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COVER STORY

10-12-1999

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Briefing

A close race

V.S. SAMBANDAN cover-story

Tamil voters may hold the key in the December 21 presidential elections in Sri Lanka. But how many will actually vote?

"The military don't start wars. Politicians start wars."

- William Westmoreland

SRI LANKA is at a crucial political juncture. An estimated 11.8 million voters approach the presidential election scheduled for December 21. The two main contestants are President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Given the country's sensitive voting structure, the minority vote will determine the outcome. Support for the two main contestants, fielded by the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.) and the Opposition United National Party (UNP), is evenly balanced.

In the 1994 elections, Chandrika Kumaratunga, contesting on a promise of bringing peace to the northern area, won a landslide victory with the support of the Tamil vote. This time around, she is determined that there will be no cessation of hostilities u ntil the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is militarily weakened and brought to the negotiating table on the government's terms.

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The ruling formation is further handicapped by the current military setbacks in the Wanni region.

Wickremasinghe, who had remained silent on the Government's peace package for the last four years, approaches the elections with a "pact with the people" agenda, which includes, among other things, talks with the Tigers and a promise of "rehabilitating t he militant cadres" after finding a solution to the conflict.

While Chandrika Kumaratunga presents the "peace package" that she was unable to push through in Parliament owing to the absence of a two-thirds majority, Wickremasinghe pins his hopes on the "pact".

For his part, V. Prabakaran, the LTTE supremo, has placed the militarisation issue clearly on the agenda by launching the third phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal soon after the election dates were announced. Scoring victory after victory in the eastern p arts of the Wanni, the LTTE moved to the western flank, thereby maintaining pressure on the Government, and consequently, on the southern polity.

The LTTE offensive also ties up the resolution of the ethnic conflict with military action and comes as a challenge to the island's liberal-thinking peace constituency.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the electioneering will be the manner in which the majority vote will be sought. The Tamil voters, for all practical purposes, have distanced themselves from Chandrika, who was elected last time on the promise of br inging about an "honourable peace". The experience of the past four years has, however, made it impossible for even moderate Tamil politicians to tell voters to back her this time. "We do not have anything to show the Tamils that concrete gains have been made," a Tamil politician said. Another said that he was likely to be dismissed by the Tamil electorate if he sought their vote for the President.

Wickremasinghe's position is no better. Even those Tamil voters who are opposed to the candidature of Chandrika Kumaratunga are reluctant to espouse the cause of the UNP. Anxious to distance themselves from the mainstream parties, overall a large section of the Tamils seem to show a lack of interest in the elections.

"It is an election with which we are not concerned," said a voter in Vavuniya. Echoing similar sentiments, some residents of Jaffna said that it was practically "a southern election". One voter said: "With the Army present all over this place, the though t of an election is secondary to our interests."

The eastern Batticaloa district overwhelmingly voted for Chandrika Kumaratunga last time. This time the situation has changed. "We gave her the largest number of votes, but we are disappointed," a Tamil leader from the area said.

This sets the stage for the ruling coalition to succumb to pressures from majoritarian sentiments. The recent crossing over of some known Sinhala hardliners from the UNP - Nanda Mathews, Wijepala Mendis and Susil Moonasinghe - points to this possibility. Significantly, Moonasinghe stated in clear terms after his cross-over that he was opposed to the peace package which alters the unitary status of the Constitution. He added that he was, prior to his defection, proposed by the island's Buddhist clergy as a presidential candidate.

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The continued impasse on the conflict-resolution front, and the military actions in the north, could also mean a reduction in the number of Tamils who will cast their votes. With the LTTE capturing more territory, there is a possibility of the elections turning out to be predominantly southern (read Sinhalese) affair.

With 13 candidates in the fray, the largest number in any presidential election in the country, the coming weeks promise to throw up a cacophony of voices. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has fielded a politburo member, Nandana Gunathilaka, who espou ses a single-point agenda of the abolition of the Executive Presidency. During the previous election, the JVP had withdrawn its candidate in favour of Chandrika Kumaratunga as she had promised to do away with the Executive Presidency. Given the nature of its Left-wing constituency, the JVP could eat into the votes of the P.A. This is an added disadvantage for the P.A., as already the incumbency factor is working against it. The UNP, on the other hand, is yet to be seen as a party which could provide an alternative.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara of the Left and Democratic Alliance has the backing of non-governmental organisations. He hopes that the Tamil vote would come his way. He has promised to stop the war and end the difficulties faced by Tamils.

Other contestants include Harishchandra Wijayatunga of the Sinhalaye Mahasammathe Bhoomiputra Pakshya, who is for a "Sinhala-Buddhist state"; Rajiva Wijesinha, an academician belonging to the Liberal Party; and Tennyson Edirisurya, who has declared his o pposition to the Executive Presidency. Edirisurya has called upon the voters to invalidate their votes and has promised to do so himself.

Militarisation of Madhu

REVERED by people of all religious faiths, the Roman Catholic Madhu church, in the battle zone, has been a nest of peace through the island's bloodiest conflicts. The Dutch-period shrine was shelled on November 21, leaving 38 civilians dead. The Sacred H eart chapel and a section of the main shrine were damaged.

During periods of turmoil, the shrine and its precincts, an enclave of tranquillity, have offered refuge to thousands of displaced persons, almost entirely Tamil. Priests had persuaded both the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LT TE) not to take their battle to the pilgrimage centre. The situation, however, changed gradually since March.

Once the Sri Lankan security forces gained control over the shrine, the LTTE left the area. A minimal presence of government commandos was maintained there. The priests protested against the militarisation of the pilgrimage centre. The Government took ov er Madhu in March just ahead of the Provincial Council elections in the south and interpreted this as a "military gain". The town was soon given power supply. Simultaneously, thousands of refugees who had lived there for years were evacuated and "rehabil itated" either in their villages or in government-held areas.

In mid-November, the shrine was back in focus. As the LTTE moved westwards with its Operation Unceasing Waves III, some 3,500 persons from Mannar district moved into the church as refugees. The Tigers had earlier taken towns and villages to the north, an d civilians had flocked to Madhu. The Tigers followed suit. On November 18, government troops left the shrine and the Tigers gained control over the church and its precincts. Two days later, government troops "regained control over Madhu".

According to the priests, "the Army came in with its armoured cars into the pilgrimage centre". The peace of the church was shattered by artillery fire the same night. The Lankan Defence Ministry, which had maintained silence on the loss of Madhu, blamed the LTTE: it said that "after the security forces consolidated the area," the LTTE "launched a heavy- artillery-and-mortar attack indiscriminately on the Madhu church premises." Church authorities said that 13 of those killed were children. At least 56 people, including 25 children were injured.

Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, the Bishop of Mannar and the secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka, said: "Such a desecration has never happened of in the church's 450-year history." Church leaders appealed to "both the state forces and the LTTE to immediately withdraw from the sacred area of the shrine of Madhu... to strictly refrain from using Madhu for any strategic or political advantage... and leave Madhu completely free for the pilgrims to visit the shrine without any restriction for their spiritual purposes."

LTTE OFFENSIVE

D.B.S JEYARAJ cover-story

With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demonstrating its military resilience and marking major advances in the Wanni war, the avowed objective of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's war for peace stands exposed as a non-workable exercise.

THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched on November 2 the third phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves) in the northeastern sector of the Wanni region in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. By November 15, the LTTE's positions had adv anced in a southwest direction from Oddusuddan on the A-34 highway to the outskirts of Omanthai on the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 highway. The Tigers also moved southwards on the eastern flank to the militarised settlements of Manal Aaru or Weli Oya. Vavuniya, the southernmost town of the Northern Province, also came under threat.

After a brief respite, the LTTE recommenced its operations on November 18 by conducting assaults simultaneously on military positions in the northwestern sector of the Wanni region, which comprises the districts of Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vav uniya. The Tigers captured several Army camps in these areas; they also took control of the famous Holy Rosary Church at Maruthamadhu, popularly known as Madhu. However, the Army recaptured it within 48 hours. In the process, 38 civilians who had taken r efuge in the Catholic church were killed and 60 injured. The Army and the LTTE have blamed each other for the tragedy. The LTTE has also started attacking military positions on the island off Mannar on the northwestern coast. As of November 22, the fight ing continued without any signs of abating.

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The first phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal was conducted in July 1996 in Mullaitivu. The Army camp there was demolished, and the town fell to the LTTE. During the second phase of the operation, in September 1998, the Kilinochchi military complex was ove rrun. More than 2,000 soldiers were killed in these operations. The armed forces have not been able to wrest control of these areas.

The third phase of the campaign has proved to be the most successful military offensive recorded by the LTTE in the entire history of the armed conflict. If one were to adapt Winston Churchill's famous line after the aerial battle of Britain in 1940 to t he LTTE attack, it could be said that "never in the history of the Eelam conflict has so much territory been regained in so few days with so little losses by such small groups of Tigers."

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After dislodging the Tigers from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995-96, the Sri Lankan forces had made several attempts to undermine their presence in the Wanni. The idea was to establish a land-linked route between Vavuniya, the southern point of the Northern Province, and the Jaffna peninsula through the conquest of the 77-km stretch of road between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi on the Jaffna-Kandy road, known as the A-9 highway. After various operations which saw mixed results, the Army succeeded in taking a 44 -km stretch of road between Vavuniya and Mankulam. Some of the key areas along this road that were under Army control were Omanthai, Puliyankulam and Kanakarayankulam. The Army had also made deep inroads into the northeastern sector of the Wanni, lying t o the east of A-9 highway. Government troops had consolidated their positions in areas extending to the northeastern village of Oddusuddan along the A-34 highway linking Mankulam and Mullaitivu on the eastern coast.

Another series of operations saw the Army establish control over substantial areas in the northwestern sector of the Wanni too. The place it took control included the Our Lady of Madhu church. One puzzling aspect of these operations was the lack of resis tance by the LTTE in the early stages. But when the Army tried to take over the coastal Mannar-Pooneryn road and establish another land route, the Tigers offered resistance.

SIGNIFICANTLY, the LTTE's record in the past year was marked by the conspicuous absence of military operations from November 1998. Its spokespersons abroad would maintain that the militants refrained from putting up any resistance for fear of endangering the peace initiatives. But the reality was that the LTTE, in typical guerilla fashion, was trading space to buy time. Ceding land made the Army overextend itself, by spreading thin over too much land, thereby increasing its vulnerability. On the other h and, the LTTE was quietly recruiting and training cadres, assembling weapons and arsenals and drawing up plans for a counter-attack. The fact that the LTTE had allowed the Army to seize much territory without resistance had demoralised its supporters. In order to regain public support, the Tigers had to complete a military mission successfully.

The onset of the monsoon made the forest terrain sodden. The climate was not conducive to major military activity. Nevertheless, the Tigers had to launch a counter-offensive, for politico-military reasons. The LTTE had originally planned its operation fo r November 11. Apart from being War Remembrance day, November 11 also marked the sixth anniversary of Operation Frogleap, the amphibian attack that demolished the Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai military complex in 1993. By conducting a successful operation, t he LTTE could create the ambience of victory that was necessary for Maaveerar Thinam, its annual Great Heroes' Day. After a military success, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran could deliver his traditional address from a position of perceived strength. The LTTE, however, advanced its operations in order to pre-empt any moves by the Army.

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THE LTTE's military operation was preceded by an unusual manoeuvre by the Army. Starting in mid-October, the Sri Lankan security forces advanced along the old Kandy road from Karippatta-imurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road and established a permanent presence at Ambakamam. Subsequ-ently, troops advanced from Oddusuddan on the east of Karippattaimurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road, known also as the A-34 highway. These troops established forward defence lines that were linked to positions at Amba kamam in a somewhat rectangular shape. On October 30 and 31, troops used this rectangular formation to push upwards in the direction of Muthaiyankaddu. After meeting stiff resistance from the militants, they returned to Ambakamam and Oddusuddan on Novemb er 1.

The Army operations in the Oddusuddan-Ambakamam sector were described as "Operation Watershed". The nomenclature itself was a give-away of the underlying compulsions for the operation. A presidential election was in the offing. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government was constrained to demonstrate through contemporary military successes on the ground that the Tigers were being defeated. Projecting such an image would have contributed immensely to an electoral success for Kumaratunga, it was felt. The Peopl e's Alliance (P.A.) government has on several occasions been criticised for setting up military deadlines to suit political timetables. Now the government needed a war victory during the election campaign. So, in spite of the adverse weather conditions, the Army was politically pressured to deliver militarily. Calling the operation a "watershed" suggested that the ultimate objective of the manoeuvres may be overrunning LTTE strongholds, including Prabakaran's "One Four Base". What was hopefully a politi co-military watershed paved the way for the Waterloo that followed.

Once the LTTE anticipated Army expeditions, pre-emptive strikes became imperative. So the D-Day of Unceasing Waves-III had to be advanced. On November 1, the LTTE held a top-level conference in the historically significant Katsilaimadhu located north of Oddusuddan and south of Puthukkudiyiruppu. Pandara Wanniyan, the legendary Wanni chieftain of Adankapattu who ruled in Panankamam, was defeated by British troops led by Major Drieberg at Katsilaimadhu. A stone inscription as well as a statue erected abou t 20 years ago bear testimony to the heroic image of the last feudal ruler, who defied the imperialist aggressor. Katsilaimadhu witnessed another historic occasion on November 1. Prabakaran, along with his senior deputies, was there to finalise plans to launch Oyatha Alaigal. Several Tiger commanders, such as Balraj, Karuna, Sornam, Jeyam, Bhanu, Theepan, Rabat, Nagesh, Anton, Selvarajah, Asha, Durga and Malathie, were present at the conclave. Even as the meeting was on, thousands of male and female cad res secretly converged on Muthaiyankaddu, Samm-alankulam, Mulliyawalai, Thanneer-ootru, Katpoorappulveli, Kodalikkal, Indimadhu and Thanduvan. They were drawn from different fighting formations, such as the Charles Anthony and Jeyanthan infantry division s, the Sothiya Women Corps, the Kittu artillery brigade, the Victor armoured corps, the Leopards Commando unit, the Black Tiger suicide squads and the anti-aircraft unit. There were also members from auxiliary civilian units.

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Prabakaran was both the architect and the chief executive of the operation: Tiger literature claims that the entire operation was guided, inspired and masterminded by the leader who is also the supreme commander of LTTE forces. The LTTE's deputy military commander-in-chief, Balraj, a son of the Wanni soil, was in charge of coordinating the operational headquarters. Karuna, a senior commander from Batti-caloa, was the overall field commander. Once Prabakaran gave the go-ahead, the Tigers started their op erations.

The first target was Oddusuddan, which was seized by the Army last December in Operation Revibalaya (Solar Power). Oddusuddan was guarded by the Second Gajaba Regiment on the west and the Walagambaya division of the Navy on the east. Incidentally, three naval divisions were deployed on land duty in the eastern sector of the Wanni. Likewise, Air Force divisions were on duty in the western sector. Both services were being used as supplementary ground troops, to assist the Army. The western and eastern Wan ni sectors were demarcated by the A-9 highway, which bisects Wanni.

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An LTTE commando unit infiltrated the Army lines on Manavalanp-attaimurippu on the Mullaitivu road, west of Oddusuddan. Around midnight, the unit attacked the Gajaba troopers from behind. A little later, three formations of LTTE fighters attacked the cam p from all three sides. After nine hours of fighting, the LTTE overran the Oddusuddan camp. The Gajaba soldiers and the Walagampaya naval personnel were virtually annihilated. A fresh column of LTTE cadres, along with the civilian militia, came in a moto rcade from Mulliyawalai and hoisted the Tiger flag. It is said that Karuna performed the honours. Thereafter, the Tigers and their civilian militia began transporting by road to Mullaitivu the vehicles, arms, ammunition and equipment seized.

The Tigers then proceeded in three directions: to the northwest towards Ambakamam, westwards to Karippatt-aimurippu and Olumadhu, and to the southwest to Nedunkeny. Nedunkeny was taken in the preliminary stages of Operation Jeyasikurui in May 1997. It is situated on the Puliyankulam-Mullaitivu road and is the interface of Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts. It is very much the gateway to Mullaitivu, or the Tiger heartland. The access route between Oddusuddan and Nedunkeny had the 3rd battalion of the Sin ha Regiment at Samanankulam and the 8th battalion of the Vijaybahu Regiment at Pandariku-lam. After some fierce fighting, Nedunkeny also fell to the LTTE.

In the meantime, the other two Tiger columns were confronting two naval divisions stationed on the western flank of the Mullaitivu-Mankulam road on the one hand, and the 55th division personnel on the Ambakamam rectangle, on the other. After heavy fighti ng, Karippattaimurippu fell. Then the Tigers proceeded along the old Kandy road towards Ambakamam while other formations kept pounding Olumadhu adjacent to Karippatt-aimurippu on the road between Mank-ulam and Mullaitivu. Reinforcements sent from Mankula m were prevented from reaching Olumadhu as Tiger commandos blew up a bridge over a tributary of the Kanagarayankulam.

Soon Ambakamam fell, and it was followed by Olumadhu. Thereafter, advancing LTTE personnel began pounding Kanagarayankulam and Mankulam, both on the A-9 highway. Shortly thereafter, Mankulam fell. The Tigers then started proceeding southwards by vehicles along the Jaffna-Vavuniya road. Government troops had captured the stretch of roadway between Vavuniya and Mankulam in Operation Jeyasikurui after 19 months of fighting. Now the Tigers were merrily cruising along the stretch. Some rearguard action was p roffered at Kanakarayanku-lam, the headquarters of the 56 Division manning the eastern Wanni sector. But the following day, Kanakarayankulam too fell. Then the Tigers went further south to Puliyankulam, which also succumbed the same day.

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Finally, on November 7, the LTTE reached Panickaneeraavi on the outskirts of Omanthai, 15 km south of Vavuniya. Omanthai too had been captured by the Army in May 1997. The rapidly retreating troops finally dug in at Omanthai. Reinforced by troops from Va vuniya and artillery field guns, the Army began defending Omanthai. Other places where some resistance was displayed were Madhiyamadhu and Nainamadhu on the Puliyankulam-Nedunkeny stretch; Othi-yamalai and Pattikkudiyiruppu in the Nedunkeny area; Karappu kuthi and Katkidanku near Kanakarayankulam; and Semamadhu near Omanthai.

The LTTE has also seized some points on the western sector or areas to the west of the A-9 highway. Moondrumurippu near Mankulam, Mannakulam near Kanakarayankulam and Puthoor near Puliyankulam have been seized. Some Air Force personnel and soldiers were killed or injured.

The LTTE has also begun artillery attacks on Pallamadhu and Palampitty in Mannar. Both these places are of strategic importance in the context of an attempt to take the Mannar-Pooneryn road. After Operation Jeyasikurui aimed at securing the A-9 highway w as aborted, the Army had launched a series of operations, named Ranaghosha, or battlecry, and seized a lot of territory and vast stretches of the Pooneryn road. It was said that the objective was to utilise the Mannar-Pooneryn road as the land route to J affna.

The government began its manoeuvres in the Wanni with the launching of Operation Jeyasikurui, but called them off in December 1998. The operation had seen the Army sustain tremendous losses, with the LTTE taking to positional warfare by defending entrenc hed positions. Now, after the first stage of Oyatha Alaigal-III, the Army has lost 30 km of the 44-km stretch it had seized on the A-9 highway and, according to preliminary estimates, 1,269 sq km of territory on the eastern Wanni front. It has lost in ju st a week areas annexed over a period of two and a half years: the losses include 10 bases, 24 camps, 116 posts and an unknown number of bunkers. Massive amounts of arms, ammunition, equipment, tanks and armoured cars and other vehicles were seized by th e Tigers. So too were large amounts of dry rations. Although the Government puts it at unbelievably low levels, the Army and the Navy have lost more than a thousand men, Opposition parties allege. The LTTE claims that its losses are only in hundreds.

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The more significant aspect of the fighting was the fact that the LTTE adopted conventional techniques to chase the Army out. Thousands of troops literally ran away instead of fighting. There have been reports of rebellion, in some places of which office rs and military policemen were shot. Large-scale desertions have occurred. There has been a breakdown in discipline. In short, the Army, despite its numerical and logistical superiority, has been decisively routed. How did this happen?

TWO developments occurred on the first day itself, and these had important consequences in the course of war in the immediate future. First, the LTTE used newly acquired anti-aircraft weapons to bring down two helicopters and damage a plane. The Air Forc e panicked, thinking that the Tigers possessed the ability to blast planes in the skies. The Air Force suspended all active engagement in the conflict for more than a week. Thus the beleaguered ground troops on different fronts in the eastern Wanni secto r could not receive assistance from the Air Force for quite a while.

Secondly, the officials in Oddusuddan hastily loaded a South African "Buffel" tank with all communication codes and signal crypts and tried to send it to the 56 Division headquarters at Kanakarayankulam after their camp came under attack. The tank got bo gged down in the slush. As the troops abandoned it, the Tigers seized it. Using the codes, the LTTE began penetrating the radio communications system of the Army. As a knee-jerk reaction, the Army stopped all internal communications. The communications e quipment within the combat zone went dead for several days. As a result, panic and confusion set in among the troops.

The primary cause for the debacle was the suspension of aerial contact and radio communications. Without a proper leadership issuing directives or morale-boosting reassurances, the individual Army detachments began withdrawing. Several officers had begun retreating, instead of urging the soldiers to stand and fight. The Government's refusal to accept the bodies of soldiers from the LTTE in the conflict zone also fuelled troop resentment. A collapse of logistical support hampering transport, food supplie s and medical treatment also created a demoralising impact. After fighting at Oddusuddan and a few other places, the soldiers preferred "flight" to "fight". An angle being probed by the Government is sabotage and propaganda by pro-United National Party ( UNP) elements. It is suspected that some officers who support the main Opposition party had sabotaged the war effort.

In its anxiety to find scapegoats, the Government has transferred all senior commanding officers. But there is criticism of the political leadership itself. Many intelligence warnings went unheeded because the Government wanted a quick military victory t o boost its chances in the presidential election. Monsoon rain had made the terrain in the Wanni region difficult for military operations, but Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte wanted a military drive. Hence Operation Watershed was launched t o take Ambakamam first, and follow it up with further incursions. The stationing of troops on the outer perimeter endangered other points, which the Tigers exploited. Another reason for demoralisation among the troops was the realisation that they were b eing cynically expended in a war that had the ruling party's electoral victory as its ultimate motive. According to Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the pro-UNP newspaper Sunday Leader, "The Government has to face the fact that the defeat was a r esult of bad military planning. The soldiers deserted because they realised they were not fighting a war to save the country but to further the interests of a particular political party."

THREE salient points that contributed to the LTTE successes were tremendous artillery barrages, the rapid mobility of personnel and vehicles, and expert tactics. After the initial stages, the element of surprise was no longer there: thereafter it was onl y superior mobility, better tactics and the precise use of artillery that mattered. The very same weather conditions that affected military movement did not hinder the Tigers. Also, the LTTE allowed the retreating soldiers an escape route in most cases i nstead of trying to surround and decimate them. This led to most soldiers opting to run away rather than fight. It must be noted that in many earlier operations, the denial of escape routes by the Tigers contributed to soldiers rallying and fighting a li teral battle for survival, thereby preventing an outright LTTE victory.

Another area where the LTTE made an impact was Weli Oya or Manal Aaru. This strategic region was carved out by the UNP, with the objective of ending the territorial contiguity of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The P.A. Government, after the initial successes of Jeyasikurui, embarked on implementing the scheme of colonising armed settlers and establishing a network of camps. It must be remembered that Tamil inhabitants were driven away earlier in a systematic f orm of ethnic cleansing. The LTTE has succeeded in destroying several camps in Weli Oya and continues to put pressure on the region. More than 7,000 Sinhala settlers have fled the area.

VAVUNIYA, the southernmost town of the Northern Province, too is under threat. The LTTE announced that it was going to shell the town and asked residents to move away. This led to about 9,000 people abandoning the town. Fearing a major assault, the armed forces gathered in large numbers in Vavuniya, transforming it into a garrison town. Instead of organising a swift counter-attack, the Army focussed its energy on protecting Vavuniya.

THE objectives of the LTTE in triggering such an exodus are yet to be revealed. It is, however, assumed that by threatening to invade Vavuniya, the Tigers succeeded in stalling government efforts to mobilise a swift counter-attack in the areas that were lost. Instead, it has concentrated personnel in Vavuniya. This gave the LTTE time to transport the arms and equipment that were seized and to revise its defence structures. Since the Tigers had not bargained for such early gains, they need time to consol idate and build defences to retain seized areas. They also need time for logistical preparations to continue their operations.

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Given the prevailing low morale and poor fighting spirit among the armed forces, the LTTE decided to strike again. After a brief period of "rest" between November 9 and 17, the Tigers recommenced operations, in the northwestern sector this time. A number of military positions were attacked simultaneously. Most of these camps had been established on interior roads after different stages of Operation Ranaghosha. They were extremely vulnerable, being mere "islets" of troops in a surrounding "ocean" of LTTE -infested jungle terrain. They served very little strategic value. But to a government wanting to impress Sinhala voters with the extent of "real estate" acquired from the LTTE, it became a necessity to retain these camps. In the process, the Army spread itself thin and played into Tiger hands.

The LTTE took over a number of camps in a matter of days with comparatively little bloodshed. A repetition of the earlier pattern of soldiers deserting positions on their being pounded by artillery was quite evident. Areas such as Palampitty, Thatchanama ruthamadhu, Palamottai, Vaarikkuttiyoor, Navvi, Periyathambanai, Periyapandivirichan, Sinnapandivirichan and Periyamadhu were overrun with comparative ease. One area where the LTTE met with stiff resistance was Iranailuppaikulam. The large base there pro ved to be formidable. With Army reinforcements having been sent to Iranailuppaikulam, fighting continues in the area.

On the Mannar-Pooneryn road, the strategic junction of Pallamadhu was taken, along with Pappamottai and Naayaaruveli. Although the LTTE is yet to gain a permanent presence on the Vavuniya-Mannar road, it has succeeded in driving the Army back from most a reas to the north of this road. The Army now retains positions only on this road and has forbidden civilian movement on it.

Emboldened by these successes, the LTTE began an artillery attack against the main camp at Thallady in Mannar district. Thallady guards and controls the causeway to Mannar island where the important town of Mannar is located. The Tigers also shipped fiel d guns to Erukkalampitty on the island and began attacking the Army camp at the Mannar Fort premises. Later, Sea Tiger boats from the Nachikkudah base tried to invade the island at the Pallimunai coast.

Another controversial and sad event was the attack on Madhu (see box). On November 18, the LTTE surrounded the outlying areas of the church. The Army left the church premises. The Tigers did not stay in the church, in deference to the wishes of the pries ts. On November 20, a commando unit stormed their way into the church. About 3,500 refugees were asked to sleep inside the church and the adjoining Sacred Heart Chapel. At about 10-15 p.m. there was some shelling. The Army says that the LTTE fired the sh ells. The Tigers say that the Army had tried to move on to Palampitty and were repulsed by them. They maintain that the retreating soldiers had trained their tanks on the chapel.

Since fighting continues in the northwestern sector and positions are fluctuating, it is not possible to assess the total situation. But the LTTE does seem to have retaken 800 to 900 sq km of territory at least in this second stage of its operation. Thre e major camps at Periyamadhu, Periyathambanai and Palampitty, along with a number of smaller ones, have fallen. Neither the rate of casualties nor the nature of the military tactics adopted by the LTTE is known. But the important question is why the mili tary debacle was in such colossal proportions. In the first stage, of course, there was the element of surprise. But after the fighting started, the other camps should have been vigilant and prepared.

THE major consequence of this military campaign is that the LTTE has demonstrated its military resilience once again. The avowed objective of Chandrika Kumaratunga's war for peace stands exposed as a non-workable exercise. Even if the Tigers are compelle d to relinquish the newly taken territory, they have very effectively made the point that the organisation simply cannot be undermined gradually. Also, no strategy based on the ephemeral conquest of territory is workable. As such, bold and creative alter natives for a resolution of the conflict will have to be found in the long term. In the short term, the fighting will continue.

The Army's reversals have encouraged the Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is the chief opponent of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the presidential election. The UNP chief hopes to hold talks with the Tigers, if elected. He says that there is no mili tary solution to the ethnic conflict and that the Tigers cannot be wished away. The LTTE has to be politically accommodated. The military reversals have considerably diminished Kumaratunga's expectations and increased Wickremasinghe's. The boundaries are now back to where the Wanni hostilities began, and all the gains by the Government have been negated. But excessive victories by the LTTE may provoke a Sinhala backlash, which may result in Kumaratunga doing well.

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora too is elated. Being hopelessly unrealistic and uncompromisingly intransigent, these sections now feel that Eelam is just around the corner. Despite being witness to so much territory change hands so many times, these elemen ts construe the latest Tiger successes as an indicator of ultimate victory over the Colombo Government. That the LTTE leadership itself neither expected nor prepared itself to acquire so much territory in such a short time is lost on these sections. The very same sections that were shouting themselves hoarse calling for peace talks are now using jingoistic statements: no need for talks until Eelam. Also, massive fund-raising campaigns are being undertaken successfully.

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The strategy adopted by the LTTE for the greater part of this year was perplexing. Nevertheless, with the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear now that the tactics worked.

Now it is Chandrika Kumaratunga's turn. With the presidential election just around the corner, she would be constrained to launch some dramatic counter-attacks, if possible. This is a risky - and from a humanitarian perspective unacceptable - option, but there does not seem to be any other way out for her.

So the cycle of violence will continue. It remains to be seen when the Sri Lankan forces will start their operations and how the Tigers will react.

Caught in the crossfire in Vavuniya

cover-story
V.S. SAMBANDAN recently in Vavuniya

CAUGHT between despair and hope - that sums up the state of the residents of Vavuniya. The sound of heavy artillery sends them helter-skelter, whether it is day or night.

Vanuniya's woes started in early November when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam embarked on its offensive in the Wanni region. When Operation Oyatha Alaigal began along the eastern flank of the Kandy-Jaffna road (A-9 highway), the residents were caut iously optimistic that their town would not be affected. However, in just over a week, they found themselves packing their belongings and proceeding to areas specified by the LTTE. The LTTE, in broadcasts on the Voice of Tigers (VoT), asked them to shift from Vavuniya town, Pandarikkulam, Katkuli, Thonikkal, Vairavapuliyankulam, Pattanippuram, Veppankulam, Nelukkulam, Thand-ikkulam and Pathinarmagilamkulam, as the Army camps there could be shelled. The safer places it suggested included Aasikkulam and R ajendrakulam.

A few days after most of the town's residents, estimated at around 80,000, had evacuated, another LTTE broadcast asked them to shift back to their homes but warned them to keep off the Army camps. (No correct estimate of the population figures of Vavuniy a is available, and this confirms the distancing of the northern districts from the rest of the island. As no census was taken in the northern and eastern areas since 1981, actual population estimates vary from the figure provided by the Government, whic h is 50,000, to that mentioned by relief agencies, 1,00,000.) The confusion over numbers notwithstanding, it was a matter of grave humanitarian concern.

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The residents of Vavuniya did as they were told. The Tigers ensured that their word was taken as a command by the civilians in the government-held areas. The military aggression of the days preceding the announcement only reemphasised this. "I did not pe rsonally hear the LTTE announcements, but I was told that the leader wanted us to move. So I obeyed. Then, he wanted us to return. We did so," said a resident of Vavuniya. Some Tamil leaders were of the opinion that the LTTE carried out the entire Vavuni ya exercise just to prove a point. "It caused so much of misery to the people to prove the point that its word carried weight."

THE majority of people who fled Vavuniya during the current offensive were those who had sought refuge in the town after their lives were disrupted in an earlier offensive elsewhere in the north. Thousands of people - students and traders, landlords and the landless, professionals and casual workers, government employees and shopkeepers - who were uprooted from the battle-scarred northern districts had only started life anew in Vavuniya.

On November 11, when the LTTE asked them to move out, they were confused. Did the Tigers mean what they said? Was it a ruse to send the Army into panic? Was it a rumour spread to cause confusion? However, all doubts ended the following morning.

Moving out of the heavily fortified town was the first priority. "Those of us who have passes (issued by the police) can go to Colombo, but others would have to stay behind," was the initial reaction.

"I am going to lock my house and flee. In which direction? The Tigers have specified some locations. We will follow their instructions," a watchman of a lodge in the town said.

IN Rajendrakulam near Vavuniya, a new settlement had come up overnight. Several families were living under extreme odds - under trees or bullock carts, in makeshift huts, in semi-finished houses and in thatched-roof schools.

"I have been on the move since the 1970s," said I. Sabaratnam, a former employee of the Excise Department. He has practically lived out of his suitcase, having moved to whichever area the displaced people were sent to. The exodus from Vavuniya brought lu ck to Sabaratnam, who now owns a soft drink stall. "Look at the wares I sell," he said pointing to the stacked-up bottles of aerated drinks and household goods. "Traders from Vavuniya sold them at rock-bottom prices. They just wanted to sell their stocks and take the money before fleeing." With a shop located in a displaced region, finding buyers could well turn out to be his next problem.

Along the dirt track that runs across Bharatipuram, another location near Vavuniya, families live in tents, children play in makeshift swings and men huddle around a tea-stall.

"Whether we have money or not, what we need is passes," said Thurairaja, a former resident of Jaffna. For people like him who have been constantly uprooted, the main concern is to ensure that all members of their family have passes. "Only that will ensur e that we travel together." In the militarised zone, only civilians holding a pass issued by the police can move about freely. People without passes could be taken for militants.

"Imagine carrying passes in one's own land. I was leading a comfortable life in Jaffna. I owned a car, my family was well-settled. The troubles began and we left. Now I work as a mason. But there is not enough work."

For Shah Jahan, who fled Jaffna after the LTTE began its ethnic-cleansing, his family's return to Vavuniya would be determined by the Tigers. "If they remain in the area, I will not come back," he said, as he waited for a bus to take his family to the Mu slim-majority Puttalam town.

Voluntary organisations gave priority to providing shelter. But those who wanted tents were required to produce their passes and register themselves with government officials.

Dharmalingam, a leftist now in his sixties, is in a tearing hurry. "I have a list of 70 people. I want to ensure that everybody gets some kind of shelter. Let us go fast, the officials may go away," he says as he gathers a group of people. At the makeshi ft office, an empty desk awaits him. "They have gone," a 50-year-old widow tells him. "I have to come back. I hope it does not rain (for the people have no roof over their heads)," he says. He added: "Some of the former militant groups have helped us. Th e houses, which are yet to be completed, were built at the initiative of the members of Parliament belonging to the People's Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE)."

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At Bharatipuram, cadres of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) were overseeing mass cooking for the displaced. "We are trying to do our best. Some rice, some curry, some vegetables," says Ganeshamoorthy, urging the workers to finish the task f ast. As the rice boils, there is a cloudburst. A heavy downpour sends the people running for cover. And with that goes the hope of a meal.

THE situation in Vavuniya changed rapidly when the Tigers asked the displaced people to return to the town on November 17. The residents returned to their moorings, to begin the process of normalcy. But this was shattered by incessant shelling of Army po sitions north of Vavuniya. A shell which landed at Thonikkal, on the outskirts of the town, killed a child and injured three persons. Panic set in again with hundreds of civilians taking shelter at a church in the town. "We do not stir out after dark," s aid Ganesh, a casual worker. After dusk, the roads are largely deserted, with most people choosing to stay indoors.

In the areas near Vavuniya, an uneasy calm prevailed. "We don't know what will happen next," said a shopkeeper at Medawachchiya, south of Vavuniya.

Rather than the threat of a Tiger advance, it is the refugee influx that is a matter of concern for the people living in the vicinity of Vavuniya. In Anuradhapura, further south, Sinhalese residents of Vavuniya had sought refuge with their friends and re latives.

The Army maintains a nervous vigil, checking all those who enter or leave the town. At a checkpoint outside the town, students wait for some mode of transport to take them to safety. Resumption of normal life depends on the course the conflict would take next.

The northern aggression

The message from the military operations in the Wanni region is that only a political solution will result in a permanent end to the hostilities.

"Wars have never hurt anybody except the people who die."

- Salvador Dali

THE separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has redrawn the military map of the northern territory of Sri Lanka by recapturing within the first two weeks of November areas that were taken by the Sri Lankan Army through various military operati ons over the past two years.

Before Operation Oyatha Alaigal III started, the military map was a matter of satisfaction for the troops. But within days, Army camps fell like nine-pins. Areas that had been captured by the Army, some of them in difficult battles, during its military c ampaigns, were retaken by the militants with remarkable ease. Oddusuddan, Nedunkeny, Olumadu and Mankulam, important military camps that the Army had established after beating back the Tigers, fell in rapid succession. Puliyankulam and Kanakarayankulam, among the strongest and best-fortified Army outposts along the Jaffna-Kandy highway, were among those that were captured. For over a year since May 1998, this road had witnessed the troops inching forward, fighting to open a main supply route to the nort hern Jaffna peninsula, which it had regained from the Tigers.

Embarking on their latest thrust along the main highway, LTTE cadres swept vast tracts of land to the east and west of the A-9 highway and took control of several strategic towns. For all practical purposes, the government's military gains, built up over the years, were lost.

The island, especially the southern region, was preparing for the presidential election when the LTTE launched its offensive. For well over a year, the Tigers had been at the receiving end.

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Some military observers feel that the timing of the operation had nothing to do with the presidential election. "The main and the only motive was military," said a former militant. "The LTTE wanted to make the maximum haul of war equipment. It would have anticipated a further thrust towards Mullaitivu ahead of the election. Hence the attack on Oddusuddan," he reasoned.

Military officers are of the view that the LTTE would have conceived a smaller operation but enlarged it after seeing the effectiveness of the attack. "They have got more than what they would have expected," he said.

Although the fighting capability of the Tigers is considered formidable, such a sudden loss of territory by the Army, apparently without even putting up a fight, has caused concern. While Opposition leaders have alleged that the Government's strategy of gaining more territory was the reason for the "thinly spread out" nature of the Army's presence, sections of the Government see a possible political conspiracy behind the military debacle. The Defence Ministry promptly appointed a court of inquiry compri sing senior officers of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to investigate the reasons for the debacle. Even as this professional exercise was under way, damage-control measures were initiated.

Censorship on military news, which was in place since June 1998, was further tightened. Sections of the national media were accused of providing grossly exaggerated and misleading casualty figures. The concern was more on keeping down the reported number of soldiers killed in action.

War casualties were contained by resorting to what has been described as "tactical withdrawals". "This is now an artillery-based aggression by the Tigers. There is less of man-to-man combat and that would explain the relatively lower numbers of casualtie s," said a military official. Initial estimates placed the number of soldiers killed at 101 and those missing in action at 743 in the five-day offensive.

Military commentators were also quick on the draw. In their analysis, it was the strategy of massing military personnel in the north for a push against the Tigers that led to the debacle.

"They have been gaining territory without a fight," said an analyst, referring to the Ranaghosa operations. It was during these operations that the Tigers withdrew from Oddusuddan and other areas, helping the Army to move in with relative ease.

As the Tigers moved out without offering resistance, it was reasoned, "they were able to keep their fighting units intact." "As the Army had to hold the territory it had gained, it was bound to spread its forces thin. Moreover, the Army had not won major victories by inflicting losses on the Tigers. This meant that the LTTE could strike back with full force," a military commentator told Frontline.

The Army's fighting units in the north also came in for a restructuring in the command, the most significant step being the replacing of the Commander of the Security Forces in the Wanni, Maj. Gen. Wasantha Perera, by Maj. Gen. Neil Dias. Senior military leaders in Colombo, including Lt.Gen. Sirilal Weerasooriya, the Army Commander, and Major General Lionel Balagalle, the Chief of Staff and until recently the Commander of the Security Forces in the Wanni, reached Vavuniya to oversee the operations.

By the turn of the week, the LTTE had reached Mankulam on the Jaffna-Kandy highway. Mankulam was won by the Army last year, when the Tigers overran Kilinochchi during Oyatha Alaigal II, inflicting heavy casualties on the Army. With the retaking of Mankul am, the LTTE consolidated its presence on the Jaffna-Kandy highway and pushed its territorial gains further south.

Then came the threat to Vavuniya, the island's northern garrison town and the headquarters of the Army's Wanni operations. Through announcements, the Tigers asked the civilians to leave the town in view of an impending attack.

Although this was dismissed by the Government as part of the "psychological operations" of the Tigers, civilians started leaving the town. By November 12, practically the entire town had emptied itself, with only those who could not afford to travel or t hose who did not have identity passes to move out staying behind. A few days later, the Tigers said that the civilians could return but asked them to stay away from areas situated near the Army camps.

LIFE in the south, however, was largely unaffected by the northern casualties. Colombo continued in its normal self. There was a clear distancing from the battlefield, not only in geographical terms but also in mental terms. But for political leaders, ac ademicians, peace activists and activists of non-governmental organisations involved in relief operations, the northern casualties largely seemed to involve "somebody else's war". But a similar situation existed during last year's Kilinochchi defeat.

One interpretation is that this also has its "positive" implications in that there is "no backlash on the minorities". This, analysts observed, was in stark contrast to the 1983 situation when the killing of 13 soldiers sparked anti-Tamil riots throughou t the island.

Sunil Bastian of the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, Colombo, attributes the larger "ambivalence" of the country's population to war as a reason. "People just want to get on with their lives," he said.

Making the point that extreme Sinhala opinion is now divided, Bastian also observed that any "instability in the south as the consequence of an event in the north is always organised". As in the past, some "sections in the parties that held power were be hind it." The present southern reaction to the northern debacle, he said, made it "quite clear that now those groups do not exist in the main parties. There is no space for hardliners in these parties."

Moreover, incidents directly involving the southern people, such as those related to the insurrections by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) during the 1980s and early 1990s, had a more direct bearing on the people in the south.

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The most telling implication of the Tiger offensive, however, would be on the living conditions of Wanni residents. The displacement of the people, providing food and other essentials to them, and averting chaos will have to engage the attention of the G overnment,nt, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations. Some former Tamil militant groups, such as the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), have started s upplementing the relief efforts of the Government and aid agencies. "We are organising blood donation camps and providing other relief materials for the displaced," said Sudhan, a TELO area leader.

If Operation Unceasing Waves III brought more territory to the Tigers, it remains to be seen how they will be able to spread further. Military officials, putting the larger picture in perspective, feel that if the Tigers spread their terrain too far, the y would be faced with the same constraints as the Army faced - too much land and too little people to man it.

While recent northern military campaigns have clearly redrawn government- and rebel-held territories, they have also sent across the signal that more than military gains and losses it is in addressing the separatist conflict from the political perspectiv e that would result in the cessation of hostilities. Until then, unfortunately, the wounds of the war will fester.

Paradeep's problems

THE Paradeep Port Trust (PPT) authorities knew what was coming, thanks to the Internet. They lost no time in taking measures according to a contingency plan formulated by the Union Government in the wake of the cyclone havoc at the Kandla port two years ago.

"We did not rely much on the forecasts by the Meteorological Department, which were general in nature. Instead, we started surfing the Net and at least two sites gave us a clear picture of the projected route, movement and intensity of the impending stor m. We were on the alert," PPT Chairman S.K. Mohapatra said.

"Having lived in Paradeep for more than 30 years, we have learnt one thing: never take a cyclone warning signal lightly," Dilip Misra, PPT Traffic Manager, said.

The first priority was to force the berthed ships out of the port. There were six such vessels. Five of these were moved to mid-sea where the effect of the storm on them would be less severe. The vessels returned to the port after the Navy declared the n avigation channel clear for traffic on November 6.

A sixth vessel, Spar Opal, which was loading steel coil, refused to sail out. Its moorings snapped and it was pushed from one berth to another, but it suffered no major damage. As it happened, the vessel's onboard satellite telephone system was the only means of communication Paradeep had with the outside world.

Eight vessels were waiting outside the port for berths. All but one left as soon as the cyclone struck.

No piece of major equipment at the port was damaged. Mohapatra said that the port authorities did everything possible to protect the equipment. The projecting parts of large equipment were lowered and fastened with bolts and the equipment was removed to safer places. However, some losses were inevitable. For example, the roofs of the transit sheds were blown off. Sea water damaged transformers and electric motors. Sand-casting has reduced the depth of the channel by about two metres: the channel has to be dredged. Navigational lights are gone, so are the pylons.

What has caused the most concern is the damage to the railway tracks between Rahama and Paradeep on the Cuttack-Paradeep section of the South Eastern Railway. The movement of bulk items such as coal and ore to and from the port has been hampered. Bulk it ems constitute more than 95 per cent of the port's traffic. Coastal shipment of thermal coal for the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) and other consumers could be resumed as nearly 2.5 lakh tonnes of ground stock was lying at the port. Thermal coal ac counts for seven million tonnes of the port's total throughput of 13 million tonnes. The TNEB's share in the thermal coal traffic is more than five million tonnes.

The problem that coking coal importers such as the Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tisco) and Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) faced was even greater. The imported coking coal lying at the port premises cannot be evacuated unless the railway lines ar e repaired. To solve the problem, Tisco chartered a vessel to ship it to Haldia for onward movement by rail. Thus, part of the coking coal stock was shifted, though at a cost.

"We estimate the loss of port property at Rs.80 crores," Mohapatra said, pointing out that several private firms that undertook port projects on contract had complained of a combined loss of Rs.20 crores. "We will request the Centre to provide funds to m eet the additional expenditure," he said, adding that the suspension of normal port operations entailed a loss of income of about Rs.60 lakhs a day.

Rebuilding work to facilitate early resumption of normal operations took a back seat as the port authorities were forced to devote themselves to relief work. A large number of people living in shanties on port lands and the residents of villages close to the port were badly affected. Moreover, the port authorities had to coordinate the relief work undertaken by various government and non-governmental agencies. For this reason, they could not pay continued attention to the work on the Asian Development B ank-aided coal handling plant. The commissioning of the plant will now be delayed by at least six months.

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Although the Navy deployed seven vessels and cleared the navigation channel, work could not resume. Even two weeks after the cyclone, Paradeep had no power supply. Since the public sector Paradeep Phosphates Ltd (PPL) was hit badly, the berth dedicated t o it did not receive vessels.

Absenteeism, in view of the cyclone and the scare of ammonia leaks, was another factor that stood in the way of the resumption of normal work. Rumours of leaks in the PPL's ammonia storage tanks (the plant had released small quantities of ammonia in orde r to ensure the safety of the tanks) led to a virtual exodus of workers. Significantly, only one port employee died: he lived in a thatched hut, having sublet his official quarters.

Several fishermen living along the Paradeep coast were killed. Although not employed by the port, they used the fishing harbour, which is part of the port complex. As soon as the cyclone warning was received, the port authorities had urged the people liv ing in the shanties in the port area to move under pucca structures. Most of them allegedly ignored the warning.

THE PPL bore the brunt of the cyclone. Its phosphoric acid and sulphuric acid plants were damaged. Between 5,000 and 6,000 tonnes of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) worth about Rs.6 crores, stored in silos, was destroyed. The boundary walls of the plant and the township collapsed. Attempts were being made to resume DAP production in November itself. However, H. Mishra, Chairman and Managing Director, told Frontline that the acid plants would not resume production immediately. An assessment of the los s suffered by PPL would take time. The condition of the equipment would be known only after power supply was restored, Mishra said.

Mishra appealed to the Centre for special assistance. The appeal, it is learnt, has not gone totally unheeded. The Centre has before it a financial restructuring proposal for PPL. However, the sanction of grant would depend on the assessment of loss. As per the proposal, the accumulated loss of about Rs.256 crores would be knocked off from the book of accounts. The present equity size of Rs.214 crores would be reduced to Rs.2.14 crores and the loan of Rs.230 crores converted into equity. The interest on the loan too has to be waived by way of book adjustments. "Once the restructuring plan is implemented, PPL will start afresh, on a clean slate," Mishra said.

The loss suffered by the DAP plant of Oswal Chemicals & Fertilisers is put at Rs.100 crores. The two-million-tonne plant, estimated to cost Rs.2,000 crores, was due for commissioning in November. Now the commissioning has been deferred until January. Abh ay Oswal, its Chairman, said that the exact extent of the loss would be known after the insurance company assessed the extent of the damage. The project's prime consultant, United States-based Jacobs, Humphreys and Glasgow, was involved in the assessment exercise.

The company, Oswal said, did relief work in 180 villages under 47 panchayats, with a total population of four lakhs. "We distributed about 1,000 tonnes of foodgrains and we will distribute another 3,000 tonnes," he said. Saris, dhotis and materials for s helters had also been distributed. The Oswals propose to spend Rs.10 crores on relief work and have involved their employees from all over the country in the operation. "We have a commitment to the people of the place where we have put up such a huge pla nt with so much investment," Oswal said.

Cyclones, power and social responsibility

JAYATI GHOSH columns

A multinational company seeking to triple power tariff in already suffering coastal Orissa, claiming that the cyclone has hit its facilities, which had been left uninsured, raises questions regarding the rationale for and pattern of privatisatio n in the country, and consequent monopolistic practices that impinge on the lives of ordinary people.

THE cyclone that ravaged the coast of Orissa was one of the worst to affect the subcontinent in this century. The scale of devastation that has occurred is unimaginable: already the official death toll is close to ten thousand people, although the situat ion has been so dire that no formal enumeration of the dead has yet been undertaken. More than 20 million people are said to be affected, and agriculture and industry in the region have been ravaged.

Around ten lakh houses are said to have been damaged, many beyond repair, as well as more than 30 lakh kutcha houses, rendering millions of people homeless. Nearly three lakh farm animals were killed, the extent of the crop area affected (with sta nding crops destroyed) exceeds 12 lakh hectares, and preliminary estimates of property loss range upwards of Rs. 1,000 crores.

Calamities as extreme as this will take years if not decades to recover from, even in terms of the most minimal reconstruction and repair. Quite apart from the enormous loss of human life, simply replacing physical infrastructure in a State that was alre ady one of the most absolutely poor and backward in the country is a task of huge proportions. The enormity of the requirement of providing immediate relief has clearly exposed both public and private agencies as being inadequate, and lakhs of people in at least nine districts continue to be in great distress, deprived of the most basic amenities and sometimes even of the means of survival.

In the wake of such a major disaster, the natural expectation is that all sections of society, especially those with the finances to make a difference, would step forward to contribute to the recovery and reconstruction effort. This expectation is even h igher vis-a-vis large industrialists and multinational companies (MNCs), which are increasingly prone to publicise their sense of "social responsibility". This is why some recent news reports of the response of at least one multinational company c omes as a shock, even to hardened critics accustomed to expecting the worst from such quarters.

ACCORDING to a news report in a major national newspaper (The Indian Express, November 11), a major multinational company which owns majority share in the power transmission and distribution company supplying the coastal districts, has demanded fu ll compensation for its losses from the government, failing which it would triple the cost of electricity to consumers in the affected areas.

The United States-based multinational AES Corporation currently holds 51 per cent of the stock of the Central Electricity Supply Company (Cesco), which supplies power to consumers in the affected coastal districts of Orissa. The president and chief execu tive officer of AES, Dennis Bakke, came to India to review the post-cyclone situation, and apparently discovered that Cesco had sustained losses of around $60 million (Rs. 300 crores) due to the cyclone.

As a result, said Bakke, the company was asking the Government of India to bear the losses. If it refused to do so, Cesco would be forced to approach the relevant price-setting body, the Orissa Electricity Regulatory Commission, for a tariff revision whi ch he estimated could be as much as three times the present tariff. Obviously, the company felt that if the government does not share the burden, then the people would have to bear the cost.

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In the wake of the cyclone, many public and private companies have declared concessions to the affected people, who are already reeling under very adverse material circumstances. Thus, the Department of Telecommunications has announced special concession s to consumers in the region. In the case of electricity, the supply of which has been so badly disrupted, it would be expected that consumers who are already suffering because of no or low provision would at least be spared the burden of higher prices. Indeed, total restoration of earlier levels of electricity supply in the affected districts is expected to take as long as six months.

However, any such concessions are obviously not under consideration by Cesco. Bakke argued that the company is under financial stress because of poor revenue collection, making it difficult, in the management's assessment, to give any relief to consumers . Perhaps more significantly, there is no legal obligation for the company to do so. The majority shareholding in Cesco was purchased from the public sector Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, which continues to hold 49 per cent of the shares.

Under the terms of the agreement of sale, there was no contractual provision about covering its losses arising from any calamity. Further, remarkably for these obsessively risk-averse multinational companies, no disaster insurance cover had been taken fo r any such eventuality; in fact, the company claims that it was in the process of taking out insurance on its infrastructure when the cyclone struck. Since it had clearly been inefficient in insuring itself in time, it would choose instead to make its cu stomers - including some of the poorest people in the world living through a major catastrophe - pay for its lapse.

EVEN if we set aside the inevitable knee-jerk reaction that this is likely to evoke in terms of the perfidious behaviour of MNCs, there are some important issues that arise in this context. The first issue relates to the whole pattern of privatisation of the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity that has accelerated in many States in recent times. Many observers have noted that in several States this process has been characterised by a piecemeal approach, vagueness, secrecy and lack o f transparency in the legal follow-through, and a tremendous lack of public participation and therefore of democratic accountability in the final institutional framework that has resulted.

The haste to privatise came from a perception that public sector companies were unable to deliver not only because of bureaucratic interference but also because they could not be professional in their approach in terms of efficient provision and recovery of costs. But the pattern that now seems to be followed in many cases in this sector is that private investors (usually multinational investors) will pick up all the profits (in some cases, even guaranteed profits) while the government exchequer bears a ll the risks. So taxpayers end up funding losses even though the essential idea inherent in private entrepreneurship is that profits are rewards for risk-bearing.

It is now apparent that another source of trouble in dealing with natural monopolies such as electricity provision is that when the private sector is given control then monopolistic practices are also much more likely. In such circumstances, at the very minimum, the regulatory devices need to be very carefully specified and comprehensive. But this is clearly not so yet in India.

The current experience in Orissa illustrates one way in which this can become extremely problematic. In this case, the people of the State, especially in the coastal region, seem to have lost out because of the electricity companys attempt to make them p ay for a major natural calamity which has already caused them huge dispossession. The State Government has lost out because it does not get the advantage of revenues even as it is forced to take on losses if it does not want consumers to be charged more. It is difficult to understand, therefore, why the entire process was necessary at all.

The entire privatisation process has been sold to the country on the argument that this would help the government get out of things that the private sector can do better so that the government can concentrate on what the private sector will not do. This episode shows that like so much else in the language of liberalisers and of globalisation, there are poignant gaps both in language and its interpretation in reality, which can be appropriated by those in power.

Perhaps this is why Union Power Minister P. Rangarajan Kumarama-ngalam, talking about power and the Orissa cyclone in a conference involving the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission and the United States Energy Association on November 2 (Business Line, November 3) could offer no more wisdom than that the Orissa Electricity Regulatory Commission and the privatised distribution and generation companies "will have a challenging task ahead of them in the reconstruction of the State with a human face".

That statement was made before Bakkes made his comments quoted above. If the past and present practice of post-liberalisation governments is any indication, it is possible to predict that the face of the present BJP-led Government will be much more "huma n" to multinationals than it is towards those Indians who happen to find themselves in a crisis as in Orissa.

The question of nuclear yield

other
BARC scientists present the proof.

In the wake of the five nuclear tests at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, 1998, some questions were raised about their yield levels. Some Western seismologists said that the total yield of the three explosions on May 11 was between 10 and 15 kilotonnes, while t hat of the two tests on May 13 was 100 to 150 tonnes. Then doubts were raised about whether one of the three devices exploded on May 11 was really a thermonuclear device, or a hydrogen bomb as it is called. In response, Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman, Atom ic Energy Commission (AEC), and Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), asserted that the total yield of the five explosions was around 60 kilotonnes. (Frontline, June 9, 1998 and January 15, 1999). Dr. Chidambaram and B ARC scientists also asserted that it was a thermonuclear device that India had exploded.

In October 1999, questions were raised about whether the two sub-kilotonne tests on May 13 had fizzled out, that is, whether the explosion had occurred at all. The New York Times wrote in October 1999: "Had India faked explosive tests? Were they f lops? Or had small blasts eluded the eavesdroppers?... Though opponents of the treaty point to the Indian claim as a test ban embarrassment, the emerging consensus among nuclear experts is that what failed that day was not global monitoring but the pair of explosive devices."

In January 1999, in an article titled "Nuclear Energy in India," Dr. Chidambaram stated that the sub-kilotonne devices, whose yield is less than one kilotonne (1,000 tonnes), were also fission devices. But designing a sub-kilotonne device was more diffic ult than designing a standard fission device. "In a sub-kilotonne device... where one goes marginally super-critical, one cannot afford to make a mistake. In the case of a mistake, one may have a fizzle. In the case of the May 1998 tests, all the three s ub-kilotonne tests gave a perfect match between the calculated and the measured yields, which is important. In case one signs the CTBT, one cannot carry out tests, which release any nuclear yield. If one can predict accurately the yield of a device whose yield is only a few hundred tonnes, one can also guarantee the design of an experiment where the fissile material in its optimum configuration will go close to criticality and still stay sub-critical. Thus, our sub-kilotonnes tests have also given us a capability to carry out sub-critical tests, if we consider them necessary. We have, however, no plans at the moment to carry out sub-critical tests..."

In order to sustain an informed debate on the subject, Frontline reproduces here an article written by scientists of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, in BARC Newsletter, September 1999. The authors of the article are R. B. Attarde, V.K. Shukla, D.A.R. Babu, V.V. Kulkarni and Anil Kakodkar.

THE five nuclear tests conducted during May 11-13, 1998 at Pokhran included three sub-kilotonne devices, in addition to a thermonuclear device and a standard fission device. One sub-kilotonne device was tested on May 11, while on May 13, two sub-kilotonn e devices were tested. This report gives some of the results of gamma radiation logging measurements in bore holes at the sites of the sub-kilotonne tests as well as the post-shot radioactivity measurements on the samples extracted from these sites.

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Gamma radiation logging was carried out in the bore holes drilled at each of the test sites. The equipment used for this purpose was developed at the Radiation Safety Systems Division, BARC. The equipment consisted of a measuring unit and a detector prob e unit that were coupled by a long cable wound on a cable winch. The main detector probe consisted of two energy-compensated Geiger-Mueller (GM) tubes. It covered six ranges, from 0-2 microGray to 0-200 milliGray. (The actual ranges were 0-2 microGray, 0 -20 microGray, 0-200 microGray, 0-2 milliGray, 0-20 milliGray, 0-200 milliGray.)

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The measuring unit incorporates necessary high voltage supply for detectors, a count rate meter, scaling circuits and an audio circuit. All the readings were displayed by the linear 50 division meter. The audio facility was quite useful in monitoring the health of the instrument during logging. Before and after each logging, the instrument was checked with a test source. The instrument was initially calibrated at the BARC for all the ranges - at different points in each range - using various source stre ngths.

These measurements have shown the presence of gamma emitters at all the test sites. Figure 1 gives the variation of gamma dose along depth at the test site of the 0.5 kilotonne device.

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Figure 3 shows the variation of 137Cs activity with depth for the 0.2 kilotonne device.

The samples extracted from bore holes at all the test sites were assayed for radioactivity content at the Environmental Assessment Division of the BARC. The samples were powdered and dried. The homogenised samples were stored in plastic containers of 8 c m height and 7 cm diameter each. For the assessment of radionuclides, two high resolution gamma-ray detectors with efficiency levels of 20 per cent and 30 per cent with respect to a 7.5 cm x 7.5 cm thallium-activated sodium iodide detector (a versatile d etector for radiation) coupled with a multi-channel spectrometer consisting of 8,000 channels, were used. This detector is capable of giving a high-resolution spectrum. Europium-152 sources (as gamma radiation) were employed as standards for efficiency c alibrations of the detectors in the specified geometry.

Figure 2 gives a typical gamma spectre of a sample collected from the test site of the 0.3 kilotonne device. The spectra clearly show the presence of fission products such as Cesium-137, Zirconium-95 and Niobium-95. These isotopes are otherwise not pre sent in nature. Their presence in samples is a signature of nuclear fission.

Figure 3 shows the variation of 137Cs activity with height, from the lowest point at the test site of the 0.2 kilotonne device.

A comprehension of life

SUSAN RAM other

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee; Secker & Warburg, 1999; pages 220, &pound14.99, special Indian price Rs.590.50.

IT is, perhaps, coincidental that the final Booker Prize of our century should go to a South African writer. But as you read Disgrace, J.M.Coetzee's eighth novel and his second to win the prestigious literary award, you become aware of a certain b leak appropriateness. It is not so much that South Africa, with its rare physical beauty, mineral bounty and human diversity, is poised to enter the new millennium weighed down by its grim, oppressive past. In political terms, there has been, if not a re volution, then a partial overturning of the old order. Apartheid, the dominant reality of South Africa's twentieth century, has been dismantled. The formal structures of a modern democracy have been put in place. Innovative efforts have been made, throug h the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to come to terms with the past. But all this seems overwhelmed by a continuing sense of tragedy. As the stories come out of South Africa - stories of unemployment at epidemic levels, rising crime, lives blighted by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), defeated expectations - the realisation grows that the process of reckoning has only just begun.

Coetzee's new novel is essentially an engagement with the anguish and the mayhem that stalk contemporary South Africa. But where another writer might have been tempted to assay the grand scale, mounting a broad sweep through a society in crisis and produ cing a blockbuster, Coetzee adheres to a modest canvas. Herein lies his effectiveness. Through his small, spare story, with its unheroic central character and its encounter with violence that, by prevailing South African standards, can be deemed a brush, he unlocks a stash of themes and issues.

With a rape at the centre of the narrative, there is an exploration of the act of rape along its personal, political and other dimensions. Growing old, understood not simply as a process of physical diminution and decay but as a loss of identity and bein g, is a running theme. There is attention to language, especially relevant in a culture of many languages, most of them traditionally held in contempt by white South Africa, and to the associated challenge of communication in new times. Above all, Coetze e engages with difficult areas of human experience: confession of wrongdoing, atonement, forgiveness, the path back from purgatory to something like a state of grace.

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COETZEE, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town, draws the central figure of his novel from the academic world of the southern Cape. David Lurie, a white South African of English descent, is a university teacher for whom the certainties of life - a cloistered existence among the Romantic poets, a succession of women won over by his wit and boyish good looks - are in visible retreat. Leisurely literary pursuits stand uprooted in the new South Africa; David now teaches courses in communi cations skills, in the company of colleagues who are similar relics of the past, 'clerks in a post-religious age'. More damaging still to his sense of being is the awareness that his attractiveness to women is dwindling. As a womaniser once confident tha t 'if he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look', he experiences growing old (he is now 52) as losing 'the backbone of his life'.

David's response is a classic instance of mid-life male recklessness: he seduces one of his students. The one-sided affair quickly sours, exposure follows, and he finds himself before a university enquiry facing charges of sexual harassment. In the new S outh Africa, sensitivity to such issues is part of a larger human rights agenda, but David, locked in the past and incapable of frank self-exploration, reacts with disdain: while ready to plead guilty as charged, he will not issue the public statement of confession and remorse ('abasement' is how he sees it) that will save his job. Banished from the university, he now steps out into realities - geographic, social, racial, political - for which nothing in his years of sheltered, privileged self-preoccupa tion has prepared him.

With two broken marriages behind him, David has no partner to help him through the crisis. He therefore turns to his daughter Lucy, a woman in her mid-twenties who owns a homestead in the eastern Cape. This is several removes from the rural idyll of the Romantic poets, a dusty, incomplete Eden hobbled by 'poor soil, poor land... good only for goats'. But it is a sanctuary of sorts, a place where David might come to terms with his new situation, soothed by unhurried routines and his daughter's calm engag ement with existence.

But in a society as ravaged and scarred as contemporary South Africa, sanctuary can only be fragile and temporary. The homestead becomes the target of a vicious assault in which Lucy is raped and David is bludgeoned, locked in a lavatory and set alight in a manner designed to taunt rather than kill or maim. His impotence as a father and protective male is underlined by this humiliation; the womaniser with the rarefied poetic interests must now confront his daughter's incomprehensible reaction to events : Lucy will not press charges of rape, will not even give voice to the fact of her violation.

Initially the reader shares the father's incredulity. But as the dialogue between father and daughter unfolds between confrontations and silences, Lucy's perspective reveals its inner logic. As a young white liberal who has made a conscious choice to sta y on in South Africa, abjuring the easier option of moving to Europe to live with her Dutch mother, Lucy knows that there are implications, costs, sacrifices. Were she to pursue her rapists, who are black, she would set in motion all the old mechanisms o f the past, unleash ancient prejudices, reopen wounds in the early, tentative stages of healing, set back the whole attempt of a society to knit itself together. Her contribution now, 'in this place, at this time', lies in stretching herself across the p ast like a protective wall or dam. The rape she will diminish in her mind to 'debt collection', a 'purely private matter' between herself and her attackers. And she will stay on in her farm, not in a spirit of bravado or confrontation but as an expressio n of something more elemental: that, somehow, this is what is needed, this might possibly endure.

Such a course does not easily commend itself to David, for whom the whole notion of sacrifice is suspect. But the rape, and his daughter's reaction to it, prove unstoppably destabilising, forcing him to re-examine his life, his priorities, his sense of h imself, his view of what the future holds. The results fall far short of a tidy resolution. Indeed, if Coetzee has a message to convey, it is about the incompleteness of life, its inherent messiness, the necessity of making do. At the end of the novel Da vid has achieved at least this understanding.

This is a big novel, presented tautly and with understatement in a little over 200 pages. It is not without unevenness: like his protagonist, Coetzee is more at ease in the world of libraries and lecture theatres than in the rural Cape, and the opening s ection of the novel charting David's fall from grace is particularly persuasive. Not every strand introduced into the story works, however. A recurring motif is the unrealised music in David's head, and his attempt, through an episode in Byron's life, to give voice to it. There are interesting possibilities in the clash between inner music and external mundanity, between past poetic yearnings and the challenge of the present, but Coetzee perhaps leaves himself too little space in which to explore them c onvincingly. But such caveats in no way detract from Coetzee's achievement. Disgrace is an outstanding work of fiction, opening windows not only on a distant land but on painful, problematic areas of human experience that all of us find easy to pass by.

Brain drain vs brain gain

The Migration of Knowledge Workers: Second-Generation Effects of India's Brain Drain by Binod Khadria; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999; pages 240, Rs.350.

THE movement of professionally trained people - knowledge workers as they have come to be known - from one country to another is not a new phenomenon. During the colonial period the flow was primarily from the metropolis to the colonies. In the new inter national order that has been emerging since the end of the Second World War - when many colonies became independent but described as "developing countries" - there has been a reversal of the flow. Now, knowledge workers migrate from the developing countr ies to the developed ones, from the poor countries to the rich ones, to be more honest. It is this flow that has widely come to be known as "brain drain".

The phenomenon is now quite familiar, but a few statistics may still be useful. A 1994 study estimated that out of the annual output of highly qualified young men and women in India, 7.3 per cent in engineering, 2.8 per cent in medicine and 2.1 per cent in the natural sciences move to other countries in search of better earnings and conditions of work than would be available in India. Another study found that roughly one-fourth of the B.Tech graduates who pass out of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are moving out of the country. It is well known too that in the area of computer science, those leaving the country as a proportion of those trained is even higher.

With globalisation, and the relatively freer mobility that is now becoming possible to highly skilled persons in practically all walks of life, brain drain could become even more pronounced. There is a natural explanation for this. Governments of develop ing countries attach a great deal of importance to higher education, especially in the sciences and in technology. Developed countries find in such trained people a ready-made recruitment pool. The poor spend on training, the rich make use of that traini ng - at relatively low cost!

That is the "first generation" aspect of brain drain. But is it possible to visualise a "second generation" effect of this phenomenon? Can the emigrants participate in certain selected but specific nation-building activities as opposed to the general ste reotypes, asks the author. Isn't it possible that in this age of globalisation there may be a significant return flow of resources that can replace and replenish what is being drained away? These are the questions that the author of the book sets out to explore. In short, can brain drain in the newly emerging global situation become "brain gain"? Is this already beginning to happen?

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For his enquiry the author has chosen the brain movement between India and the United States. While the U.S. may be correctly described as a land where the vast majority of the population consists of immigrants and their descendants, free immigration was for long restricted to those from Europe. Even as late as the middle of the present century there were severe restrictions on immigration from Asia. Similarly, Indians traditionally emigrated to the United Kingdom and Canada (among the Western countries ). Only in the early 1970s did the number of persons emigrating to the U.S. begin to exceed the total of those going to the U.K. and Canada. However, by the early 1990s, the number of people migrating to the U.S. from India was almost twice as many as th ose going to the other two countries. Today, the Indian community in the U.S. (migrants plus Indians born in that country) forms a noticeable proportion of the Asian population there. What is more important is that among the immigrant communities, Indian s constitute a much higher proportion of the labour force (that is, those employed and those actively looking for employment). The data given in the book on this aspect is rather dated, but still important. According to the 1980 U.S. Census figures, 75 p er cent of Indian immigrants aged 16 and over were in the labour force - 95 per cent of them were employed, while 5 per cent were looking for jobs. This figure was significantly higher than that for all immigrants (56 per cent in the labour force) and no ticeably higher than the figure for total U.S. population (62 per cent in the labour force). More striking perhaps was the fact that in 1983, the share of professionally and technically qualified immigrants constituted 50 per cent of the total Indian imm igrants, placing Indian knowledge workers at the top of the list of those from all Asian countries, including Japan. Average earnings of Indians are also considerably higher than those of other Asian immigrant communities. One of the major weaknesses of the book is that while it is full of facts and figures, information on some of these significant aspects is very dated.

In terms of the questions that the author had set out to explore, the three final chapters of the book are the most important. The first of these, Chapter 5, contains a well-documented and revealing account of the benefits that India may have accrued by way of remittances from Indian communities in different parts of the world, technology transfers and services rendered directly by expatriate Indians. Remittances have been quite significant, especially in relation to the balance of payments problem. Bu t the final verdict the author arrives at are: (1) "...in terms of return of money... to India, globalisation of the Indian knowledge workers has not been quite gainful to the country" (p.150) when remittances are considered as returns on capital investe d for training; (2) "...the payments made by developing countries to developed countries on technology account would be in the vicinity of U.S. $10 billion per annum, cancelling at one stroke a major part of the total aid flow from the latter to the form er" (p.156); and (3) "...gains realised from the geo-economic presence of Indian knowledge workers in the U.S. neither necessarily nor sufficiently support the proposition of a successful globalisation of India's human capital through emigration of India n professional and qualified manpower, whether to the U.S. or to any other developed country" (p.162).

So much for the first generation aspects of brain drain. Evidence points to the fact that it is still a drain. What about the second generation possibility? The last two chapters deal with this question. Chapter 6 reports on interviews the author conduct ed with a few returnees in India, some non-resident Indians in the U.S., and a few select experts and academicians in both the countries. The exploration was aimed at studying whether Indian knowledge workers outside the country can help India, specifica lly in the areas of education and health care. There are, of course, examples, some of which qualify as "shining examples". Indian scholars who settled abroad have come back, often during their sabbaticals, to teach in India or to interact with researche rs here. Doctors too have made their services available to their parent country. More important, institutions have been founded and continue to be supported by Indians living abroad, including some of the prestigious hospitals in the country. In all, the author sees evidence of "some silver streaks ... even if no proper silver lining" (p.164). But, there are severe constraints. For one, only well-established senior professionals who have spent some 15 years in the countries to which they migrated can af ford to turn to social service. More important, globalisation severely discounts social service, and puts a high premium on value for money. Born optimists may find signs of some hope somewhere in situations like this. But realistically speaking, the pos sibility of the "brain drain" turning into "brain gain" for countries such as India is a matter for the future - a very distant future, indeed.

A numbers game

V. SRIDHAR politics

The campaign by the Sangh Parivar that there has been a disproportionately high growth in the Christian population in India relies on skilful and selective suppression of facts.

THE repeated articulation by sections of the intelligentsia of mendacious theories floated by Sangh Parivar elements goes some way towards investing these with an aura of legitimacy. The canards the Sangh Parivar spread about Muslims in India since the 1 980s (Frontline, October 25, 1991) gained currency because its propositions were repeated even by informed sections of society. This strategy is now being employed against Christians in India. While attacks against Christians have gone on across t he country, the Sangh Parivar has managed to focus on the "evil designs" of Christian missionaries indulging in "mass conversions". This shrill campaign, which grew ever louder on the eve of Pope John Paul II's visit, has however been picked up by others .

On the day the Pope arrived in India, several newspapers published (as an advertisement) an open letter to him addressed by several prominent personalities. Among those who appended their signatures to the letter, under the banner of the Citizens Committ ee of Dharma Raksha Sammelan in Chennai, were the ophthalmologist Dr. S.S. Badrinath, dancers Sonal Mansingh and Padma Subramaniam and several writers and film personalities.

They alleged that evangelisation was but a "less dignified cousin" of "conversion" and that "the Christian missionary activity in our nation is tearing apart families and communities in every strata of our society." They said that "religious conversion, which seems to be synonymous with papal work, is violence pure and simple." They blamed the "intolerance of missionaries" for the "clashes" that occurred regularly since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 1998. "We Indians are deeply hurt by the spurt in the aggressive campaigning of the Church to convert the people of India by all available means," they claimed.

On the eve of the Pope's visit, Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), published several articles attacking the Christian community in India. The Pope was obviously the main target, but there were also articles which u sed official and other statistics to back claims of a massive increase in the Christian population in India. An article titled "Christian population: Misleading figures," by Rajendra Kumar Chaddha in the October 31 issue, used "statistics" to drive home the point that the Christian population is increasing at an alarming rate.

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The author provides a list of districts in India where the Christian population has grown by more than 100 per cent between the 1981 and 1991 Censuses. However, an analysis of the Census data reveals that the Organiser has abused the statistics in several cases, suppressed relevant facts in some others, and used bogus figures in still others. For instance, Organiser claims that the Christian population as a percentage of the total population increased from 2.53 per cent in 1981 to 2.61 per cent in 1991; however, Census data show that the percentage declined from 2.45 per cent to 2.32 per cent during this period. The ratio of Christians in the population increased by a little over half a percentage point between 1921 and 1991, indicating t hat conversions are an insignificant factor in the long-term demographic transition of Christians in India.

The list of districts in which the RSS claims that the Christian population increased sharply between 1981 and 1991 is interesting. The article provides just the percentage of increase of the Christian population. It ignores any mention of ratios of Chri stians in the total population, details which will indicate whether their weightage in the population is increasing. What is striking is the small numbers of Christians in many of the districts listed in the Organiser article. For instance, in Gun a district in Madhya Pradesh, the number of Christians increased from 258 to 642 over a 10-year period ending in 1991. Although this is an increase of nearly 150 per cent, the fact remains that the Christian population in Guna accounted for 0.05 per cent of the total population in 1991, up from 0.03 per cent in 1981. Obvious factors such as migration into the district over a 10-year period have not been taken into account by the author, who seems determined to attribute the increase entirely to conversi ons.

In three cases of the districts examined - Udaipur and Sirohi in Rajasthan, and Periyar (now Erode) in Tamil Nadu - Organiser's figures are false. For instance, Organiser claims that the Christian population increased by 928 per cent betwe en 1981 and 1991 in Erode district; the fact is that the Christian population here increased by only 2.28 per cent during this period. In fact, in 1991 Christians accounted for 1.86 per cent of the population of 2.32 million, having declined from 2.02 pe r cent in 1981.

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In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, Organiser again makes a skilful suppression of facts about percentages and ratios. Its claim that the Christian population in Arunachal Pradesh grew by 226 per cent between 1981 and 1991 is true; however, it fails to mention that the Christian population as a percentage of the total population increased from about 4 per cent in 1981 to about 10 per cent in 1991. The Census figures show that the population of the States in the northeastern region increased at a ra te far above the national average. For instance, while the population of India increased by about 24 per cent, the population of Arunachal Pradesh increased by 37 per cent between 1981 and 1991. This was probably because of the porous nature of the borde r in these States and also because of large-scale migration within the region. Interestingly, while Organiser mentions the districts where the Christian population grew more rapidly than the Hindu population between 1981 and 1991, it fails to ment ion two other districts in the State - Upper Subansiri and Lohit - where the Hindu population grew much faster than the Christian population.

An interesting aspect of the data for the northeastern States is that there was a sharp decline in the number of people who told the enumerators that they were from "other religions and persuasions". This category would include those who maintain their t ribal identity, worshipping local deities, and whose beliefs and practices would be far-removed from mainstream Hindu practices and rituals. In Arunachal Pradesh this category accounted for more than 50 per cent of the population in 1981; in 1991, people with "other religions and persuasions" accounted for only 36 per cent. While the Hindu population increased sharply in some districts, the Christian population increased in some others. This trend in the decline of the percentage of people with such bel iefs is in line with the historical tendency of mainstream religions to make inroads into such communities.

Historian Sumit Sarkar points out that "Sanskritisation" or "cultural integration" of marginal groups and tribals were often termed "shuddhi", "reclamation" or "paravartan" (the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's preferred term for getting these group s back into Hindu society) and is not substantially different from the term "conversion" (Sumit Sarkar, Economic and Political Weekly, June 26, 1999). Sumit Sarkar also elaborates on the point made by Richard Eaton in his study of the rise of Isla m in Bengal "that in large parts of the subcontinent, certainly in medieval times and to a considerable extent even today, the great religious traditions have been expanding at the cost, not so much of each other as in relation to a multitude of local cu lts or practices." He emphasises the point that the potential for conflict in premodern times was far less because of the slow nature of the process. Moreover, the process in those times was not based on conversion of individuals but of whole groups, fam ilies, clans or local communities. This, he notes, reduced the scope for conflict. Such an explanation also contradicts the right-wing claims that the state, whether during Mughal rule or during British rule, played the major role as a facilitator in the spread of Islam or Christianity.

Data available from the National Family Health Survey conducted in 1992-93 reveal some patterns across the various religious communities. For instance, the rate of illiteracy was about 33 per cent among Christians, compared to 64 per cent among Hindus. N early 8 per cent of the Christian population had studied above the high school level, compared to 3.4 per cent among Hindus. The empowering aspect of the figures is brought out by these figures: nearly half the Christian women surveyed knew the legal min imum age for marriage, compared to 32.5 per cent among Hindu women.

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The results of the survey show that the Christian population in India also has better access to health care. Neonatal mortality among Hindus was estimated at 55 per thousand live births, compared to 32.6 per thousand live births among Christians. Post-ne onatal mortality rates were estimated at 35.4 per thousand live births for Hindus, compared to 17.3 per thousand for Christians, while the infant mortality rate for Hindus was 90.4 per thousand live births compared to 49.9 per thousand live births among Christians. The child mortality rate was estimated at 19.4 per thousand live births among Christians while for Hindus it was 36.9 per thousand live births. More than 60 per cent of those surveyed among Christians reported that they received antenatal car e from a doctor, compared to only 38.6 per cent among Hindus. A comparison of the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), the measure of the average number of children delivered by a woman during her reproductive life, among Hindus and Christians also indicates a ga p among the two communities. While the TFR for the Christian population was 2.87 in 1992-93, it was 3.3 for Hindus. The obvious conclusion is that the Christian population had better access to medical facilities compared to the rest of the population. Ob viously, the death rate among Christians was far lower than in the rest of the population - 8.2 per cent, compared to 12.9 per cent among Hindus (figures for 1984).

The rate of growth of the Christian population in India was high between 1921 and 1971; in fact, between 1921 and 1971, the rate of growth of the Christian population was consistently higher than that of the total population, although the gap narrowed in successive rounds of the Census. However, since 1981, this trend has been reversed. While the population of India increased by almost 24 per cent between 1981 and 1991, the Christian population grew by 17 per cent.

It is clear that the Christian population in India is well on its way towards a demographic transition. Principles of demography show that the first impact of development is on the death rate, reducing it by the delivery of modern medicine to combat the basic diseases. However, the birth rate takes longer to slow down because it is in part a function of literacy, particularly among women, and other long-term factors. It is quite plausible that the natural rate of growth of the Christian population up to 1971 was higher because of the sharper decline in the death rate among Christians when compared to the rest of the population. However, since then, exposure to literacy and other factors, particularly among women, appear to have set the birth rate on a declining trend. This would have caused the natural rate of growth of the Christian population to slow down. The unwinding of this process means that the natural rate of growth of the Christian population is likely to slow down even more in relation to t he rest of the population.

What this means in terms of the logic of the Sangh Parivar is that if the Christian population has to catch up, it has to rely increasingly on conversions. The fact that the proportion of Christians in the population has increased by just half a percenta ge point in the last 70 years shows the absurdity of such fears. The Christian population accounts for only 2.5 per cent of the total population almost 2000 years after the religion reached India.

It is obvious that much of the advancement in the living conditions of the Christian population has been because of missionary activity - not confined to conversion in the narrow sense, but also in reaching literacy, health care and other basic empowerin g resources to the poor. That the state has failed to reach these basic fruits of development to large sections of the people is the obvious corollary.

Global double standards

BIPLAB DASGUPTA social-issues

While non-competitive and decaying industries in Western countries cry for universal labour standard, more buoyant Western industries looking for new areas of operation seek the dilution of labour laws.

THE first official Commission, established in 1895, to inquire into the conditions of workers in the Indian jute industry, was inspired by the industry's global rivals, the jute textile industry of Britain, located in Dundee, Scotland.1 The ma nagement of both was in the hands of the British, more specifically Scottish, but the managements were sworn enemies. The Indian industry was seen by its Scottish rivals as an intruder in a field that they looked upon as their exclusive preserve. The int erest they took in the labour conditions in the Indian jute industry was prompted less by their concern for the low wages and poor working conditions of the Indian proletariat than by the fear that the Dundee industry would be swamped by products from th is cheap source and its survival would be threatened.

THE issue of "labour standard", which the rich countries are pushing for acceptance at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference in Seattle, to begin on November 30, is prompted by the same capitalist desire to keep away competition from cheap sources. The rich countries are proposing a set of global rules that would standardise labour market behaviour and establish some parity in terms of the wages paid and the conditions under which they operate. The argument in support of such standa rdisation is that low wages are conferring on the poor countries a differential advantage in global trade and that such differential is unfair and is threatening many industries of the rich countries.

Such a partisan view ignores what is obvious. The wage level of a country cannot be independent of the overall state of its economy and its per capita gross national product (GNP). There can be no mechanical parity of wages between, say, Japan and India when the former's per capita income is one hundred times more than India's. To demand that the wages paid in India should be made comparable with those paid in rich countries would amount to driving Indian exports out of the world market.

It can also be argued that poor countries like India, having little capital, technology and management resources, enjoy an advantage over the rich countries only in terms of the prevailing low wages. To force them to adopt Western wage levels would ruin their industries and take away whatever little chance they still have in making some of their products competitive in the world market. It might also be asked why the rich countries should grudge this very small advantage the poor countries have over the m when they dominate world trade comprehensively and ruthlessly. The share of poor countries in global trade is pitifully small and is getting ever smaller. The terms of trade are consistently against poor countries as they keep on producing and exportin g more to earn less. Activities that are ancillary to trade, such as shipping and insurance, are under the near-absolute control of the rich countries, while multinational companies (MNCs) decide, in the case of most poor countries, what to produce and w hat to sell.

The criticism of rich countries for their attempt to impose "labour standard" on poor countries does not take away the fact that the conditions in which Indian workers work are appalling. Many of the issues the Dundee competitors raised in the 1890s rega rding conditions of work in the Indian jute industry were undeniable, nor was there anything wrong in the support, monetary and otherwise, their trade unions gave to their Indian counterparts. The management has always been reluctant to share the profit with those who toil on the floor, while the unpardonable crime of employment of child labour continues. But the analysis above serves the purpose of providing a global perspective. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) rightly takes the view that t he provision of social insurance and social protection are basic human rights.2

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THE controversy over labour standards is yet another manifestation of two current global tendencies, both emanating from the rich countries and harmful to the interests of the poor countries. The first is the tendency to universalise and standardise eve rything in terms of a set of global rules that are framed mainly by the rich countries with the interests of their own MNCs in focus. Whether it is patents, investment, competition policy, labour or the environment, an obsessive and vulgar desire to bind the world with a uniform set of rules is evident. Such an attempt at standardisation ignores the wide divergence that exists between countries in terms of the level of development, resource endowment, human resource, historical background, and what not. Such standardisation is also opposed to the spirit of the 1993 Convention on Biodiversity, which followed the Rio Earth Summit and emphasised on diversity (and not conformity) as something essential for the sustenance of life on this planet.

The second tendency is to subordinate the United Nations and its affiliated bodies to agencies promoted by Group of Seven (G-7) countries and the powerful global trinity of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the WTO, organisations which are effectively owned/controlled by the former and which share a market-oriented economic philosophy. The WTO now deals with matters such as investment, patents, agriculture, the environment and labour, which should have been left to specialised U. N. institutions that were created in response to specific needs - for instance, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United N ations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the ILO. Almost all these U.N.-affiliated organisations had for a long time opposed the various aspects of globalisation sponsored by the trinity, though, over the past few years, with intense pressure from G-7 cou ntries, almost all of them have been brought in line with the economic philosophy of the trinity. While, in the original format of 1944, the World Bank and the IMF were supposed to report their activities to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), this was never done. The agenda of various U.N. bodies has been hijacked by the institutions patronised by G-7 countries, so much so that today people hardly know of the ECOSOC, but, whether they love it or hate it, the trinity influenc es their lives. The G-7's preference for the trinity over the United Nations and their active financial and political patronage of the former in comparison with the latter is understandable because by their voting power and otherwise they control the tri nity more easily.3

THE trinity's concern for free trade and global mobility of capital, inputs and products does not mean support for a free flow of labour power across national frontiers. If anything, over the past three decades, immigration laws in the rich countries hav e become more rigid and their implementation more severe against labour exports from poor countries. Unlike capital and products that are supposed to move from anywhere to anywhere in response to demand, movement of people from labour-surplus areas to la bour-deficit ones is actively discouraged. Obviously, what is desirable in terms of the philosophy of free trade in the case of capital, one major factor of production, does not apply to labour, another and no less important a factor. To complete the arg ument one should add that land, the third major factor of production, is incapable of moving across frontiers.

If capital is to be given "national treatment" and freed from discrimination in favour of local enterprises under TRIMs (Trade-Related aspects of Investment Measures), why should labour, irrespective of its source, not enjoy a similar "national treatment " and protection from discrimination? The argument that unrestricted flow of labour would adversely affect the local population and their culture in rich countries is analogous to the "local content requirement" argument that was used by many countries, including India and East Asian countries, during the pre-1991 period (it is banned by the WTO now) against foreign capital, asking the foreign investor to give priority to local manpower and materials. It cannot be that "local content requirement" is bad for capital and good for labour, while "national treatment" is good for capital but bad for labour. Obviously, the global trinity's love for free trade is confined to the factor the rich countries have in plenty, that is, capital, and does not extend to labour, which the poor countries have in plenty.

THERE is, however, a serious conflict between two types of views on labour use, which are yet to be reconciled - again both emanating from the rich countries. For the purpose of this article, they can be described as "protectionist" and "liberal" views. While "labour standard" is essentially a protectionist argument to ensure the survival of many of the inefficient and non-viable industries in rich countries, particularly leather and textile industries, there are other western industries that are strong er and are keen to enter the markets of poor countries. The latter, in fact, argue for a completely different set of labour policies in the poor countries, that is, for the dilution of existing labour laws that protect the interests of workers, for insta nce, laws on minimum wages, job security against lay-offs and closures, the right for better working conditions, compensation in case of injuries, provident funds, and trade union rights. The objective here is to ensure that MNC investments are not hinde red by restrictive labour laws. This is more in line with the orthodox view on liberalisation, which is by its very nature anti-trade union. These industries argue that the existing labour laws do not allow flexibility in the operation of an enterprise, that is, they do not allow wages to fall or the workers to be sacked, as and when needed, in order to balance demand with supply.

How to resolve this contradiction, between those who favour a universal labour standard that can be brought about by elaborate labour legislation, and those who seek as much dilution of labour laws as possible, and between the non-competitive, non-viable , decaying Western industries gasping for breath and the more buoyant Western ones searching for new markets, is a matter to be pondered over by the G-7 countries. However, it is in the interest of the poor countries to point out this contradiction.

Some of those who take this second, liberal view and seek the dilution of labour laws even prescribe a complete overhauling of the labour market, with "labour power" rather than the "labourer" as the focus. They argue for the replacement of regular labou rers who work for a scheduled number of hours in a day and for a scheduled number of days in a week by "flexi-time workers", whose contribution would be measured by "hours" and who would not be required to stick to a given time format. This, they claim, would improve efficiency as it would no longer be necessary for an enterprise to carry permanent workers on the pay roll even when the demand for its product declines.4 Those who advocate a competitive labour market, with completely flexible m ovement of wages, both upward and downward, in response to demand, mainly seek the right to hire and fire and to close down non-viable units.5

Those who are opposed to such radical change in the pattern of labour use point to the Japanese example, where a person is recruited for life, and seniority, rather than merit, determines the grant of promotion. The Japanese model, based on a stable and regular workforce, has cemented the bond between the worker and the management, while no such loyalty is expected from flexi-time workers, they argue.6 It is also established that governments, which are otherwise keen to carry out labour marke t reform in line with the "structural adjustment" package of the Bretton Woods twins often find it politically risky to implement a radical change.7

ONE major impact of globalisation on labour use and the labour market that has serious implications for a country like India is rarely, if ever, discussed. This relates to the distorting impact of MNC salaries on the wage structure for the country as a w hole. With the entry of the multinationals, the pay structure for the higher levels of management has been catapulted to a very high level. Although not on a par with salaries for the same jobs in the rich countries, these are now high enough to make the ablest of the skilled workforce to gravitate towards them in the poor countries. This is forcing non-MNC companies, in their turn, to raise the salaries of their own management staff to MNC levels, realising that not to do so in this age of globalisatio n would mean losing them to MNCs.

Two major consequences follow from these. First, the economy is divided clearly into those enterprises which can offer MNC-level salaries to their professionals and managers and those who cannot. Secondly, the disparity between the highest paid and the l owest paid within the same enterprise is widening alarmingly. The company's balance sheet, while capable of offering astronomical salaries to a few, would not allow similar increases in the salaries and wages of other employees. While the ratio between t he highest paid and the lowest paid is around 30:1 in the rich countries and 10:1 in East Asia, it is around 100:1 in many Indian enterprises. Such gross inequality is not sustainable and is bound to lead to widespread industrial unrest. The Indian compa nies are thus facing a serious dilemma as it is not easy to reduce this disparity - either by raising the wages of the lower order, given their vast number, or by restraining wage increases at higher level, in view of the global competition.

Biplab Dasgupta is an economist and a CPI(M) member of the Rajya Sabha.

1. Daniel Houston Buchanan, The Development of Capitalistic Enterprise in India, Frank Cass & Co, London, 1966 (first edition 1934), p. 421.

2. Roger Plant, Labour Standards & Structural Adjustment, ILO, Geneva, 1994, p.57.

3. Biplab Dasgupta, Structural Adjustment, Global Trade and the New Political Economy of Development, Sage (Delhi) and Zed Books (London), 1998, Chapter IV on Structural Adjustment.

4. Development Committee, Development Committee, 47th meeting, September 1993, World Bank, Washington DC, 1993.

5. Mancur Olson, 1982, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation and Social Rigidities, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1982.

6. Vittorio Corbo and Stanley Fischer, "Adjustment Programmes and Bank Support - Rationale and Main Results", in Vittorio Corbo, Stanley Fischer & Steven B Webb (eds.), Adjustment Lending Revisited - policies to restore growth, A World Bank Sympos ium, World Bank, 1992, pp. 7-20, p.20.

7. Corbo and Fischer, op.cit. p. 11; Steven B. Webb & Karim Shariff, "Designing and Implementing Adjustment Programs", in Corbo et al (eds.), pp. 69-98, p.78.

China into the WTO

A Sino-U.S. agreement clears the way for China to be admitted into the World Trade Organisation, but it is hard to believe that China would go the whole hog in the matter.

WHAT seemed inevitable for almost two decades, finally seems imminent. The mid-November Sino-U.S. agreement over the terms on which the U.S. would support China's entry into the 135-member World Trade Organisation (WTO), paves the way for the quick acces sion of that country into the world trading arrangement. The Chinese Government would of course have to win the support of many other members as well. Under the rules governing the WTO, where voting rights are distributed on the one-nation, one-vote prin ciple and which follows the convention of taking decisions by consensus, the general council or a ministerial conference has to approve a membership treaty drafted after agreement with all members on the terms of accession. This requires, in principle, b ilateral deals with all member-countries. While quite a few countries had virtually unconditionally backed China's request for membership, 12 formal bilateral deals have been inked so far and negotiations are open with another 28 countries and groups, in cluding the European Union. However, for political reasons, agreement with the U.S. was considered a major stumbling block. With that block having been cleared, full agreement is widely expected to follow soon, even if not in time for the Seattle ministe rial meet starting on November 30.

To most China-watchers, this outcome had seemed inevitable once it was clear that the Chinese economic reform which began in 1978 would remain in place. This view was buttressed by the fact that, despite China's exclusion from the formal world trading ar rangement during the 1980s and 1990s, exports constituted a major plank of its growth strategy under reform. The share of merchandise trade in China's aggregate product rose from 9.2 per cent in 1978 to 16.8 per cent in 1984 and more than 20 per cent in the mid-1990s.

This dependence on trade implied a growing engagement of world markets. China's share of world merchandise exports, which stood at between 0.7 and 0.8 per cent during the 1970s, rose to 1.4 per cent in 1983 and stood at 2.9 per cent in 1996. In that year , China's share was higher than that of other leading developing country exporters such as South Korea (2.5 per cent), Singapore (2.4 per cent), Taiwan (2.2 per cent) and Mexico (1.8 per cent). With exports constituting the goal of an important segment o f domestic economic activity and China's presence in the international markets increasing, it no more appeared sensible for China to remain vulnerable to unilateral trade policy responses and tenuous bilateral arrangements. The dangers were epitomised by the debates which surrounded the annual exercise since 1974 in which the U.S. Congress had to ratify continuing a normal trading relationship with China.

Not surprisingly, China declared in 1986 that it would like to be part of the multilateral framework governing world trade. The fact that China's accession is finally in sight only 13 years later is not primarily due to its own recalcitrance. There have been occasions when China has on many trade-related issues been willing to go further in the direction of liberalisation than developing countries participating in the multilateral trading arrangement. In fact, in the dispute over patent regimes during t he later stages of the negotiations that led up to the Uruguay Round agreement, China's willingness to compromise at a bilateral level was quoted to smother developing-country opposition and buttress developed-country positions. What held back the final agreement were complex political and economic compulsions in the developed countries, especially in the U.S.

That such compulsions played a role is clear from the fact that as recently as April, President Clinton turned down terms offered by China in return for U.S. support for its entry, which were no different from those underlying the latest agreement. Those terms were by no means limited.

To start with, it involves a substantial degree of liberalisation of trade. China's average import tariffs are to be reduced by almost 5 percentage points, from 22.1 per cent to 17 per cent. Tariffs on some farm products exported by the U.S. are to be re duced sharply to 15 per cent. And tariffs on automobiles, currently ranging up to 100 per cent, are to be subject to a "front-loaded" reduction to 25 per cent over a six-year period.

Secondly, the package offers a number of concessions for foreign firms and investors. For example, international automobile manufacturers and banks would be allowed to offer consumer loans for car purchases, which is a crucial concession given the high p rice of automobiles in China relative to incomes. Foreign manufacturers will also be allowed to distribute their own products imported from abroad and not be forced to rely on domestic distributors. Above all, foreign firms are to be provided an importan t role in the emerging and rapidly growing telecommunications sector (including the Internet). The agreement provides for foreign firms to hold 49 per cent of the equity in local ventures for a period of two years and 50 per cent subsequently.

The third area in which major concessions have been offered is the financial sector. Thus far, foreign banks were allowed to offer their services to foreign companies operating in China. But under the terms of the agreement they would be allowed to offer their services to Chinese firms two years after their entry, providing loans, undertaking currency transactions and servicing their other banking requirements. Limits on the insurance business undertaken by foreign insurance companies are also to be gra dually dismantled and they are to be allowed to increase the number and expand the size of their branches as well as enter new areas such as property. Market access is to be eased and enlarged for foreign legal and accounting firms. Finally, foreign brok erage houses and mutual funds are to be allowed to form joint ventures with Chinese companies, holding 33 per cent equity initially and a possible 49 per cent subsequently.

In return for these substantial concessions, the U.S. has agreed to support China's claim to WTO membership. But it has not offered very much else. In the contentious area of textiles, which is a major item in the Chinese export basket, quotas are to be phased out only by 2005. The U.S. has also reserved for itself the right to respond in protectionist fashion to what it sees as import surges in the U.S. market, for a period of ten years, and to respond similarly to "dumping" for a period of 15 years. T he experience under the Uruguay Round so far points to the ease with which such clauses can be converted into protectionist devices by developed countries.

THE willingness of China, an important developing country exporter which has been struggling to join the formal multilateral trade framework, to make these compromises is to an extent understandable. What is less clear is why the U.S. which for political reasons was earlier unwilling to accept even these terms, has suddenly come round to accepting an agreement which according to some reports is not as good as the terms which were on offer and were rejected in April. Moreover, given the impending preside ntial elections and the strong opposition among the trade unions to Chinese entry, the timing of the agreement is indeed surprising. AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations, has vowed to fight the deal, because it threatens American jobs and goes against America's "democratic principles and most cherished values".

And some local business interests, including the textile lobby, have sharply attacked the agreement.

If yet the Clinton administration has chosen to go through with it, it is possibly because of a strategic concern. It is indeed pointless not integrating an emerging economic power like China into current and future negotiations on the world trading syst em. But, more important, the willingness of China to make crucial concessions in areas like foreign investment and the financial sector could be an important source of pressure on recalcitrant developing countries unwilling to agree to start negotiations on investment and services, as part of a new round. That could possibly explain the willingness to conclude an agreement on terms rejected only recently, in time for the ministerial meet in Seattle. As in the case of patents at the time of the Uruguay R ound, China is implicitly being held up as a model of a developing country with a reasonable negotiating position.

In fact, this time around, the consequences of implementing the provisions of the agreement relating to trade liberalisation can be extremely damaging, especially for the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) primarily created during the pre-reform years. There were 118,000 such firms in China in 1998. Although their contribution to China's industrial output had fallen from over 75 per cent in 1978 (when economic reform process began) to less than 35 per cent in 1995, this was not so much owing to the shrinkag e of this sector as to the expansion in the rest of the industrial sector consisting of collective enterprises, individually owned enterprises, wholly foreign owned firms, and foreign joint ventures.

What is significant is that even now the SOEs dominate or even monopolise their chosen areas of operation, which are the capital-intensive, heavy and basic goods industries characterised by lumpy investments and long gestation lags.

The significance of the SOEs comes through in other ways as well. For example, they still constitute the principal source of employment in urban China. In 1995, seven out of ten urban workers were employed in state firms. Such employment does not ensure just a wage, but a range of welfare benefits such as housing, medical care and retirement benefits. Further, SOEs constitute the primary source of tax revenue for government. In 1995, SOEs produced only 35 per cent of China's industrial output but contri buted 71 per cent of government revenues. Thus, it is not only directly that the SOEs contribute to the government's governance and welfare responsibilities, but indirectly, by providing the latter with the wherewithal to finance its own expenditures.

Trade liberalisation, which would subject these units to competition, and financial sector reform, which would make it extremely difficult for them to access the credit so crucial to their survival, mainly threatens these firms. Thus, the terms of WTO en try, if implemented, could spell unemployment and erode standards of living. According to China's official Xinhua News Agency, China's Labour Minister Zhang Zuoji stated in a report to the financial and economic committee of the National People's Congres s earlier this year that more than three million workers in the SOEs are expected to lose their jobs this year. They would join the six to seven million people who, having been retrenched from state firms, are yet to find new jobs. Zhang noted that while China would need 24.5 billion yuan ($2.95 billion) this year to provide basic living expenses to laid-off workers, the amount currently available was only 19.5 billion yuan. This problem of inadequate support is bound to intensify if China resorts to ma ssive trade and financial sector liberalisation involving partial retrenchment or closure of public sector units, since there were an estimated 113 million urban workers employed by state-owned firms in 1995.

It is for this reason that it is hard to believe that China would go ahead with the kind of liberalisation it has promised on a range of fronts. In fact, there are many China watchers who are sceptical. For example, the Financial Times quoted Gord on Chang, a lawyer in a Beijing firm, as saying: "If it (China) really follows through on the agreement, the changes are going to be little short of revolutionary. This leads me to believe that the agreement is not going to be implemented as announced."

In the circumstances, the view that all developing countries should give in to a more liberal (though unequal) global order just as China has done may be misplaced. China's giving in may be more rhetorical than real. And the competitive threat to develop ing countries from China, which has been intense in the past, is unlikely to increase after China's entry into the WTO.

Unfortunately, misplaced views about the implications of China's entry are being aired in India as well, in defence of the position that India should 'learn from China' and not insist on a review of the Uruguay Round and raise too many objections to a Mi llennium Round with a far-reaching agenda. But as in the case of developed-country spokespersons, this is just one more ruse to push through their own agenda.

A child survival tool

The BCG vaccine is still efficacious in protecting children against some serious forms of tuberculosis, though it affords no such protection to adults.

A CONTROVERSY over the use of the BCG (bacillus calmette-guerin) vaccine in the prevention and control of tuberculosis (TB) was recently set off by a newspaper report that questioned the usefulness of the entire BCG immunisation programme for children an d called it "the Great BCG Hoax". Since the administration of the vaccine forms part of the expanded programme of immunisation (EPI) of children in the country, such a controversy could harm the programme by creating doubts in the minds of parents about the efficacy of BCG vaccination.

The news item was based on a report of the 15-year follow-up trials conducted by the Tuberculosis Research Centre (TRC), an institution in Chennai under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in Chingleput district of Tamil Nadu, not far from Che nnai. The trials were conducted in order to evaluate the efficacy of the BCG vaccine as a public health measure in preventing pulmonary TB. The TRC study, a well-managed large-scale, double-blind randomised trial, concluded that the vaccine provided no p rotection at all in adults but a low level of overall protection in children against pulmonary TB.

The results were published in the August 1999 issue of the Indian Journal of Medical Research, an ICMR journal. The findings confirmed the results at the end of the first phase of the trials in 1979 (it lasted seven and a half years), which had be en published in the same journal in July 1980, as well as the results of other studies. The Chingleput trials were designed to study the vaccine's efficacy against only the pulmonary form of TB.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the tubercle bacillus, belongs to the family of organisms called mycobacteria and is the deadliest pathogen in the group afflicting humans. In recent times, it has had a resurgence in association with Acquired Immune De ficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The similar M. leprae causes leprosy. TB in humans occurs in different forms and can affect almost every system. The most common form is pulmonary TB. Extra-pulmonary forms such as meningitis and skeletal, abdominal or ge nital TB are relatively uncommon. When TB occurs in more than one system simultaneously, it is termed disseminated TB, and miliary TB is the most extreme such form. (When it was discovered, the X-ray image of the lungs of the affected persons showed mill et shaped shadows; hence the name.) In children, however, these forms are more common, and some of them, like tuberculous meningitis and miliary TB, show high mortality rates.

There is only one vaccine against all mycobacterial diseases - the BCG. It is a derived from the attenuated bovine tubercle bacillus called M. bovis. The vaccine was first used against human tuberculosis in 1921. The protective effect of the BCG v accine against TB has been well demonstrated in animal systems, but a number of controlled trials conducted since the 1930s have produced conflicting results with regard to its protective efficacy against TB in humans. Its efficacy (against pulmonary TB ) has been found to vary from zero to 80 per cent! (In Brazilian trials on TB meningitis, the efficacy is nearly 90 per cent.) From a medical point of view this is baffling, and in the face of the divergent results, it has not been possible to quantify, or even identify, the factors that govern the level of protection needed.

The variation has been debated over the last four decades, but there is as yet no consensus on the possible causes. One explanation attributes it to differences among the various strains. Another explanation is that the differences reflect the prevalence of infections with "environmental" mycobacteria. Numerous species of mycobacteria are found in water and soil, for example, and many human populations are sensitised to these. This is particularly true of India. Animal-based studies have shown that infe ctions with some of these species can confer a certain degree of protection against TB, as can BCG. Therefore, in populations where there is natural infection with "environmental" and "atypical" mycobacteria (such as M. avium), or natural immunity derived from exposure load to M. tuberculosis itself, it can mask the effect of BCG.

Another view is that different immunological mechanisms act against different stages of mycobacterial infection and disease, and that BCG is more effective in stopping bacterial dissemination in blood, than in containing the growth in specific parts of t he body. This view seems consistent with the finding that BCG generally provides a high level of protection against tuberculous meningitis even in trials in which the vaccine offered little protection against other forms of TB. Yet another explanation fo r BCG's inconsistent behaviour is geographic variations in the TB bacilli. In the context of the Chingleput trials, it has been pointed out that the common South Indian strain of M. tuberculosis is less virulent than other strains. Perhaps several factors, biological and environmental, have conspired to varying levels in the contexts of different trials, resulting in the wide variations noted.

EVEN though the use of the BCG vaccine as a public health measure in checking the pulmonary form of TB has thus been controversial for long, there is conclusive evidence from studies around the world, including India, that it is very effective in prevent ing childhood forms of TB. It is for this reason that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended its continued use in immunisation programmes in TB-endemic areas. And it is for the same reason that, based on the recommendations of the ICMR, the vaccine has been retained in the EPI to immunise children under one year of age in India where TB remains widely endemic and a major cause of death.

The strategy of routine childhood vaccination has been adopted in most other nations (with the notable exceptions of the Netherlands and the United States). In fact, it is the world's most extensively used vaccine. Because of the controversy over its eff icacy, it also has been the most studied one. The news report in question reflected an improper understanding of the TRC trials and their outcome. It missed the fact that there are other severe forms of TB that affect children, against which the BCG vacc ine has been demonstrated to be effective. The TRC study was not designed to evaluate the efficacy of the vaccine against these extra-pulmonary forms of TB, however.

The Chingleput trials were started in July 1968 and the vaccine/placebo intake phase was completed in March 1971. The 15-year follow-up of the effect of the vaccine on the study population was completed in 1987. (It is, however, not clear why it took 12 years for the results to be published.) A study conducted during 1950-55 on the rural population of Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh had shown that BCG could only protect to the level of 31 per cent. In 1963, the Government of India felt that a reliable est imate of the efficacy of BCG as a public health measure should be obtained. This was the rationale for the Chingleput trials. The study was expected to provide a conclusive answer with regard to the protective efficacy of BCG, especially in the light of the Madanapalle findings and the conflicting results of earlier trials.

SINCE their isolation between 1908 and 1918 at the Pasteur Institute in France, BCG organisms have been maintained in several laboratories around the world. It has never been cloned but several strains of BCG are used in the manufacture of the vaccine, t he most potent ones being the Paris and the Copenhagen strains. The vaccine is cheap and stable and comes in the form of freeze-dried powder which is reconstituted in injectible liquid form before use. The vaccine used in the Indian EPI is based on the C openhagen strain. The Chingleput trials, however, used both the strains among the study population so that any intrinsic strain-dependent disparity in the protective efficacy of the vaccine does not affect the results. The strains were evaluated against placebo control, and within each strain two doses (high and low) were used.

The study population included a largely rural community with some semi-urban people as well. The trial area covered 209 panchayats and nine town blocks. The entire resident population 3,66,625 (except children under one month of age) was included. Of thi s, 281,161 persons were vaccinated with BCG or placebo by random allocation in such a manner that the two strains were administered to one-third of the population each and the placebo to the remaining one-third. The study area is characterised by high in fection rates in children and high disease rates among the middle aged and the old. The trial was organised by the ICMR, in cooperation with the WHO and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), U.S., during the first phase and subsequently by the ICMR by it self.

At the end of seven and a half years, the preliminary results showed that BCG did not protect against pulmonary TB. When the results of Phase I were published, several reasons, including possible methodological flaws, were postulated for the lack of prot ection. The follow-up period was extended to 15 years chiefly in order to test these hypotheses and settle the issue. Among the 109,873 persons classified as "uninfected" at intake phase, 560 TB cases had arisen over the 15-year period. The number of cas es from the high-dose, low-dose and placebo groups were 189, 191 and 180 respectively. The similar rates in the three groups indicate lack of efficacy, confirming the results at the end of seven and a half years. The study has also ruled out the various other hypothesised reasons for the null result.

The design of the trials was to "test the efficacy of BCG as a public health measure; that is, in cutting down transmission of TB". The disease is spread by prolonged contact with an infected individual through airborne droplets from sputum. Accordingly, the TB cases in the study were identified by means of the demonstration of the TB bacilli by sputum smear analysis as well as culture. This kind of bacteriology, however, does not detect all forms of TB, particularly extra-pulmonary forms or childhood f orms, for persons with such forms do not excrete bacilli as those with the pulmonary form do. But from the perspective of limiting transmission, it is enough to look at forms that excrete bacilli through sputum and this is rare among children. Indeed, mo re than 95 per cent of the TB cases in children are usually smear negative. Thus, owing to the nature of the design of identifying TB cases, the Chingleput trials did not investigate the impact of BCG vaccination on childhood forms of TB.

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However, from the limited sample of children in the trial population, the study examined the data by age group to estimate the possible protection offered by BCG against pulmonary TB in children. In children aged one month to nine years, it found a moder ate protective efficacy of 27 per cent and 21 per cent with high and low doses of BCG respectively. However, the report pointed out that these levels of protection were not statistically significant. Also, even if BCG does confer protection, it is limite d in time, and the vast majority of newly developed smear positive cases of pulmonary TB among the general population cannot be prevented by mass BCG vaccination, particularly in the developing countries, where a substantial number of the TB cases is cau sed through re-infection or reactivation.

Given this fact, the report makes this pertinent observation: "The public health value of BCG can only be in preventing childhood mortality caused by disease resulting from haemotogenous spread (through blood)". It has thus reiterated the WHO/ICMR ration ale for recommending continued use of BCG in EPI, the objective of which is to protect children from serious forms of TB and ensure childhood survival. Indeed, based on the data of Phase I itself, the immunisation policy of the Government of India had ch anged. Earlier, everybody below the age of 20 years was vaccinated with BCG. After the Chingleput trials since 1979, only infants below one year of age are vaccinated under the EPI. According to the ICMR, inclusion of BCG in EPI (whose coverage today is over 90 per cent) has proved beneficial as evidenced by the low incidence of TB meningitis and miliary TB in children in recent years.

"BCG protects children against serious forms of TB. BCG does not protect adults," emphasises Dr Thomas R. Frieden of the WHO in New Delhi. He adds: "What protects adults is the stopping of TB at the source and that is done by treatment with multi-drug th erapy based on the DOTS (direct observation short course) strategy of the WHO. In the case of TB, the clinical programme is a public health measure and treatment is prevention. BCG is a child survival tool whereas DOTS is a TB control tool." (In the cont ext of HIV/AIDS, Dr. Frieden points out that children who are simply infected with HIV (to be mere carriers of infection) can be given BCG safely. However, children who have symptoms of AIDS should not be administered the vaccine because it may lead to c omplications.)

Since the Chingleput trials did include children, it is unclear why the efficacy of BCG against childhood forms of TB was not simultaneously investigated. Since these forms do not excrete bacilli, diagnosis is difficult. For example, TB meningitis would require extraction of spinal fluid for analysis and this procedure cannot obviously be carried out on a large scale. The incidence of these forms is low and, for a sufficient sample size, a huge population would be required to conduct randomised trials, and also the trials will be expensive, points out Dr. S. P. Tripathy, former Director-General of the ICMR, who was closely associated with the Chingleput trials. "While it may be difficult to do such a study today, nobody is prepared to take the risk. Th e BCG vaccine itself is inexpensive. So why drop it?" he asks.

But there are several case-control studies now available which have demonstrated that BCG confers consistently a high level of protection against childhood forms of TB. The results of the Brazilian trials on meningeal TB are a case in point. The protecti ve efficacy found in other studies has ranged from 52 per cent to 84 per cent. The better done the study, the higher the evidence of efficacy, points out Dr. Frieden.

A case-control study carried out at the Kalawati Saran Children Hospital, New Delhi, with 37 cases and 74 controls, found the efficacy of BCG in preventing TB meningitis to be 84 per cent. A similar study at the Government Medical College, Nagpur, with 9 2 cases and 92 controls in the 0-12 age group, found the efficacy to be 86.54 per cent. Here the efficacy was greater in the 0-6 age group than in the 7-12 age group. A study carried out at the Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children, Chennai , during 1990-1992 found the protective efficacy of BCG against TB meningitis in children in the 0-12 age group children to be 77 per cent. A British study factored out the meningeal and miliary TB cases from the results of randomised controlled trials a nd case-control trials on the effectiveness of BCG against all forms of TB. It found the efficacy against meningeal/miliary forms to be 86 per cent in randomised controlled studies and 75 per cent in case-control studies.

There is also a fringe benefit from BCG vaccination which is particularly relevant in the Indian context. The Chingleput area is also endemic to leprosy. The first phase of the TRC trials also looked at the protection that the BCG vaccine conferred again st leprosy and found its efficacy to be about 30 per cent. Evidence that the BCG vaccine may provide a higher level of protection against leprosy than against TB also comes from a 1979-89 study in the African country of Malawi, which found 50 per cent pr otection whereas there was no significant protection against pulmonary TB.

Even though the BCG vaccine is a less than ideal vaccine for the purpose because of the unpredictable nature of its protective efficacy in TB or in preventing transmission, the fact that it is very effective against childhood forms of TB in most populati ons and that it provides additional protection against leprosy in endemic areas makes it a useful prophylactic tool in countries where the diseases are prevalent. Above all, it is inexpensive, safe and stable. Nothing much is lost in continuing its use i n EPI. So why complain?

LETTERS

other
Bofors

This has reference to the Cover Story "Know your Bofors" (November 26). The only legitimate concern of the Indian government in the Bofors affair could be whether it got the guns at the price it was prepared to pay. What AB Bofors did with the millions t hat accrued to it through the deal with India should not have been the government's concern at all. Moreover, payment of commissions is a long-established and widely prevalent practice.

It was the parties and politicians opposed to Rajiv Gandhi who have tried to make much of his decision to go ahead with the Bofors gun deal in spite of the then Army chief's opinion that the contract should be cancelled if the company refused to furnish the names of the middlemen. The superb performance of the Bofors gun in the Kargil War proved that Rajiv Gandhi was right.

K. Kumara Sekhar Eluru, Andhra Pradesh Cyclone havoc

"Killer cyclone" (November 26) gave a graphic account of the tremendous loss in terms of human lives, livestock and damage to infrastructure in Orissa. It will take years and thousands of crores of rupees to bring back normalcy to the devastated areas. T he nation has responded to the disaster in a half-hearted measure, though. However, the relief materials and the money should reach the affected people. Politics should be kept out when the nation faces a tragedy of such magnitude.

The Orissa Government and the Centre should think of long-term measures to cope with cyclones.

D.B.N. Murthy Bangalore Kannur violence

Political violence in Kannur district has a long history ("Blood and tears in Kannur", November 26). When the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) was formed in the 1950s under the leadership of P.R. Kurup, there were clashes between the workers of the PSP and t he undivided Communist Party in the Panoor area of Thalassery taluk. Later, in the 1970s, the district witnessed clashes between CPI(M) and Congress workers. During the same period, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Jan Sangh achieved some presence in the area. Although these organisations are not strong numerically, their cadres, who receive physical training, are active.

All political parties have to share the blame for the recent developments. Now each party is trying to bring the villages under its control. Some attempts are made to establish peace, but these are confined to top political leaders. Unless party leaders at lower levels are involved, the situation in the district will remain the same.

P. Sreedharan Chittariparamba, Kerala Auschwitz and Pokhran

I was surprised to read the concluding paragraphs of the article "Auschwitz, Pokhran and beyond" (November 19). I do not think that the Nazi killing fields, the use of the atom bomb on Japan and Pokhran-II are objects of comparison. The author does menti on the difference between the first two, although he proceeds to ignore the difference later.

More disturbing is his claim that the people, the Government and the nuclear establishment in India are dehumanising the decision to go nuclear and the terrible consequences of doing so. We do happen to be surrounded by countries which do not value much the freedom of the people of India. Past events have shown that we cannot rely on the United Nations or the United States to defend our borders and our values. The author quotes Gandhi: "Will it restore to him (the poorest and the most helpless person) c ontrol over his life and destiny?" I think the nuclear test will help the poorest person pursue his dreams.

Bhaskar S. Manda Received on e-mail Rajaji

This has reference to the article "In the cause of peace" (November 19) by C.V. Narasimhan, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. It made interesting reading, especially the reference to former Governor-General C. Rajagopalachari and his visit to the United States to meet President John F. Kennedy. Just after Rajaji met the President, reporters asked him whether the talk was fruitful. The reply was: "Well, I can't say as it is only the beginning of a long process and at the moment I can only say the talk was flowerful and it may take quite some time to bear fruit."

It would also be of interest to recall that in 1967, at the initiative of Narasimhan, the queen of Indian music, M.S. Subbulakshmi, gave a musical performance at the United Nations. She sang a beautiful and meaningful song composed by Rajaji.

R. Daniel Jayakumar Nellikuppam, Tamil Nadu George Fernandes

In the article "The meaning of George Fernandes" (November 5) the author seems to be too harsh on the Defence Minister. It is not unethical for anyone to harbour ambitions. Every writer or scientist wants to win the Nobel Prize, just as every politician dreams of becoming Prime Minister. By aligning his party with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samata Party leader served the cause of secularism. This is evident from the fact that the BJP has adopted the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) manifesto in which there is no place for issues such as the Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and a common civil code. The extent of success achieved in this direction can be gauged by the fact that the Farooq Abdulla-led National Conference is now a partner in the Vajpayee Government.

George Fernandes' views on the threat from China were right but they could have been expressed in diplomatic language. George Fernandes is a great parliamentatian and an eloquent public speaker.

George Fernandes has been a doughty opponent of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's rule. He believes that dynasties and democracy do not go together. However, history will not condone George Fernandes for shifting his loyalty to Charan Singh immediately after de fending Morarji Desai's government in the Lok Sabha in 1979.

Prem Behari Lucknow Foreign funds

I do not normally respond to Praful Bidwai's tendentious articles. However, this time I shall, for he states that the "Hindutva campaign against 'foreign' funds would have sounded a little less biased and outrageous had the BJP, its cohorts and its gover nment had consistent standards" ("Stifling dissent and debate", November 5). Is this not true for most, if not all, of his arguments? Additionally, since Lalita Ramdas ("Letters", November 5) and others call for a public debate as to what constitutes "po litical" action and what is "social" action, let us have one.

The thrust of his "vitriolic attack" on the Government action of issuing notices under a "technical provision of some enactment like the FCRA" (laws are mere technical provisions!) is that it is an assault on democracy, the freedom of speech and so on. T he action of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs)/civil society organisations (CSOs) was not "political" but "social" and in consonance with the fundamental duties prescribed under Article 51 (a) of the Constitution. Is not compliance with such a "t echnical provision", passed under the Constitution, part of the duties of Indian citizens? The courts should have been approached had there been any discrimination in the application of the laws of the land and/or if compliance with an enactment like the FCRA was in conflict with the provisions of the Constitution.

The article says that the funds (of CSOs/NGOs) are "earmarked for specific projects" and are "not easily divertible". It also says that these organisations are accountable to the "donors". Does it then mean that the funds for sponsoring these advertiseme nts of Communalism Combat had been earmarked by their (foreign) donors? If "foreign funds" have not been used in the advertisement campaigns as claimed, it can very easily be proved since everything is accounted for. Thereafter, the only fact that would remain to be examined would be whether the campaigners were motivated by partisan concerns or social concerns.

Undoubtedly, the advertisements were one-sided. If the concerns were social, the advertisements should not have stopped at just highlighting the views of the Sangh Parivar on women. It should also have informed the general public about the views of the u lema on women (as mentioned in the book The World of Fatwas D Shariah in Action). And please let me know whether the instances highlighted in the book are not "factual" and if any rebuttal of this book exists. If the fight was for equality and non -discrimination, why should Muslim women be discriminated against wholly and solely in obtaining maintenance under the amended Criminal Procedure Code? Subsidising pilgrims of a particular religion with public money is surely not the way to practise secu larism, especially when such facilities are not granted to other religious groups D be it Hindus or Christians, Sikhs or Jews. Here is one instance where the "fundamental right" of "non-discrimination" has been violated.

The taxman, Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, was not transferred by the BJP. Neither was the BJP in power when the funds allegedly flowed into the coffers of the Sangh Parivar. Why should the present Government be faulted for the inaction of its (secularist) predece ssors?

While mentioning the 16-year financial inflows from VHP- America to India, Bidwai neglects to mention how much money the Church and Church-based organisations have received from the U.S. and other countries. In addition, one is left to guess as to just h ow much European Union contribution of 4 per cent to Church-based groups in India amounts to. Given the widespread "fame" (dare I say it, notoriety) achieved by the Sangh Parivar, I fail to understand why it is reasonable to assume that the E.U. will con tribute, in a major way, to "non-Christian, especially Hindutva oriented, organisations". What exactly is the E.U.'s benefit? Is Bidwai also equating all non-Christian CSOs/NGOs with Hindutva-oriented organisations?

Outlook (February 22, 1999) published a list of top 25 recipients of foreign funds for the year 1996-97. Ten Christian organisations included in that list received as much as Rs.209 crores, if not more, in a single year. Assuming that the inflows to these 10 organisations have remained constant, they would have received at least Rs.3,344 crores in 16 years. Compare this figure with the figure quoted for the VHP (Rs.5,300 crores). The number of Christian organisations is many, many times more than just ten. An estimate puts the inflow of funds for the Church and Church-based organisations at Rs.2,000 crores annually. The point I wish to highlight is the quantum of inflow of funds and the power it generates (regardless of its use or abuse).

It will be appropriate to apply the same standards used against Hindutva to the deeds (and misdeeds) of certain non-Sangh Parivar groups which also arrogate to themselves the right to proscribe and prescribe as to what is permissible and impermissible un der the aegis of secularism and democracy. It is also not amiss to oppose, with the same strength of heart and mind, non-Hindutva organisations that publish abusive, offensive and insulting tracts. This is important if one wishes to remain credible as we ll as impartial.

K.M. Vasudevan Delhi M.S. Swaminathan

I thank you for publishing an Update on the world-famous scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan's achievements and contribution to Indian agriculture ("Honour for M.S. Swaminathan", September 10). You could have added that he merits the Nobel Prize (for Peace) f or his achievement and dedication to the agricultural revolution.

N. Sivasankaran Nilakkottai, Tamil Nadu Nobel Prize

In my article on Robert Mundell ("Between Monetarism and Keynesianism", November 26), the following sentence appears: "Marcus Fleming is on the staff of the International Monetary Fund." This sentence was not in my original article and I protest against its addition at the editing stage, especially because Marcus Fleming died in 1976.

Prabhat Patnaik New Delhi

The author's original reference to one of Robert Mundell's striking results also being "arrived at by J. Marcus Fleming of the IMF staff" was mistakenly and unjustifiably rewritten on the Frontline desk as stated above. The error is regretted. - Edito r, Frontline.

Victory margin

The article on the election verdict in West Bengal ("Patterns and pointers" November 5) mentioned that Mamata Banerjee's victory margin of 2.14 lakh votes in South Calcutta was the highest in the State. This is wrong. Nikhilananda Sor of the CPI(M) won b y a margin of over three lakh votes from the Burdwan Lok Sabha constituency. His victory margin is actually the second highest in the country, next to Sonia Gandhi's in Amethi.

Also, the Trinamul Congress has not captured Serampur as reported; it only retained the seat.

Basab Basak Burdwan, West Bengal Correction:

Setback to 'social engineering'?

Vajpayee's axing of Kalyan Singh as U.P. Chief Minister has weakened the strategy of relating Hindutva to OBC politics. This could spell big trouble for the BJP.

IT is a truism that Kalyan Singh did not really resign as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, although as a technicality, that is correct. He was unceremoniously sacked by Atal Behari Vajpayee - more out of personal pique than on the basis of a serious politic al calculation regarding the BJP's future. The axing of Kalyan Singh and the weeding out of some of his supporters from key positions in U.P. mark a new phase in the evolution of the BJP, in particular of factionalism at the topmost level of the party, a nd its relationship with different social classes, especially the other backward classes (OBCs), that vocal group of middle castes which continues to be assertive, particularly in the Hindi belt.

It is, of course, undeniable that Kalyan Singh campaigned against some BJP candidates in the latest elections, and worked more or less openly in some cases in favour of the Samajwadi Party through leaders such as Sakshi Maharaj. But that is not why he wa s removed. Other senior leaders such as Kalraj Mishra or Lalji Tandon, and even U.P. party president Rajnath Singh, have committed similar acts of subversion without incurring the wrath of the party's top bosses. Nor is it possible to attribute the BJP's poor performance in the State mainly to Kalyan Singh's sabotage. The party's base in U.P. has considerably eroded, its vote share having fallen by nearly 10 per cent - thanks to processes that are largely independent of Kalyan Singh, including restlessn ess among the OBCs, greater self-confidence amongst Muslims and the revival of the Congress(I).

Kalyan Singh was singled out because Vajpayee has a particular aversion to him, and believes that the Chief Minister worked clandestinely for his defeat in Lucknow. Personal pique apart, Vajpayee is allergic to Kalyan Singh's aggressive OBC politics. He has long been uncomfortable with the "social engineering" approach advocated by the likes of K.N. Govindacharya, and to an extent, L.K. Advani, which tries to co-opt OBC self-assertion into the broader Hindutva framework. Vajpayee certainly disapproves o f the idea of banking on Hindutva's aggressive forays into OBC identity politics as the key to the BJP's growth.

Vajpayee went out of his way to remove Kalyan Singh altogether. He replaced him with Ram Prakash Gupta, a Bania leader less known for his political accomplishments than for his longstanding RSS connections and personal loyalty to Vajpayee. The compositio n of Gupta's Cabinet does not do much to reverse Kalyan Singh's marginalisation, although some of his old Ministers have been accommodated in it out of fear that the former Chief Minister might get even more rebellious if they are kept out. Gupta is repo rtedly planning to reverse a number of decisions made and orders issued by his predecessor, including more than 60 recent appointments - the most important among them being the nomination of Kusum Rai, considered his confidante, to the State Commission f or women.

NONE of this would have merited serious attention if it were a phenomenon confined to U.P. and to "normal" factionalism which has become pervasive in what was once "the party with a difference" - disciplined, united, purposive, and dead-serious. As it ha ppens, the U.P. drama is a "side-show" or surrogate battle being played out within the BJP's national-level leadership, especially between Vajpayee and Advani. Vajpayee has been personally, directly, involved in the events in U.P. that run from candidate selection three months ago, through Kalyan Singh's dramatic departure, to the selection of portfolios in the new Cabinet. Advani, for his part, has been equally serious in promoting, shielding and defending Kalyan Singh. What is being played out in U.P. is the Vajpayee-Advani conflict, in which Murli Manohar Joshi, a side-player, has sided with Vajpayee.

Vajpayee clearly has the upper hand in this power struggle. Earlier, he succeeded in marginalising Sushma Swaraj (and her husband Swaraj Kaushal, then engaged in secret talks with Naga rebels). Similarly, it was at Vajpayee's instance that the BJP allied with the Janata Dal in Karnataka - a decision that was not discussed at the National Executive. Vajpayee has also been playing his own game in the VHP, where Ashok Singhal (who is close to Advani) is being eclipsed by Giriraj Kishore, a Vajpayee groupie , who can hardly be called "liberal" or even a soft-Hindutva advocate. Now Vajpayee has turned his attention to India's most important State where he is relentlessly promoting factional loyalists, rejecting compromises. For instance, an agreement was str uck between the Vajpayee and Advani factions just before Gupta's swearing-in that two BJP upper-caste faction leaders - Kalraj Mishra and Lalji Tandon - would be kept out of the Cabinet. As part of the deal, Advani had agreed to communicate this decision to the two leaders, and also to be present at Gupta's oath-taking. But this was cancelled just as Advani was about to board a plane for Lucknow - at the behest of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). The Mishra-Tandon duo was duly sworn in.

ALL this calls for a reassessment of Vajpayee. Those who thought that he is soft, "liberal", above factionalism, or that he works by consensus, and has no raw ambitions related to crude power politics, must think again. Vajpayee's image, largely cultivat ed by a fawning media, is misleading. He is deeply mired in factional politics. He is as ruthless as anyone else. He deeply resents the fact that for long years he was sidelined in the party by Advani, who served two terms as president, terms which saw t he party jump from two Lok Sabha seats to 89. Vajpayee is attached to the upper caste, in particular Brahmin, faction in U.P. and probably believes that the BJP's best bet lies in a Brahmin-Dalit alliance, which totally marginalises the OBCs. He is not a verse to soiling his hands in venality and patronage, nor to the politics of personality cults. The PMO under him has been involved in numerous shady deals in the past 20 months.

Vajpayee apart, Kalyan Singh's removal from a pivotal position in the BJP power structure must be seen in relation to other OBC politics-related events, in particular Shankersinh Vaghela's alienation from the party in Gujarat, and Sahib Singh Verma's Jat lobby which was involved in faction-fighting in Delhi, which too led to his removal as Chief Minister. The party top brass is giving out the signal that it is not as committed as in the past to the Mandal-Kamandal alliance - despite the expansion of the OBC reservation list, in pursuit of pure expediency.

However, Vajpayee may be overplaying his hand in U.P. - just as he did in Karnataka, where allying with the utterly discredited J.H. Patel turned out to be a disaster for the BJP. This time around, the stakes are even higher. The BJP is in deep trouble i n U.P., its fortress in recent years. In the latest Lok Sabha elections, of a total of 425, the party led in less than 120 Assembly segments. Its OBC base is shrinking. Kalyan Singh is a formidable opponent. He is gutsy and muscular, has political acumen , and pushes a hard line, even if that means brazenly violating the law. The Babri Masjid demolition, it bears recalling with awe and horror, could not have happened without him manipulating the government machinery to ensure that the kar seva would take place on December 6 safe from the attention of Central forces.

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Kalyan Singh can create real trouble for the BJP, especially if Vajpayee continues to marginalise and humiliate him, and if his OBC core-supporters are kept out of access to power. This could well precipitate fresh Assembly elections, which the BJP canno t relish. The Rajya Sabha elections from U.P. too are less than four months away. The BJP needs every seat it can find to shore up its poor presence in that House. It cannot afford to have Kalyan Singh ranged against it.

YET another factor is the neighbouring State of Bihar. State party boss Sushil Modi was dead against removing Kalyan Singh because of the likely damage to the BJP in that State, where too it has to compete with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) for OBC supp ort.

Kalyan Singh has for the moment chosen to move Rightwards by adopting a hardcore Hindutva line, as demonstrated by his visit to Ayodhya, his drumming up of the temple issue, and his statements ridiculing the Lahore summit. But he may only be reminding Va jpayee of his own importance in the Ayodhya factor and its contribution to the BJP's political advance during the period of 1986-92. At any rate, this does not mean that he will reject for all time to come the option of joining hands, openly or secretly, with non-BJP leaders and parties, including Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav (who has approached him). Kalyan Singh may well be so tempted. In U.P., an OBC alliance with substantial Muslim support, could form a formidable, potentially winning combination. Kalyan Singh's ability to mobilise peasant castes, like his own Lodh Rajputs, should not be underestimated. It is not the Mishras and the Tandons who built the BJP in U.P. They have no mass base whatsoever. It is above all the OBCs' entry in to it, engineered by Kalyan Singh, that gave it ballast.

Kalyan Singh is not just another BJP politician. He is quintessentially an OBC leader. Indeed, he represents a unique confluence of two streams: Hindutva and OBC-based politics, Mandal and Kamandal. No other leader of stature has been able to embody this or co-opt OBC politics into the Hindutva framework, or half as confidently, the way Kalyan Singh has. He represents the greatest success of the "social engineering" strategy of accommodating plebeian groups into Hindutva's hegemonic project.

If Kalyan Singh is antagonised and pushed out of the BJP, that could spell a decisive setback for, if not the end of, "social engineering". Kalyan Singh is not only the BJP's ablest non-upper caste leader with a rural base, he is potentially a candidate for India's first Prime Minister shaped by OBC politics. Losing him will cost the BJP heavily in terms of its image and in terms of votes. It could well inaugurate its reduction to a largely urban, upper caste, elitist party that cannot communicate with the poor or the middle layers of society. Such a party could, of course, have a significant presence in Indian politics, but it could hardly hope to come to power on its own. Even less can it transform India radically and fundamentally the way the Hindut va project aspires to do. Without a sizable non-upper caste base, the BJP has only a dim future.

Issues on hold

MTNL defers its GDR issue and its domestic public offer owing to adverse market conditions. What are the factors at play?

THE Government was all set go ahead with the global depository receipts (GDR) issue of Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) in early November, the depressed market conditions notwithstanding. However, on November 10, hours before the roadshow was to begin, it was decided to put off the offer of 19 million GDRs. Surprisingly, the advice to do this came not from within the Government, which should have been watchful of the market sentiment while selling the family silver, but from the merchant bankers Goldman Sachs, HSBC Investment Banking and Merrill Lynch, the global coordinators to the issue.

MTNL promptly set up a task force comprising its functional directors and representatives of the Department of Telecommunications, the Ministry of Finance and the Bureau of Public Enterprises to evaluate the advice. The conclusion was that it would be pr udent to defer the issue and this was communicated to the core group of senior Secretaries. The issue has been put off until the market picks up; that is, possibly until the end of the current fiscal year.

S. Sundaresan, MTNL's Director of Finance, told Frontline that even the domestic issue, which was to have offered around 2.25 per cent of the paid-up capital as employee stock option (ESOP), had been deferred. The company's proposal to offer a max imum of 200 shares to each employee in the C and D categories who had opted for permanent absorption, had been approved by the Union Cabinet and an offer price of Rs.146 had been fixed. Even the public offering of about 1 per cent of the paid-up capital, which was also to be at a slight discount on the market price, had also been deferred, he said. The GDR, the ESOP and the public offer would have brought down government stake in MTNL to 51 per cent: currently, it is around 56.25 per cent. During the pa st six months MTNL shares had hit a high of Rs.230 and a low of Rs.154. The company's previous GDR issue, of 1997, is quoted at a discount.

WHAT are the reasons for the lukewarm investor interest in the scrip? S. Rajagopalan, MTNL's Chairman and Managing Director, told Frontline that the company's troubles with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had an impact on its rati ng in the international investor community (Frontline, November 5, 1999). "They don't go into the nitty gritty of whose case is right. As far as investors are concerned, MTNL was not able to deliver on its promises. The last time we accessed the g lobal market we had promised that we would have our GSM (groupe speciale mobile) service operational by now. We have not kept that promise. Now, whether it is because of laxity on our part or because of obstacles placed by the policy/regulatory regimes i s something that the investor is not interested in. It has impacted on our credibility. Similarly, the revenues in the last quarter dipped by 13 per cent. We can explain that it is because of the new tariffs recommended by the regulator, but internationa l investors do not accept such explanations," Rajagopalan said.

According to Sundaresan, tariff rebalancing has cost MTNL Rs.100 crores. A part of this, however, could be recouped when the company claimed a tax holiday with retrospective effect from 1997-98, he said.

The Government has approved a proposal to amend MTNL's articles of association. An extraordinary general body meeting of the company held on November 19 approved a proposal to delegate the following powers to the board, which is now broadbased, with the induction of three persons from outside as directors: 1. To incur capital expenditure on the purchase of new items or for replacement without any monetary ceiling; 2. To enter into technological joint ventures or strategic alliances; 3. To effect organis ational restructuring, including the establishment of profit centres, the opening of offices in India and abroad, the creation of new activity, and so on; 4. To create and wind up all posts including and up to those of non-board-level directors (the boar d will be given powers to make appointments up to this level, including the power to effect internal transfers and redesignation of posts); 5. To structure and implement schemes relating to personnel and human resource management, training, voluntary or compulsory retirement, and so on; 6. To raise funds from domestic capital markets and to borrow from international markets, subject to the approval of the Reserve Bank of India/Department of Economic Affairs, to be obtained through the administrative min istry; and 7. To establish financial joint ventures and wholly owned subsidiaries in India or abroad with the stipulation that the equity investment of the public sector enterprise (PSE) should be not more than Rs.200 crores in any one project, or 5 per cent of the net worth of the PSE in any one project, or 15 per cent of the net worth of the PSE in all joint ventures/subsidiaries put together.

The amendment is in tune with what the Government had proposed for all Navaratna public sector undertakings (PSUs). "It will give us the necessary autonomy to take commercial decisions to improve share-holder value," Rajagopalan said. He believes that th e step will lead to a positive reaction in the market and push up MTNL share prices. Even so, he would like to look for a major catalyst that would push the price of the MTNL scrip high enough for a chunky divestment, whether it is in the domestic market or through the GDR route. That catalyst could come in the form of the coveted Chennai circle, for which some preliminary negotiations are on. It could cost up to Rs.1,000 crores, but for a company that is sitting on reserves of over Rs.5,000 crores, it is not awesome.

The amendment to the articles of association would also enable MTNL to place privately its equity with select investors. During the earlier GDR issue, British Telecom, France Telecom and Italian telecom companies had offered to take sizable stakes in the company. But, in lieu, they wanted their representatives on the MTNL board, a proposal that was not acceptable to the company.

The other option is to offload a sizable chunk of shares in the domestic market, at the risk of their all being mopped up by any one interested investor. A third proposal - to buy back MTNL's own shares and extinguish them - is also under consideration. The company has a paid-up capital of Rs.630 crores and Rajagopalan believes that downsizing the equity base will enhance value for the remaining shareholders.

THE company, with reserves and surpluses of Rs.5,619 crores, is chalking out plans to deploy its reserves gainfully. "We have a geographic limitation that prevents us from expanding horizontally. So we have to think of vertical integration," Rajagopalan said. Acquisition of companies that manufacture fibre optic cables and telephone instruments is also on the cards. MTNL is holding talks with companies manufacturing fibre optic cables. It may also buy out smaller telecom ventures, offering both basic an d cellular services. There is also a proposal to take up basic telephone services in the satellite townships of Delhi. The company proposes to replace its 16 lakh cable lines with fibre optic cables.

Also on the anvil is a 100 per cent subsidiary, Millennium Telecom, which will take over Internet and other value added services. Its paid-up capital is likely to be around Rs.50 crores. MTNL plans to seek a strategic partner for the subsidiary once it i s launched. Singapore Telecom has evinced interest in the venture and might participate in the equity as well, in which case MTNL's reserves will swell further.

Meanwhile, DoT has joined issue with TRAI on the Calling Party Pays (CPP) regime with a separate petition in the Delhi High Court: DoT has challenged TRAI's authority to issue directives asking that fixed-line subscribers be charged more for calls to mob ile lines under the Telecommunications Inter-connection (charges and revenue sharing) first amendment. MTNL has also filed an intervention petition challenging TRAI's order on CPP, which, it claims, was issued even as the matter was being heard by the co urt. A Division Bench comprising Justice S.N. Variava and Justice S.K. Mahajan will hear the three petitions, of MTNL, DoT and TRAI, on November 30.

A curious buyout

THE National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), with reserves of Rs.12,000 crores, is to buy out its poor cousin, the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC), for a whopping Rs.4,500 crores. The Government hopes that the decision will not raise the hackle s of trade unions since both are public sector units. On the face of it, too, the move seems non-controversial, since the Government will continue to retain control over the NHPC through the NTPC and will get a bonus of Rs.4,500 crores in the bargain.

However, the arrangement is a problematic one. The NTPC is a profit-making enterprise and has the largest installed capacity in thermal power generation. Its track record of adding capacity is good and contrasts sharply with the failure of the private se ctor to come up with the expected level of investments in the power sector. The move to make the NTPC buy out the NHPC will cause the diversion of precious resources from new capacity creation to the acquisition of existing hydel capacity.

It would not be unreasonable to assume that the main objective of privatising the power sector was to attract investments to bridge the demand-supply gap - investments which the Government could not mobilise by itself. The NTPC has been able to mobilise resources and has core competence in the power generation business. Instead of allowing it to do what it knows best to help narrow the demand-supply gap, the Government is now directing it to fritter away its resources by acquiring another PSU, one that is on the verge of a debt-trap.

The NTPC would have been able to add capacity to the tune of 1,000 megawatts at current rates with the Rs.4,500 crores it is to pay to buy out the NHPC. Had it leveraged this capital to raise further resources, it could have raised four times the amount. This would have enabled it to set up 5,000 megawatts of additional capacity. Instead, it has to use its strength to raise resources for the NHPC.

Union Power Minister P. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, who was asked about this issue during the Economic Editors' Conference, failed to come up with a convincing defence. All that he could say was that the acquisition would unleash the synergies that the NT PC would require to get into hydel generation.

The Power Minister did not dispute that the funds will go into the government's kitty. He appeared to be quite satisfied with Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha's promise that some of it will come the Power Ministry's way. It is surprising that the Minister should be so sanguine even after what the Government did to the oil pool account and the road cess fund.

Distress disinvestment

V. SRIDHAR economy

The manner in which the Government of India has disinvested 18 per cent of its stake in Gas Authority of India Ltd has raised questions about the integrity of the disinvestment mechanism.

SELLING the family silver is always an emotive affair. It can turn controversial if family members who have a claim to the legacy suspect distress sale. Even those who believe that disinvestment of government stake in profitable and cash-rich public sect or companies is a right step have faulted the Government for the manner in which disinvestment was done in the case of Gas Authority of India Ltd(GAIL). They have alleged that the Government, in a desperate move to bridge the fiscal deficit, sold 18 per cent of its equity in GAIL at a throwaway price of Rs.70 per share. But there is a more serious allegation, that GAIL's potential competitors - Enron Corporation, whose Indian operations have been dogged by controversy since the mid-1990s, and British Ga s - have bought their way into the company "for a song". While Enron has acquired 5 per cent of the company, British Gas has acquired a stake of 1.3 per cent.

On November 4, the Government issued 22.5 million global depository receipts (GDRs) of GAIL to foreign investors at a price of $9.67 (Rs.420) each. Each GDR entitled investors to six GAIL shares. This resulted in the disinvestment of 135 million shares. The Government also retained GDR subscriptions for 20 million shares. The 155 million shares disinvested by the Government constitute 18 per cent of its stake in GAIL. The pricing of the GDR at Rs.70 per share meant a discount of about 11 per cent on the closing price of the GAIL share in the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) on the day of issue. The Government raised Rs.1,085 crores through the disinvestment and the discount implied a loss of about Rs.140 crores. The disinvestment, coordinated by Morgan Stan ley and Jardine Fleming, resulted in the Government holding in GAIL declining from about 83 per cent to about 65 per cent. The issue followed the book-building process, a method by which investors are allowed to bid within a price band. Market sources ex plain that this process is used mainly to deter speculative investors and that it is adopted in issue-pricing when it is difficult to determine the intrinsic worth of the shares being offloaded.

Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram fired the first salvo on November 8 when he drew attention to the fact that the United Front Government had rejected a price of Rs.115 per share in mid-1997. He said the Government had been advised to expect a price in the region of Rs.150-170 per share. The pricing of the share at Rs.70 was "scandalous", he said and pointed out that apart from Enron and British Gas, foreign institutional investors (FII) had picked up "significant quantities of the offer". He said the Government's handling of the GAIL issue made the entire disinvestment process "open to ridicule". "Doubts will be raised about the integrity of the disinvestment mechanism," he said.

The criticism grew stronger when, a couple of days later, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL) abandoned its GDR issue, citing the low price of acceptance in the international market (see separate story). There were questions as to why the Government co uld not have rejected the low offer for the GAIL share. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) called for a "high-level probe into the scam" and asked the Government "to stop dismantling the valuable public sector assets in such a sur reptitious manner for private gains." S. Dev Roye, secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), told Frontline that the Government's action in the GAIL affair was "unpardonable".

The All India Congress(I) Committee's (AICC) economic affairs secretary, Jairam Ramesh, who was connected with the decision-making process during Chidambaram's tenure as Finance Minister, alleged that multinational companies had made a back-door entry in to the Navaratna company which enjoyed a market share of 95 per cent in the natural gas business in India. He told Frontline that a "strategic sale to Enron would have got the Government at least three times more." He also pointed out that it was the first time corporate entities had picked up a stake in a public sector company. He observed that during the disinvestment in the Container Corporation of India (CONCOR), corporates had been kept out as a matter of principle.

Jairam Ramesh said that British Gas acquired a stake in Gujarat Gas in 1997 from the Mafatlal group at a price of Rs.270 per share. He reasoned that if the shares of Gujarat Gas, a much smaller private sector undertaking in terms of its capacity, could g et this price, the GAIL shares deserved much more. Jairam Ramesh and several other people have also pointed out that a "negotiated price", a strategic sale in other words, to those who had an interest in acquiring a stake as a long-term investment in GAI L, would have been a better option.

There are allegations that the Government has allowed Enron and British Gas, which acted as casual investors, to acquire a strategic stake in a company operating in their line of business. Both Enron and British Gas have ambitious plans for the Indian ma rket. There are fears that their entry into GAIL will enable them to leverage their way into its projects, reducing the scope for competition. Seen from this perspective, their acquisition of a stake in GAIL makes sound business sense.

In defence of its action, the Government said that there was nothing in the guidelines that prevented corporates from acquiring a stake in public sector companies. Although Finance Ministry sources said that the top management of GAIL had approved the en try of entities such as Enron and British Gas into the company, a senior GAIL official told Frontline that the company was not involved in the decision-making process. Officially, the company has maintained that the Government as the owner of the company has the final say in matters relating to ownership.

Sources in the market say that the Government had tied its own hands by signalling to the market that it was desperate to raise revenues from the sale of its equity in public sector companies in order to reduce the fiscal deficit. The time-frame for this was also limited because the Government had a target of raising Rs.10,000 crores before the end of the financial year in March 2000. In fact, in his first major interview after assuming office following the recent elections, Finance Minister Yashwant Si nha said that he planned "unconventional and innovative approaches" to achieve this. He also said that "a couple of big ticket items" were being considered.

Getting the price right is always difficult. This is particularly so if the market is imperfect or if it lacks depth. These conditions enable the players to manipulate markets. Some facts about the shareholding pattern in GAIL need reiteration here. Of t he 17 per cent of the equity that was outside the hands of the Government before the GDR issue, about 10 per cent was with Indian Oil Corporation and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. These shares, recently divested by the Government through a swap, w ere presumably a strategic investment, not meant for trading in the stock markets. Apart from this, the Government diluted its stake in three phases - totalling a little less than 7 per cent.

The first divestment, of 3.37 per cent of the government stake, was made in 1995. In 1997 the Government issued a small number of shares to GAIL employees. Later, in early 1999, the Government released 3.62 per cent of its stake in the company. Thus, onl y a small proportion of the 7 per cent of GAIL's shares were in active circulation in the Indian bourses. More importantly, this low volume of floating stock in the market determined the price of the November 4 issue amounting to 18 per cent of the equit y of the company. In other words, in market parlance, there was little room for a sound price formation for the share in the market.

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It is common knowledge in the bourses that FIIs have a motive in driving down the domestic price of a share on the eve of a GDR issue. A Mumbai-based merchant banker told Frontline that FIIs sold in the domestic market, retaining their option to b uy in the overseas market because they knew that the price of the GDR issue was related to the price in the domestic market. In fact, soon after the first trends in the election results came in on October 7, the volume of trading in GAIL shares in the BS E increased sharply. Between October 7 and November 3, on an average 50,000 shares were traded each day. After the GDR issue -- up to November 18 - the average daily volume of trading fell to one-fourth this level. During the phase of intense trading in the GAIL scrip, the price reached as high as Rs. 98 per share, on October 20. That the price was hammered down before the GDR issue is thus a strong possibility. If an investor sold 100 shares on October 20 at Rs.98 per share and subsequently bought the same number of shares via the GDR issue at Rs.70 per share, he would have made a net profit of Rs.2,800 out of the transactions.

Although Chidambaram and others have suggested that domestic investors deserved a chance to acquire the GAIL shares at a cheaper rate, there are others who see little merit in this argument. Selling government equity at a cheap price is indefensible unde r any condition, even if the buyers are Indian entities. In fact, merchant banking sources said that the Government's decision to disinvest 3.62 per cent of its stake in early 1999 was just as bad as its recent GDR issue.

In early June 1997, the GAIL scrip was quoted at Rs.183 but a year later, in June 1998, it dropped below Rs.100. The price dropped below Rs.60 around the time the Government decided to make a domestic offer, in February 1999. It is significant that Finan ce Ministry sources have now justified the recent GDR issue by pointing out that this has been at a higher price than the sale in February 1999. Two things are missed in this explanation. First, the fact that the market, when it has tasted blood at a low er price, is likely to hammer the price again to a level close to that. Second, and more important, this is especially so if the market knows that the Government is desperate to push ahead with the issue regardless of the price.

An analyst in a reputed consultancy told Frontline that based on key parameters such as the book value of the GAIL share, the cash flow position of the company and the price-earnings ratio, which were important factors in the valuation of a compan y's worth, the GAIL share should have been sold for "several times" the Rs.70 that the Government earned per share. A merchant banker told Frontline that the recent issue price was likely to provide a benchmark for subsequent divestments in the co mpany. He said that Enron was likely to play the "waiting game because it knows that one day or the other, there will be further divestment". In fact, Enron, by virtue of its 5 per cent stake in the company, is among the biggest non-Government shareholde rs in the company. Informed sources say that it can have a "nuisance value" in the company if and when it manages to get a nominee on the board because of its new-found status in the company. However, Yashwant Sinha has clarified that Enron will not be a llowed to be on the board.

Although the option of a strategic sale has been recommended by some critics of the GAIL disinvestment, sources in the market say that this method of disinvestment can pose other problems. In a strategic sale the Government has the option of offering a s take to companies which may wish to take a controlling stake in the company. But the range of choices may be narrow in that case. Moreover, the bidders may form cartels to gain entry into the company at a low cost. While it may be true that in an underde veloped market a strategic sale may be a better option in terms of price realisation, other adverse effects such as the formation of private monopolies may follow.

Behind the growing interest

FORMED in 1984, Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL) is a young company, and its assets are new. Its 4,300-kilometre-long cross-country pipeline network includes the 2,300-km-long Hazira-Bijaipur-Jagdishpur (HBJ) pipeline, which has recently been upgraded at a cost of Rs.2,000 crores.

Although the pipelines have been the primary assets of the company, GAIL has developed other linkages also in the last few years. One of the biggest producers of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), the company owns five LPG processing plants with a total annu al capacity of 750,000 tonnes. Two more LPG and propane plants, which will almost double the total capacity, are being established. GAIL is also constructing a 1,264-km-long LPG pipeline from Jamnagar in western India to Delhi to distribute LPG to compan ies that market it.

In March 1999, GAIL commissioned its first petrochemical plant in Uttar Pradesh. Built at a cost of Rs.2,500 crores, the plant is the first petrochemical complex outside western India. GAIL has also bid for a power project near Delhi in association with BSES, the private power utility. It plans to bid independently for medium and large gas-based power projects in the future.

The demand for natural gas is projected to increase sharply in the next decade. According to a British Gas projection, the demand in India will increase from 65 million metric standard cubic metres per day (mmscmd) to 300 mmscmd in the next 10 years. A l arge part of this is likely to be imported. In order to take advantage of this situation, GAIL has joined as a partner in Petronet LNG, which will establish liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals for the import of gas. The Indian oil majors also have a st ake in the joint venture.

With these arrangements in place, GAIL has a strong capability to expand as a major player in the gas retailing business. It has bid for gas fields so that it can extend its reach and ensure its own sources of supply. GAIL's earnings were nearly Rs.7,000 crores in 1998-99, and it made a net profit of Rs.1,060 crores.

Since the liberalisation process started in 1991, Enron and British Gas have been active in the Indian market. The two companies' operations in India are part of a process of consolidation by which the global energy conglomerates are vertically integrati ng their operations.

Although Enron in India is better known for its 2,450 mega watt power project at Dabhol, it is also active in the oil and gas sectors. It has 20-year contracts with two West Asian oil companies for the supply of 2.1 million tonnes of LNG, and the supplie s will start by the end of 2001. Enron's LNG terminal at Dabhol is an important part of its Indian operations in the import and supply of gas to industrial and commercial users. The downward linkages for these plans are being provided by the oil and gas fields in the Mukta-Panna and Tapti oilfields, which are owned by the wholly owned exploration and production company, Enron Oil and Gas (EOG). The reserves from these fields are estimated to be over one trillion cubic feet of oil equivalent.

British Gas has a controlling stake in Gujarat Gas Company, the biggest private gas distribution company in India. It has a joint venture with GAIL, Mahanagar Gas Ltd., which is constructing a gas distribution system in Mumbai for commercial, industrial and domestic users. It is also developing a project for the import and regasification of LNG at Pipavav in Gujarat. It is also likely to supply gas to the power projects of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) at Kawas and Gandhar.

Both British Gas and Enron have extensive plans for gas exploration, imports and processing in India. However, they do not have a distribution network. A pipeline network, like the one that GAIL has, would be difficult and expensive to replicate. Extensi on of these pipelines to meet additional demand would be a low-cost affair for GAIL; in comparison, fresh investments by new players would be an expensive proposition.

Moreover, with its assets being new, GAIL offers tremendous advantages because maintenance costs are low. Being a new company the technology used by GAIL is also of recent vintage; for instance, its IT strengths are reputed to be of a very high quality. Moreover, its manpower productivity is also reckoned to be very good; GAIL's rapid expansion, for instance, has endowed it with quality project management capabilities in-house. The recent acquisition of interests in GAIL by British Gas and Enron thus ma kes very good business sense. That the price was low was an additional bonus for the two energy giants.

A politician and a painter

An exhibition in Delhi reveals another facet of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh.

THE exhibition of the drawings, paintings and graphics of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh at the Arpana Gallery of the Academy of Literature and Fine Art in Delhi, to be followed by another in Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery, is an important event. Its i mportance does not lie in the fact that a former Prime Minister paints or writes poetry. There are many examples of it in recent history. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to paint. Chairman Mao of China wrote poetry. Thailand's King Bhumibol is a composer.

What is important, however, is the fact that V. P. Singh's paintings reflect the importance of a politician being cultured at a time when specialisation has reached a level where a human being is reduced to a mere instrument of the overpowering might of bankers. Their might is expressed as the globalisation of capital flows without any parallel let-up on the immigration of people in direct contrast to this. Money is free whereas people are constrained. And slaves are not creative except in their struggl e for liberation. Creativity reflects the degree of freedom a people exercise in making choices about things concerning their lives. And this is very important, at least in the subcontinent today.

It is as a challenge to this constraint of a totalitarian and monopolistic capitalism wanting everyone to fit neatly into a specialised slot that we can see the importance of V. P. Singh's works. They reawaken the Renaissance concept of a person accompl ished in various fields. And this reawakening necessarily involves changes in an artist's attitude to the life around him as well.

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These changes show up in V.P. Singhs works too. Whereas in the beginning his tendency was to appropriate a moment in time, an object or an animal and render it in a drawing, a graphic or a painting in keeping with the colonial artistic tradition, his lat er works show just the reverse. His art is no longer acquisitive. It is an expression that goes out to the world today and in the future, reflecting not only the growing stature of artists in India and the recognition of the fact by a former Prime Minist er.

This is borne out by the influence of a number of our artists in his work. There is the crow of Anjolie Ela Menon, the abstract landscapes of Bimal Das Gupta, the flowing line of Bendre and the superimposed planes of water colour of Subroto Kundu and Par esh Maity. He has known many of these artists and has learnt techniques from some of them; but his expression is his own.

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This comes out most strongly in his imagery. It is the expression of his experience and cannot be influenced so directly. There is his image of a small man casting two large shadows on a wall. The image communicates how, no matter how grand and varied th e accomplishments of any human being, the reality is only as large as the body is. This essential concern with the material comes out in other images too, for in art all spirituality hangs from a material peg, an object. Objects, both amounts of pigment or images, then express the artist's reality, just as handcarts lined up like cannons in one of V.P. Singh's more powerful works open up our eyes to both the organised character as well as the militancy of the working class.

In one of his graphics, a screen-print of ants coming together, we can see the collective power of small things in a big world, a theme that keeps recurring in his work. But the vision that overpowers his expression is the coming together of opposites in a single space, the very essence of motion not only in the dialectical process in thought, but also in life. When an artist is able to express this naturally and unselfconsciously, he can be said to have come into his own.

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In this process too, however, the artist exercises a conscious choice. He may work either to highlight or harmonise opposites. And the artist does both at will. The best exercise at harmonising opposites is in his water-colour of an animal head, where th e opposing sockets of the eyes and nostrils are held together by the form of the skull. The confrontational element is evident in his canvas of two shadows arguing against a wall.

The artist may do so spontaneously on the basis of aesthetic demands or on the spur of the moment. But once such works enter the world as finished products, they cannot just be treated as "pretty things". They have a close relation not only to productive processes, but also to society and the artist's perception of trends within it. An artist may not be fully aware of this. He or she may definitely "think" only with his or her hands. But even that thought is conditioned by individual experience of both society and the political attitudes in it.

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In our age, anti-colonial, pro-poor and iconoclastic trends predominate. V.P. Singh reflects all of these. The handcarts arrayed like cannons; the street-corner worker being splashed by a passing taxi; the sacrificial goat; and the ill-omened crow, are a ll part of his repertoire. A particularly striking image is the "divided self", a small figure by a wall casting two large shadows or a dancer with one hand and one wing. It speaks volumes about the contradictory processes unleashed by man, whose creator and victim he is at the same time.

THE connection between V. P. Singh's politics and art may not be a direct translation from one to the other; but it definitely is transcreation. One can see in this exhibition a complex being, looking askance at the sharp dualism of wealth and poverty, b ackwardness and modernity, beauty and ugliness and trying to come to terms with it. We can see in the artist the man who some 30 years ago built a school in Koraon, carrying mud and bricks on his head or built a road to his family seat of Manda, doing vo luntary labour alongside the local peasantry.The artist in him tries to draw as many strands together as he can. But then the politician in him takes a stand as in a drawing of hand-carts arrayed like cannons on a battle-field. Indeed his best work is th at which is not just something to see but also gives one something to think about.

LTTE OFFENSIVE

D.B.S JEYARAJ cover-story

With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demonstrating its military resilience and marking major advances in the Wanni war, the avowed objective of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's war for peace stands exposed as a non-workable exercise.

THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched on November 2 the third phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves) in the northeastern sector of the Wanni region in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. By November 15, the LTTE's positions had adv anced in a southwest direction from Oddusuddan on the A-34 highway to the outskirts of Omanthai on the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 highway. The Tigers also moved southwards on the eastern flank to the militarised settlements of Manal Aaru or Weli Oya. Vavuniya, the southernmost town of the Northern Province, also came under threat.

After a brief respite, the LTTE recommenced its operations on November 18 by conducting assaults simultaneously on military positions in the northwestern sector of the Wanni region, which comprises the districts of Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vav uniya. The Tigers captured several Army camps in these areas; they also took control of the famous Holy Rosary Church at Maruthamadhu, popularly known as Madhu. However, the Army recaptured it within 48 hours. In the process, 38 civilians who had taken r efuge in the Catholic church were killed and 60 injured. The Army and the LTTE have blamed each other for the tragedy. The LTTE has also started attacking military positions on the island off Mannar on the northwestern coast. As of November 22, the fight ing continued without any signs of abating.

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The first phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal was conducted in July 1996 in Mullaitivu. The Army camp there was demolished, and the town fell to the LTTE. During the second phase of the operation, in September 1998, the Kilinochchi military complex was ove rrun. More than 2,000 soldiers were killed in these operations. The armed forces have not been able to wrest control of these areas.

The third phase of the campaign has proved to be the most successful military offensive recorded by the LTTE in the entire history of the armed conflict. If one were to adapt Winston Churchill's famous line after the aerial battle of Britain in 1940 to t he LTTE attack, it could be said that "never in the history of the Eelam conflict has so much territory been regained in so few days with so little losses by such small groups of Tigers."

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After dislodging the Tigers from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995-96, the Sri Lankan forces had made several attempts to undermine their presence in the Wanni. The idea was to establish a land-linked route between Vavuniya, the southern point of the Northern Province, and the Jaffna peninsula through the conquest of the 77-km stretch of road between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi on the Jaffna-Kandy road, known as the A-9 highway. After various operations which saw mixed results, the Army succeeded in taking a 44 -km stretch of road between Vavuniya and Mankulam. Some of the key areas along this road that were under Army control were Omanthai, Puliyankulam and Kanakarayankulam. The Army had also made deep inroads into the northeastern sector of the Wanni, lying t o the east of A-9 highway. Government troops had consolidated their positions in areas extending to the northeastern village of Oddusuddan along the A-34 highway linking Mankulam and Mullaitivu on the eastern coast.

Another series of operations saw the Army establish control over substantial areas in the northwestern sector of the Wanni too. The place it took control included the Our Lady of Madhu church. One puzzling aspect of these operations was the lack of resis tance by the LTTE in the early stages. But when the Army tried to take over the coastal Mannar-Pooneryn road and establish another land route, the Tigers offered resistance.

SIGNIFICANTLY, the LTTE's record in the past year was marked by the conspicuous absence of military operations from November 1998. Its spokespersons abroad would maintain that the militants refrained from putting up any resistance for fear of endangering the peace initiatives. But the reality was that the LTTE, in typical guerilla fashion, was trading space to buy time. Ceding land made the Army overextend itself, by spreading thin over too much land, thereby increasing its vulnerability. On the other h and, the LTTE was quietly recruiting and training cadres, assembling weapons and arsenals and drawing up plans for a counter-attack. The fact that the LTTE had allowed the Army to seize much territory without resistance had demoralised its supporters. In order to regain public support, the Tigers had to complete a military mission successfully.

The onset of the monsoon made the forest terrain sodden. The climate was not conducive to major military activity. Nevertheless, the Tigers had to launch a counter-offensive, for politico-military reasons. The LTTE had originally planned its operation fo r November 11. Apart from being War Remembrance day, November 11 also marked the sixth anniversary of Operation Frogleap, the amphibian attack that demolished the Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai military complex in 1993. By conducting a successful operation, t he LTTE could create the ambience of victory that was necessary for Maaveerar Thinam, its annual Great Heroes' Day. After a military success, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran could deliver his traditional address from a position of perceived strength. The LTTE, however, advanced its operations in order to pre-empt any moves by the Army.

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THE LTTE's military operation was preceded by an unusual manoeuvre by the Army. Starting in mid-October, the Sri Lankan security forces advanced along the old Kandy road from Karippatta-imurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road and established a permanent presence at Ambakamam. Subsequ-ently, troops advanced from Oddusuddan on the east of Karippattaimurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road, known also as the A-34 highway. These troops established forward defence lines that were linked to positions at Amba kamam in a somewhat rectangular shape. On October 30 and 31, troops used this rectangular formation to push upwards in the direction of Muthaiyankaddu. After meeting stiff resistance from the militants, they returned to Ambakamam and Oddusuddan on Novemb er 1.

The Army operations in the Oddusuddan-Ambakamam sector were described as "Operation Watershed". The nomenclature itself was a give-away of the underlying compulsions for the operation. A presidential election was in the offing. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government was constrained to demonstrate through contemporary military successes on the ground that the Tigers were being defeated. Projecting such an image would have contributed immensely to an electoral success for Kumaratunga, it was felt. The Peopl e's Alliance (P.A.) government has on several occasions been criticised for setting up military deadlines to suit political timetables. Now the government needed a war victory during the election campaign. So, in spite of the adverse weather conditions, the Army was politically pressured to deliver militarily. Calling the operation a "watershed" suggested that the ultimate objective of the manoeuvres may be overrunning LTTE strongholds, including Prabakaran's "One Four Base". What was hopefully a politi co-military watershed paved the way for the Waterloo that followed.

Once the LTTE anticipated Army expeditions, pre-emptive strikes became imperative. So the D-Day of Unceasing Waves-III had to be advanced. On November 1, the LTTE held a top-level conference in the historically significant Katsilaimadhu located north of Oddusuddan and south of Puthukkudiyiruppu. Pandara Wanniyan, the legendary Wanni chieftain of Adankapattu who ruled in Panankamam, was defeated by British troops led by Major Drieberg at Katsilaimadhu. A stone inscription as well as a statue erected abou t 20 years ago bear testimony to the heroic image of the last feudal ruler, who defied the imperialist aggressor. Katsilaimadhu witnessed another historic occasion on November 1. Prabakaran, along with his senior deputies, was there to finalise plans to launch Oyatha Alaigal. Several Tiger commanders, such as Balraj, Karuna, Sornam, Jeyam, Bhanu, Theepan, Rabat, Nagesh, Anton, Selvarajah, Asha, Durga and Malathie, were present at the conclave. Even as the meeting was on, thousands of male and female cad res secretly converged on Muthaiyankaddu, Samm-alankulam, Mulliyawalai, Thanneer-ootru, Katpoorappulveli, Kodalikkal, Indimadhu and Thanduvan. They were drawn from different fighting formations, such as the Charles Anthony and Jeyanthan infantry division s, the Sothiya Women Corps, the Kittu artillery brigade, the Victor armoured corps, the Leopards Commando unit, the Black Tiger suicide squads and the anti-aircraft unit. There were also members from auxiliary civilian units.

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Prabakaran was both the architect and the chief executive of the operation: Tiger literature claims that the entire operation was guided, inspired and masterminded by the leader who is also the supreme commander of LTTE forces. The LTTE's deputy military commander-in-chief, Balraj, a son of the Wanni soil, was in charge of coordinating the operational headquarters. Karuna, a senior commander from Batti-caloa, was the overall field commander. Once Prabakaran gave the go-ahead, the Tigers started their op erations.

The first target was Oddusuddan, which was seized by the Army last December in Operation Revibalaya (Solar Power). Oddusuddan was guarded by the Second Gajaba Regiment on the west and the Walagambaya division of the Navy on the east. Incidentally, three naval divisions were deployed on land duty in the eastern sector of the Wanni. Likewise, Air Force divisions were on duty in the western sector. Both services were being used as supplementary ground troops, to assist the Army. The western and eastern Wan ni sectors were demarcated by the A-9 highway, which bisects Wanni.

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An LTTE commando unit infiltrated the Army lines on Manavalanp-attaimurippu on the Mullaitivu road, west of Oddusuddan. Around midnight, the unit attacked the Gajaba troopers from behind. A little later, three formations of LTTE fighters attacked the cam p from all three sides. After nine hours of fighting, the LTTE overran the Oddusuddan camp. The Gajaba soldiers and the Walagampaya naval personnel were virtually annihilated. A fresh column of LTTE cadres, along with the civilian militia, came in a moto rcade from Mulliyawalai and hoisted the Tiger flag. It is said that Karuna performed the honours. Thereafter, the Tigers and their civilian militia began transporting by road to Mullaitivu the vehicles, arms, ammunition and equipment seized.

The Tigers then proceeded in three directions: to the northwest towards Ambakamam, westwards to Karippatt-aimurippu and Olumadhu, and to the southwest to Nedunkeny. Nedunkeny was taken in the preliminary stages of Operation Jeyasikurui in May 1997. It is situated on the Puliyankulam-Mullaitivu road and is the interface of Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts. It is very much the gateway to Mullaitivu, or the Tiger heartland. The access route between Oddusuddan and Nedunkeny had the 3rd battalion of the Sin ha Regiment at Samanankulam and the 8th battalion of the Vijaybahu Regiment at Pandariku-lam. After some fierce fighting, Nedunkeny also fell to the LTTE.

In the meantime, the other two Tiger columns were confronting two naval divisions stationed on the western flank of the Mullaitivu-Mankulam road on the one hand, and the 55th division personnel on the Ambakamam rectangle, on the other. After heavy fighti ng, Karippattaimurippu fell. Then the Tigers proceeded along the old Kandy road towards Ambakamam while other formations kept pounding Olumadhu adjacent to Karippatt-aimurippu on the road between Mank-ulam and Mullaitivu. Reinforcements sent from Mankula m were prevented from reaching Olumadhu as Tiger commandos blew up a bridge over a tributary of the Kanagarayankulam.

Soon Ambakamam fell, and it was followed by Olumadhu. Thereafter, advancing LTTE personnel began pounding Kanagarayankulam and Mankulam, both on the A-9 highway. Shortly thereafter, Mankulam fell. The Tigers then started proceeding southwards by vehicles along the Jaffna-Vavuniya road. Government troops had captured the stretch of roadway between Vavuniya and Mankulam in Operation Jeyasikurui after 19 months of fighting. Now the Tigers were merrily cruising along the stretch. Some rearguard action was p roffered at Kanakarayanku-lam, the headquarters of the 56 Division manning the eastern Wanni sector. But the following day, Kanakarayankulam too fell. Then the Tigers went further south to Puliyankulam, which also succumbed the same day.

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Finally, on November 7, the LTTE reached Panickaneeraavi on the outskirts of Omanthai, 15 km south of Vavuniya. Omanthai too had been captured by the Army in May 1997. The rapidly retreating troops finally dug in at Omanthai. Reinforced by troops from Va vuniya and artillery field guns, the Army began defending Omanthai. Other places where some resistance was displayed were Madhiyamadhu and Nainamadhu on the Puliyankulam-Nedunkeny stretch; Othi-yamalai and Pattikkudiyiruppu in the Nedunkeny area; Karappu kuthi and Katkidanku near Kanakarayankulam; and Semamadhu near Omanthai.

The LTTE has also seized some points on the western sector or areas to the west of the A-9 highway. Moondrumurippu near Mankulam, Mannakulam near Kanakarayankulam and Puthoor near Puliyankulam have been seized. Some Air Force personnel and soldiers were killed or injured.

The LTTE has also begun artillery attacks on Pallamadhu and Palampitty in Mannar. Both these places are of strategic importance in the context of an attempt to take the Mannar-Pooneryn road. After Operation Jeyasikurui aimed at securing the A-9 highway w as aborted, the Army had launched a series of operations, named Ranaghosha, or battlecry, and seized a lot of territory and vast stretches of the Pooneryn road. It was said that the objective was to utilise the Mannar-Pooneryn road as the land route to J affna.

The government began its manoeuvres in the Wanni with the launching of Operation Jeyasikurui, but called them off in December 1998. The operation had seen the Army sustain tremendous losses, with the LTTE taking to positional warfare by defending entrenc hed positions. Now, after the first stage of Oyatha Alaigal-III, the Army has lost 30 km of the 44-km stretch it had seized on the A-9 highway and, according to preliminary estimates, 1,269 sq km of territory on the eastern Wanni front. It has lost in ju st a week areas annexed over a period of two and a half years: the losses include 10 bases, 24 camps, 116 posts and an unknown number of bunkers. Massive amounts of arms, ammunition, equipment, tanks and armoured cars and other vehicles were seized by th e Tigers. So too were large amounts of dry rations. Although the Government puts it at unbelievably low levels, the Army and the Navy have lost more than a thousand men, Opposition parties allege. The LTTE claims that its losses are only in hundreds.

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The more significant aspect of the fighting was the fact that the LTTE adopted conventional techniques to chase the Army out. Thousands of troops literally ran away instead of fighting. There have been reports of rebellion, in some places of which office rs and military policemen were shot. Large-scale desertions have occurred. There has been a breakdown in discipline. In short, the Army, despite its numerical and logistical superiority, has been decisively routed. How did this happen?

TWO developments occurred on the first day itself, and these had important consequences in the course of war in the immediate future. First, the LTTE used newly acquired anti-aircraft weapons to bring down two helicopters and damage a plane. The Air Forc e panicked, thinking that the Tigers possessed the ability to blast planes in the skies. The Air Force suspended all active engagement in the conflict for more than a week. Thus the beleaguered ground troops on different fronts in the eastern Wanni secto r could not receive assistance from the Air Force for quite a while.

Secondly, the officials in Oddusuddan hastily loaded a South African "Buffel" tank with all communication codes and signal crypts and tried to send it to the 56 Division headquarters at Kanakarayankulam after their camp came under attack. The tank got bo gged down in the slush. As the troops abandoned it, the Tigers seized it. Using the codes, the LTTE began penetrating the radio communications system of the Army. As a knee-jerk reaction, the Army stopped all internal communications. The communications e quipment within the combat zone went dead for several days. As a result, panic and confusion set in among the troops.

The primary cause for the debacle was the suspension of aerial contact and radio communications. Without a proper leadership issuing directives or morale-boosting reassurances, the individual Army detachments began withdrawing. Several officers had begun retreating, instead of urging the soldiers to stand and fight. The Government's refusal to accept the bodies of soldiers from the LTTE in the conflict zone also fuelled troop resentment. A collapse of logistical support hampering transport, food supplie s and medical treatment also created a demoralising impact. After fighting at Oddusuddan and a few other places, the soldiers preferred "flight" to "fight". An angle being probed by the Government is sabotage and propaganda by pro-United National Party ( UNP) elements. It is suspected that some officers who support the main Opposition party had sabotaged the war effort.

In its anxiety to find scapegoats, the Government has transferred all senior commanding officers. But there is criticism of the political leadership itself. Many intelligence warnings went unheeded because the Government wanted a quick military victory t o boost its chances in the presidential election. Monsoon rain had made the terrain in the Wanni region difficult for military operations, but Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte wanted a military drive. Hence Operation Watershed was launched t o take Ambakamam first, and follow it up with further incursions. The stationing of troops on the outer perimeter endangered other points, which the Tigers exploited. Another reason for demoralisation among the troops was the realisation that they were b eing cynically expended in a war that had the ruling party's electoral victory as its ultimate motive. According to Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the pro-UNP newspaper Sunday Leader, "The Government has to face the fact that the defeat was a r esult of bad military planning. The soldiers deserted because they realised they were not fighting a war to save the country but to further the interests of a particular political party."

THREE salient points that contributed to the LTTE successes were tremendous artillery barrages, the rapid mobility of personnel and vehicles, and expert tactics. After the initial stages, the element of surprise was no longer there: thereafter it was onl y superior mobility, better tactics and the precise use of artillery that mattered. The very same weather conditions that affected military movement did not hinder the Tigers. Also, the LTTE allowed the retreating soldiers an escape route in most cases i nstead of trying to surround and decimate them. This led to most soldiers opting to run away rather than fight. It must be noted that in many earlier operations, the denial of escape routes by the Tigers contributed to soldiers rallying and fighting a li teral battle for survival, thereby preventing an outright LTTE victory.

Another area where the LTTE made an impact was Weli Oya or Manal Aaru. This strategic region was carved out by the UNP, with the objective of ending the territorial contiguity of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The P.A. Government, after the initial successes of Jeyasikurui, embarked on implementing the scheme of colonising armed settlers and establishing a network of camps. It must be remembered that Tamil inhabitants were driven away earlier in a systematic f orm of ethnic cleansing. The LTTE has succeeded in destroying several camps in Weli Oya and continues to put pressure on the region. More than 7,000 Sinhala settlers have fled the area.

VAVUNIYA, the southernmost town of the Northern Province, too is under threat. The LTTE announced that it was going to shell the town and asked residents to move away. This led to about 9,000 people abandoning the town. Fearing a major assault, the armed forces gathered in large numbers in Vavuniya, transforming it into a garrison town. Instead of organising a swift counter-attack, the Army focussed its energy on protecting Vavuniya.

THE objectives of the LTTE in triggering such an exodus are yet to be revealed. It is, however, assumed that by threatening to invade Vavuniya, the Tigers succeeded in stalling government efforts to mobilise a swift counter-attack in the areas that were lost. Instead, it has concentrated personnel in Vavuniya. This gave the LTTE time to transport the arms and equipment that were seized and to revise its defence structures. Since the Tigers had not bargained for such early gains, they need time to consol idate and build defences to retain seized areas. They also need time for logistical preparations to continue their operations.

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Given the prevailing low morale and poor fighting spirit among the armed forces, the LTTE decided to strike again. After a brief period of "rest" between November 9 and 17, the Tigers recommenced operations, in the northwestern sector this time. A number of military positions were attacked simultaneously. Most of these camps had been established on interior roads after different stages of Operation Ranaghosha. They were extremely vulnerable, being mere "islets" of troops in a surrounding "ocean" of LTTE -infested jungle terrain. They served very little strategic value. But to a government wanting to impress Sinhala voters with the extent of "real estate" acquired from the LTTE, it became a necessity to retain these camps. In the process, the Army spread itself thin and played into Tiger hands.

The LTTE took over a number of camps in a matter of days with comparatively little bloodshed. A repetition of the earlier pattern of soldiers deserting positions on their being pounded by artillery was quite evident. Areas such as Palampitty, Thatchanama ruthamadhu, Palamottai, Vaarikkuttiyoor, Navvi, Periyathambanai, Periyapandivirichan, Sinnapandivirichan and Periyamadhu were overrun with comparative ease. One area where the LTTE met with stiff resistance was Iranailuppaikulam. The large base there pro ved to be formidable. With Army reinforcements having been sent to Iranailuppaikulam, fighting continues in the area.

On the Mannar-Pooneryn road, the strategic junction of Pallamadhu was taken, along with Pappamottai and Naayaaruveli. Although the LTTE is yet to gain a permanent presence on the Vavuniya-Mannar road, it has succeeded in driving the Army back from most a reas to the north of this road. The Army now retains positions only on this road and has forbidden civilian movement on it.

Emboldened by these successes, the LTTE began an artillery attack against the main camp at Thallady in Mannar district. Thallady guards and controls the causeway to Mannar island where the important town of Mannar is located. The Tigers also shipped fiel d guns to Erukkalampitty on the island and began attacking the Army camp at the Mannar Fort premises. Later, Sea Tiger boats from the Nachikkudah base tried to invade the island at the Pallimunai coast.

Another controversial and sad event was the attack on Madhu (see box). On November 18, the LTTE surrounded the outlying areas of the church. The Army left the church premises. The Tigers did not stay in the church, in deference to the wishes of the pries ts. On November 20, a commando unit stormed their way into the church. About 3,500 refugees were asked to sleep inside the church and the adjoining Sacred Heart Chapel. At about 10-15 p.m. there was some shelling. The Army says that the LTTE fired the sh ells. The Tigers say that the Army had tried to move on to Palampitty and were repulsed by them. They maintain that the retreating soldiers had trained their tanks on the chapel.

Since fighting continues in the northwestern sector and positions are fluctuating, it is not possible to assess the total situation. But the LTTE does seem to have retaken 800 to 900 sq km of territory at least in this second stage of its operation. Thre e major camps at Periyamadhu, Periyathambanai and Palampitty, along with a number of smaller ones, have fallen. Neither the rate of casualties nor the nature of the military tactics adopted by the LTTE is known. But the important question is why the mili tary debacle was in such colossal proportions. In the first stage, of course, there was the element of surprise. But after the fighting started, the other camps should have been vigilant and prepared.

THE major consequence of this military campaign is that the LTTE has demonstrated its military resilience once again. The avowed objective of Chandrika Kumaratunga's war for peace stands exposed as a non-workable exercise. Even if the Tigers are compelle d to relinquish the newly taken territory, they have very effectively made the point that the organisation simply cannot be undermined gradually. Also, no strategy based on the ephemeral conquest of territory is workable. As such, bold and creative alter natives for a resolution of the conflict will have to be found in the long term. In the short term, the fighting will continue.

The Army's reversals have encouraged the Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is the chief opponent of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the presidential election. The UNP chief hopes to hold talks with the Tigers, if elected. He says that there is no mili tary solution to the ethnic conflict and that the Tigers cannot be wished away. The LTTE has to be politically accommodated. The military reversals have considerably diminished Kumaratunga's expectations and increased Wickremasinghe's. The boundaries are now back to where the Wanni hostilities began, and all the gains by the Government have been negated. But excessive victories by the LTTE may provoke a Sinhala backlash, which may result in Kumaratunga doing well.

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora too is elated. Being hopelessly unrealistic and uncompromisingly intransigent, these sections now feel that Eelam is just around the corner. Despite being witness to so much territory change hands so many times, these elemen ts construe the latest Tiger successes as an indicator of ultimate victory over the Colombo Government. That the LTTE leadership itself neither expected nor prepared itself to acquire so much territory in such a short time is lost on these sections. The very same sections that were shouting themselves hoarse calling for peace talks are now using jingoistic statements: no need for talks until Eelam. Also, massive fund-raising campaigns are being undertaken successfully.

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The strategy adopted by the LTTE for the greater part of this year was perplexing. Nevertheless, with the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear now that the tactics worked.

Now it is Chandrika Kumaratunga's turn. With the presidential election just around the corner, she would be constrained to launch some dramatic counter-attacks, if possible. This is a risky - and from a humanitarian perspective unacceptable - option, but there does not seem to be any other way out for her.

So the cycle of violence will continue. It remains to be seen when the Sri Lankan forces will start their operations and how the Tigers will react.

Caught in the crossfire in Vavuniya

cover-story
V.S. SAMBANDAN recently in Vavuniya

CAUGHT between despair and hope - that sums up the state of the residents of Vavuniya. The sound of heavy artillery sends them helter-skelter, whether it is day or night.

Vanuniya's woes started in early November when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam embarked on its offensive in the Wanni region. When Operation Oyatha Alaigal began along the eastern flank of the Kandy-Jaffna road (A-9 highway), the residents were caut iously optimistic that their town would not be affected. However, in just over a week, they found themselves packing their belongings and proceeding to areas specified by the LTTE. The LTTE, in broadcasts on the Voice of Tigers (VoT), asked them to shift from Vavuniya town, Pandarikkulam, Katkuli, Thonikkal, Vairavapuliyankulam, Pattanippuram, Veppankulam, Nelukkulam, Thand-ikkulam and Pathinarmagilamkulam, as the Army camps there could be shelled. The safer places it suggested included Aasikkulam and R ajendrakulam.

A few days after most of the town's residents, estimated at around 80,000, had evacuated, another LTTE broadcast asked them to shift back to their homes but warned them to keep off the Army camps. (No correct estimate of the population figures of Vavuniy a is available, and this confirms the distancing of the northern districts from the rest of the island. As no census was taken in the northern and eastern areas since 1981, actual population estimates vary from the figure provided by the Government, whic h is 50,000, to that mentioned by relief agencies, 1,00,000.) The confusion over numbers notwithstanding, it was a matter of grave humanitarian concern.

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The residents of Vavuniya did as they were told. The Tigers ensured that their word was taken as a command by the civilians in the government-held areas. The military aggression of the days preceding the announcement only reemphasised this. "I did not pe rsonally hear the LTTE announcements, but I was told that the leader wanted us to move. So I obeyed. Then, he wanted us to return. We did so," said a resident of Vavuniya. Some Tamil leaders were of the opinion that the LTTE carried out the entire Vavuni ya exercise just to prove a point. "It caused so much of misery to the people to prove the point that its word carried weight."

THE majority of people who fled Vavuniya during the current offensive were those who had sought refuge in the town after their lives were disrupted in an earlier offensive elsewhere in the north. Thousands of people - students and traders, landlords and the landless, professionals and casual workers, government employees and shopkeepers - who were uprooted from the battle-scarred northern districts had only started life anew in Vavuniya.

On November 11, when the LTTE asked them to move out, they were confused. Did the Tigers mean what they said? Was it a ruse to send the Army into panic? Was it a rumour spread to cause confusion? However, all doubts ended the following morning.

Moving out of the heavily fortified town was the first priority. "Those of us who have passes (issued by the police) can go to Colombo, but others would have to stay behind," was the initial reaction.

"I am going to lock my house and flee. In which direction? The Tigers have specified some locations. We will follow their instructions," a watchman of a lodge in the town said.

IN Rajendrakulam near Vavuniya, a new settlement had come up overnight. Several families were living under extreme odds - under trees or bullock carts, in makeshift huts, in semi-finished houses and in thatched-roof schools.

"I have been on the move since the 1970s," said I. Sabaratnam, a former employee of the Excise Department. He has practically lived out of his suitcase, having moved to whichever area the displaced people were sent to. The exodus from Vavuniya brought lu ck to Sabaratnam, who now owns a soft drink stall. "Look at the wares I sell," he said pointing to the stacked-up bottles of aerated drinks and household goods. "Traders from Vavuniya sold them at rock-bottom prices. They just wanted to sell their stocks and take the money before fleeing." With a shop located in a displaced region, finding buyers could well turn out to be his next problem.

Along the dirt track that runs across Bharatipuram, another location near Vavuniya, families live in tents, children play in makeshift swings and men huddle around a tea-stall.

"Whether we have money or not, what we need is passes," said Thurairaja, a former resident of Jaffna. For people like him who have been constantly uprooted, the main concern is to ensure that all members of their family have passes. "Only that will ensur e that we travel together." In the militarised zone, only civilians holding a pass issued by the police can move about freely. People without passes could be taken for militants.

"Imagine carrying passes in one's own land. I was leading a comfortable life in Jaffna. I owned a car, my family was well-settled. The troubles began and we left. Now I work as a mason. But there is not enough work."

For Shah Jahan, who fled Jaffna after the LTTE began its ethnic-cleansing, his family's return to Vavuniya would be determined by the Tigers. "If they remain in the area, I will not come back," he said, as he waited for a bus to take his family to the Mu slim-majority Puttalam town.

Voluntary organisations gave priority to providing shelter. But those who wanted tents were required to produce their passes and register themselves with government officials.

Dharmalingam, a leftist now in his sixties, is in a tearing hurry. "I have a list of 70 people. I want to ensure that everybody gets some kind of shelter. Let us go fast, the officials may go away," he says as he gathers a group of people. At the makeshi ft office, an empty desk awaits him. "They have gone," a 50-year-old widow tells him. "I have to come back. I hope it does not rain (for the people have no roof over their heads)," he says. He added: "Some of the former militant groups have helped us. Th e houses, which are yet to be completed, were built at the initiative of the members of Parliament belonging to the People's Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE)."

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At Bharatipuram, cadres of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) were overseeing mass cooking for the displaced. "We are trying to do our best. Some rice, some curry, some vegetables," says Ganeshamoorthy, urging the workers to finish the task f ast. As the rice boils, there is a cloudburst. A heavy downpour sends the people running for cover. And with that goes the hope of a meal.

THE situation in Vavuniya changed rapidly when the Tigers asked the displaced people to return to the town on November 17. The residents returned to their moorings, to begin the process of normalcy. But this was shattered by incessant shelling of Army po sitions north of Vavuniya. A shell which landed at Thonikkal, on the outskirts of the town, killed a child and injured three persons. Panic set in again with hundreds of civilians taking shelter at a church in the town. "We do not stir out after dark," s aid Ganesh, a casual worker. After dusk, the roads are largely deserted, with most people choosing to stay indoors.

In the areas near Vavuniya, an uneasy calm prevailed. "We don't know what will happen next," said a shopkeeper at Medawachchiya, south of Vavuniya.

Rather than the threat of a Tiger advance, it is the refugee influx that is a matter of concern for the people living in the vicinity of Vavuniya. In Anuradhapura, further south, Sinhalese residents of Vavuniya had sought refuge with their friends and re latives.

The Army maintains a nervous vigil, checking all those who enter or leave the town. At a checkpoint outside the town, students wait for some mode of transport to take them to safety. Resumption of normal life depends on the course the conflict would take next.

A close race

V.S. SAMBANDAN cover-story

Tamil voters may hold the key in the December 21 presidential elections in Sri Lanka. But how many will actually vote?

"The military don't start wars. Politicians start wars."

- William Westmoreland

SRI LANKA is at a crucial political juncture. An estimated 11.8 million voters approach the presidential election scheduled for December 21. The two main contestants are President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Given the country's sensitive voting structure, the minority vote will determine the outcome. Support for the two main contestants, fielded by the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.) and the Opposition United National Party (UNP), is evenly balanced.

In the 1994 elections, Chandrika Kumaratunga, contesting on a promise of bringing peace to the northern area, won a landslide victory with the support of the Tamil vote. This time around, she is determined that there will be no cessation of hostilities u ntil the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is militarily weakened and brought to the negotiating table on the government's terms.

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The ruling formation is further handicapped by the current military setbacks in the Wanni region.

Wickremasinghe, who had remained silent on the Government's peace package for the last four years, approaches the elections with a "pact with the people" agenda, which includes, among other things, talks with the Tigers and a promise of "rehabilitating t he militant cadres" after finding a solution to the conflict.

While Chandrika Kumaratunga presents the "peace package" that she was unable to push through in Parliament owing to the absence of a two-thirds majority, Wickremasinghe pins his hopes on the "pact".

For his part, V. Prabakaran, the LTTE supremo, has placed the militarisation issue clearly on the agenda by launching the third phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal soon after the election dates were announced. Scoring victory after victory in the eastern p arts of the Wanni, the LTTE moved to the western flank, thereby maintaining pressure on the Government, and consequently, on the southern polity.

The LTTE offensive also ties up the resolution of the ethnic conflict with military action and comes as a challenge to the island's liberal-thinking peace constituency.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the electioneering will be the manner in which the majority vote will be sought. The Tamil voters, for all practical purposes, have distanced themselves from Chandrika, who was elected last time on the promise of br inging about an "honourable peace". The experience of the past four years has, however, made it impossible for even moderate Tamil politicians to tell voters to back her this time. "We do not have anything to show the Tamils that concrete gains have been made," a Tamil politician said. Another said that he was likely to be dismissed by the Tamil electorate if he sought their vote for the President.

Wickremasinghe's position is no better. Even those Tamil voters who are opposed to the candidature of Chandrika Kumaratunga are reluctant to espouse the cause of the UNP. Anxious to distance themselves from the mainstream parties, overall a large section of the Tamils seem to show a lack of interest in the elections.

"It is an election with which we are not concerned," said a voter in Vavuniya. Echoing similar sentiments, some residents of Jaffna said that it was practically "a southern election". One voter said: "With the Army present all over this place, the though t of an election is secondary to our interests."

The eastern Batticaloa district overwhelmingly voted for Chandrika Kumaratunga last time. This time the situation has changed. "We gave her the largest number of votes, but we are disappointed," a Tamil leader from the area said.

This sets the stage for the ruling coalition to succumb to pressures from majoritarian sentiments. The recent crossing over of some known Sinhala hardliners from the UNP - Nanda Mathews, Wijepala Mendis and Susil Moonasinghe - points to this possibility. Significantly, Moonasinghe stated in clear terms after his cross-over that he was opposed to the peace package which alters the unitary status of the Constitution. He added that he was, prior to his defection, proposed by the island's Buddhist clergy as a presidential candidate.

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The continued impasse on the conflict-resolution front, and the military actions in the north, could also mean a reduction in the number of Tamils who will cast their votes. With the LTTE capturing more territory, there is a possibility of the elections turning out to be predominantly southern (read Sinhalese) affair.

With 13 candidates in the fray, the largest number in any presidential election in the country, the coming weeks promise to throw up a cacophony of voices. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has fielded a politburo member, Nandana Gunathilaka, who espou ses a single-point agenda of the abolition of the Executive Presidency. During the previous election, the JVP had withdrawn its candidate in favour of Chandrika Kumaratunga as she had promised to do away with the Executive Presidency. Given the nature of its Left-wing constituency, the JVP could eat into the votes of the P.A. This is an added disadvantage for the P.A., as already the incumbency factor is working against it. The UNP, on the other hand, is yet to be seen as a party which could provide an alternative.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara of the Left and Democratic Alliance has the backing of non-governmental organisations. He hopes that the Tamil vote would come his way. He has promised to stop the war and end the difficulties faced by Tamils.

Other contestants include Harishchandra Wijayatunga of the Sinhalaye Mahasammathe Bhoomiputra Pakshya, who is for a "Sinhala-Buddhist state"; Rajiva Wijesinha, an academician belonging to the Liberal Party; and Tennyson Edirisurya, who has declared his o pposition to the Executive Presidency. Edirisurya has called upon the voters to invalidate their votes and has promised to do so himself.

Militarisation of Madhu

REVERED by people of all religious faiths, the Roman Catholic Madhu church, in the battle zone, has been a nest of peace through the island's bloodiest conflicts. The Dutch-period shrine was shelled on November 21, leaving 38 civilians dead. The Sacred H eart chapel and a section of the main shrine were damaged.

During periods of turmoil, the shrine and its precincts, an enclave of tranquillity, have offered refuge to thousands of displaced persons, almost entirely Tamil. Priests had persuaded both the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LT TE) not to take their battle to the pilgrimage centre. The situation, however, changed gradually since March.

Once the Sri Lankan security forces gained control over the shrine, the LTTE left the area. A minimal presence of government commandos was maintained there. The priests protested against the militarisation of the pilgrimage centre. The Government took ov er Madhu in March just ahead of the Provincial Council elections in the south and interpreted this as a "military gain". The town was soon given power supply. Simultaneously, thousands of refugees who had lived there for years were evacuated and "rehabil itated" either in their villages or in government-held areas.

In mid-November, the shrine was back in focus. As the LTTE moved westwards with its Operation Unceasing Waves III, some 3,500 persons from Mannar district moved into the church as refugees. The Tigers had earlier taken towns and villages to the north, an d civilians had flocked to Madhu. The Tigers followed suit. On November 18, government troops left the shrine and the Tigers gained control over the church and its precincts. Two days later, government troops "regained control over Madhu".

According to the priests, "the Army came in with its armoured cars into the pilgrimage centre". The peace of the church was shattered by artillery fire the same night. The Lankan Defence Ministry, which had maintained silence on the loss of Madhu, blamed the LTTE: it said that "after the security forces consolidated the area," the LTTE "launched a heavy- artillery-and-mortar attack indiscriminately on the Madhu church premises." Church authorities said that 13 of those killed were children. At least 56 people, including 25 children were injured.

Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, the Bishop of Mannar and the secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka, said: "Such a desecration has never happened of in the church's 450-year history." Church leaders appealed to "both the state forces and the LTTE to immediately withdraw from the sacred area of the shrine of Madhu... to strictly refrain from using Madhu for any strategic or political advantage... and leave Madhu completely free for the pilgrims to visit the shrine without any restriction for their spiritual purposes."

Paradeep's problems

THE Paradeep Port Trust (PPT) authorities knew what was coming, thanks to the Internet. They lost no time in taking measures according to a contingency plan formulated by the Union Government in the wake of the cyclone havoc at the Kandla port two years ago.

"We did not rely much on the forecasts by the Meteorological Department, which were general in nature. Instead, we started surfing the Net and at least two sites gave us a clear picture of the projected route, movement and intensity of the impending stor m. We were on the alert," PPT Chairman S.K. Mohapatra said.

"Having lived in Paradeep for more than 30 years, we have learnt one thing: never take a cyclone warning signal lightly," Dilip Misra, PPT Traffic Manager, said.

The first priority was to force the berthed ships out of the port. There were six such vessels. Five of these were moved to mid-sea where the effect of the storm on them would be less severe. The vessels returned to the port after the Navy declared the n avigation channel clear for traffic on November 6.

A sixth vessel, Spar Opal, which was loading steel coil, refused to sail out. Its moorings snapped and it was pushed from one berth to another, but it suffered no major damage. As it happened, the vessel's onboard satellite telephone system was the only means of communication Paradeep had with the outside world.

Eight vessels were waiting outside the port for berths. All but one left as soon as the cyclone struck.

No piece of major equipment at the port was damaged. Mohapatra said that the port authorities did everything possible to protect the equipment. The projecting parts of large equipment were lowered and fastened with bolts and the equipment was removed to safer places. However, some losses were inevitable. For example, the roofs of the transit sheds were blown off. Sea water damaged transformers and electric motors. Sand-casting has reduced the depth of the channel by about two metres: the channel has to be dredged. Navigational lights are gone, so are the pylons.

What has caused the most concern is the damage to the railway tracks between Rahama and Paradeep on the Cuttack-Paradeep section of the South Eastern Railway. The movement of bulk items such as coal and ore to and from the port has been hampered. Bulk it ems constitute more than 95 per cent of the port's traffic. Coastal shipment of thermal coal for the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) and other consumers could be resumed as nearly 2.5 lakh tonnes of ground stock was lying at the port. Thermal coal ac counts for seven million tonnes of the port's total throughput of 13 million tonnes. The TNEB's share in the thermal coal traffic is more than five million tonnes.

The problem that coking coal importers such as the Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tisco) and Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) faced was even greater. The imported coking coal lying at the port premises cannot be evacuated unless the railway lines ar e repaired. To solve the problem, Tisco chartered a vessel to ship it to Haldia for onward movement by rail. Thus, part of the coking coal stock was shifted, though at a cost.

"We estimate the loss of port property at Rs.80 crores," Mohapatra said, pointing out that several private firms that undertook port projects on contract had complained of a combined loss of Rs.20 crores. "We will request the Centre to provide funds to m eet the additional expenditure," he said, adding that the suspension of normal port operations entailed a loss of income of about Rs.60 lakhs a day.

Rebuilding work to facilitate early resumption of normal operations took a back seat as the port authorities were forced to devote themselves to relief work. A large number of people living in shanties on port lands and the residents of villages close to the port were badly affected. Moreover, the port authorities had to coordinate the relief work undertaken by various government and non-governmental agencies. For this reason, they could not pay continued attention to the work on the Asian Development B ank-aided coal handling plant. The commissioning of the plant will now be delayed by at least six months.

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Although the Navy deployed seven vessels and cleared the navigation channel, work could not resume. Even two weeks after the cyclone, Paradeep had no power supply. Since the public sector Paradeep Phosphates Ltd (PPL) was hit badly, the berth dedicated t o it did not receive vessels.

Absenteeism, in view of the cyclone and the scare of ammonia leaks, was another factor that stood in the way of the resumption of normal work. Rumours of leaks in the PPL's ammonia storage tanks (the plant had released small quantities of ammonia in orde r to ensure the safety of the tanks) led to a virtual exodus of workers. Significantly, only one port employee died: he lived in a thatched hut, having sublet his official quarters.

Several fishermen living along the Paradeep coast were killed. Although not employed by the port, they used the fishing harbour, which is part of the port complex. As soon as the cyclone warning was received, the port authorities had urged the people liv ing in the shanties in the port area to move under pucca structures. Most of them allegedly ignored the warning.

THE PPL bore the brunt of the cyclone. Its phosphoric acid and sulphuric acid plants were damaged. Between 5,000 and 6,000 tonnes of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) worth about Rs.6 crores, stored in silos, was destroyed. The boundary walls of the plant and the township collapsed. Attempts were being made to resume DAP production in November itself. However, H. Mishra, Chairman and Managing Director, told Frontline that the acid plants would not resume production immediately. An assessment of the los s suffered by PPL would take time. The condition of the equipment would be known only after power supply was restored, Mishra said.

Mishra appealed to the Centre for special assistance. The appeal, it is learnt, has not gone totally unheeded. The Centre has before it a financial restructuring proposal for PPL. However, the sanction of grant would depend on the assessment of loss. As per the proposal, the accumulated loss of about Rs.256 crores would be knocked off from the book of accounts. The present equity size of Rs.214 crores would be reduced to Rs.2.14 crores and the loan of Rs.230 crores converted into equity. The interest on the loan too has to be waived by way of book adjustments. "Once the restructuring plan is implemented, PPL will start afresh, on a clean slate," Mishra said.

The loss suffered by the DAP plant of Oswal Chemicals & Fertilisers is put at Rs.100 crores. The two-million-tonne plant, estimated to cost Rs.2,000 crores, was due for commissioning in November. Now the commissioning has been deferred until January. Abh ay Oswal, its Chairman, said that the exact extent of the loss would be known after the insurance company assessed the extent of the damage. The project's prime consultant, United States-based Jacobs, Humphreys and Glasgow, was involved in the assessment exercise.

The company, Oswal said, did relief work in 180 villages under 47 panchayats, with a total population of four lakhs. "We distributed about 1,000 tonnes of foodgrains and we will distribute another 3,000 tonnes," he said. Saris, dhotis and materials for s helters had also been distributed. The Oswals propose to spend Rs.10 crores on relief work and have involved their employees from all over the country in the operation. "We have a commitment to the people of the place where we have put up such a huge pla nt with so much investment," Oswal said.

'A judicious selection'

politics

Political observers consider Rajnath Singh, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Uttar Pradesh unit, the real winner in the latest power struggles in the party. Although his ambition to become Chief Minister did not materialise, the gen eral perception is that it was his manoeuvres that thwarted other contenders to the post, such as Kalraj Mishra. The central leadership's announcement that there is no move to replace Rajnath Singh as party president has also strengthened his hands. In t his interview to Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, Rajnath Singh gives an assessment of the situation in the State BJP and the government. Excerpts:

What will be the impact of the change of leadership on the government and the party?

I do not think that the change of leadership in government and related initiatives have been made on account of any crisis in the State BJP. Every party and organisation makes changes in its organisational and administrative set-ups to improve its functi oning. This is what has happened here.

But a group of legislators had been running a campaign against Kalyan Singh for many months. Kalyan Singh also criticised the BJP leadership.

Allegations and counter-allegations are natural in politics. But the point to note is that the BJP has never pursued its politics on the basis of caste, creed or class. It always strove to take all classes and castes on the basis of its unifying socio-po litical philosophy. Sections of the party had deviated, although slightly, from this basic understanding. Some of them had involved in verbal duels too. All this had created an abnormal situation in the party. But it will be an exaggeration to brand it a crisis. All that our central leadership did was to take corrective steps to make the situation in the party normal. And this was done in a very smooth manner.

How far did the record of the Kalyan Singh government lead to the development of the abnormal situation cited by you?

The Kalyan Singh government took a host of steps that were beneficial to the State and its people. But as in the case of every government, there could have been some mistake or the other. The central leadership took that also into consideration while tak ing corrective steps.

The central leadership has selected Ram Prakash Gupta, who has been out of active politics for nearly a decade, as a compromise candidate.

It is not right to see Ram Prakash Gupta as a compromise candidate. He is one of the senior most leaders of the party in the State and has vast experience in government and in the organisation. He understands the various problems and the possibilities of the State well. In fact, the central leadership has made an extremely judicious selection. I congratulate them on this.

What are your priorities now as the president of the BJP's State unit?

I shall strive to make the party stronger under the leadership and guidance of Ram Prakash Guptaji. The difference of the party from other political parties has to be highlighted properly. The fact that the party leadership is one with the masses in shar ing their miseries and happiness would be emphasised again through our actions.

Kalyan Singh has said that the BJP suffered electoral reverses in Uttar Pradesh mainly because it abandoned issues such as the Ram temple, Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code.

The central leadership has gone into all these questions and will study the opinion expressed by Kalyan Singhji. Only after a comprehensive assessment can one give a response on this.

You had offered to resign as party president owning moral responsibility for the electoral reverses. The central leadership accepted similar offer from Kalyan Singh but has rejected yours. What do you think is the reason for the difference in the resp onses?

I had taken up the moral responsibility and offered to resign. But I am also a disciplined soldier of the party. Hence I have to abide by the decision of the leadership, whatever it is. If the central leadership thinks that I have to continue to look aft er the organisational affairs of the party, I cannot disobey it and insist on my resignation.

'Caution will be my watchword'

politics

Ram Prakash Gupta was as surprised as the rest of the political class in Uttar Pradesh when he was chosen as Kalyan Singh's successor. Known for his austere ways, 76-year-old Ram Prakash Gupta's qualification for the top job was that he was not pa rt of any group in the State unit of the BJP and was acceptable to all groups. Venkitesh Ramakrishnan met the Chief Minister at his official residence in Lucknow to find out about his priorities and how he proposed to pursue them. Excerpts from th e interview:

You have taken over as Chief Minister at a time when the BJP faces internal dissension. Also, there are complaints about misrule by the earlier regime. What are your priorities now?

My primary objective is to improve the understanding between the party and the government. In this, I am getting support from all sections, including the MLAs of the ruling coalition, the workers of our party and the people in general. I myself am a repr esentative of the high command and that ensures the cooperation of the central leadership. Because of these factors, I am certain that my job will be relatively easy and that I will be able to accomplish the party's objectives.

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During the Kalyan Singh regime, sections of the State and central leaderships identified three major problems - lack of coordination between the government and the party; tussles between various factions led by prominent leaders; and divisions on cas te lines in the State leadership, which had manifested themselves during the Lok Sabha elections. What specific steps would you take to address these issues?

These are not permanent problems that cannot be solved. These can be overcome with some care by the leadership, including the Chief Minister. But problems such as these should not be seen as the creation of a single person. Nor is finding a solution to t hem the responsibility of one person. And, if the government and the party function in such a manner as to bring welfare and justice to the people without bias or favour, these problems would disappear automatically.

There is a perception that you are a stop-gap Chief Minister with a specific brief - to run a feel-good government that would create the right ambience for mid-term elections. It is also said that because of your long absence from active politics, yo u have difficulty in understanding and adapting to contemporary political practice.

Elections are not in my mind. Nor are they part of my brief. As far as I am concerned, elections are far way. My task is to provide good governance and I want to strive towards this end with the help of my MLAs and the bureaucracy. With regard to my abil ity to adapt to the new political situation, I have full knowledge of the situation, its challenges and nuances. I am also aware that there is no use talking about the past. But I am sure that I can learn what is to be learnt, by taking a realistic appro ach, realising my strengths and weaknesses as they are. My effort will be to make my actions speak louder than words. That, I hope, will put an end to all this talk about my inability to adapt to the political situation.

You said that providing justice and welfare to the people would be your primary concern. Does it imply that the Kalyan Singh regime was not able to do this?

I do not say that. My predecessors have done so much. But nobody is perfect. There could have been decisions and programmess that upset people. I will look into all these.

Some decisions taken by Kalyan Singh during the last days of his government, particularly the one on the appointment of his friends and close associates to sinecures, have generated controversy. Will you review these decisions?

There is no need to review all decisions. But if there are specific charges, I shall look into them.

A section within the BJP is opposed to the reforms initiated by Kalyan Singh in the financial and power sectors and in local administration...

I shall look into such specific questions. There is a perception that some of these plans were pushed ahead in a hasty manner. So, caution will be my watchword.

Could this review lead to a rollback of some of these steps?

It could. If a rollback is in the interests of the people, we will do that. I want to assert that these measures should not be seen as steps against a person or a group. I would like decisions on these matters to be unanimous. Hence, I shall ensure wide- ranging consultations on these matters.

There is a perception that Kalyan Singh is being isolated by both your government and the party. The exclusion of his supporters from the Cabinet is cited as a case in point.

This is all media speculation. You will see all of us working together harmoniously.

There is the feeling that the intervention of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in government will increase, since you are more committed to the RSS than Kalyan Singh is.

There will be no need for the RSS to intervene. All its intervention will be done through me, because I am the seniormost RSS worker in Uttar Pradesh. There could be more important RSS leaders in the State, but there is unanimous opinion about my being t he living example of the RSS way of life, values and ideals. So I am there to take care of the RSS interests and there is no need for intervention.

But many of the BJP's allies, such as the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) and the Janatantrik Bahujan Samaj Party (JBSP), do not accept the Hindutva philosophy of the RSS.

I would like to affirm that none of the RSS' ideals is against the people. The RSS is pro-poor and wants to remove corruption from society. The RSS has idealism unmatched by any other organisation. If I may add, the Hindutva philosophy was manifest in a striking manner in Mahatma Gandhi. If you realise the fact that Gandhi was the greatest Hindu of this century, then there is no difficulty in understanding Hindutva. The RSS has kept Gandhi as part of its "pratha smarana" (things and people to be remembered first in the morning) along with Rama and Krishna. People do not try to understand Hindutva in all its depth. They approach it superficially. To some people you are Hindu if you become anti-Muslim. I do not think these people are Hindus.

But it was the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that created this impression during the Ayodhya agitation.

I would only like to say that the basic Hindu value of life is humanity. I believe that this is the value in Islam and Christianity too. My effort will be to underscore this and create a situation of harmony in Uttar Pradesh society.

Tussles ahead

Out of power, Kalyan Singh has the potential to cause immense damage to the BJP, and although the central leadership is wary of displeasing him, hardliners in the State unit want to raise the stakes.

LEADERS who campaigned for the removal of Kalyan Singh as Chief Minister cited three reasons for the demand. They claimed, first, that the Bharatiya Janata Party's traditional support among the upper castes was eroding owing to the Kalyan Singh Governmen t's policy of appeasing backward classes. Second, they claimed, Kalyan Singh's style of governance - characterised by an excessive dependence on bureaucrats and undue interference by his family members and friends - had led to a situation where grassroot s-level leaders and activists felt alienated. Third, the leaders said, Kalyan Singh had made no effort to build a cohesive working relationship between the party organisation and the administration, and that the BJP organisational machinery had no role i n governance.

Now that Kalyan Singh has been replaced with Ram Prakash Gupta, will the BJP be able to rectify these "problems"? BJP leaders are less than optimistic. Moreover, large sections of the party at the State and central levels fear that the erosion of the BJP 's support among upper-caste groups, which are increasingly turning to the Congress(I), may be unchecked.

The BJP reckons that it lost a dozen seats in Uttar Pradesh in the recent parliamentary elections on account of the shift in the votes of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, to the Congress(I). Several central leaders, including Atal Behari Vajpayee a nd Murli Manohar Joshi, and their supporters in Uttar Pradesh had emphasised this point to reinforce their demand for Kalyan Singh's removal and the appointment in his place of a leader who would be acceptable to upper-caste groups.

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However, Home Minister L.K. Advani and his confidant and party general secretary K.N. Govindacharya pointed out that the party had lost an equal number of seats owing to an erosion in its support base among the backward classes. They did not want any imm ediate action taken against Kalyan Singh.

Obviously, the Vajpayee-Joshi combine's viewpoint prevailed: Kalyan Singh was eventually removed. However, the leadership and the rank and file are not sure whether the party can win back the support of upper-caste voters.

According to a senior Minister in the State, if the central leadership had wanted to win back the support of the upper-caste groups, it should have appointed a Brahmin or a Thakur Chief Minister, not a leader belonging to the Vaish (Bania) community. (Ba nias, who constitute an intermediate caste, account for less than 2 per cent of the State's population; Brahmins account for about 9 per cent and Thakurs 8 per cent.)

The Minister (who is a Brahmin) told Frontline that the central leadership should have acted "boldly" and appointed either Kalraj Mishra, a Brahmin, or Rajnath Singh, a Thakur. "Now," he said, "the BJP might end up losing the support of both the u pper castes as well as the backward castes whose votes Kalyan Singh used to bring in." Kalyan Singh belongs to the Lodh Rajput community, which accounts for about 6 per cent of the population; he also has significant support among the Kurmi community, wh ich accounts for around 7 per cent.

These caste equations could get further complicated if Kalyan Singh decides to rock the boat. He has two options: join hands with Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav and form of a broad coalition to represent the backward classes, or imp lement his pledge to renew the movement for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. If he chooses to team up with Mulayam Singh, it could lead to a direct political battle between the upper castes and the backward classes, and the demographic advant age will be with the backward classes. The S.P. already has a support base among Muslims; the consolidation of the backward class vote would make a new coalition a major force. Mulayam Singh, on his part, has sent feelers to Kalyan Singh: he said that Ka lyan Singh's removal was an affront to the backward classes. He called for an agitation to press for 54 per cent reservation for the backward classes.

If Kalyan Singh chooses to raise the Ram temple issue, it would reflect an attempt to exploit, once again, his twin strengths: of being a backward class leader and of being a mascot of the Ayodhya agitation. It was on the basis of these strengths that he became Chief Minister in 1991. Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the dismissal of his government, he came to be seen as a leader who sacrificed power for a greater cause.

Owing to considerations of realpolitik arising from the BJP's pursuit of coalition politics at the national level since 1998, the Ram temple issue receded into the background. In the changed circumstances, Kalyan Singh was perceived more and more within the BJP as a leader of the backward classes who would not be able to retain upper-caste support, the BJP's main base. It was this consideration that ultimately led to his removal.

It is doubtful whether his promise to renew the temple agitation will help him politically, but the message is clear. He can embarrass the central leadership, particularly Vajpayee - who he says put the temple agenda on the backburner. Sensing a chance t o return to the limelight, the sants and mahants of Ayodhya who are associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) welcomed Kalyan Singh's announcement. Evidently, Kalyan Singh proved his potential to damage the BJP.

It is this factor that compelled the central leadership to appoint Gupta, rather than a leader who had campaigned actively for Kalyan Singh's removal, his successor. Having decided to remove him, the central leadership did not want to displease him too m uch.

But an overwhelming section in the State unit of the BJP thinks that such caution has not served the party's interests. While a compromise was the preferred choice for the central leaders, the perception within the party and outside is that a weak choice has been made in order to avert an open revolt by Kalyan Singh. Sections of the upper-caste group, particularly supporters of Kalraj Mishra, blame Advani and Govindacharya for this: according to them, the two leaders accused Mishra of running a media ca mpaign to project himself as the Chief Minister and of vitiating the atmosphere to an extent where a smooth selection of a successor to Kalyan Singh became impossible.

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There are suggestions within the BJP that Rajnath Singh also played a part in this operation: he was by then sure of retaining his position as president of the State party unit and did not want Mishra or Lalji Tandon to become Chief Minister. The choice of Gupta suits Rajnath Singh; it is unlikely that Gupta, a septuagenarian who is returning to active politics after a long gap, can become a power centre in his own right.

IN the midst of all these, supporters of Kalraj Mishra and Lalji Tandon have advanced a radical line: that the central leadership provoke Kalyan Singh into leaving the party. According to them, even if Kalyan Singh teams up with Mulayam Singh and consoli dates the backward class vote, such a coalition can be countered by an alliance between the BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Mishra and Tandon have good equations with BSP leader Mayawati.

Leaders close to Advani have opposed this proposal. According to them, such a course of action would trigger a shift in the support of Muslims from the BSP to the S.P., which would render a BJP-BSP combine weak. Just how the tussle will unfold is to be s een, but it is clear that the confusion within the BJP is far from resolved despite Kalyan Singh's removal.

Party leaders such as Rajnath Singh and Gupta hope that they will be able to show better results on the two other problems identified by those who campaigned for Kalyan Singh's removal. Gupta is known for his austerity and integrity, and there is no like lihood of any undue interference in the administration by his relatives and friends. And since Rajnath Singh and Gupta have a good rapport, there could be better understanding between the party organisation and the administration. How far the new Chief M inister, who has not held an administrative office for long, will depend on bureaucrats will be watched with interest.

West Bengal: Limited losses for the Left

CSDS Team politics

IN the Lok Sabha elections of 1998 the Left Front in West Bengal received a jolt when the newly formed Trinamul Congress displaced the Congress(I) as its main rival and picked up seven seats. Many observers read it as the beginning of the end of the Left Front's uninterrupted dominance of West Bengal politics since 1977. The electoral battle this year was widely perceived as a major trial of strength for both the parties, which would provide enough hints about the outcome of the State Assembly elections , which are due in 2001.

A quick glance at the results suggests that the Left Front has not lost, as much as it would have lost had the 1998 trends continued. To be sure, it lost four seats this time. It is for the first time since 1984 that the Left Front has conceded as many a s 13 seats to its opponents. Far from being able to snatch from the BJP the only seat it won in 1998, the Left Front conceded another seat. Yet, what looked like a surge of the Trinamul-BJP combine seems to have slowed down. In terms of vote share, the L eft Front's losses were negligible this time, though at 47 per cent it stood much lower than the Left Front's vote share in the 1989 and 1991 elections. The Trinamul-BJP combine increased its vote share only by a little over two percentage points.

Perhaps the key aspect of the verdict is the ability of the Congress(I) to survive, despite having been reduced to the third place in the 1998 elections. In India's first-past-the-post electoral system, such results normally cause a political party to ta ke a nosedive in subsequent elections. But the Congress(I) lost only two percentage points in its vote share. In fact, it was even able to consolidate its votes and win two seats in addition to Malda, which it retained. Clearly, although the overall vote share of the Left Front in the latest round was far below its peak, the Trinamul-BJP combine could not consolidate any anti-Left votes in its favour.

The Congress(I) did retain not only its share of about a quarter of the votes in north Bengal, but a substantial share of the votes in Greater Calcutta, much to the chagrin of the Trinamul-BJP alliance. Although Mamata Banerjee and her allies maintained their dominance of the urban cluster in Greater Calcutta, they lost a seat here to the Left Front. The best news for the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance is that it has begun to make inroads into the rural hinterland of south Bengal, hitherto an impregnabl e fortress of the Left Front. The alliance added three percentage points of votes and three seats to its tally in this region.

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The flow of votes as revealed by the CSDS survey shows that the Trinamul-BJP combine retained the votes that it had polled last year. It also gained 24 per cent of the Congress(I) votes of last time. The Left Front retained its own votes to a slightly sm aller extent compared to the BJP but made up for the loss by snatching some Congress(I) votes. On balance, the Congress(I) lost more to the Trinamul Congress than to the Left Front. Had the exodus to the Trinamul Congress been on a larger scale, the Left Front could have been in real trouble, and the contest would have taken on a clearer bipolar character.

The electoral support base of the Left Front has a pro-lower-class profile, but not quite as sharply as in Kerala. Although it does best among the lowest section of society, it does very well among the highest too. The Congress(I) in West Bengal does bet ter among the well-off than the poor, which is contrary to its usual profile elsewhere in the country. The Trinamul Congress-BJP does best among the middle categories, thanks to the respective profiles of the two parties cancelling each other out to a la rge extent. The Trinamul Congress has a slight lower-class profile (it polled 35 per cent among this section) whereas the BJP performs best among the better-off sections of the population (it received 26 per cent of the votes from the 'middle').

Although caste-based polarisation is not as sharp in West Bengal as it is elsewhere in the country, caste still makes a difference. Compared to 1998, the Congress(I) lost support among the upper castes and Muslims and yet suffered virtually no loss of su pport among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Scheduled Castes (SCs). The Left Front lost out noticeably only among the Vaishyas, whose support for it fell by 10 percentage points. In both these cases the beneficiary was the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance. The Trinamul Congress ) was successful in mobilising support across caste and community lines. Compared to 1998, its vote share among Kayasthas (an upper caste), Namasudras (a Schedule Caste), and Muslims rose by 12, 9 and 15 percentage points respectively.

The Left Front is most popular among middle-aged voters, the formative moment in whose political consciousness was when the Left Front made its triumphant entry into State power 20 years ago.

Although the Left Front is still the party of choice for rural voters, of whom 50 per cent voted for it, it has been displaced by the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine as the most popular party in the urban areas. In 1998, the Left Front enjoyed a 15-percent age-point lead in vote share over the Trinamul Congress-BJP in the case of urban voters. In 1999 it suffered a 12-percentage-point deficit.

Clear lines of cleavage in Gujarat

CSDS Team politics

EVEN as several incumbent State governments were taken to task by the voters in the latest round of elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party survived the anti-incumbency factor in Gujarat. It won 20 seats, improving on its 1998 tally by one seat. Congress ( I) won six seats, one fewer than its 1998 tally.

There was some consolation for the Congress (I) because its vote share, relative to 1998, increased by nine percentage points. As the BJP too improved its vote share - by 4.2 percentage points - the Congress (I)'s gains did not translate into seats. The deciding factor was that the BJP had big margins to defend, which the Congress (I) did not have to do.

Gujarat was one of the few States where the Congress (I) was on a stronger footing since 1998 because Shankarsinh Vaghela, who has a significant political base in the State, had joined its fold. This paid dividends in the north, where the Congress (I) ca ptured three seats and increased its vote share by 16 percentage points.

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The sharp decline in voter turnout since 1998 may have played an important role in determining the outcome. The low turnout may have favoured the BJP.

The BJP's ascendancy in Gujarat politics occurred in the 1980s, when the party rode on successive waves of communal violence. It appears that these scars still remains. Deep social cleavages have manifested themselves as the support bases of the two part ies. As expected, the BJP fares well among the upper castes and Patidars, the Chief Minister's caste, and also among the more backward sections of the Other Backward Classes (OBC). Conversely, the Congress (I) has done well among the Scheduled Castes, th e Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. The Vaghela factor worked with the peasants among the OBCs.

The divisions are evident even more strikingly with respect to class: a considerable degree of class polarisation was evident in the elections.

Gujarat thus seems to be one State where the line of partisan conflict maps the cleavage lines of social and economic conflict very closely.

Gains for the BJP

CSDS Team politics

ON the face of it, the Bharatiya Janata Party dominated the Lok Sabha elections in Madhya Pradesh, winning 29 out of the 40 seats. However, as is often the case in first-past-the-post electoral systems, the contest was much closer in terms of votes. The BJP's 18-seat victory margin over the Congress(I) is a hefty reward for a narrow three percentage-point lead in votes. Although the Congress(I) snatched only one seat from the BJP, it managed to cut down its vote deficit by increasing its vote share by 4 .5 percentage points relative to the 1998 verdict. The BJP also increased its vote share, albeit by less than one percentage point. The rise in the vote share of both major parties means a further consolidation of a bipolar system in the State, largely a t the expense of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The latter, which after the 1998 elections looked likely to emerge as a party of the future, suffered a severe setback; it won just 5 per cent of the votes.

The region-wise picture reveals some minor changes in the voting pattern since the previous elections. The Congress(I) gained in Vindhya Pradesh: its strength increased from 29 per cent votes and one seat in 1998 to 41 per cent and three seats. The incre ase is attributable to the shift in the BSP votebank. The BJP made gains in the tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh region; its vote share increased from 44 per cent in 1998 to 48 per cent, and it won eight seats, one more than in the previous elections. Neith er party recorded a significant change in its position since the last Lok Sabha elections. But there was a turnaround from the November 1998 Assembly elections, with a five-percentage-point swing against the Congress(I). The Congress(I) in Madhya Pradesh enjoys more success in Assembly elections than in parliamentary elections - unusual for a party that prides itself on its national appeal.

Caste is not the be-all and end all of Madhya Pradesh politics.

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The sample size for the State is 563. The sample over-estimates the vote share for the Congress(I) and under-estimates the vote share for the BJP.

Neither the BJP nor the Congress(I) displays the kind of sharp division of social profiles that is seen elsewhere in the country, and more specifically seen when the two parties are in direct competition with each other. In Madhya Pradesh they are both e ssentially "catch-all" parties. However, the usual bias persists to a small extent. The BJP enjoys a moderate lead among the numerically large segments of the upper castes and the Other Backward Classes, whereas the Congress(I) enjoys more substantial su pport among the numerically smaller segments - the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. The BSP was relegated to a position of winning considerably reduced support from the S.Cs; it did not receive any noticeable backing from the other com munities. Although the BJP fared well in the reserved S.T. constituencies (the reason for this is not that it enjoys the support of the majority of tribal voters), the CSDS survey reveals that it polled only 25 per cent of the S.T. vote. It appears that the votes of non-tribal people in the tribal constituencies have shifted to the BJP.

Swing in Jat vote

CSDS Team politics

DESPITE a good showing in the last Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the Congress (I) suffered a major setback in Rajasthan this time. Its tally of seats dropped from 18 to nine, while the BJP increased its tally from five to 16. The result could have be en worse for the Congress (I). It actually lost 11 seats, but the deficit was reduced as Buta Singh and Shiesh Ram Ola, who had joined its fold, won their respective constituencies.

However, in terms of vote share the Congress (I) was only slightly behind the BJP. And this result thus follows the trend of the last few closely fought elections. The Congress(I) maintained its vote share, but on account of the gains made by the BJP it suffered a five-percentage-point negative swing.

The BJP made gains across the State, picking up seats in every region. The major gains came in the Jat belt in the eastern and western regions, where it won five and two seats respectively.

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The standard community and class profiles prevail in the State as they do elsewhere. However, they are evident to a lesser extent than in Gujarat and to a greater extent than in Madhya Pradesh. In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the Jat community was the o nly upper caste that went against the general pattern of support for the BJP and voted for the Congress (I). However, Jats were dissatisfied with the Congress(I)'s reservation policy. They switched to the BJP in large numbers, and this represented a 40-p ercentage-point swing against the Congress (I). The OBCs were divided in their support - by and large the Gujjars favoured the Congress (I), but other sections of the OBCs preferred the BJP. The Scheduled Tribes were also split, but the Congress(I) enjoy ed strong support among the tribal communities and Muslims.

Rajasthan is unusual for perhaps being the only State in India where there is no gender difference in voting behaviour. While nationally the Cong-ress(I) is usually more popular among women and the BJP among men, this pattern did not hold in Rajasthan.

The law, and the facts

UNDER the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, "sati" is defined as the act of burning or burying alive any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative. This definition applies, irrespective of whether the widow voluntar ily submits herself to such burning or burying or is coerced or persuaded into doing so.

Under the Act, glorification of "sati" is defined as the observance of any ceremony or the taking out of a procession in connection with the commission of sati; the supporting, justifying or propagating of the practice of sati; and the arranging of any f unction to eulogise a person who has committed sati, or the creation of a trust, or the collection of funds, or the construction of temple or other structure, or the carrying on of any form of worship or the performance of any ceremony there, with a view to perpetuating the honour of, or to preserve the memory of, a person who has committed sati.

FOLLOWING media reports of Charan Shah's death on her husband's funeral pyre on November 11, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) deputed an all-woman team to Satpurva to ascertain the facts of the case. The team comprised Subhashini Ali, former Lok Sabha member from Kanpur and working president of AIDWA in U.P.; and Urmila Awasthi and Sheila Narayan, leaders of the Kanpur district unit of AIDWA. The three leaders visited Satpurva hamlet on November 15 and met the members of Charan Shah' s family, their neighbours, and other villagers. The AIDWA team concluded that Charan Shah's death was not a case of "sati murder"; the widow committed suicide because she did not wish to live without her husband. And there was no abetment to suicide on the part of anyone, the team noted. Charan Shah's decision to end her life had not been conveyed to anyone beforehand, and she did not dress in bridal clothes; nor were there any rituals or ceremonies associated with sati, the AIDWA team said.

Subhashini Ali told Frontline that in the perception of the AIDWA team, Charan Shah's death was a case of suicide. However, even if it was treated as a case of sati going by the definition of sati under the Act, against whom would the police take action, she wondered. On the basis of the team's interaction with a cross section of people in the hamlet, she affirmed that there was no abetment of any kind. Subhashini Ali said, "If you prosecute the villagers for her death, they will not be able to s urvive. They are innocent."

Sishpal told the AIDWA team that the police wanted him to state that his mother was mentally ill, but that he refused. He further said that a few villagers had said that if a "sati" temple came up at the site, the village would benefit: offerings would p our in, shops could be set up and a road would be built.

The AIDWA team reported that several women of the village had claimed that they had heard that Charan Shah flew to the pyre and that physically disabled people who worshipped at the site had been cured miraculously. But the women could not substantiate t hese claims. Their innocent belief in supernatural powers was being used by people who wish to gain commercial advantage by creating a "sati myth" and pressing for a temple, the team said. Media reports that thousands of people had visited the village we re exaggerated, the report said.

The team met an influential landowner of the area, a retired Colonel whose family had donated land to Dalit families during the Bhoodan movement in the 1950s. A member of the Rajput community, he told the AIDWA team that his mother had committed sati but that they had not built a temple in her honour. Such sentiments "propagated by educated influential individuals... encourage ritualised glorification of sati," the AIDWA report noted.

There are at least three sati temples in the region, at Thathaura, Mudhari and Jaari, all of them outside Mahoba district. The AIDWA report demanded that the administration remain vigilant to thwart any attempt to build a temple to glorify Charan Shah's death, and stated that a widespread social reform movement, based on concrete developmental activity, was needed in the area. The entire Mahoba district, which is part of the Bundelkhand area (comprising the southern districts of Uttar Pradesh and the no rthern districts of Madhya Pradesh), is a drought-affected, backward region where brutal exploitation by feudal landowners is common and criminal gangs operate freely. The AIDWA report said that it was a commentary on successive governments in the State that Satpurva did not have even the basic necessities for human existence.

A FEW other women's groups and activists are rather more inclined to take a strictly legalistic view of the circumstances of Charan Shah's death and the response of the villagers of Satpurva. Kavita, an activist in Jaipur, argued that Charan Shah could h ave been pulled out from the pyre and given medical help. "Even if it was too late, she could have been declared dead at a hospital. Why did the villagers not do that? The villagers' mindset and the fact that some of them made offerings at the site amoun t to a violation of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act," said Kavita.

Senior lawyer Indira Jaisingh wondered how the police had, without filing a First Information Report, concluded that there was no abetment. In her view, whether Charan Shah's death was a case of suicide or sati was purely an academic question: she had al ready died. The relevant point is whether there was abetment by anyone. If the police had any evidence, then the Act could be invoked, she said. After all, she noted, the police were already implementing the provisions of the Act with regard to the preve ntion of glorification of sati.

An act of desperation

other

In a village in Uttar Pradesh, a widow ends her life on her husband's funeral pyre, raising disturbing questions about the status of women, particularly widows, in society.

V. VENKATESAN in Satpurva VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Lucknow

THE road to Satpurva hamlet, 10 km from Charkari in Mahoba district in southern Uttar Pradesh, is unmotorable. However, tyre tracks of vehicles that braved the dusty road point the way to the village of some 20 Dalit families, which seems virtually untou ched by development. Satpurva became the focus of attention last fortnight following an incident in which a 55-year-old woman reportedly immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.

The incident, as narrated by villagers, occurred on November 11, the day Mani Ram Shah, 60, a Dalit resident of Satpurva, died of tuberculosis. After the cremation, his son Sishpal, 22, and a few other relatives went to a nearby pond for a ritual bath. A t that time, Charan Shah, the widow, is believed to have left home and headed for the cremation ground, where she jumped into the pyre and was burnt to death. There are conflicting reports about whether Charan Shah's actions went entirely unnoticed, but it is almost certain that hardly any attempt was made to rescue her from the pyre.

Charan Shah's wilful taking of her own life, and specifically her decision to end her life on her husband's burning pyre - which evoked images of the outlawed medieval custom of sati - whipped up a storm. However, there was little or no evidence that the customary rituals associated with sati had been observed in this case. And although there appears to have been an ex-post-facto attempt by some persons in Satpurva and neighbouring villages to glorify Charan Shah's tragic death and to weave mythi c tales of miracle cures of those who "worshipped" at the "sati sthal", the police appear to have concluded after inquiries that Charan Shah did not, in fact, commit sati. These findings have been corroborated by the report of a fact-finding team of lead ers and activists of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). The National Commission for Women also deputed a fact-finding team to Satpurva.

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Immediately after Charan Shah's suicide, the police interrogated Sishpal and Charan Shah's brother Malkhan Singh in order to ascertain whether the widow's immediate family members knew of her intention to end her life, in the manner in which she did so. Mahoba Superintendent of Police L. Ravi Kumar, however, said the two were blameless. Sishpal said that he would have informed the police had he known that his mother was contemplating suicide.

The police, who received news of Charan Shah's death only 12 hours after it happened, did not register a first information report(FIR) on the incident, arguing that there was no evidence of sati or of abetment to suicide. In fact, the police claimed, at least two women, both in their fifties, had seen Charan Shah heading for the cremation ground and had attempted to give chase. Attempts by police officials to reconstruct the events of November 11 have been hampered by the conflicting versions given by v illagers. While some people claimed that there was no reason to suspect that Charan Shah contemplated suicide, a few others said that she had indeed expressed a desire to die along with her husband. "In such circumstances, whom can we find guilty?" a pol ice official asked.

Ravi Kumar said that there were several reasons why the claim that Charan Shah had committed sati did not ring true. One, unlike the sati incident at Deorala in Rajasthan on September 4, 1987 involving Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old widow, Charan Shah did n ot proclaim her intention to commit sati, as is dictated by medieval social custom. Second, she did not observe the rites associated with sati and did not wear a bridal dress. (Her relatives claim that she asked for a new dress, but that they did not giv e it.) Third, no musical instruments were played and no bhajans to "sati ma" were sung when Charan Shah took her life.

(In Roop Kanwar's case, the residents of Deorala actively participated in the sati rituals; dressed in bridal finery, Roop Kanwar, who belonged to a middle-class Rajput family, sat on her husband's pyre, which was then lit by her brother-in-law, Pushpend ra Singh, a minor. Of the 38 persons who were brought to trial in the case on the charges of murder and glorification of sati, 32 were acquitted in 1996. The Rajasthan Police went in appeal before the High Court, but that case is yet to come up for heari ng. Two of the accused are absconding, and the four others, whose case was to appear before the juvenile court, are out on bail.)

LOCATED amid picturesque hills, Satpurva in Charkari tehsil was populated mainly by agricultural labourers until about 15 years ago, when some Dalits were given land to till, under the Cooperative Society Act. Today there are about 20 Dalit families, of whom some are land-owners, some are farm labourers, and others are manual labourers. The village has no electricity and no proper roads.

There is no recorded evidence that sati is practised or has social sanction among Dalits in the Bundelkhand region. However, some residents of Satpurva claimed, without adducing any evidence, that there had indeed been a few incidents of sati in the regi on, but that they had gone unreported. Among the villagers, currently prevailing attitudes towards sati are regressive, to say the least. Many of them seemed to consider a woman committing sati worthy of deification. They appeared to be unaware that the practice of sati had been outlawed, and that even glorification of sati would invite punishment. The few who did know about the illegality of the practice seemed to place a premium on the supremacy of faith and custom over man-made laws.

On the afternoon of November 14, when this correspondent visited the cremation site, an advocate practising at the Mahoba district court had come there with his daughter to have a "darshan" of "sati". He had walked a considerable distance to the site, an d seemed to consider that the journey was worth the trouble. Asked if he did not consider his action unlawful, he admitted that it was and added that he would not advise other widows to emulate Charan Shah. Even so, he added, "sati" had enormous powers, and there was nothing wrong in worshipping Charan Shah. "Sati enters only a few widows, and only a sati could help a widow embrace death in this fashion," the advocate said. He claimed that about 30,000 people had come to the site the day after Charan Sh ah ended her life, and that in later days many more would have come had the police not used force.

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THE police have acted to prevent any attempt at glorification of Charan Shah's death and worship at the cremation site - a barren stretch of land, with only the ashen remnants of the pyre to mark the spot. A police outpost has been set up in Satpurva, an d movement of vehicles to the village is restricted. The police warned that any politician who visited the area with the intention of glorifying the death would invite penal action.

On the afternoon of November 14, a few policemen were present at the site, evidently to prevent villagers from erecting any structures at the site or offering worship. Even so, there was a clutch of curious persons from nearby villages, who had come to h ave a "darshan" of the "sati sthal", even if only from a distance. They were promptly shooed away by the police.

Ravi Kumar said that media coverage of the aftermath of Charan Shah's death had been less than professional, and in some cases downright dishonest. In particular, he alleged that a team from a television channel had filmed themselves offering donations a t the site and had reported that throngs of people were making donations to "sati". Contrary to media reports, there are no shops selling coconuts and agarbatis. A month-long mela, called Charkari Mela or Goverdan Mela, had begun near Satpurva from Novem ber 9, and many people from nearby villages come to attend it. A few of them visited the cremation site out of curiosity.

IN Lucknow, the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party responded to the incident with a sense of trepidation, fully aware that it could blow up and become a cause of major embarrassment. Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta told Frontline that C haran Shah's death was a tragic case of suicide. The Government, he said, could do little by itself to change the perception among a section of people that she had committed sati. Only by raising social awareness could such beliefs be changed, and that w as not something the government could do merely through administrative measures, he said.

A section of officials in the State Home Ministry initially appeared to discount the report that Charan Shah's death was a case of suicide, not sati, and that none of the rituals associated with sati had been observed. They suggested that an independent inquiry into the incident be instituted by the State Home Department, but this idea appears to have been shelved.

THE semantic tug-of-war over whether Charan Shah's death was a case of suicide or sati ignores other social factors that underlie the tragedy. Charan Shah's decision to end her life was motivated by several factors: she had lost the eldest of her three s ons some years ago; her second son, who was employed as a casual labourer in Delhi, had been away from the family for years; she had been nursing her ailing husband for years. To a poverty-stricken 55-year-old Dalit woman in an underdeveloped region, lif e as a widow in a patriarchal, gender-insensitive social structure had little to offer, and even death perhaps seemed a deliverance. Only by addressing everyday issues related to the status of women, such as disparities in access to health care, educatio n, employment, share of familial property and so on, can a woman's sense of self-worth in society be enhanced to a level where she no longer feels compelled to resort to acts of self-destruction in the way Charan Shah did.

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Oct 9,2020