judges led by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan agreed at Wednesday’s meeting to make their assets public shows that public respect for the judiciary was important in a healthy democracy. The decision comes after months of public debate over the issue. The chorus for transparency in the judiciary became shrill with the media, the public, parliamentarians, former CJIs and three sitting high court judges themselves favouring asset disclosure. The Tribune has been consistently maintaining in these columns that leaving a few, most judges are known for their integrity and character. It was thus unclear why some of them were feeling shy of being transparent.
The demand for asset disclosure should be seen in the light of reports of misconduct and corruption among some judges in high courts and lower judiciary. These seem to have eroded the judiciary’s fair image and reputation. As most judges are believed to be honest, their reluctance to disclose assets had created an erroneous impression among the public that they had something to hide. Worse, the recently aborted Judges’ (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, 2009, was an anomaly in an age of transparency and the Right to Information. Clause 6 of the Bill sought to keep such information out of the public domain. No wonder, MPs opposed the Bill tooth and nail and the Centre promised to bring forward a new legislation in deference to their wishes.
Today, judges exercise more power than any other organ of the state and, therefore, they need to respect the principle that they are accountable to, besides their conscience, the Constitution and the people. It is this logic that guided the apex court to order candidates contesting Parliament and Assembly elections to declare their assets while filing their nomination papers. In a democracy, the people have the right to know whether ministers, civil servants and judges have acquired assets disproportionate to their income. None can seek immunity from this. The judges’ decision to disclose their assets is welcome. They ought to follow it up by accepting the Right to Information Act — at least on the administrative side of the judiciary. Enough safeguards can be provided in the RTI law to ensure that its independence does not get compromised in any way.
CORRUPTION IS EATING INTO THE SYSTEM
When Dr Manmohan Singh advised the CBI and Anti-Corruption Bureaux officials on Wednesday to “go for the big fish”, implicit in the advice was the lament that right now, it is only the small fry which get caught. The sharks are so ruthless and mighty that they tear the net into pieces. This malaise has become so serious that the Prime Minister’s words must be put into action right away. The wholesale purveyors of corrupt practices have not only made India an unattractive destination for investment, they have also hampered its economic growth. Every year, India figures embarrassingly high on the list of corrupt countries where it is difficult to do business. Corruption also creates an iniquitous environment where the honest and the week stand to suffer. The Prime Minister has a clean reputation and has the immaculate moral authority to launch a cleansing operation. That will be his abiding contribution to the betterment of the country.
Naturally, the clean-up has to start from the top echelons of the system. If the rich and powerful get away with it, those on the lower levels of the pyramid are also emboldened to pull the strings and bend the law. Many politicians are notorious for not only being unscrupulous themselves but also patronising others of their ilk. Many bureaucrats, even at senior levels, tend to collaborate with them. The ripple effect spreads corruption all around in the country. The stink of corruption is pervasive.
The big fish can be netted only by the agencies which are scrupulously honest and conscientious themselves. Unfortunately, there are very few which enjoy that kind of clean reputation. The CBI itself, which is the country’s premier investigation agency and has the capability to deliver, is at times spoken in derisive terms when it has to deal with the big fish. The Prime Minister’s advice that its men must do their job without fear and favour should be taken by them seriously. By doing so they will earn the people’s respect and gratitude.
DEATH OF A KENNEDY
A SENATOR GIFTED WITH NEGOTIATING SKILLS
With the death of Edward Moore Kennedy late on Tuesday at 77, the last of the charismatic Kennedy clan passed into history. Senator Tedd Kennedy, as he was popularly known, will be remembered for his impressive achievements in health care, civil rights, education, immigration and many other areas. In the words of President Barack Obama, he was one of the most “accomplished Americans”, whose efforts led to the availability of new opportunities to millions of people. One of most distinguished beneficiaries of his work during his nearly 50-year-long career as a Senator is President Obama as he has himself admitted.
The fabled Irish-American family has often been visited by tragedies. The most grievous setback that it suffered was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Another brother, Robert, fell to the assassin’s bullets in 1968 in the midst of his Presidential campaign. The eldest of the four brothers, Joseph Jr, lost his life during World War II. The shocks that Ted suffered only strengthened his resolve to do as much for the people as he could. He believed that the life ahead was more beautiful than already spent.
Tedd Kennedy tried to enter the White House in 1980, but lost the race for Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter. In fact, his Presidential hopes were belied in 1969 when a car he was driving skidded off a bridge, killing a young woman — the Chappaquiddick scandal. He was first elected to the US Senate when he was just 30. He occupied the Senate seat vacated by his brother John F. Kennedy before becoming President and went on to serve in this capacity for the longest time in US history excepting two Senators. Tedd, a pragmatic thinker, was gifted with extraordinary negotiating qualities. His speeches were always full of stirring imagery. This was the reason why he came to be called the white-haired Lion of the Senate. His illustrious career came to an end with brain cancer taking its toll.
SAMAJWADIS WITHOUT DIRECTION
THE PARTY SUMMIT AT AGRA INCONCLUSIVE
NEWS ANALYSIS BY SHAHIRA NAIM
The Samajwadi Party’s three-day national convention at Agra has thrown up more uneasy questions than it has answered. The party’s ideological contradictions and the catch-22 situation it faces with regard to the Congress have pushed it into a blind alley both nationally and at the state level.
Technically the state’s main opposition, the Samajwadi Party, at the moment does not know where it is going. It did not win any of the four bypolls.
Still at its Agra National Convention it could decide nothing but deferring the “jail bharo” against the BSP government’s misdeeds to January 2010 and the decision to withdraw support from an “ungrateful” UPA to some opportune time in future.
Emerging as the party winning the maximum (23) seats in the Lok Sabha from UP, the SP finds itself far from a bargaining position in New Delhi, thanks to its refusal to do business with the Congress before the elections and its short-sighted Fourth Front misadventure in the run-up to the elections.
Its political wilderness at the national level can be gauged from the fact that it can only sulk at being cold-shouldered by the Congress, dub its attitude as ‘opportunistic’, criticise Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government’s policy and just about threaten to withdraw support.
Mulayam Singh Yadav knows that his party and not the UPA government would be the ultimate loser if the SP chooses to withdraw support at the moment. Hence the decision to defer the announcement to an “opportune time” in future.
The party’s political isolation at the national level started more than a year ago when it uncharacteristically decided to bail out a tottering UPA government on the nuclear deal issue, undoing years of labour of cobbling together a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front.
The Left Front, stunned by this sudden U-turn, decided to rub salt into Mulayam’s wounds by announcing his archrival Mayawati as a likely candidate to head a potential Third Front government.
However, the SP’s honeymoon with the Congress proved to be short-lived reportedly due to Amar Singh’s pushy corporate agenda that Dr Singh was in no mood to carry out as the deal was already safely in place and his government secure.
To the Samajwadi Party’s huge disappointment the nuclear deal did not figure as a poll issue and its great contribution to save the UPA government remained an unsung saga, giving it no political mileage during the polls.
The bitter feud over the sharing of seats in Uttar Pradesh also misfired. The breakdown of talks helped the Congress that won 21 seats on its own. The SP was patronisingly giving them only 17.
The other political blunder was the formation of the so-called Fourth Front along with Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. Obviously meant to needle the Congress for more seats and fight an imagined anti-incumbency by appearing to be at a political distance before the electorate cost all three most dearly.
Ram Vilas Paswan could not even retain his own seat. Lalu Yadav was cut to size and lost the chance to be accommodated in the Union Cabinet. Mulayam’s SP, despite winning 23 seats, was nowhere in the reckoning at the national level.
Having their back to the wall would have normally strengthened the SP and made it more determined to strike back. However, another critical decision taken by the top brass just before the general election ensured a more complete undermining of its ideological credibility.
The decision was to rehabilitate former BJP leader and the chief architect of the Babri demolition, Kalyan Singh, who had been thrown out of the BJP for the second time for his anti-party activities.
The Samajwadi Party, which till then had worked on the magical combination of a Yadav-Muslim vote bank, had already become dubious in the eyes of its Muslim voters.
Even before the Muslim voter could recover and re-evaluate the party came the shock of Mulayam Singh Yadav shaking hands with Kalyan Singh, describing him as a “friend”. While Kalyan did not officially join the SP, his son Rajvir Singh was even made the party national general secretary and campaigned extensively during the general election.
Clearly, Yadav’s argument that an enemy’s enemy was one’s friend and thus Kalyan Singh, determined to bury the BJP, was a natural ally did not cut much ice with his Muslim voters.
What had, in fact, forced the SP supremo to join hands with Kalyan was a realisation that his Muslim vote bank was shifting. He had realised that even seats in his home turf of central UP, popularly called the “potato belt”, were shaky without a realignment of Yadav and backward caste votes (specially Lodhs) over which Kalyan Singh has a considerable hold between the stretch from Kanpur to Bulandshahr.
The gamble paid off in a limited sense. Kalyan entered the Lok Sabha supported by the SP as an independent and Mulayam managed to win along with his son Akhilesh Yadav at two places.
The heavy cost that the party paid elsewhere for this “friendship” was there for all to see. All senior Muslims, including one of its founders Mohammad Azam Khan, opposed the move and left after an ugly public confrontation. None of the 10 Muslims fielded by the SP during the Lok Sabha election could win.
The Muslim-Yadav alliance in UP is clearly over. No Muslim leader of any consequence has any say in the SP any longer. Abu Azmi and Ahmad Hasan, now being projected as the new Muslim faces, have never won an election.
Post-general election, it became pretty clear that the SP has to reinvent itself to survive and face the twin onslaught of the BSP and the Congress. This was possible only by adding backward castes votes to the Yadav base vote.
The Muslims clearly could no longer be counted upon as they had substantially shifted to the Congress resulting in their record victory during the general election.
The BSP is continuously nibbling at the SP’s support by filing politically motivated cases and by poaching their sitting MLAs reducing the SP’s strength in the Vidhan Sabha from 96 in 2007 to 88 at present.
The only way for Mulayam and his party is to move ahead. For him there is nothing to gain by flogging a dead horse of a Yadav-Muslim alliance that has outlived its utility.
The family has also taken over the party like never before. Despite more deserving candidates in some cases Mulayam is the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, his cousin Ramgopal holds the post in the Rajya Sabha, brother Shivapal Yadav is now the Leader of the Opposition in the UP Vidhan Sabha and son Akhilesh heads the party in the state.
The party’s new contours have clearly emerged at Agra. Kalyan Singh, the Lodh leader openly shared the dais with Mulayam — both smiling in the camera adorning the typical red Samajwadi Party cap. Kalyan’s joining the party now remains a mere formality. Just as the sobriquet Maulana Mulayam is a thing of the past.
TESTS MAY CAUSE TOO MUCH RADIATION
BY THOMAS H. MAUGH II
People may be receiving too much radiation from medical tests whose value has not been proven, researchers reported on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The two biggest contributors to the radiation exposure are CT scans, which use a series of X-rays to produce a three-dimensional image of the body, and heart perfusion scanning to measure blood flow through the arteries leading to the heart. In that test, radioactive technetium-99m is injected into blood vessels and its progress through the heart is monitored with external radiation detectors.
Radiation is known to cause cancer, typically years after exposure. By some estimates, medical testing radiation contributes 2 percent of all cancer cases, but experts fear that it may be higher in the future as more and more patients are exposed to these relatively new procedures.
They are also concerned because increasing numbers of tests are being performed on younger people, which allows more time for tumors to develop, and on women, who normally live longer than men.
Some studies have suggested that the growing number of CT scans being performed results in part from ownership of the machines by physicians, who may view them as a new profit source and prescribe unnecessary tests.
There is also a growing incidence of whole-body CT scans in which physicians check for any signs of potential disease in healthy individuals. Such scans were not included in the report because they are not covered by health insurance.
More than two-thirds of Americans underwent at least one such imaging procedure in the three years covered by the study, reported Dr. Reza Fazel and colleagues at Emory University School of Medicine.
The researchers studied medical records of 952,420 adults between the ages of 18 and 64 who were insured by United Healthcare plans in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Wisconsin. Between 2005 and 2007, 655,613 of the adults underwent at least one procedure that exposed them to radiation.
The mean dose of radiation was 2.6 milliSieverts (mSv), a relatively low dose. A dose of 3 to 20 mSv is considered moderate, from 21 to 50 mSv is considered high and a dose over 50mSv is considered very high. Federal regulations put the maximum annual safe dose at 50 mSv.
Cardiac stress testing was the procedure that exposed patients to the highest radiation levels, an average of 15.6 mSv, and accounted for 22 percent of all radiation exposure. CT scans of the abdomen, which typically produce about 8 mSv, accounted for more than 18 percent of exposure. A mammogram — a single X-ray — produces about 0.4 mSv.
If the findings are extrapolated to the entire population, more than 4 million Americans are receiving a dose greater than 20 mSv each year, the authors said.
“It is important to note that we are talking about radiation doses that are incurred in one year,” said Dr. Brahmajee Naliamothu of the University of Michigan, senior author of the study. “Cumulative doses over a lifetime may be much higher.”
About 79 percent of women in the study had at least one exposure to radiation, compared with 58 percent of men. Mammograms accounted for only a small part of the difference, Fazel said.
Dr. Michael Lauer, director of the division of prevention and population sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said in an editorial in the same journal that clinical trials of the efficacy of such testing should be conducted before their use is expanded.
Despite the wide use of nuclear perfusion for cardiac imaging, he noted, there is no evidence that it increases survival.n
By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post
BY JOHN M. GLIONNA
Veteran voters in Takasaki have rarely witnessed a gloves-off election battle — or political campaigning of any kind, for that matter. In this regional transportation hub of 350,000 residents, confident incumbents from the nation’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party had only to list their names on the ballot virtually to guarantee a landslide victory.
But all that has changed in this city 90 minutes north of Tokyo, the home district of four previous prime ministers. This year, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda faces the political battle of his life to win re-election to the lower house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament. His biggest hurdle does not appear to be his opponent — a former television reporter and political novice — but voter discontent.
“The political winds are blowing against us,” acknowledged Tatsuo Fukuda, the candidate’s son. “This is my father’s most difficult election in the last 20 years.”
In the run-up to Sunday’s balloting, support for the Liberal Democrats has plunged at an unparalleled rate nationwide, prompting what many predict will be a historic shift of power.
After 54 years of nearly uninterrupted rule, the party faces widespread unrest — if not a downright revolt — among voters who say they want change at any price.
Prime Minister Taro Aso, known more for his bumbling use of language than for his leadership, has seen his approval rating dip below 20 percent. Many voters view the Liberal Democrats as bureaucrats who remain out of touch with a changing Japan.
Riddled with scandal and mismanagement, voters say, the party has provided few answers to Japan’s sagging economy. Japan’s public debt is double its gross domestic product, one of the highest such percentages among developed nations, economists say.
“The Japanese are ready to give the LDP a well-deserved sayonara,” said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “Everyone thinks they are dead-enders with no fresh ideas and no creative policies.
“The misery index is soaring, unemployment and suicides are up, wages and bonuses are down, and everyone is feeling insecure about their jobs and futures.”
The situation has provided a rare opportunity for the Liberal Democrats’ main opponents, the Democratic Party of Japan, led by President Yukio Hatoyama — the Stanford-educated millionaire grandson of a former Liberal Democrat prime minister.
Hatoyama has promised to cut wasteful spending and improve the daily lives of residents in the world’s second-largest economy. His party is gaining ground not only in large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, but also in rural areas, the Liberal Democrats’ traditional power base.
Some experts predict that the Democratic Party might win more than 300 seats in the Diet’s 480-member lower house.
Experts agree that if the Democratic Party is elected, the first few months will be critical. “First impressions matter a great deal in politics,” said Kingston of Temple University Japan.
Naoto Nonaka, a political scientist at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said he believes the Democratic Party is ready to lead and downplayed speculation that party officials might seek a more independent foreign policy from Washington’s.
“The alliance between the U.S. and Japan is too critical for the security arrangement of both nations,” he said. “It will not change.”
The Fukuda family is one of Japan’s political dynasties: Both Yasuo Fukuda and his father, Takeo, served as prime minister. Yasuo was voted into the job two years ago by the lower house of the Diet.
A year ago, however, he unexpectedly quit, blaming his departure on an obstructionist Democratic Party. And now, if there is any time that a political nobody could defeat a former prime minister for his Diet seat, this is it.
By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post
THE ASSAM TRIBUNE
It is a sad commentary on the State’s health-care sector that preventable diseases like malaria and encephalitis continue to extract a heavy toll on human lives with unfailing regularity. With over 70 deaths attributable mostly to encephalitis -- recorded in seven upper Assam districts in the past one-and-a-half months, the situation is indeed alarming and negates tall claims by the Government about successful anti-malaria and anti-encephalitis drives. Prevention of these two diseases should not be a daunting proposition, as successful exercises in several high-incidence States have shown. The encephalitis vaccination drive in the State which was started in 2006 fell well short of covering the targeted population. The Health Minister has sought to put the blame for the derailed project on some adverse media reports creating panic over the use of the vaccine. This is poor reasoning, as the Government is duty-bound to ensure the success of such vaccination drives by assuaging any misgivings among the people. This is a matter that involves precious human lives, and a UNICEF-mandated vaccination campaign cannot simply be abandoned on the basis of a few uncalled-for media reports. On the positive side, the Government has now decided to import encephalitis vaccine from China and also to extend the ambit of the vaccination drive to cover adult persons. Since there is no effective cure to this dreaded disease, large-scale vaccination alone would be critical to preventing its recurrence.
Lack of infrastructure and facilities apart, often it is the absence of preparedness that emerges as a major stumbling block in dealing with epidemics. It is a fact that diseases like malaria, gastro-enteritis, etc., occur during a specific part of the year but despite this the authorities are invariably caught off guard something that complicates the situation further. The cherished goal of health for all will continue to be a mirage as long as such an environment persists. A below-par public health-care system always impacts adversely on the socio-economic front, hindering a State’s overall progress. A sizeable population inhabiting remote and inaccessibility terrains still have very limited access to health-care facilities. This apart, the prevailing low level of awareness and poor economic condition of the people have also been areas requiring urgent intervention. Awareness is the first step towards prevention, and the ongoing National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) can play a big role in disseminating information and enhance people’s awareness on crucial aspects of health and hygiene.
THE ASSAM TRIBUNE
One’s heart goes out to the people of Manipur, caught as they are between the devil and the deep sea. For too long have the clouds of violence hovered over a courageous and cultured society, rendering the leading of normal life almost impossible for ordinary Manipuris. Killings, abductions, street protests have tecome rules rather than exceptions and today violence has been accepted as a way of life. Since the State is tucked away in a corner of India, the situation there does not get wide coverage in the national media, with many petty acts of violence and infringements in the rule of law even failing to make it to the regional news. On one side are the insurgents, savage and unrelenting, feeding leechlike on the life-blood of the civil population, despised by the very people on whose behalf they are presumed to be fighting. Responsible for numerous acts of brutality including killings of innocents, the insurgents run a parallel administration and even ‘taxes’ the population. The public in general appears to be no longer in the mood to take the violent acts of the insurgents lying down, and there has been resistance in spite of retaliatory measures from the latter. However, of equal concern has been the violence of the State. Many incidents signify that those responsible for law and order are increasingly turning against the people they are supposed to protect.
For example, an Indian Reserve Battalion jawan confessed to having received bribe from the KCP (MC) militant group for lobbing a grenade before a hospital, injuring five. In an alleged case of human rights violation an eleven year old child was picked up by the paramilitary forces when they failed to apprehend her parents at home. Allegedly, the child was kept in police detention for five days as a human bait till her parents were coerced into surrendering. But the case that has kept Manipur seething has been the alleged fake encounter which resulted in the death of Rabina Devi, a young, pregnant woman as well as a youth named Ch. Sanjit, on July 23. With exemplary tenacity the public has been mounting protests lasting over a month, demanding that heads, including that of Chief Minister Okram lbobi Singh, must roll for the killings. Though a judicial probe has been ordered and the Union Home Ministry has assured of bringing about more discipline in the policing agencies, the prospect of protests petering out seems slim, unless major changes are effected at the political and administrative levels. Moreover, the Centre must make an all out endeavour to end the bane of many insurgency infested areas of the North-East — the unholy nexus between politicians and extremists, a symbiosis that works to the advantage of both — if tragedies such as the one witnessed in Manipur are to be ended.
THE ASSAM TRIBUNE
STEEP PRICE-HIKE AND ITS IMPACT
Any societal problem, broadly speaking, is a cause of concern because it does more or less have an impact on the life-style of the people. Whenever any such problem prevails in a society for a longer period than expected, it is more annoying; and it leads to a feeling in mind if it will at all end in the near future or persist.
One such social problem that has provoked a feeling of fear and anxiety among the people, especially those belonging to the lowest strata of the society, because of its taking a heavy toll on their livelihood for the past couple of weeks is the recent steep rise in prices of all the household items of daily consumption.
It is known to everybody that price-hike is an endemic problem in our country, and that it rises when there is low productivity that may be due to high cost or erratic monsoon or both. When there is periodic but normal hike in the prices of the essential commodities such as rice, potato, onion, sugar, atta, dal etc; people are hardly heard venting their anger or reacting against it because they know that insufficient monsoon or high cost of production or even growing transportation cost can lead to such an escalation.
But, this time, with the abnormal rise in price of these commodities of day-to-day use, a phenomenon seldom in evidence in the past 30 years in any part of Assam or other parts of the country, has stirred a popular outcry throughout the country at the authorities' failure to put them at check. In Assam, the prices of such important household items as rice, sugar, dal of all varieties, potato, onion among other daily consumption items have become so sky-rocketing in most towns and cities that it is not difficult to understand that the people, in particular, those belonging to lower-middle or under-priviledged classes, are surely having tough time in meeting their daily basic needs. Simply because it has not just affected their small monthly budget to cover expenses for their children's education and family maintenance but also taken a heavy toll on their systematic investment plan many of them might have done, for a secure future.
It is well-known that the only principal metropolis, the life in Guwahati is much more expensive than that of any city or town in the State, But, it is again known to be a major destination in the region for private company jobs. Which is why many people from many places in Assam and even beyond it have come in and are working in these establishments. Of them, there are many who earn a paltry sum of Rs 5,000-Rs 8,000 at the end of a month by way of salary and live in rented house. Already reeling under the relatively higher cost of the city living, how are these working people feel a pinch in trying to meet even the basic needs of their families after what may be called "the unprecedented price-rise" of all the food items, is anybody's guess.
If we look back to the not-too-distant past, we will be able to recollect that the people in Assam who are commonly known to be judicious and peace-loving have rarely reacted sharply or have been up in arms on any occasion in the recent times against price-rise whenever they have felt it periodic and reasonable. They have ented their fury at the authorities only when they have found it rise abnormally with the supply-line being normal and steady. When it does happen, it is only natural for the ordinary people like those in the State to be angry about it and protest strongly about it in the hope that the concerned authorities would take strong measures against hoarders, blackmarketeers and profiteers. After all, it results in the devaluation of money which in turn contributes to the reduction of their purchasing power.
For the sake of argument, one may say that price-hike is a periodic phenomenon found everywhere in the country. But, this time the manner the prices of the essential commodities have risen a kg, has literally taken almost everybody in the country by utter surprise.
True, this year there has been poor harvest due to the shortfall of rain by 29 per cent throughout the country as divulged recently by the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. The condition of Bihar is far too worse as far as agricultural production is concerned. With the elusive monsoon, most of its districts have been severely affected by drought. In Assam too, some districts have recently been declared drought-affected.
In order to achieve the twin objectives: to defuse a possible food crisis in the country, and minimise the chance of businessmen seizing the opportunity of creating an artificial scarcity of fooditems in the event of widespread drought, the Centre, as in preceding years, has already imported around 2.6 million tonnes of pulses this year. A couple of days before, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Centre and the States should not hesitate to take strong measures against them to contain price-hike of essential commodities. But, from its constantly-increasing trend, it seems they are still dictating the situation.
There is, therefore, uproar about the alarmingly spiralling prices almost everywhere in the country. The Parliament during its budget session witnessed an uproarious scene when opposition members charged the government with failure to check the price rise. In the Assam Assembly too, there was quite a lot of tumult over it during a debate on the issues of price rise. In the national dailies, during the past forthnight or so, a number of write-ups on abnormal price-hike and its resultant impact on poor urbanites are seen to have figured prominently, designed to only focus the Centre's attention on this issue.
Indeed, the plight of Assam vis-a-vis it is, broadly, far too worse than that of Delhi or any other place of mainland India. Much has been written about it these days in the print media all acrose the State, ut with seldom but impact. Prices of all the essential items are still showing an upward trend. If the situation is allowed to drift further, it will hardly be any big surprice if the ordinary people find most of the basic items in retail markets in the State go beyond their reach. There was a perception that following the recent protest demonstrations/rallies against the price-hike in various parts of the State including Guwahati, by various socio-political organisations, the situation would improve but it has sofar remained unchanged.
There cannot be any difference of opinion over the fact the it is the erratic monsoon in most parts of the country that has actually caused the price rise sharply. But, for that should each and every essential item be sold for abnormally-higher prices in the retail markets in Guwahati or other parts of the State? In the month of May, potato, for example, was available at prices inbetween Rs 12 to Rs 14 a kg. And, surprisingly, a kg of it now sells between Rs 19 to Rs 20. Also, equally exorbitant is the price of onion in the city's most retail markets. It is at present being sold for price varying between Rs 19 to Rs 20, though the same item was available at Rs 13 to Rs 16 a few weeks ago. What will indeed be a cause of core concern for the ordinary people is in the event of a Fancy Bazar-based trader's warning that there may be further upswing in the price of onion before the ensuing Durga puja, coming true.
Truly, the authorities should do something to bring the situation under control. Or, else, the common man will soon find himself in the lurch financially.
THE ASSAM TRIBUNE
HIGHER EDUCATION IN CHINA
DR. ARUP KUMAR HAZARIKA
Confucius has shaped the overall Chinese mindset for the past 2500 years. Yet, higher education in China has experienced other powerful influences. Before the Opium War in 1840, China had been very isolated. But later, with the arrival of gunboats in the war, Chinese intellectuals discovered the numerous western advances in science and technology. They learned from these advances, and the Chinese higher education system began to make strides.
But disaster struck in the form of Soviet influence when the People’s Republic of China was formed. In the early 1950s, all higher education was brought under government leadership and research was separated from teaching. Deplorably the government also introduced a central plan that nationally unified instruction plans, syllabi and textbooks. Even till 2005, as Chinese higher education continues its struggle with excessive departmentalisation, segmentation and overspecialisation in particular, the Soviet impact is still felt.
From 1967 to 1976, China’s Cultural Revolution took another toll on higher education, which was devastated more than any other sector. As a key example, the numbers of postsecondary students dropped precipitously from 6,74,400 to 47,800. Fortunately, since the 1980s, Chinese higher education has undergone a series of reforms that have slowly effected improvement.
In recent years, 10 universities have been targeted by the Chinese government to become ‘world-class’– including Peking and Tsinghua Universities. Universities are once again required to be centers of teaching and research, and internationally oriented programmes constitute an increasing proportion of curriculum. Still, a national oversight body accredits only a disturbing 5 per cent of the Chinese equivalents of our community and technical colleges. So, contradictions persist.
In terms of actual size, today there are some 4,000 Chinese institutions; student enrollments are 15 million, with rapid growth that is expected to peak in 2008. Even so, the Chinese higher education system is still not meeting the needs of 85 per cent of the college-age cohort. In a country of 1.3 billion people, such numbers are astronomical.
Higher education in China is continuously growing, changing and developing. There are over 2,000 universities and colleges, with more than six million enrollments in total. China has set up a degree system, including Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees that are open to foreign students. The country offers non-degree programmes as well.
According to the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, the government authority on all matters pertaining to education and language, higher education in China has played a significant part in economic growth, scientific progress and social development in the country ‘by bringing up large scale of advanced talents and experts for the construction of socialist modernisation.
New trends in Chinese higher education are attracting the attention of educators around the world. Since China began to develop a Western oriented university model at the end of nineteenth century, Chinese higher education has continued to evolve. Since the late 1980s, however, tremendous economic development in China has stimulated reforms in higher education that have resulted in remarkable changes.
China exhibits a great need for better regulation as well as more academic qualifications, teaching experience, and understanding of social changes and technology. To achieve success, the State realises that the impact of the Cultural Revolution on education must be reversed. To this end, top universities now function as centres of excellence that serve as a model for all other institutes.
As evident here, China exhibits a great need for better regulation as well as more academic qualifications, teaching experience, and understanding of social changes and technology. To this end, top universities now function as centres of excellence that drive the entire higher education system to a higher level. One helpful model includes twinning projects where leading universities ‘twin’ with poorer ones to provide equipment, curricula and faculty development China’s demand for postsecondary education is immense and the country currently cannot keep pace with this compelling need. This means US, European and Australian universities can play a significant role by partnering with Chinese universities, aggressively recruiting Chinese students for study in their host countries, increasing the number of students they send to study in China and adding to their presence on the mainland, either as official foreign campuses or extensions. Australia, Hong Kong and other Asian countries are already making strides into this market.
Partnering offers a mutual economic benefit, both if scholars choose to stay in the host country to return to the mainland. Most Chinese students who go abroad are among the best and brightest from their home country. Thus, if they choose to stay, they propel the economy of their host country when they take on jobs and establish themselves. If they leave, they take the many contacts and connections they have established, alongside a generally positive perception of their host nation and hosts with them. This allows for continued economic gain, as scholars can convince their home nations and firms to propel business in a certain direction.
Most national and international rankings of Chinese universities place Peking University among the top universities in China. The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2006 ranked Peking University as the 14th best university in the world, taking and highest spot in Asia; the same ranking in 2007 placed the Universitiy at 36th and in 2008, it was ranked at the 50th. The Academic Ranking of World Universities 2008 placed the University between 201 and 300.
Peking University is a comprehensive and national key university. The University consists of 30 colleges and 12 departments with 93 specialities for undergraduates, 2 specialists for the second Bachelor’s degree, 199 specialities for Master’s degree candidates and 173 specialities for Doctoral candidates. While in a leading position of basic sciences research and teaching, the university has gained itself very successful development of applied sciences.
At present, Peking University has 216 research institutions and research centres, including 2 national engineering research centres, 81 key national disciplines, 12 national key laboratories. With 4.5 million holdings, the university library is the largest of its kind in Asia.
The university has made an effort to combine the research on fundamental scientific issues with the training of personnel with high level specialised knowledge and professional skill as demanded by the country’s modernisation. It strives not only for the simultaneous improvements in teaching and research work, but also for the promotion of interaction and mutual promotion among various subjects.
Peking University has been becoming a centre for teaching and research, consisting of diverse branches of learning such as pure and applied sciences, social sciences and the humanities and sciences of management and education. Its aim is to rank among the world’s best universities in the next couple of decades with the school’s leadership placing great emphasis on developing bilateral relationship with prominent American universities for student and faculty exchanges.
THE ECONOMIC TIMES
A CAUTIOUS MOVE
Commerce minister Anand Sharma has indeed displayed a touch of realism by stating upfront that he was not sure about how the global economy would recover in the year ahead. Consequently, he has refrained from setting a target for export growth in 2009-10.
In his five-year trade policy statement, he asserts that globally all major indicators such as industrial production, unemployment, per capita investment and consumption, have taken a big hit. WTO estimates that world trade will decline by 9% this year.
If this is so what can a domestic trade policy do to counter global trends? How can India’s exports recover in the face of such a massive demand slump, particularly in the developed world. But then this can’t be a reason not to attempt some policy measures to shore up India’s exports which have been declining for ten months now. Monthly exports early 2008 were in the region of $16 billion and they are down to $10-12 billion in recent months. As not doing anything is not an option, the commerce minister has attempted support exports in certain sensitive sectors that are also employment intensive.
The Duty Exemption Pass Book scheme has been extended up to December 2010. Income-tax benefits under section 10 A for the IT industry and under section 10(B) for 100% EOUs have also been continued for another year, until March 2011. Incentives have been enhanced under the focused markets and focused products schemes.
The objective is to help India’s exporters to diversify their product basket as well as reach out to newer markets. Export Promotion Capital Goods scheme has been further fine-tuned in keeping with the current realities. All this will raise the fiscal burden of the Centre.
The ministry has not disclosed the exact burden. Fortunately, this time the commerce minister has assured that the finance ministry will meet all the fiscal commitments in the policy. A communication gap between the two ministries was not uncommon in the past. Finally, the Centre can only do so much to improve export competitiveness. One can hope for some pick up in the global trade by the year end. If that happens, India’s export growth could return to positive territory.
THE ECONOMIC TIMES
CORE SECTOR DISAPPOINTS
The July numbers for infrastructure sector performance have delivered a small blow to rising expectation of a quick turnaround in economic growth. The core sectors, key drivers of economic activity, grew a disappointing 1.8% year-on-year (y-o-y) in July 2009, after a robust 6.8% y-o-y expansion in June.
Prima facie the slower growth was due to the lower output of the petroleum refinery sector, with production declining 14.4% during the month owing to maintenance shutdown at the Reliance Industries plant. But performance of sectors such as electricity did not particularly inspire confidence. Electricity generation, critical to keep industries running and pumpsets operating in farmlands, grew only 3.3%, y-o-y, in July. But the output declined for two consecutive months, as rains played truant.
Coal output looked good during the month under review, rising 9.7%, but the sector reported decline in three of the four months this fiscal. Similarly, the growth of cement industries, rising 10.6%, gives the impression that construction activity has recovered. Here too, output declined month-on-month after a robust performance in March 2009 and the argument that it is in line with the trend seen during this period of the year offers little consolation.
The sub-optimal output of some infrastructure sectors such as electricity is telling on industrial performance. In many states huge power cuts are hurting production. Industrial units have stopped working as the power situation worsens. Elsewhere, the agriculture sector bears the brunt of low availability of power.
If such lackadaisical performance persists in the critical core sectors of the economy, there could be more damage to the incipient recovery in growth experienced over the past few months. That should not be allowed to happen.
Immediate short-term steps are required to reduce the gaps in infrastructure and prevent a fresh crisis. Growth is, anyway, already threatened by the deficient monsoon this year. Contraction in agriculture will hurt other sectors, as rural demand for various goods and services will decline. In this scenario, it is necessary that critical infrastructure sectors put up a strong performance.
THE ECONOMIC TIMES
It is indeed a commentary on the topsy-turvy world that we live in when revelations that a person in high office served cheap food and bad wine to visiting foreign guests is greeted with vigorous nods of approval. In more discerning times, the idea of a British army chief treating his visiting Indian counterpart and delegation to a supermarket-bought meal that cost just £5.15 a head would have been seen an embarrassment.
Only the British royal family has been known to be tenaciously parsimonious when it comes to entertaining or gifting. But against the backdrop of the expenses scandal that rocked the British parliament recently, this similar move by General Sir Richard Dannatt was also hailed as positively heroic — much like the royal family’s well-publicised thrifty meals during World War II.
Instead of wasting money on fancy birdbaths and second homes like some MPs, the General (and perforce, his guests) bravely dined on cut-price chicken, red cabbage, pork sausages and mushrooms, washed down with plonk from a Calais cash-and-carry.
His meagre entertainment bill of less than £20,000 for 2005-2009 would surely be a revelation for the Indian army brass, used to multi-course burra khanas amid regimental silver, but the details also show that Dannatt has been somewhat flexible in his frugality. If he hit an all-time low of £5.15 for the reception for General Deepak Kapoor, he spent more than double that amount per head (£11) for a reception for the German army chief, for instance.
What they skimped on in terms of fare, they made up with savoir-faire, obviously, as the then Indian high commissioner has felt obliged to compliment Sir Richard’s charm, and the supermarket meal. That should please the chain that supplied the ‘pastry, cheese and salmon’ meal as it has been eyeing the Indian market for a while. But General Kapoor could have asked Sir Richard to consider an old-fashioned (and cheaper) alternative to off-the-shelf meals: local ingredients and the services of a regimental cook!
THE ECONOMIC TIMES
PROACTIVE FARM POLICY NEEDED
All eyes are cast skywards. Whether it is the farmer, the politician, the met office mandarin, the economists or the investoratti, this is one national pastime that knows no caste, income or gender barriers. Everybody is anxious about the rains and the concerns are justified. A year of poor rainfall is always followed by an extended period of misery.
Poor rainfall means reduced farming activity, which implies lesser food to feed the growing number of hungry mouths in this country, which then works through the basic concept of a demand-supply to increase food prices, which eventually means more misery for everybody, especially for those with incomes below the poverty line.
But, a statement made recently by a respected academic takes the sting out of some of dire predictions that seem to be taking deep roots. The interview also highlights, somewhat inadvertently, some of the inadequacies in the agri-economy which have been hobbling output and productivity for years, but continue to persist despite numerous reports.
The interesting comment was made by well-known academic Yoginder Alagh (currently chairman of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand) during a recent investor conference call organised by Morgan Stanley, which has now been released as a research report, called ‘Drought, Agriculture and GDP Growth Outlook — A Perspective’. In this report, Alagh makes a somewhat obvious, but rather interesting, statement. He says that lower rainfall in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh may not necessarily lead to such a drastic shortfall in agricultural output from these states.
The reason is this: the net irrigated area, as a percentage of the total sown area, is the highest in these three states (Punjab around 92%, Haryana about 82% and Uttar Pradesh 80%). Given the fact that these states receive water from Himalayan rivers, they have not felt the shortage of rainfall as acutely as some of the other states. True, deficient rainfall will certainly affect the overall crop, but nobody’s talking doomsday yet.
What this probably also means is that though the grain bowl will produce a reduced crop this year, compared to previous years, the negative deviation for the entire year stands to be minimal if the rains behave in the next couple of months and the reservoirs are near-full when the time comes for the rabi crop. Sure, the problem will definitely be severe in the Deccan Plateau, but going by Yoginder Alagh’s deposition, the overall impact may not be that harsh.
But, it also brings into sharp relief another niggling problem which has been written about many times and might bear repetition one more time, given the unease over the worrying deficit in precipitation this year. The hand-wringing over the food situation might not have come to such a pass had the government in the past few years concentrated its resources in building proper irrigation infrastructure. Today, experts like Alagh can claim, with some degree of confidence, that states with a high irrigation infrastructure might not do so badly after all.
But, there are only eight states — apart from the three mentioned above, the other states are Delhi, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttarakhand — that beat the national average of 42% of net irrigated area. The rest suffer from deficient irrigation infrastructure and have become overly dependant on rainfall for their crop.
The chapter on agriculture in the Planning Commission’s Eleventh Five Year Plan sums it up rather pithily: “Rainfed areas in the country...are characterised by high incidence of poverty, low education and health status, high distress in the farming sector, distress migration, low employment opportunities, and vulnerability to a variety of high risks...the population in these areas also suffers from various exploitative social structures and practices, poor attention by government departments, poor quality of service delivery, and so on. Repeated water scarcities leading to large-scale droughts have severely affected livelihoods of these rural poor.”
This is what a World Bank briefing note on the state of agricultural infrastructure states: “Public expenditures on agricultural subsidies including for power, irrigation and fertilisers, have crowded out productivity-enhancing investments, such as for irrigation development, agricultural research and extension, rural roads and electrification.” The problem is that no lessons seem to have been learnt.
It would, therefore, not be entirely out of place to have expected this government to initiate some capex plans for agriculture in the budget, especially after having got a clear mandate for the next five years. Sure, the economic slowdown is an extraordinary situation and requires some extraordinary measures. But, that somehow does not obviate the need for long-term investment, especially for creation of irrigation or watershed infrastructure.
This year’s budget for the agriculture ministry has kept aside only Rs 138 crore for programmes to improve agricultural productivity and strengthening livelihood support systems in rainfed areas. But, the irony is that against a budgeted Rs 309 crore for 2008-09, only Rs 4 crore was spent. Another Rs 430 crore has been budgeted, under the ministry of rural development, for spread of micro-irrigation, to propagate the drip and sprinkler system.
In addition, the ministry of water resources has been allocated Rs 568.19 crore under the head of ‘major, medium and minor irrigation’, an increase of about 15.5% over last year’s actual expenditure. But, strangely enough, a big chunk of the Rs 568.19 crore outlay has been set aside for various commissions and bodies, rather than for building critical irrigation infrastructure. And, that seems to be symptomatic: in each of these ministries, the allocation for revenue expenditure outstrips the outlay for capital expenditure by a huge margin.
With every academic worth his mortarboard revisiting Keynes today, primarily to figure out ways of improvising on the original recession-busting formula, the need for rapid addition of irrigation and other water-related infrastructure takes on a special urgency. After all, isn’t digging ditches part of the remedy too?
(The author is Head, Policy & Research, Dhanalakshmi Bank. Views are personal.)
A PATHBREAKING MOVE BY JUDGES
In the wake of a prolonged nationwide public debate, the judges of the Supreme Court decided by consensus on Wednesday to make their assets public. This is a history-making step by the highest level of the country’s judiciary: not only the assets of the judges themselves, but also those of their spouses and dependents, will be posted on the Supreme Court’s website. In terms of a resolution that they had passed in 1997, the Supreme Court judges were already declaring their assets to the Chief Justice of India. This too is a form of subjecting oneself to scrutiny. But the nation’s current mood, and the pathbreaking appeal of the Right to Information Act, almost demanded that the judges of the highest court not only declare their assets but also make them public. The debate on the issue was regrettably polemical, sanctimonious, and at times bitter. Someone not familiar with Indian conditions could well have gained the view that the higher judiciary in this country was marked by corruption when, in fact, the opposite is widely accepted to be true. The first salvo was fired by MPs in the Rajya Sabha. Irrespective of the parties they belonged to, they protested against Section 6(1) of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, according to which their declaration of assets made before the competent authority was not to be made public or be put into question by any citizen, court or authority. This was in line with the thinking of the Chief Justice of India, who publicly expressed the view that judges could be drawn into vexatious or frivolous procedures by a disgruntled litigant if assets were to be made public. The MPs didn’t accept this point of view and the government was unable to move forward with the bill. The debate has mostly centred on two questions. One, if legislators must make their assets public before they become eligible to contest elections, why shouldn’t judges; and if judges are clean, why should they worry? Two, if judges draw their salary from the public exchequer, they should be accountable to the public. In the international discussion on the broad theme of judicial corruption, there is as yet no clarity on whether judges should be treated on par with other public servants, such as elected representatives and members of the executive. Indeed, only a few countries have specific legislation in respect of judges. American judges do declare their assets.
Apparently, vexation from interested parties — which can impact the independence of the judiciary — has not been a problem. However, in this country, corruption has not been an issue in the higher judiciary although assets have not been posted in the public domain. While American judges have not faced any difficulties on account of making their assets public, conditions everywhere are not the same. Now that the judges of our Supreme Court have agreed to go the same way, only time will tell if this has been a step in the right direction. Attorney-general Goolam Vahnavati has welcomed the new step, but has also expressed apprehension about how things will turn out. The SC judges have agreed to go public with their assets, but their unanimous resolution notes that the judges will not entertain any query relating to their assets and liabilities and over the manner of its increase or decrease. This would suggest that they remain concerned about malicious litigation. Besides, the caveat entered by the judges appears to be in line with the section of the proposed legislation that drew the ire of the MPs in the Upper House.
EXPLORE NOT THE ‘WHO’ BUT WHY OF PARTITION
BY BY BALBIR K. PUNJ
The Union home minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, is the latest person in authority to have expressed serious doubts on what really happened in Shopian, Kashmir. First, the dead bodies of two young women are found floating in a river. According to the police, it is a case of death by drowning. Suddenly crowds gather and insist that security people had killed the girls. The state government finally yields and the legally-required tests are carried out. The case is now recorded as rape and murder.
It then turns out that the swabs and samples taken from the bodies and sent for testing had been tampered with. Once again the crowds have a case against the police. Then it turns out that the Kashmiri doctors conducting the tests had “accidentally” dropped the glass that contained the samples and essentially destroyed the evidence. The state government then asks the Centre to transfer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
A few days later, some militants kill a man and his son in daylight at their home near Shopian. No crowds protest and no bandhs are called. This brutal murder is tolerated without a murmur of protest. Why?
The unexpressed suspicion is that the two incidents are linked — both seem to have been planned to show the administration in poor light. The first incident goes a step further as it helps the militants and separatists paint the security forces as rapists and killers and alienate them further from the people. There have been many incidents in Jammu and Kashmir where crowds gather and pass their “kangaroo verdict” that security forces are the culprits.
To rub the separatists’ or militants’ agenda in, they organise strikes and bandhs at the drop of a hat. Shops in Srinagar remain shut. The shopkeepers probably play safe — they do not want their ware to be destroyed in the mob fury that the separatists can easily orchestrate. But the closed shops are taken as an endorsement of the separatist/militant hold and deflate the government’s claim of public support.
Yet another trend has surfaced. The other day a highly respected Islamic scholar and principal of a college in Kashmir, Muhammud Ashraf, was waylaid by militants and his car was destroyed. He was given an ultimatum to enforce the hijab on 3,000 girl students or face consequences.
Already the separatists’ women wing is forcing the purdah on Kashmiri women; now this is being enforced with the support of the gun. No one in the Valley or outside is protesting this high-handedness and moral policing.
Compare the Chief Minister, Mr Omar Abdullah’s leniency towards such moral policing with what happened only last week in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Karnataka. The principal of a Mangalore college insisted that his students should not wear burqa. At once the administration got into action and asked the principal to explain his conduct. The Karnataka state government acted to protect the right of every Indian citizen to make his/her choice regarding what they wear and also to check educational institutions imposing arbitrary and discriminatory codes.
The incident where some hooligans tried to enforce their morals on girls who visited a Mangalore pub had also invoked strong reaction from the state government and the leader of the self-styled Ram Sene was banned from entering the Dakshina Kannada district. But one wonders why several Muslim leaders and the so-called “secularists” go into silence mode when purdah is enforced, or when girls’ schools are torched or women are punished for wearing jeans.
Kashmir is separated from Kabul by a thousand miles and is even more distant from Khartoum, the Sudan capital. But the mental attitudes do not seem to differ much. In poll-bound Afghanistan, the Taliban has been targeting girls’ schools. Not just this, they even shot an Afghan Muslim pioneer of girls’ education. Girls were prevented from going to school or even getting educated privately during the Taliban rule. The schools reopened after the Taliban rule ended and a democratic government was elected to power with a proper Constitution.
Afghanistan is currently electing its President for the second time — a country that never knew any democracy before 2002. But even this elected government is so scared of the power of the orthodox clergy that an Afghan bill permitting a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex has become law! A lady in Khartoum is to be given 30 lashes publicly for the “crime” of wearing jeans. Such barbaric practices are endorsed because the label of religion is attached to them.
In another Islamic capital, a Libyan who planted a bomb in an American plane that killed 160 people has been received with public honours on his release from a Scottish prison where he was serving a 27-year sentence. As someone who had already served 20 years and was suffering from terminal cancer, he was released on compassionate grounds.
All these incidents are greeted by a deafening silence on the part of “secularists”. Why? Do they not see that this double standard helps entrench this retrograde mindset.
Throughout his life Mahatma Gandhi sought to mould the Indian Independence movement in terms of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. At the end of his life some Muslim leaders followed the two-nation theory of Muhammad Ali Jinnah rather than the one-people theory of Mahatma Gandhi and his deeply devout companions, including Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Why?
Today, when Partition and those guilty of it are in public discourse, it would be worthwhile to find out not who is guilty but what mentality made this two-nation theory a reality. Will nourishing this separatist mindset in the name of “secularism” pour oil into fire or bring about a change in that mindset? That is the critical issue — not Jaswant Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or any other person or outfit.
Balbir K. Punj can be contacted at email@example.com 
LET’S ACCEPT HISTORY, WITHOUT RESERVATIONS
BY BY I.A. REHMAN
Is it possible that Mr Jaswant Singh’s book on Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Partition should help the subcontinent’s scholars bury the mythology of Partition that has been hanging around the South Asian people’s necks like an albatross? However unlikely this may appear, the idea is worth pursuing.
Everybody knows that the subcontinent was divided by agreement between the Muslim League, the Congress and the British government because no alternative was acceptable. But the narrow considerations of factional politics in both India and Pakistan have kept the engines of hate running and the game of seeking power by demonising the other has been played for so long and with such zeal that anyone who tries to put the record straight is pilloried even before he has had his say.
Thus Jinnah and Muslims are demonised in India and Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel are deified. No decent trait can be attributed to the former and even a most legitimate criticism of the latter cannot be allowed. Likewise in Pakistan, Nehru and Patel (often Mahatma Gandhi is added) and Hindus are demonised and Jinnah and his followers are worshipped for their infallibility.
As a result of this extended cooperation in substituting belief for history the people of India and Pakistan have been diverted from the path of peaceful coexistence and condemned to remain prisoners of pre-Partition communal politics.
Since South Asia cannot play a healthy role in the affairs of the world and the people of India and Pakistan cannot realise themselves unless the hateful myths surrounding Partition are completely discarded, the urgency of recording and recounting a truthful account of Partition is manifest. If this is what Mr Singh had in mind, he will receive a thundering endorsement from all genuine students of history.
From the accounts appearing in the media it does not appear that Mr Singh has advanced any argument that had not been heard before. It is common knowledge that Jinnah was for long hailed as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, that he was reluctant to join the Muslim League, that he sought safeguards for Muslims within a united India till 1938 and agreed to the Cabinet Mission Plan until Lord Mountbatten became the agent to implement the British plan to withdraw from the subcontinent. Mr Singh has committed no heresy if he has said that Partition was not Jinnah’s first option.
Similarly, the record of the Congress leaders’ acceptance of Partition, indeed their preference of Partition over Jinnah’s interpretation of the Cabinet Mission Plan, is fully recorded. With them too Partition may have been an option of the last resort, as Patel said about himself. The fact is that all Congress leaders not only accepted Partition but contributed in varying degrees to make this denouement inevitable.
The only difference in the case of some of the Congress leaders was that they conceded the principle of the Muslim majority areas’ separation in the hope that if the Muslims’ right to secede was acknowledged matters could be managed short of actual division. These leaders included Rajagopalacharia, Gandhi and Abul Kalam Azad. They found a like-minded Cripps to draw support from.
Some other Congress leaders, Dr Rajendra Prasad foremost among them, used the logic of Partition to talk Jinnah out of his demand by frightening him with the Partition of Bengal and Punjab, a strategy Mountbatten tried to use till the early months of 1947.
Incidentally, perhaps the first non-Muslim leader to acknowledge the strength of the Pakistan idea was Dr B.R Ambedkar who wrote in 1940, the year the Lahore Resolution was adopted, that by graduating from a minority to a nation the Indian Muslims had identified their destination. He did say though that the creation of Pakistan could not solve any community’s problems.
However, nobody can deny that the Partition plan could not have been implemented without Patel’s blessings, however reluctantly extended. In 1947 it was he who controlled the Congress machine much more than Gandhi or Nehru. When Mountbatten and Nehru had agreed on the goal of dominion status and Nehru was unsure of the Congress high command’s concurrence, was it not Patel who said, “Leave that to me. That’s my business”?
The reason for Mr Singh’s decision to recall oft-told tales will be debated for long. The compliments he received on his earlier book, for his writing skills and the effect of releasing a cat among pigeons, may have shown him a path to fame beyond politics. A stronger motive could have been his desire to improve the Indian Muslims’ relations with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or he might have been ambitious enough to hope that the BJP could start having some use for reason and democratic culture.
The BJP bosses’ panic and their decision to expel Mr Singh from the party suggests that they suspected just that. Of course, BJP will die the day it starts having any truck with truth, reason and rationality. So will its Muslim counterparts in Pakistan if they could be persuaded to shed their dogmatism, their paranoia and their obsession with living in the past.
What one should like to humbly suggest to Mr Singh and others in the field of historical research is the need to view the events in 20th-century India in a historical context and not as games of poker played by some prominent professionals. Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Patel were contending with forces bigger than all of them put together. They were more driven by history than by being its makers. The responsibility for Partition lies on all the parties that were in the field — the League, the Congress, the Communists, the British, the Americans and the history of the preceding millennium.
It is certainly time the people of India and Pakistan acquired the maturity to honour their heroes for their wisdom and courage and also to take stock of their mistakes which all of them committed. Nothing will be gained by apportioning blame to a single party. What is needed today is acceptance of history without reservations.
BY BY G.V. RAMANJANEYULU & KAVITHA KURUGANTI
Some recent developments in India’s agri-related laws might make former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s infamous dream of seeing “only 15 per cent of Indians in villages” come true much faster than anyone thought possible. Moves are afoot to ensure large-scale displacement of farmers and agricultural workers — the most blatant move is already underway in Andhra Pradesh, under Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. An experiment under the garb of “farmers cooperative” was approved by the state Cabinet recently, not very different from what his rival N. Chandrababu Naidu attempted some years ago. The arguments too are old: Small holdings lead to low productivity, low income, low investments and, this vicious cycle goes on.
This argument ignores the fact that more than 900 scientists from 110 countries have recently concluded an international process, called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), pointing out that small-holding ecological farming is the way forward. We are also familiar with the subsidies that prop up intensive, large-scale models of farming elsewhere, despite claims of efficiency. Numerous studies have confirmed the inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per unit.
A study from Turkey shows that farms less than a hectare are 20 times more productive than farms that are over 10 hectares! But why should anyone be looking at such data when the sizes of land holdings and their alleged low productivity is used as an excuse to grab land?
This is what the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister is proposing: Get farmers to pool their land into a cooperative/society/company. Farmers sell their land to the new entity in return for some shares, which will then take up all agricultural operations and pay dividends. Farmers can exit by selling their share to existing members and, if there are no takers, government will buy the shares at a pre-determined market price. Land cannot be obtained back. Though many questions remain unanswered — what will happen to the farmers and how will they take part in any decision-making? What will tenant farmers and agricultural workers do? Why will land not be returned to the farmers? — the state Cabinet has decided to take up a pilot project in 50 villages by investing Rs 5,000 crore and there are moves to introduce a new legislation along these lines.
To begin with, the entire reasoning that bashes small holdings is faulty. Two, an experiment taken up by Mr Naidu some years ago along these lines (“Kuppam Project”) failed in delivering the promised benefits and had environmental repercussions. Most importantly, this move will take away land permanently from farmers and is truly an exit mechanism.
Incidentally, it is in Andhra Pradesh that the world’s largest ecological farming project is unfolding, supported by the state’s rural development department, which is proving that farming can indeed be made viable through alternative technologies and people’s organisations.
This programme, yielding results on more than 20 lakh acres, all small and marginal holdings, has attracted great attention already. Is it by design that the state government chose to ignore such vastly successful models and set about “to make farming viable” through proven-to-have-failed models?
While this is happening in Andhra Pradesh, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu a bill was introduced in the Assembly and supposedly passed on a day when 30 bills were passed without much discussion. This new legislation, called Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Council Act 2009, is about setting up a council that will be empowered to inspect agricultural institutions, courses of study, examinations etcetera, all to ensure that standards are conformed to.
“At present, there is no law to provide for the regulation of agricultural practice… it’s been considered necessary to regulate agricultural practice and registration of agricultural practi-tioners…” states the object of the legislation. Sounds inane enough? However, the law says that no one can render agricultural services unless his/her name is registered in the “Tamil Nadu Agricultural Practitioners Register” with a formal agricultural qualification from Tamil Nadu (outsiders can register within 90 days of their entry!).
In a country which has always had a rich tradition of farming based on an oral and experiential knowledge and in a state where paddy productivity levels are recorded to have been up to 13 tonnes per hectare (in 1807 in Coimbatore) without qualified agriculture scientists, this move is an outright rejection of the vast untapped knowledge of our farm women and men.
Worse, in the name of regulating agricultural services, this seems to be a way of controlling the farmer-to-farmer spread of ecological farming in the state, which is led by farmers themselves, their networks and other civil society groups. Tamil Nadu is also the state where the anti-genetically modified protests against Tamil Nadu Agriculture University’s unthinking capitulation to agro-MNCs like Monsanto are running at a high-pitched level. A connection between the resistance movement and this new law cannot be ruled out.
This new regulation of “agriculture services” will effectively provide more and more markets for particular kinds of technologies at the expense of farmers, as the advisories will be driven by the mindsets that prevail in the agriculture education/ research system in the country and the commercial interests of the agri-services to be set up. This route of a “qualified” advisory system will obviously facilitate conflicting interests and help in improving exclusivity of “markets” by reducing competition, while ignoring the causes for the current agrarian crisis. While a law of this kind should regulate services provided by agricultural research and agri-business bodies to ensure accountability for their services, especially in relation to economic, environmental and social viability and sustainability of farming, it should not be used as a weapon to penalise farmers and civil society groups which are trying to promote sustainable farming.
These two initiatives in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are not to be seen as isolated attempts to create more markets for agri-businesses, but as an orchestrated move towards an unwritten “exit policy” for farmers.
These two moves will set a bad precedent for the rest of the country.
Given that agriculture is contributing a lower and lower share in the country’s gross domestic product, its importance in the mainstream economic development model might be diminishing for many policymakers. However, this is a question of livelihood for millions of Indians — without ensuring access and control over basic productive resources and without moving towards sustainable production technologies, the current saga of agrarian distress, including suicides, will only increase.
Such legislations and programmes cannot be brought in without comprehensive debates and without the government clearly stating its vision for farming livelihoods and how they would be liable when things go wrong.
Dr G.V. Ramanjaneyulu is the executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and Kavitha Kuruganti is a trustee of Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab.
BY BY ROBIN SHARMA
I’m reading a beautiful book on Nelson Mandela, a man I admire enormously. An amazing example of the heights to which human beings can rise. I wanted to share part of the introduction from Bill Clinton, as it speaks to the path you and I — as dreamers, Leaders Without Title and human beings devoted to our best — are on: “Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day”.
Excerpted from The Greatness Guide 2 by
Published by Jaico Publishing House
A bishop, from the Greek episkopos, is “one who looks in on”. So, he is a mortal creature who has been elected by god to a position of overseeing authority in church government. This divides the church vertically between the clergy and the laity. Such a divide, existing from the earliest years of organized Christianity, seems to have taken on a new life in India. Some influential lay members of the Indian Catholic community have publicly demanded a law according to which church property — worth several lakh crore — would come under the supervision of the government. But the bishops are firm in resisting this demand. For them, this would break down the crucial separation between Church and State, paving the way for political intervention and control, thereby compromising India’s secular foundations. Interestingly, it is the community itself that has invited the State’s active role in the administration of church property. Lay Catholics who have asked for such a law have expressed reverence for their bishops in matters of faith, but not of property. Some of them have even found the Indian State discriminatory in taking upon itself the administration of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim property, but letting the Christian churches manage their earthly possessions under their own laws, particularly canon law.
This does leave the Indian State in a peculiar dilemma, for seldom does a minority community actually invite the government to intervene actively. The problem is usually the other way round — the State being asked to back off, as happened a few months ago in Madhya Pradesh, when its Bharatiya Janata Party government proposed a waqf-like board to manage Christian properties. It might look as if the church operates as a State within the State, with its own systems of governance and vigilance. But, although holding property by the church is guaranteed under Article 26 of the Constitution, the provisions of the existing Indian laws and of the Indian Penal Code are quite adequate to deal with cases of corruption and other financial irregularities. All church organizations are governed by the law regarding firms and societies, and have to submit audited accounts, for instance. If this is, then, a question of greater transparency and accountability on the part of the clergy, it is perhaps advisable that the matter be resolved without the further involvement of the State. Yet, it is obvious, too, that the community itself remains divided on this issue.
The decision of the Supreme Court judges to place information about their assets in the public domain is evidence of the judiciary’s willingness to, and concrete attempt at, reforming itself. The Supreme Court had so far contested all suggestions to make such classified information public on the grounds that the step would undermine the credibility of the judiciary and compromise its independence. There are at least two recent instances of this reluctance. In the first, the apex court challenged the order from the Central Information Commission to disclose if judges were keeping the Chief Justice of India posted on their assets. Under a 1997 resolution, the Supreme Court had itself resolved to bring into effect such a norm for its judges, and the CIC was only asking for information on its compliance. In the second instance, the Chief Justice gave permission for the introduction of a bill in the Rajya Sabha on the controversial subject of the judges’ declaration of assets only on the ground that it would not make members of the judiciary amenable to public scrutiny. The introduction of the bill was stalled in the Upper House of Parliament for its manifest favouring of the judicial fraternity. By voluntarily accepting the publicizing of judges’ assets, the Supreme Court has not only removed what had been a bitter source of acrimony and tension between the judiciary and the legislature and resisted an imposition from outside, but has also improved its public image. Its dogged refusal to submit to what it had made mandatory for politicians was raising serious doubts in the public mind about judicial accountability.
In India, the judiciary has always held that it is accountable to no one but itself. If this dictum is necessary to uphold the independence of the judiciary, it also imposes on the judiciary the responsibility for self-correction. This fact is now being increasingly voiced from within the legal fraternity. Therefore, the Supreme Court, by relenting on the judges’ assets issue, has listened as much to itself as to the popular will. The Supreme Court should keep up the momentum of self-reform by systematizing the declaration procedure. The high courts, which are still beyond the ambit of this regulation, should also voluntarily accept the norm for its members. Only strict transparency and accountability can assure the judiciary its independence and sanctity.
A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS
WITH FRIENDS IN THE RIGHT PLACES, MONOPOLY IS EASY
Maybe it was in her upbringing. Joan Robinson’s father was, after all, a general in the British army during World War I. She had always a no-nonsense approach to life and things, and could not suffer fools. She could not suffer foolish ideas either. As a young lecturer in Cambridge’s economics faculty in the early 1930s, she was bothered by the assumption of the free market, which was the starting point of the economics she had to impart to her students. The free market postulated the existence of an infinite number of sellers and an infinite number of buyers. But, Joan Robinson snorted, in real life one never came across an infinite number of sellers or producers. The number of producers in any line of manufacture might be sizeable, but by no means countless. Very often they were only a handful. Since the empirical foundation of existing economic theory was so weak, the prescriptions based on it could hardly be relied upon to either cure the ills of society or nurture it to growth and prosperity.
Joan Robinson made up her mind; she had to do something about it. She sat down to work, and developed an alternative concept of the market structure more truthfully reflecting the realities of life. The result was the Economics of Imperfect Competition, which immediately set the river of economic theory on fire. She showed that even if there were initially a moderately large number of sellers or producers in any branch of production, there was a tendency for this number to reduce. The more efficient and resourceful among the producers gradually weed out the less efficient and less resourceful ones, until a stage arrives when supplies to that particular market come under the grip of a single seller or producer. This single producer, Joan Robinson demonstrated, had a single goal: the maximizing of profit, which is made possible through restricting the output and hiking the price of the product. Her tour de force dealt a lethal blow to the belief fostered by traditional economic analysis that the free market ensures ideal output and a just price for all. The free market, she snorted, ends up in restrictive output and monopolistic price-setting.
The market is not free, the market is not perfect; it is dominated by a few, the monopolists. Even so, one fact is incontrovertible: a monopoly does not spring overnight, there is a market process, a certain number of entrepreneurs engage against one another, confrontation takes place between competing bunches of resources, strategies and skills, temporary successes alternating with temporary setbacks. In the final round, though, one of the entrepreneurs leaves the others behind, lagging rivals drop out, the one left in the field establishes a monopoly. It may be a long process, or a short one, but the emergence of a monopoly in a capitalist system entails a course of toil and application.
Not so, apparently, in post-1991, economically liberalized India, if the recent goings-on in the nation’s energy sector are to be taken as criterion. Not that the nation has been privileged to know much of these proceedings; the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, the formal custodian of the sector, jealously guards its secrets. But some facts have now become public knowledge by courtesy of the spat between two brothers belonging to an entrepreneur family. The revealed knowledge poses a challenge to Joan Robinson on one significant point.
Natural gas is a crucial source of energy; the Indian peninsula is supposed to have reserves of oil and natural gas amounting to billions and billions of dollars. During the long reign of Jawaharlal Nehru, one of his ministers, Keshav Dev Malviya, bubbling over with enthusiasm, took the pledge to develop this precious source of energy in the public sector. He set up the Oil and Natural Gas Commission and the Indian Oil Corporation: the former was to be solely in charge of ‘upstream’ activities such as exploration and development; downstream activities, including distribution, would be in the care of the IOC, although private parties too would not be quite left out.
Malviya had spun out his logic. Explorations of oil and natural gas call for huge investment of funds. In case State agencies had a major share of the market for their distribution, the net earnings from there could be ploughed back and deployed upstream to hasten the pace of exploration and development. Malviya ceased to be a minister in the mid-Sixties, but the ONGC sprouted roots, so much so that within a couple of decades one-third of the country’s total energy needs came to be met from the fields it had developed. The IOC too enlarged its operations. With the withdrawal of some private, mostly foreign, distributing agents, the public sector in the distribution of oil got further enlarged. Another public undertaking, the Gas Authority of India, soon joined them.
Nineteen ninety-one changed all that. The ‘animal spirit’ of our entrepreneurs, it was officially felt, needed to be given free rein in the energy sector too. A new exploration and licensing policy was announced. Licences for the exploration of development blocks were to be auctioned. Private entities which won the auctions would have exclusive rights to develop the blocks and sell the output. A National Hydro Power Corporation was established to monitor these upstream activities, including such things as determination of production cost and selling price. Similarly, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board was constituted to oversee arrangements downstream, including issue of franchise to selling agents. But, under the neo-liberal sky, the regulatory arrangements went haywire. Everything was assumed to be fine and excellent with private operators, the animal spirit tucked within their souls must not be interfered with. And if some private parties were particular pets of ruling politicians, all rules were apparently rendered irrelevant. Transparency has been rubbed out. Few details are available on the nature of the auctions of the development blocks, the conditions under which licences were granted to particular parties, the selling price that was settled, or royalty agreed to. In a parallel manner, details regarding the price at which oil or natural gas was to be disposed of downstream and the modalities for choosing agents have been kept under the cloak. It has been a vast area of darkness.
It is only on account of the happenstance of a domestic feud that some grisly facts are suddenly out in the open. A family conglomerate was allowed to establish a monopoly in both the production of natural gas in a lush Deccan basin as well as in its distribution and further processing downstream. It was a cosy fraternal arrangement between two brothers, one sibling would handle affairs at the development end, the other one would be sold the bulk of the output at a ludicrously low price; whatever was left would be sold to public entities such as the GAI and the National Thermal Power Corporation at inordinately high prices. The prices the public sector units would be called upon to pay would be determined on the basis of the claim of capital outlay posted by the first brother amounting to as much as Rs 45,000 crore. The comptroller and auditor general of India, ombudsman of the nation’s public accounts, has not till now been allowed to audit this claim. Both the NHPC and the PNGRB have gone into hibernation.
The family, however, broke up. The two brothers turned into sworn enemies; the brother at the production end reneged on the earlier understanding to sell the bulk of the output to his sibling at an absurdly low price, the aggrieved brother has now gone to court. The nation has thereby learned how, in a neo-liberal regime, the country’s assets can be deployed to serve exclusively the interests of a single family.
This tale of two brothers illustrates how monopoly can be made easy. Joan Robinson’s depiction of a process through which monopoly gets established is not that essential. An entrepreneur need not prove himself superior to his competitors in the battlefield of the market before gaining the monopoly. A different route is possible. If you have friends in the right political quarters, a monopoly will be gifted to you on a platter.
CLEAN UP THE CLUTTER
The Right to Information Act has been one of the most salutary bills passed by the Lok Sabha in the last few years. It has allowed the questioning of wrong practices and exposed the misuse of a hitherto closed and exclusive machinery that operated the governance of India, ironically at the cost of the Indian people. To protect the lucrative wheeling and dealing within the privileged nexus, the government had become used to enacting laws with one hand and then making sure that the other hand prevented the enforcement of those very laws. Today, many a cover is being lifted to reveal the sordid reality.
Most recently, information revealed that a representative of the mining lobby, who was on many boards that have had their applications cleared by the environment ministry, was a member of the clearance committee — a complete scandal and wholly unacceptable. This one example is symbolic of a disease that has infected most ‘protection’ committees of the government of India and the state governments, making them committees that exploit rather than protect. And that is where the problem lies — in the exclusive clubs where derailed politics, inappropriate administration of civil society and illegitimate businesses come together to destroy the ethos of India. Much more needs to happen through the consistent use of the RTI Act.
Recently, a daily carried a story about illegal mining in a state in south India where the chief minister’s son is allegedly connected with the strong mining lobby, trying to process illegalities through the concerned ministry at the Centre. Will the wrong-doing, in this particular case, be stopped in its tracks, or will it be allowed to pass, ostensibly unnoticed, till it is too late to make the corrective? Who is the watchdog? Is it the minister at the Centre? Or, does the government need to install an ombudsman to oversee every ministry so that ministers can overcome political pressures that come with standing up for what is right? There are thousands of such cases across India degrading and polluting the country.
The government must be emphatically directed to stop giving with one hand and taking with the other, disregarding the people whom it governs. Having passed the tribal rights act at the cost of protecting what little remains of our forests, and having overturned other established laws that governed their protection, tribal lands are being eyed by large multinationals for takeovers through fast-track clearances for mining rights. The tribals are being exploited even more. The do-gooders are silent. Why have the NGO brigade not demanded that tribal communities in those areas give 51 per cent of the shareholding to displaced tribals? That would give them enough resources to better their lives and those of their children, and propelled them into economic growth.
Similarly, simple things like running the offices of the prime minister and others in the cabinet must be efficient and citizen-friendly. If one wants an appointment or any information from such offices, it is near impossible unless one goes directly, privately, to the person concerned and he or she then directs the secretary. In other words, you have to be within the inner circle and operate on nepotism rather than on professional goodwill. Till this insular attitude changes, and the secretarial staff are compelled by their immediate bosses to meet all requests with efficient, time-bound responses, lobbies will continue to flourish and leaders will remain at the mercy of their personal secretaries.
We are in the early phases of a cleansing that could take a decade. As citizens, we need to be proactive and use all the legal mechanisms at our command to ensure corrections, however small they may seem. All the drops come together in the larger pool to purify the space for the future
EXERCISE BEGINS AT HOME
HAD his personal reputation not been so clean the Prime Minister’s latest sermon on tackling corruption would have invited ridicule. And had the conventional concept of discipline and subordination not been at play, many of the officials from the Central Bureau of Investigation and its counterparts in the states might have told him that essentially political factors prevented them from netting the big fish that he regretted were seldom brought to book. Any realistic evaluation of the CBI’s track record would raise more than a chuckle over Dr Manmohan Singh’s contention that “you have the constitutional and legal protection and safeguards to do so.” For no policing agency has been more palpably misused by those in power than the CBI to try and slam their political rivals on corruption charges. Just recall the on-off probe into the leader of the Samajwadi Party: when he bailed out the government on the trust vote triggered by the US nuclear deal the momentum was most conveniently lost. Or another recent example, in response to shrill cries from the UPA supremo the CBI went after a former defence minister in “coffingate”, but we now understand that his name is not included in the charge-sheet. Not that similar misuse of the premier investigation agency ~ tackling corruption was originally its prime aim ~ was not made when governments of other political complexions were in place.
Before speaking from a lofty perch, Dr Manmohan Singh would have done well to also reflect on the legal ping-pong played when a degree of functional autonomy was sought to be judicially conferred on that agency. If the history of police misuse by the central government is highly disturbing, what obtains in the states is simply revolting.
Since the Prime Minister has chosen to speak of “fish” he must be reminded that it rots from the head ~ so unless the political class is purged the nexus with top officials and crooks of all description will flourish and only the minnows will be caught. Nobody can dispute the adverse fall-out of rampant corruption that Dr Manmohan Singh projected, but as the nation’s chief executive it is from his office that the action must commence. A Cabinet clean-up could be the right beginning.
NO WINNER, NO LOSER
AFGHANISTAN’S QUEST FOR STABILITY
FOR a nation as volatile as Afghanistan, there may be nothing particularly exceptional in Tuesday’s car bomb explosion that killed 40 people in Kandahar. Yet direly significant must be the coincidence; the outrage occurred in parallel with the announcement of the election results. There is no winner or loser just yet with Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah poised for what they call a “photo finish”. Whether the neck-and-neck contest will necessitate a second round can only be speculated upon though it seems very likely as the result has been less than convincing. At any rate, the world will have to wait till 3 September when the final outcome is scheduled to be declared. The process may even drag till October if neither candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote-share. Democracy is on test, and the success of the exercise will hinge profoundly on a clear verdict. A higher turnout would almost certainly have helped the process. There is little doubt that Abdullah’s robust campaign has neutralised Karzai’s hopes of an easy re-election. Indeed, the psephological balance ~ 41 per cent of the votes for Karzai and 39 per cent for Abdullah ~ also confirms the balance of power in the political geography of a fractious state. While the incumbent President remains dominant in the Pashtun south, Abdullah has a firm foundation among the ethnic Tajiks to the north. The latter has appealed for “patience and responsibility”, a swingback from his earlier threat of an armed reprisal should the verdict of what he calls a “fraudulent election” go in favour of Karzai.
Paradoxically enough, the close finish in the first round illustrates that rigging and money-power have hardly been able to clinch the result decisively. Which is not to suggest that the election wasn’t plagued by irregularities; no fewer than 800 claims of irregularities have been filed with the Election Complaints Commission. Fears of a rerun of the fraud are bound to persist in the event of a second round in which the stakes will be higher. The risk of yet more violence is substantial, and the next few weeks will be portentous enough for the Taliban to make the waters murkier. Abdullah’s appeal for patience and responsibility is critical in the context of Afghanistan’s quest for stability.
TINKER AND TRAIN
NCTE GETS A BREATHER
THE Union HRD minister’s decision not to disband the National Council for Teacher Education flies in the face of the recommendation of a former union education secretary that the NCTE ought to be scrapped because it had failed to regulate the standard of instruction. The recommendation, advanced to the Centre in 2007, had suggested that the NCTE be replaced with a “new, stronger, teacher education regulatory structure”. Implicit was the failure of the existing teacher education regulator to fulfil its primary task. Mr Kapil Sibal has decided to withdraw the repeal Bill that is said to be awaiting Parliament’s approval. Aware of the NCTE’s failures as a regulatory authority, the minister’s proposed halfway house is neither here nor there. Though it will not be dissolved, its wings will be clipped and its regulatory powers are to be entrusted to individual universities. There can be no issue with the HRD ministry’s move to place the onus for better training of teachers on the universities, indeed to regulate the quality of instruction. But the idea of allowing the NCTE to retain a wholly notional existence is as illogical as it is inexplicable. Just as the previous dispensation wasn’t happy with its functioning, the present incumbent also has his reservations. It would have benefited the process of learning if the repeal Bill was allowed to take its legislative course, leading to a more efficient regulatory mechanism. Mr Sibal’s decision could well lead to a quirky state of affairs: the government will continue with the failed system while leaving the task of better teaching to the universities.
If the system has failed to deliver, it ought to have been disbanded in accordance with the provisions of the repeal Bill. The NCTE’s major failure has been its inability to regulate the spurious institutions that run teacher training courses by violating the existing rules. Small wonder why their degrees are suspect. Which precisely has created the problem of recognition, nowhere perhaps as acutely as in Bengal where the careers of thousands of primary teachers are in jeopardy as their degrees have not been recognised by the NCTE. Central to the problem is the NCTE’s failure to check the rapid growth of unauthorised teachers’ training institutes. It is a vicious circle; yet the regulator has been given a breather.
CHINA TO REWARD PATRIOTIC
BEIJING, 27 AUG: Beijing officials will offer nearly a million discount coupons in a bid to get residents to flood theatres to watch patriotic films opening next month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Communist China.
The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Radio and Television will issue 9,00,000 coupons to moviegoers from 1 September through 20 September who watch patriotic movies such as Tiananmen and The Founding of a Republic, Ms Ding Feisi, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said today.
Recipients will then be able to use the coupons to watch any movie at any theatre in the city for only US $ 1.50 during October and November, compared to the normal prices of US $ 6 and US $ 10.
“We hope that this rewards programme will not only promote film appreciation, but also encourage national unity for the 60th anniversary on Oct 1,” Ms Ding said. AP
A RIVER UNDER THREAT
THE Jamuna has been the lifeline for millions of people for several centuries, apart from supporting a rich diversity of other life-forms. Immortalised as the centre of Lord Krishna’s activities, its banks have attracted hundreds and thousands of devotees since the ancient times. The Ganga-Jamuna culture is known for its great contribution to human civilisation; historic cities such as Delhi and Agra were founded on the banks of the Jamuna.
It is distressingly unfortunate, therefore, that a considerable stretch of the Jamuna is plagued by extreme pollution. The river cannot be used for bathing. Nor can it support aquatic or other forms of life. Except during the monsoon, the natural flow of the river has been severely impeded. What we notice instead, particularly in Delhi, is the dirty water deposited by the ubiquitous drains.
A report prepared in 2005 by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) largely in the context of the Delhi stretch of Jamuna stated: “Nothing can survive for long under continued stress and the river too has died its natural death without fresh water from upstream.”
ALARMING STATE OF AFFAIRS
River areas which record BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) levels at more than 6 mg/litre are considered to be highly polluted. According to the official data in the 11th Plan document, the Jamuna’s BOD level, recorded in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Bridge is 31, the figure for Agra canal is 28, while at Mathura, Agra city and Etawah this is around 15 (summer average: March-June 2006).
It is an alarming state of affairs despite the massive amounts spent under the Jamuna Action Plan and/or Ganga Action Plan Phase II, which covered the major tributaries of the two rivers. According to data available till 2007, out of the total national average sewage treatment capacity of 6190 million litres per day, 40 per cent is concentrated in Delhi. If pollution still remains so high in the Jamuna, then we must first learn from our mistakes and correct our priorities.
A fair amount of money under the Jamuna Action Plan, including Japanese assistance, was spent on building public toilets. The funds were also spent on the eviction of hut-dwellers and farmers from the banks. Such expenditure, however necessary, couldn’t possible have curbed pollution to the desired extent. Jamuna’s problems are embedded in other sectors. The eviction of farmers is likely to be counter-productive as their crops have contributed to the greenery around the river. They have grown fresh vegetables for the people of Delhi. Instead of evicting the farmers, these “river-bank people”, as they are referred to, ought to have been mobilised for cleaning and protecting the river.
The most critical problem is that a vast stretch of the river is being deprived of the minimum requirement of natural flow of fresh water. At or near Tajewala, almost all the water is diverted to the eastern and western Jamuna canals, leaving hardly any scope for the natural flow of the river before and after the monsoon months. There has been almost a simultaneous increase in the discharge of sewage and other effluents. How can the river survive in such conditions?
The Jamuna can be divided into three stretches. The first is the hilly stretch from Yamunotri glacier up to Tajewala. This part is fairly clean. There is, however, a threat as dams and hydel projects are being constructed on the river and its tributaries, such as the Giri and the Tons. Far from increasing the natural flow of water into the river, some of these dams will divert more water. These projects need to be carefully reconsidered.
It is the second stretch of the river from Tajewala to Etawah district which is the most badly threatened. This is because almost the entire natural flow of the river is diverted to the western and eastern Jamuna canals. What makes matters worse is that tributaries and sub-tributaries, such as the Hindon which merge into the Jamuna along this stretch are the most terribly polluted. For a river’s survival, it is essential that a certain minimum flow, sometimes called the ‘environmental flow’, must be ensured. But the minimum norms are not being observed for maintaining the natural flow of the Jamuna.
It is possible to provide the minimum flow if the riverine states of Haryana, UP, and Delhi adopt water conservation measures in a big way, provide a new lease of life to the various abandoned traditional water sources like tanks and lakes, explore all-water harvesting options, and adopt the essential water-saving steps.
INNOVATIVE APPROACHES NEEDED
Other innovative approaches can be tried out for protecting the Jamuna as well as its tributaries and sub-tributaries from pollution, sewage and industrial effluents. Efforts must be made for localised treatment and re-cycling instead of pushing the waste water towards the river. The model provided by the Sankatmochan Foundation in Varanasi in the context of cleaning the Ganga provides an example of how polluted water can be stopped from entering the river and then recycled for irrigation and manure.
The third stretch of the river starts at the point where the Chambal joins the Jamuna with its substantial flow of water. As soon as the Jamuna receives this gift of life from the Chambal, it begins to look like a river. Further downstream its water supply is further increased by the merger of tributaries ~ Sindh, Ken and Betwa. So by the time the Jamuna completes its 13,760 km journey to merge into the Ganga at Allahabad, it has gathered adequate water. However, the Ken-Betwa link project poses a threat to the Chambal. Sufficient care has to be taken to protect the third stretch of the river from these emerging threats.
However, the second stretch of the river remains the biggest challenge. Fresh problems have arisen on account of the high value of river-bank land in Delhi and Agra. To that can be added the dubious projects that are on the anvil to colonise this land. The Himalayan rivers need vast stretches of free river banks to meander. They also fulfil the crucial role of conserving flood water and rain water in the porous land. This ecological role is particularly important for cities like Delhi that face a chronic water shortage. Therefore, efforts to build concrete structures on the river-bank land and “flood plains” should be opposed, in of view the fact that substantial parts of “flood plains” have already been lost to the urban sprawl and at least what remains must be saved.
The task of protecting the river cannot be left merely to the devices of the government. It can succeed only with the involvement of the people, particularly of the river-bank segment. The efforts of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan and the Yamuna Satyagraha ought to be encouraged.
IN YELLOW REVOLUTION, SEEDS OF A MISSION
SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN OILSEEDS WOULD HAVE A GREAT IMPACT ON AGRICULTURE AND THE ECONOMY.
BY Y P GUPTA
India’s oilseeds output in 2008-09 is estimated to be 28.16 million tonnes, which is quite deficient as the demand stood at 45.46 million tonnes. The output in 2009-10 is projected to fall due to deficient monsoon this year. It has stood at 25 million tonnes since 1998-99. Oilseeds production accounts for 7.4 per cent of the global production and is considered as the fourth-largest edible oil country in the world.
The earlier policy allowing free import of oilseeds was detrimental to the interests of oilseeds growing farmers and a set-back on development of oilseeds for achieving self-sufficiency. As a result, the country remained dependent on imported edible oils. There has been a significant increase in imports of crude palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia.
The ‘yellow revolution’ in oilseeds owes its earlier success to a spectacular increase in output to 24.75 million tonnes in 1998-99 from 10.83 million tonnes in 1985-86. But thereafter, we have not been able to achieve self-sufficiency in oilseeds. Current production is not enough to meet the needs of cooking oils of our growing population.
The annual demand has risen to over 125 lakh tonnes whereas production is hardly around 75 lakh tonnes. The shortage is met by imports every year from Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia. Annual oilseeds imports, which account for about five million tonnes, cost Rs 15,873.6 crore in 2008-09 from Rs 10,942.54 crore in 2007-08. It is estimated that the demand in 2020 may touch 20.8 million tonnes, requiring a production of 60 million tonnes of oilseeds, and that the per capita oil consumption may rise to 16 kg annually.
Edible oil is an important constituent of the Indian diet. Beside being a source of energy, they add a special flavour and palatability to food. The annual per capita consumption is 11.1 kg against the world average of 14.5 kg and the average of 26 kg in developed countries. Edible oil consumption is likely to increase with rising of per capita income. However, the daily in-take of fat should not contribute more than 15-20 per cent calories.
There is potential to produce about 25 lakh tonnes of oil from non-conventional sources, but hardly about eight lakh tonnes are being utilised. It is important to work out a strategy to exploit maximum potential from these sources.
The spectacular success of the yellow revolution in 1998-99 could be attributed to an increase in the cultivable area to about 26 million hectares and an integrated approach that gave over-riding priority through a technology mission. Aimed at accelerating self-reliance in oilseeds, the approach adopted envisaged developing and taking modern technological inputs to farmers, thereby providing them incentive prices and storage and processing facilities.
The National Dairy Board was entrusted with the task to develop groundnut production in Gujarat through farmers’ oilseeds societies. The national Oilseeds and Vegetable Oils Development Board was entrusted to popularise oilseeds in non-traditional areas. Also, an oilseeds production thrust project was initiated to accelerate production of four major oilseeds — groundnut, mustard-rapeseed, soybean and sunflower.
The integrated oilseeds development programme was initiated in different states with more than 3,000 oilseed societies involving 13 lakh farmers and 25 lakh hectares of land. Despite these efforts, our oilseeds productivity continues to be as low as 944 kg per hectare when compared to the world level at 1,632 kg per hectare.
At present, there is not much scope to expand the cultivable area under oilseeds. The continuing shortage of cooking oils would suggest that the Oilseeds Technology Mission and growing oil palms have had little impact. These energy-rich crops suffer from a number of constraints as they are grown in poor environment and are susceptible to pests and diseases. Besides, farmers preferred to grow high-yielding cereals to earn higher profits. However, in the recent past, improved technology has been developed to boost output.
As major crops, oilseeds meet the country’s needs for edible oils. A second yellow revolution is crying need of the hour. Also, a technical breakthrough in dryland farming is needed to maximise yield, productivity and farm income. Achieving the aim of making the country self-sufficient in oilseeds would have a great impact on agriculture and the economy and would help reduce dependence on foreign markets.
LADY IN THE LOOKING GLASS
MY DREAM WAS REAL, ONE OF HONEST AND UNCOMPROMISING HARD WORK.
BY LASYA SHASHIMOHAN
I retired after a seemingly endless, mundane and extremely mediocre day with a copy of Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’. Soon I was sucked into the alluring mire of the master psychoanalyst’s take on the mystic subconscious, the ongoing clashes between the I, ego, superego et al.
Ominous clatter of hoofs sounded suddenly as the night unleashed frightening mares, which thundered towards me at lightening speed. They escaped not before having stepped hard on my left clavicle.
“Oh, not again”, I thought as I rushed to the mirror to asses the damage. History couldn’t be repeating itself thus — the doctor who had delivered me, had apparently informed my stupefied parents of my cracked collarbone. Later, it was set right.
My fears were baseless — the looking glass said. My clavicle seemed fused. There was nothing amiss… Or was there?
As I beheld my reflection I saw an entity — a dramatically improvised image of me. Her eyes were alive, a far cry from my sleep-deprived, bloodshot ones now. Clearly, this girl was bewitching in a way I could never be.
“Who are you?!” I whispered hoarsely. “Maya, your alter ego; all that you want to be but are not”, the beauty of the hour glass form responded. Her voice was power personified: “Surrender” Maya urged, “Surrender to me tonight, sister. Your harmonious union with me; your alter-ego, will benefit you in every arena of life.”
I was tempted by Maya’s offer. As I shut my eyes in reflection and opened them, they bulged in horror. Maya was mounted on the crazed red bull of ambition; with razor-sharp horns and a forked tail. It was ruthless as she was, uncompromising and blind to everything while reaching goals.
There seemed to be blood on my eyes too as an early morning ray fell on my closed lids and woke me up. I heaved a sigh of relief. Maya was a dream. ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ was lying by my side. I vaguely wondered how Freud would have interpreted mine.
I stood up, ready to face another difficult day; albeit happily. Maya was exquisite and her world magical, but mine was real, one of honest and uncompromising hard work. I could even make my visions come true. As I reflected on this, words of William Blake sounded in my mind: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings”.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
ANOTHER WAY TO LOSE THE HOUSE
The foreclosure crisis will get much worse before it gets any better.
That’s the only conclusion to draw from a recent survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association, which found that six million loans were either past due or in foreclosure in the second quarter of 2009, the highest level ever recorded by the group. Worse, loan defaults are not the only cause of foreclosures. In some areas, unpaid property taxes are provoking foreclosures, even for homeowners otherwise current on their payments.
The Times’s Jack Healy reported the other day that in recent years, some cities and counties that are strapped for money have sold their delinquent tax bills to private firms. The firms, which typically charge double-digit interest rates and steep fees, get to keep what they collect. They also get the right to foreclose on the homes, taking priority over mortgage lenders.
Debt collection is always tough. But it is especially fraught when private firms go after unpaid taxes, because private collection distorts the public interest. For example, governments can also foreclose for unpaid taxes, but they are less likely to do so out of concern for property values and quality of life. The auditor in Lucas County, Ohio — which sold more than 3,000 tax liens for $14.7 million — said that the cost to the community from abandoned and foreclosed properties has been greater than the short-term benefit from selling the liens.
Local governments cannot undo their previous tax lien sales. But changes in federal policy can reduce the foreclosure risk from unpaid property taxes. During the mortgage bubble, some lenders kept monthly loan payments low by not tacking on an extra amount to cover taxes and insurance.
For the loans in question — which generally fell into the categories of subprime, Alt-A (a notch above subprime) or jumbo loans — neither federal law nor pressure from mortgage investors compelled the inclusion of taxes and insurance in the monthly payment. Housing advocates say that many homeowners did not realize the amounts were excluded.
In 2008 — after the bubble had burst — the Federal Reserve altered the rules, but the changes were weak. They require taxes and insurance to be included, but only for subprime loans and only for a year. After that, lenders can let borrowers opt out of paying those charges as part of their monthly bills.
Excluding the charges might help lenders, because it increases the likelihood that borrowers will need to refinance to cover unexpected expenses. But it puts many borrowers and whole communities at risk. What is needed is a rule that requires the inclusion of taxes and insurance in the monthly payment for all types of mortgages and that disallows opt-outs until borrowers have made at least five years of steady payments.
The issue is also one more reminder that the nation badly needs an independent consumer safety regulator for mortgages and other loans — and that the Fed is not the right choice for the job.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
SHAME ON IRAN
Longer than many people might have predicted, Iran’s political opposition is continuing to challenge the ruling hard-line mullahs. The street protests that shook the country after the bogus June 12 presidential election have faded, but the courage to speak out against the regime’s mounting abuses has not.
Earlier this month, Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist cleric who placed fourth among the presidential contenders, stunned many Iranians by charging that some of the thousands of men and women who were arrested for protesting after the disputed election had been raped. Even after the government rejected the accusations as “sheer lies,” Mr. Karroubi was defiant. He called for an investigation and said four people were ready to testify if their security is guaranteed. He said that if the government continued to deny the facts and “terrorize” him for truth-telling, “I will disclose all the untold stories.”
Corroboration has come from the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi. He said “establishment agents” were responsible for the rapes, and, on Thursday, an unnamed parliamentarian said that an official inquiry had proved that rapes took place. It is a sensitive topic. Rumors about sexual misconduct in Iran’s prisons have been around since the 1979 revolution, but this is the first time they have been discussed publicly.
Oddly, the government seemed to have less trouble acknowledging that some detainees had been tortured. Those incidents were “mistakes,” Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi, a top judiciary official, told a news conference. Iran’s Constitution and law prohibit torture; however, the 2008 State Department human rights report cites numerous credible reports over the years in which security forces and prison personnel tortured prisoners.
The government should be ferreting out and putting an end to these abuses. Instead, it continues to conduct cruel mass show trials designed to intimidate the opposition and legitimize the illegitimate — the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
During Tuesday’s trial — in which former officials, journalists and academics were accused of fomenting a foreign-inspired “velvet revolution” — prosecutors went a step further and struck at the entire reform movement by asking the judge to ban the two reform parties.
The election and its violent aftermath have caused unprecedented fissures among the political and clerical elite. More repression is only likely to deepen the discontent. We hope more conservatives join the opposition in demanding punishment for those who abused detainees and that hard-liners reconsider their ominous threats to punish Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Moussavi for speaking out.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
MY LAI HAUNTS THE LIEUTENANT
The nation has finally heard a note of personal regret from William Calley 38 years after he became the sole American soldier convicted in the My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Mr. Calley, a former lieutenant who now is a 66-year-old graybeard, told the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Ga. His appearance this month came after decades of no comment. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families,” said Mr. Calley, who was defended as a dutiful soldier by many when the slaughter was disclosed.
His remarks are an important reminder for a nation again at war of the considerable risks to honor and truth that can undermine troops caught in the frustrations and fears of the battlefront. The slaughter was conducted in March 1968 by platoons of American soldiers who shot and abused more than 300 victims — mainly women, children and elderly peasants — in a murderous frenzy.
After an 18-month cover-up, the story was broken by Seymour Hersh, the relentless reporter who pried truth firsthand from Mr. Calley and other perpetrators. The massacre sparked world outrage and helped unravel support for the Vietnam War, but it left still-gaping holes in the need for full justice up the military chain of command.
“I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer,” an American mother told Mr. Hersh of the guilt haunting My Lai veterans. There was small comfort in pleading they had to follow orders and shoot victims fleeing for their lives and cowering in an irrigation pit. Twenty-six soldiers eventually were charged, but only Mr. Calley was convicted. Ranking brass separately accused in the cover-up were acquitted.
Mr. Calley endures as a classic scapegoat. He was sentenced to life in prison. But as the nation polarized and he was lionized in a jingoistic pop song, he was ordered transferred by President Richard Nixon to house arrest at a comfortable apartment. His sentence was eventually reduced, and he served three years. “I am very sorry,” Mr. Calley told the Kiwanis, stirring the ghosts of a horrific episode the nation dare not forget.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
TIME TO BE AFRAID OF THE WEB?
BY EDUARDO PORTER
Internet users used to comfort themselves by thinking that to become victims of the pirates of the Web, they had to frequent the online porn circuit or respond to an e-mail from the widowed wife of the former central bank governor of Nigeria. The idea was that one had to do something naughty to get caught in the wrongdoers’ net, or at least go for a late-night stroll in the rough end of town.
But the conceit has become untenable. Two years ago, engineers at Google reported that about 10 percent of millions of Web pages they analyzed engaged in “drive-by downloads” of malware. Google today has about 330,000 Web sites listed as malicious, up from about 150,000 a year ago.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department charged a 28-year-old from Miami and a couple of Russians with stealing 130 million credit card numbers from one of the largest payment processing companies in the world, which should know how to protect its computers from hackers. And last week, McAfee, the maker of antivirus software, reported that fans searching for Hollywood gossip and memorabilia faced a high risk of getting caught up by online bad guys.
Searching for the actress Jessica Biel, who won an achievement award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2006 and ranked in third place on Maxim magazine’s Hot 100 list last year, is most dangerous, with a 1 in 5 chance of landing at a Web site that tested positive for spyware, adware, spam, phishing, viruses or other noxious stuff. Searches of Beyoncé, Britney Spears and even Tom Brady of the New England Patriots are risky, too, according to McAfee. More than 40 percent of Google search results for “Jennifer Aniston screen savers” contained viruses, including one called FunLove.
Perhaps cybercops will respond more aggressively to Internet threats as they spread to the more wholesome parts of the Web, like police forces that leave crime alone in the poor parts of town but snap into action when it seeps into middle-class neighborhoods. McAfee, to no one’s surprise, suggests that we buy McAfee software.
But with more and more information about people’s credit cards, browsing histories and identities sloshing around online, I wonder whether this will do. A few months ago, I nervously created my first Facebook page with the minimum necessary information to view pictures posted by old friends.
I returned to the page a few days later to discover that somehow it had found out both the name of my college and my graduation class, displaying them under my name. I have not returned since. In the back of my mind, I fear a 28-year-old hacker and a couple of Russians have gathered two more facts about me that I would rather they didn’t have. And it’s way too late to take my life offline. EDUARDO PORTER
THE NEW YORK TIMES
THE GREAT GRADUALIST
BY DAVID BROOKS
In the days since Ted Kennedy’s death, the news programs have shown and re-shown the unforgettable ending of his 1980 Democratic convention speech — the passage from Tennyson and the beautiful final lines: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
But if you go back earlier into the heart of that speech, you see how bold Kennedy’s agenda really was. His central argument was for a policy of full employment. Government should provide a job for every able-bodied American. His next big goal was what he called “reindustrialization.” The computer revolution was just getting under way, but Kennedy called on government to restore the industrial might of America’s cities.
The third big goal was national health insurance. “Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge,” Kennedy cried.
There were other proposals. He vowed to use “the full power of government to master increasing prices.” Kennedy was proposing to fundamentally transform America’s political economy. He knew he had lost the nomination by this time, and his liberalism was unbound.
The speech was radical, and he could have gone back to the Senate, content to luxuriate in his own
boldness. He could have excoriated his opponents for their villainy and given speeches about dreams that would never come true.
But Kennedy became something else. He became a compromiser. He became an incrementalist.
Those words have negative connotations. But they shouldn’t. Kennedy never abandoned his ambitious ideals, but his ability to forge compromises and champion gradual, incremental change created the legacy everybody is celebrating today: community health centers, the National Cancer Institute, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Meals on Wheels program, the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. The latter law, by the way, has narrowed the black-white achievement gap more than any other recent piece of legislation.
Kennedy’s life yields several important lessons. One is about the nature of political leadership. We have been taught since, well, since the days of Camelot to admire a particular sort of politician: the epic, charismatic Mount Rushmore candidate who sits atop his charger leading transformational change.
But the founders of this country designed the Constitution to frustrate that kind of leader. The Constitution diffuses power, requires compromise and encourages incrementalism. The founders created a government that was cautious so that society might be dynamic.
Ted Kennedy was raised to prize one set of leadership skills and matured to find that he possessed another. He possessed the skills of the legislator, and if you ask 99 senators who was the best craftsman among them, they all will say Kennedy. He knew how to cut deals. He understood coalitions and other people’s motives and needs.
I once ran into John McCain after a negotiating session with Kennedy on an immigration bill they had co-sponsored. McCain was exhausted by the arduous and patient way his friend negotiated. In my last interview with Kennedy, I asked about big ideas, and his answers were nothing special. Then I asked about a minor provision in an ancient piece of legislation, and his command of the provision and how it got there was jaw-droppingly impressive.
There is a craft to governance, which depends less on academic intelligence than on a contextual awareness of how to bring people together. Kennedy possessed that awareness.
A second lesson involves the nature of change in America.
We in this country have a distinct sort of society. We Americans work longer hours than any other people on earth. We switch jobs much more frequently than Western Europeans or the Japanese. We have high marriage rates and high divorce rates. We move more, volunteer more and murder each other more.
Out of this dynamic but sometimes merciless culture, a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. America’s G.D.P. per capita is nearly 50 percent higher than France’s. But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery.
This culture, this spirit, this system is not perfect, but it is our own. American voters welcome politicians who propose reforms that smooth the rough edges of the system. They do not welcome politicians and proposals that seek to contradict it. They do not welcome proposals that centralize power and substantially reduce individual choice. They resist proposals that put security above mobility and individual responsibility.
In 1980, Kennedy proposed an agenda that jarred with the traditions of American governance. In the decades since, a constrained Kennedy and a string of Republican co-sponsors produced reforms in keeping with it. The benefits are there for all to see.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
TILL DEBT DOES ITS PART
BY PAUL KRUGMAN
So new budget projections show a cumulative deficit of $9 trillion over the next decade. According to many commentators, that’s a terrifying number, requiring drastic action — in particular, of course, canceling efforts to boost the economy and calling off health care reform.
The truth is more complicated and less frightening. Right now deficits are actually helping the economy. In fact, deficits here and in other major economies saved the world from a much deeper slump. The longer-term outlook is worrying, but it’s not catastrophic.
The only real reason for concern is political. The United States can deal with its debts if politicians of both parties are, in the end, willing to show at least a bit of maturity. Need I say more?
Let’s start with the effects of this year’s deficit.
There are two main reasons for the surge in red ink. First, the recession has led both to a sharp drop in tax receipts and to increased spending on unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs. Second, there have been large outlays on financial rescues. These are counted as part of the deficit, although the government is acquiring assets in the process and will eventually get at least part of its money back.
What this tells us is that right now it’s good to run a deficit. Consider what would have happened if the U.S. government and its counterparts around the world had tried to balance their budgets as they did in the early 1930s. It’s a scary thought. If governments had raised taxes or slashed spending in the face of the slump, if they had refused to rescue distressed financial institutions, we could all too easily have seen a full replay of the Great Depression.
As I said, deficits saved the world.
In fact, we would be better off if governments were willing to run even larger deficits over the next year or two. The official White House forecast shows a nation stuck in purgatory for a prolonged period, with high unemployment persisting for years. If that’s at all correct — and I fear that it will be — we should be doing more, not less, to support the economy.
But what about all that debt we’re incurring? That’s a bad thing, but it’s important to have some perspective. Economists normally assess the sustainability of debt by looking at the ratio of debt to G.D.P. And while $9 trillion is a huge sum, we also have a huge economy, which means that things aren’t as scary as you might think.
Here’s one way to look at it: We’re looking at a rise in the debt/G.D.P. ratio of about 40 percentage points. The real interest on that additional debt (you want to subtract off inflation) will probably be around 1 percent of G.D.P., or 5 percent of federal revenue. That doesn’t sound like an overwhelming burden.
Now, this assumes that the U.S. government’s credit will remain good so that it’s able to borrow at relatively low interest rates. So far, that’s still true. Despite the prospect of big deficits, the government is able to borrow money long term at an interest rate of less than 3.5 percent, which is low by historical standards. People making bets with real money don’t seem to be worried about U.S. solvency.
The numbers tell you why. According to the White House projections, by 2019, net federal debt will be around 70 percent of G.D.P. That’s not good, but it’s within a range that has historically proved manageable for advanced countries, even those with relatively weak governments. In the early 1990s, Belgium — which is deeply divided along linguistic lines — had a net debt of 118 percent of G.D.P., while Italy — which is, well, Italy — had a net debt of 114 percent of G.D.P. Neither faced a financial crisis.
So is there anything to worry about? Yes, but the dangers are political, not economic.
As I’ve said, those 10-year projections aren’t as bad as you may have heard. Over the really long term, however, the U.S. government will have big problems unless it makes some major changes. In particular, it has to rein in the growth of Medicare and Medicaid spending.
That shouldn’t be hard in the context of overall health care reform. After all, America spends far more on health care than other advanced countries, without better results, so we should be able to make our system more cost-efficient.
But that won’t happen, of course, if even the most modest attempts to improve the system are successfully demagogued — by conservatives! — as efforts to “pull the plug on grandma.”
So don’t fret about this year’s deficit; we actually need to run up federal debt right now and need to keep doing it until the economy is on a solid path to recovery. And the extra debt should be manageable. If we face a potential problem, it’s not because the economy can’t handle the extra debt. Instead, it’s the politics, stupid.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
THE STATE OF NEW ORLEANS: AN UPDATE
BY AMY LIU AND NIGEL HOLMES
THIS year, the Gulf Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina has become President Obama’s responsibility. How bad a situation has he inherited?
The good news is that, on the fourth anniversary of the storm, New Orleans is weathering the recession relatively well. Since June 2008, the metro area has shed only about one percent of its jobs, significantly less than the 4.1 percent of jobs that have been lost nationally. Over the past 12 months, unemployment in New Orleans has mostly hovered around 5 percent. It recently jumped to 7.3 percent, primarily because of an increase in the number of new job seekers (like recent college graduates), but that is still well below the national average of 9.5 percent. At a time when falling home values are keeping many Americans from moving, the city has attracted 10,000 new households, the biggest one-year expansion since 2007.
Continuing repairs to roads, bridges and public buildings in New Orleans are helping shield the area from a more serious slump. The region is also fortunate not to rely heavily on industries like manufacturing that are shedding jobs. And it has benefited from job growth in its sizable government sector, which handles many recovery-related contracts and activities.
Yet New Orleans is not impervious to the economic crisis. Its housing market has stalled, with 39 percent fewer people buying homes this year than did the year before, and 48 percent fewer new homes being built. Also, a drop in consumer spending has hurt city sales-tax revenues.
Meanwhile, New Orleans still has more than 62,000 blighted and vacant houses and apartment buildings. Rents have leveled off, but they remain 40 percent higher than they were before the storm. People worry about what kind of good, long-term jobs there will be to replace recovery-related jobs when those disappear.
In the past eight months, a number of Obama administration officials have visited New Orleans and Mississippi, and they have found ways to help — for example, by accelerating the pace of repairs and by finding homes for families still living in trailers. But next year’s five-year anniversary represents, for many, the midpoint in a 10-year recovery. President Obama’s biggest challenge is to work effectively with Louisiana officials and the next mayor of New Orleans to generate enough progress before next August to show that the city is truly reinventing itself, rather than simply returning to a suboptimal normal.
AMY LIU, the deputy director of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution Designed by Nigel Holmes.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
SMART CHILD LEFT BEHIND
BY TOM LOVELESS AND MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
AS American children head back to school, the parents of the most academically gifted students may feel a new optimism: according to a recent study, the federal No Child Left Behind law is acting like a miracle drug. Not only is it having its intended effect — bettering the performance of low-achieving students — it is raising test scores for top students too.
This comes as quite a surprise, as ever since the law was enacted in 2002, analysts and educators have worried that gifted pupils would be the ones left behind. While the law puts extraordinary pressure on schools to lift the performance of low-achieving students, it includes no incentives to accelerate the progress of high achievers.
Yet the new study, by the independent Center on Education Policy, showed that more students are reaching the “advanced” level on state tests now than in 2002. This led the authors to conclude that there is little evidence that high-achieving students have been shortchanged.
If only that were so. But like many miracle-drug claims, this conclusion is deeply flawed, for several reasons.
First, under the federal law, state tests are supposed to measure whether students are meeting grade-level expectations — whether the average third grader knows the mathematics taught through third grade. But high achievers usually work above grade level, so the state tests are very poor instruments for measuring how well top students are learning.
Second, the way the study’s analysts depicted state trends creates a misleading national picture. They calculated “trend lines” in each state — for example, whether more fourth graders in Georgia reached the “advanced” level in math, whether they made gains in reading and so on for each grade and subject.
For their conclusions, they added together all the up, down and sideways trends to give a national snapshot, saying that 83 percent of trend lines showed gains, while 15 percent showed declines. The problem with this system is that it treats all states equally, regardless of size. So a gain among high-performing students in North Dakota has the same weight as one in California, which has more than 60 times as many students.
Third, the analysis does not compare today’s students with those of earlier eras. High-achieving students might be making incremental progress — but is this new? If they were making similar gains before 2002, then might recent progress have nothing to do with No Child Left Behind? And how did their progress compare with trends for lower-achieving students?
Thankfully, there is a more suitable tool to help answer such questions: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks achievement changes in 4th, 8th and 12th graders across the country. It found relatively little progress among our highest-achieving students (those in the top 10 percent) from 2000 to 2007, while the bottom 10 percent made phenomenal gains. For example, in eighth-grade math, the lowest-achieving students made 13 points of progress on the national-assessment scale from 2000 to 2007 — roughly the equivalent of a whole grade. Top students, however, gained just five points.
We also learned something from the data from the 1990s. For the most part, both high- and low-achievers made tepid annual gains. But there was one exception: In the states that already had accountability systems similar to those that would eventually be required by No Child Left Behind, there were much larger gains at the bottom than at the top.
So what does all of this mean? It is clear that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students. But it is also obvious that high-achieving students — who suffer from benign neglect under the law — have been making smaller gains, much as they did before it was enacted. Alas, this drug is producing no miracles.
No doubt, some will claim victory: We are closing the achievement gap between our top and bottom students! But is that our only national goal in education? What might happen if federal law encouraged educators to improve the performance of all students? Our analysis of the federal data identified tens of thousands of high achievers who are black, Hispanic or poor. They are excelling at their studies, often against great odds. Shouldn’t we be addressing their educational needs?
As we look for ways to improve No Child Left Behind, we must recognize that our top students still have much to learn.
Tom Loveless is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the task force on K-12 education at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Michael J. Petrilli is the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
I. THE NEWS
The statement by former ISI chief Lt-Gen Asad Durrani before the Supreme Court that he had transferred large sums of money to named politicians, to bolster the IJI election campaign in 1990, is another reminder of the close nexus between agencies and political happenings. Nearly 15 years after the event, excerpts from the statement have been broadcast by Geo TV. While the involvement of the then army chief and president in the effort to weaken the PPP, ousted in 1990 and defeated in the elections that followed, is hardly news – the revelations regarding funds which went into selected accounts will embarrass a number of politicians. Most significant at this time, among the names given out by Durrani, is that of Mian Nawaz Sharif. Even if the stories that have suddenly started to emerge are motivated by an attempt to silence Sharif as he continues to demand the trial of ex-president Musharraf, they do inflict on him considerable damage. The PML-N has long been seen as the 'front' for the establishment; there are those who believe its victory in the 1996 polls was also 'assisted' to ensure for it an overwhelming majority in parliament. The role for the party in opposition to the military since 1999, when Sharif was ousted, was an unusual one – and in some ways at least remains so.
But this factor aside, the evidence emerging of the extent of agencies' involvement in political events is telling. It brings into question the very nature of our democracy; we must ask how much of the expensive electoral process we go through is in fact tampered with or manipulated. Even politicians who have repeatedly taken the moral high ground on various issues have been named on the latest list. They can attempt to justify accepting the money which, ostensibly, came from the Karachi 'business community'. But the hard fact is that bribes were accepted and there is no way of getting around this. Now that these details have begun to surface, there is a need to ponder certain issues. Somehow we need to distance the military from politics. Its involvement makes the use of money to lure politicians even more damaging then the corruption involving electoral funds that exists in so many nations. Perhaps the fact that past misdeeds have now come out into the open is also a reminder to politicians that they cannot expect to get away scot-free with wrongdoing. This may serve as some kind of lesson for the future and introduce an era of greater accountability in our politics.
I. THE NEWS
Nawab Akbar Bugti leaves behind a curious legacy. Through much of his life he was a figure seen associated with the Pakistan 'establishment', opposed to Baloch nationalism and those who stood for it. In the months before his death, and especially after it, he has been turned into a martyr representing the Baloch cause and indeed giving up his life for it. The strike observed in parts of Quetta and in several other districts of Balochistan on the Bugti's third death anniversary testifies to this. The anniversary also saw protests and rallies condemning his killing and demanding autonomy for Balochistan. The present government came in for harsh criticism at some of these meetings for failing to live up to promises regarding addressing the grievances of the people of Balochistan and for doing nothing to bring the killers of the late tribal chief to justice. These calls are a reminder of the feelings that run through Balochistan. The people of the province are obviously in no mood to either forget or forgive those who they believe murdered Bugti. There can be little doubt that the policies that saw Bugti being killed and the military operation during which this happened, have done nothing to dampen the demand of nationalists. Indeed their cause has grown bigger and assumed more force.
The failure of such tactics needs to be acknowledged in the context of evolving a wider strategy to address the needs of Balochistan. This can be effectively achieved only if people are involved and all the Baloch groups that represent them engaged in the peace process. It is unfortunate that this effort has not already been initiated. As a result, goodwill has been lost and mistrust has grown. This will make the task of ending bitterness in Balochistan harder. To achieve this, the unresolved issues stemming from the mysterious death of Bugti, ostensibly in a mountain hide-out, should be inquired into by an independent commission. The truth must come forward. Only then will it be possible to construct a new relationship based on greater trust and a willingness to work together to build a stronger nation.
I. THE NEWS
THE FLOUR FRONTLINE
As happens every year, the advent of Ramazan has seen a hike in food prices. Many commodities, including atta and sugar, are being sold at inflated prices at most selling points. The Punjab government has indeed resorted to increasingly desperate measures to control prices in the province. Sugar millers have been warned to bring stocks to the market or face an open sale while a decision has reportedly been taken to flood the market with flour, by increasing the wheat release by up to 90 per cent, thus forcing down prices. But the situation is a rather complex one. The supply of atta by the government at cheaper rates to tandoors for the provision of roti at subsidised prices, and to Friday markets, means people have been buying sacks of the item at one point and selling them at higher rates elsewhere. Those living below the poverty line are said also to be engaged in this lucrative game, leading to suggestions that systems of checks against double and triple buying be put in place. The issuance of ration cards or of using indelible ink to mark buyers purchasing at subsidised rates is one suggestion – though this could mean other members of the same household could buy the flour, turn by turn.
The situation points to the complexities of controlling prices. Even schemes intended to assist the poor appear to have indirectly contributed to rising market prices. Ordinary people, especially the middle-class, reluctant to accept what they see as government 'hand-outs' suffer worst. During a time of year when expenses rise in many homes, they must also keep up appearances. It is quite clear that the issue of commodity pricing and measures to enforce the rates set by the government is one that needs to be taken up as a priority, so that some rationality can be introduced and the current uncontrolled rate of inflation checked.
IMF PAINTS A HORRIBLE SCENARIO
IN its latest review of Pakistan’s economy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has painted a horrible scenario in months and years to come, which should serve as an eye-opener for those at the helm of affairs. It has warned that a slower global recovery, higher commodity prices, and political instability, as well as existing constraints on energy and infrastructure pose significant risks to the country.
Though there is no revelation and the risks and threats enumerated by the IMF are fully known to all concerned yet the review gains significance as it comes from an independent and neutral source that has nothing to do with internal politicking and its findings should be taken seriously by the authorities concerned. Similar projections were made by the World Bank recently, which had anticipated that the international debt of Pakistan might reach staggering $75 billion by 2015, and debt repayment would constitute 35% of the country’s GDP leaving too little for development after sparing allocations for defence and non-development expenditure. This is bound to be the net result of the unimaginative approach of our financial managers to rely too much on foreign loans. The present Government has broken all records of foreign borrowing by securing $ 11.3 billion from the IMF to bridge the budgetary deficit. There is so far no worthwhile attempt at discouraging free for all imports that eat up what we obtain through incessant begging from different quarters. Economic experts say that loans are not bad as long as these are utilized on productive sectors and programmes but here we have been using them as a budgetary support and that too to import luxury items for our ruling and affluent class. It is also regrettable that despite tall claims made by the successive governments, there is so far no progress towards imposition of taxes on those sections of the society that have been treated as holy cows and instead the common man is burdened with additional taxation every now and then causing genuine frustration and disappointment. We can definitely manage our affairs provided there is will and determination to curtail lavish spendings and initiate projects and plans that can not only help augment our capacity to repay loans but also take the country forward.
LETHAL AFGHANISTAN-ISRAEL WAR DEAL
AFGHANISTAN and Israel have reached an unprecedented defence deal worth tens of millions of dollars under which the Jewish State would supply “SUFA” armoured cars and other defence-related equipment to Kabul. It has been reported that the deal has been struck after exchange of visits by officials of the two countries.
The development is alarming as this indicates that there would be no sustainable peace in Afghanistan even after withdrawal of foreign occupation forces. Though presently there are no signs as to when the foreign troops would leave the country, Obama administration is under tremendous pressure to do so at the earliest. There are demands by the US public opinion that the new administration should formulate an exit strategy from the war-torn country and it is said that the policy of surge in troops is aimed at taking the war on terror to early conclusion. There is similar pressure on other coalition partners as well and it is likely that these countries will have to give serious thought to demands for withdrawal of troops, as there is no moral or legal justification for the war. But the Afghan-Israel deal, which could not have taken place without pampering by the US, is indicative of the fact that the country would remain destabilized due to activities of Indo-Israeli duo that is also active on the eastern front of Pakistan. Their increased and effective presence in Afghanistan would mean that the Western frontiers of Pakistan would remain volatile even if the occupation forces leave the country. The US is obviously planning to hand over the country to India and Israel so as to safeguard its regional interests at the cost of national interests of Pakistan. Presence of India and Israel effectively means depriving Pakistan of its desire to have strategic depth on its Western side. It is, therefore, time that our defence analysts, strategists, foreign policy experts and media carry out deeper analysis of the Indo-Israeli nexus in Afghanistan and its implications for Pakistan.
SARKOZY SHOULD ASSERT MORE
FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to be in mood of taking some initiatives to reactivate the Middle East peace process. While addressing a meeting of French Ambassadors in Paris he offered to convene a new summit of the Mediterranean Union by the end of this year if Israel freezes all settlement activity in the Palestinian territories.
There is universal agreement that the Palestinian people are under occupation and have been deprived of their land. International opinion agree with Mr Sarkozy that there is no justification for the jewish settlements, but it appears that enjoying support of the strong jewish community in the United States, Israeli government is not ready to listen to sane voices. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell Wednesday spoke of resumption of meaningful talks with the Palestinians yet he conveniently avoided the vexed settlement issue and occupation of the Golan Heights. President Obama after talking over the US administration seemed anxious to work for resolution of the Middle East problems. He had also demanded an end to new settlements yet the Israelis are openly defying the calls and that speak volume of the influence of Jewish lobby at the Capitol Hills. President Obama like his predecessors did not allow the settlements issue to get in the way of close relationship between the two countries. It is also surprising that the international community, which today is more concerned and involved in the campaign against terrorism is keeping mum over the worst type of state terrorism being perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. If peace is truly the goal, Israel must cease all provocative actions, such as continuing the building of settlements on Palestinian lands, which is a clear violation of international law. The land for peace initiative by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in 2002, is the Arab world choice for peace and it is time that Israel respond in a similar manner to the initiative. With this background, we believe that if Mr Sarkozy and Mr Obama join with forces for peace and stability and act boldly, that would have a marked impact in the Middle East affairs.
TRIBUTE TO A TITAN
A MAN OF LIFETIME MISSION
Senator Edward M Kennedy of the United States, who valiantly fought for the causes which were his life's work - civil rights, healthcare, to name a few - is no more. He passed away at age 77 on Tuesday, leaving a void in the US Senate, which he served uninterrupted for long 47 years since his first election in 1962.
He was a true friend of Bangladesh. As the Pakistan occupation forces unleashed their genocidal atrocities on the people of Bangladesh in 1971, Senator Kennedy raised his voice of protest and stood firmly by the people of this country and gave unstinted support to the Liberation War. His stand was sharply opposed to the one taken by the then US administration. He visited the refugee camps in Kolkata, India and expressed solidarity with the oppressed people. After the liberation of Bangladesh, he lost no time in travelling to Dhaka to meet Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His support to the cause of Bangladesh's freedom struggle was invaluable and is remembered with profound gratitude.
In his long political career Edward Kennedy wrestled with crises of catastrophic proportion involving his own reputation and career and emerged triumphant and established himself as the patriarch of the Democratic Party, as "the greatest United States Senator" who successfully piloted pro-people legislation year after year, laws that he considered to be in the interest of the common people.
Ted Kennedy was the last of the Kennedy brothers who dominated the political landscape of the United States in the 1960s. He lived long as such he could serve in the Senate for long 47 years and leave an indelible mark of the man he was. His two brothers, President John F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy fell to assassins' bullet. He not only made significant contribution to US domestic issues but also made impact on his country's foreign policy by pushing to end the war in Vietnam. He never lost an election in the Senate race but his bid for Presidency ended in a disaster.
EVER INSPIRING LEADERSHIP
US President Barack Obama in a statement called Kennedy "the greatest United States Senator of our time." Ted Kennedy is no more but his life-long work, his leadership will continue to inspire all across the political spectrum.
CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE
Minister for Information and Cultural Affairs Abul Kalam Azad has felt the need for elevating the Shilpakala Academy to a position where it can play 'a pioneering role in expanding, nurturing, preserving as well as flourishing culture.' All civilised nations have their centres of excellence in various areas of human endeavours, showcasing the unique achievements. The Musee du Louvre, the Opera National de Paris, the Broadway Theatre and the Moscow Opera House are some of the world-famous centres where the finest and the best of works creative minds have ever produced are on display.
To achieve the pinnacle of cultural or aesthetic embellishment, a nation needs a long preparation until the creative energy bursts into its mellifluous forms in all directions. We had one golden opportunity to make good use of the bubbling creative energy when the country emerged as an independent and sovereign entity. But although there was clear sign of great art, literature and performing art in the making, they did not quite fulfil their promises.
If the Greeks and the Romans boast a tradition of great art, so do we in this part of the world. But we are yet to synthesise between our creative genre of the past as expressed, for example, through the exquisite statues and the modern art forms to produce something of an eternal appeal. What we really need is to capture the creative energy of our young people and create the right environment that makes a sort of cultural renaissance happen. True, Shilpakala Academy should take this responsibility. Once the young people here become aware of the creativity in them, they will refrain from indulging themselves in ruinous habits and practices now taking a heavy toll of our human resources.
A ROSE FOR THE TEACHER…!
Remember that rose, the best one you could buy, you gave your teacher on Teacher's Day. Her face or his, lighting up as you handed it to over? Well those roses you gave them come back to haunt you today! It was only a rose right, the brightest, reddest, most beautiful one in the flower shop, but what it said was, "Dear Teacher, thank you for all you're doing for me! For shaping, moulding, guiding me, and one day I'll tell the world I owe it all to you!" That day my friend has come. For quite some time your teacher and mine fights for her right, that she be paid what the Sixth pay commission has said she should be paid, and the government, crafty, clever and cunning, knowing that unlike a taxi or rickshaw strike, unlike a slum dwellers riot, unlike a political party bandh, which translates into votes or hardship for voters, does nothing! "We want salaries that will help us live a decent life!"
Says the government, "We have to build statues!" Teachers, "Give us enough that we can come as decently dressed as the students we teach!" Government, "Free food to slum dwellers gets us votes!" Teachers, "Pay us what is rightly ours!" Government, "Yours has gone as free electricity to the farmers!"
Teachers, And as I look at these gurus of mine, having to do what they taught us not to do, to rebel against authority just to get what is rightfully theirs, I hear the voice of my old headmaster, "Maybe those politicians have a sinister plan, Bob!" I ask, "What plan, sir?" Headmaster,
"Maybe they don't want people like us to teach anymore!" I say, "But why sir, why would they do that?"
Headmaster, "So that they will always have an uneducated India, which will never know enough to question them! Poor pay means poor quality teachers right?" I agree, "Yes sir!" Headmaster, "Which will produce poor students, son! Can't you see it in what your education minister is doing time and again; trying to reduce the standards of education? Now dedicated teachers will look for other jobs and others with no interest or with poor academic qualifications will become teachers. It's part of their plan, Bob!"
Grimly I agree. "Yes sir!" I say. "You remember that rose?" I nod, "Yes sir!" Headmaster, "Take it! Hold it high! Go to the government all you students of yesteryears and fight that your children will receive as good an education as you all got. It's not just our right, son, it's your too…!"
INDIGENOUS BODY IS NOT THE MAIN GAME
TOM CALMA'S PROPOSED BODY IGNORES THE REAL CHALLENGES
TOM Calma's blueprint for a new national indigenous body is a victory for structure over substance. The report presented to the federal government yesterday by the Social Justice Commissioner has considerable detail about how the body will be set up. But the missing piece is what exactly this institution would really achieve at this moment in Australian politics.
Mr Calma has spent months consulting indigenous representatives to compile the report for Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin. The proposed body is a successor to ATSIC - although with no role in service delivery - and to the consultative body that operated in the later years of the Howard government.
Mr Calma says the new body will deliver indigenous people true self-determination. He says it will put them "in the driving seat" and will play a key role in policy development.
This is rhetoric. The reality is that the new body's influence will depend on the individual power and ideas of its members and the extent to which they can marshall support from indigenous Australians. Mr Calma envisages a pan-Aboriginal body, but is such an institution possible given the clear split between urban and remote Aborigines? Those tensions run deep, with voices already raised in the north against the body. Mr Calma has been prescriptive about the gender balance. Yet the real issue is how to achieve balance between the cities and the bush. Aborigines living in urban areas have more in common with non-Aboriginal Australians living in those areas than they have with Aborigines in remote areas.
There is also the problem of whether this body will be able to capture the diverse views of indigenous leaders. There is now a clear division between those who are identified closely with Labor and this government, and those like Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu who have been highly critical of the government and many of its policies. If this body is seen as a Canberra animal, peopled by the usual suspects rather than attracting younger, more radical activists, it will be irrelevant.
Mr Calma makes much of the fact that the new body would be a company limited by guarantee rather than a statutory authority. This, he says, would guarantee independence from government. It is true that this structure would allow the body to alter its constitution if it wished to, without waiting for parliamentary approval. A private company with tax-deductibility status would attract corporate and philanthropic support.
Mr Calma's model sees government funding decline after the first five years as the body attracts funds from other sources. After 10 years (and some $200 million from government and private sources) the body would have its own investment fund in place with enough money for recurrent funding. This has already been ruled out by Ms Macklin, who said yesterday the government will provide only "modest and appropriate recurrent funding" rather than the start-up $50million requested.
The Australian acknowledges the efforts made by the Rudd government to address indigenous affairs, but questions what this body will offer in terms of real solutions. Improved dialogue between constituents and policy-makers is always welcome but there is every danger this body will wind up talking to itself. At a time when the government faces significant challenges in delivering programs to Aborigines living in northern Australia, this proposal risks being seen as an unnecessary indulgence.
THE RIGHT DECISION
GOVERNMENT IS SHOWING GOOD JUDGMENT ON PACKAGE
THE mark of a good government is its ability to change tack when circumstances demand it. Yesterday, the Rudd government showed a willingness to heed its critics when it shifted ground on aspects of its stimulus package after weeks of controversy.
Kevin Rudd's decision to recalibrate the $43 billion to be spent on schools, infrastructure and insulation is welcome. All the news on the economy is bullish and the government has acted responsibly in being prepared to take a more considered approach to its spending plans.
The Australian had no argument with the two retail packages handed to householders last year and in February. But it has had real concerns about the impact of the remaining money being pumped into an economy that is very much on the way back after the global financial crisis of last October.
Back then, the government acted quickly, and under extreme pressure. There was undoubtedly a sense of panic about its decisions and to some extent a desire to avoid a technical recession at any cost. But overall, the government's Keynesian response must be considered reasonable. Treasury has estimated, for example, that without the early payments, the economy would have contracted by 0.2 per cent in the March quarter. Instead, it grew by 0.4 per cent, avoiding a technical recession, and doubtless adding to the confidence that is so crucial to economic activity.
But in recent weeks, the cracks have started appearing in the government's spending on schools in particular. Policy made on the run began increasingly to look short-term and wasteful. The money set aside for schools and infrastructure is a huge package - a once-in-a-generation spend that this paper argued must not be frittered on "shovel-ready" projects designed to shore up jobs rather than create lasting outcomes.
Now the government has begun addressing these concerns with revised guidelines for its schools building program to ensure greater flexibility and better targeting of money. Its decision to claw back money from areas such as housing and insulation and redirect this to schools is sensible. The guidelines announced by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday mean that there will be much less risk of money being wasted as school rush to meet unrealistic deadlines.
This is a good start, but the government must continue to monitor a complex situation to ensure it is ready to make further changes as the economic story unfolds.
STATE OF INERTIA
NSW NEEDS A REFORMING LEADER IN THE KENNETT MOULD
FASCINATED as they are with Premier Nathan Rees's indifferent Newspoll ratings, NSW politicians should turn their attention to other sets of numbers. Since the Sydney Olympics, the state's economic indicators have trailed the national average in growth and business investment. Unemployment is above the national average, and while 2008-09 was a bad year for new dwelling approvals, the 25 per cent slump in NSW far exceeded a 3 per cent fall in Victoria. Unfortunately, no Jeff Kennett-like reformer is on the horizon, on either side of NSW politics, at a time when the state needs nothing less to lead it out of the malaise.
The next election is 19 months away, although the Sussex Street backroom boys reserve the right to flex their unelected muscle and stitch up yet another deal that would force Mr Rees out, just as Morris Iemma was tapped on the shoulder a year ago.
NSW needs a circuit-breaker to put the needs of the state's seven million people ahead of vested interests. After 14 years of Labor, public administration is dominated by party mates, union bosses and factional hacks. Incompetence and occasional corruption hold the state back while its leadership lacks the willpower and integrity to force change. It is reminiscent of the networks that ran Queensland in the Bjelke-Petersen era, although they built infrastructure.
Following the Sydney Olympics, too much of the GST and property bounty was frittered away as the power and influence of public sector unions flourished. Sophisticated spin blinded the local media as the government failed to build the infrastructure needed to accommodate vast growth. The failure dates back even further. Sydney has not had a new dam for decades.
Amid tighter fiscal conditions last year, it was no surprise that one of Mr Rees's first moves was to cancel the much needed North West rail link, that had been on again-off again since 1998. Other corridors, such as the northern beaches, also need rail. If the system is to be upgraded, authorities must bite the bullet and privatise and outsource services.
It was Mr Iemma who took a principled stand by moving to privatise electricity, and it cost him his career. Had it not been for Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell blocking him, NSW would now be better placed. Mr O'Farrell often appears as wet as rising damp, also siding with teachers' unions over the publication of school results. Such ineffectualness is precisely the opposite of what NSW needs. He and any other aspirants on both sides of politics need to show long-suffering voters that their interests come first.
THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
A KENNEDY, ON HIS OWN TERMS
WITH the death of Edward Kennedy the last survivor of the apogee of American power and optimism passes from the scene. The retrospectives will be all the fonder and more glowing, despite Kennedy's faults and fumblings - or perhaps because of them - because of the glamour the Kennedy name still evokes.
Already the political scientist Norman Ornstein has written: ''When you survey the impact of the Kennedys on American life and politics and policy, he will end up by far being the most significant.'' That remains to be seen. Kennedy's home-town newspaper, the Boston Globe, has pointed to his centrality in US political life. ''He was an unwavering symbol to the left and the right - to the former for his unapologetic embrace of liberalism; to the right for his value as a political target.'' That is undeniable. As a political target, the ''liberal lion'' was always hard to miss.
Typically charismatic, for a Kennedy he was also hapless and, especially as a young man, a magnet for calamity within and without politics. His nadir at Chappaquiddick in 1969 hit front pages the same week as his brother's great mission to land a man on the moon came to fruition. It left an indelible taint. For much of his life he was dogged by stories of womanising and drinking. In 1991 he was drinking with his nephew William on the night William was accused of rape.
Nevertheless, although John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy cast a monumental shadow, Edward Kennedy eventually emerged from it on his own terms. In 1985 he renounced presidential ambitions, and his career as a legislator properly began. Though his own political career never matched the heights achieved by his brothers, he was for decades a central cog in the powerful Democratic machine. A key negotiator and creator of coalitions of support for Democratic administrations, he became over his congressional career of 47 years one of the most eminent legislators for social and economic justice in US history.
The Kennedy family has lost its patriarch, as has the Senate. And Barack Obama, whose style is often compared to that of John F. Kennedy, and who has relied on Edward Kennedy's political skill, especially on health care reform, will feel the end of the Kennedy era keenly.
But so too will the world, which for three generations has found inspiration and tragedy in equal measure in the playing out of Camelot, as well as, perhaps, an incidental impression: that no matter how glamorous and godly our representatives appear, no matter whether they burn brightly like JFK, or glow steadily like Edward, they are always irreducibly human.
THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
MILITARY JUSTICE: ANOTHER FINE MESS
THE High Court has found the new military justice system unconstitutional, and left this troubled area more than ever in disarray. Both sides of politics have had a hand in the debacle, and both are now co-operating to fix it. That is good, but our politicians bear only part of the blame. Most of it must be shouldered by the Department of Defence itself, which has let Australia's legislators, and the defence forces, down badly.
The Howard government, with bipartisan support, set up the Australian Military Court in 2007. In all questions of military justice there is an inevitable tension between justice and the military - between concern for the rights of the citizen and concern for the maintenance of discipline.
A series of events that preceded the court's establishment showed that the balance had swung too far in favour of the latter and needed to be redressed. A Senate inquiry earlier recommended that the new judicial system be founded on chapter III of the constitution, covering the Commonwealth's judicial powers, to ensure a constitutional challenge could not succeed. Though politicians on both sides accepted the recommendation, Defence bureaucrats and the services did not, and won the argument for the status quo. The new court was set up under section 51 (vii), the defence power, which has been found to be inadequate.
The Minister for Defence, John Faulkner, is now struggling to find a way to validate the scores of decisions already made by the unconstitutional court. He may seek to confirm its other decisions by an act of parliament. That would avoid major disruption, but convenience is not everything. Even if it is found to be constitutional, such retrospective action is still highly unsatisfactory.
The current mess offers the chance for some difficult questions to be asked. Does Australia need a separate military justice system? Some countries have no separate military courts in peacetime. If the cases must be retried, why not use the civil courts wherever possible to assess the suitability of such an arrangement? That will also give a short breathing space before an alternative system is devised.
There is another minor plus in this latest episode in the undistinguished recent history of Australian military justice. As Senator Faulkner struggles to bring his wilful department under some sort of control, he can point to this egregious mess as further evidence of Defence's damaging incompetence, and of the need for thorough change.
IN PRAISE OF... MOSSBOURNE COMMUNITY ACADEMY
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Mossbourne community academy sprang up five years ago on the unpromising rubble of Hackney Downs school, which was once dubbed the worst in the country. The head Sir Michael Wilshaw had a spanking timber-and-glass Richard Rogers building to play with, and – in the very heart of the inner city – he imposed public-school style grey blazers with a red ribbon trim. Despite visits from Blair, Brown and Cameron the unanswered question was whether all this could do any more than paper over the cracks of an impoverished neighbourhood. Yesterday all lingering doubts were answered, when an extraordinary 84% of its pupils achieved five good GCSEs including both English and maths – a performance way above the national average, achieved by children who started out below educational par. The great fear with academies was that they would exploit their independence at the expense of their neighbours, particularly by finding crafty ways to cream off privileged pupils. In many cases there have been tensions, although not with Mossbourne. It is a true comprehensive, which has worked with other Hackney schools – many of whom also saw striking improvements in their results yesterday. The arguments about academies' business sponsorships will rightly continue, and it is certainly true that much of the success in Mossbourne is down to resources. But the fact of the success where once there was failure is what matters most.
LOCAL AUTHORITY FINANCE: COUNCILS OF DESPAIR
In the 1980s it was "get on your bike", and Barnet council's approach to snowstorms has the same flavour – go to your shed, get your spade and start digging. The agenda in this north London borough is being set by its Conservative leader, Mike Freer, who tells the Guardian today that he draws inspiration from cut-price airlines. Instead of the usual waffle about "finding efficiencies", Mr Freer is cheerfully open in saying that Barnet should simply stop doing real things. It has cut libraries and could soon stop repairing children's swings.
Barnet's attitude is at least refreshing for being upfront. But the likes of Mr Freer pose problems for David Cameron, because they bear out Alistair Darling's warning that the Conservatives are "almost wallowing" in the prospect of cuts. Central Office prefers the on-message noises coming from Tory councils such as Essex, where innovation offers at least some prospect of doing more with less. As the belt-tightening gets under way, however, Essex is also pressing for new freedoms in order to balance the books. Its leader has recently argued that social security benefits should be localised, a move which could pierce holes in the nationwide income safety net.
Mr Cameron talks a localist talk, and should he win the election he may be tempted to act like a localist too. Implementing the inevitable cuts a safe distance from Downing Street could seem especially attractive now that withered local newspapers lack the teeth they once had. Yet radical devolution does not seem to be on the cards. That would involve widening the local tax base, but Mr Cameron talks instead about freezing council tax. He proposes asymmetric local referendums, which would be triggered by tax rises but not spending cuts, an imbalance which recent troubles in California suggest can translate into budgetary chaos. Perhaps Mr Cameron understands that the political culture is too centralised for it to be feasible to outsource the blame for tough choices.
Whether or not the Tory devolutionist rhetoric goes the forgotten way of Gordon Brown's one-time "new localism", services administered locally are in line for a battering. Competing national politicians have extended protection to centralised aspects of expenditure, such as health and international aid, which only leaves town halls more exposed. Council tax has risen steeply over a dozen years, making it hard to increase it much further. As in the 1980s, there will be new "local discretion" in interpreting social obligations. As in the 1980s, there will also be much talk of choice and of charity. And as in the 1980s, it will soon ring hollow if the upshot is that there is no one around to help an old lady in need.
REFORMING FINANCE: DARING ADAIR
It was the briefest of remarks in a wide-ranging discussion and concerned something he has no power to do, but the sheer unlikelihood of Adair Turner floating the Tobin tax made for the most eye-catching line in his contribution to yesterday's Prospect magazine. Lord Turner, after all, is not only chair of the Financial Services Authority, but a former investment banker and the very embodiment of the great and the good, with the looks and the accent to match. The Tobin tax, meanwhile, has been the rallying cry of long-hairs and leftists who are often hazy about what the City gets up to, but always have a strong hunch that it is up to no good.
The remarkable thing about Lord Turner's full comments is that they suggest he may be starting to feel the same way. The Tobin tax – a small percentage tariff charged on financial transactions – was originally proposed by the great American Keynesian, James Tobin, as a means of discouraging footloose flows of finance from playing havoc with exchange rates, though its latter-day advocates have talked it up as a nice little earner with which to tackle global injustice. Lord Turner mentioned it, however, in connection with a third objective – cutting the financial sector down to size. Despite his official remit to make London more competitive in world markets, he seems to have concluded that it has become bloated – taking too many bright people away from the rest of the economy, assigning many of them worthless tasks and paying them too much money. Along with stiffer capital requirements and other charges on banking profits, Tobin's tariff is thrown in as one further way to siphon some of the money to more worthwhile activities.
Some of this may be a response to the criticism that the FSA – a body the Conservatives are pledged to abolish – has recently taken for failing to get a grip on bonuses. Some of it, however, flows straight from the open mind of a genuine intellectual. He has always mixed ideas with finance and politics, his 2001 book Just Capital being hailed as "a gem of liberal political economy worthy of Meade, Keynes and Hobhouse" by no lesser figure than Peter Mandelson. It remains to be seen whether the first secretary will also embrace Lord Turner's latest conclusion that "the idea that more complete markets ... are definitionally good" – an idea New Labour long indulged – has "collapsed" in the face of the credit crunch. Having learnt the hard way that many of those ingenious derivative contracts that were supposed to be about transferring risk were instead concerned with concealing it, the FSA's boss concedes that regulators are in a "worrying space". Their old models of finance have been exposed as bust, and amid all the fire-fighting they have not had any time to sketch a new cognitive map. Their only guide in uncharted territory is gut judgment and the principle of precaution.
With Lehman and other great towers of high finance fallen, the clear and present danger – already visible in recovering bonuses – is that the remaining investment banks, newly unencumbered by competition, could soon be in a position to leech on the wider economy even more freely than they have in the past. European initiatives to restore some control have thus far foundered on the financiers' credible threat to respond by heading off shore. In the US, meanwhile, a president who was more than willing to turn populist heat on the money-lenders during his campaign is too embroiled in trying to force healthcare through to have the stomach for another big row at the moment. But as the G20 in London established, when world's leaders get together in one room, the domain of the possible can extend. The same group is due to reassemble in Pittsburgh next month, and there will be just as much to discuss. For although it can feel as if the moment for reform has already passed, the shake-up of ideas is only just getting going, as Lord Turner has admirably shown.
THE JAPAN TIMES
TAX-HIKE DEBATE MISSING
In the campaigns for the Aug. 30 Lower House election, voter interest appears to be focused on domestic policies directly related to their daily lives, while issues related to diplomacy and security appear to have been put on the back burner. These issues are mentioned when Prime Minister Taro Aso attacks the Democratic Party of Japan over its fuzziness on them.
In their campaigns, parties are emphasizing matters such as social security, education, support for children, employment stabilization and help for farmers. It is understandable that people are keen about these matters because they feel anxiety about their future lives amid the economic downturn.
But the parties should not close their eyes to the possibility of having to raise taxes to fund proposed measures. They should also remember that Japan needs to carry out financial reconstruction to pay back long-term debt accrued by the central and local governments.
Total debt is expected to top ¥800 trillion at the end of fiscal 2009, reaching about 170 percent of Japan's gross domestic product — the worst among developed nations.
The DPJ proposes spending ¥16.8 trillion over the coming four years to implement policy measures such as child allowances, toll-free expressways and income compensation for farmers. It says it can free up ¥9.1 trillion by slashing waste and another ¥4.3 trillion by utilizing surpluses in special accounts, among other things.
The only step the DPJ mentions that will lead to tax increases is abolition of some special taxation measures, including married people's tax deduction, to save ¥2.7 trillion. It also says there is no need to raise the consumption tax during the next four years.
The Liberal Democratic Party has hinted at a possible hike in the consumption tax. Yet, it says it won't carry out drastic tax reform, including consumption tax reform, until the economy is back on a recovery path. Other parties oppose, or don't even mention, raising the consumption tax. If the parties choose to be deliberately ambiguous about tax increases just to get votes, they will further deepen people's distrust of politics.
THE JAPAN TIMES
FACE UP TO THE PENSION CRISIS
Japan must prevent its pension system from being weakened by the low birthrate and the graying of the population, the pension records fiasco, the spread of poverty and the worsening employment situation. Yet, political parties' pension-related proposals contain many obscure points and need elaboration.
In fiscal 2008, the premium payment rate for Kokumin Nenkin (national pension) — a public pension system for self-employed people, part-time workers, jobless people, etc. — dropped to a record 62.1 percent. Even if people pay Kokumin Nenkin premiums for the full 40 years, they receive only about ¥66,000 a month. An average Kokumin Nenkin pensioner receives about ¥48,000 monthly. This amount is too small. It is also feared that 1.18 million people will be pensionless in the future.
The Liberal Democratic Party proposes taking concrete measures within three years to support pensionless or low-pension people, among other things. Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner, proposes adding a certain amount of money to low-income people's Kokumin Nenkin pension. The two parties jointly propose shortening the minimum number of years for which people must pay premiums to become eligible for Kokumin Nenkin benefits — from the current 25 years to 10 years.
To implement the LDP's proposal, a large fund may be necessary. Even if the obligatory premium payment period for pension eligibility is shortened, people may give up paying premiums due to unstable employment and low income.
The Democratic Party of Japan proposes introducing a guaranteed monthly pension of ¥70,000 by using revenues from the consumption tax and income-scaled premiums to raise the pension above the guaranteed amount.
Since the DPJ proposal means a total change of the present system, the party says it will take 20 years for the new system to be established. It is unclear how the DPJ will support pensionless or low-pension people during the transition. Since pensions are such an important issue, all the political parties should put their heads together to work out an optimum solution.
THE JAPAN TIMES
AMERICAN PARANOIA INSULTS MUSLIMS' DIGNITY
BY GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN
CHENNAI, India — It did not come as a surprise recently when well-known Indian movie star Shahrukh Khan was detained at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Ironically, he had just finished shooting a film in the United States about racial profiling.
Titled "My Name Is Khan," it is set in post-9/11 America and was inspired by a true story. Khan, playing himself, is arrested because his name sounds Islamic. His clumsiness due to Asperger syndrome (an autistic disorder) further fuels the suspicion of federal authorities.
That the reel life played out in real life in a nation of continued paranoia is only to be expected. Nobody questions the rule of law — certainly when it is implemented effectively. But America hides deep-rooted prejudices behind the law.
Khan was understandably upset at the way he was treated at the airport — not because he is a star, or because he had just inked a handsome deal with Fox for the movie's distribution, or because he enjoys an iconic status at home and abroad. He was upset essentially because he is a Muslim.
He later said he was happy his children were not with him during the airport ordeal, but that he would want them to understand what it means to be treated the way he was because of a name. His words conveyed deep anguish, hurt and, above all, a sense of betrayal.
Any name, like Khan, that remotely sounds Muslim is suspect to the average American. India's former President Abdul Kalam was frisked by Continental Airlines' employees before he boarded a flight in New Delhi. Tamil actor Kamal Hassan, a staunch Hindu and globally popular, was questioned in the U.S. only because the authorities thought his name seemed Islamic.
In contrast, a largely illiterate society like India's is phenomenally literate in its awareness of foreign talent. The story goes that an ordinary policeman in Kolkata recognized French director Louis Malle, who was filming a political demonstration that was being dispersed. The cop was about to hit the helmer with his baton, then cried out, "Oh, Louis Malle." This may be a mere story, but it emphasizes the point.
Americans in authority need to be sensitive. It is time the Muslim-bashing end. And this must apply to every law-abiding Muslim, not just celebrities.
For every Shahrukh Khan, or Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, there are hundreds of innocent Muslims who are harassed only because of their faith. If Shahrukh Khan was hurt, hassled and inconvenienced as he has claimed, so have been many others who have been asked to "step aside" in airports, their dignity ruffled only because they carry an Islamic name.
In a recently Bollywood cinematic work, "New York," we see how the main character, a Muslim, is arrested on a vague suspicion, stripped, tortured and humiliated in a way that drives him to seek revenge. Although this is only movie, this is what might happen when a man's or woman's dignity is mindlessly brushed aside.
Racial profiling American-style can be extremely demeaning, and it is understandable that thousands of Khan's fans and New Delhi itself were annoyed at the detaining and questioning of one of the country's best-known icons — even as his secretary walked through. India's Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambica Soni hinted at retaliatory treatment of American visitors.
Maybe she has Brazil's method in mind. Angered by the crudity of U.S. officials, Brazil has begun fingerprinting and photographing American visitors.
Ultimately, though, tit-for-tat measures can be no more than palliative. In the long run, it is imperative that prejudices be eliminated.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an Indian journalist.
THE JAPAN TIMES
ASEAN RIGHTS PANEL OFFERS SCANT DEFENSE OF VICTIMS
BY BENNY TEH CHENY GUAN
PENANG, Malaysia — Last month the Term of Reference (TOR) for the establishment of a regional human rights body received the approval of the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phuket, Thailand.
As a result of this decision, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will soon have a new Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, once the ASEAN Summit endorses it in October. Proponents hail it as a historic moment for the 42-year-old ASEAN. They see it as an important development in making ASEAN a people's organization.
ASEAN's resolve, partly pushed by Thailand as chair, to conclude the realization of a human rights body in fulfillment of Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter deserves commendation. It is a step in the right direction toward making ASEAN an organization committed to the welfare of the people it represents. This logically requires an effective TOR that puts people first. It is also a test of ASEAN's determination to shed its elitist image.
Sadly, the approved TOR has not lived up to expectations. It remains far below what civil groups have been lobbying for. Their calls for an effective commission have fallen on deaf ears.
What accounts for this? Was there a lack of consultations among the various stakeholders, insufficient time for gathering feedback, or a lack of political?
In tracing the discourse between ASEAN and civil groups, ample consultations have been carried out not only since the adoption of the Charter in 2007 but even before then. In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action brought to the attention of ASEAN Foreign Ministers the importance of establishing a regional mechanism on human rights. A Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism (WGAHRM) was soon set up to provide support. WGAHRM submitted its first draft to ASEAN in 2000, calling for the establishment of an independent commission to promote and protect human rights in the region.
In 2004, the Vientiane Action Program provided the impetus to advance deliberations on human rights especially regarding the promotion and protection of the rights of women, children and migrant workers. When the High Level Task Force was given the green light to include a proviso on a human rights mechanism in drafting the charter three years later, efforts further mounted.
Together with WGAHRM, the Solidarity for Asian Peoples' Advocacy (SAPA) and the National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) sought consultations with the High Level Panel (HLP), tasked with drafting TOR, to provide their inputs.
Separately, all three called for the creation of a transparent commission whose appointees are independent from any political attachments and have a mandate to investigate complaints of abuses and to conduct periodic reviews. Feeling ignored, the NHRIs made another failed attempt last March to have their relationship with the commission explicitly recognized and inscribed in TOR.
Regrettably, none of the recommendations that would have made the commission an independent and credible body were reflected in TOR. HLP was duly aware of the feedback but was incapacitated by weak political will. Since ASEAN's decision-making process is based on consensus, any results achieved must be agreed by all members.
Certain members, particularly Indonesia, wanted a more effective TOR but relented to avoid seeing the group's efforts fall apart. It is precisely this factor for which ASEAN has often been criticized as an elite-driven organization incapable of empowering the lives of its citizens.
Based on TOR, it is thus anticipated that the new commission will have a limited role to play in charting a new course for the advancement of human rights in Southeast Asia. TOR is rigged with clauses that appear better suited for protecting the interest of member states rather than holding them responsible for human rights violations:
• TOR puts the commission under the purview and dictates of foreign ministers. This effectively reduces the role of civil groups in influencing the development trajectory of the commission.
• Second, the primary responsibility in promoting and protecting human rights rests with each state. This begs the question of what the commission's existence is for. There are only four NHRIs at present and they are all in the more progressive states.
• Third, appointment of people to the commission remains entirely with the member state, and the individual is only "accountable to the appointing government." Consultation with stakeholders is not compulsory. This clearly jeopardizes the integrity of the appointed person and the credibility of the commission. It further adds qualms about the importance of a regional identity that ASEAN actively espouses.
• Fourth, the commission is required to follow the principle of "noninterference in the internal affairs" of member states. In the event of human rights abuses in countries such as Myanmar, the commission will have no power to protect victims or punish violators. It could, at best, produce statements to add pressure, but history has shown how uninspiring such outcomes have been.
Furthermore, the principle of nonintervention stands oddly with other principles in TOR, namely the adherence to the rule of law, the principles of democracy and the maintenance of impartiality, objectivity, nonselectivity and nondiscrimination.
With TOR-placed curbs on the maneuverability of the commission, the body can help to promote human rights awareness and education but cannot defend and protect. To realize the latter, amendments to TOR is essential.
Fortunately, TOR is not etched in stone and will be up for review in five years. Unfortunately, human rights victims in the region may not have the luxury of time.
benny teh cheng guan is currently a senior lecturer at the school of social sciences, universiti sains malaysia, penang.
THE KOREA HERALD
Korean health authorities' lackadaisical early response to the influenza A(H1N1) virus has put public health in jeopardy with the number of cases confirmed daily reaching triple digits.
The government did not scurry to take action even as countries around the world reported growing numbers of H1N1 patients and fatalities in April and the World Health Organization predicted a worldwide pandemic.
One of the reasons for the health authorities' slow response, ironically, is that the country was able to contain the spread of the virus for a number of months through its screening and quarantine system.
While the WHO declared a pandemic in June, Korea did not raise its alert level from "attention" to "caution" until July. This was because there had been no sustained community-level transmissions until then.
The government was jolted to action only after the first two deaths from the virus in middle of this month. From then on, the number of confirmed cases grew rapidly, to total more than 3,000.
Last week, the government released a list of 455 hospitals where people who suspect they have an H1N1 infection may go for testing and treatment. It also distributed antiviral medication to 567 pharmacies.
However, many of the assigned hospitals claim they are not adequately prepared to test or admit patients with this highly contagious disease. Between April and now, the government and hospitals have had adequate time to come up with contingency plans that could have prevented much of the confusion now being reported.
While the government said it planned to vaccinate 27 percent of the population, about 13.3 million people, between November and February, the reality is that the government has only secured enough vaccines for 6 million people through Green Cross, a local pharmaceutical company. The remaining 7 million doses will have to be imported.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention chief was sent to Europe this week to secure more vaccines after an open bid for the H1N1 failed to attract any bidders. Negotiations for the purchase of the H1N1 vaccine should have been completed at least a month ago. Why it took the government two months to come up with a budget for the vaccine, why the bidding price was set so low that no foreign companies submitted a bid, and why it took another two months to revise the budget to reflect international prices should be investigated when things have settled down.
On Monday, President Lee Myung-bak ordered an emergency budget to procure enough antiviral medication to treat 20 percent of the population. At the moment, the country has a stockpile of enough doses for 2.7 million people with additional medication for 5.31 million to be delivered in October. Again, such budget could have been created earlier to allow for timely procurement.
Schools across the country have opened for the second semester and there is concern that this could accelerate the spread of the infection.
The best defense against the H1N1 virus is good personal hygiene - frequent washing of hands will prevent 70 percent of the cases. While the H1N1 virus is highly contagious, it is not deadly in most cases. The public should be cautious but there should be no widespread panic.
The government can allay the people's fear by coming up with a detailed contingency plan together with the medical community and effectively communicating it to the public. Much time has already been lost and the government cannot afford to lose any more.
THE KOREA HERALD
OUT OF CONTROL
The very public clash between Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee and his vice minister Chang Soo-man is a cause for serious concern.
The feud between the two, which had been brewing for some time, came to a head when Chang reported a reduced military budget to the Blue House without his boss' approval.
When Lee found out about the Blue House meeting, he sent a letter to several Blue House officials and the finance minister, asking the administration to not accept the vice minister's proposed budget. It is an unprecedented incident that borders on the ludicrous.
While the Defense Ministry is seeking a 7.9 percent increase in the budget for next year, the Finance Ministry has sought to reduce that increase to 3.8 percent. The ministry claims that such a reduction would hamper the implementation of the revised defense reform plan which is set to start next year.
Chang, a long-time finance bureaucrat, is one of the Lee Myung-bak administration's more powerful figures.
He served in the presidential transition team and was handpicked by President Lee in January to spearhead the slimming down of the Defense Ministry.
While there are many who support a reduction in the defense budget through eliminating waste and promoting efficiency, few would agree with the way Chang went about achieving the budget cut. The ministry and the military are strictly hierarchical organizations and Chang's budget proposal to the Blue House without the minister's approval may indeed be construed as a sort of coup, as it was put in Lee's letter to the Blue House and the Finance Ministry.
Chang was appointed vice defense minister to make the organization more efficient. If he encountered resistance at the ministry, he should have tried to persuade his opponents, including his direct boss.
Chang is one of the so called "all powerful" vice ministers who enjoy the president's trust and support. However, that does not excuse him from reporting to his direct boss, the defense minister.
Lee, for his part, should have had better command over his subordinates and his ministry. If there were issues, they should have been addressed within the organization rather than being aired out in the open.
The case is an example of a powerful subordinate ignoring the chain of command. Such insubordination should be dealt with strictly for the sake of the organization's discipline and morale.
THE KOREA HERALD
RETURN OF FRANCO-GERMAN LEADERSHIP
PARIS - Whoever wins September's parliamentary election in Germany, the time has come once again for a major Franco-German initiative. Regardless of their economic conditions or their confidence - or lack of it - in each other, France and Germany are more than ever jointly responsible for the future, if not the very survival, of the European project.
Are there alternatives to Franco-German leadership of the European Union? Joining Great Britain with them in a Club of Three would be a good idea, but it is out of the question nowadays. Britain has largely excluded itself from any leadership role in Europe. Gordon Brown is barely surviving as prime minister, and the Conservatives, whose return to power in the next year is almost certain, are as provincially euro-skeptic as ever, if not more so. Europe simply cannot count on the British, at least for a while.
The idea of a Club of Six, floated by Nicolas Sarkozy early in his presidency, was always abstract and is now untenable. Given Silvio Berlusconi's sexcapades, the Italy that he leads cannot be taken seriously, while Spain is out of the running for an EU leadership role, owing to its dire economic conditions. As for Poland, although the bumbling Kaczynski "twins" have been removed from power, the country's fixation on security in its immediate neighborhood is incompatible with true European leadership.
Since the other 21 EU members never liked the idea of a Club of Six to begin with, it is just as well that such a vision has been buried, probably forever. So where but France and Germany can Europe turn for leadership?
A positive referendum result on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland in October would be a necessary but insufficient condition to jump-start an institutional re-launch of the European Union. Above all, the European Union needs political will and direction. Only Germany and France, acting together, can convey to Europe's citizens and to the world the sense that the European Union is at long last waking up to today's global realities.
Of course, it is impossible to underestimate the combination of suspicion, tension, and exasperation that characterizes Franco-German relations lately. To a large extent, Germany has become a "second France" in Europe, at a time when France is more French than ever. And they are not only putting their respective nationalisms first. They disagree on fundamentals - most of all, about how to surmount the economic crisis.
But the two giants of Europe can agree to disagree about the virtues of German-style budgetary rigor or French-style fiscal stimulus as long as they don't insult each other, and, more importantly, as long as they compensate for their philosophical differences with a well publicized program of joint initiatives on key subjects. As long as each remains convinced that no alternative to cooperation exists within the European Union, and that European cooperation remains a priority for both, it should not be overly difficult to restore their leadership. After all, France and Germany are closer to each other on many key topics than they have been for a long time.
With the return of France to NATO's integrated military structure, the two countries are on the same "Atlantic" wavelength for the first time since 1966. Despite both sides' deep reservations about the mission in Afghanistan, they are clearly in the same boat, even if French troops, being closer to British troops in terms of combat, are more vulnerable than the Germans. And both countries would probably subscribe to the following formulation: "Turkey's future is with Europe, but not necessarily in the European Union, at least in the foreseeable future."
The fundamental question about how to deal with Russia remains a divisive issue, however. France and Germany have different sensitivities on the subject, which is both natural and inevitable, as these differences reflect both geography and history.
Germany is not only much closer physically to Russia; it is also much more dependent on Russia in terms of energy security. France must not delude itself: Germany is not about to convert to nuclear energy to reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas. Yet Germany also must realize that Russia's negative evolution has consequences that Germans cannot escape.
A spectacular Franco-German security initiative following the election in Germany, accompanied by a joint message to the Kremlin, would also have the benefit of sending a message to the rest of the European Union, particularly to its Vaclav Klauses: "If you decide to paralyze the union through stubborn ill will, you will only end up excluding yourselves, rather than dictating Europe's fate."
France and Germany cannot move Europe alone, but Europe without them cannot move at all.
Dominique Moisi is a visiting professor of government at Harvard and author, most recently, of "The Geopolitics of Emotion." - Ed.
THE KOREA HERALD
CENTRAL EUROPE'S MISGUIDED DRUG WAR
WARSAW - It was two decades ago this summer that communist rule began to implode from Tallinn in the Baltic to Tirana in the Adriatic, ushering in free elections, market reforms, and expanded civil liberties. Since then, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have come a long way. Many are now members of the European Union. My homeland, Poland, has a steady economy and a thriving media.
Yet Poland, like many of the other new democracies in our region, remains stuck in the past when it comes to the humane treatment of drug users. Indeed, throughout the former Soviet bloc, there is a disturbing trend in using outdated, conservative, and heavy-handed policies to address drug abuse.
For example, Gdansk - the birthplace of the Solidarity movement - does not have a single methadone treatment center. People must travel for three hours to get the medicine that is proven to control cravings and reduce the harms of drug use. And they are the lucky ones. Only 5 percent of opiate users in Poland have access to methadone at all, compared to 40 percent in Germany.
Instead of focusing on treatment that works, the Polish government chooses to give priority to long-term rehabilitation centers located in the depths of the countryside that have little, if anything, to do with evidence-based medicine. Poland also chooses to treat possession of even the smallest quantities of drugs as criminal, as evidenced by the fact that 60 percent of people sentenced for drug possession in Poland are marijuana smokers.
Addressing drug use through criminalization and rehabilitation centers does nothing to curb demand, however, and usage rates have failed to decline. By driving users underground, criminalization contributes to a deepening public-health crisis.
This pattern persists across Central and Eastern Europe, where governments have also opted to imprison drug users. In Hungary, for example, the penal code calls for two years of imprisonment for personal possession by a drug-dependent person. In neighboring Slovakia, the penalty for personal possession is, as in Poland, up to three years.
This approach is not only inhumane, but also economically untenable: leaders in these countries should be encouraged to redirect scarce law-enforcement, court, and prison resources towards more pressing causes. Simply put, governments can no longer afford to drain precious time and money that could be better spent elsewhere by locking up people for drug-related offenses.
If Poland and its neighbors are to chart a new way forward, at least three things must happen. First, these countries should look West for alternative, and more humane, drug policies. A report released recently by the United Kingdom's Drug Policy Commission correctly calls for a "smarter" drug policy that focuses on addressing associated violence rather than simply making arrests.
Officials in Central and Eastern Europe should pay heed to recent comments by the United Kingdom's Home Office, which said that "harm reduction underpins every element of our approach to tackling this complex issue."
Portugal recently went a step further in voting to decriminalize recreational drugs, including heroin and cocaine - a move that has led to a significant decline in drug-related deaths and a fall in new HIV infections.
Second, lawmakers should listen to their constituents: a recent public awareness campaign by Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily newspaper, collected more than 23,000 signatures in five days for a petition calling for changes to the current drug law. The changes, modeled after Germany's progressive policies, would stop punishing people for possessing small amounts of drugs for their own use, and bring about stricter penalties for dealers and more effective treatment for drug-dependent people.
In a step forward, a debate in the Polish parliament on the proposed drug law is set to start in September. Young people should not start their working lives with criminal records because of personal possession.
Finally, at the European level, EU policymakers can help by encouraging member states to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. By freeing up resources devoted to enforcing policies against low-level users, countries can better tackle serious drug-supply issues and provide people with the effective treatment that they need and deserve.
Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Institute. - Ed.
HURDLES TO GROWTH
During a rare online discussion with netizens on Wednesday, top legislators correctly pinpointed the declining share of individual income in GDP as the main culprit that has hindered consumption growth in China.
By enabling timely exchange of views between legislators and those whom they represent, introduction of such online discussions will surely add to the relevance of legislative work concerning issues of great public concern.
It is even more reassuring to know that top legislators have demonstrated deep understanding of the fundamental problems that can undermine economic recovery at the moment and change of growth pattern in the long run.
In response to netizens' worry about sluggish domestic demand, Lv Wei, a member of the NPC Financial and Economic Committee, stressed that household income as a proportion of GDP should be increased.
That is a suggestion to the point.
Statistics show that between 1997 and 2005, the proportion of labor income in GDP fell from 51 percent to 39 percent while that of corporate profit increased from 23 percent to 31 percent. That means an increasingly larger part of national income had gone into the pocket of enterprises while households were left to save more for rainy days in the absence of a sound social welfare net.
Worse, the widening income gap between the rich and the poor has made it extremely difficult for the government to persuade the majority of the public to loosen their purse strings at a moment when consumption growth is so badly needed.
As a result of the global economic crisis, shrinking overseas orders have forced the Chinese economy to reduce its dependence on export for growth. And enhanced fixed-asset investment raised wide concerns about not only sustainability of the recovery but also overcapacity in industrial sectors.
A radical policy change to boost household income growth as a portion of GDP seems to be needed more than ever.
Top legislators have made clear their opinion in this regard. But it is far from enough for them to restrict themselves to giving suggestions.
The national legislature must make more efforts to press the government to improve the distribution of national income among individuals, enterprises and itself.
In fact, government officials have already recognized the necessity to boost domestic consumption into a key growth engine for reducing the country's heavy reliance on exports and investments. But the old economic model just dies hard.
Given what is at stake if the country cannot shift rapidly enough to a more consumer-centric economy, legislators are required to play a bigger role in ensuring adequate government efforts to significantly tilt the distribution of national income in favor of Chinese consumers.
AGE OF CHALLENGES
As we mark the 10th anniversary of China's entry into an aging society with elderly people (above 60) being 10 percent of its population, here is one more fact that the government cannot ignore: 8 million people, instead of little over 3 million 10 years ago, will touch 60 every year.
As a result, the number of people who are too old to take care of themselves is also rapidly increasing. Investigations show that the number of empty-nest families (homes with only old aged couples) accounts for nearly 50 percent of all urban families on average, and the percentage of such families in rural areas exceeds 40 percent.
The central and local governments must make plans to meet the various needs that can help take good care of the elderly. The government, at the central and local level, has done a great deal to help the aged spend their remaining years in reasonable comfort with options for activities. For example, more than 36,000 "college"-type centers of education and recreation for seniors have been set up nationwide to meet the needs of those who want to educate themselves further; and, the number enrolled in these centers is more than 4 million.
The increasingly large percentage of the elderly people is not necessarily a burden. Of course, the larger this population is and the longer these people live, the more money a society will need to pay pensions for them. Yet their existence has helped create a lot of jobs.
As thousands of people are working in the more than 400 universities for the elderly, more such universities will be needed as this population grows. Other facilities such as homes for the elderly and companies providing household services for families with only old couples will create a lot of jobs, and relieve pressure on job market.
Besides, as investment in homes for the elderly is necessary, society should be prepared to accept how important it is for the elderly to receive the care and attention they need, and also pay for it. Young people may need to do voluntary work at homes for the elderly so that they can develop the awareness of taking care of the elderly.
China has a tradition of holding the elderly in great reverence. Performing the duty of taking good care of one's aged parents has been considered the primary responsibility of a decent person. But nowadays, it is unrealistic for the family of a young couple who are the only child of their parents to look after two elderly couples as their parents did for their grandparents, or their grandparents for their great-grandparents.
So what we need is social services geared to this situation to provide for the needs of the elderly. To make such services adequate, available and of high quality in both urban and rural areas in the near future is something that needs to figure high on the agenda at all levels of government.
PROPERTY DECLARATION: PROS & CONS
Property declaration by officials in the public sector is a hot topic this year. A compulsory property declaration regime, which has served well in many developed countries, is a mighty weapon against corruption. Lessons from other countries reveal that a sound property declaration system has at least four significant features. First, a specific law or a chapter on the anti-corruption law is made to take on the issue of property declaration. Second, reports of officials' properties must be strictly inspected. Third, the content of property declaration should be made public. And fourth, the officials who conceal or manipulate property status must be penalized.
Though China has introduced a stipulation on property declaration in 1995, it has not been effective in curbing corruption due to lack of these four features. Almost no grave corruption case has been detected through this stipulation, and many venal officials have easily passed the property declaration every year until they are found corrupt. When the current property declaration system cannot deter the officials from corruption or help discover the corrupt cases, we need to examine the flaws in the system and reform it.
The current system falls short of three key elements, i.e. inspection of property reports, publication of outcomes and penalties on those who cheat. Why were these crucial elements not incorporated into property declaration? There are quite a few barriers hampering the system from functioning well.
First, there is a dearth of honesty and credibility among many officials. People once expected that all officials would have honestly declared their incomes and property status when the property declaration stipulation was made. Many of them, however, did not do justice to the expectation and failed to report their incomes truthfully.
Second, when the stipulation was made, it was not clear who would monitor the property status of officials. Under the current system, the property reports of officials are only exposed to higher authorities, and the officials at the same level are not eligible to obtain the information, let alone the general public. Since the agencies that could inspect the property declaration are limited, there is less likelihood of detecting frauds and irregularities.
Third, there is not a credit record system covering all citizens in the banks. Hence, it is easier for corrupt officials to conceal and transfer their illegal incomes.
Fourth, it is feared that publication of officials' incomes might have a negative impact on society, because the incomes of officials are much higher than that of ordinary people.
Fifth, the property declaration system may affect the interests of the designers of the system. Few officials would like to make public their incomes and properties due to the rife off-the-book incomes. Since officials write the rules, naturally they do not want to devise an effective system that might damage their own interests.
A recent instance disclosed the attitudes of officials to the property declaration system. Earlier this year, Altay prefecture in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region became the first place in the mainland to make public the incomes of officials. When the officials in Altay and other areas in Xinjiang were asked in a survey about their attitudes to the new regulation, 70 percent of them opposed it, and only one in ten favored it. The survey confirmed the guess that many officials were afraid of making public their incomes because they had grabbed unclean money. Since the publication of officials' incomes has faced noticeable opposition in a prefecture, people can imagine the immense difficulties if the regulation is to be extended to the whole country.
Despite the obstacles, many regions followed suit and adopted similar property declaration regulations, such as Cixi in Zhejiang province, Yibin in Sichuan province, and Liuyang in Hunan province. There have been some flaws in the regulations: in Altay, part of the information has been kept secret, and no official confessed to having received gifts; in Cixi, the income status declared by official was only released within government departments.
Though the flaws remain, promoting the property declaration system has been a firm resolve of the central government. Earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao responded to netizens that it was correct to make public the officials' properties, and the government was actively working on it. In May, officials from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the Communist Party of China revealed that the CCDI was making regulations on property declaration and the experience of Altay would be a crucial reference.
An effective and solid property declaration system can be made based on the current system plus several crucial new elements. The reports of officials' properties should be carefully examined to verify their authenticity. The information should be gradually released first within the government departments and then to the general public. The officials who commit fraud or concealment should be rigorously punished according to laws and regulations. And all information must be recorded for future inspection.
Property declaration is a way to let public power prevail. Improving the property declaration system could be a vital and forceful part of our anti-corruption campaign.
The author is a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China.
GREEN IS THE NEW CONSUMER MANTRA
Over the last few years China has implemented a number of ambitious climate-friendly policies. Many of the these policies were part of China's National Climate Change Program, released in June 2007.
The country's recent economic stimulus includes the largest green package in the world. And the government has created attractive opportunities for businesses providing industrial products that reduce environmental pollution or generate safe energy such as flue gas desulfurization, variable frequency drives and biomass power.
To the average Chinese consumer they undoubtedly remain complex names for confusing technologies that don't really touch their daily lives. But whenever our firm, LEK Consulting, has surveyed consumers, asking them in layman terms if they are worried about the environment and if they would do something to protect it, we have seen a different, positive, response.
Besides, the local media are providing more and more space and time to issues such as global warming and ecology. The trend may have started later than in Western countries, nevertheless it is getting stronger. Green reporting peaked around Earth Day (April 22) last year, after which the devastating Sichuan earthquake, Beijing Olympics and the global economic crisis took center stage. But environment remains a major issue for the media.
To measure the changes in consumer attitudes more accurately, LEK surveyed more than 600 people across China to see what type of consumers were willing to buy energy saving and other eco-friendly products and the amount of premium they would pay for them.
More than 80 percent of the respondents said they were willing to buy energy saving products. Interestingly, 66 percent of those who said "no" were willing to buy green products during better economic times. This means the impact of the global economic crisis is influencing consumers' decision to buy the relatively expensive environmentally friendly products.
The premium consumers are willing to pay, however, is not large, with 75 percentage of the respondents saying it should not be more than 10 percent. Judging by global standards this is not surprising because a higher percentage of consumers are driven by prices in China.
But the upside is that 15 percent of consumers are willing to pay more than 20 percent premium, which is quite high even by global standards because such customers' percentage is just 5 to 10 in the developed countries.
The survey has thrown up an interesting generational trend. New parents appear the most concerned about the environment and show a higher propensity to pay a relatively high premium for green products.
Generation Y are the best potential "green" consumers, although they seem less worried about the environment and exhibit few eco-friendly habits. But they make up their lack of concern with their buying habits and their willingness to pay higher premiums for trendy products.
The survey shows environmental awareness is increasing. But factors such as price and health often play a more important role in influencing consumers' decision.
To be successful, companies have to target specific segments of consumers with their green products and services. Food, personal care and household products are areas in which local firms have employed this strategy successfully, often by combining a "green" message with other key benefits, especially health.
In other categories, companies have to emphasize the benefits of eco-friendly products by comparing them with the other key criterion for consumers: cost. This strategy can be of special importance to makers of home appliances and electrical goods, including energy saving bulbs.
Another interesting result of the survey is that being green is associated with being better for some products and it allows companies to charge a premium for them. That is especially the case with fresh food products such as meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
Soaps, detergents, disinfectants, floor and toilet cleaners and other home cleaning products, and paper and garbage bags will not make people pay a premium.
Luxury items such as fashion accessories, clothing and footwear are not seen as high-quality stuff when they are projected as green products. But consumers still pay a high premium for them for their brands.
The survey shows a gradual but measurable shift in Chinese consumers' attitude toward the environment. This has started translating into willingness of consumers to change their buying habits and even to pay a slight premium.
This premium may not be high now, but the trend indicates the shape of things to come and will prompt eco-friendly product makers to serve a growing category of consumers to earn higher profits.
Michel Brekelmans is a partner with LEK Consulting based in Shanghai and David Xu is manager of LEK.
THE JAKARTA POST
WHY SHOULD THERE BE SHARIA LAW IN INDONESIA?
It is argued that the enactment of sharia law would end terrorist bombings. But would that not create a new threat to peace? Because there is no guarantee that enacting sharia law would create a more just society. An old proverb says “because of an over-expectation that rain will come, the water in the bucket is wasted”?
I am a Muslim. My grandpa was a cleric and ran a madrasa, a traditional Islamic school. I went to a well known madrasa and have learnt Islamic teachings my whole life. I now teach Islamic teachings myself, to students as well as my collegial friends. But I have never found anything in the Koran that says sharia law must be imposed, as the terrorists demand.
My mother recites the Koran almost everyday and she enjoys her safe and peaceful life in the village. Does she not deserve to enter paradise for her jihad as a real mother? Will she go to hell because she chooses to live relatively far away from her neighbors because she seeks to avoid improper interaction with others in her life? Sorry, I have never found a single Islamic doctrine which says that she is an unbeliever for not participating in the jihad for sharia law.
The issue of sharia law has appeared over and over again in the long history of Indonesia, with its great diversity. Interestingly, before and after the Proclamation of Independence, most of the efforts to enact sharia law were linked with efforts to make Muslims economically, politically and legally equal with the supposedly superior colonialists and then later with the “westernized people” in the independence era.
One of the best examples from the pre-independence era was the Paderi War, which took place in West Sumatra in the 18th-19th centuries. This war took place as the society experienced great economic, political and cultural change. In this changing society, the Paderis wished to drive out the colonialists and to establish a society based on sharia law where local traditions dominated.
One of the impacts of the strict implementation of the religious law was that the Paderis fought against the people whose tradition had been violently offended. Even many of the traditionalists crossed over and fought with the Dutch. As the local society divided the Paderis failed to achieve their dream.
Another example was the debate related to the making of Pancasila, the five tenets that make up the national ideology of Indonesia, which includes the belief in One God Almighty, that humanity that is just and civilized, that Indonesia is a unitary whole, that democracy should be guided by the wisdom of representative deliberation and that all Indonesians should enjoy social justice.
Some argued that the first principle should require “the belief in One God Almighty and obligate Muslims to conform to sharia law”. But the founding fathers omitted the second part after much deliberation.
However, the omission has since been the source of never-ending debate. To this day some Islamic political parties utilize this issue to gain support, as they claim that the omission has inhibited the endorsement of sharia law in Indonesia.
After the Independence era, religious-based conflicts were mostly related to the formation of an Islamic state ruled by sharia Law. The first was the rebellion led by Kartosuwiryo, who founded the Darul Islam (Islamic State), mostly in West Java, in the 1940-1960s. Kahar Muzakkar led a similar rebellion in Celebes in the 1950s.
In modern Indonesia, the latest example came with the negative campaigning of the Islamic parties in this year’s election. Some parties inappropriately utilized religious symbols to attack their competitors while others called for the enactment of sharia law.
The Muslims who endorse sharia law are basically trapped in the symbolist hole: They are more
concerned about the sharia law label vis-à-vis westernized and secular law.
Many of them are actually dependant on the explanations given by their religious teachers and don’t bother learning the texts themselves. They tend to be blind to the basic principles of the Islamic legal philosophy, including the notion of brotherhood and social solidarity, the notion of an ideal law, the condemnation of antisocial behavior or even the presumption of innocence.
If some of them learn by themselves, they often use translations from Arabic sources that are not appropriately adapted to Indonesian circumstances. Or if they are written directly by an Indonesian, the sources used are typically one sided or more related to peripheral things of the religious teachings.
Moreover, the radical figures inspiring the efforts to enact sharia law seem to think of sharia law as a panacea for every ill suffered by Muslims.
They tend to avoid seriously thinking about the thousands of particular problems that each need their own solution.
Consequently, they aren’t successful in improving the quality of life of poor Muslims, for instance. With their chosen shortcuts, new disasters are created, and not justice at all.
The writer graduated from the Sharia Faculty at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University in Jakarta.
THE JAKARTA POST
THE DECAY OF THE KPK
Members of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), both past and present, have seen a reversal of fortune, despite their consistent performance.
The founding commissioners were awarded state medals, commonly conferred to distinguished figures and national heroes, ahead of the recent anniversary of the country’s independence.
Their successors, by contrast, have been going through rough seas ever since KPK chairman Antasari Azhar was arrested in May for his alleged role in the murder of Nasruddin Zulkarnaen, the director of a state company. Antasari’s detention has undoubtedly distracted the commission from focusing on combating corruption.
The remaining four commissioners are now facing a litmus test of integrity after Antasari disclosed details of a bribery case involving some of his deputies. Antasari’s testimony has however backfired on him, as he is now accused of violating the KPK’s code of ethics, as he learned about the bribery in a meeting with a suspect on the run from the KPK in Singapore.
The most daunting challenge confronting the KPK is of course the corruption court bill, which was submitted by the government and will most likely be endorsed by the House of Representatives. The bill has the potential to change the course of the country’s drive against corruption, as it proposes that a panel of career judges screen corruption judges and that corruption courts be put under direct supervision of district courts. As a study has found, career judges and district courts tend to acquit corruption suspects.
Antasari’s implication in the murder, his alleged violation of the KPK’s code of ethics and the possibility that corruption has infected even the KPK should serve as a wake-up call for the improvement in the selection process of candidates for the respected jobs. The latest recruitment of KPK member candidates by the House was not free from controversy, particularly after the lawmakers voted for then state prosecutor Antasari as the chief of the commission.
The lawmakers at that time defied public outcry against the elimination of figures whose track records proved their commitment to the fight against graft from the selection process. Antasari silenced his critics with unthinkable moves against the legislative power that endorsed his rise to the KPK’s top post. The arrest of a number of lawmakers in connection with corruption cases might be seen as an act of betrayal and the House’s approval of the corruption court bill would be considered decent reprisal.
With Antasari’s dismissal imminent, the government desperately needs a replacement who does not only win the support of the House, but most importantly is accepted by the public at large because of his or her proven track record. Such public scrutiny can be adopted as a standard for the selection of KPK member candidates in the future to avoid incidents that will erode the commission’s credibility.
Finding a replacement for Antasari, however, will be far easier than salvaging the KPK from the political maneuverings attempting to undermine it.
Civil society groups are the last organizations left supporting the KPK amid the power play to strip the commission off its “extraordinary” powers. The groups are playing a pivotal role in putting pressure on the lawmakers to keep the current legal process against corruption.
The louder the public voice is in support of KPK, the more likely the anti-graft commission will continue its illustrious run. The fading encouragement for the KPK, on the contrary, could mark its impending decay.
THE MOSCOW TIMES
THE BLACK SHEEP OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
MICHELE A. BERDY
Глуп как баран: as stupid as a sheep
In the Russian barnyard, баран (ram) and овца (ewe) don’t have a rep for smarts. In fact, in barnyards all over the world from the start of recorded time, sheep have been perceived — correctly, in my limited experience — as slow-thinking, dim-witted and rather stubborn creatures that mindlessly follow a leader (вожак). A sheep may be cute and fuzzy, especially when it’s a wee little thing — ягнёнок (lamb). But when the Almighty was handing out brains, sheep were out in the pasture chatting about the clover.
In Russian, standard sheep comparisons focus on stupidity and stubbornness: он глуп как баран (he’s as dumb as a sheep) or он упрямый как баран (he’s as stubborn as a sheep). In English, we associate stubbornness with other creatures: as stubborn as a mule, mulish, pig-headed or bull-headed. The standard English sheep comparison, found in the word “sheepish,” stresses other qualities: docility, timidity and — after a dash of anthropomorphism — a sense of shame or embarrassment. There is something of this in another Russian and English comparison: кроткий как ягнёнок (as meek as a lamb).
A wonderfully evocative Russian expression captures the dumb sheep routine perfectly: смотреть/уставиться как баран на новые ворота (literally, to stare like a sheep at a new gate). How dumb is a sheep? He’s so dumb that he won’t enter his pen if there’s a new gate. It is used to describe someone staring without comprehension at someone or something: Я смотрел на медицинское заключение как баран на новые ворота (I stared dumbly at the diagnosis).
Both English speakers and Russian speakers agree that a flock of sheep is a mindless force, manipulated by either the вожак (leader) or пастух (shepherd). You can often find this image in newspaper opinion articles, when the author throws a fit of collective self-loathing: Равнодушные и пассивные мы, как стадо баранов — куда гонят, туда и идут (We’re apathetic and as passive as a flock of sheep: We go wherever they herd us).
There is another nice Russian ram expression that plays more on the visual image of the animal than his character: согнуть/скрутить в бараний рог (literally, to bend or roll [someone or something] into a ram’s horn). This means to get the upper hand of someone or something: Инфляцию удастся скрутить в бараний рог (We’ll get inflation under control). Тимошенко хочет скрутить Ющенко в бараний рог (Tymoshenko wants to make Yushchenko knuckle under).
And then there’s the mysterious phrase one hears at staff meetings when everyone wanders off subject. Вернёмся к нашим баранам! (Let’s get back on topic; literally, let’s return to our rams!) According to my sources, this puzzling phrase is a calque from the French — Revenons a nos moutons — and comes from a 15th-century farce called “Maistre Pierre Pathelin.” In the play, a draper is suing a shepherd for poaching one of his sheep. But the lawyer defending the shepherd didn’t pay the draper for some cloth, and the draper begins to berate the lawyer and loses the thread of his testimony. The judge keeps interrupting the ranting draper with the phrase: Let’s get back to our rams!
The sources don’t explain how this phrase wended its way from 15th-century French drama to a 21st-century Russian boardroom. So as they say: за что купил, за то и продаю (for what it’s worth; literally, I’m selling it for the price I bought it for).
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.
THE MOSCOW TIMES
TOO EARLY TO BREAK OUT THE CHAMPAGNE
BY CHRIS WEAFER
When you are mired in a severe economic crisis, it is normal to get excited at even the smallest morsel of good news. It is therefore tempting to interpret the 0.5 percent monthly improvement in July’s gross domestic product and the smaller contraction in industrial output as an assurance that all is now well with the economy and that the stock market will imminently start the second leg of its recovery rally. Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach fueled this optimism when he proclaimed Monday that “the recession is over,” commenting on July’s GDP results.
Hopefully, this is the direction in which both the economy, and equity market will eventually go, but there are many serious problems still to be resolved and the seedlings of recovery will have to be extended to the consumer and small businesses if sustained recovery is to be achieved. The July data shows that the financial well-being of these important economic segments is still deteriorating. In absolute terms, the 9.3 percent year-on-year decline in GDP and the 10.8 percent drop in industrial output places Russia firmly at the bottom of the performance table of all major economies.
The risk of a second crisis wave has by no means been eliminated, although few expect the next challenges to cause the same level of destruction that we saw in late 2008 and earlier this year. But dealing with the still-unclear scale of bad debts in the banking system and restarting credit markets, at an affordable cost, as well as restoring consumer and investment confidence, are critical if the economy is to catch up with the positive trend in most major economies, which are now either seeing broadly based growth or are on the brink of it.
For the investment case in Russia, there are many serious problems that have to be solved before we can expect a return to the pre-crisis optimism and asset valuations. The 45 percent year-on-year decline in foreign direct investment through the first half of this year can be easily explained by the global crisis, but even before the crisis the level of FDI only accounted for a small percentage of GDP — by far the smallest contribution to GDP among similar developing economies. Business investors have remained wary of the slow pace of reforms and the vulnerability to the sort of boom-to-bust economic cycle that we have become accustomed to. Having exposed the myth that Russia had broken free of commodities dependency, strategic investors in sectors other than oil, gas, metals and a few others will want to see a much more determined and effective approach by the government in pushing reforms and directing resources to boost growth among the small and medium-sized enterprises and industries that will represent real economic diversification.
Another serious problem is that the money set aside to fund the country’s rapidly increasing pension liability is now likely to be completely spent as part of the stimulus spending. The National Welfare Fund held about $95 billion on July 1, although the plan was to accumulate several times that amount by the time pension support payments are due to increase substantially from current levels. At this stage, it is only a best guess as to exactly how much funding will be needed to cover the annual pensions bill by the middle of the next decade, but the scale of the problem can be seen from the population demographics. The Federal Statistics Service reported three years ago that 10 million of the 79 million-member work force would retire by 2015 and, with improving life expectancy, would represent a huge increase in the cost of the government’s pension support. That is why Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin fought so vigorously to create the National Welfare Fund to make sure that funding would be available. But it is clear that these funds will be gone by mid-2010.
For now, the more serious concern is that the fragile recovery through July was largely dependent on China’s demand for oil and other materials. Moreover, the economic well-being and confidence about the future among consumers and small businesses continues to deteriorate. And this is where the risk of a second wave of the crisis comes into play. Industries, such as steel, have soared on the back of rising demand and prices. This has also been one of the best-performing themes on the stock market with the market value of Evraz Group, for example, rising by over 600 percent since the low point of late last year. Oligarchs looked like an endangered species at the end of last year, but thanks mainly to China they have rebounded. But this could easily change. Already there are reports that China may soon impose curbs on industrial growth, cut excess supply and hedge against the risk of overheating. If that happens, there would be less demand for Russia’s steel, oil and other materials, and this could lead to a double dip in the crisis.
That highlights the other major problem — the lack of depth in the July “recovery.” The consumer — and industries that are dependant on consumer spending — are showing no signs of improvement. July’s indicators were much worse than the previous month. Retail sales were off 8.2 percent, and real wages were down 5.8 percent year on year. These numbers show that the effects of the recession are still extending across the broader economy. Confidence has also taken a tumble. One example: Despite the decline in real wages, people saved 17 percent of their income in the second quarter, which was twice the savings rate in the first quarter.
There is hope that the crisis in the economy can act as a catalyst for real change in the state’s fiscal, monetary and budgetary priorities. There is also hope that the government will finally move forward with long-awaited reforms, start spending real money on improving the country’s infrastructure and take the steps needed to improve the investment attractiveness of the country for both portfolio and strategic investors. These measures are needed to put the economy on course and to break Russia’s dependency on natural resources.
Chris Weafer is chief strategist at UralSib Capital.
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