|Tuesday, June 20, 2000,
behind Lanka crisis
it good governance?
Pakistan budget blues
IT seems to have become fashionable in Pakistan to worship at the altar of peace, even if it is pure play-acting of a low level. This is so even with the authors and directors of the Kargil intrusion fiasco last year. As a corollary, General Pervez Musharraf and his buddies in uniform find it compelling to soften their image of war-makers by making token gestures and coming up with disingenuous arguments. Much play was given by Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz to a reduction in defence spending by about Rs 1000 crore from Rs 143.4 billion to Rs 133.5 billion. This was a signal to the IMF and the US administration which have become converts to democracy, development and good neighbourliness. An IMF team was very recently in Islamabad demanding in advance details of the budget provisions. Keeping that in mind, an official spokesman claimed double cut; inflation is running at 4 per cent and hence the real allotment is less than Rs 128 billion. Since the Finance Minister read out the budget on television and for more than five hours in the evening, everyone swallowed the doctored figure on Saturday. At his customary press conference the next day he had to illuminate the reporters on how he dared to shrink the outlay for the armed forces while constantly accusing India of war-like preparations. Then the truth tumbled out. The budget has shifted the military pension payments of Rs 26.1 billion to the civilian section, thus creating an optical illusion of a 7 per cent slashing of defence spending. Anyway, this jugglery was directed at the IMF (to get a big loan of more than a billion dollars) and at the Clinton administration (to ward off further pressure), both of which pore over these details with hawk-like eyes and are not easily fooled. But there is a danger though. This make-believe pruning will irritate the people keyed up to expect border fighting with India. In dollar terms this years allotment comes to $2.7 billion and as the budget says, India increased its spending by $3.2 billion earlier this year. This is a damp squib twice over. It will not mislead the Washington lords and it will make hawkish Pakistanis nervous.
This apart, there are
several tax gifts to the rich, a stingy crumb to the
low-salaried and a harsh blow at the poor. Wealth tax
goes from July 1, income tax is scaled down by as high as
80 per cent for the lowest paid and 5 per cent in the
case of those at the top of the heap. Diesel will cost
more adding to the hardship of all and government
employees, whose pay was last revised in 1994, will get
one months pay as ex gratia payment with a minimum
of Rs 2000. Industrialists already get income tax holiday
for five years and a 10 per cent rebate on fresh
investment. Imported gas guzzlers will be marginally
dearer but customs and excise duty on 16 items stand
abolished. The Finance Minister has allocated an amount
close to the defence budget for fighting poverty; the
economic survey released earlier has estimated the number
of people living below the poverty line at 43.9 million
or about 35 per cent of the population. There is a
mystery about this. The government says the employment
rate is 96 per cent of the male population, yet such a
high level of poverty? Is the wage structure so low in
the country? There is one segment which will not like the
budget concessions one bit the traders. They will
see in the tax concessions a ploy to gather support and
unleash the people to force them to end their agitation
against compulsory registration and assessment for the
purpose of tax recovery. Unless these men pay up, the
budget will continue to look anaemic. An erratic
neighbour with a sickly looking economy is nobodys
idea of security.
Wake-up call for Badal
THERE is a saying in Punjab that when two Akalis meet, they split into three groups. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has only himself to blame for the virtual rout of the Shiromani Akali Dal- Bharatiya-Janata Party combine in districts where nagar panchayat elections were held. As always the Congress has played to perfection the role of the clever monkey who was called upon to settle the dispute between two cats fighting for their share of a piece of bread. It may not be wrong to conclude that the thumping victory in the Nawanshahr assembly by-election was grossly misinterpreted by the SAD-BJP combine. Poll pundits would, of course, like to see in the nagar panchayat poll verdict the revival of the Congress as a viable political alternative to the ruling group. There are also those who believe that local body elections do not always reflect the popular mood of the electorate. But in the present case the electorate seems to have tried to send out several messages to the SAD-BJP leaders. If Mr Parkash Singh Badal and his BJP allies fail to read them correctly, the fault would be entirely theirs. One message is that a party or a combination of parties cannot continue to take the electorate for granted. The other message may have something to do with the mishandling of the issues related to the efficient management of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. It is indeed true that Bibi Jagir Kaur's elevation as head of the SGPC was hailed as a bold and progressive measure. However, developments which resulted in her excommunication from the Sikh Panth exposed her limitation in giving the SGPC the leadership it needs to be able to discharge the duties for which it was created through an Act of Parliament.
Her personal problems
too seem to have affected her standing in the community.
This is reflected in the rout of the SAD candidates in
Begowal, Bholath and Dhilwan in Kapurthala district.
These nagar panchayats are pre-dominantly rural in
character and Bholath had returned Bibi Jagir Kaur to the
state assembly in 1997. The BJP too has suffered a major
setback at least in the Nangal Municipal Council
elections. The party managed only three seats in spite of
hectic campaigning by Punjab Minister for Food and Civil
Supplies Madan Mohan Mittal, who represents Nangal in the
state assembly. The Congress won eight of the 17 Nangal
Municipal Council seats to wrest "civic power"
from the BJP. The news from Rajasansi in Amritsar too was
not cheerful for the ruling combine. As far as the
Congress is concerned, it has a reason to feel happy with
the verdict. But it must remember that the voters have
punished the SAD-BJP combine for not fulfilling the
promises made during the assembly elections. They would
now be monitoring the performance of the Congress in the
nagar panchayats under its control. If it fails to
address the civic issues of the people at the grassroot
level, it may find itself at the receiving end during the
next assembly elections. In effect, the electorate has
put both the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine on trial.
One will have to deliver at the grassroot level to gain
acceptance at the state level and the other would have to
starting fulfilling the poll promises it made during the
last assembly elections to earn the right for a second
Dont bring back octroi
HARYANA Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala received a reverberating round of applause last year when he abolished the archaic octroi duty. After all, it was acknowledged as the most primitive method of collecting a tax. He has dissipated some of that admiration by stating that a reintroduction could be considered. It is such a retrograde system that the option should not even be thought of. No doubt it is in use in certain neighbouring states. But, it is others who should follow the laudable example set by Haryana and not vice-versa. Octroi checkposts have been the biggest breeding ground of corruption wherever these exist. The public perception is that certain vested interests want to bring these back only to ensure that a dependable source of illegal income can be revived. Even otherwise, octroi collection leads to totally avoidable delays in the transportation of goods. Those long queues of trucks outside various towns have no place in a free-market economy. It is the ordinary consumer who suffers directly or indirectly. The income from octroi is a misnomer considering that most of it goes towards paying the salary of the staff in any case.
There is no denying the
fact that the civic bodies of the state are facing a
severe resource crunch. As many as 43 of the 53 municipal
committees cannot even make regular payments to their
staff. But octroi is not the remedy. There are other and
better options available. In fact, some of these were
enumerated by the Chief Minister himself while presiding
over a seminar organised on Sunday to interact with the
chairmen and vice-chairmen of municipal committees in
Chandigarh. Instead of 3 per cent, 4 per cent of the
income from stamp duty will be given to the civic bodies.
The civic bodies have been allowed to auction shops or to
convert leasehold commercial properties into freehold
after a fixation of the market value. Mr Chautala says he
will approach the Union Petroleum Ministry to get petrol
pumps allotted to each civic body. Such measures should
add crores of rupees to the finances of the civic bodies.
Many other options can be explored. One positive sign is
that the Chief Minister himself called octroi a
regressive tax. Actually, when he talked about its
reintroduction, he was only responding to the strong
demand from a section of the participants. The rider that
civic bodies should adopt resolutions in this regard
should be enough to ensure that better sense soon
prevails. Even if some representatives insist that the
odious measure is brought back, the public should force
them to see reason. In the midst of liberalisation, all
possible breeding grounds of corruption should be done
away with. It is the market forces which should decide
the policies for common good.
behind Lanka crisis
THE war between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE forces is dragging on and a final picture is not likely to emerge soon. Sri Lankas persistent refusal to concede equal rights to the ethnic minority of Tamils is the fundamental factor for the conflict. Bandaranaike, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, after it secured freedom in 1948, was Oxford-educated and much was expected of him in meeting the aspirations of the Tamil minority. But he ended up by declaring Sinhalese as the sole national language which caused a stir among the Tamils. Subsequently, however, a pact with Sri Lankan Tamil leader Chelvanayagam emerged in 1957 conceding certain minimum autonomous powers to the Tamil minority.
Unfortunately Bandaranaike reneged on the pact under domestic compulsions and threats from Buddhist clergy. Eventually he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk at the Prime Ministers residence.
Undeterred, Chelvanayagam entered into another agreement with President Senanayake in 1965 which provided for certain minimum rights for the Tamil minority. President V.V. Giri visited Sri Lanka in 1969. This writer was a member of his party and attended all the functions arranged in his honour, including a visit to the famous Tooth temple at Kandy, and a visit to Jaffna. During the Jaffna visit it was Tamil culture all the way and the famous Nallur Kandaswamy temple was visited by the President. During the various meetings and discussions no one raised the Tamil-Sri Lankan issue. It was indeed the last phase of peace and goodwill in the island.
However, opposition to the Senanayake-Chelvanayagam Pact again emerged and an agitation was started by no less a person than Jayawardane, who had to seek Indias military assistance in 1987 when he was President. Once again the Senanayake-Chelvanayagam Pact was thrown overboard. During the 1970s there were increasing incidents of Sinhala militants going on the rampage against the Tamil minority. There were a series of attacks on Tamils, burning of valuable books in the Jaffna library and killing of as many as 64 Tamils during riots inside a prison. It was also during this phase that the JVP insurgents consisting of Buddhist extremists became a serious threat not only against the Tamils but also against the government itself. The situation was so alarming that on request from the Sri Lankan government, IAF fighters and helicopters were sent to Sri Lanka and the rebellion was put down in a short time. The issue of giving citizenship to the Tamil plantation workers who numbered a few lakhs was a simple one, which could not be agreed upon between the Sri Lankan leadership and Tamil negotiators. All over the world whether it is Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies or Mauritius, the citizenship issue was amicably resolved by conferring the original indentured plantation labour with citizenship.
Today the Prime Ministers of these two countries are the descendants of plantation labourers. In Sri Lanka, however, there was stubborn opposition to conferring citizenship to the plantation labourers. In fact, Sri Lankans wanted a large number of them to be repatriated to South India. However, citizenship was extended to a majority of these Tamil plantation labourers in phases. India kept away from intervening in the matter on the ground that it was an internal matter, something which the Tamil people in Sri Lanka resented. Having waited and tolerated all the ignominies and attacks for 28 long years, the Tamil youth in Jaffna and the Tamil majority areas decided that enough was enough and that they should fight back the Sri Lankans. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) thus came into being in May, 1975.
In 1976 the Tamil people from all over the island met at a conference and passed a resolution that nothing less than a state would be acceptable to them. Thus came into existence the Eelam concept and the LTTE fighting machine. During the last 25 years it has become one of the most powerful insurgent groups, a parallel of which can be seen nowhere else. Prabhakaran, the leader and commander of the LTTE, is a ruthless operator. He has systematically eliminated all other Tamil political groups as well as moderate Tamil leaders and parliamentarians to ensure that the LTTE is the only authentic representative of the Tamils. His goal is an independent Tamil Eelam, comprising Jaffna and the North-Eastern states with a majority of Tamil- speaking people.
By 1987 the LTTE attacks on Sri Lankan armed forces and infrastructural facilities became so serious that President Jayawardane had no alternative except to seek the help of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Jayawardane was no friend of India and when he attended the Nonaligned Conference in Delhi in 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi treated him with contempt and ignored him almost totally. When Jayawardane sought the intervention of India, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arranged a tripartite conference at the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu on the issue of autonomous powers for the Tamils. While Jayawardane was agreeable, Prabhakaran continued to be elusive and he did not commit himself.
Even at the signing of the pact at Colombo between Jayawardane and Rajiv Gandhi, Prabhakaran was sulking. The induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Jaffna peninsula was agreed upon by Jayawardane and Rajiv Gandhi for maintaining peace in the Tamil-speaking areas before elections were held there, leading to the setting up of an administration which would be subsequently conferred with autonomous powers. Prabhakaran was totally opposed to these developments and when a rival organisation headed by an insignificant Tamil leader became the head of the administration in Jaffna, Prabhakarans anger turned against the IPKF. Thus ensued a sad phase of fighting between the IPKF and the LTTE in which the IPKF came off worse since it was in a hostile country controlled by the LTTE.
President Premadasa who succeeded Jayawardane was an inveterate opponent of India and he went to the extent of handing over Indian arms sent for the Sri Lankan army to the LTTE for fighting the IPKF. For this act of treachery and double-crossing Premadasa paid with his life when he was blown up to bits by an LTTE human bomb a few months later. With all this treacherous history, how could India, much less the LTTE, trust Sri Lanka in dispensing justice to the Tamils?
President Chandrika Kumaratunga is probably the most reasonable Sri Lankan President to emerge since independence. She had worked out a package of devolution for the Tamils. Unfortunately, her party lacked majority in the Upper House and the leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wikramasinghe, had refused to cooperate in getting a devolution package passed. It was repetition of history all over again beginning in 1957. But at last the utter inability of the Sri Lankan army to fight the LTTE, specially in the Jaffna peninsula has led all the parties, including, ironically enough, the Buddhist clergy, to appeal for Indian inervention, expressing their willingness to concede a package of autonomous powers to the Tamils.
India has made it quite clear that it will neither send its armed forces nor give arms to the Sri Lankan troops to fight the LTTE. It is prepared to work out a peaceful solution, along with the Norwegian interlocutor who is already there on Sri Lankan request. If the Sri Lankan administration and people and the clergy are sincere in conceding autonomous powers to the Tamils this has to be preceded by a ceasefire and full cooperation by the LTTE leadership in coming to the table for negotiations. This is something which cannot be taken for granted as Prabhakaran is not willing to agree on anything less than his dream of an independent Tamil state.
Irrespective of what
some of the Tamil parties, which are the constituents of
the NDAS government, may say on the Eelam issue, India
has made it very clear that an independent state of Eelam
is out of the question and New Delhi will not even
consider discussing the subject. There is international
unanimity of opinion on this issue and it is hoped that
Prabhakaran will see the writing on the wall and come
around for negotiations. But if the past is an indicator
this is not something which can be taken for granted.
Even if he enters into negotiations Prabhakaran may
disappear into the Vanni jungles again to fight for
Implications of WTO regime-II
THE return over the variable cost in wheat in Punjab has displayed a fluctuating picture during the 1980s and the 1990s. However, it never reached the peak level of Rs 3,870 per hectare of 1989-90 (at the 1981-82 prices) during the above period. The corresponding return for 1999-2000 was Rs 3772 per hectare. At current prices, the return for 1999-2000 was Rs 15653 per hectare. (PAU, 1999-2000). But if we inflate the return for 1989-90 (Rs 5341 per hectare, at current prices) at the fixed deposit interest rate, then it comes out to be Rs 21,364, much higher than that for 1999-2000. Clearly, the rate of return in wheat over the variable cost has decreased during the 1990s. The profit margin of wheat over cost A2 (actual expenses in cash and kind incurred in production by the owner plus the imputed value of family labour) at the constant price has also gone down since 1974-75. Similarly, the profit margin from paddy also declined since 1981-82. Punjab agriculture, being a wheat-paddy rotation agriculture, is thus becoming subject to diminishing returns.
With regard to the market access clause, if 5 per cent of the total consumption of, say 200 million tonnes is imported in India, the agricultural prices in the country may nearly collapse. As regards the export subsidys affect on agriculture, it is yet not possible to say anything in a concrete form. It may, however, be mentioned that intellectual property rights pertaining to seeds and seed technology may also adversely affect Punjab agriculture in the absence of an appropriate measure.
At the same time, there is hardly any scope for raising the gross cropped area, cropping intensity in Punjab. Punjab agriculture has not been able to diversify it, rather it is highly concentrated on four crops: Wheat, paddy, cotton and sugarcane. In fact, it is a wheat-paddy rotation and there is a mono-crop agriculture.
As per the Indo-US Agreement of December 28, 1999, India has decided to remove quantitative restrictions (QRs) for 1429 items by March 31, 2001. Out of these,825 relate to agriculture. Already the present exim policy has removed QRs for 714 items, including 208 agricultural items. According to an estimate, Indias import demand is likely to increase by 8.7 per cent of its imports as a consequence of the removal of QRs. In other words, Indian producers of all these items will have to face global competition in their own home market.
Coming to agriculture again, the removal of QRs on 825 agricultural items will certainly create a tough competition for Indian agriculture and allied activities. In the allied activities in Punjab, dairy, livestock and poultry are the major activities. Dairying and livestock alone contribute about 40 per cent income to the primary sector and nearly 18 per cent to the net state domestic product (NSDP). Though the estimates about employment in the dairying and livestock activities are not available, one can make out certain rough estimates from its contribution to the NSDP. The dairying and livestock have not developed as an independent occupation in Punjab. All categories of farmers (mainly small, marginal and middle farmers) and landless agricultural workers are involved in dairying. It not only generates employment but is a source of income throughout the year. Thus, according to a crude estimate, one can say that dairying and livestock generates employment for at least one-third of the labour force in the primary sector of Punjab. Certainly, removal of QRs on dairy products will hit hard the dairy activity in India, specially Punjab. It will adversely affect a very large number of workers and a very significant proportion of income and thereby the entire economy of Punjab. Already some newspapers (particularly The Tribune) have carried certain reports focusing on the adverse affect on dairying in Punjab. The states dairy industry and its dairying activity are thus in for an uncertain future.
Poultry is another activity which is going to be affected adversely as result of the removal of QRs. It is estimated that more than one and a half lakh manpower in Punjab will feel its pinch. Besides, the removal of QRs on another 617 agricultural items by March 31, 2001, will adversely affect the very backbone wheat, paddy cotton and sugarcane of Punjab agriculture. The wayout is there. The Government of India must impose tariff duties on the import of those items for which QRs have been removed. It would not go contrary to the spirit of the WTO. Another wayout is to prepare our agricultural and allied activities for the global competition with cost-effective production and efficient management. Still another wayout for Punjab agriculture is to normalise Indo-Pakistan relations, open the Wagah border for land route trade to Pakistan and to Central Asia and the newly independent countries from the former Soviet Union. It will not only give a big push to development in both sides of Punjab but also generate a large amount of employment, thus shifting a sizeable proportion of labour force from the primary sector to the secondary and tertiary sectors which is of paramount importance to the state.
Punjab agriculture is thus facing a two-pronged challenge: from within the country and from outside. Within the country, the share of Punjab wheat and paddy both in the Indian context in that of the Central pool has first stagnated and then started looking down. Globally, Indian wheat and rice are becoming more and more incompetitive because of their higher cost, stagnating yield, falling global prices and non-diversification. This raises a serious question mark on the sustainability of Punjab agriculture. Already, there are reports of alleged suicides by farmers. There is a clear message that in order to sustain Punjab agriculture must diversify not only on a big scale but also at war-footing. The alarm bells have already been rung. But the problem is that so far we could not give any alternative crop combination in place of the wheat-paddy rotation. Farmers on their own would not be able to do it. Hence an urgent need that the Punjab government should chalk out some action-oriented and time-bound strategy to diversify agriculture before it is too late.
The diversification of agriculture is feasible only if horticulture, specially the cultivation of vegetables, is promoted and a substantial area is shifted to these crops from wheat and paddy. It would require a new research in this area, a support price and a market network along with value-added activities by setting up processing units. The development of high-yielding varieties of other crops, a new bio-tech process and an in-depth study of the global market are other areas which can be helpful to Punjab agriculture. The government should also undertake steps to maximise its foodgrains yield and minimise the losses under the WTO regime of liberalised trade. Another area where diversification has been taking place is dairying, but this is threatened by the opening up of the Indian market for dairy products and the proposed setting up of a dairy development board by the Punjab government. The Government of India must be persuaded to take protective measures to safeguard the interests of farmers in particular and that of the economy in general. In order to raise productivity, agricultural research should be funded liberally and effectively. Strengthening of the market network, market support and research for high-yielding varieties of other crops and an indepth study of the global market are other areas which can be helpful to the sustainability of Punjab agriculture. Thus, there is need to prepare Punjab agriculture to face the internal and global challenges. This is imperative for the salvation of the farming community and the rural economy in particular and the Punjab economy in general.
Is it good
UNTIL June 10, it was a craze for everyone to assail Ram Vilas Paswan for all his massive freebies. It was not just Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha alone who had vowed to block the Paswan largesse. The whole anti-bonanza lobby had come out against the waste of the tax-payers, money. The outrage was so widespread that a true national consensus had emerged against Paswans populism. No one had any doubt that Vajpayee will boldly ask Paswan to shut up.
Instead, why did Vajpayee ask his Finance Minister to shut up at the patch-up meeting? How the whole reform crowd and their editorial writers and the concerned citizen groups suddenly became silent after June 10? The entire sequence of developments right from the way Ram Vilas Paswan announced his plans shed much light on the working of the Vajpayee Government, its decision making process and the style of functioning of both the Prime Minister and his assorted groups of Ministers. It reveals how the ministerial colleagues work at crosspurposes and rush to the PMO with complaints only when troubles take the form of a serious controversy.
In Paswans case, the Prime Minister had for about two weeks merrily allowed the whole tamasha which was climaxed by Yashwant Sinhas angry letter against his erring colleague something rare even under the Janata coalitions. The real message of the Paswan episode has been the increasing supremacy of realpolitik and power play over sound administrative norms and good governance. A shrewd politician, Vajpayee realises the importance of Ram Vilas Paswan in the still unfolding Bihar politics. If the Vinod Pande-CBI plans succeed, Paswan, and not Yashwant Sinha, will have to play an important role in the state politics. A Sinha or a Kumaramangalam are dispensible but not Paswan or Sharad Yadav.
Paswans Dalit card still has strong appeal especially at a time when the BJP is in search of a foothold among these sections. But everyone seems to have overlooked the most important factor that had turned the table in favour of Paswan. He was scheduled to make important announcements regarding the foreign participation in the telecom sector at a series of meetings beginning from June 13. These talks were considered very crucial and an angry Paswan had threatened to cancel his visit if Vajpayee had rejected his freebies.
He was to make important offers hidden freebies and a vision statement to the foreign investors at the annual meeting of the US-India Business Council at San Franscisco. About 200 corporates were to attend it. He was to meet individual firms and NRIs in Silicon Valley, make offers at a round table discussion at Stanford University and interact with IT corporates at Chicago, New York and Washington. Intense pressures were building on Vajpayee to salvage the Paswan trip which had more global significance than the freebies.
The Paswan episode also epitomises the casual manner in which serious decisions are taken without going through any detailed groundwork. While asking both sides to shake hands like a class teacher tells the fighting boys Vajpayee had taken credit for forcing the trade unions to accept early corporatisation of the department of telecom services. The hard-boiled TU leaders cannot be so naive to exchange the free phone facility for what they consider staking their future with corporatisation. Such complex issues can be sorted out only through protracted bargaining, and not over a cup of tea. The TUs have already come out with a joint statement questioning Vajpayees contention and opposing corporatisation.
Vajpayee does enjoy considerable authority over his colleagues and his words are followed with respect even by the ministers belonging to non-BJP parties. But the tragedy has been that he could not convert this valuable asset pride of any politician into a meaningful system of governance based on healthy precedents and practices. On the other, his affability and friendly approach which endeared him to his colleagues, are being taken advantage of to pursue personal politics. Hence the ministers act as they liked without bothering about the sensibilities of other Ministers and their departments.
This is compounded by the absence of any comprehensive policy frame for the NDA and code of conduct for its Ministers or established norms to be followed. Even the single-party governments have their own discipline for the ministries and mechanism for party-level consultations on crucial issues. Unfortunately, Vajpayee has always discouraged evolution of any kind of coordination machinery within his party or with the NDA partners.
Cohesion becomes more difficult with so many ministers representing parties with varied political and organisational culture. When each one ploughs his own furrow, unilateral decisions and personal aggrandisement by the individual ministers become the order of the day. Moreover, everyone is confident of getting their decisions formalised as they are conscious of the fact that Vajpayee can never go against the wishes of a Mamata Bannerjee or a Karunanidhi.
Take the sudden notification by the Union Health Ministry lifting the ban on the sale of non-iodised salt. The ban was imposed after considerable debate in health circles. The only reason cited for the surprise decision has been that the use of iodised salt should be a matter of personal choice. Whose choice? Do the millions of illiterate rural poor really have a choice? Even the unborn child is affected by the reversal of the government order. To add to the confusion, the new Minister, a medical practitioner himself, says he has a different view as a doctor. Then who decided on lifting the ban and to please which lobby? Unfortunately, in this government no one asks such questions and no one gives any answers.
In 1981, this writer had filed a story about the ministers foreign jaunts on flimsy grounds. Within a fortnight strict norms were issued for such foreign tours. The late Indira Gandhi had been quick and responsive. This summer, about a third of the Vajpayee team has been enjoying foreign jaunts on one guise or other. A record for any government at the Centre. Ministers find it easier to get any number of invitations for wooing investors and NRIs. Vajpayees problem has been that he would not like to displease the colleagues, especially those representing the influential allies.
Among the ministers who went on post-Budget foreign jaunts are Forest Minister T.R. Balu, Suresh Prabhu, Muni Lal, Chaoba Singh, Satyanarayan Jatiya, Omar Abdullah, Digvijay Singh, Vasundhararaje Scindia, Chaman Lal Gupta, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa etc. True, some senior ministers like George Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and Murasoli Maran are bound by official duty. Others like Pramod Mahajan, Murli Manohar Joshi, Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav are too senior that Vajpayee cannot go against them. Perhaps Vajpayee could not have done much in the case of the private visitors like Ram Jethmalani and Ajit Panja. Incidentally, most ministers have their own favourite foreign land.
In the process, the ministers also flouted all precedents for taking media persons abroad. Broadly, the facility is available for the Prime Minister and the President. On rare occasions when news worthy international conferences coincide with the visits, media persons could be taken along. Now every Minister wants to oblige his or her favourites. Jaswant Singh and Fernandes cannot go without media group like the security shadows. Recently, the Cabinet Secretary was forced to send a note asking the world trotters to seek the Prime Ministers permission in each case.
Practically, every ministry and department is caught in one controversy or other as no one seems to bother about Prime Ministerial intervention. Orders are being issued with least regard for the consequences. A few days back, the Railway Minister valiantly announced in his home state the grandiose plans for introducing 300-km-per-hour bullet trains between Delhi and Calcutta. Costing over Rs 1 lakh crores it can run on special tracks with full fencing on both sides. Even if foreign investors fund it, interest on such a huge sum will work out at Rs 12,000 crore which is a little more than the annual Plan size of the Railways. Even Mamata Bannerjee is believed to be furious over such fancy announcement by her junior Minister.
Even the newly created tribal affairs ministry under a junior Minister with limited funds dispersed about Rs 175 crore in just three weeks without bothering about the procedures and norms. Senior Ministers violate the procedures with impunity as sheer realpolitik makes even the Prime Minister to ignore them. Recent appointments to the CBSE was closely followed by similar induction of those who do not meet the stipulated criteria to the UGC. Such promotion of favourities invariably involves shunting out of better qualified competitors. But then who bothers about all this?
Two senior Ministers Surface Transport Minister Rajnath Singh and Petroleum Minister Ram Naik are locked in a controversy over the IOCs refusal to accord a contract to the Shipping Corporation. Rajnath Singh, Vajpayees blue-eyed boy from UP, alleges that Naik had gone back on an earlier commitment for reasons best known to him. While this was raging, the Petroleum Ministry has locked horns with the all-powerful Department of disinvestment on the issue of including HPCL and IBP in the big-ticket disinvestment list. The Ministry argues that there was hardly any justification to hand over these well-managed and profit-making firms to a favoured strategic partner. The rival side allege the hidden hand of the Swadeshi lobby in the Petroleum Ministrys war of words with the Disinvestment Ministry.
group of Ministers almost daily come out with
fresh decisions, often at cross-purposes, which have
prompted SJM convener S. Gurumurthy to describe them
fits-like and diverse announcements. The RSS
leader has appealed to Vajpayee to put some
coherence and wholesomeness in policy. Only a
drastic surgery can improve the present situation. Sadly,
the Prime Minister shows little inclination to halt the
See without eyes, hear
He alone should be
called a devotee of God (Vaishnava)
Narasi Mehtas bhajan, Vaishnava Jan to tene kahiye
He who is pierced with the shaft of love, will alone know what pain is.
Sant Paltu, Pt. I, Kundli, 67
Read and read till you
load carts with books,
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