Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Unnikrishnan and Achuthanandan

The remarks of the Chief Minister of Kerala V. S. Achuthanandan regarding the drama that unfolded in front of Sandeep Unnikrishnan's house in Bangalore on Sunday night has evoked much discussion. Mr Unnikrishnan (Sandeep's father) had refused entry into his house for VS and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, abused them publicly and asked them to leave his house. In a remark that was widely and repeatedly telecast by the media, Unnikrishnan shouted that "no dog should come to my house." VS' reply was: "OK fine, but no dog would have gone there if it were not Sandeep's house."

Obviously, Unnikrishnan was influenced, apart from the great grief of losing his son, by the general anti-politician tirade of the mainstream media. The insect called "Enough is Enough" appears to have biten him too.

But Unnikrishnan may do well to remember an old story. An old story from the history of Kerala, a State to which he belongs. In the year 1946, a major revolt for freedom and democracy had broken out in the taluks of Cherthala and Ambalapuzha in Travancore. This revolt of peasants and agricultural labourers was primarily against (a) the Dewan who had proposed an independent Travancore under an American-style constitution in which he was to be the "President" and (b) the landlords of the region who, with active support from Dewan, were historically deeply oppressive of peasants and workers. As EMS Namboodiripad was to write later, "the upheaval was not a sudden spurt of the people's ire against the Government but part of the struggle of the working class against the British Government and feudalism."

The Dewan unleased terror on the agitators. His Police directed their ire and guns on the agitators, who resisted with nothing but wooden spears. The agitators faced the Police bravely and barechested. The outcome was disastrous; in October 1946, the Police fired at a demonstration of workers and in the ensuing clash of unequals, thirty-five workers and four Policemen perished. A week later, the Police hit back with more force and shot down more than 300 agitators who were camping in a nearby island. This agitation is famously called the Punnapra-Vayalar agitation.

Among the agitators who held wooden spears was a local tailor; he was, in fact, the organiser of one training camp for the agitators in Ambalapuzha. He was among the agitators who confronted the bullets. He did not wear a helmet; he did not carry an automatic machine gun, he did not wear a bullet-proof chest and he did not carry modern cameras to detect opponents' movements. Yet, he was there. Luckily, bullets missed him. The tailor lived and went on to become Kerala's Chief Minister. His name happens to be V. S. Achuthanandan.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai terror and the Media

Watching TV after the Mumbai events has been a pain beyond words. Listening to Arnab Goswami or Barkha Dutt has been like watching an old Manoj Kumar movie. May be those films were better.

The way media comperes have sought to play on peoples’ sentiments has been truly atrocious. They have invited the worst of Mumbai’s already mutilated “civil society”, asked them the most provocative questions and obtained the the most reactionary answers.

See the samples below:

Prahlad Kakkar, Adman: “we need someone with strong political will to govern the country. If the BJP puts up Narendra Modi as a PM candidate, it will win hands down because he seems to be the only politician with strong political will.”

Glenn Saldanha, CEO, Glenmark: the way we should deal with this problem is with the power of capital. We should join hands with the capitals of the world in the developed countries, and confront Pakistan (not exact words, but close).

Saldanha’s words were truly eye opening for me. I had not thought at all of that angle. The less said of Shobhaa De, the better.

However, there have been honourable exceptions. The dancer Javed Jeffrey and theater personality Sanjna Kapur have been bold enough to confront the nauseating comperes by integrating Ayodhya, Mumbai riots and Gujarat into the discussions on terror attacks. Sanjna was bold to say on screen that the Home Minister should resign. Poignant was when she told Barkha Dutt against her question “Has Mumbai changed forever for you?” that “Barkha, for me, Mumbai changed forever after 1993, not yesterday”. The indigestion was most evident on Barkha Dutt’s face. Of course, most channels avoided uncomfortable guests like Teesta Setalvad.

The best incident of the day has indeed been Mrs Hemant Karkare’s refusal of Modi’s “compensation”. Hats off to the woman! As one of my friends SMS-ed me today: “Great man, Great family”.

Hemant Karkare: Progressive and Secular to the Core

Here is one of the best, and most revealing, obits of Hemant Karkare. It appeared in today's DNA.



'He always led from the front'

Neeta Kolhatkar / DNA

Sunday, November 30, 2008 03:26 IST

Hemant Karkare, the Anti-Terrorist Squad chief was born into a Maharashtrian Brahmin family in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh where his parents lived. His father, Kamlakar worked in Central Railways as a guard and his mother was a teacher.

The family moved to Nagpur when Karkare was in the sixth standard. His mother Kumudini who had both bachelor's and master's degrees in education, after her marriage, taught at D Dinanath School.

Karkare's childhood friends remember the family as warm, simple, rational and highly educated. "Kamlakar and I were worked together. He was an active trade unionist of National Railway Mazdoor Union and All-India Guards Council," recalls Narayan Rao, secretary of Maharashtra unit for All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation, an affiliate of World Peace Organisation.

Kamlakar was a great influence on Hemant. "He inherited his father's qualities of being rational and able to identify with the masses," Rao says.

Kamlakar was close to AB Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India. "Kamlakar helped the poor, he would give them homeopathic medicines," he added. He was also inspired by his mother's resilience and was his role model.

"The one thing that stands out about the Karkare family is that while they were Brahmins, who were not atheists but were never pro-RSS. His family was far from fundamentalist Brahmins you meet in this city," says Rao.

Hemant studied at the New English High School in Nagpur. "When the bigger boys bullied him, he would just ignore them," says his friend Colonel Rahul Goverdhan.

Hermant later went on to study Mechanical engineering. He then joined Hindustan Lever, appeared for his UPSC exams and joined the Indian Police Services.

Karkare was an excellent sculptor. He made lampshades and artefacts from wood. As SP, Chandrapur, he had learnt these skills from local artisans. He even helped them sell their wares. Hemant would make gifts for his friends and family like photo frames," recalls Avinash Joshi, a friend.

Goverdhan says Karkare liked to take charge of things. "The day he was to take over as SP Chandrapur, there was an attack on the police. Hemant went and opened the police station and lead the attack on the Naxals. He always wanted his men to know they could count on him,"says Goverdhan.

Karkare's colleagues from the ministry of external affairs remember him as a teacher to them. "We worked in Vienna many years ago. He was my guru," says Kamaldeep Khanna, an officer with MEA.

Hemant was just 54 when his career was cut short. He is survived by his wife Kavita, a teacher, the backbone of the family.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Never too late to cover up! On the Narendra Jadhav Report

R. Ramakumar

Nothing serves better than a friendly government committee to cover up damaging facts. The Maharashtra government’s recent effort to evaluate the relief measures announced for the Vidarbha region bears out, yet again, this tired cliché.

In November 2007, the Government of Maharashtra appointed a one-member committee headed by Dr Narendra Jadhav (Vice-Chancellor, University of Pune) to evaluate the progress of its own Rs 1075 crore package for the six districts of Western Vidarbha as well as the Prime Ministers’ Rs 3750 crore package for Vidarbha. Later, its terms of reference were enlarged to include a study of the debt waiver scheme announced in the Union Budget 2008-09. The report was submitted to the government in July 2008.

What prompts this response to the report is not any extraordinary argument in the report but a smart effort on the part of Dr Jadhav to undertake a personalized attack on journalists and provoke a narrow regional sentiment against them. In his report, Dr Jadhav took umbrage to journalist P. Sainath’s alleged claim that Maharashtra is a “graveyard of farmers”; he wrote that “Sainath is not only incorrect and misleading, but grossly unfair to Maharashtra.” He followed this up with a statement at a public lecture in the University of Mumbai where the Mumbai Mirror quoted him as saying, “Sainath has unwittingly or otherwise used wrong parameters to defame the state and has migrated from truth. This cannot be condoned. It’s irresponsible.”

It is the above statement of Dr Jadhav that necessitates a rejoinder. Dr Jadhav’s argument has much potential to encourage regional chauvinists, available aplenty in the State, to fish in muddy waters.

In brief, there are at least three serious problems in Dr Jadhav’s report.

(a) The great suicide debate - What is Maharashtra’s rank from below?

In his report, Dr Jadhav spends much time and space to prove that Maharashtra is not the “worst possible State” in India with respect to farmers’ suicides. He cunningly accepts upfront that farmers’ suicides are matter of great concern, and to deny it would be “symptomatic of social insensitivities.” He then proceeds to disagree with “the other extreme”. Rubbishing the alleged claim by Sainath that Maharashtra is a “graveyard of farmers”, he claims that the use of absolute number of suicides for inter-State comparison is “inappropriate”. When “appropriately analysed”, it turns out that the rate of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra is less than that of Goa, Pondicherry, Karnataka and Kerala.

What is interesting here is that it was not Sainath’s claim that Maharashtra is a “graveyard of farmers”. Sainath was only quoting from a widely acclaimed report on farmers’ suicides by the eminent economist Professor K. Nagaraj (see page 21 of Nagaraj’s report, available at www.macroscan.com). Nagaraj does not base his argument on just one indicator – the absolute number of farmers’ suicides. He also considers (b) farmers’ suicides as a share of all suicides in the State; (c) farmers’ suicides in each State as a share of all suicides in the country; and (d) suicide rate per 100,000 cultivators. It is based on a comprehensive analysis of all these indicators that Nagaraj arrives at his conclusions. All the data in Nagaraj’s report are for 2001, as it is the last year for which census data on cultivators are available.

Let us take each indicator. First, as Table 1 shows, the absolute number of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra in 2001 was 3,536, which was the highest for any State in India. Dr Jadhav’s “appropriately” more distressed States – Goa and Pondicherry – had just 91 and 18 farmers’ suicides respectively that year. Secondly, the share of farmers’ suicides among all suicides was 24.2 per cent in Maharashtra, which was only second after Chhattisgarh (Table 1).

Thirdly, when the suicide rate was considered, Maharashtra indeed came behind Goa, Pondicherry, Karnataka and Kerala in 2001. This is the indicator from Nagaraj’s report that Dr Jadhav has conveniently and arbitrarily chosen to use as the most “scientific” and decisive. Goa and Pondicherry are hardly agrarian societies to be compared “scientifically” with Maharashtra. In the 10 years between 1997 and 2006, the total number of farmers’ suicides in these two States was 103 and 1206 respectively, compared to 33,364 in Maharashtra. Kerala showed a high suicide rate of 143 per 100,000 cultivators, but this is a wrong estimate. According to the Census of India definition, a person can be classified as a cultivator only on the basis of the crops grown by that person. Persons who grow “plantation crops” like tea, coffee, rubber, tobacco, pepper, and cardamom, and other crops like coconut, spices and betel nuts are not considered as “cultivators” in the Census. Farmers’ suicides in Kerala were largely by growers of crops that are not considered while defining a “cultivator”. In other words, the abnormally high suicide rate for Kerala is due to the use of a denominator that does not include the population of farmers who committed suicide. Thus, in 2001, Maharashtra is likely to have been second only to Karnataka in terms of suicide rate.

Thus, in 2001, Maharashtra came first in terms of the absolute number of suicides and second in terms of the share of farmers’ suicides among all suicides and the suicide rate. This was the position as in 2001.

Post-2001, it is very likely that Maharashtra’s position worsened vis-à-vis other States. The number of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra increased rapidly after 2001. Between 2001 and 2006, the annual number of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra increased by 26 per cent – from 3536 in 2001 to 4453 in 2006. On the other hand, the annual number of farmers’ suicides declined in absolute terms in the other four States that Dr Jadhav notes to be worse than Maharashtra in 2001. If we take Goa, Pondicherry, Kerala and Karnataka together, the annual number of farmers’ suicides actually fell in absolute terms by 17 per cent.

If we take the longer period between 1997 and 2006, the annual number of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra more than doubled – from 1,917 to 4,453 (see Table 2). In the same period, the annual number of farmers’ suicides in the other four States taken together fell from 3089 in 1997 to 3024 in 2006. As a share of all suicides in the State, farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra increased from 15 per cent in 1997 to 29 per cent in 2006. The number of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra as a share of farmers’ suicides in India as a whole rose from 14 per cent in 1997 to 26 per cent in 2006. As Nagaraj comments, “there is no other State in the country that shares all these dubious distinctions with Maharashtra.”

A word of caution: State-level data used here are for Maharashtra as a whole. If one considers only the districts in Western Vidarbha affected by the suicides, the picture that emerges is starker. For instance, in Wardha district, the number of farmers’ suicides as a share of all suicides in the district was 43 per cent in 2006, as compared to 29 per cent for the State as a whole (as per data provided to me by Dr R. Rukmani of MSSRF, Chennai).

As we have noted, after 2001, farmers’ suicides have risen in Maharashtra at a rate faster than in other States. If one considers this rapid growth of farmers’ suicides, it is likely that Maharashtra has moved up the list in terms of many indicators that Nagaraj examined. As Nagaraj concluded:

"This gives an annual compound growth rate of an exceedingly high figure of 9.8 per cent for farm suicides here, a rate at which the number would double every 7-8 years. Considering the period 1997-2006 as a whole, every fifth farm suicide committed in the country during this period occurred in Maharashtra; for the latest year, i.e., 2006 this figure is even more stark: every fourth farm suicide in the country occurred here in that year. And if we look at male farm suicides in this State, the picture is even bleaker: this number increased at an astounding annual compound growth rate of 11 percent between 1997 and 2006, which would imply a doubling of the number every 6-7 years. Maharashtra, it appears, is the graveyard of farmers today" (2008, pp. 20-21, emphasis mine).

Unfortunately, Dr Jadhav has chosen to take the above remark out of its context and use it for a narrow and personalized accusation. Dr Jadhav makes a grave mistake by confusing between the criticism of a government and that of the State and its people. After reading the comment by Dr Jadhav, the following was the response from Nagaraj in a personal communication:

"…when we point out that Maharashtra is the graveyard of the farmers, it goes without saying that it is no reflection on the farmers of the State or the people of the State. It is just a reflection of the fact that the neo-liberal economic policies – pursued with vigour by Centre and the State – have had the most severe impact on farmers in Maharashtra. Blaming the victims was not part of our agenda; blaming the villains certainly was."

(b) What are the “root causes”?

After “proving” that Maharashtra is not the “worst possible State”, Dr Jadhav moves on to analyse what he calls “the root cause behind the suicides”. According to him, there are three root causes that have led to the non-viability of farming in Vidarbha: (1) grossly inadequate irrigation facilities; (2) acute shortage of electric pump-set connections; and (3) inadequate supply of institutional credit.

Interestingly, in identifying the “root causes”, Dr Jadhav refuses to criticize the policies of economic reform that are the proximate cause of the agrarian distress and farmers’ suicides. Instead, at one point, he claims that the crisis in agriculture is a result of inadequate liberalisation in agriculture. He writes: “the agriculture sector in India has remained largely insulated from the comprehensive reforms initiated in the aftermath of the unprecedented macroeconomic crisis of 1991.” The falling growth rate in agriculture in the 1990s in India, then, is an “inevitable” consequence of this lack of reforms in agriculture.

It is well-documented that the real reasons for the non-viability of cotton cultivation are the fall in cotton prices and rise in input prices; interestingly, Dr Jadhav does not consider either as important. Cotton prices fell primarily because cheap imports of cotton flooded the Indian market after the activation of the WTO agreement. Post-1997, the central government eliminated quantitative import restrictions for cotton, and reduced import tariffs from 35 percent in 2001-02 to 5 percent in 2002-03. Earlier falls in prices were not fully felt by the farmers because losses were absorbed largely by the ‘Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme’. However, from the late-1990s, the State government began to dismantle the procurement scheme. The withdrawal of the scheme rendered cotton farmers totally susceptible to volatilities in international and national prices.

Further, the 1990s and 2000s have been a period of breakdown of institutional support structures in rural areas. Input costs have exhibited a sharp rise after a reduction in subsidies. The rise in the input costs is reflected in the rising bills for electricity, fertilisers, energy (diesel) and transportation. Given the declining public investment in agricultural extension, farmers have lost access to the public extension. In its place, the farmers are dependent on agents of seed, fertiliser and pesticide companies – a dependence that has attained disastrous dimensions in the suicide-stricken regions like Vidarbha.

Dr Jadhav does not discuss any of these factors as consequences of economic reform. Instead, he has chosen to list a set of factors as “root causes” in such a way that they would appear unconnected to fiscal compression, which is central to economic reforms. Compare Dr Jadhav’s position with the more forthright position in the recently submitted report of the Radhakrishna Committee in 2007:


"The crisis in agriculture was well under way by late 1980s and the economic reforms beginning with 1990s have deepened it. The crisis in agriculture in the post-reform period has become pervasive…The volatile prices of commercial crops, including certain plantation crops, often triggered by cheap imports have caused farmers to suffer ruination because of agricultural trade liberalisation…"

"Internally, the structural adjustment process had far reaching implications for Indian agriculture. Fiscal reforms adversely affected the agricultural input support system and institutions…Simultaneously, a drastic reduction took place in the share of developmental expenditure on rural development from 11.7 per cent of GDP in 19991-92 to 5.9 per cent in 2000-01…"

"Marginal and small farmers are increasingly finding that their holdings are not viable…The market driven liberalisation process in agriculture is bound to be strongly biased towards rich farmers, traders and prosperous regions…"

"The root cause of the agricultural crisis lies in the neglect of agriculture in designing development programmes and in the allocation of development and plan resources" (Radhakrishna Committee Report, 2008, emphasis mine).


Clearly, there is a world of difference between the “root causes” identified by the Radhakrishna Committee and by Dr Jadhav. If only Dr Jadhav had shed his pro-reform bias and was equally forthright in identifying the reasons for the distress, one would have had a more meaningful report in hand.

(c) How efficient was the implementation of relief packages?

Dr Jadhav is full of praise for the design and implementation of the two relief packages by the government. The report notes that “the speed of implementation of both packages is certainly satisfactory”. The minor lapses are portrayed as primarily due to “administrative shortcomings.” Further, he claims that many of the perceived shortcomings of the packages are because of the “failure of government machinery” in “creating proper awareness among farmers” and giving it “necessary publicity”. The report notes:

"Assuming a uniform rate of implementation, around 58 per cent implementation [of the PM’s package] could have been expected. In reality, the implementation was more than 75 per cent. Likewise, the State Government’s three year package had completed 28 months by April 2008, which means that about 78 per cent implementation should have been completed. In reality, the implementation by April 2008 was more than 98 per cent."

It is unclear what indicator Dr Jadhav has used to arrive at this conclusion. If it is the “amount spent”, then it certainly is a dubious indicator to evaluate a scheme. In showering such praise on the State governments’ role, Dr Jadhav conveniently chose not to use the recent report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which examined the progress of the two relief packages in Maharashtra. In a rather scathing remark, the CAG report had noted that there was an

"…increase in number of suicides in six districts despite the declaration of the packages. The average number of suicides in the first two quarters of 2007-08 declined marginally compared to the respective quarter of previous year, yet the numbers were significantly higher than the number of suicides in corresponding quarters of the years 2001-02 to 2005-06" (Report of the CAG of India, “Performance Audit of Farmers’ Packages, 2008, pp. 17-18).

The other major conclusions in the CAG report may be summarized as below:

a) Base-line data obtained by door-to-door survey conducted by the Revenue department to ascertain the level of distress amongst farmers was not shared with other departments for identification of beneficiaries;

b) Out of the 14 components of the GoM package (Rs 1,075 crore), four components involving allocation of Rs 564 crore were not specific for the six suicide-prone districts and were being implemented in all districts of the State. This was incorrect accounting of expenditure;

c) While reimbursing banks for interest waived on loans, no fresh loans were sanctioned for 4.45 lakh households;

d) No expenditure was incurred on the heading “Ban on illegal money lending” (a court ruling was cited by the government as a reason);

e) There were delays ranging from 10 to 323 days in payment of immediate relief assistance in suicide cases; many cheques were dishonoured.

There is a clear hiatus between the claims of Dr Jadhav and the conclusions of the CAG. The CAG report had regretted that the implementation of the packages “does not inspire confidence”. Nevertheless, Dr Jadhav claims that the implementation was “certainly satisfactory.” One is tempted to believe that Dr Jadhav has gone out of his way to praise the governments’ role vis-à-vis the relief packages.

* * *

To conclude, the Narendra Jadhav Committee would appear to have achieved the purpose for which it was set up. First, it makes a valiant effort to whitewash the appalling record of the Maharashtra government in pushing its farmers to suicide; for this purpose, it runs the extra mile to selectively present data that suits the government. Secondly, it trivializes the central role that economic reforms have played in perpetuating the non-viability of Maharashtra’s agriculture. Thirdly, in an election-year, it provides a good service-certificate for a government known more for its absence in rural areas than presence. Never too late to cover up!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An open letter to Omar Abdullah

An open letter to Omar Abdullah from T. Jayaraman, Mumbai.

Dear Mr. Omar Abdullah,

Now that the sound of the cheers and the applause following your speech in the Lok Sabha on the occasion of the trust vote a few days ago must have stopped ringing in your ears, I would like to draw your attention to some questions regarding our practice of secularism and the conduct of our foreign policy.

Your staunch defense of the nuclear deal ``as an Indian and a Muslim'' has undoubtedly endeared you to our pro-nuclear deal media. It is undoubtedly correct that we must all conceive of our foreign policy as ``Indians'' and not as part of any particular religious or other identity that we may have. However, when the conduct of the nation's foreign policy itself bears the clear stamp of the weakening commitment to secularism in important sections of our political class, bureaucracy and civil society then it becomes unclear to many ordinary citizens, such as myself, whether your stirring speech was indeed appropriate for the occasion.

However, as you most manfully confessed in Parliament, even at the height of the Gujarat riots the subtlety of the link between these riots and the politics of the leading party of the then ruling coalition seems to have escaped your watchful commitment to secularism. So this other connection between our weakening commitment to secularism and our foreign policy must undoubtedly be even more surprising to you and deserves to be explained briefly.

You will undoubtedly recall that the BJP-led NDA alliance began its rule in 1998 with the Pokhran nuclear tests. The tests were promptly followed by considerable sabre-rattling vis-a-vis Pakistan exemplified by Shri Advani's comment that Pakistan should now be conscious of the changed geo-political realities of the situation. In that remarkable statement of May 18, 1998, Shri Advani linked the tests to the Kashmir issue and claimed that the ``decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pak relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem.'' Regrettably Pakistan refused to take the hint and continued on to its own nuclear tests shortly thereafter. The slippery slope on to which Indo-Pak relations were thrust by these tests culminated in the Kargil conflict of 1999, showing how hollow was Shri Vajpayee's claim that nuclear weapons were ``weapons of peace.'' Nuclear threats continued to be exchanged with Pakistan during and after the Kargil conflict through the years of NDA rule. You will undoubtedly appreciate that these threats also boded little good for Kashmir as a prospective theater of nuclear war.

Simultaneously after the tests the VHP/RSS combine took to the streets hailing the tests as the arrival of a new and resurgent India, taking as a cue Shri Vajpayee's claim that the ``tests had given ...India shakti.'' The VHP toured the country with handfuls of the dirt from the soil of Pokhran to celebrate
the tests. The RSS mouthpiece Organiser hailed the tests in a special May 17, 1998 issue with a collection of hawkish and virulently anti-China and anti-Pakistan articles that the bomb had to be made to ``tame Pakistan'' and teach China a lesson.

That these remarks were not simply those of an extremist fringe was made clear by Prime Minister Vajpayee's letter to Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, claiming that the tests were necessary to deal with a ``deteriorating security environment'' due to an ``overt nuclear weapons state on our borders''. Further the letter speaks of the ``atmosphere of distrust'' with this state that ``persists mainly due to an unresolved border problem''. And further linking Pakistan to this obvious reference to
China, the letter adds, ``that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state.''

If this ill-timed letter were not alone enough evidence, the long record of negotiations between Shri Jaswant Singh and the U. S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott made it clear that the tests were less about India's nuclear independence and more, much more, about aligning at the earliest with the world's foremost superpower.

I am sure you would agree that this was not the common variety of anti-Pakistan or anti-China sentiment with which we are all familiar but had a special character to it from the fact that it was promoted by the BJP.

We may also remind ourselves that these moves in foreign policy went hand-in-hand with a virulent communal agenda in domestic politics. The tirade against conversion was directly responsible for the tragic death of Staines and his sons in Orissa, the high-point of a series of attacks on Christian communities and their places of worship. The communal agenda was thrust everywhere from our children's textbooks to the world of art and letters. Gujarat was merely the high-point of a broad communal campaign.

The other dramatic turn in India's foreign policy was a new opening to Israel, setting aside the long-standing ties between our country and the people of Palestine and West Asia. Israel today is the arch-exemplar of a fundamentalist state in its unremitting pursuit of its Zionist aims. Shri Brajesh Mishra, one of the key figures of the BJP's foreign policy, was feted by Jewish/Zionist groups in the United States as the architect of this new policy. This turn undoubtedly also pleased the political establishment in the United States no end, since secular, non-aligned India's opposition to Zionism had long been a thorn in the side of their foreign policy.

The brand-new new foreign policy that began to emerge in the years of BJP-rule would be inexplicable if we did not recall the writings of the late Guru Golwalkar . In a 1965 essay titled ``Welcome bigger war'' in his book, ``Bunch of Thoughts'' the Guru characterised China as ``the one common menace to entire humanity'' and looked forward to a superpower and global alliance, including India, the United States (and even the then Soviet Union) to destroy it. For Golwalkar the building of a nuclear bomb was an essential requirement for the conduct of India's foreign and defence policy. This campaign for the nuclear bomb and a corresponding shift in India's foreign policy has long been an ardent desire of the RSS/Jan Sangh combine, articulated at every turn and subsequently carried over to the policy of the newly-formed BJP. If the new foreign policy attracted many non-communal elements too in our nation's corridors of power, I would humbly submit that it points not to the secular nature of the new policy but the extent to which our establishment was willing to sacrifice secularism for this new pursuit of aligning with the United States to become its gendarme in South Asia.

The Islamophobic campaign launched by President George W. Bush after 9/11 clearly came as a welcome relief to the NDA government that had made little headway in its negotiations with Bill Clinton. Bush's call for a `` War on Terror,'' that has repeatedly and indiscriminately targeted the innocent (predominantly of the Islamic faith) and killed far more innocents than the few terrorists it has managed to seize or kill, fell on receptive ears in our country's leadership. The violence of Gujarat drew little condemnation from the United States that has been quick to condemn any perceived violation of the democratic rights of the poor millions of the Third World (including that of the followers of Islam in Kosovo).

It is this foreign and nuclear policy that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's regime inherited. But despite its protestations of secularism, this regime has consistently refused to recognize the anti-secular roots of its inheritance and has maintained a continuity of policy with the former regime. Dr. Manmohan Singh said it all with his cry `` I have completed what you had begun'' as he greeted Shri Vajpayee at the briefing given to the former Prime Minister on the 123 agreement last year.

I would respectfully submit to you that this connection has not been lost on the Muslim masses in our country. They are not so naïve as to think that the deal per se is anti-Muslim. Nor are they naive enough not to know that solving the problems food, health and livelihood are the key to ending the poverty of all, Muslim or non-Muslim. But the large numbers of Muslims who turned out for the protest rallies on the occasion of the Bush visit in 2006, demonstrated unmistakably that they percieved the anti-secular roots of the UPA's foreign policy when it came to India's relations with the United States and the nuclear deal.

In the event, your renewed commitment to secularism may perhaps be of some value. You could begin by campaigning against the judgement of the Gujarat court that has refused to return the young boy to his parents, who were separated from him at the height of one of worst incidents in the infamous Gujarat riots. Many would be thankful if you would use your new-found influence with the UPA government to persuade them to greater action on the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission so that they may prosecute at least some of your erstwhile NDA colleagues with the same enthusiasm that has been shown on the Mumbai blasts case. It would be of value if you and your party were to firmly take a stance against the demand for the trifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines that has emerged once more in the wake of the Amarnath land agitation.

In the meanwhile, the drama of the nuclear deal will continue to play itself out. I am also sure you will have the opportunity to see the claims of nuclear power providing electricity every rural household tested against reality just as the claims regarding power supply for Maharashtra from the Dabhol power project were tested within a very short time.

I would be grateful if you would see it fit to forward this letter to Shri Sachin Pilot, Shri Manavendra Singh, Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia and others, all young leaders with a strong political lineage, which as our media has made clear is the indispensable proof of competence, indeed excellence, in the political arena. They too in similar fashion might have misunderstood the millions who protested against George Bush two years ago and still harbour the same sentiments. Who knows, all of you together might even confess, a few years hence, that you made a grave mistake today, just as you personally had made one in the years of NDA rule.

Monday, July 28, 2008

More on Kalawati...A first-hand report

My friend Kiran Moghe from AIDWA has sent me this note that she prepared after a personal visit to Kalawati's household. She had visited Kalawati about 2 years ago with Kalindi Deshpande, another activist-leader of AIDWA: Ram

Kalawati Parshuram Bandorkar

The Bandorkar family is originally from Chandrapur district. They permanently migrated and settled in the Jalka village of Yeotmal over a decade ago in search of work. Parshuram Bandorkar had taken 9 acres on lease in this village for Rs. 1000 per acre. Parshuram cultivated the land together with wife Kalawati. She has 7 daughters and 2 sons; youngest of the sons is 7 years old. Two elder daughters are married.

When we met Kalawati in her village, she shared the sequence of events after the death of her husband. Parshuram had died two months ago by consuming pesticide. The factors leading to this drastic step were related to crop failure. He was expecting 15 quintals of cotton yield, but actually got only four quintals. Kalawati knew her husband was under pressure and constantly worried about repaying loans. She often used to tell him not to worry, as most loans were taken from her relatives. She comforted him by saying that they will pay back over a period. However, in the end it did not help.

For this year, Parshuram had taken a private loan against Kalawati's ornaments. What he did before ending his life was to get them released. He brought back her Mangalsutra and earrings from the money lender and purchased a new pair of Jodvi for her from the payment he got by vending the cotton crop. One day, Kalawati had gone to meet her daughter and Parshuram was alone at home, when he consumed pesticide.

Most loans were from her relatives, such as son-in-law, brother and sister. Kalawati admits repayment of Rs. 35,000 last year. Parshuram had given their pair of bullocks to their son-in-law towards repaying his loan of 15,000.

After Parshuram's suicide, the BDO sanctioned an immediate relief of Rs. 10,000; however, it proved of no help. A local shop keeper (PDS), who also helped her by giving grain on credit, helped her to get the amount. In turn, he requested her to give him that amount for some days. Obliged with his support, Kalawati could not refuse. Unfortunately, the person died in an accident before he could pay it back. No one in the village knows about this personal transaction and Kalawati hopes to get back her dues from the respective family.

The local MLA and the BDO visited her family after Parshuram’s death. However, no concrete help seems to be reaching the aggrieved family.

It was a slack season when we met Kalawati in February. The agricultural wage work situation was bad. She was doing cotton picking for meager Rs. 10 a day. In other seasons, the wages went up to Rs. 25. It was very difficult to raise a family of 7 dependents on such meager wages. She has decided to cultivate the farm this year at any cost. The input cost is 30,000 and the lease amount is 9,000. Kalawati has no credit access to fall back up on to meet these costs. She said, local people do not help financially. She expects the villager leaders to help her get back ten thousand from the concerned family.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Two instruments by name Kalawati and Sasikala

One of the most discussed speeches in the debate on the trust motion in the Loksabha was Rahul Gandhi’s. Arguing that “energy security is directly related to poverty”, Rahul Gandhi pitched in for the deal in the name of two widows from suicide-stricken Vidarbha – Kalawati and Sasikala. According to him, the lesson from his Vidarbha rural ride was that Kalawati and Sasikala were poor because they were energy-insecure; their children could not study and become doctors, engineers or collectors as there was no electricity in the evenings. Coming from a man, known for his wholesome support for the deal and portrayed as India’s future Prime Minister, the speech was celebrated in most of India’s dailies. “Empower Kalawati with N-deal”, said the CNN-IBN. “The millions of Kalawatis in rural India must become part of a new politics of social-economic emancipation”, wrote the Economic Times.

In a sense, Rahul Gandhi’s speech was a classic cover-up operation that should have left his tour guides aghast. The current power crisis of Maharashtra – with regions outside the power-guzzling Mumbai subjected to a massive power cut – is a very direct outcome of the shady and disastrous Enron deal of the 1990s. It was the State’s Congress government that initiated talks with Enron and signed the MoU in 1992 and the PPA in 1993. It was the Narasimha Rao government at the centre in 1994 that signed the counter-guarantees with Enron. The MoU, PPA and the counter-guarantee were sold to India’s people in the name of “energy security” for Maharashtra. Much the same enchanting dreams that we were asked to see during the debate on the nuclear deal were told to us in the early-1990s also, when Left parties and progressive activists were opposing the Enron deal. The Shiv Sena-BJP combine that came to power in 1995 was equally guilty of getting “politically educated” and moving towards supporting the deal in the name of “renegotiations”. The Enron deal came crashing in the late-1990s, upsetting energy plans for the State – a shock from which Maharashtra still reels.

Kalawati’s lights were switched off primarily due to the Congress’s shady Enron deal. If only Rahul Gandhi’s advisors had given him a few lessons in history, he would not have committed that gaffe.

There is more. Rahul Gandhi’s comments did not just cover-up for the Enron fiasco. It was also a poor effort to sidestep the central role of the Congress party (as well as the Sena-BJP combine) in triggering the series of farmers’ suicides in rural Maharashtra. The agrarian distress in Maharashtra is largely a result of the crisis in its cotton economy. This crisis has many causes that have been repeatedly discussed. First, the crash in cotton prices adversely affected the economics of cotton cultivation, primarily because the government began to gradually weaken the ‘Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme’ from the late-1990s. Till the late-1990s, cotton was purchased from farmers by the Maharashtra State Cotton Growers Marketing Federation at an assured price, and then sold in the open market. The Congress’ remarkably ineffective Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh went a step ahead in 2005 by withdrawing the promised ‘advance bonus’ of Rs 500 per quintal of cotton; this was one of the final nails in the cotton coffin. The withdrawal of the procurement scheme rendered cotton farmers, including Parashuram Bandurkar (the late husband of Kalawati), totally susceptible to volatilities in international and national prices.

Secondly, cheap imports of cotton have flooded the Indian market after the activation of the WTO agreement signed by the Congress (again, without the approval of India’s Parliament). Import duties on cotton were significantly lowered in 1997, resulting in a surge of imports and a fall in prices. Incidentally, 1997 was the year when the first reported suicide by a farmer took place in Vidarbha. The central government eliminated quantitative import restrictions for cotton, and reduced import tariffs from 35 percent in 2001-02 to 5 percent in 2002-03. Farmers like Parashuram Bandurkar faced growing competition from subsidized cotton grown in the West. Both the NDA and UPA governments at the centre have consistently refused to raise import tariffs for cotton and protect farmers from cheaper imports.

Thirdly, both the Congress and BJP governments at the centre and the State have presided over a period of breakdown of institutional support structures in rural areas from 1991 onwards. Input costs have exhibited a sharp rise after a reduction in subsidies. The rise in the input costs is reflected in the rising bills for electricity, fertilisers, energy (diesel) and transportation. Given the declining public investment in agricultural extension, farmers have lost access to the public extension that is supposed to give reliable information on how to deal with pests and declining productivity of land. In its place, the farmers are dependent on agents of seed, fertiliser and pesticide companies – a dependence that has attained disastrous dimensions in the suicide-stricken regions like Vidarbha.

To top it all, the Vidarbha Relief Package – conceived and implemented by Congress governments at the centre and the State – has been shown by the Maharashtra’s CAG report for 2006-07 to be a major failure.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is not an agreement with foreign policy implications alone. The strategic embrace with the US has important economic dimensions; a series of agreements have been signed between the two countries in fields like energy, agriculture, trade, investment and open sky policies. For instance, the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA) is a step towards the privatization of agricultural research in India. It has been noted that this agreement would weaken public sector research and promote private sector research on commercialized crops at the expense of food crops – an agenda identified by multinational corporations. The Board set up for the implementation of the KIA includes representatives of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. It was ironic that Rahul Gandhi chose to invoke the Vidarbha suicides to sponsor a policy shift that is likely to exacerbate the agrarian crisis in rural India.

In his speech, Rahul Gandhi seemed unperturbed by the damage the Congress-initiated economic reform had inflicted on Indian agriculture. In trivializing the discussion on poverty and farmers’ suicides, thereby trying to portray energy insecurity as the cause of poverty, he was doing a neat whitewash job of Congress’ bleak record in this sphere. Indeed, to this end, Kalawati and Sasikala were good instruments.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Celebrations have begun...

It is celebration time for crony capitalism in India...

The Indian Express was remarkably frank in its July 9th editorial. It said, "With the Left losing its stranglehold on the UPA government, big new spaces have opened up in economic policy." It further says,

"Many things that were taboo can now be back on the agenda. The last major achievement in Indian financial sector reforms was in 2001, when rolling settlement was pushed onto the equity spot market. The Percy Mistry and Raghuram Rajan reports have carefully thought through financial sector reforms, India's engagement with globalisation and the macroeconomic policy framework. Roughly speaking, the UPA can now push through roughly three-quarters of the recommendations of the two reports"

"The best strategy that they cannow adopt is similar to what was done by the NDA with the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM). "

"In elementary education, the task now is of shifting public expenditures towards vouchers, so as to give parents the ability to exert influence on schools. In higher education, the government must start exiting the field...In other areas of health, the key task is that of shifting to a format where providers (private or public) compete on a level playing field, and only get paid when a customer walks in."


The Economic Times was more specific with a sweet little 16-point programme for Manmohan:

Economic reforms: The unfinished agenda

8 Jul, 2008, 1446 hrs IST, IANS

NEW DELHI: Following are some of the key components of economic reforms, which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was unable to push ahead, primarily because of opposition from Left parties:

1. Divestment of government equity in public sector undertakings

2. Privatisation of state-run companies

3. Liberal labour policies for corporate sector

4. Foreign equity in multi-brand retailing

5. Higher equity for foreign companies in single-brand retailing

6. Higher foreign equity for foreign companies in insurance sector

7. Development of a vibrant corporate bond market

8. Easier norms for foreign banks to set up operations in India

9. Removal of 10 percent cap on voting rights for investors in non-state banks

10. Relaxation of land ceiling for foreign realty developers

11. Easier entry norms for credit rating companies

12. Higher foreign equity in asset reconstruction companies

13. Higher equity for foreign firms in state-run refining projects

14. Higher foreign equity in newspapers and current affairs periodicals

15. Permission for news and current affairs programming in FM radio

16. More liberal policies for foreign equity in commodity exchanges