|Friday, June 23, 2000,
pitch it high
OF NATIONAL SHAME
|Bureaucrats stranglehold on
by P. K. Ravindranath
THE Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is perhaps the only unit of the Government of India, totally run by bureaucrats, under an outdated Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. Contemptuous of the consumers (the subscribers), they have fully monopolised every aspect of the working of DoT.
of Korean reunification
NASA probe find water on Mars?
States pitch it high
PUNJAB, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh claimed front page attention on Wednesday for breaking ranks, so to speak. The first two states, members of the NDA alliance, joined the Chief Ministers and Finance Ministers of Congress-ruled states and the Left Front of West Bengal to press the Centre for immediate and bigger devolution of funds. They met to thrash out their demand and Haryanas Mr Om Prakash Chautala and Punjabs Capt Kanwaljit Singh participated in the discussion. They were also present at a press briefing by the Left Front Minister and an economist in his own right, Asim Dasgupta, and happily endorsed the points. Two NDA allies in the company of NDA enemies? This was no political gang-up but a meeting of harassed states to claim what is their due, explained the Punjab Finance Minister, making a telling point. After explaining their stand to the mediamen, the assembled leaders went to meet the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Planning Commission vice-chairman but the duo from North India skipped this part of the ceremony. The two states have made their position eloquently and further solidarity would have sent out political signals, weak no doubt but political all the same. Despite their presence and despite the utter reasonableness of the demands, a spokesman of the Prime Ministers Office derisively dismissed the day-long labour as an out and out Congress show with a Left delegate. This remark once again attests to the old superciliousness of the Centre that it knows best and opposition political parties are best ignored. That some of the allies too feel ignored is a different matter.
Top on the agenda of the suffering states is the immediate release of Rs 11,000 crore which the Centre had set apart on the recommendation of the Eleventh Finance Commission. This money is for the states, but the Centre has frozen it waiting for the final report. That has been delayed because the Centre added to the terms of reference of the commission. Then there is the question of arrears of Rs 3,500 crore arising out of the previous commission recommendation to lump all taxes together and share 29 per cent with the states. Despite a constitutional amendment making this mandatory, the money lies with New Delhi. The states, all in a dire financial state, want to borrow Rs 800 crore each for one more year and are prepared to commit themselves to give up this power as fund flow improves. They want the Finance Minister to ask the RBI to extend the overdraft cycle to 14 days from the present 10 days. They also want the Centre to charge a reasonable rate of interest, say, 10 per cent instead of the present usurious 12.5 per cent. There are more complaints, but mostly minor ones. If the BJP-led government takes a secret ballot among its own or friendly governments, it will find to its surprise that the support for these financial reforms is unanimous. But wisely it will not do any such thing.
Now it is the turn of
Himachal Pradesh. It belongs to the special category
states, namely hill states, requiring enhanced plan
outlay. So Arunachal Pradesh gets an annual allotment of
Rs 6033 for every one of its residents, Sikkim Rs 4463,
Mizoram Rs 3845 and Himachal Pradesh just Rs 2420. Since
it is plan allocation and not general assistance, the
funds go to specific projects and schemes like new roads,
hospitals or occasionally industrial units. How come then
that HP gets a mere 40 per cent of what Arunachal gets?
It is difficult to defend this skewed allocation strictly
in terms of economic or social needs and benefits. But it
is easy to offer a political explanation. HP is not a
difficult state and power swings from one party to
another almost at regular intervals. In other words,
electoral politics stands severely delinked from economic
sops and hence the Centre can be tightfisted. Jammu &
Kashmir too falls in the same class and it records a
slightly higher Rs 2724. One Minister, with a pronounced
weakness for exaggeration, has calculated that each
household in Arunachal Pradesh receives Rs 3.5 lakh every
year. This is not true. To be correct three things should
happen. The annual allocation should become monthly
payment or each household should have 12 members and 100
per cent benefit should flow into individuals. To put the
record straight, the total allotment in money terms is
very small when compared to plains states. Also, the
junior Ministers gratuitous statement reveals a
flawed thinking: the money belongs to the Centre, it is
generous and the states should be forever beholden to it.
No doubt, states have started protesting loudly and much
INDIA has reasons to be satisfied with the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, which has upheld New Delhis submission that it has no jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute raised by Pakistan over the shooting down of a Pakistani Navy Atlantique aircraft in the Kutch region on August 10 last year. If this satisfaction is also coupled with a feeling of victory, that is only because there was such a media buildup in Pakistan on the eve of the judgement. It is not only the judgement which has gone in favour of India. The thumping 14-2 margin of the verdict is also a positive development. The only dissenting judgements came from a Jordanian and a Pakistani judge. The latter was an ad hoc judge because the court Bench did not include a Pakistani or an Indian and the two states had appointed a judge ad hoc each. While Pakistan relied on Article 17 of the General Act for Pacific Settlement of International Disputes signed in Geneva on September 26, 1928, on the declarations of acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the court made by the parties, and on para 1 of Article 36 of the courts statute, the ICJ agreed with India that it could not be regarded as having been a party to the said Act on the date when the application was filed by Pakistan and that this convention did not form a basis of jurisdiction. Since the UNs principal judicial organ has not even admitted the case, this verdict is final and without appeal. That means that Pakistans claim for damages totalling $ 60.2 million for the loss of the plane and the death of 16 personnel has become infructuous.
While the satisfaction
expressed by the Ministry of External Affairs over the
outcome is justified, the ruling should not be construed
as a vindication of Indias stand
because it is only a technical victory. There is no
comment in the judgement on the merits of the cases of
either party. While Pakistan claimed that the Atlantique
aircraft was on a routine training mission within its air
space, India insisted that it was on a military mission
and had intruded into Indian air space. It was shot down
with air-to-air missiles after it ignored repeated
signals from IAF aircraft urging it to land on a
designated airstrip. The President of the International
Court of Justice, Mr Gilbert Guillaume of France, has
underlined the fact that the lack of jurisdiction does
not relieve the two countries of their duty to settle
their disputes by peaceful means. As such, it will be
wrong to read too much into the courts observation
that their obligation to settle their disputes by
peaceful means was restated more particularly in the
Simla Accord and that the Lahore Declaration of February
21, 1999, reiterated the determination of both
countries to implementing the Simla agreement.
These are general observations and form no guarantee that
any future dispute would be rejected by the ICJ out of
hand. There is a worrying footnote to the whole episode
also. While the dissenting vote of the Pakistani ad hoc
judge, Syed Pirzada, was expected, that of Judge
Al-Khasawnch of Jordan was not. His opinion was
apparently linked with the national policy of the
Jordanian government. Jordan has been aligned with
Pakistan on some issues because of the Islamic connection
but not too transparently. Its new tilt may be linked to
the reworking of Indias relations with Israel
vis-à-vis the Arab world. As it is, there is some
turbulence in the region over Indias ill-advised
policies like sending Mr Murli Manohar Joshi and not the
Vice-President, as per the convention, to the funeral of
President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.
TRILOGY OF NATIONAL SHAME
AT almost any given time a hell of a lot goes on in this country that is both extremely troubling and deeply depressing. Off and on there are much worse interludes. The present is one of them. For, at least three excruciating events constitute the trilogy of national pain and shame.
The first of these is the apparently endless chain of competitive caste massacres in Bihar where officially banned private armies are able to operate with impunity and, often enough, with the craven connivance of the supposed guardians of law and order.
No less unending is the avalanche of daily disclosures about the dirty deeds of cricket icons who, in collusion with unscrupulous bookies, have reduced the game of gentlemen into that of crooks and criminals. This, sadly, is the second ingredient in the witches brew inundating the land.
The third element in the numbing situation was easily avoidable but has not been avoided. In a development that is shocking beyond belief, heavily armed thugs and desperadoes in distant Sierra Leone in West Africa have been allowed to heap on gallant Indian soldiers utterly unacceptable humiliation. Who would have thought that contingents of the great Indian Army, with a brilliant record of bravery and on peace-keeping duty on behalf of the United Nations, would be turned into helpless spectators as 21 of their comrades are held hostage for days on end by worst possible criminals?
As was only to be expected, the reaction to one more orgy of killings in Bihar has been entirely true to type. All concerned have given expression to their outrage, conveyed ritual condolences to the bereaved families (with the state government announcing ex-gratia payments) and reverted to their favourite pastime of politicising every calamity, no matter how horrific. The cry for immediate dismissal of the Rabri Devi ministry in Patna and the imposition of Presidents rule has reverberated across not just Bihar but the entire country. For his part, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, the real boss of the Bihar ministry, nominally led by his wife, has hit back in kind. He has roundly blamed the ruling combination at the Centre, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), for the heinous bloodbath at Miapur village in Aurangabad district.
The searing tragedy is that both sides are selectively telling the truth. The NDA is still smarting under the ignominy of being unable to muster a majority in the newly elected state assembly despite having been installed in power by an obliging Governor. But it is right to hold the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ministry responsible for dismal failure to stop mass murders by rival gangs.
And Mr Laloo Yadav has good reason to draw attention to the close proximity of the NDA, especially its Samata constituent, to the upper-caste Ranvir Sena, the undoubted perpetrator of the brutal death dance at the luckless village of Miapur. Since the Yadavs are usually at the receiving end of the Ranvir Senas campaign of slaughter, they, it is perhaps needless to add, get some sympathy and support from the Yadav-dominated state government.
Nor is this, alas, the end of the complex and heart-rending story. The Ranvir Sena and the land-owning Bhumihar caste it represents have also been targets of retaliatory violence of an equally vicious kind at the hands of ultra-Left organisations such as the Maoist Communist Committee (MCC) and various brands of Naxalites, to say nothing of other gangs.
It also cannot be overlooked that the Miapur outrage was a retaliation for the killing of 13 Bhumihars only a few days ago at Afsar village in Nawadha district, nearly 300 km away from the site of the present outrage. Moreover, Kurmis rather than Yadavs were responsible for what happened at Afsar. However, Miapur is only 10 km from Senari where 33 Bhumihars were done to death in March, 1999, reportedly by MCC activists. As it happens, both Senari and Miapur are in an area regarded as an MCC stronghold.
Against this complicated backdrop, the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, has chosen to indicate that he would have imposed Presidents rule in Bihar if he could. But he has pleaded helplessness on the ground that his government does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. This also implies his admission that he does not expect the Congress that has a substantial number of seats in the Upper House of Parliament to support the imposition of Presidents rule.
Regrettably, the partisan talk of Presidents rule in Bihar is an essay in drawing the proverbial red-herring across the trail. Even if Mr Vajpayee had the necessary majority in the Rajya Sabha, the imposition of Central rule in Patna could not have solved the problem. After all, Presidents rule was proclaimed in Bihar immediately after the Senari slaughter 15 months ago. Within days thereafter, an equally horrible episode occurred because of the deep-seated culture of revenge and vendetta on the one hand and a comprehensive collapse of governance in Bihar on the other.
Already it is being said that the Miapur massacre took place because the Ranvir Sena chief, Mr Barmeshwar Singh, was under intense pressure to avenge the carnage at Senari. Now reports from the area claim that the MCC is under similar pressure from its enraged activists and supporters to even the score of Miapur!
Some of the votaries of the Rabri Devi ministrys sacking are saying that this should be a prelude to the formation of an all-party government in the state to tackle the menace of periodic mass murders. If that were the real objective then the way to go about it is not to dismiss a ministry with a majority in the legislature but amicably to negotiate with it. Moreover, however desirable it may be to have an all-party ruling set-up in Bihar, it just cannot become a reality unless there is a minimum consensus on essentials in New Delhi. Unfortunately, of this, there is no sign at all either on foreign policy or on burning domestic issues, or on security policies, for that matter.
About the tidal wave of cricket sleaze the less said the better, except to make two points. First, everyone accused of dishonourable and disgraceful conduct would almost certainly deny the charges, claim innocence and insist that he be deemed innocent until proved guilty. But Mr Azharuddins temerity in proclaiming that he is being falsely implicated because he is a Muslim is despicable. He should be left in no doubt about it.
Secondly, why must the enquiry into hugely lucrative match fixing be left to the grossly overworked CBI? Let South Asia take a leaf from the book of South Africa and hold an open enquiry of the kind that is being held in Cape Town.
As for the hostages in Sierra Leone, it is shocking that there is so little outrage among the Indian public that lionised the officers and men of the Army only at the time of the Kargil war and has forgotten them since. This has enabled the government to handle this matter of the highest national importance and with a bearing on national dignity rather casually and with a touch of pusillanimity.
Surely, the government must have known that the Revolutionary United Fronyt (RUF) of Sierra Leone is a bunch of thugs and marauders compared with whom even the Taliban and the LTTE would seem a picture of moderation. Moreover, in cahoots with them are all those enjoying ill-gotten gains from the illicit mining and smuggling of diamonds. The President of neighbouring Liberia has had a dubious past; his role in the current crisis will not bear too close a scrutiny. In addition to the 21 hostages held at a place called Pendumbu, there are 213 Indian soldiers (with an observer each from half a dozen other countries) who have been disarmed, immobilised and surrounded at Kailahun. It is no good pretending that they are not hostages. But the pretence is being maintained that there is a stand-off between the RUF thugs and the Indian soldiers without any weapons.
The Indian troops were
clearly ill-equipped for the conditions they were
expected to face. Indeed, according to a former Foreign
Secretary, Mr S.K. Singh, they were not even properly
briefed about their mission. In their adversity, the UN,
which really means the five permanent members of the
Security Council, principally the USA, has done nothing.
Makes one wonder what would have happened if even two
American soldiers were held hostage by the RUF.
Bureaucrats stranglehold on telecom
THE Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is perhaps the only unit of the Government of India, totally run by bureaucrats, under an outdated Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. Contemptuous of the consumers (the subscribers), they have fully monopolised every aspect of the working of DoT.
From the production of equipment, regulation of prices and quality of services, the resolution of disputes with customers to the irregular publication of the telephone directories, DoT controls everything under the anachronistic and anti-people 115-year-old Act. The functions of the department have grown from serving a few subscribers to cover telegraphy, telephony, telex, fax and a variety of other services.
DoT can no longer remain a government monopoly when every subscriber can access and process data over his own telecom network. The economies of scale have changed over the years, where every household needs a telephone or more. Only competitive suppliers can meet the demand of the market. The providers have to bring in the latest technology to the market and cut costs for the maximum number of subscribers in order to survive.
Most countries have revised their out-dated telecom laws. Many of them have dismantled traditional natural monopolies. New regulations for international telecommunications have been adopted by many countries to meet changes and needs. An enormously complex sector, it calls for different rules and standards for different industry segments.
Indias bureaucrats have clung on to the British legacy, even though in Britain itself, they have found it necessary to modify their own laws.
DoT employs 470,000 persons, the third largest group of government servants, after the Railways and the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The productivity index of this mammoth staff is very low 14 telephones per employee, as against 300 in Japan and 80 in Malaysia and 40 in Sri Lanka.
The bureaucrats have been tightening their hold in various ways over the department. Till 1982, telephone charges were regulated by the government through the annual budgets. From then on the officials have taken over this function bypassing Parliament. The raises have always been in relation to capital needs and not to costs. Secondly, such raises have been used to frustrate the governments policy of allowing private sector investments under the liberalised economic and industrial policies.
Even though several committees set up to study the working of DoT have recommended the replacement of the archaic Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, DoT had conveniently blocked them.
DoT asked for Rs 40,000 crore to provide 10 million lines. The Planning Commission sanctioned only Rs 25,000 crore. DoT merrily went ahead to enhance charges to collect the balance funds. More than 75 per cent assets of the Telecom Department are raised through telephone bills, not through equity capital or debentures. DoT thus not only charges the highest rates in all Asian countries but also denies subscribers compensating benefits of deductions for non-working telephones, wrong connections, frequent disruptions in services and delayed publication of directories that are already outdated even while under production. The Indian telephone user goes on contributing capital throughout his lifetime, without the benefits or satisfactory service.
DoT continues to earn huge profits as operating surplus over expenditure. Its profitability is about 40 per cent enviable enough for any monopoly service. DoT also continues to block every government effort at liberalisation, blocking the entry of the private sector into the telecom services at every level.
Wherever high-level committees have recommended steps to improve the telecom services or reform the system, only one recommendation has been accepted with great alacrity: the appointment of new officers, particularly at the higher levels, in DoT.
Even today, despite the easy availability of telephones in major cities, there is an acute dearth of telephone services in rural areas all over the country. In most places DoT has raised the compulsory deposits on the submission of applications for new connections without any guarantee when the connections would be provided. Thus, DoT raised the application deposit three-fold from Rs 1000 to Rs 3000 for the general category and from Rs 5000 to Rs 15,000 for the OYT scheme.
The attitude of DoT officials is not confined to India: it is world-wide, but nowhere else are they so entrenched as in India. They have so far blocked or hindered plans for demonopolisation, corporatisation and competition. There would be several problems when DoT is subjected to competition in the wake of liberalisation. Its bloated staff will pose a serious problem when its share of the market shrinks due to competition. To add to the woes of the government, the Minister for Communications, Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, has graciously granted free telephones to all its staff members.
DoT will, in any case, not be able to compete, used as it has been to administer rules, follow procedures and seek sanctions and subvert audit objections. Britain eased out half of its work-force in 10 years, while its business grew by 25 per cent by customers and 50 per cent by revenue. The retrenched workers were provided massive retraining facilities.
Advances in information technology have been pushing down costs and capital for telecom systems, by about 20 per cent a year. This cut is never reflected in the subscribers bills.
Competition in cellular mobile radio telephony and limited competition in radio-paging came into effect in May, 1994, when the government adopted the new telecom policy. It allowed full competition in value-added services like e-mail, trunked private mobile radio, etc.
Under the new policy, India was to develop as a base for the manufacture of telecommunications equipment for supply to world markets. In the USA, where similar services are offered by MNCs, five Presidents recommended that Japan should give its cellular mobile radio telephone market to Motorola. Some of them even went to Japan to canvass for the American MNC.
DoT has to be corporatised soon, with the Ministry of Communications retaining only policy-making functions. The bureaucrats have been able to delay it, with the plea that there should be an experimental stage to ensure that the corporatisation of inland telephone services would achieve the desired objectives of autonomy, financial independence and customer-orientation.
To scuttle the whole process, they pushed the Secretary of DoT as Chairman and members of the Telecom Board as Directors of MTNL. All staff members of MTNL were deemed to be the employees of DoT on deputation. MTNL could not even purchase any equipment, however, badly needed, without approval from DoT and on tenders and rates approved by DoT. MTNL merely issued bonds and handed 75 per cent of the proceeds to DoT.
Into this dismal picture came Mr Sukh Ram, who as Minister for Communications, urged Parliament in April, 1993, to raise rates for telecom services to yield Rs 1060 crore of additional revenue to DoT per year. With 5.56 million subscribers then, the average burden on each of them came to Rs 1,800 per year, yielding a huge bonus to the department and the minister, who functioned as its sole purchase officer.
DoT continues to charge scandalously high rates for ISD calls: Rs 1.40 per pulse unit to the USA while from the USA the call rate is $1 a minute, tapering off further according to the duration of the call. A one-minute call from India costs Rs 84 while from the USA it costs Rs 44. Indian rates are high in order to discourage international calls, to attract more calls to India for the foreign exchange they bring in.
Implications of Korean reunification
AFTER the reunification of the two Germanies, there was no case for the continuing estrangement of the two Koreas. With 60 million energetic population, a united Korea could have played an important role in East Asia. If they were not allowed to unite, it was because of the continuing US suspicion about Chinese intentions.
Was China an adversary or a friend? This was the question before Washington. Although no final answer has emerged to this question, there is general agreement in the USA today on the economic advantages of Sino-US partnership and the dangers of making China an adversary. And Washington does not want the emergence of an alliance between Moscow and Beijing, either. In the final analysis, it appears the economic argument has won, for the US Congress has passed a resolution for permanent and normal trade between the two countries.
So friend China has got to be. However, as China is suspect, it is under watch, although President Clinton has allowed China to play the role of a sub-hegemon in Asia under US dispensation. But China plays its own game. It wants to keep Washington guessing about its intentions. So, it has given notice to Washington that it (China) does not accept a unipolar world. China knows that this will keep the USA more conciliatory towards China.
What has caused a disturbance in this arrangement was the conflict between the Koreas and the threat of an imminent war between the two. As North Korea, branded a rogue state, is armed with missiles and nuclear weapons, the danger of a war is real and may involve America in a confrontation with China (as happened in the first Korean war) a prospect that both want to avoid.
This explains Americas conciliatory gestures towards North Korea in the past couple of years. But they did not have much of an effect. Even the economic crisis in North Korea failed to curb the adventurism of the North. In August, 1998, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan, and China fired a missile close to Japanese islands during the Taiwan crisis. These have led to some re-thinking in Japan about its constitutional stand on nuclear weapons.
Japan has been one of the major beneficiaries of the American presence in East Asia. It has given Japan a large measure of security against nuclear-armed China. It has also saved much of its defence outlay. But Japan will not tolerate two nuclear-armed neighbours China and Korea. It might then want to go nuclear. But a nuclear-armed Japan is something dreadfully feared. Which is why the USA and China want a resolution of the Korean problem.
But that does not fully explain why the North Korean leader-Kim Jong-Il - a recalcitrant man - has taken the plunge for reunification. Of course, the economic plight of the northern people is a decisive factor. (The living standard of the north is a tenth of the souths and the north is literally on doles supplied by the USA, Japan and South Korea.) But I believe that China is at the back of the present move. China has its open and hidden agenda. It wants to prevent a clash between the two Koreas and the nuclearisation of Japan. It also wants to create a cause celebrate for the unification of Taiwan with the mainland. This is the hidden agenda. If the Koreans can unite, why not the Chinese? This will be Chinas argument. And the time seems to be very favourable for both.
It is true, China speaks in two voices on Taiwan. Its army talks of invasion. The Peoples Daily speaks of Chinas prestige as a super power and the economic advantages of reunification.
And the new President of Taiwan, Chen Shui Bian, a non-Kuomintang leader, in his inaugural speech spoke of the prospect of a future one China. He also said that he was giving up the demand of his Democratic Progressive Party for the independence of Taiwan. This must have been music to the ears of Beijing. But he also warned China against invasion.
China is not going to do any such foolish thing. But it knows that America is against the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. This calls for a diversionary tactic. The reunification of the Koreas is precisely that. Once the Koreans get united, the USA will have no ground to resist the reunification of Taiwan with China.
Of course, there will be conditions for the reunification of the two Koreas, as also of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland. First of all, what is to be done with the missiles and nuclear weapons in the possession of North Korea? What form of state is to be formed and what ideology is to be adopted - these are other important issues before the two Koreas. The South is in favour of a confederation with two governments and two systems, each handling defence and foreign policy for the present. And it may want free election in the North later to create a true pluralistic society. Taiwan too must have its conditions. Free elections in the mainland will be a major demand of Taiwan. The Taiwanese have for long said that a Communist regime in the mainland is not acceptable to them. They will at least expect the introduction of a multi-party system in the mainland.
What happens to the US forces in South Korea? There are about 37,000 troops there. America is in favour of reducing its presence in that region. In fact, it wants Japan to take over more security responsibilities. As the security arrangement between America and South Korea will not be acceptable to either North Korea or to China it will have to go as part of reunification. That leaves Korea free to work out its future security.
But the US-Japan security treaty will remain - perhaps as a key factor. The merger of Taiwan with the mainland will mean such an accretion of strength to China that it is feared that it will have a total dominance over Asia. This will be cause for great concern to both America and India. Will India be a third party in an arrangement to contain Chinas new power? Indias response to this situation will depend on what course Beijing takes in the months and years to come.
The visit of President
K.R. Narayanan to China has not made any difference to
Chinas stand either on the border question or on
Indias nuclear status. On border, while it advises
India to put it off for future generations, it threatens
war against Taiwan on the issue of reunification.
Patience is entirely ruled out. As for Indias
nuclear status, Beijing continues its unrelanting
opposition, while it is mum about the nuclear status of
Pakistan. India-China friendship cannot be built on such
Did NASA probe find water on
NASA scientists are believed to have told the US White House that they have spotted evidence of a liquid form of water on Mars.
The revelation not confirmed by NASA officials and believed to be secret until publication in a scientific journal next week - raises once again the possibility of life on the Red Planet.
The implications of the discovery of living creatures, however primitive, would raise the almost abandoned prospect of a manned mission to Mars. It would also be a sorely needed coup for NASA, which lost two spacecrafts last year as they ended long journeys to Mars.
Britain would be thrust into the space spotlight: the planets next visitor will be the European Mars Express, which will set down in 2003 a British lander called Beagle 2, designed to sniff for evidence of water and life in the Martian subsoil, the layer of soil beneath the surface overlying the bedrock.
Mars is apparently arid. It is cold and its carbondioxide atmosphere is too thin to support a liquid form of water. But the Martian landscape is scarred by what look like drainage patterns and even ancient shorelines indicating water in some warmer past era.
After claims in 1996 by NASA scientists that they could see fossil microbes in a meteorite from Mars, a series of robot space probes began heading for the mysterious landscape.
Several space websites were carrying reports on Wednesday that the Mars Global Surveyor, which has been orbiting the planet since 1997, had apparently detected seasonal deposits of ice in regions far from its poles.
Ice on the planets surface would evaporate and disappear but, if it appeared again, it would indicate a permanent source of water below the surface.
The same spacecraft has apparently also seen pools of water at the bottom of Valles Marineris, a giant canyon which runs for thousands of miles near the Martian equator, one of the few spots on Mars warm enough for water to be liquid. Because of the canyons huge depth, it could have high enough atmospheric pressures to support a liquid form.
O people! Those of you who have attained higher, middle or lower status in your respective fields of work, enjoy the wealth thus gained together as one. With the resources for the production of material goods at your disposal, dedicate your life to eradicate the evils of society and strive at all times for the well being of the people. Rig Veda, 5.60.6
For this life, which is
like a drop of water on a lotus leaf,
From Vairagya Shatkam, Swami Vivekanandas translation
The materialist is not to be blamed because he is unaware of ultimate truths. He is to be blamed only if he will not investigate them. If he does not try to enquire, he can never find truth. Ignorance is often excusable, but not the will to remain ignorant.
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