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COVER STORY

31-12-2005

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Briefing

ENDURING MUSIC

M.S. Subbulakshmi, 1916-2004.

THE morning mist has cleared and the sudden thin drizzle has the small congregation outside "Sivam-Subham" on Kotturpuram First Main Road in Chennai, casting a puzzled glance skywards, seeking to interpret Nature's shower as a blessing to the departed soul of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (fondly called M.S.); her body, draped in a rust-brown shawl, lay in a freezer-box in the porch of the house.

Such curiosity about a divine manifestation is perhaps not misconstrued, as M.S. had a permanent halo around her, attaining spiritual altitude through music, matched only by the saint-singers of the Bhakti movement.

M.S., who turned 88 on September 16, was admitted to St. Isabel's Hospital, Chennai, for treatment of a viral infection on November 30. She developed pneumonia. Her condition worsened on December 10 and she lapsed into a coma. She developed cardiac irregularities and multi-organ failure. Family members who were by her side failed to hear her soft, caressing voice for one last time. Her daughters Radha Viswanathan and Vijaya Rajendran, who have accompanied M.S. in all her concerts, were inconsolable. The end came at 11-30 p.m. on December 11. In fact, for two years M.S., it is learnt, was not in control of her faculties.

"Sivam-Subham", the home of the Sadasivam couple for more than 12 years, had a steady flow of mourners from 6 a.m. on December 12 after the body was brought from the hospital. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi, along with his wife Dayalu Ammal and son M.K. Stalin, was one of the early visitors. In his poetic tribute in chaste Tamil, he said: "The drench of music that cooled the earth has ceased. The music that floats in the breeze will resonate even after the breeze has stopped."

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who led the nation in paying homage to M.S., flew down to Chennai to pay his last respects. He said: "We have lost an incomparable music exponent of our time. Her singing spread divine happiness and peace to millions of hearts around the world." He arrived at the Kotturpuram residence at 3-40 p.m. accompanied by Governor S.S. Barnala.

During the 10 minutes he spent with the family members, he recalled M.S.' musical virtuosity and paid a fitting tribute in saying that "the greatest good that she has done to the country is that through her music, she has made us good human beings". He submitted to the family members a poem he penned on M.S. on board the plane, the essence of which, according to Athmanathan, the assistant of the Sadasivams for several decades, is: "Her music will continue to be heard in heaven."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his condolence message, said: "Her voice would continue to ring for centuries to come." Terming M.S.' death an end of an epoch, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa said: "There has never been a person like her and there will never be."

Said her contemporary D.K. Pattammal, who, along with M.S. and the late M.L. Vasanthakumari, had made inroads into an essentially male bastion: "I have lost a great friend and a towering fellow-musician." According to M. Balamuralikrishna, another renowned Carnatic musician, M.S. is the first creator in South Indian music and wherever there is music, melody and modulation, she will live on.

Senior Carnatic music exponents Lalgudi Jayaraman, Sudha Raghunathan and T.N. Seshagopalan said M.S. was truly irreplaceable and with her passing they had lost a great unifying force in Carnatic music.

The Tamil Nadu government announced a state funeral for its crown jewel. At the Besant Nagar crematorium, the police team presented a ceremonial gun salute and the Last Post was played. Public Works Minister O. Paneerselvam placed a wreath on behalf of the Chief Minister. The mortal remains of M.S. were consigned to flames at 5 p.m. Her grandnephew performed the funeral rites.

"Queen of music", "Nightingale of India", "Songbird of Springtime", "a musical genius", "a divine being"... the emotional outpourings of politicians, musicians, admirers, devoted rasikas and laymen, on her passing was intense. The much-attended annual December music season has commenced in Chennai but several top musicians spontaneously called off their concerts scheduled for the day as a mark of respect for M.S.

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"KURAI Onrum Illai", she would conclude her concert and the audience would agree that "there could be no regrets" after a couple of hours of listening to M.S. Indeed, it would be plain truth to say that M.S. strode like a colossus in the world of Indian classical music. And for 80 of her 88 years it had been a sadhana with music. M.S. sang in 10 languages but never one word without internalising its meaning. And her repertoire spanned pure classical music, soulful bhajans and slokas from the scriptures. She followed the Bhakti cult and reached out with her unique style - grand, resonant, soulful, spontaneous and clear - to different people over three generations in different ways. If the expert revelled in her nuanced exposition of every facet of a raga, the layperson was captivated by her rendering of the "Venkateswara Suprabhatam" or the "Vishnu Sahasranama". Her concerts had a mix of the serious and the humorous, as in such bhajans as "Kahan ki patang" (Tulsidas) - a dialogue Rama and Sita have with the simple village folk they meet in the forest.

Her own simple lifestyle and her donation of most of her earnings to charity were perhaps inspired by her humble beginnings: her mother Shanmukhavadivu supported a family of three children, uncles, brothers, and their wives with her meagre income.

Initiated into music at a young age, M.S. learnt her first lessons from her mother. Formal music lessons began with Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. She learnt pallavi singing from the doyen Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar. Soon Kunjamma, as she was called, was singing on stage, with her mother playing the veena. When her mother cut a gramophone record, Kunjamma, then 10, was asked to do her bit: an impossibly high-pitched Khamboji in "Marakatavadivu". Thus was the voice that would hold the country in its thrall released.

Soon concert notices announced "Miss Shanmukavadivoo" as an accompanist to "Miss Subbalakshmi of Madura" and Kunjamma began to draw people's attention with her melodious voice and innocent demeanour. By the 1930s, the capital of Carnatic music had shifted to Chennai and Shanmukhavadivu, too, moved to Chennai in an attempt to establish her daughter's career.

In Chennai, M.S. met Thiagarajan Sadasivam, a veteran nationalist and a journalist. It was also a meeting of minds. In 1940, they were married at Tiruneermalai in the presence of The Hindu's Editor Kasturi Srinivasan and "Kalki" Krishnamurti.

Kunjamma's family now became Sadasivam's two daughters, his orphaned nephew and niece, an aged grandmother, and numerous relatives who needed to be housed, educated, married, treated in times of ailment. Elder daughter Radha became inseparable from M.S. Through the decades Radha was her vocal accompanist, emotional support and sympathetic companion until her own illness in the 1980s.

Sadasivam's firebrand nationalism identified M.S. with the freedom movement. Rousing national songs were part of her concerts and the couple remained close to national leaders from the Gandhi-Nehru era. She became known to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi through C. Rajagopalachari, who was Sadasivam's friend. In 1941, Sadasivam took M.S. to meet Mahatma Gandhi, for whom she sang bhajans. Three years later, in 1944, she performed five concerts to raise funds for the Kasturba Memorial Trust. In the following years she gave benefit performances to collect funds for a variety of social and religious causes.

Her voice and charming face drew her to the world of films and between 1937 and 1947 she starred in four movies - Seva Sadan, Shakuntalai, Savitri and Meera. Savitri was to raise money for Sadasivam and family friend "Kalki" Krishamurti to launch a nationalist magazine. It was in and as `Meera' that the masses totally identified themselves with M.S. Meera not just made her a national icon, but, in a sense, made her know herself. The shy girl from Madurai could hold her own with experienced film actors, and bring tears to the eyes of American director Ellis R. Dungan when she sang, every note throbbing with rapturous devotion.

By the 1950s, M.S. was a household name but success brought humility and not arrogance. "Music is an ocean and I am a student. For a vocalist, voice practice is important. It has been my habit to learn the meaning of the songs I have to sing and the correct pronunciation of each word," she once wrote in a magazine, when she was 73.

Her seeming effortlessness was rooted in technical mastery, endless practice, restraint and constant self-appraisal. Listening to her rendering of the "Vishnu Sahasranama", Agnihotram Thathachariar could wonder: "How does she have that flawless enunciation we scholars are unable to achieve through several birth cycles?"

Householders innocent of Sanskrit identify with the bhakti in M.S.' suprabhatams of Venkatesvara, Visvanatha or Meenakshi. Though her Hindi bhajans made her known beyond the South, Subbulakshmi's Thyagaraja kritis too could keep North Indians in their seats.

Yehudi Menuhin was enraptured by the golden voice and Zubin Mehta was reluctant to take the stage after an M.S. concert. Pilgrims thrill to her voice amplified in temple prakaras from Kedarnath and Badrinath to Rameswaram and Kanyakumari.

For the last 25 years of her singing career (her last public appearance was in 1998), her music, rehearsals and recordings were monitored by Kadayanallur Venkatraman. He set to music many of the Annamacharya compositions that the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam commissioned her to propagate.

In all her achievements, Sadasivam was accompanist and mentor. When the Music Academy conferred on her the title of Sangita Kalanidhi - the first woman to receive it - in 1968, she described Sadasivam as her "friend, philosopher and guide". M.S. always maintained a low profile, content to let her husband be her public face. Sadasivam guided and moulded M.S.' music and concerts to perfection.

Honours have been heaped upon M.S. so much so that the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale apparently once quipped to her: "Kunjamma, you must leave some awards for others!" She was conferred the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1996. The President's Award, the Padma Vibhushan (1975), the Padma Bhushan (1954), the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1974), Kalidas Samman (1988), Konarak Samman, Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Hafeez Ali Khan Award, the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration and the Desikottama are the other honours she was conferred.

M.S. began withdrawing from public concerts from the 1980s, performing only for exceptional causes. She stopped singing after the demise of her husband in 1997. For an artist of world acclaim, M.S. never gave a single interview, letting her music speak for itself. But she received unprecedented press coverage.

M.S. is an inspiring role model, not only for her music but also for her rare qualities of humility, compassion and principles of conduct and discipline. Her quest for perfection, sincerity of effort and concentration were not reserved for the stage. It was her empathy with the downtrodden - in daily life, not just in cheques donated on platforms - and humility that gave her music a unique quality.

INDEED, on December 12 at her house in Chennai, all those who knew M.S. came away treasuring the impact she had on their lives. Dancer Sonal Mansingh summed it up thus: "She was Good with a capital `G'. Take away the `o', and she was god-ly."

K.V. Prasad, who accompanied her for 15 years on the mridangam, says, "Amma and mama (the Sadasivams) were everything to us. They treated us so kindly, as members of their family. And they gave without flinching. I have seen her give away money got at wedding kutcheris for worthy causes immediately, as `taking it back home may result in a change of mind'. It was a wonderful experience playing for her. Sometimes I have felt like just keeping the mridangam aside and listening to the flow of her bhava."

`Vikku' Vinayakram, the ghatam virtuoso, who accompanied M.S. to the United Nations in 1966 and London in 1982 for the "Festival of India", said, "It is amma's rasi (luck) that today I am playing at several international venues. She gave me the first opportunity to play abroad."

Carnatic musician T.N. Seshagopalan complemented M.S.' strength in excelling in the male-dominated world of music during her time. He said musicians owed her a musical anjali (homage).

There were others, rasikas, who could not express themselves in the language of music but were sure she would live on in cassettes and compact discs.

M.S.' "Venkateswara Suprabhatam", a soulful rendering of the invocation to the presiding deity of Tirumala, has thrilled every layman who has heard it played at the temple in the wee hours. The long-play (LP) version was first recorded in 1963. Today it is the only continuously selling cassette of M.S. Says `HMV' Raghu, a musician and engineer, who has been with the recording company for 35 years: "In spite of pirated versions, 10,000 genuine cassettes and CDs of `Venkateswara Suprabhatam' are sold every year."

M.S. wanted to reach every rasika alike. Raghu says:

"She wanted to make recordings as contributions for posterity. She realised she had a voice meant for the microphone, for recordings. By virtue of her family tradition she had the spirit of classicism to scale great heights in Carnatic music.

"She wanted to highlight the whole width of the vistas of classical music repertoire, especially with respect to the gamut of composers from traditional, modern, neo-classical, light and similar versions. She wanted to record scholarly works like the 72 melakartas of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer. That shows her love for music both for the connoisseur and for the layman. These projects were taken up when she was in her 70s, which no musician in his prime would want to attempt. She wanted to complete the melakartas before it was too late. Such scholarly works require industry and application. She had it. She would record any number of times until it was perfect. She counted on me when she recorded Bhaja Govindam."

SUBBULAKSHMI had a strong female following in Tamil Nadu. Women of her generation emulated her, and were inspired to sing like her or even dress like her (no wardrobe was complete without an `M.S. blue' saree). But M.S. encapsulated much more than poise, dignity, dress sense and beautiful voice; she had an inner beauty that could not be easily copied. A resplendent glow filled her face when she closed her eyes in devotion, when her lips vibrated as the gamakas gushed forth even as the face remained serenely aloof to the tonic trembles of the lips or when she folded her hands in sincere greeting.

If the magic of her voice transported rasikas to new heights in spirituality, her ennobling qualities endeared her to everyone who had a chance to know her. Ardent rasikas, Vamanan and his wife Bhuvana, say that after every meeting with "M.S. amma" they returned learning the significance of life. Vamanan says: "She was an accommodative person and made people feel at home. These were perhaps the values she picked up as a young girl from her mother." Adds Bhuvana: "She gave others dignity. She attended my engagement along with mama. She would send me gifts."

"She gave a lot of herself to music," says Vamanan. "Her extraordinary personality was that it married music with life. She was submissive. She would tell my wife, `always listen to your husband'. As an artist she was independent. She is perhaps the only musician who came close to the supranormal. She had purity of music, character and life."

It is common knowledge that M.S. faithfully followed the Kanchi Paramacharya's exhortation to "self-restraint, generosity and compassion" in his composition "Maithreem Bhajata". "The HMV royalty of Rs.10-20 lakhs annually that M.S. earned was given away," says `HMV' Raghu.

Between 1944 and 1987, M.S., according to records, gave 244 charity concerts, sometimes 16 in a year. Athmanathan says the latest such donation was the Lifetime Achievement Award money of Rs.11 lakhs given by the Delhi government in June this year. This was given to the Kanchi Mahaswami Manimantapam project, coming up at Orirukkai village near Kancheepuram.

She gave so much, took little away. Even in her passing she has left so much music everywhere that we can constantly hear.

A LIFE FOR MUSIC

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A job seeker's lament

Through the Corridors of Power: An Insider's Story by P.C. Alexander; Harper Collins; pages 480, Rs.500.

For fifty years he listened at the door, And learnt some secrets and invented more.

CHARLES GREVILLE, of whom this was said, was Clerk of the Council from 1821 to 1859. He wrote three solid volumes of memoirs A Journal of the Reigns of King George IV and King William IV besides the letters he himself wrote. Precisely what are P.C. Alexander's credentials to write "an insider's story"? His career as a civil servant was not particularly distinguished. "I do admit that luck plays its vital role in everyone's life and I had perhaps a larger share of it than many others." A member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), he became Secretary in the Commerce Ministry in June 1975. When he accepted the job of adviser to the head of the United Nations International Trade Centre in Geneva he had "less than two years of service left." Luck favoured him. A two months' assignment stretched to a year and he became ITC's head. Dumb luck favoured him again. In May 1981 he became Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and served at the post for a mere three and a half years. He resigned on January 18, 1985 in the wake of the spy scandal.

The later career is nothing much to talk about - High Commissioner to United Kingdom (June 1985-February 1988), Governor of Tamil Nadu (February 1988-May 1990), and Governor of Maharashtra (January 1993-July 2002). In 2002, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha. These are not the credentials of an "insider" but they were intoxicating enough for one who found its true metier in the "corridors of power" once he headed the Prime Minister's Office.

Alexander's career was that of a civil servant but his aspirations have been those of an ambitious politician. Since 1981 he enjoyed proximity to the pinnacle of power and the influence and power it brought. Alexander kicked the ladder from which he had risen. The book reflects contempt for civil servants. This, however, does not deter him from repeatedly claiming "the impartiality" of a civil servant, even as he sought political office.

The very first para of his Preface reveals everything: "During my long public service career, spanning over five and a half decades, the most memorable and satisfying period was my tenure as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's principal secretary. Even though she had not known me closely before I started working with her in 1981, I realised within a short period after joining the PMO that she was dealing with me as an individual whom she implicitly trusted. She had stated in unambiguous terms that she wanted me to get involved not only in government matters but also in political and party matters. In other words, she was keen that I handle all issues with which she was concerned. Since I had opted for retirement from the Indian Administrative Service a few years before I joined the PMO, I was not constrained by any service regulations in undertaking such a multifunctional role." (italics here in original, elsewhere added throughout).

In this, as in matters of this kind, Alexander is being disingenuous. He was Principal Secretary to the head of government, not her private secretary. His salary came from public funds. Public funds are not to be used to pay for assistance on "party matters."

It does not end there. Apparently, on quitting the PMO, he did not return the papers that came to him as a public servant. They are used in this book. The rule is accurately stated in the Prologue to the memoirs of B.K. Nehru, one of the most upright and distinguished civil servants whose career spanned over half a century: "No copy of any official paper may be maintained in the private possession of any individual." When he discovered its rampant breach in later years, he began "retaining copies of some of the important letters I wrote during my tenures as Governor." Another exception that he honestly admits "in breach of the law" was the acquisition through a successor of important letters and cables he had received and sent as Ambassador to the United States. They were, however, used for reference, not for reproduction in his memoirs (Nice Guys Finish Second; Viking, 1997).

Rajiv Gandhi retained Alexander as Principal Secretary on the same basis. After he tasted power, Alexander's disdain for the civil service became pronounced. Rajiv would not be "treating me merely as a civil servant" (page 8). After all, "I was closely associated with the decision-making process at the Prime Minister's level." K. Natwar Singh and Brajesh Mishra are both described as "two former bureaucrats who had neither the official authority nor the political standings to take such decisions on their own" (page 34): namely on the candidate for the presidential election in 2002. Natwar Singh, now External Affairs Minister, served as Minister of State in Rajiv's government (1984-89) and was Sonia Gandhi's representative in those parleys with Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser and Vajpayee's confidant and representative in the talks.

The job, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, did not come to Alexander unsought. He bagged it with characteristic skill. He had no personal acquaintance with Indira Gandhi earlier, unlike other civil servants, Natwar Singh, for example. For one "committed to certain lofty values" - florid self-praise flows freely through the book - what on earth inspired him to write to her a letter of congratulations when she won the Lok Sabha elections in December 1979? He had begun telling all who cared to listen that the Janata Party government had "virtually thrown [him] out of my post." These, he knew, were strong credentials for a job with her.

As will be pointed out, fidelity to the record is not one of Alexander's strong points. The book reeks of spite and vengeance. That he was "thrown out" is an exaggeration. That he had incurred Prime Minister Morarji Desai's hostility may be readily accepted. On the crucial issue involved, Alexander was right and Morarji grossly unfair and improper. It concerned Morarji's interest in the grant of "a high value import licence" to the Chamanlal Group of firms. The facts narrated are convincing, especially in the light of a judicial finding on Morarji in respect of similar conduct. The details are set out in Chapter VIII on "import of polyester filament yarns" in the Report of Inquiry of Justice C.A. Vaidyalingam, a former Judge of the Supreme Court, on "the corruption charges against the family members" of Desai and Home Minister Charan Singh (pages 30-33). It concerned Fancy Corporation Ltd., of Bombay with which Hekubhai Kapadia was connected. "The Prime Minister specially mentions about [sic] this case" to the Commerce Minister. Indeed he "specially pleads for this conduct." The Judge held: "A prima facie is made out for this charge."

It is Alexander's embroidery that arouses suspicion. Cabinet Secretary Nirmal Mukherji stood by him: "I was asked to continue in my post as Secretary." This was neither the first nor last time an official incurred a Prime Minister's ire. He was not hounded out. The version that the Prime Minister accused Mukherji of "showing partiality to the fellow Christian" is hard to believe. Mukherji always praised Morarji: "a truthful man", he told the writer (an assessment I did not share). It is unlikely that he would have spoken thus as he always did, if the Prime Minister had cast such aspersions on him.

The arrest of B.B. Vohra, a highly respected Secretary, was disgraceful. Mukherji not only did not help but was niggardly even when restoration was ordered. Charan Singh personally apologised to Vohra. (His brother is N.N. Vohra, a distinguished civil servant.) But to assert that "the experience of many civil servants" during the Janata government "were as bad as they were during the Emergency, if not worse" is to assert a falsehood. The Shah Commission's Report cites details of how they were treated during the Emergency.

In Geneva, "I kept myself fully informed of the rapidly changing political scenario" in India "through a large network of senior civil servants." Note how he went about acquiring what he had set his sights on. "When I heard the news about Indira Gandhi's election victory I felt very happy and sent her a letter of congratulations and good wishes to which she replied on 10th December 1979, observing that she had heard of the circumstances that had forced me to opt for retirement from government service. She added that `it was a pity since the government is in dire need of honest and competent people like you'... I wrote to her again, congratulating her on her spectacular victory. Her reply [dated 13 February 1980] revealed how deeply worried she was about the grave law and order situation and the economic mess in the country she had inherited from the Janata Government."

Doubtless he had, through the same network, kept Indira Gandhi informed of his growing loyalty towards her. She sent a query through P. Shivshankar: would he agree to serve her as PS? His "close friend' Pupul Jayakar jumped into the fray: "She counselled me to the effect that a courtesy call on the Prime Minister by me, as an Indian heading a U.N. organisation, would be in order and, therefore, I should request an appointment on a suitable date and at a suitable time. Consequently, I wrote to the PMO, seeking an appointment on any one of the days I was to be in Delhi (from 9 to 15 November 1980)." He also sounded K.B. Lall. Further details are in the same vein.

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This is how Alexander, who never did "seek political backing for reaching those positions," got them.

After Rajiv Gandhi's tragic assassination on May 21, 1991, "I found myself again in the thick of politics." Another benefactor came on the scene, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who became Prime Minister. "Ever since I became Indira Gandhi's principal secretary, I had maintained cordial relations with him and had always admired him as a great scholar and as one of the few towering intellectuals then in Indian politics." It is unfortunate that Narasimha Rao concealed his greatness as a scholar and intellectual so completely from the wide world and bared it only to his confidant.

Narasimha Rao set him to work as his go-between and Alexander went about the job enthusiastically. He told President R. Venkataraman on May 25, 1991 that "the Congress was irked by my call for a national government as it expected to sweep the polls." Venkataraman remarks: "Narasimha Rao had wisely called Dr. Alexander to help him during this period" (My Presidential Years; pages 342 and 352). Alexander met Narasimha Rao's rival Sharad Pawar, M.L. Fotedar, and many others. He was Narasimha Rao's Pramod Mahajan and thus acquired a claim to high office. It came his way soon enough.

C. Subramaniam, Governor of Maharashtra, resigned in January 1993 after making some uninhibited remarks that became public. Read this incredible bit: "At 8.30 p.m. on 7 January I saw a news item on TV in Bangalore mentioning that Subramaniam's resignation had been accepted by the President. I telephoned him to ascertain the veracity of the news item. He admitted that he had sent in his resignation but had not received any information so far about its acceptance by the President. I then informed him that according to the TV report, his resignation had been accepted. Within a few minutes of this conversation, I received the formal message that I had been appointed as the Governor of Maharashtra to replace Subramaniam." He was no intimate of CS. Why did he make this call? His immediate succession to CS did not embarrass him.

Impatience and avidity for advancement were as pronounced in 1993 as they were in 1980. These traits surfaced in unseemly fashion in 2002 when the tenancy of Rashtrapati Bhavan was denied to him. Whatever led Alexander to suspect that he was of Presidential timbre? Civil servants of far greater distinction, like H.M. Patel and B.K. Nehru, and secretaries to Prime Ministers, like L.K. Jha, P.N. Haksar, and P.N. Dhar, never entertained such fantasies. Alexander is not in the same league. More to the point, when did such delusions begin to possess him?

His bitter disappointment at being denied what, for some bizarre reason, he regarded as his entitlement, burst out. That bitter lament is the raison d'etre of this book and, as he is at pains to emphasise, the reason why it figures as its first Chapter. "There is such a thing as wanting to be President too badly," Adlai Stevenson said of Senator Estes Kefaurer in 1952. There is a track record of the Vice-President's elevation to the Presidency - S. Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain, V.V. Giri, R. Venkataraman, Shankar Dayal Sharma and K.R. Narayanan. M. Hidayatullah was not considered for the elevation for reasons accepted by all.

In 2002, therefore, Krishan Kant, a former Congressman, backed by the Telugu Desam Party, National Democratic Alliance ally, was the obvious choice. He had blotted his copy book by his ruling on Ram Jethmalani's resignation speech in 2001 and was disgracefully partisan to the NDA. Jethmalani was denied the right to table documents that Arjun Singh exercised with the Chair's permission after his resignation in 1995. The Congress had reservations about him. The NDA was totally opposed to President Narayanan's candidature for a second term.

But by 2002 Alexander had blotted his copy book as well. He swore in the Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Ministry at Shivaji Park in 1995, flouting precedent and his own loud claims to propriety. The Congress watched with dismay his growing rapport with its adversaries. Suffice it only to say that well before 2002, he was a political figure - one in the "thick of politics," as he admits. Precisely for this reason, Prime Minister V.P. Singh removed him as Governor of Tamil Nadu in January 1990. Alexander bore him a deep grudge.

Not given to introspection, he would not ask the question that would strike anyone at the outset. Why would a BJP that would not trust a Krishan Kant, whose ideology was not far removed from its own, place trust in a P.C. Alexander to serve as President in 2004 when Lok Sabha elections were due and the possibility of a hung House giving a certain discretion to the President was uppermost in everyone's mind? Why indeed did it trust him? Alexander protests his impartiality and insists that everyone else should shut his eyes to his record and accept him to be as pure as driven snow.

Central to his thesis are aspersions on both Natwar Singh and Brajesh Mishra. They had agreed on Krishan Kant. As at Agra (July 2001) and on Narendra Modi (March 2002), Advani & Co. reversed Vajpayee's cause. The reversal came in a couple of hours. Anyone who believes that the two representatives of their respective leaders were on a frolic of their own is capable of crediting anything. Alexander's imagination, set afire by an offer he had never dreamt of ever before in all his life, began railing in the press even from the Raj Bhavan against the duo, accusing them of conspiracy to blight the fortunes of a great man.

Contrast this with the big disappointment in B.K. Nehru's life. The post of Secretary-General of the U.N. seemed his for the asking. Even John F. Kennedy told him "it seems we would lose you." It would have added to Indira's prestige. But V.K. Krishna Menon exerted himself to block the candidature. All B.K. Nehru had to do was to pick up the phone and call Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But he was too proud to do that; too proud and too decent to complain about it to the press either. The record is set out in his memoirs, in impeccable taste.

In any company at an evening, the size of the wine glass and quality of the wine that is served are the same for all. The civilised and cultivated begin to speak in livelier cheer; the cheap begin to growl; the coarse become profane. One's character is tested by dizzy success as well as bitter disappointment.

It is all to the good that Alexander wrote this book. We realise the debt we owe to those who stopped him in his tracks. Consider the record. His term as Governor of Maharashtra was to end on January 12, 1998: "The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (SS-BJP) leaders in the State conveyed to me their wish that I should stay on for one more term as Governor and that their respective party high commands would gladly offer me a second term if I would indicate my willingness to accept such an offer... . Within three weeks after the new NDA government was sworn in at the Centre, the Union Home Minister, L.K. Advani, telephoned me on April 11, 1998 offering a second term and expressing the hope that I would accept it. I did. I was sworn in again on April 21, 1998, thus becoming the first Governor of Maharashtra to have had the honour of being appointed for a second term."

It is not in the BJP's character to trust a Congressman unless he had performed a shuddhi.

He heard of Sonia Gandhi's dismay at all this and met her on September 23, 1998 to clear the air, citing Natwar Singh's criticisms. "She affirmed that she did not allow any individual or group to influence her opinion about me. Also, she was frank enough to admit that she had indeed felt unhappy when she heard about my acceptance of a second term as Governor. However, she reiterated two or three times in the course of our conversation that I should forget this episode of misunderstanding and should consider it as a matter of the past."

Already by mid-2001 "speculation started in the media, particularly in the Marathi press, which had always been extremely generous in its support for me, that I might well be under consideration for the presidentship. Several articles continued to appear in the Marathi newspapers describing my contributions as Governor in highly laudatory terms."

Now, read this: "Some time in the middle of 2001, I received information from a person who had been maintaining very close contact with the organisational wing of the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, a pro-Hindu organisation] leadership, that my name was indeed under consideration as a probable candidate of the NDA for the post of President." The RSS is not famous for tolerance and charity either.

Alexander acted fast to secure Sonia Gandhi's support: "I met her at her New Delhi residence at 10.30 am on August 25, 2001 and informed her of the reports about the BJP and its NDA partners considering my name for the presidential election. I told her clearly that I had not been approached by anyone, nor had I ever mentioned my interest to anyone. I also made it very clear that I did not propose to meet any leader of the NDA or of the opposition parties at any time to seek support. I told her that I considered it my duty to inform her about what I had heard from others taking into account my close association with her late mother-in-law and husband and expressed the hope that if the NDA eventually decided to sponsor my name, I would have the backing of all the main opposition parties, particularly of the Congress." Neat work, or so he thought. The clever always delude themselves.

On November 30, 2001, the Vajpayee-Advani emissary, Pramod Mahajan, met Alexander to ask if he was indeed willing. "I pointed out to him that since I did not belong to any political party, I would very much appreciate if I was projected as a candidate of the NDA as well as of the main Opposition parties. I told him that I also did not anticipate any objection from the Congress party for my candidature if the NDA were to make a proposal to it, but I would not be able to canvass support from any political party." Did he disclose to his visitor that he had already canvassed support for his candidature from the Congress president only three months earlier, on August 25, 2001?

There was, undoubtedly, a fear in some minds that a Christian President might affect Sonia Gandhi's chances as Prime Minister. It would not have affected her for, as we know, she had already decided not to be Prime Minister.

Alexander has this curious comment to offer on the point: "No one in India had really considered Sonia Gandhi to be a Christian till the Congressmen themselves had brought forward the issue of her original religion. If some people had raised objections to Sonia becoming Prime Minister, it was never on the ground of the religion into which she was born, but was on the basis of her foreign origin or on the issue of her competence to hold such a position in a highly complex society like India. In fact, people in India had generally accepted her as a convert to Hinduism." This is self-evidently false. The Sangh Parivar consistently attacked Sonia Gandhi as a Christian and the Pope as well, in that context. Alexander is not above playing the religious card on his own behalf: "No one from the Christian community in India had ever been elected as president or vice-president, though others belonging to minority communities like Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits had occupied such positions."

Alexander's assertion that the Natwar-Brajesh understanding was a personal one is belied by his own narrative. George Fernandes was against Krishan Kant. Chandrababu Naidu was assured that there was an accord on Krishan Kant and felt let down by the NDA's volte face. On June 10, Alexander was told he was out. His disappointment was natural. Two days earlier, Vajpayee and others had "congratulated me warmly." One who discovers that news that he had won a lottery was wrong is sure to be upset. "Even though the Prime Minister thought that he had obtained Naidu's clearance on the phone for announcing my name, apparently there was a lack of proper communication and the NDA leaders found it impossible to convince Naidu of the correctness of their position."

This is the moment when Alexander threw aside his mask and revealed the man behind the frozen smile: "The NDA leaders had conveyed their decision to field me as a candidate as early as seven months ago. When they encountered the Congress Party's stubborn opposition to my candidature, I had naturally expected that they would tie up all loose ends with their principal allies well in advance and ensure that I could win the elections in spite of the hostility of the Congress leadership to my candidature. When the NDA, which controlled the government at the Centre, had conveyed its decision at the highest level that my name would be formally announced in a few hours time, I had no reason to doubt that I would have the necessary support for a clear win. However, Mahajan's message to me revealed that the last-minute support promised to Krishan Kant had created an altogether new situation beyond the control of the NDA leaders. What could I tell Mahajan except what any gentleman in that position would have said."

So there was an accord on Krishan Kant, and Natwar Singh and Brijesh Mishra, were not acting on their own after all. But who committed to fair play would prod adversaries of the party to which he owed everything to put him up as a candidate against it so that it bit the dust at the presidential poll? And what is the sense and implication of dividing the country in a bitter poll, as in 1969, damaging the authority and prestige of the highest office in the land? All this, of course, was to promote the personal ends of one Padinjarethalakal Cherian Alexander.

This trait, incredible claim to loftiness amidst gross lapses, emerges sharply in two other revealing paras. The first (at page 29) is a snide and cheap reference to President Narayanan's health: "It was well known to all who had been observing Narayanan's state of health during the past few months that he might not be in a position to function effectively as President for another period of five years if he were to win the election. For health reasons he had to cancel several public engagements. Even during the few unavoidable public engagements in which he had to participate, such as the opening of the joint session of Parliament, his poor physical condition had been clearly projected through live TV. Everyone expected that he himself would publicly declare that he would not run for the presidential election... ."

The other, on page 395, records his behaviour as a host towards a guest, V.P. Singh. Alexander demitted office as Governor of Tamil Nadu on May 23, 1990. "A few years later, when V.P. Singh was staying at the Raj Bhavan, Mumbai (when I was the Governor of Maharashtra), during his medical treatment, I asked him whether he had any regrets for having treated the Governors in the manner he did. I told him that `command resignations' taken from us through a letter from the president was not a dignified way of relieving a serving governor of his charge and that it surprised and distressed me as well that a person like him could resort to the unusual step of dismissing governors for no other reason that that they had been appointed by the previous regime. He was honest enough to admit that this had been a big mistake on his part. He said that, on looking back, he believed that he should never have acted in the way he did. I left the conversation at that, as I had no intention to embarrass a guest of mine at the Raj Bhavan" - after having embarrassed him enough. Yet he "was truly amazed" to discover that in 1991 Zail Singh had advised Chandrasekhar not to appoint him as Governor of Karnataka and "allow his resentment against me to fester for such a long time." The book reads like one sustained flow of bile.

FACTUAL misstatements betray Alexander completely. He enthusiastically defends C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer as a loyal Dewan of the Maharaja of Travancore who simply carried out his orders. No person of liberal impulse would do that. In his letter of resignation dated July 28, 1947, C.P. refused to serve "as a kind of secretary to HH" [the Maharaja] as he (C.P.) was "by temperament and training... autocratic and over decisive." C.P. destroyed the nationalistic Travancore National and Quilon Bank. "C.P.'s loyalty to the ruler and his mother was so high that he had taken good care to keep the palace out of any controversies and criticisms by himself owning up responsibility for all acts against the bank." On May 24, 1937, C.P. wrote to the ruler, "I am endeavouring discreetly to put spokes in their wheel" even by seeking help from the British-governed Imperial and Reserve Banks against this nationalist bank. Jinnah appeared for the Bank in the Bombay High Court and succeeded in thwarting moves for its liquidation there. The Madras High Court was also helpful. The courts in Travancore were not. C.P. Mathen, Mammen Mapillai, and K.V. Pillai were arrested.

C.P.'s clever recording of oral intimations to the ruler amply reveal the fact that he took the decision and recorded the obedient royal nod. He pressed C.P. Mathen to apologise but he refused to do so. Outside the State, the depositors got their money back in full. In the State, they got 13 annas out of every rupee (16 annas). The Advocate-General of India, Sir B.L. Mitter, opined that Mathen's conviction "was illegal and was secured by means, which by no decent standards can be called fair." Both Mammen Mapillai and C.P. Mathen rose in public esteem. Mathen became a Member of Parliament and Ambassador to Ethiopia.

If this episode does not fill Alexander with disgust, neither does the fraud of Indira's Emergency. He covers himself by the familiar device - criticise some abuses. The Allahabad High Court did not set aside her election to the Lok Sabha "on a technical charge of electoral law violation" but for conscious, deliberate commission of a "corrupt practice." She used the services of a government servant, Yashpal Kapoor, got him to resign to cover up the tracks, and lied on oath to the High Court on the date of his resignation. So did P.N. Haksar and Yashpal Kapoor (vide Prashant Bhushan's excellent book The Case that Shook India; Vikas, 1978).

Alexander laps up Indira's lie that it was not she but Home Minister G.B. Pant who sacked the EMS Ministry in Kerala in 1959 (page 192). But she said on July 26, 1959: "The Constitution is for the people, not the people for the Constitution and if the Constitution stands in the way of meeting the people's grievances in Kerala it should be changed." (The Statesman, July 27, 1959).

On June 25, 1975, this very outlook inspired Indira to make an assault on the democratic Constitution. More than one writer has refuted Alexander's versions of the Delhi riots. His account of the negotiations with the Akalis is a garbled one. Interestingly, he writes: "People started asking why she, who exhibited great courage and firmness in dealing with the Pakistanis during the 1971 Bangladesh war, was now showing weakness in dealing with terrorists." He alludes to the suspicion that the talks were a charade to cover up the decision to take military action. Significantly on May 7, 1984, Rajiv Gandhi said that "the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, would soon deal with the Punjab problem" in a manner that "she knows much better than all of us." He recalled the Bangladesh war in 1971 and said "when the time was ripe she played her cards right and we got the answer that December" (The Times of India, May 8, 1984). A clear hint of a military operation decided in advance.

Alexander's attempt to pin the blame on what followed on the brave army received devastating justice from a brilliant dedicated soldier, Lt. Gen. K.S. Brar, himself a Sikh. It was reported by Karan Thapar in The Hindustan Times (September 26, 2004). Alexander is demonstrably, palpably wrong on all the points. "A siege was never possible," as Alexander imagines. The Army did not rush the operation, as he alleges. The intelligence "was never in the Army's hands. RAW and IB controlled the sources," Thapar reports. Baloney, retorts Brar. The soldier's expressive word is an accurate description of Alexander's tales.

He was sworn in as member of the Rajya Sabha on July 30, 2002. No one can recall a single memorable speech he has delivered since. Not for him the ideological commitments of Haksar, the economic concerns of Dhar, or B.K. Nehru's passion for the independence of the civil service. Alexander's book is all about himself - promotions, slights, snubs, revenge, hopes and bitter, bitter laments.

A clockwork orange

DAVID HEARST world-affairs

IF he had a face to lose, Vladimir Putin, that Darth Vader of the post-Soviet empire, has lost it over Ukraine. Having congratulated Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, on his "victory" two weeks ago, Putin has now conceded that the vote was flawed and that a recount should be held quickly, on the Opposition's terms. If this is the "soft imperialism" Putin is accused of, it is very soft indeed.

Moscow's weakness could not be in sharper contrast to Washington's ability to project its power and its proxies into the post-Soviet world. Every Central Asian regime must now be wondering whether the tactic of parallel counts in a dodgy election will be turned on them if they fail to toe the line.

Ukraine's orange revolutionaries are making large claims about the victory they achieved on December 3 when the Supreme Court annulled the presidential run-off. Viktor Yushchenko declares that Ukrainians have emerged as citizens of a Western nation.

But take the tone of moral righteousness out of the great Ukrainian debate and Yushchenko's democrats will find their path blocked in two directions - westward and eastward. The orange revolutionaries have only to march a few kilometres westward from Lviv before they hit a 3-metre-high electrified fence fortified by watchtowers.

The barrier running along Poland's borders with Belarus and Ukraine was originally erected in Soviet times, but it has been enthusiastically reinstated by the European Union, the very author of an enlarged Europe that now professes to run to Kiev's aid.

The Poles shuddered when ordered by Brussels to re-establish a new line of division across eastern Europe. They were especially sensitive to shoring up the Ukrainian border where the cauldron of the Second World War is still warm.

The idea that Europe, in its current xenophobic state, will embrace 48 million Ukrainians on an average salary that makes Romanians rich by comparison, is an absurd illusion. It may give an inner glow to those who believe that Europe's power lies in its ability to radiate democracy to its darker, outer fringes. But the hope that the E.U. will be in any hurry to abandon those watchtowers would be a serious mistake for the fledgling citizens of a free Ukraine.

The second barrier facing them lies to the east and south. There are more than 10 million Russian-speaking Ukrainians here in an industrial belt that produces 80 per cent of the country's national income. The exports from the Donbass coal mines, steel mills and factories go northward and eastward, not westward.

These 10 million Ukrainians may be just as fed up as Kiev and Lviv are with Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing President. They may have groaned at Putin's cack-handed appearances on the campaign trail and the blatant attempts to fix the vote for Yanukovich in the east (as also certainly happened in the west for Yushchenko). But are 10 million people who did not vote Yushchenko all to be dismissed as latterday Soviet clones? Do they only jerk into life when Putin and the revamped KGB press the remote control? What do they want? How do they think they are going to get it?

Virtually no one has bothered to find out. The entire Western media coverage of the Ukrainian upheaval has been limited to Kiev. There have been few if any camera crews in the cities of Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk. These are streets through which Western champions of the well-funded orange revolution should walk before declaring Yushchenko and his friends tribunes of freedom.

THERE is a faultline running through Ukraine that is a product of its history and people. To talk about the history of Ukraine as simply one of Russian occupation is to disenfranchise the voice and identity of a large chunk of its population. If you are not a Uniate Catholic from western Ukraine, you are likely to be Russian Orthodox from the east or south. Remember that Kiev was a Russian city - the Orthodox Church traces its roots to the baptism of Kiev in 988 - before Moscow was even thought of.

If Ukraine's regional polarisation continues as a result of the political crisis, the future for Ukraine does not look bright or orange at all. One model for what could happen in Ukraine is Moldova, Europe's poorest state on Ukraine's south-western border. Two regimes - both now communist, but one facing westward to Romania and the other facing eastward to Russia - fought a bitter if brief war 12 years ago. The Romanian-speaking Moldova is largely a rural economy. The Russian speaking Transdniestr is an industrialised enclave. Twelve years on, two parts of a riven state are still staring sullenly at each other across a river, defying every conceivable formula for power sharing. This is not a path that Ukraine wants to travel.

If Yushchenko's revolution is to work, it will have to be one that works in all parts of Ukraine. Only by running Ukraine as a multi-ethnic state facing both east and west does it stand a chance of becoming a real democracy. But if the inheritors of the post-Soviet quagmire are using popular frustration as a cover for ethnic revenge, the fruits of this revolution will be sour indeed.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

A democratic tradition

ECUMENICAL councils, primarily a gathering of Bishops from around the world (ecumene in Greek means "whole inhabited earth") convened to discuss doctrinal and disciplinary matters, have had an important status in Church history.

According to the new Code of Canon Law (1983), the supreme law of the Catholic Church, it is the "prerogative" of the Pope alone to summon an ecumenical council. He alone has the right to "preside over it personally or through others, to transfer, suspend or dissolve the Council, and to approve its decrees". The law also stipulates that "only Bishops" have the "right and obligation" to attend a council "with a deliberative vote". Others (such as theological experts and representatives of other Churches) can be invited only by the "supreme authority in the Church", the Pope (Canons 338-339).

In contrast, the first eight councils were convened and their decrees promulgated by the Eastern Roman Emperor. Interestingly, two councils, Chalcedon (451) and Nicea II (787), were convened by Empresses Pulcheria and Irene. The conciliar tradition has important implications for the ecumenical movement too. The only profession of faith accepted by all Christian Churches is the Nicene Creed, formulated and accepted by Nicea I (325) and amplified by Constantinople I (381).

Fr. Norman Tanner, S.J., distinguished Oxford historian who teaches at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, points out that ecumenical councils might well be the oldest representative institution in Europe. While the Althing of Iceland or Parliament of Britain, generally deemed to be the continent's "oldest national assemblies with an institutional continuity", first met in 930 and 1257, the eighth council, Constantinople IV, had concluded in 870 (Was the Church too Democratic? Councils, Collegiality and the Church's Future; Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore, 2003; page 6).

All the councils up to Vatican I (1869-70) were convened to deal with specific challenges - mainly heresies, doctrinal errors, schismatic tendencies and so on - faced by the Church of the period. The first eight councils denounced heresies such as Arianism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism and defined the basic doctrines, liturgical practices and legal framework of a nascent Church. The Council of Trent (1545-63) tackled the greatest crisis faced by the Western Church since the 1054 Eastern Schism: the Protestant Reformation.

The Second Vatican Council struck a unique note in conciliar history. Commenting on "those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life", the Blessed Pope John XXIII spelt out the Church's response in his opening speech: "The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations." Gone were the days of Roma locuta, causa finite (Rome has spoken, the case is finished), at least for the time being.

The Council passed 16 documents - four constitutions, three declarations and nine decrees - of varying juridical authority. The most important ones in terms of their impact on the post-conciliar Church are Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Liturgy), Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) and Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism).

War and the deer hunter

world-affairs

The interest in the killing of six people by a Hmong American in Wisconsin goes far beyond the dangers of deer hunting and of murder in general; it has taken racist undertones, adding to the woes of the Hmongs, victims of the United States' war in Indochina.

ON November 21, in Sawyer County, Wisconsin, a massacre took place. A 36-year-old United States National Guardsman shot eight people, killing six. The court indictment details the unfortunate events. The man, Chai Vang, trespassed on the lands of Robert Crotteau in a frigid part of the U.S. that borders Canada. What happened next is unclear. Vang alleges that the men surrounded him, began to assault him with racist phrases, and fired a shot at him. He then commenced to shoot at them. The survivors dispute this story. According to Sawyer County Sheriff Jim Meier, after Crotteau told Vang to leave the land: "The suspect got down from the deer stand, walked 40 yards and fiddled with his rifle. He took the scope off his rifle, he turned and he opened fire on the group." It took less than 20 shots for Vang to hit eight people. In the California National Guard he earned an Army Service Ribbon as a sharpshooter. Vang is currently incarcerated, awaiting trial.

Chai Vang, like the men he killed, had gone to the north woods to hunt deer. Each year, thousands of people like the Crotteaus and Vang leave their city and town lives to camp out for a wilderness experience. Because many of those who hunt are amateurs, each year finds more and more people falling victim to accidents (they average about 140 per year, with about 20-25 fatalities). This year, in Wisconsin, the rate of hunting accidents has already crawled above the mark for last year, and the season is still on. Tim Lawhern of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told the Associated Press: "History has shown over the last few years the gun-deer season often provides us with 50 per cent of our total hunting accidents." Deer hunting is always dangerous but this was plainly murder.

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Nationwide interest in this incident went far beyond the dangers of deer hunts and of murder in general. What sparked the media frenzy was the perpetrator himself: Chai Vang. Two decades ago, Vang left his native Laos for the U.S., where he eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, married a Hmong woman, raised six children and many chickens. His family and friends say that he is a renowned shaman, who caters to the 24,000 Hmong refugees who make St. Paul their home. Indeed, this Minnesota city is the largest Hmong city in the world. Some of Vang's friends, and his brother, have begun to mount a cultural defence, arguing that the Hmong are averse to ideas of private property, that Vang may not have known he had trespassed and that since he is a shaman he might have been in a trance. His detractors argue that he has lived in the U.S. for 20 years and is aware of the laws associated with hunting. A few years ago he received a citation for over-fishing in a local river, one of his few run-ins with the law (another, most disturbingly, was a 2001 domestic violence incident when he threatened his wife with a handgun).

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A local businessman in Haugen, Wisconsin, told the Associated Press: "It's pathetic. They let all these foreigners in here, and they walk all over everybody's property." The questions that lingers in all the news reports, but is unanswered, is why are the Hmong here?

IN the hills of Laos, around the Plain of Jars, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inherited a Clandestine Army that had been fashioned out of the Hmong (Meo) communities. Persecuted in south Szechwan province in China for several hundred years, the Hmong eventually fled en masse in the mid-19th century for the northeastern hills of Laos. By 1971, Laos was home to 2.5 million Hmong, most of whom were involved in slash-and-burn agriculture and the opium trade. Rice allowed the Hmong people to subsist, opium allowed the Hmong elite to rule. After the French entered the region in 1893, they began to buy opium in large quantities from the Hmong, even creating a special tax to drive more Hmong into opium production. The "warlord" structure of Hmong society benefited the French who relied upon some influential leaders to both provide the opium, and to destroy any resistance, notably from the Hmong Resistance League in the mid-1940s. The Hmong Clandestine Army grew out of these local enforcers.

When the U.S. government took over from the French, they began to use this Army against the slowly growing movement of the communist Pathet Lao. This 30,000-strong army under the command of General Vang Pao worked for the CIA from 1960 to 1975. Edgar "Pop" Buell, the CIA official who ran the Clandestine Army and the Plain of Jars, described the Hmong army: "Thirty per cent of the kids were 14 years old or less and about a dozen were only about 10 years old. Another 30 per cent were 15 or 16. The rest were 35 or older. Where were the ones in between? I will tell you, they are all dead." The ones who joined the force "are too young and are not trained. In a few weeks 90 per cent of them will be killed". Buell and Pao sent the Hmong army forward like cannon fodder, using them in the most dangerous missions against both the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. The loss of life grievously damaged Hmong society, and with a shortage of field labour, the only economic crop that enabled survival became opium. From an Indiana farm background, Buell encouraged the Hmong to grow their poppy more effectively. "If you're gonna grow it," he said, "grow it good, but don't let anybody smoke the stuff." Opium became the main crop in the area, and as the Pathet Lao surrounded the Plain of Jars, the U.S.-funded Air America service had to fly out the crop to the market or else lose the only economic basis of its main infantry force in the region. The Hmong homeland became Ground Zero of the Golden Triangle.

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"Now they are all destitute," said an American relief worker, "as a direct result of the attrition they have had to endure, from the battles we encouraged them to fight." In 1970, Buell told a reporter: "The best are being killed off in this country and America will never be able to repay them for what they're doing." Nothing the Hmong endured until then would measure up to what happened five years later. When the U.S. finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, they left their loyal allies, the Clandestine Army and General Pao behind. The CIA eventually extricated Vang Pao and settled him on a 400-acre farm near Missoula, Montana. The bulk of the Hmong faced the Pathet Lao without U.S. air support, only to be killed in large numbers. About 200,000 Hmong crossed the Mekong river into Thailand. The Thai government put them in camps, eventually got the governments of Australia, France and the U.S. to allow some to emigrate and recruited a group of them into another secret army, this time against Thai Communists. In 1991, the U.S. government spent $15 million to close the Thai camps and to send the Hmong back to a hostile reception in Laos.

When I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, I met a group of Hmong families. They used to come to the local farmer's market and sell their quilts. While many of the quilts had traditional designs, one repeated pattern told the story of the Hmong migration. It begins with the CIA contact in the hills of Laos, tells of the Hmong combat against the Pathet Lao, then of their abandonment by the U.S. government and eventual flight into Thailand. The last frame shows a Hmong family disembarking from an aircraft into the U.S., where a hostile policeman greets them with his semi-automatic gun. Resettled in cold cities that had not been sufficiently prepared for this influx of migrants, the Hmong have had a hard life in the U.S. Poverty rates among the Hmong remain high (64 per cent); their per capita income ($2,690) is much lower than the national average ($30,271) and close to three-quarters of Hmong children are raised in poverty. Being poor in America means that they have an adversarial relationship with the police, who work largely to maintain discipline among those whom the state has abandoned.

UNLIKE the Cuban and Vietnamese refugees who have an animus against progressives and favour the Republican Party, Hmong Americans see the world from their social condition and vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Their lives have been dire but in each of their resettlement cities they have formed progressive organisations. These organisations (such as Providence's Hmong United Association) protect the community from the wiles of the state and ameliorate the after-effects of war and dislocation. The strongest organisations in the Hmong American community (such as St. Paul's Women's Association of Hmong and Lao, and Sacramento's Hmong Women's Heritage Association) take on the prevalence of anti-woman violence and the deep-seated misogyny in the Hmong community. Chai Vang's assault on his wife is an example of this, but so too is child marriage, bride price, polygamy and a disdain for the education of girls.

In 1978, American cinema audiences sat riveted by Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. The movie followed the lives of a group of working-class friends from western Pennsylvania who spend their leisure time in a bar or in the forest, hunting deer. They are shipped off to Vietnam, get captured and tortured, and eventually one of them, Mike (played by Robert De Niro) returns home. The other friends are either dead, or broken. For old times sake, Mike goes hunting deer with some acquaintances. A deer comes into his range; Mike aims at it, then, removes his finger from the trigger and yells, "OK." The hunt is over. The war has killed his desire to kill. Mike is America's hope, that Vietnam can be overcome. In the forests of Wisconsin, another group of white men, during this time of war, came up to a man who, to them, looked Vietnamese, and (according to Chai Vang) yelled racist insults at him. The incident of Chai Vang, his deer hunt, is also the legacy of the Vietnam War.

Faith seeking freedom

My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs by Hans kng; Continuum; pages 544, 25.

"AN exciting book, this Structures of the Church. It can deprive one of sleep. But if you always choose the hot potatoes in theology, one day you'll get your fingers burned," Julius Cardinal Dpfner told the young Swiss theologian Hans kng on the eve of the Second Vatican Council in Rome in October 1962. kng's reply, true to form, was tart: "How do you imagine theology? Do you see a whole series of potatoes lying there, hot, lukewarm and cold, and me audaciously looking for the hot ones? After all, I've only taken up topics which are formally important for a theologian in view of the Council and the Church."

History proved the German Cardinal right - kng did get his "fingers burned". In December 1979, the Vatican, with Pope John Paul II at the helm of affairs, withdrew kng's licence to teach Catholic theology. However, kng's reflections on the "hot potatoes" - papal infallibility, priestly celibacy, ecclesiastical democracy, ecumenism, the doctrine of justification, and so on - paved the way for a "radical rethinking" of Catholic faith in the 20th century.

The book under review, the first of a projected two-volume autobiography, delves into the historical and personal contexts of kng's engagements with the "hot potatoes". It covers his life up to the late 1960s - as a child in Switzerland, a seminarian in Rome's elite Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum, a doctoral student in the Instut Catholique in Paris, a promising young professor of theology at the University of Tbingen in Germany and a peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the process, the volume offers valuable insights into two momentous decades of 20th century Church history, the 1950s and 1960s. The book bears testimony to kng's numerous struggles with the Roman ecclesiastical order, his commitment to ecumenism, his brilliance as a theologian and, above all, a remarkable human being committed to the values of freedom and justice.

By far the most important and substantial parts of the book deal with the run-up to and the goings on at the Second Vatican Council. Adopting the stance of what anthropologists call a "participant observer", kng narrates and analyses the most important religious event of the 20th century, which also happened to be the venue of a battle royal between the conservatives (mainly the Roman Curia, that is, the Vatican bureaucracy) and liberals (the majority in the Council, led largely by the German- and French-speaking prelates) in the Catholic Church.

Despite not being part of any of its preparatory commissions, kng played a leading role in setting the agenda of the Council from without. Hence, even as he was in his early 30s kng was in the company of theological stalwarts and Council pioneers such as the Jesuits Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac and John Courtney Murray and the Dominicans Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu. As early as January 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced the decision to convene the Council, kng was lecturing at the University of Basle in Switzerland on Ecclesia semper reformanda ("The Church always in need of reform"). The lecture, delivered at the invitation of the eminent Protestant theologian Karl Barth, was later developed into a widely acclaimed book, The Council and Reunion.

The distinguished Notre Dame University theologian Richard McBrein notes: "[It] was undoubtedly the single most influential book in the Council's preparatory phase because it alerted so many people in the Catholic world to the possibilities for renewal and reform through the medium of Vatican II" (Catholicism; Geoffrey Chapman, London, 2000; page 663). kng put forward several suggestions in the book - reform and simplification of liturgy (the various forms of public worship in the Church, primarily the Mass or Eucharist), abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books, reform of the Roman Curia, and so on. Several of them found their way, though in a modified form, into conciliar or post-conciliar documents.

The Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council in a 2000-year-old Church, differed from the previous ones in an important respect: It was not convened to combat a heresy or define a new doctrine. It was the opening speech of John XXIII on October 11, 1962 that gave it a sense of direction. kng quotes the Pope: "[The Council is] a leap forward towards a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithfulness and conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and the literary forms of modern thought." It was, in other words, a Council to reform, renew and modernise the Church, the sense conveyed by the Italian word that John XXIII used: aggiornamento (bring up to date). It was the Catholic Church's first paranoia-free tryst with the modern world.

The struggle for reform was waged against heavy odds. The third day of the first session of the Council itself gave an idea of what lay in store. On October 13, without any discussion, Council general secretary Pericle Cardinal Felici asked the assembly to elect 16 members for each of the 10 all-important Council commissions. The Bishops were expected to re-nominate the 16 members of the preparatory commissions, mostly members of the Curia. At this point, Achille Cardinal Lienart of the presiding council rose to demand the postponement of the elections in order to give the Bishops more time to decide. His demand was seconded by Josef Cardinal Frings.

The proposal was accepted by the presiding council and was greeted with applause by the assembly. kng says that with this development the Council acquired "a personality of its own". Another peritus, Yves Congar, called the unexpected event "the first conciliar act" in his Council dairy, Mon journal du concile (quoted in The Tablet, October 26, 2002). But the Curia had its way. In addition to the 16 members elected by the Council fathers, the 10 commissions were to have eight more nominees of the Pope. Invariably, the "nominees" were either part of the Curia or fellow travellers.

The ensuing days witnessed more curial tactics to maintain control over the Council: the imposition of Latin as the official language of the Council and the manipulation of voting on the schema (draft decree). The mastery of Latin, though the official language of the Church, varied vastly among the Bishops. Repeated requests, made primarily by Franz Cardinal Knig and the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch Maximos IV, for authorisation to use other languages fell on deaf ears. Even the proposal to install a system for simultaneous translation from Latin was vetoed by the Curia. (It was set up only towards the end of the Council.)

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The Popes of the Second Vatican Council: John XXIII and Paul VI.

Voting on the schema on "the sources of revelation" exemplified the Curia's tactics. The schema sought to reassert the Catholic position on a contentious theological issue: From where does one know about the Christian revelation (a historical event)? The Protestants affirm that it is from the Bible and it alone (sola scriptura). The Catholic Church, while accepting that the Bible is the norma normans non normata (the highest norm which is not subject to any another norm), points out the equal importance of tradition. (In a broad sense, tradition is the process of handing on the faith from generation to generation through preaching, doctrines, catechesis, and so on. Specifically, it means the content of the post-apostolic teaching.) kng observes that even the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545-63) referred to the scripture as the one "source of all saving truth and moral order". Moreover, historical research had proved that the partim-partim approach (revelation is based partly on scripture and partly on tradition) was a post-Tridentine distortion.

The schema was put to vote on November 20, 1962. The Curia was alarmed because several leading and respected Cardinals had earlier spoken in favour of rejection. It worked a way out: instead of asking the Bishops to vote for or against the schema, they were asked to vote for or against the continuation of the discussion on it. It was a false dichotomy and foreclosed the real way in which the votes would have split - a majority against the schema but for continuing the discussion and a minority for the schema and for continuing the discussion. The Curia carried the day by this "perverse way of putting the question". However, following protests by the liberal majority, John XXIII intervened. The vote was annulled and the Pope returned the schema for revision by a new commission.

kng's primary contention is clear: the Council was hijacked by the Curia not when the Bishops went home during the long breaks between its four sessions; the battle for the Council was won by the Curia when it was in session. In fact, he traces the curial domination back to the failure of John XXIII and his successor Paul VI to reform it. According to Church law, when a Pope dies all the curial posts automatically fall vacant. It is for a new Pope to make the appointments. Both John XXIII and Paul VI, despite being committed to the renewal of the Church, failed to appoint liberal prelates to key curial bodies such as the Secretariat of State and the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

For instance, Paul VI summoned the whole of the Curia before the beginning of the second session of the Council in September 1963 and lectured them on the need for curial reform. But he entrusted the Curia with the responsibility of formulating the details of its own reform! The much-awaited curial reform did come - in December 1965, after the conclusion of the Council.

Moreover, Paul VI played, in the words of kng, a "highly personal" role in the infamous "black week" of the Council, the last days of the third session when the voting on the schema on religious freedom and ecumenism was delayed and postponed.

kng also blames the "disastrous compromises" made by the liberal conciliar majority, especially with regard to the schema on the Church. The original schema had met with widespread criticism when it was presented for discussion towards the end of the first session in December 1962. In fact, the Curia ensured that the schema would not be rejected by postponing the voting on it to the second session. According to kng, the primary defect of the original schema was its focus on the medieval hierarchical model of the Church, rather than the biblical and patristic understanding of it as a "community of believers" (communio fidelium). The medieval model was implemented as part of the 11th century Gregorian Reform (named after Pope Gregory VII who initiated it).

In between the sessions, the schema was revised. But the revised schema was a "tremendous disappointment". The new schema began with two new chapters on "The Mystery of the Church" and "The People of God"; but the portion on "The Church is Hierarchical" was retained as the third chapter. kng alleges that much of the post-conciliar confusion and conflict in the Church can be attributed to these contradictory ecclesiologies.

Is kng's account of the Council, generally acknowledged as a path-breaking event in Church history, too bleak? Does he not see, to quote from John XXIII's opening speech, it rising "in the Church like day-break, a forerunner of most splendid light"? Here it ought to be remembered that kng's aim is not merely to retell the story of the Council.

It is, in his words, an "`alternative' history of the Council `depicted from within'"; and it is a personal account. Hence at various places in the narrative, he criticises official and semi-official histories of the Council, especially the five-volume History of Vatican II edited by the Italian layman Giuseppe Alberigo, which gloss over or suppress uncomfortable facts.

Nevertheless, the Catholic in kng identifies with the conciliar spirit: "A new, more hopeful, age has begun for it [the Church]: an age of constructive renewal in all spheres of Church life, of an understanding encounter and collaboration with the rest of Christianity, the Jews and other religions, with the modern world generally."

NEWSWORTHY are kng's views on some important personalities of the Church. A slice of unknown history from the late 1940s when kng was a student in Rome: a Polish priest, Karol Wojtyla, was denied admission to the prestigious Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome because "he has not completed his studies in Poland satisfactorily"; he joins the Dominican-run Pontifical Angelicum University instead. Wojtyla was elected Pope in October 1978 and took the name John Paul II. kng comments: "[I]t is more important for the Church that while this Polish student learned some philosophy, he evidently has a very thin theological foundation - not to mention a lack of knowledge of modern exegesis, the history of dogmas and the Church."

Interestingly, Yves Congar recorded in his Council diary on October 11, 1963: "Bishop Wojtyla submitted some of his texts to me. They are rather confused, full of imprecisions and even errors" (quoted in The Tablet, October 26, 2002).

Trying to explain the transformation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, from a peritus at the Council allied with the liberal majority to the chief heresy-hunter and doctrinal czar of John Paul II, has been a difficult task for many an observer of the contemporary Catholic Church. John L. Allen Jr., the Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, made a commendable attempt in the well-researched biography Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum, 2000). But Allen's work was criticised for failing to do justice to Ratzinger the gifted theologian and prolific writer.

kng, a former colleague of the Cardinal at the University of Tbingen, offers his view: "Certainly, even in Tbingen my colleague, who for all his friendliness always seems somewhat distanced and cool, had kept something like an unenlightened `devotional corner' in his Bavarian heart and shown himself to be all too stamped by Augustine's pessimistic view of the world and Bonaventura's Platonising neglect of the visible and empirical (in contrast to Thomas Aquinas)."

Ratzinger's suspicion of all liberal, not to say Left-leaning, trends in the Church may be traced back to his experience of the 1968 student revolts at the University of Tbingen. kng says that it had a "permanent shock effect" on the arch-conservative Cardinal, who is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981 and the Dean of the College of Cardinals since 2002. "To the present day Ratzinger has shown phobias about all movements `from below', whether these are student chaplaincies, groups of priests, movements of Church people, the Iglesia popular or liberation theology."

Lest it be misconstrued, kng does not claim the mantle of a prophet. Neither is he anti-Catholic. His relations with the Church, 50 years after his ordination and 25 years after the Vatican banned him from teaching Catholic theology, are strained, but not broken. In 2002, back at his alma mater Germanicum after several decades, he still felt "at home". In the not very distant future, one may hope, that the Holy See too might not hesitate to welcome back into the flock of believers its most famous enfant terrible of the past half a century.

The stalemate in Sri Lanka

While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insists on interim self-rule as the basis for a resumption of talks, the Sri Lankan government maintains that it is willing to discuss the proposal but along with the contours of a final settlement.

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"We must have at least a federal government. If even this is not offered, even God cannot save this country."

- Suresh Premachandran, Tamil National Alliance MP, in the Sri Lankan Parliament on December 6, 2004.

IN many respects the main players in Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process have painted themselves into a corner during 2004. Apart from the deep chasm that developed within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the consequent internecine bloodbath, the major participants in the separatist conflict have largely maintained the status quo vis--vis their positions though at the start of the year achieving a break with the past seemed a possibility.

For the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), its initial condemnation of the LTTE's proposal and subsequent alliance with the Left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are turning out to be hurdles on the way to peace and devolution. The Opposition United National Party (UNP) is yet to recover from its defeat in the parliamentary elections. After formally announcing the candidature of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe for the next presidential poll, the UNP is gearing its party machinery for a string of protests on various political issues. The LTTE would perhaps best like to forget 2004, when its raison d'etre, formation of a separate, independent state in the traditional homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils, and its claim to be the sole representative of this section of people were seriously challenged.

Paradoxically, the LTTE was dared not by its decades-long battlefield foe - the `Sinhala army' - but by one of its most-efficient military commanders, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna).

The LTTE was not just dismissive of the contradictions that stared it in the face following Karuna's revolt, but exploited it politically and to a certain extent militarily. Politically, it sidestepped the basic issue that Karuna raised - discrimination by the LTTE leadership against the Tamils of eastern Sri Lanka - and instead used the rebellion to avoid the negotiating table. Militarily, however, the LTTE lost 72 cadre, the highest number since it signed the ceasefire in 2002. It is estimated that around 150 cadre from both sides of the LTTE divide have been killed in the internecine clashes since April.

As the politico-military stalemate continued, the Tigers consolidated themselves against their rivals - both the rebels and anti-LTTE parties such as the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) - by going on a killing spree and blaming it on the internal rebellion.

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Thirty months after the ceasefire agreement, there is a clear hardening of stance by an increasingly impatient and frustrated LTTE. In the build-up to the annual Heroes' Day speech by its leader V. Prabakaran in November (Frontline, December 17) and immediately after it, there were direct pointers that the Tigers would push up the stakes on the political and military fronts. The stated sticking point in the resumption of talks - the government's acceptance of the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) as "the basis" - continues to dominate public debate.

In an apparent change of tactic, the LTTE, which seldom misses an opportunity to demonstrate that it is a `politico-military organisation', upped the political ante. Be it in Sri Lanka's 225-member Parliament, which is in its annual budget session, in the media or on the streets of key towns in northern Sri Lanka, the LTTE's hardening political position was obvious.

On November 25 - two days before the Heroes' Day speech - R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) group in Parliament, made a significant speech on the current stage of the stalemate. "The vast majority of the people in the north-east, particularly the Tamil people, want autonomous self-rule in the north-east region," he said. The Tamil political parties, he said, "remain committed to a negotiated resolution of the Tamil question in keeping with the will of the Tamil nation".

The concept of an interim body for the north-east "is not new" and an attempt was made to achieve it immediately after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, when the UNP was in power, he said. It was also discussed during 1994-95 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE. Moreover, the President's "constitutional proposals of August 2000 contained proposals for the setting up of an interim council for the north-east for a period of 10 years", he said.

Referring to the JVP's opposition to an interim arrangement, Sampanthan said: "The two major parties - the SLFP and the UNP - have accepted the concept of an interim body. The JVP, I would urge, should follow, in the interests of the country." On the charge that the LTTE's proposals were "maximalist", he said "most of the LTTE's proposals are what obtains in federal arrangements in other countries".

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One key issue in the resumption of talks is the government's view that the Tigers should reiterate a commitment made two years ago in Oslo that they would explore a federal solution. The government was hoping that the commitment would be made in the Heroes' Day speech, but that was not to be. However, Tamil MPs made it a point to call for federalism as a solution. "Any arrangement, interim or final, has to be within the framework of an undivided country," Sampanthan said. During a debate on the annual budgetary allocations for the Defence Ministry, Suresh Premachandran of the TNA said the Sri Lankan leaders should give "at least a federal government", failing which, he added, "not even God can save this country".

The ceasefire agreement, Premachandran said, was signed "to prepare for peace, not separation". Citing a recent publication, he said the Sri Lankan armed forces had stepped up their strength in terms of weaponry and manpower and was emphatic that "the government's agenda is for war".

According to Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the government's "clear policy" is that it is willing to discuss the LTTE's proposal for interim self-rule, but along with the contours of a final settlement. Its main objection, according to government sources, is the LTTE's insistence that the ISGA should be "the basis" for negotiations.

"We are not ready to discuss just the ISGA. Talks must be on a final settlement as well. That is our policy and it is very clear," Wickremanayake said on December 6, winding up a five-hour budget debate on the Defence Ministry. The government was "ready to talk about peace", but "as a sovereign nation"; it was also "ready to face any contingency". Wickremanayake told Parliament: "We will strengthen the armed forces in terms of men, material, ideas and weapons."

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For the LTTE, which has officially lost 17,780 of its cadre in the fight for a separate state since November 1982, a withdrawal from the separatist option is not on the cards. And, given the current international positions, the Eelamist option is a non-starter. Herein lies the paradox for the LTTE. According to the LTTE's supporters, the Tigers "will not change their position now. How can they give up separation when they have not got anything politically from the negotiations?"

Against this political deadlock, the Tigers may well be running out of options. What has now started as "public protests" could reach a point where the militarist option is exercised. However, the current reading in southern Sri Lanka is that the Tigers will not return to war for two broad reasons. Southern hardliners, who have shown no signs of weakening, say that after Karuna's revolt the LTTE is "militarily weak" and cannot risk a resumption of violence. Liberals in the south are of the view that the LTTE will shift its approach from military offensives to political movements.

History shows that both assumptions are tenuous. The LTTE could carry out a limited operation just to make the point, if not for anything else, that its strike capacity is intact and it is capable of inflicting serious damage. "They could strike just to resume negotiations," a defence analyst said. However, once the first shot is fired, matters may go out of control, and a free fall into war is bound to be costly for both the rebels and the government.

According to all indications, the Tigers are likely to open both political and military fronts. Whether the initial phase of public protests veers towards a resumption of hostilities would depend on the government's reaction. The current stalemate also reflects, to a large extent, the restraint that all the major players have exercised. With the possibilities of an emotional revival strong, the immediate imperative for peace is the resumption of negotiations based on the agreement reached in Oslo, in which Colombo and the LTTE decided to explore a solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

Such a direct federalist commitment, pronounced and demonstrated by both the belligerent Tigers and an unsure Sri Lankan government, is the only way out of a downhill slide into possible violence.

Coping with our cities

The path to urbanisation is strewn with problems such as inadequate infrastructure, compounded by the government's lack of foresight.

RECENTLY I had to do what I try to avoid: drive down from Delhi into the urban sprawl that has come up around and beyond the city of Gurgaon, in Haryana. It has been years since I went down that road, the national highway to Jaipur. The last time I had driven down it, I remember seeing the odd building or resort, nothing more. What I saw this time was truly frightening. On either side was a never-ending urban desert, building upon building, and every second one, it seemed, was a gigantic shopping mall, ablaze with lights, and hundreds of cars parked in front of them. Like background music, I could hear the deep hum of giant generators. The lights obviously came from them.

The change in just a few years has been astonishing, and it is almost the same in the other region adjoining Delhi, Noida. That is not quite as immense but it is impressively big too. Shops, malls, hotels, office buildings and houses have sprung up where there was nothing but quiet agricultural land; and in Haryana, around Gurgaon, the urbanisation is so staggering in size that there simply is no agricultural land for miles in any direction.

In one sense, this is the inevitable outcome of the enormous growth of Delhi's population, and developers have rapidly acquired land and either built or made it possible for others to build all these malls, flats, office buildings, hotels and resorts. But the sound of the generators behind all these very futuristic glass and steel structures is a kind of symbol of the actual state of affairs on the ground. There simply is not enough power for all these huge buildings, their air-conditioned interiors, lights, piped music, escalators and everything else that needs electricity to work.

And that is not all. There is not enough water either. Not from the available urban water system and not from tube wells, which have to be sunk deeper and deeper as the water table keeps falling before the insatiable need of the millions who are now either staying in or using these buildings. Nor is there an effective system of waste disposal. And, most importantly, the roads are hopelessly inadequate. True, some flyovers are being built on the national highway, but the roads to all the `colonies' as they are called, which constitute this gigantic urban sprawl, are still narrow and fragile, unable to take the load of traffic.

One reads that the situation is about as bad in Bangalore and that in parts of Pune traffic jams are perpetual. In other words, the urban areas of the country are growing much faster than the infrastructure. This is the fallout of a high rate of growth, of the inflow of funds, of new industries and organisations - all very welcome, and part of the resurgence of the economy, but also creating urban chaos.

It has been usual to see India as predominantly rural. It is so; in 2001, 72 per cent of the country was rural and only 28 per cent was urban, according to the Census figures. But that picture is going to change; it has been estimated that by 2026, 36 per cent of the country will be urban and the urban population will increase by another 500 million people. Demographers Tim Dyson and Robert Cassen who worked this out have also estimated that the number of `million plus' cities in India will grow from the present 35 to 70, that is, the number will double.

Clearly, the Central government will have to look at this burgeoning problem with the concern it deserves, and act before it goes out of control. In Delhi itself, where funds are provided more generously than to many States, the authorities are not able to cope. They have barely got some improvements in the road system going; the effect of the Delhi Metro will still take some years to become evident. And there is, all over the capital, a terrible shortage of water and power. Power cuts are a regular feature, particularly in summer. In fact, they occur at all times even in winter. (The reasons given are interesting: in summer it is because of the widespread use of air-conditioners, which is understandable; in winter it is apparently owing to the fog in the mornings; and during the monsoon it is because of the rain, naturally.) The Delhi government is planning to build some power stations. But by the time they come up, the demand will have gone up even higher. One fears for what will happen when the much-talked-of Sonia Vihar water supply scheme becomes operational.

IF this, then, is what the state of affairs is in the capital, one can imagine what it will be in the States, whose finances are virtually non-existent. In fact, it is for this reason that the Central government needs to look at this problem urgently. Urbanisation cannot be put on the backburner any more. If action to expand, strengthen and improve the urban infrastructure is not taken in hand now, it will cost the country far more later on and will never ever be as effective.

When we talk of the increased growth rate of the economy and introduce measures to speed it up, we are actually increasing the spread of urbanisation and it is not just a problem of the million-plus cities and mega-metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. What in general is the future of the smaller cities and towns. Power, water, roads, hospitals, sewage disposal systems - these and all the other aspects of urban settlements have to be put in place and the funds for doing so found.

It must be remembered that without this, economic growth will slow down, as investors come up against a lack of power, transportation, water and everything else. And if they are not available, they will invest in countries where they are. For India to try then to provide hastily some infrastructure will be, to use a cliche, too little, too late. We need to remember that we are already well behind China and several Asian countries in terms of our rate of growth, and as the Prime Minister pointed out recently, if the economy has to grow at around six or seven per cent, then industrial growth must be over 10 to 12 per cent. Industrial growth takes place in areas that may start off being rural - as the cities of Durgapur, Rourkela and Bhilai were once set in areas far removed from existing urban areas - but within a few years they will transform those areas into urban settlements, and the only one that has managed to cope with that transformation has been Jamshedpur, with no help from the state.

It means, inevitably, preparing for an India that is more urban than rural, which is the direction in which the country is headed, and which will happen sooner than we think. Preparing for this will take time and money - above all, time. It cannot, consequently, be put aside any more. If we are indeed preparing for a high rate of growth, it is up to us to provide the means by which it can actually take place - on the ground. Of course we need to alter and liberalise procedures, lower taxes and duties and all the rest - but the physical facilities are what will count, in the end.

The peace motif

In the context of the United Nations' reform efforts, Japan makes strategic moves to strengthen its claims to permanent membership of the Security Council.

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POWER politics in the Asia-Pacific region is likely to intensify, as Japan and India stake their claims to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council in the context of the report by the U.N. High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The report was presented to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on December 2.

While the final position of each of the existing five permanent members with the veto right - the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China - will matter the most in the end, China's support is of utmost concern to both Tokyo and New Delhi, all major players from the Asian region. Beijing has lost no time in expressing itself in favour of a "democratic consensus" among the U.N. members on all issues of the organisation's reforms so that it could then confidently face the challenges of the 21st century.

Given this general but emphatic position of China, both Japan and India will seek, behind the scenes, to gain its backing for their independent claims. While the positions of the United States and Russia are important, in the Asia-Pacific context, Tokyo's case is of far more interest to Washington, Moscow and Beijing, in view of the manner in which the U.N. Security Council was built nearly 60 years ago, on the ashes of the Second World War. In today's international situation, neither imperial Japan's defeat in the Second World War nor the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, is an issue on the table of the reformers of the U.N. The sub-text of a subtle Japan-China political ping-pong on Tokyo's credentials has not yet been fully played out.

Two days before the High Level Panel formally submitted its report, Hatsuhisa Takashima, the Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, spelt out Tokyo's credentials in response to a question from the media. He asserted: "Japan, as a peace-loving non-nuclear nation, can have a special role to play in order to promote peace and stability in the world". This statement is portrayed as the prime aspect of the "legitimacy" of Japan's bid for permanent membership of the Security Council.

All the permanent members are nuclear powers and the legitimacy of their atomic weapons is also acknowledged under the multilateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). More specifically, in the Asia Pacific region, both China and India possess nuclear weapons, while Japan does not. India is not a signatory to the NPT.

The superiority of Japan's peace credentials over those of both India and China is obviously the strategic message of this argument, although Japan and India have agreed to campaign for each other's candidature for permanent membership. Relevant to this presentation by Japan is the fact that both China and India have independently enunciated the doctrine of "no first-use" of nuclear weapons. In Japan's reckoning, this aspect does not obviously mitigate the status of either China or India as a nuclear weapons State.

The `peace' motif of post-imperial Japan is matched, in its perception, by its stature as "the second largest economy in the world". Takashima said: "Japan would be able to play a larger role in promoting prosperity and the eradication of poverty from the face of the earth". Moreover, a permanent seat would mean that "Japanese views can be reflected in the decision-making process of the U.N.", he said.

If these two factors turn the spotlight on Japan's self-perception as an international player, its sense of enlightened self-interest is reflected in the third factor.

Takashima said Japan was "the second largest contributor to the U.N.'s regular budget and other financial arrangements"; the contention being that "Japan should have more of a say on every decision being taken at the U.N."

Japan has also argued that it is promoting not only its candidature for permanent membership but also for "the reform of structural and various other aspects of the U.N. as a whole, including Economic and Social Council reforms".

NOW, while overall reforms remain a goal of the U.N., in the context of its security functions, the High Level Panel has recommended that "under any reform proposal, there should be no expansion of the veto". In unfolding two alternative models of Security Council reform, the panel said: "as a whole, the institution of the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for [the U.N.] institution in an increasingly democratic age". However, the panel also saw "no practical way of changing the existing members' veto powers".

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The origin of the veto itself is often explained in different ways, either as a privilege that would help underwrite the commitment of the big powers to collective security, or as a matter of bargain for a certain level of equilibrium among themselves.

Depicting the Security Council, which now consists of five permanent members and ten elected and non-permanent members as "fifteen men on a powder keg", writer Andrew Boyd said "the foundation on which the U.N. was built - by the great powers - was the great-power veto". Kishore Mahbubani, who has represented Singapore at the U.N. Security Council, believes that "the absence of a widely shared understanding of the responsibilities of both permanent and non-permanent members of the Council has developed into a serious weakness for the organisation".

While the larger international community is aware of the absence of a level-playing field in the Security Council, the High Level Panel has found itself faced with the challenge of `democratising' the Council. At another level, each of the permanent-member-aspirants is keen to be given veto powers with the same or comparable privileges.

IF Japan has not so far made an explicit pitch for permanent membership with the veto privilege, the reason has much to do with the fact that the debate on Security Council reforms is just beginning. China, whose support is essential for Japan, has said: "With many differences in existence, the enlargement of the Security Council bears on the interests of all parties concerned." Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in Beijing on December 2: "China has all along supported the U.N. reform and a broader representation at the Security Council, in particular the representation of developing countries." This statement is obviously not welcome to Japan, which has now begun to regard China as a rapidly growing economy that could well graduate from the status of a developing country. While pledging to continue the Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China, Japan has hinted at the possibility of treating Beijing as a candidate that could emerge out of the ODA bracket.

While the ODA debate is relevant to the Japan-China diplomacy over Tokyo's Security Council-related ambitions, history, too, still plays a significant part in their overall engagement. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is still seen by China and several other East Asian countries as a grim reminder of Japan's imperial-era militancy and of its [the shrine's] appeal to sections of the Japanese people. Koizumi disputes this view, but this aspect, and the overall question of sustainable mutual trust have impinged on his recent and separate meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Nature's film-maker

Documentary film-maker Mike Pandey wins the prestigious `Green Oscar' award for his movie The Vanishing Giants.

"IF Sachin Tendulkar or Shah Rukh Khan loses his cell phone, the news will reach every nook and corner of the country, but the fact that iodine is essential for the human body is still not known widely," says documentary film-maker Mike Pandey. This situation is what he is striving to change. Mike Pandey won the Panda Award at Wildscreen 2004, the world's biggest festival for wildlife and environmental films, in Bristol, United Kingdom, in October, in the news category, for his six-minute-long news feature The Vanishing Giants. And he is the only Indian to have won the award - also known as the `Green Oscar' - thrice. He is now busy planning his future projects at Riverbank Studios, his film production company in Delhi, so that he can go on telling the `truth' - his mission.

The award-winning film showed how Chhattisgarh government officials captured a "problem" elephant, and how it succumbed to torture 18 days later. He had released the footage to a news channel when the incident happened, following which the Government of India suspended all capture operations in the country.

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Scenes from The Vanishing Giants, which won the award.

This is not the first time that Pandey has rattled the authorities with his blunt visuals of atrocities committed on animals - some out of ignorance and some out of callousness. As he gets phone calls congratulating him on his recent achievement, he is busy with scripts, ongoing productions, and plans for a feature film. He also finds time to prescribe homoeopathy treatment to his overworked assistant.

Pandey says the award surprised him. Wildscreen had also nominated him for the Filmmakers for Conservation Award along with eminent film-makers such as Alan Root, Richard Brock, Maria Falcon and Hardy Jones (Alan Root won that award). "There were very established and prominent producers as competitors. I did not expect to win this one. But we do not make films for awards. I want to tell the truth and expose what is going on," Pandey said.

Mike Pandey tells the truth forcefully, in his films. After panning the scenic beaches and waves on the Gujarat coast, the camera eventually settles on a huge but helpless dying whale shark. Majestic elephants march ahead only to find that one of them has been chained and is being starved and beaten and its tusks cut off. There are very few "talking heads" - as Mike puts it - in his documentaries. The issue that he is addressing is there - shot in real.

Pandey spent his childhood in East Africa and was educated in the United Kingdom and the United States. His love for the environment is as strong as his passion for the making of technically fine films. His concern about the flawed systems, processes and attitudes in India has driven him to work on shoestring budgets, deal with widespread ignorance about wildlife and the environment, and work with uninspiring bureaucrats. After spending some time in the Mumbai film industry, he decided to do what he believed in and started making "not just environmental but socially relevant" documentaries.

He is a believer in the ways of nature and its far superior ways of working. The arrogance of human beings upsets him. "Man thinks he is the supreme commander of this planet and that's his biggest mistake. He is only in his infancy. He has been around for only 180,000 years. Other species have existed and evolved for much much longer - 60 or 70 million years. What a little leaf can do in photosynthesis, we may try doing using a lab of 1 sq km and spend millions, and still not perfect it," he says.

His conversations are sprinkled with references to the wonders of nature. As these analogies flow, he also mentions how stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagawad Gita have influenced him. "When the bee pollinates, it does not come back to check. It goes ahead and continues doing this incredible job." So while he has partly inculcated this principle, of continuing with his work against any odds, he would definitely appreciate some returns in the form of changes in policies and attitudes. Education and awareness will do the trick, he feels. "There is no magic key other than education. Education sensitises you and then you will not be self-consumed or selfish. There should be public information. Only education and information will improve life," he says.

For this, he wants the government to blend information and entertainment and take the task more seriously. "The Ministry of Education is not using the best vehicle it could have taken to spread information. Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan and All India Radio will reach millions and can do a good job, teaching children in villages and remote areas. But we do not have any good education programmes," he says.

There are many youngsters in his studios, learning much more than techniques: they work with him, and some have gone on to make documentaries or start their own set-ups. Shalini Ghosh, who makes films for the Internet, remembers the times spent at Riverbank Studios: "It's a good place to learn. He likes to share his experiences with young people. He lets people do whatever they want. He lets them use the equipment and learn."

When it comes to learning, it is on-field work that teaches the most. "You have to be patient and you have to work very hard. For days nothing may work out. You have to spend time with the local people, live their life. Talk like them, feel like them, smell like them. Only then you will understand real issues. You are not on a picnic when you go to the forests," he says.

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SHORES of Silence, a film on whale sharks, took over three years to make. The big fish that he had seen as a child from a ship were nowhere to be seen along the coast when he went to shoot the film. Nobody even knew that they existed. "One day I was thinking of different words in different languages (he knows Swahili, French, English, Gujarati, Hindi and Bhojpuri). And then it occurred to me that I might be asking the wrong question. So then I asked how big was the biggest fish they had caught." In an impeccable Gujarati accent he narrates the incident, "`Very very big', the fisherman said. `Thousands of tonnes in weight. It is bari machli or barrel machli,' The next day at 4 a.m. we were at a shore where we saw half-dead whale sharks being dragged to shore. The fish was called barrel fish. The authorities there refused to acknowledge that the fish existed. And there was no law to protect our marine life," he says.

This documentary did bring about a change in the wildlife protection law, which for the first time included marine species. Though critical of the bureaucracy, Mike emphasises that in the long term, change can be effected through good governance and good use of public broadcasters.

For someone who did a programme like "Earth Matters" on Doordarshan for two years, he has many questions to ask the authorities. "There is no political will. My documentaries are screened in film festivals. International agencies screen them. They have won awards but the Ministry of Environment is yet to buy them. Why is it so? Why don't they start programmes on the environment again? If you show such programmes at 10.30 p.m., who will watch them? Rural India goes to bed by 8.30 p.m. All this information and knowledge is garbage if it does not reach the people," he says.

Kiran Pandey, coordinator of the Environment Resources Unit at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, speaks about how film festivals and awards help in taking the message to the people. Their film on rainwater harvesting was also a finalist in the Campaign Category for the Wildscreen award. "When film festivals screen such environmental documentaries, people see them, talk about them. Then one can loan these films to different institutions for their screenings. An award is a value addition. But they should be made more popular, maybe a dedicated channel. Few people want to watch DD (Doordarshan). We should tempt the corporates to sponsor these projects, and that would improve their image also. A few festivals like `Vatavaran' have started in India, but it needs more."

Namrata Chowdhary, from Greenpeace, explains how these films are effective. "Films speak so much more eloquently because you are providing visual evidence. They are much more powerful than fact sheets. They play a very important role in bringing the catastrophe into drawing rooms. But there are few people working and even fewer quality productions," she says.

MIKE PANDEY's films are part of those few productions that have touched people's hearts and minds, and now he wants to go beyond documentaries and children's education programmes. Unlike purists, he wants all the media, including Bollywood, to come together and join the mission. "Bollywood has a major role to play. All of us carry a social responsibility. Even if the hero gives only one or two minutes in a three-hour-long film for a cause, it will have a major influence," he says.

So, is he thinking of coming back to commercial cinema? "My heart has always been in features. I am working on a children's film, titled `Hakuna matata'. The intention is to motivate children and ignite their minds. Once the seed is sown, the children will make the changes," he says animatedly.

However, it will take time, as such projects need money and producers for them are hard to find.

While the work on documentaries goes on, Riverside sustains itself by taking overseas assignments for short films, making films for Ministries, corporates and Doordarshan.

In his basement studio done up with recycled wood, work goes on. Fish in a large fish tank keep young professionals company during long days and nights. While one feels inspired and positive about all the achievements and future projects of a dedicated film-maker, the image of a boy sitting on a dead whale shark, with waves gently playing along, cannot be wiped from one's consciousness.

Another Heroes' Day speech

V.S. SAMBANDAN world-affairs

ON November 27, the former special commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna) did some plain-speaking in his maiden Heroes' Day speech.

Be it in attacking LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran or in setting conditions to the Sri Lankan government, `Col.' Karuna sounded firm and direct. He described Prabakaran as "unfit to lead the Tamils" and "claim the status of sole representative" as he was "responsible for large-scale killing of Tamils". He wanted the Sri Lankan government to discuss the basic issues of the conflict in order to find a solution. Suggesting a two-year time-frame to solve the crisis, Karuna said: "If we cannot resolve our problems, we should agree to separate."

Describing India as better suited to resolve the Sri Lankan crisis, compared to the Scandinavian countries, Karuna said it was India's responsibility to help in finding a solution to the conflict and that his party was of the view that India should accord prime importance to peace in Sri Lanka, while ensuring that "Tamil-speaking people live in peace, dignity and security". The years of armed struggle and the deaths of LTTE cadres in battle, he said, were "to live, not to be destroyed".

The address, which was also Karuna's first since launching the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal this October, set out a six-point plan of action for the fledgling party. As Prabakaran, "the mass killer, who has killed so many Tamils, cannot assume to be the sole representative," Karuna said, "attempts would be made" to tell the world that "the arch enemy of the Tamils is none other than Prabakaran". Secondly, concerted action would be taken to "safeguard, unite and preserve Tamils who are on the verge of being gradually decimated" internally and on foreign soil.

The third plank of the party would be to "negotiate with the government regarding primary and basic issues of the Tamils that have led us to the launching of the liberation war - issues such as land, language, employment, education, administration and more importantly, the security issue".

Equal socio-economic and educational status for Tamils and Sinhalese and the eradication of "all anti-human and anti-social activities now practised by Prabakaran", such as "tax collection, seizure of property, abduction, holding people hostage, denying education to the youth" will be another plank of the party. On India, Karuna said: "We are of the candid opinion that India is the only country that will be able to help us find a reasonable solution to the problems confronting the Tamil-speaking people and we believe that India is in a position to undertake and provide necessary security arrangements."

Describing Prabakaran as a person "who has the habit of killing those who helped him as well as those who have saved him," Karuna said he was "the reincarnation of Godse, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Nero, all put together into one".

On the path ahead, Karuna said his party's policy was to "prepare plans and schemes and negotiate for all the ethnic communities in Sri Lanka to live together peacefully, enjoying equal status. If we fail to find solutions to all the issues, then we should separate".

Karuna's speech has not yet generated the expectation that has come to surround Prabakaran's annual speeches, but in making his maiden speech, the former military commander of the LTTE has taken one more step towards occupying an important role in Sri Lanka's politics of separatist conflict.

Promises to keep

SMITA GUPTA the-nation

The draft Employment Guarantee Act seeks to push policies that make a mockery of employment guarantee itself, furthering the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation of public services and the retreat of the state from all development activities that are not targeted.

THE stark visibility of rural distress compelled the Congress party to put the promise of a 100-day employment guarantee in its election manifesto and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to make it part of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The CMP begins with the following promise: "The UPA government will immediately enact a National Employment Guarantee Act. This will provide a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment to begin with on asset-creating public works programmes every year at minimum wages for at least one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middleclass household." To this end, the National Advisory Council (NAC) drafted a Rural Employment Guarantee Act and gave it to the government for consideration. However, there has been a consistent dilution of the provisions of the proposed Act. The draft as it stands today is neither national, nor a guarantee nor indeed at minimum wages, becoming a hoax that reduces the CMP and the NAC's legitimacy to a farce.

The Finance Ministry and the Planning Commission have drafted an Act that is effectively a narrowly targeted scheme, which can move from district to district at any wage for any duration, all at the whims and fancies of the Central government. Unlike the commitment in the CMP, the final draft places an unnecessary and unaffordable burden on the State governments. The Central government is hoping to bulldoze this diluted anti-people, anti-woman and anti-State government Act through. Although there are several problems in the draft, a few examples will illustrate the dangers and weaknesses in the Act.

The draft prepared by the NAC had envisaged a scheme with a 100-day guarantee for all rural households, which had a provision for the payment of an unemployment allowance in case the applicant was not provided work within 15 days of being unemployed. This entitlement was essential to create pressure on the government to provide work and to help the household tide over slack periods. In the absence of this, the guarantee becomes toothless. The Preamble to the Act has now been reformulated to include the word `poor' before defining the households whose livelihoods are sought to be secured. "An Act to enhance livelihood security of the poor households in rural areas of the country by providing at least one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work." The `poor' are officially those identified as being below the poverty line (BPL) by the government.

This has allowed the government to restrict the eligibility for the payment of the unemployment allowance only to those who are identified as BPL. This effectively reduces the scheme to a targeted one, since there is no penalty for not generating work to those outside the BPL list. "If the applicant, who is from a poor rural household, is not provided with employment in the manner provided in sub-section (3), he or she shall be entitled to a daily unemployment allowance in accordance with provisions made in Section 11." This opens the door to targeting only BPL households.

Targeting has many problems. The identification of the poor is far from satisfactory, in terms of both the criteria and the procedure. The problem of wrong exclusion is rampant and has far more serious consequences than wrong inclusion. The livelihoods of vast sections of the near poor too are extremely precarious and fragile. No matter what measure one uses of hunger or malnutrition, there is no doubt that Indian people suffer pervasive and persistent food insufficiency. The employment guarantee and the payment of the unemployment allowance must remain universal and self-targeted, as per the CMP.

In Section 1(3), the Centre has been empowered to notify the areas as well as the period for which the Act will remain in force in different States. "The Act shall come into force in those districts in a State on such date for such period as may be notified by the Central government and different dates may be appointed for different districts of the States. Provided that it shall come into force immediately in such areas and for such periods as may be notified and shall be extended to cover all the rural areas of India after evaluating the implementation of the Act in the districts chosen." This effectively erodes its ability to act as a legal right or guarantee for all rural households. It is a contradiction to guarantee employment through an Act while retaining the privilege of withdrawing it, any time. Linking geographical coverage to an evaluation of the programme again does the same thing. The Act must clearly state a time period of, say at the most, five years within which all rural areas of India are notified and brought under its coverage.

Wages are no longer linked to any norms, either to the statutory minimum wages or to the Central advisory minimum wage. Section 8(3) iii states: "Notwithstanding anything contained in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Central government may fix the rate at which wages shall be paid to the labourers employed under the programme. Provided that, different rates may be notified for different areas. Provided further that, until the Central government notifies wage rates for the purposes of this Act, labourers shall be paid the statutory minimum wages fixed by the respective State governments for agricultural labourers."

This puts in place a framework of completely flexible and arbitrary wages, without setting a lower limit linked to a minimal cost of living. At the moment, most centrally sponsored programmes such as the Food for Work Programme, the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (SGRY) and so on, entail payment at the rate of the statutory minimum wages fixed by the respective State governments for agricultural labourers, without causing any administrative or legal difficulty. The wage issues can be resolved in one of two ways: either the wage should be no less than the current level of the minimum national reference wage of Rs.66, which should be indexed to the All India Consumer Price Index for Agricultural and Rural Labourers (CPI-AL) for future revision, or the Centre should support the statutory minimum wages fixed by the respective State governments for agricultural labourers as in the case of the SGRY and the Food for Work Programme.

The definition of works too has been narrowed substantially and made even more stringent than before. "The focus of the programme shall be on works relating to water conservation, creation of additional irrigation potential through micro and mini irrigation, drought-proofing (including afforestation and tree-plantation) and wasteland development. Flood control and protection works (including drainage in water-logged areas), rural connectivity to provide all weather access and such other labour-intensive activities, as may be notified by the Central government from time to time, may also be included under the programme." While it is important that the scheme mobilises surplus labour for social and economic development through the creation of durable assets and provision of useful public services, over-specification will severely erode its ability to provide employment guarantee. It might be more difficult for panchayats to generate work. All works undertaken under the Act should be productive in the broad sense that they contribute directly or indirectly to the provision of essential public services, the increase of production, the creation of durable assets, the preservation of the environment or the improvement of the quality of life. The design of works will also determine access, because women who face high malnourishment and older people will not be able to do the heavy earthwork envisaged under the present definition of permissible works.

The way the Act is at present structured, the nodal officer functions at the block level and is not accountable to the intermediate panchayat but to the District Collector. Panchayati raj institutions should be in control of the planning and monitoring of works taken up under the Employment Guarantee Programme. In particular, monitoring agencies should be accountable to elected bodies at all levels and regular social audits should be conducted by the gram sabhas.

Despite the persistent demand made by women's organisations that if individual entitlements are not provided the household should be defined as a nuclear family, the definition in the draft has been further diluted to cover much larger units with a larger number of working adults, on the basis of a common ration card or kitchen. There is an apprehension that women will be excluded from the scheme; that would be dangerous in the context of the abysmally low levels of employment of women in rural areas. Unfortunately, the Act does not provide adequate safeguards against the exclusion of women from the scheme and only brings grievances relating to discrimination and harassment of women under the purview of the redress mechanisms, which will be prescribed by the State government under the rules. The Act should safeguard the interests of women and give full attention to their concerns with regard to availability, location, type and organisation of work. It should be ensured that at least 40 per cent of workers employed in a particular block are women, so that women are not pushed disproportionately on to the unemployment allowance scheme or out of the job guarantee scheme.

ALTHOUGH the CMP promises a centrally-funded scheme, the Planning Commission and the Finance Ministry have repeatedly tried to pass on the burden to the State governments. Even the early versions of the draft Act that were strong on people's entitlements had a highly problematic financial structure that would realise these rights.

Several economists argued for a fully centrally-funded Act along the lines of the Food for Work Programme and clear demarcation of liability for payment of unemployment allowance between the Centre and the States in accordance with the cause for non-provision of work. This was because the State governments are in the grip of a fiscal crisis owing to factors beyond their control, which are an outcome of the policies of reform. Under the guise of imposing `fiscal discipline' on the State governments, the Centre shows a growing tendency to centralise finances and reduce taxation efforts and keep more and more finances outside the exercise of the Gadgil formula and route them through `discretionary' or `conditional' schemes that do not come under its purview. The much-maligned increase in revenue expenditure is primarily on two counts: higher salaries to fewer government employees after the implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations and high interest payments against debt. As far as the hike in salaries is concerned, the State governments have no say and have to give the same scales as those received by the Central government employees who work in the States. This imprudent generosity could only be balanced by freezing dearness allowance payments.

The popular perception that all is not well with the finances of State governments is true. What is disturbing is the near-universal appeal of certain myths that are propagated to undermine the fiscal credibility of the State governments. Strange as it may seem, these half-truths find believers in both grassroots organisations and the urban elite alike. Amongst these myths, the most popular ones are the following: too many State government employees are in service and on pension (an inflated size can only lead to bankruptcy); profligacy and overspending in the past has created the severe debt situation (living beyond ones means comes with a price); it was the sops to farmers that bled these governments dry (sops that were based on political and not sound economic considerations); over-dependence on the Centre for funds has resulted in State governments that lack accountability and fail to generate their own resources; delivery of public services will remain poor in quality so long as the State governments remain mere implementing agencies instead of stakeholders (costs need to be shared with the Centre); State governments do not really suffer from a shortage of resources (when they want to spend, they find funds); and corruption and leakage plague rural development (resources hardly ever reach the target groups). These myths have assumed the stature of gospel truth. In reality, these only cloud the truth.

The World Bank and its ideologues propounded many of these myths. These attacks on the mismanagement of State finances came at a time when these agencies were gearing towards establishing an environment conducive to advancing the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. In India, State governments are entrusted with most of the social and economic development activities and establishment of infrastructure. The Constitution empowers them with financial and legal rights under a framework of fiscal federalism and decentralised development. This implies that the privatisation project cannot come to fruition without bringing State governments to heel. The charges made against the States in the form of these myths were intended to weaken the case for fiscal federalism and advocate a model of decentralisation in which the state retreats from the provision of public services and becomes an agency to facilitate private sector profits. By weakening the financial health and administrative autonomy of the States, they could be coerced to borrow from the Asian Development Bank or the multilateral agency that had `adopted' the State in question and accept their conditionalities. The myths propagated by them facilitated in making all this acceptable to the elite and civil society organisations.

From time to time, the Central government exploits the myths about the self-created fiscal bankruptcy and distress of States to erode the autonomy of State governments. These are currently being used to buttress the argument that State governments do not lack the resources to fulfil the promises made in the Central Budget and the CMP, which include the restoration of public expenditure on rural development, employment and agriculture.

In the final draft Employment Guarantee Act, the Centre proposes to "meet the wage component of the cost of the programme, while material component of the costs of the programme shall be shared by the Central and State governments in the ratio of 3:1... .Unemployment allowance payable under the provisions of the Act shall be the liability of the State governments". The programme, however, should be fully funded by the Centre. The wage contribution of the Centre must extend at least to a national norm initially fixed at no less than Rs.66 a day, and indexed to the All India CPI-AL for future revision. Additionally, the Centre should finance material costs in the ratio of 70:30 labour is to material. When there is a delay in the devolution of funds to the State government from the Central Fund, the Central government must reimburse the State government for the associated unemployment allowance payments. In order to meet the administrative costs of the programme, the funds devolved by the Centre to each State should include an additional component amounting to 5 per cent of the total spending on wages and materials.

However, the larger ramifications of the Act are in a sense far more serious than the Act itself. This is because the conditions of employment under this Act will determine working conditions in all government employment in rural areas, since work provided under all other ongoing Central and State schemes is likely to merge into the employment guarantee programme. The Act as it stands today will convert a bulk of the universally accessible rural employment programmes into targeted ones and supersede the very notion of a statutory minimum wage. This will institutionalise a regime of targeted wage flexibility in most government employment programmes, something which has not yet succeeded in India despite the best efforts of the World Bank and the IMF.

The Employment Guarantee Act must not become a smokescreen to push policies that make a mockery of employment guarantee itself while furthering the neoliberal agenda of privatisation of public services through the erosion of State finances; wage flexibility; retreat of the state from all development activities that are not targeted; and so on. There are powerful forces at work that want an early passage of this farcical legislation in the hope that populist rhetoric will provide the fig leaf to their intent. The fight for an effective Act must continue within and outside Parliament.

Smita Gupta is a Fellow at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

Focus on nutrition

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"I WAS in Malawi and met with a group of women living with HIV. As I always do when I meet people with HIV/AIDS and other community groups, I asked them what their highest priority was. The answer was clear and unanimous: food. Not care, not drugs for treatment, nor relief from stigma, but food."

This is Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), quoted in a World Food Programme (WFP) publication titled The First Line of Defence - Why food and nutrition matter in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The statement assumes increasing significance in the context of food becoming an important priority in the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS. The links between nutrition and disease, in a sense, appeared to have been rediscovered.

The first national consultation on Nutritional Security and the Prevention, Treatment and Mitigation of Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS was organised jointly by the United Nations World Food Programme, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, the National AIDS Control Organisation and the National Commission on Farmers on December 2 and 3. The WFP and the Indian government signed a cooperation agreement for the prevention of HIV and AIDS. WFP Executive Director James T. Morris said that his organisation would supply technical expertise in a three-year project that used food for the prevention of infection and the care and support of people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) as well as for the treatment of opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis (TB).

Several academic and quasi-academic presentations threw up ideas on how the nutritional component could be built in and around the ongoing programmes. Recalling how in the early 1980s the eradication of leprosy and blindness were top priorities in the 20-Point Programme of the Congress government, eminent agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan said that it became very clear that without nutritional support, the programme would never be successful. "Food has to be a tool for human resource development and not only for emergency aid," he said. The National Tuberculosis Control Programme and NACO have developed excellent infrastructure to reach inwards to start an integrated drug-cum-nutrition programme. "A purely drug-based approach will only compound the problem," Swaminathan said.

It is being planned to start such an integrated programme in the 150 districts where food-for-work programmes have been launched. In addition, the six high-prevalence States of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Manipur and Karnataka would also be targeted for such a programme. According to NACO Director-General S.Y. Quraishi, there are 14 States that could be categorised as highly vulnerable and 12 States as vulnerable.

Even in this situation, a strong case was made out against a sharply targeted system of nutrition and food security by some speakers, notably Amitabh Kundu from the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who felt it would lead to social exclusion, would be discriminatory within families and within societies, and would increase the risk of stigma for the HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients. "If the targeted population is reached through an income criterion, there is a lot of leakage. But if it is done through the general population, through children, through the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the Annapurna and Antyodaya schemes, it will work out more effective," said Amitabh Kundu, while analysing how food and nutrition programmes could be used for TB-affected and HIV-infected and -affected populations. People, he said, were getting more exposed to social and economic exploitation, which may be a factor making them more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.

The latest estimates indicate that there are about 5.1 million people living with HIV in the country and up to 50 per cent of them will develop TB, which is stated to be the leading cause of death among the infected persons. The consultation was held on the premise that research reports had shown that the nutritional status of an individual played a crucial role in preventing the onset of TB. Good nutritional support not only had a role in the battle against HIV/AIDS but also enabled resistance to opportunistic infections such as TB. The WFP chief, who spent two years in South Africa as the Special Envoy of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Humanitarian Needs, said that he had seen life expectancy plunge from 68 years to 33 years in South Africa. It was the period of famine and HIV/AIDS as well. Morris said that the first thing people asked was for food and not for the drug. "When people are fed and nourished, they have the ability to stay on treatment. Food is critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS and that is why it is top priority.".

Interestingly, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Anbumani Ramadoss observed that in the effort to find a cure for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, basic tenets of biology were forgotten - if the human body was healthy and had robust immunity, even a person with HIV could live without symptoms for years.

That there was a vicious cycle between poverty, malnutrition and disease was borne out by Stuart Gillespie, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Gillespie began with a quote from Louis Pasteur: "The microbe is nothing, the terrain everything." The common terrain between parts of Africa and India is that of poverty, hunger, malnutrition and disease. According to Gillespie, there was a strong link between chronic and acute food and nutrition insecurity - the latter caused perhaps by a food crisis like famine, which had the potential to lead to HIV/AIDS. Food insecurity leads to an exposure to the virus; increases mobility and migration; exacerbates gender inequality; increases resort to transactional sex and enhances risks of malnutrition which may itself step up the risk of infection. Malnutrition compromised immune function and increased the risk of genital ulcers and sexually transmitted diseases and also that of mother-to-child transmission.

The academic presentations apart, the PLWHA had a lot to say on the subject as well. For most of them, treatment appeared to be out of bounds given the expense involved (the government's efforts are concentrated on providing anti-retroviral treatment to one lakh people but the focus is more on prevention, for example information campaigns on HIV/AIDS and the provision of condoms).

Almost every PLWHA reiterated the importance of good nutrition as part of holistic treatment and pleaded with the government to take it up at the earliest. P. Kousalya from the Positive Women's Network said that women infected with HIV were aware of what they should be eating but access to services, even within the government structure, was restricted owing to societal norms. Employment, she said, was a major requirement and she suggested the setting up of self-help groups among HIV-positive women. Kousalya, who hails from rural Tamil Nadu, lamented that even 15 years after she was diagnosed with HIV, the health information and infrastructure in her village continued to be the same.

If HIV/AIDS is a public health problem, then it should be treated as such. Conceptually, a lot of horizontal integration is being talked about in the form of inter-ministerial cooperation, inter-departmental coordination or even synergies between non-governmental organisations and the government. The National AIDS Control Programme will enter its third phase of implementation very soon but it needs to be realised that preventive health care is not only about health education and providing condoms, but also about ensuring access to affordable health care and nutrition.

Derailing decentralisation

The ruling alliance's indifference and declining participation in gram sabhas contribute to the worries about the future of the much-lauded democratic decentralisation programme in Kerala.

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THE fears about the future of the decentralisation experiment in Kerala are coming true. People are staying away from the gram and ward sabhas in the invigorated panchayats, municipalities and corporations in the State and, as a result, the most exciting programme to empower citizens is seemingly running into trouble. In the majority of local bodies, attendance registers are being fudged regularly to fake the quorum at gram/ward sabha meetings. Genuine local governance by the people, thought to be a dream come true in Kerala under democratic decentralisation experiment, is thus being tampered with, knowingly or unknowingly.

As people's interest in local governance wanes, slowly, but surely, the tendency towards centralisation of powers is engulfing the panchayati raj system in the State. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government is increasingly becoming stingy in disbursing the promised, wholesome share of Plan funds to the local bodies. Government departments are trying to impose parallel programmes over development plans drawn up by the panchayats. State officials are trying to reclaim their lost notions of power over the people. Politicians, including Ministers, Members of Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies, and even members of the majority of local self-government institutions, have once again started believing themselves as the all-powerful dispensers of "favours" to the people.

A number of the newly empowered local self-government institutions (LSGIs) are swaying under the onslaught. If the unhealthy trends are not stemmed, India's most effective experiment as yet of giving `power to the people' may soon come to naught.

THE ideal cherished by the Gandhian tradition - of assemblies of people in every village discussing and deciding development projects, the sharing of public goods and services and keeping a watch on their elected representatives and officials - was believed to have been implemented in its true sense finally in Kerala during the past eight years, through the now-famous democratic decentralisation experiment launched by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government as a `People's Plan Campaign' in 1996 (Frontline, June 23, 2000).

Within a short time, it harnessed people's interest in the way they were being governed and in the policies and programmes that were being decided on their behalf, and effectively sought to remedy a hitherto unhappy system of local governance tilted in favour of the ruling class and the politician-official-contractor nexus. The campaign proved that real empowerment of the people could become a reality by creating pressure from below for greater devolution of powers and funds. It soon provided the maximum decentralisation of powers, enabling the local bodies to function as autonomous units with adequate authority and resources to discharge the basic responsibility of bringing about "economic development and social justice" as envisaged in the Constitution.

Decentralisation, as it then happened in Kerala, did not stop with merely transferring powers and responsibilities to the local self-governing institutions. By encouraging a system of vibrant gram sabhas, it facilitated the exercise of legitimate and legal authority by the people. It sought to put an end to the various extra-constitutional power centres influencing development at the grassroots level. It transferred the power of the State to bring about development and social justice vertically down to the local bodies. The role of government departments and officials were dramatically redefined as of facilitators, helping the people in taking decisions and then carrying them out, as they wanted it.

In real terms, it meant that the State government transferred various institutions and staff to the control of the three-tier LSGIs; it set apart 35 to 40 per cent of the annual Plan funds for the exclusive use of the local bodies and gave it legislative approval and protection against the vagaries of executive decision-making; the State comprehensively amended its panchayat and municipal laws, with the focus on substantial devolution of powers, functions and funds; it amended 35 other Acts to bring them in line with the new functions devolved to the local bodies; the presidents of the panchayati raj institutions were declared the chief executive authority and local bodies were given full administrative control, including powers of disciplinary action over their staff; including staff newly transferred to them from government departments; and the functional areas of the different tiers of local bodies were demarcated clearly, unlike in any other State. The gram sabhas, meant to be convened four times a year with a specified quorum of citizens of a panchayat/municipality/corporation ward, were crucial elements to the success of the new decentralisation experiment.

But eight years down the line, it is a different story. A joint study undertaken by the New Delhi-based Participatory Research in Area (PRIA) and a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Sahayi, as part of efforts meant to strengthen LSGIs in the country, has confirmed the worst doubts. According to J. Placid, director of Sahayi, a survey conducted in 67 gram panchayats in eight selected districts and based on discussions and observations by Sahayi volunteers in 45 gram panchayats in four other districts have shown that gram sabha meetings in the majority of panchayats have become a ritual. The quorum of the meeting was almost always a "contrived one". Very few people attended such meetings, leaving the doors open for manipulation by elected representatives, officials and contractors. Only a few respondents were aware of the objectives and responsibilities of the gram and ward sabhas. There was general ignorance about the constitutional status of the gram sabhas. Most respondents did not know how often gram sabhas were meant to be convened or about the requirement of a quorum for the panchayats to take decisions. Most of those who attended the gram sabhas claimed they did so expecting "benefits".

"The survey results reflect the reality in Kerala. People have lost interest in the gram sabhas. The few who attend go away disappointed that it is not a forum for obtaining `benefits'. The elected representatives like us cannot deliver on our promises to the gram sabha, given the inordinate delay that we experience in getting the allotted funds, the frequent changes in norms for implementing projects and lack of cooperation from the officials who are supposed to be under the control of the panchayats," said B. Jayakumar, a ward member and the chairman of the standing committee on development of the Vattiyoorkavu gram panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Several panchayat members admitted that they forged signatures to "ensure" that the quorum in the gram sabhas was maintained. Ambili Surendran, president of a woman's neighbourhood group sponsored by the `Kudumbashree' State Poverty Eradication Mission, said that the members of her group were often asked to attend gram sabhas by the Mission officials and ward members. But, she added, "it was of no use, there are no benefits for us in the gram sabhas". Jayakumar said that most of the people who used to attend gram sabhas, such as resource persons , expert committee members and political party cadre, are reluctant to participate in them today. Conveners have to coerce women self-help group (SHG) members under the Kudumbashree project to attend to manage the quorum.

A senior government official involved in the decentralisation programme told Frontline: "It is true that participatory structures have been terribly weakened in the past few years in the local bodies. A skewed phenomenon is witnessed vis--vis participation in the gram sabhas. Participation is solely based on the aim of obtaining benefits. People no longer take part in the decision-making process. We are at a loss to understand how to change this. The local bodies, as a rule, and the elected representatives are not interested in building up a participatory culture. This is undermining the whole philosophy of decentralisation."

One of the key architects of the "People's Plan Campaign" , T.M. Thomas Isaac, now a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA, said that if attendance in gram sabhas was declining it was a comment on the ruling UDF's attitude towards them and local self-government institutions. "Because of arbitrary cuts in fund allocation, many local bodies are unable to implement the plans approved by the gram sabhas. Many elected representatives complain that they cannot face the gram sabha members because of this. The government is giving more importance to its officials over the elected representatives. Thus the government itself is dismantling the credibility of the local bodies before the people."

Thomas Isaac said that given the UDF record of undoing the District Councils in 1991, it was feared that its new government would undo the achievements of the decentralisation experiment and dismantle it. "But, fortunately, the new UDF government did not do this. Instead it tinkered with the programme. There is an explicit attempt to give a new direction to the decentralisation programme, to make it complimentary to the globalisation process, and model it on the World Bank's prescriptions," he said.

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For example, the urban development policy of the UDF states that the local bodies are no longer providers but facilitators, services have to be privatised and that in order to ensure that privatisation is successful, local bodies must hike user charges so that projects are made commercially viable.

Thomas Isaac criticised the UDF's attempt to introduce parallel structures that obviate the need for local bodies to plan and implement programmes. He said that the government was also going back on its commitment to provide the promised funds to the local bodies. Funds given are taken back on some pretext; cuts are made in the resources provided. The actual money made available to the local bodies by the UDF in its first three years in office was only half of the total resources devolved by the LDF, he said.

According to a Planning Board official, the most visible weakness is the failure of the panchayats in service delivery. "The local body representatives have failed to realise the importance of service delivery for the success of decentralisation and even for their own personal electoral fortunes. There has been a complacent response regarding the quality of services provided too. The government departments and the officials are also to be blamed for this," he said.

Most critics believe that there is no conscious attempt on the part of the UDF government to facilitate the process of democratic decentralisation. The training programmes and the effective capacity building efforts launched during the initial years of decentralisation have become a trickle. By dismantling the structures painstakingly built up to provide resource persons to the local bodies, the government has put the panchayats once again at the mercy of government officials. The enabling environment has been given up. "The government rolled up the `campaign' for decentralisation even before the initial achievements could be stabilised and went on to institutionalise the half-baked achievements," Placid said.

Several elected representatives complained about the "new rules announced every other day" that hindered the functioning of the local bodies. For example, one of them said, the new government announced that funds would be allotted to the local bodies on a monthly basis and that they would lapse if the local bodies failed to spend them by the end of each month. When they found it was not a practical rule, they changed it to mean that funds not spent before March 31 every year would lapse.

According to N. Rajendran, a gram panchayat member, such thoughtless measures have created a lot of practical hassles in the smooth functioning of the local bodies and have eventually led to power being usurped by government officials. There is a move to take back some of the responsibilities entrusted to the local bodies, a recent example being the State government decision to take over the responsibility of constructing minor irrigation projects. The concept of a constituency development fund for MLAs have been reintroduced, he said, "a clear negation of democratic decentralisation".

According to Thomas Isaac, government departments have started functioning independent of the local bodies and the departmental schemes are no longer subjected to the control of gram sabhas. Every department has started sponsored schemes, for each of which the local governments have to set apart funds. In the end, the panchayats are left with no role in selecting beneficiaries and little resources for their own projects. "The whole thing is being implemented against the spirit of decentralisation," Thomas Isaac said.

Criticism is widespread that by imposing a new rule that the local bodies will lose the unutilised Plan funds allotted to them if they fail to spend the entire amount by March 31 every year, the State government has initiated a rat race merely to spend. In the process, the norms of decentralised decision-making and need-based fund utilisation is given the go by. It is a curious case of unseen hands working to accelerate the dismantling of a much-lauded experiment.

KERALA marked a fundamental shift from the longstanding method of executing public works through private contractors and served a blow to the ubiquitous nexus of politicians, officials and contractors, when it decided that they should be executed through panchayati raj institutions. The decentralisation laws provided for community contracting of public works through committees of beneficiaries and made stringent provisions to guard against benami contractors pretending to be conveners or nominees of beneficiary committees. The rules insist that all records relating to public works right from preliminary estimates are "public documents" that any one should be allowed to peruse and take copies.

They also require that a summary of the estimates should be displayed at the work site. The process of technical sanction of projects was also demystified, with the laws approving the utilisation of well-known institutions and committees of government and non-government professionals for technical sanction of public works. Voluntary expert committees were introduced at the block and district panchayat levels to provide technical advice to the local bodies, technically to vet the people's projects before they are sent for approval and to function as technical advisory groups to the district planning committees.

But with people losing interest in the gram sabhas, their place along with the new powers have been taken over by the notoriously corrupt politician-official-contractor nexus. In most places the decision-making has strayed back to politicians and officials. They decide the beneficiaries and the priority of project implementation and undertake the scrutiny of their own projects. Public display of estimates has become an exception.

"The majority of local bodies have failed to do much for local economic development. They have shown an inclination, once again, to implement asset-oriented schemes. Employment and income generating schemes are on the wane. The participatory process has been terribly weakened. Local experts have been effectively sidelined. Local bodies now display a tendency to find convenient experts to scrutinise and sanction projects," a senior official in the Local Administration Department said.

He said that several support institutions created to reduce government control over local bodies and to foster the concept of self-government - the State Finance Commission, the Ombudsman for local governments and the audit commissions - left much to be desired. He said: "For example, the Ombudsman, originally a seven-member body, was made a single member institution by the UDF, thereby making it totally ineffective in checking malfeasance in local governments. Local body representatives and officials now have no fear about indulging in corruption. If the Ombudsman had caught hold of a few cases at least and recommended exemplary punishment, it would have done a big service to the entire system."

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According to Thomas Isaac, the recent criticism of the democratic decentralisation programme and the controversy that followed have weakened the opposition against such negatives trends and made it easy for the State government to be complacent about its dismantling. Jose Chattukkulam, director of the Centre for Rural Management, said: There is a clear attempt to take away the powers and privileges of the LSGIs in the State, though not in an obvious way. With the death of E.M. S. Namboodiripad, who had played a leadership role in the decentralisation efforts in Kerala since Independence, and the People's Campaign itself becoming a controversial topic within the LDF, there is nobody to champion the cause of decentralisation any longer in the State. The UDF government has shown appalling complacency in furthering the cause of decentralisation and has let the achievements of a remarkable programme go astray. The only positive response from the UDF so far has come from the new Local Administration Minister, Kutty Ahmed Kutty, when he insisted that gram sabhas should be convened regularly by the panchayats and that citizen's charter, explaining the people's rights under the decentralised system, be displayed prominently in all local bodies."

Senior officials, however, continue to maintain that one-third of the local bodies are still doing well, though in general the UDF government has shown a "wooden response" to the decentralisation process. An official said: "The positive aspect is that though the UDF government in the State is close to completing its term, it has not disturbed the bare features of the decentralisation experiment. Local bodies still retain the freedom to plan for local development. The quantum of funds disbursed to the local bodies has more or less remained the same, though there are complaints about them being taken back or diverted elsewhere. The temptation to interfere is still muted. There are positive signs too. The government has taken a decision not to entertain appeals against local bodies on its own through its officials, but to appoint an appellate tribunal, with a district judge as its head."

Political parties have shown little interest in sustaining the vibrancy of the decentralisation process. A State government official who was involved in the People's Plan Campaign said that, surprisingly, though there were changes in the ruling dispensations in nearly 400 of the over 1,000 local bodies in Kerala, none of these changes was the result of initiatives to curb corruption or anti-development or anti-decentralisation initiatives by the ruling groups. The premise that antagonistic politics in the State between the two rival fronts would be an effective antidote against corruption and other wrong tendencies in the local bodies has been proved wrong. Instead, it is the `politics of collusion' that has emerged in the panchayats and the municipalities. "We expected antagonistic politics to become an effective instrument against corruption. We expected civil society to be very active. But our expectations have been belied," he said.

However, T. Rufus Daniel, president of the Venganoor gram panchayat in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, which has become a model for other local bodies in its remarkable efforts to eradicate poverty, told Frontline that gram sabhas in his panchayat wards were almost always well attended and members did not find it difficult to ensure a quorum. Unlike in some other local bodies, which this writer visited, the panchayat president is a popular man in Venganoor. He had achieved a remarkable unity of purpose among elected representatives belonging to various political parties in undertaking developmental activities "that the people really wanted".

Venganoor is among the few panchayats in Kerala that are functioning well. Panchayat vice-president V. Anil Kumar said: "Individuals and their attitudes do matter. In Kerala, a lot of powers, funds and opportunities have legally been transferred to the local bodies. Nobody can take them away. A whole new constituency of panchayats representatives has evolved in Kerala and that will ensure that the powers and resources are not tampered with much. Whether a particular panchayat does well or not depends on the members that the people elect. This is what makes Venganoor a model panchayat, with ruling and Opposition party members working together for development, even in these difficult times."

`Progressive change is possible'

world-affairs

Interview with Howard Zinn, historian and political activist.

To remain united in times of war is to surrender to the strategies and policies of the state. Falling in line, not thinking for oneself and obeying the state's commands are, according to famous journalist I.F. Stone, ways to avoid conveniently coming face to face with truth.

Howard Zinn's writings make a case for "transcendence", a need "to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought, and dare to say things that no one else will say". This statement is substantiated by Zinn in book after book, from A People's History of the United States to You cannot be Neutral on a Running Train, from Terror on War to Artists in Times of War and Rule by Force. The United States' governments, according to him, have economically and politically exploited its own people and people of the world.

This is largely kept out of the histories taught to school-going students. War, which has always accompanied economic exploitation, needs to be rejected at all costs. Zinn feels that the role of artists, activists and publishers is vital to resistance movements aimed at peace and protection of human rights as well as to offering a "a significant corrective to the triumphalism" of U.S. military power.

Zinn asks: "Are you going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country?" At the outset, he makes a case against the professionals who deride any one who dares to comment on an important question concerning the nation. Zinn asserts: "All of us, no matter what we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world. We must be undeterred by the cries of the people who say, `You don't know. You are not an expert. These people up there they know'."

The White House or the Congress are not the only bodies that have to take decisions and which "know"; the involvement of citizens, as emphasised by Rousseau, is crucial to the running of the country. "When the government becomes destructive... then it is patriotic to dissent and to criticise." And, finally, Zinn sends out a clear admonishment of his country's rulers: "Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back." He is of the view that the average citizen can shape history through social involvement.

In 1980, Zinn lay down his account of the American history in the best-selling A People's History of the United States. More than a million copies of the book have already been sold. It's a classic as well as an amazingly far-reaching and radical view of the world.

In his famous play, "Marx in Soho", Zinn resurrects Marx so that he can speak to the contemporary audience in Soho, urging them "to get off their asses" and remember that to be radical is to "simply grasp the root of the problem and the problem is us". His suggestion at the end of the play is: "Pretend you have boils (remember Marx had boils from which he suffered till the end). Pretend that sitting on your ass gives you enormous pain, so you must stand up. You must move, you must act."

Going beyond socialism or capitalism, he wants people to have food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, and "some hours of work, more hours of leisure". As far as wars go, workers of all countries must unite against the criminal foreign policies, which squander people's blood and wealth and vindicate the laws of morals and justice in international affairs.

Complimenting Howard Zinn as a teacher, writer Alice Walker notes: "What can I say that will in any way convey the love, respect, and admiration I feel for this unassuming hero who was my teacher and mentor, this radical historian and people-loving trouble-maker, this man who stood with us and suffered with us? Howard Zinn was the best teacher I ever had, and the funniest." This was corroborated by Chomsky. Recently asked who he thought was one of the great dissidents of our time, he remarked "Howard Zinn" without thinking twice.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier during the Second World War, Howard Zinn went to Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. in history. He taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and later at Boston University. A history Fellow at Harvard University and a visiting Professor at the University of Paris and the University of Bolgnahis, his career spanning 40 years have put him at the forefront of contemporary intellectuals as a major radical historian and a progressive political theorist. His social activism has brought a new and sympathetic approach to the study and teaching of history.

Shelley Walia, Professor of English Studies at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh, interviewed Professor Howard Zinn recently. Excerpts:

Could you throw light on important influences on you in the early stages of your life?

I grew up in a working class family, reading Marx, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Jack London, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. And most important of all, I became class conscious.

Could you elaborate on your becoming class conscious?

I grew up in a working class family, saw how hard my father worked, how hard my mother worked, without becoming prosperous. On the other hand, I saw in newspapers and magazines the photos of the rich, and I could not tell whether they did any work or not, and when I found out what kind of work some of them did it seemed to me dangerous for society. When I went to work in the shipyard - long hours, hard work, little pay - I realised that most of the people on the planet work hard, with very little compensation.

Would you say that the American society is deeply class conscious?

Americans are class conscious, though they don't use that expression. Americans know that the country is controlled by a small number of rich people. But they feel they can't do anything about that, so there is a sense of resignation in the face of something inevitable. But the history of the United States is a history of labour struggles, always involving class consciousness. Some of the most bitter labour struggles in the world have taken place in the United States, between the 1870s and the 1930s.

Should I say that your writings have been interventionist because you believe in `libertarian anarchism'?

I don't like to label my views that way. I'm a certain kind of socialist, a certain kind of anarchist. Maybe `democratic socialism' comes closest. I like Dalton Trumbo's vision which advocates `socialism without jails'.

Could you comment on your brand of `democratic socialism'?

A socialism that uses resources for human needs of production based on need rather than on profit, a roughly equal distribution of the country's wealth; there should be no person without adequate healthcare, housing and employment. And there should be no control of thought or speech.

How far is anarchism useful for social transformation?

A useful concept with which to be suspicious of centralised authority, to insist on individual freedom, to be sceptical of all governments, and to insist on grassroots democracy.

As a teacher, do you take your classroom as a place for provocative teaching methods to move students towards activism? You say students "need the right circumstances, the right openings". How do you provide these to enable them to begin new student movements? And how do you "mobilise class anger" to bring about social transformation?

Yes, the classroom should not be removed from the real world of social conflict. That would be depriving students of the most important kind of education as well as their preparation to become active citizens. I have always liked to bring my students out into the community, have them join organisations, become active, and then come back to the classroom to report on their experiences. You "mobilise class anger" any time you organise people around the problems of workers or of poor people.

In today's world of television and fast food culture, can "art as politics" or the role of the political theatre influence public opinion? Only a miniscule of the population is aware of such art forms. How do we make theatre reach out to larger audiences?

It's true that theatre has a limited audience, especially for the young who watch movies and television. But it is still a force, and can become more of a force if plays that are both entertaining and socially conscious are written and produced.

Could you comment on the plays that you have written and their social relevance?

My play "Emma" is about the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman, who spoke against war, capitalism, the state, and in favour of women's rights, free love. My play "Daughter of Venus" is about the arms race, reflected in a family's internal conflicts of the 1980s Cold War period. My play "Marx in Soho" is a fantasy about Karl Marx returning today and commenting not only about the distortion of his ideas by the Soviet Union, but about the relevance of his critique of capitalism in today's world.

Could you say something on your support for the activists and students in the 1960s? I believe you were actively involved then in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations? You have opposed the very idea of war emphasising that "no war is ever justified". Tell us something about your experience of flying into Hanoi in 1968 to receive the first U.S. prisoners of war released by the North Vietnamese government?

Yes, I was active in the movement against the Vietnam war. I marched and protested with my students. I came out of the Second World War with the conviction that war solves no fundamental problems and, instead, corrupts everyone who engages in it. As far as my experience of going into Hanoi you could read about that in my memoir You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train. I can only say that it was the first time that I, a bombardier, experienced being bombed, as was true every day and night Daniel Berrigan and I were in Hanoi. It was a sobering experience. Bombing is terrorism. It terrorises people, and it kills the innocent, on an even larger scale than any brand of terrorist can achieve.

You have been a tireless political campaigner, standing up for peace, freedom from war and from political persecution and oppression. Do you think that your role as a dissident writer has in any way intensified movements that help to bring about a civil society?

We never know our effect. Of course there is a kind of feedback, in person, in letters, which makes me think my writings have had an effect on people and have moved them into political activism.

Would you not say that in the wake of the recent U.S. elections, the President's control of Congress will also allow him to put his stamp on the third arm of the federal government, the Supreme Court, the most powerful weapon in the country's continuing cultural war?

Yes, of course, all three branches of government will be controlled by the Bush administration. This puts a greater burden on social movements to act outside of the political structure by means of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, refusals, civil disobedience, and resistance of all kinds. The opportunity to fill three or four vacancies in the court over the next four years could create a solid conservative majority, which could lead to a ban on abortion, among other potentially dramatic changes.

No violence can put an end to human passion for dignity and justice. Then how can the people of the U.S. allow the implementation of the Patriot Act?

Only by refusing to comply. Some librarians shredded their records rather than turn them over to the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]. We must defend every person who is apprehended, publicise all acts that diminish our liberties and inform people that we are in a pre-fascist stage, which is destroying democracy.

Free market economy and the victory of capitalism has brought with it not happiness, but increase in poverty, disparities and violence. In this context how would you react to globalisation and its impact on the developing nations?

We must react to that with a globalisation of resistance, reaching out beyond national boundaries to create an international movement of solidarity.

Your comments on outsourcing. It has been a hot topic recently in the U.S. and India.

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Outsourcing results in terrible working conditions abroad, and loss of jobs in the U.S. The remedies lie in organising working people in other countries and, in the U.S., demanding that workers who lose their jobs are guaranteed new jobs or are compensated with unemployment insurance adequate to take care of their families.

Do you think it would make a difference to corporate power if the Third World boycotts the products of the multinationals?

Boycotts are a very effective way for consumers without power to create a power that frightens the multinationals.

How would you describe the corporate control of the media which has left a majority of the population in a state of ignorance of trade proposals, international arms trade and the real reasons of going to war in Iraq? Where does the socialist politics of the non-mainstream media lie in the present world of multinational conglomerate control?

We need to develop alternative media. We have begun. We have several hundred community radio stations. We have the Pacific Network. We have cable stations like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now". And we must use the Internet, which is a powerful tool for information and organisation.

Would you say many journalists still lose their jobs in the media for reporting against the policies of the government?

Much more frequent than losing their jobs is stifling their independence and forcing them into the orthodox consensus.

Is it possible to break the nexus between the media and the elites?

The only answer to that nexus is the nurturing of an independent media, alternative radio and cable TV, alternative newspapers, and especially the Internet, which has revolutionary possibilities in defying the orthodoxy of the media.

Would you agree that there is a definite conspiracy behind the nexus between the corporate media and the political elite?

There is no need for a `conspiracy' or for planning. They simply have the same common interest and so behave in a way that looks like a conspiracy.

Then, is democracy in crisis these days?

Democracy has always been in crisis. In the U.S. today it is more in crisis than ever before, with the centralisation of power, with an imperial foreign policy defying public opinion, with the media centralised and with corporate control of the economy tighter than ever.

Is the threat to democracy not from the intellectual scientific community and the increasing flow of corporate funds into universities, foundations, managements and major law firms that represent the interests of corporate capitalism?

Certainly. Science and knowledge are ruled by money as is everything else in the society. The real workings of power have to be revealed to the public, especially the students in the classroom. This is mostly concealed from students, but a truly democratic education would teach them the realities.

For instance, no mention was made of atrocities at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib in the recent presidential debates. International law applicable to Prisoners of War (POWs) is thrown to the wind. What are your reactions to this conscious evasion of reality?

Of course, it is shameful that the Democratic Party is not an Opposition party at all, and that its candidate John Kerry paid no attention to Abu Ghraib. It is our responsibility to publicise these atrocities as much as we can because the political leaders won't do it.

Could you comment on the position of the Left in the U.S. today? Would you not agree that both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed all progressive principles won over the years in a society that calls itself liberal and free? Is progressive change possible in America where the role of the Left has almost disappeared and the Democrats deep down are no different from the Republicans?

I would say that progressive change is possible. The Left exists in America. You can't find it in the Democratic Party, but you can find it all over the country, in thousands of local organisations that struggle against the war, against militarism, and for the rights of women and the poor and the working people.

Do you think enough pressure can be brought to bear upon the U.S. government to stop its obsession with waging wars against countries and disguising them as `pre-emptive acts'? Is the popular vote that went to Bush not an endorsement of his very muscular militaristic approach to international politics?

The pressure on the government already exists, but it needs to grow. Remember Bush only got 51 per cent of the popular vote. Forty nine per cent opposed him. And 40 per cent of the eligible voters did not vote at all. This is hardly an endorsement! More than half the country opposed the war, as shown in public opinion poll after poll.

Do you agree that as long as the Zionist lobby remains strong in the U.S., a solution to the West Asian problem is not possible?

Well the lobby may remain strong but the realities of the Middle East [West Asia] may dictate a solution, in spite of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation].

Could you comment on the post-Arafat political situation in West Asia?

Arafat's demise is certainly a watershed in the history of West Asia. A blood-spattered retribution or a peaceful solution still remain the alternatives before Israel and the leadership that will now take over the PLO.

Where does the solution lie?

At a certain time in the future, we can't say when, the Jews in Israel will get tired of the unending violence and will demand that their government get out of the Occupied Territories.

Protest is vital to the notion of social transformation. But war-mongering, religious opposition to homosexuality, elitism and racism all have increased. To counter these anti-social or conservative trends, a new international Left is urgently needed. But how would you suggest we should go about it?

There is no magic formula. We must keep connecting across oceans and continents. Arundhati Roy is an example of someone who crosses all these lines and makes connections between the movements in India and in the U.S. We must do more of that.

Which other writers would you say are making all the difference through their writings that have the potential to intensify resistance movements around the world?

Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Frances Fox Piven, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Tariq Ali.

What according to you is the role of the intellectual?

The proper role of the intellectual is to tell the truth that is not given in the media, in the textbooks, in the educational system; to be gadflies, whistleblowers, independent investigators, to give people a historical perspective, a philosophical basis, an understanding of the economic underpinnings of politics, and to inspire people with stories of those who have resisted oppression and injustice throughout history.

Have you ever felt over the years and especially in the post-9/11 period of being restricted by state pressure on airing your views on social and economic justice?

The only state pressure I have felt is knowing that the FBI was keeping a record on my activities. That never succeeded in restricting my activities.

A battle for information

The Second National Right to Information Convention, held in Delhi recently, sends out the message that the right to information movement in India can no longer be ignored by the lawmakers.

ON October 20, London-based Transparency International released the Global Corruption Perception Index 2004. India is ranked 90 alongside six other countries out of a total of 146 surveyed. At around the same time, the country's capital witnessed an unusual, spontaneous and lively demonstration. A congregation of over 1,000 people from 20 States and 250 organisations from around the country gave a rallying call in 17 different languages: "Hamara Paisa Hamara Hisaab", Nam Panam Nam Kanakku", "Aamcha Paisa Aamcha Hisaab... " which mean "Our money, our accounts".

The slogan signifies a tremendous shift in how citizens react to the dubious distinction of being in "one of the 60 most corrupt countries in the world". No longer the tortured, silenced, cynical `victims of the system', but a vocal, aware public demanding transparency and accountability - an outcry growing louder by the day. This transformation has taken on a new idiom. It is language that is steadily cutting across all barriers and divisive structures, understood by all those who have realised how something as `abstract' as information or the lack of it directly impinges on their daily lives - on how much food they have, on what jobs they get, on which schools their children do not get. Crystallised into one sharp belief that binds them together are people old and young, illiterate and educated, rural and urban. Among them are peasants, labourers, middle class people, women, Dalits and the marginalised sections - Janne ka hak, jine ka hak (the right to know, the right to live).

If this united call for accountability and the right to live set the mood and pace of the Second National Right to Information Convention (October 8-10) organised by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) in Delhi, the energy and optimism resounded throughout the three full days that it lasted. The reasons for this are not far to seek.

India is on the threshold of putting into place a law to counter corruption. The draft national Right to Information Act, 2004, with 36 proposed amendments to the inadequate Freedom of Information Act, 2002, is to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament.

The origins of the draft date back to the struggles of the rural poor in arid Rajasthan who started questioning the doctored accounts in their panchayat: fake bills and muster rolls, non-existent buildings, and missing bags of cement meant for public works. For the first time, the demand for the right to information acquired a new meaning and form; shifting out of its dusty textbook, seminar-room existence, it focussed on real issues - drought, employment, health, education, electoral politics and so on. The right to information movement in India, unlike in many other countries, is a truly grassroots movement.

The First National Convention on the Right to Information, which was held in Beawar in Rajasthan in 2001, according to Nikhil Dey, a founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) "had a two-pronged objective - one, to increase the pressure for legislation, which was showing some positive signs in some States as well as at the Central level, and, second, to send out strongly the message that the right to information comes alive when connected to other rights of life; it is a very powerful tool that every campaign must use".

In a span of three years, between Beawar and Delhi, the geographical spread and variety in the application of the right to information has simply burgeoned. Even as the idea of national legislation on the right to information was being mulled over, State governments started to take initiatives, with mounting public pressure. Nine States have passed right to information laws, in addition to which there are several executive orders at the State and national levels, which give citizens access to information from specific departments. The right to information is being demanded from many quarters and for many ends. It is really this integration taking place with a wide-ranging set of issues, from food security to displacement to communal violence, that is relatively new and continues to give it life and sustenance.

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INDIA'S pioneering `role model' status in the international discourse on the right to information is unique. In a debate hitherto dominated by freedom of individual expression (as in Eastern Europe), the freedom of press or freedom of expression as talked of in the West and led by lobbying groups, the ability of ordinary people in India to link it to basic rights to life and indeed survival marks a major transformation in public discourse. Many countries like South Africa, Bolivia, Columbia, the Philippines and Japan have begun to draw lessons from the Indian examples, that is, by organising the demand for the right to information around local community groups.

A SYMBOLIC and fitting start to the Delhi convention was a jan sunwai (public hearing). The jan sunwai, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a mode of participation popularised by the MKSS, a public forum where people speak up and are heard. The subject of the public hearing was the public distribution system (PDS), the issue of food security being a basic right for the poor, kept blatantly out of their reach.

Specific testimonies were presented by residents of Ekta Vihar in the R.K. Puram area of Delhi where the hearing was held. Experiences of those from other parts of Delhi as well as representatives from Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the country were also shared. The presentations were divided broadly along four issues: accountability, Dalits and access to the PDS, urban migrants and homeless and alternative approaches (to distribution). Many complaints pertained to the irregular timings of PDS shops, non-availability or sporadic availability of rations, extremely poor quality of rations, overcharging by the ration shop dealer, rations doled out below entitled quantities, apathy of officials, difficulty in getting new cards and so on.

So how exactly does the use of right to information bring concrete solutions to these problems? The systematic expos of rampant corruption in three specific ration shops in R.K. Puram area through the tool of public hearing was in itself a new learning for many present.

Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan, an organisation that works intensively on PDS-related issues in the capital, which brought to light the malfunctioning of these shops, said: "A jan sunwai is part of a larger, systematic process. First, we obtain the records through the right to information and do a physical verification. Figures in the daily sales register of the ration shops, once accessible, are compared with entries made in the ration cards of the cardholders and the actual rations received. This `social audit' is followed up with a jan sunwai, where the discrepancies are presented and people testify in public. The findings are then presented to the government, which is expected to take action as per the law."

For instance, according to the daily sales register of one of the shops, Amir Hassan had been sold 75 kg of wheat and 50 kg of rice during April 2004. According to the ration card, however, he had been sold only 25 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice. Actually, Amir Hassan said he did not receive anything during the month. Collecting evidence thus, it was found that the ration dealer had siphoned off 440 kg of wheat, which amounted to nearly the entire monthly quota to be distributed to the eight below the poverty line (BPL) families that are covered by the shop.

Following the public hearing, the licences of all three ration shops were suspended. But this does not suffice, feels Arvind Kejriwal. Being a cognizable, non-bailable offence, cases should be registered and action taken according to the law, he points out. "Unless the findings of a jan sunwai are taken to their logical end, people will start losing faith in this potentially powerful tool," he cautions.

The public hearing worked in many ways. As organisations such as Parivartan, the experience helped them to define sharper questions. Those for whom linking the right to information and the PDS in the way demonstrated by Ekta Vihar residents revealed new ground, it led to a burst of enthusiasm, an eagerness to put this new learning to test.

"The fact that people themselves spoke and presented their problems (at the public hearing) in Delhi was very positive, something we would like to imbibe here," says Ramesh Kadam, coordinator of the Mumbai-based Rationing Kruti Samiti, an organisation that has done extensive work in obtaining ration cards for the urban homeless through advocacy and through educating people of their entitlements. In Madhya Pradesh, plans are afoot to conduct two public hearings. "We have collected information on 25 villages from the district administration for this," says Sachin Jain of the Right to Food Campaign in Madhya Pradesh.

THE events spanning the next two days were as expansive as the public hearing, intensive. Music, theatre and art interspersed the plenaries and workshops held at the Delhi University Arts Faculty (North Campus).

The reverberating spirit of `Hela' (an art form), in the music of farmers from Sawai Madhopur, a poor district in Rajasthan, the cry for accountability in different languages, and Shankar Singh's (of the MKSS) ever-popular rendition of "mein nahin manga" set in an exuberance that lasted right through the convention. The inaugural session, chaired by veteran journalist and former Member of Parliament Kuldeep Nayyar, was followed by the first plenary which saw people share their real experiences in using the right to information. The session gave a glimpse of the range of struggles people have faced, in places where the law exists, where it is poorly implemented, and where it is simply absent. The narrations by Susheela (MKSS, Rajasthan) and Santosh (Parivartan, Delhi) gave out one strong message: asking for information is like asking for the soul of this corrupt system. There will be resistance but unwavering public pressure can bring about visible changes.

The second plenary was significant as it encapsulated the living form of the right to information today. The coming together of leaders from so many different campaigns on the common platform of right to information indicated the explicit adoption of this tool in their respective movements. The session was chaired by Dunu Roy and speakers included Jean Dreze (Right to Food), Medha Patkar (Dams and Displacement), Suman Sahai (Agriculture and Globalisation), Harsh Mander (Communalism and Marginalised Communities), Pradip Prabhu (Forests) and M.P. Parameswaran (Education) and senior right to information activists in the media like Prakash Kardaley (Indian Express, Pune) and Harivansh (Prabhat Kabhar, Jharkhand).

The sheer variety of the parallel workshops organised was mind-boggling. But this, it seems, was precisely the idea behind holding 36 workshops on an equal number of topics. So, across the two days, one could stroll into any of the rooms at the Arts Faculty and hear discussions ranging from the role of the right to information on Land, Water, Biodiversity and Environment and Industrial Pollution to the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, Globalisation or the Media, Elections, Budgets, Social Audit to Health, Disability Rights, Education and Communal Violence.

"In Beawar, the approach was more cautious. This time the convention ventured into areas considered sacrosanct so far... . These areas would have been much more difficult to take on three or four years ago," said Nikhil Dey.

An interesting aspect of the workshops was how it brought together people at different ends of the information spectrum. This was perhaps well exemplified by the workshop on `Knowing Power - the Politics and Political Economy of Information' organised by SARAI, a Delhi-based organisation on contemporary media research. Among the participants was Naurti Bai from Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), Tilonia. An outspoken woman from a small village in Ajmer district, Naurti has been involved in the right to information movement from the outset. In an engaging debate, Naurti spoke of the grassroots experiences she brought with her, seeking answers to the practical problems she had faced while seeking information. The researchers at SARAI, on the other hand, visualised `right to information' as closely linked to the `right to broadcast'; to put out information freely and creatively, without bounds on the form and content. This, in their opinion, would create automatic pressure on those who manipulated information itself so far. To Naurti, this was obvious in an intuitive sense, although the speakers at SARAI somehow placed it in the foreground, over the right of simply seeking or getting information. Thus, as Naurti focussed on the `here and now' of the use of this right, grounded in rural realities, the SARAI speakers dwelled on expanding and redefining the entire conceptualisation of the right to information in the future.

The fact that the workshops took place simultaneously meant it was impossible to be everywhere at the same time. Some saw this as a drawback. Sachin Jain said: "I was content with focussing on topics which were of interest to me."

Paul Diwakar, of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in Andhra Pradesh, said: "We have realised that human rights violation of Dalits crucially links up to the right to information. It hold the key to many other rights, like accessing justice by filing FIRs, getting pensions, land rights or food security. The convention gave us good access to strategies, on the other hand it also helped us to convey Dalits' perspective, which needs greater understanding."

Sampat Kale of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune, said: "Maharasthra is a State where there is awareness about the right to information from both sides - the people and the government. The District Collector of Raigarh fined an official up to Rs.27,000 for not providing information as per the law. Cases of penalties have been recounted across Sangli, Satara, Thane, Pune and Akola districts. But most of these have been regarding applications of the Right to Information Act in urban areas. Rural awareness is still lacking in the State."

It was really this reciprocity that was the hallmark of all these workshops and indeed the entire convention. Cross-applications between States, rural and urban areas, and across campaigns meant everyone had something to learn. Only the degrees varied, depending on who sat where.

Two more plenaries were held on the concluding day. One was on "Right to Information and Law and Implementation," chaired by Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. At the concluding plenary, plans and visions for future action were discussed by some of the activists who have come to symbolise right to information movements in their respective areas, like Arvind Kejriwal, Aruna Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Lal Singh and Praveena Imroza. The valedictory was chaired by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who spoke strongly in favour of the campaign.

THE Delhi convention was not all about prose, debates and discussions. Various forms of cultural expression, sometimes spontaneous outbursts, characterised and lent the convention its true meaning. The poignant images of Godhra and Manipur in the films screened on day one, the touching lyrics and melody of a song specially composed by singers Vinay and Charul for the occasion, the outstanding performance of the Manganiyar singers and Kalbeliya dancers from Barmer (Rajasthan), and the songs of celebration and protests by farmers and peasants are memories that one carries long after the adieus were said. The power of the words "mere jindagi ko janne ka haq re, ab haq ke bina kya jina, ye jine ka saman nahin (my life has the right to know; living without rights is not equal to living)," in the song of Vinay and Charul went right out to the audience; today it is being sung at every forum, gathering or demonstration on right to information across the country.

"Kuch bhi diary tak seemit nahin honi chahiye"(nothing should remain limited, in a diary), sums up Susheela from Jawaja in Ajmer district. For someone who has been closely associated with the MKSS from its early days, the convention brought her the happiness of seeing an idea one has worked hard for take wing and spread far and wide. For Ramkaran, of SWRC, Tilonia, "it was an opportunity to learn from the experiences of 15-20 States in two days, something unthinkable otherwise." For many, the convention has served to energise and reinforce with even greater strength the potency of the right to information as a powerful tool in strengthening accountability and participative democracy. And for those who came with doubts, the convention helped to clarify at least in part the `whats' and `hows' of the right to information in reality.

The convention has had some instantaneous effect. In Andhra Pradesh, where no right to information law exist, and issues have been raised so far only at the district level, a series of meetings were held in villages and panchayats after the convention. "We have realised the importance of taking up issues even at the village level. A case of swindling by the sarpanch in a village in Mehboobnagar with the connivance of revenue officials in the construction of latrines were brought to light and the District Collector has taken action," said G. Sudhakar, district secretary, Dalit Bahujan Shramik Union. Posters on the right to food and information have been printed and pasted in a number of panchayats; villagers have been urged to send postcards with their complaints directly to the administration. In Madhya Pradesh, organisations involved in the right to food campaign have now started giving applications in different departments about various schemes. Issues seen hitherto in isolation are now being redefined in terms of the right to information. In Maharashtra, an entire documentation of cases is being planned for its widespread dissemination.

The writing is on the wall. The right to information movement in India has reached a critical stage. While the struggles continue at different levels, the campaign continues to grow and get enriched by these individual experiences. It is this show of strength that the Members of Parliament may want to remember when they take up the Right to Information Bill this winter.

Sowmya Kerbart Sivakumar, a freelance writer, is a member of Research for People, Jaipur.

To live with dignity

The combined effect of gender, economic and social inequalities has made women the group that is most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. There is an urgent need to provide guaranteed access to standard health care in the public health system and protection through legal policy guidelines.

UNABLE to bear the taunts of her colleagues, 34-year-old Sunita Patel, the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)-infected widow of a soldier in Gujarat, committed suicide.

In a remote village in Andhra Pradesh, Sukanya was stoned to death by her neighbours after her husband died of AIDS and she was suspected to be human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) positive.

Sunita Patel and Sukanya are victims of myths, half-truths and the general lack of awareness that surround HIV/AIDS. Perhaps that is why the epidemic has assumed pandemic proportions in India, affecting 5.1 million people, second in this respect only to South Africa (5.3 million). India accounts for over 10 per cent of the people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) globally and over 60 per cent of the 7.4 million PLWHA in the Asia-Pacific region. In India, over 35 per cent of the HIV/AIDS cases reported has been in the most productive age group of 15 to 24 years, and women account for over 60 per cent of them.

As the world marked the 16th World AIDS Day on December 1, those infected with the scourge continue to battle the stigma, superstitions and malinformation, which hurt them far more than the physical effects of the disease. For every person living with HIV/AIDS, a family and a community are affected.

AIDS was classified as a disease in 1981 and HIV identified as its cause in 1984. Today, the scourge has claimed more than 3.1 million lives all over the world. However, even two decades after HIV was first detected, India is still to come to grips with the problem.

After being in denial mode for long after the scourge was first detected among sex workers in Chennai, the Central government launched a prevention programme, targeting the most vulnerable groups such as women sex workers, truck drivers and needle sharers among drug users in the high-incidence States of Manipur, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. But without adequate education and awareness generation about HIV/AIDS, prevention efforts were not effective in stopping the spread of the scourge. In the meantime, the scourge entered the general population via heterosexual men and those who visited sex workers.

Without any control over their own sexuality and with inadequate access to reproductive health care, women are four to five times more at risk of contracting HIV than men. Monogamous women and their infants are now getting infected. The need to focus on women has been realised. This year's theme for the World AIDS Day was "Women, Girls, HIV and AIDS".

The latest United Nations report puts it grimly: "The face of HIV/AIDS is primarily young, and all too often female." Nearly half of all HIV-positive adults are women - up from 35 per cent in 1985. Almost 12 million people in the 15-24 age group and three million children live with HIV/AIDS worldwide. As many as 6,000 young people and 2,000 children get infected every day and 60 per cent of them are female. The risk of HIV infection is five to six times higher in adolescent girls than boys. Women are four times more at risk of contracting the disease from their partners than men; more than 90 per cent of pregnant women who tested positive for HIV in the antenatal clinics had single sex partners.

Despite the government investing crores of rupees in prevention programmes, the epidemic is spreading. The infection has spread rapidly from within and between particular groups to the general population. It has spread from the urban to the rural areas, from the high-risk groups to the general population, and from the mother to the child.

The profound gender, economic, social and cultural inequalities together make women the most vulnerable group. Many HIV interventions are predicated on the premise that people are free to make empowered choices once they understand the implications of their actions. In reality, women and girls face a range of HIV-related risk factors and vulnerabilities that men and boys do not; many of these are embedded in the social relations and the economic realities of their societies.

Inability to negotiate sex, transactional sex and lack of access to resources are some of the reasons for women's increased vulnerability to HIV. Violence against women also significantly increases their vulnerability to HIV and sexually transmitted infections (sexually transmitted infections raise the risk of HIV infection by over 10 times). Besides being directly coerced into unprotected or unwanted sex, women are also prevented from even accessing HIV-related information, getting tested and seeking treatment when they suspect infection.

Thus, women are often unaware of the risks of HIV infection or of the ways to protect themselves from it. They rarely have access to prevention services and methods. And women who have limited economic security or are involved in coercive or abusive relationships often cannot negotiate abstinence or use of a condom. Young women are especially vulnerable to HIV for biological, economic and social reasons.

Thus, according to Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director, United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), gender inequality has turned a devastating disease into an economic and social crisis, which requires the infusion of resources into programmes and policy responses that promote women's empowerment. Such efforts, according to Heyzer, include increased access to economic opportunities and education and safeguarding of women's legal rights and equal access to health care. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), men and women living with the disease show no difference in survival rates when they are treated equally.

But the prevailing gender attitudes mean that the treatment needs of men often take precedence. Families are also hesitant to send women to clinics for fear of disrupting the "care economy" that these women provide through their household duties, which often include tending to other family members with HIV/AIDS.

Many observers also argue that the oft-touted ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, and use Condoms) approach to preventing HIV infection is of limited utility for women and girls. This is clear from the fact that 90 per cent of the pregnant women who tested positive for HIV had only a single sex partner. According to Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), abstinence is meaningless to women who are coerced into sex. "Faithfulness offers little protection to wives whose husbands have several partners or were infected before marriage. And condoms require the cooperation of men... . The epidemic won't be reversed until governments provide the resources needed to ensure women's right to sexual and reproductive health," she says.

While research on several microbicides that can be used by women to prevent contracting the infection and does not require the consent or the knowledge of her male partner is on, not one product is as yet close to reaching the market. A vaccine is also some years away. Until then, the condom, which is 90 per cent efficient in controlling the infection, is the only means to prevent the spread of HIV.

Inhibiting the replication of HIV and delaying the deterioration of the immune system, anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, developed in 1987, reduce morbidity and extends life. But initially, as ARVs were mainly produced by multinationals that have a 20-year patent on them, its price was beyond the reach of those needing them, particularly in the developing countries. Terming the lack of access to ARV drugs in developing countries, particularly in Africa, which needs them the most, a "global emergency", the World Health Organisation has allowed countries to produce their generic versions. Several national pharmaceutical companies manufactured the generic drug and prices plummeted from Rs.30,000 a month to Rs.1,000. Still, most people are unable to have access to them.

A RECENT initiative called `Three-by-Five', by the WHO and UNAIDS, plans to increase the access to a first-line regimen of fixed-dose combinations of three ARV drugs to three million HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries by 2005. Launched in September 2003, the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) has decided to provide free ARV treatment to 100,000 HIV patients in India. Since April 2004, ARV drugs are provided free in eight centres in six high-prevalence States, and within them to three vulnerable groups: HIV-positive mothers; HIV-positive children below 15; and AIDS patients who seek treatment in government hospitals.

According to Dr. P. Krishnamurthy, the Project Director of the Chennai-based AIDS Prevention and Control Society (APAC), strict adherence to the ARV treatment regimen and nutritional supplements are crucial for effective treatment. In a society where women are discriminated against, access to treatment options itself is limited. And, even if they have access, good nutritional food is a far cry, making it ineffective.

The scourge, having reached monogamous women, is now affecting their children. Mother-to-child, or vertical, transmission causes more than 90 per cent of all HIV infections in children under 15. According to Elizabeth Lule, the World Bank's Adviser for Population and Reproductive Health, HIV-positive pregnant women are most likely to transmit the disease to their children during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding. The risk of a mother transmitting HIV to her infant is put at 5-10 per cent during pregnancy, 10-20 per cent during labour and delivery, and 5-20 per cent through breastfeeding. "Even the phrase `mother-to-child' is loaded against women, as all responsibility of the transmission is put on the mother and none on the father," she says.

One of the most successful uses of ARV medications has been in the prevention of vertical transmission. Studies show that brief courses of ARV treatment given to mother and infant can dramatically reduce the risk of vertical transmission with little or no significant long-term effects on the infant.

A recent study conducted in Rwanda and Uganda shows that HIV-positive mothers may breastfeed without infecting their infants. Over 350 HIV-infected mothers were given ARV drugs from the 36th week of pregnancy until a week after delivery. The babies were exclusively breastfed, and they received daily doses of an ARV drug until one month after they were weaned, usually five to six months later. When tested at six months, only three of the infants were infected, compared to the 50 that would have been infected had they not received the ARV drug.

Access to HIV/AIDS treatment has become the subject of a major debate in India, fuelled by a public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court last August demanding treatment for HIV/AIDS patients and the provision of infrastructure.

Shruti Pandey, a lawyer working for the human rights group that filed the petition, said: "Our principal prayer was that the government should provide ARVs within the public health system and create an infrastructure, as sticking to the regimen is important." But the government's position, she said, was ambiguous: "It has not spelt out measures on how it plans to maintain confidentiality and manage toxicity (of drugs) and neither is it clear on how it plans to raise the resources."

The United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre has included AIDS control in its Common Minimum Programme by calling the disease "a priority" and promising that funds would be allocated for it. Of the total outlay of Rs.2,208 crores (Rs.22.08 billion) for the Health Department in 2004-05, Rs.47.6 million has been allocated for HIV/AIDS. The World Bank released Rs.814 million and the United States Agency for International Development Rs.118 million for AIDS projects in 2005.

Various international agencies are financing projects to battle the spread of HIV in India, but the authorities say the funding falls far short of the requirement. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India draws attention to the fact that Thailand had been spending $1 per capita on HIV/AIDS. "India," it said, "needed to strive to spend at least 50 cents, which would amount to $500 million." According to Shruti Pandey, 95 per cent of the people infected with HIV are poor and most of them do not even know about the first-line regimen.

According to Dr. Amit Sen Gupta of the Delhi Science Forum, focussing on targets that reduce people to numbers and health care a convenient jargon is not going to do anyone any good. Health programmes need to be integrated with the primary health care system, with decentralised planning and decision-making. The programmes need to be implemented with the active participation of the community. "The top-down approach has to go," he said.

Says Shruti Pandey: "Where are the attempts to build an atmosphere that is helpful to AIDS patients? Every day, we hear of some instance of discrimination against HIV-positive people. They are being denied their right to employment and the orphaned children are not given any support. These are urgent questions in India, which, along with China, is expected to emerge as the biggest Asian AIDS hotspot in the coming years."

There are few pieces of legislation in the South Asian region that refer specifically to HIV/AIDS. Even public health laws have not been amended to include HIV. As a result, most laws predate HIV and affect the rights of PLWHA.

The Constitution recognises a range of fundamental rights. The Supreme Court has interpreted these constitutional guarantees and derived from them the rights to privacy, health and medical assistance, life with dignity, and information, all of which are significant in the context of the HIV epidemic. However, the experience of invoking these rights for HIV-positive persons has been disquieting.

There is also no guarantee of access to standard health care in the public health system, and of privacy or confidentiality. In India - unlike in Bangladesh and Nepal - the right to privacy is not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution but has been judicially derived. It has, however, not been adequately tested in the context of HIV/AIDS. The right to privacy (and confidentiality) is also closely linked to the contentious issue of compulsory HIV testing.

Again, with respect to discrimination in employment, the precise circumstances in which this will be unlawful have not been made clear. Public health concerns are cited to justify discrimination against PLWHA at the workplace. Similarly, though India has ratified the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), there are still many legislative provisions that are biased against women. For example, the CEDAW guidelines on HIV/AIDS - avoid stigmatising women and female sex workers, support women's efforts to get their partners to use condoms, empower women to make their own sexual choices - have gone largely unheeded.

Despite the controversies on the exact number of people infected and the exaggerated claims of vested interests, there is no denying that the numbers are increasing and the disease is shattering families. Discussions on strategies to deal with HIV/AIDS and the care for the infected must spread beyond seminar halls. There must be action on the ground - to propagate information on HIV/AIDS; to create awareness and educate people to erase the stigma attached to the disease; to enable the community to care; to put in place and respect the rights of those infected; and to help the infected live with dignity. Without losing more time, the best practices across the world, such as the universalisation of condom use in Thailand's sex industry and the targeted interventions of APAC in Tamil Nadu, need to be studied and replicated wherever possible.

There is surely an urgent need to develop legal policy guidelines through a process of consultation and create supportive community-based systems to educate people and care for those infected so that millions like Sunita Patel and Sukanya can begin to live with dignity.

The role of TRAI

BSNL first complained to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on September 20 that contrary to the terms of licence and the interconnect agreement, Reliance Infocomm was passing off incoming international calls from the United States as domestic traffic to evade the Access Deficit Charge (ADC). TRAI received a similar complaint from MTNL on October 4.

Then, TRAI, instead of taking any action, passed the letters on to DoT though it was the statutory mandate of TRAI to conduct an investigation and ensure that the terms and conditions of the licence agreement are complied with.

Reliance's act of switching caller IDs was a violation of Clause 41.19 of the Unified Access Service Licence, which states that the Caller Line Identification (CLI) shall never be tampered with as it is required for security purposes and any breach of this amounts to a breach of security.

The Chairman of TRAI, Pradip Baijal, has gone on record that since the matter is a dispute, it does not come under the purview of TRAI. The creation of the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) through an amendment of the Act in 2000 meant that TRAI no longer settles disputes between service providers, which is the Tribunal's job. But TRAI still has the regulatory function of ensuring that the terms and conditions of the licence agreement are always complied with.

Said Prabir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum, "The regulator has taken the extremely funny position that this is a dispute and therefore it is not entering into it. Clearly, there is a regulatory issue involved, which Reliance is invoking - the so-called Home Country Direct services argument. It is a question of a regulatory clarification that the regulator needs to give, which it did not take cognisance of, and by virtue of saying that it is a dispute it is in fact endorsing Reliance's position."

Chapter III of the TRAI Act deals with the powers and functions of the authority. Section 11 1) b) i) gives TRAI the power to ensure the compliance of the terms and conditions of the licence. Section 11 1) a) iii) gives the regulator the power either on its own initiative or on a request from the licensor, to recommend revocation of a licence for non-compliance of terms and conditions. So, when Reliance's violation of the Unified Access Service Licence was brought to the notice of TRAI, it was the regulator's duty to act. To discharge this function, TRAI, under Section 13 and Section 12 4) of the Act, can issue directions to the service provider.

TRAI has extensive powers to conduct an investigation or call for information. Baijal argued that TRAI "does not have the organisational structure to carry out investigations of this nature, which involve tracing calls, etc. DoT has a well-established Vigilance Wing, which carries out such investigations as a normal practice". Section 12 of the TRAI Act gives TRAI the power to institute an enquiry in relation to the affairs of a service provider and to direct its officers to inspect the books of account and other documents. Section 29 of the TRAI Act gives the TRAI the power to penalise an operator for violating its directions.

Routes of controversy

Reliance Infocomm faces charges of routing its international calls to India illegally and passing them off as national long distance or local calls.

RELIANCE INFOCOMM, the telecom venture of the Reliance Group, the biggest private Indian conglomerate, is once again caught in a fierce controversy for operating in the grey area that lies between what technology enables it to do and what the law permits. Barely a year after it paid a penalty for abuse of its licence to provide limited mobility service, the company has been accused of routing its international calls to India illegally and passing them off as national long distance (NLD) or local calls. The publicly owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL), which made these accusations, claimed dues of Rs.600 crores for such calls made through India's biggest private integrated telecom operator. A top-level source in BSNL told Frontline that Reliance's dues to the two publicly owned companies could mount to "at least Rs.1,000 crores" because BSNL's field units are still gathering details from across the country.

It is well known that a thriving grey market in international calls exists in India. According to figures released by VSNL, the biggest carrier of International Long Distance (ILD) traffic to India, the size of the "grey market" is about one-third of the legitimate voice traffic to India, implying that traffic with a revenue implication of at least Rs.1,800 crores is beyond the regulatory framework. During the last few years the Vigilance Department of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has slapped more than 190 cases against those indulging in the illegal routing of international calls to India since 1998. Reliance's operations are far bigger than anything unearthed so far.

The prime motive for private operators bringing voice traffic through illegal channels is to avoid paying the Access Deficit Charge (ADC) to BSNL and MTNL whenever a call from a private operator lands on a BSNL or MTNL number. For BSNL and MTNL, the ADC is akin to a subsidy that is meant to make it viable for them to provide below-cost services to subscribers in semi-rural and rural areas. While the private operators have been lobbying for dismantling the ADC, the justification for continuing it is rooted in the objective of the government to increase the teledensity in the country, particularly in the under-served parts.

Differential rates of ADC are applicable on different classes of calls. While international calls attract an ADC of Rs.4.25 a minute, for domestic calls it ranges from Rs.0.30-0.80 a minute. Several experts have pointed to the scope for abuse in this system because it provides an incentive for operators, particularly integrated operators who provide NLD, ILD and other services, to cheat primarily by passing off international calls as local or national-level long distance calls.

Both the DoT, which is the licensor, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which is entrusted with the task of regulating the telecom sector, have drawn flak for the manner in which they have handled the issue. The DoT, which initially viewed the matter as a dispute between two telecom operators, had to change tack after it was presented with evidence about the violations, and slapped a fine of Rs.150 crores on Reliance Infocomm, after issuing a showcause notice in October.

Meanwhile, pressure has been mounting on TRAI to act against the company. On December 6 Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Nilotpal Basu accused TRAI Chairman Pradip Baijal of acting "in connivance with private operators" and demanded his resignation. It is evident that the issue cannot be reduced to a commercial dispute between the two public sector telecom majors and Reliance. The accusation that Reliance has tampered with the Calling Line Identification (CLI) of the calling party from overseas has security implications as well. Basu pointed out that the case of the terrorist attack on Parliament House in December 2001 was solved because the telephone numbers could be identified (see interview).

On December 1, in his reply to a starred question raised in Parliament, Dayanidhi Maran, Minister for Communication and Information Technology, said that BSNL's notices to Reliance Infocomm amounted to Rs.257 crores, while MTNL had raised bills to the tune of Rs.341.27 crores against the company.

RELIANCE Infocomm offers not only basic, cellular and limited mobility services but also has licences issued by the DoT for its ILD and NLD operations. Last year, after a controversy raged, Reliance paid a penalty of Rs.458 crores to the DoT for offering full-blown mobility using its Wireless in Local Loop (WiLL) limited mobility service.

Any ILD operator has to pay an ADC of Rs.4.25 a minute, incur a cost of about Rs.1.25 a minute for bringing the call to India and pay Rs.0.30 a minute to the operator on whose line it terminates the call. Since it costs at least Rs.5.80 a minute to land a call in India, Reliance can provide this service without any margin for itself only if it either absorbs the cost or indulges in something that it is not permitted to do. The option of routing the call as a local or national-level call originating in India, after clipping the CLI, is attractive if it can be managed.

BSNL's alert field staff and engineers in Ahmedabad who noticed abnormal traffic patterns, first unearthed the Reliance route in August. They noticed that the CLI showed the international calls to be originating in Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata. Typically, the eight-digit telephone number began with the numbers 3039 after the station code, making it appear as if the call originated in India. Their enquiries confirmed that the calls were made using the Reliance IndiaCall service.

Rakesh Mehta, Joint Secretary (West Zone), Sanchar Nigam Executives' Association (SNEA), told Frontline that SNEA engineers including himself then arranged for their acquaintances and relatives in the U.S. to buy units of the Reliance IndiaCall service (procured on the Internet) and make calls to specified numbers in Ahmedabad, which were monitored. This enabled them to gather the changed CLI numbers and match them with the details such as calling time, CLI and other relevant details provided by the callers in the U.S.

Rakesh Mehta said a third method, a more robust one involving the use of tools available in the switches in the local exchanges, provided "tangible proof for the first time" that the calls were coming from a Reliance number in Mumbai.

On August 25, two weeks after the call routing was unearthed by BSNL's Gujarat Circle, the DoT asked for details of various telephone numbers used by Reliance for its services. At a meeting on September 8 representatives of Reliance explained their position to the DoT. Reliance claimed that what it was offering was a service called Home Country Direct (HCD). Such services were in line with the recommendations issued by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

On September 13, BSNL's Ahmedabad unit issued a disconnection notice to Reliance Infocomm for routing international calls improperly, and on September 15, raised a bill for Rs.1.03 crores. This included dues as well as penalties for violation of the interconnect agreement Reliance had signed with BSNL on November 1, 2002. A senior BSNL official wrote to Reliance on September 22, accusing the company of "tampering the CLI of incoming international calls and terminating them into BSNL's network as domestic calls".

The mounting evidence presented by BSNL's units across the country persuaded DoT to issue a showcause notice to Reliance Infocomm on October 4. It said Reliance had violated the provisions of the Unified Access Service Licence (UASL), which provide for "a financial penalty not exceeding Rs.50 crores" for violation of the terms of the licence. It also alleged that Reliance was tampering with the CLI and passing international traffic along inappropriate paths instead of routing traffic along the designated "trunk groups".

On October 14 Reliance paid BSNL Rs.53.71 crores. On October 29 BSNL wrote to Reliance claiming that the amount payable had increased to Rs.182.70 crores, and served notice giving the company seven days to pay up or face disconnection.

Reliance moved the Delhi High Court seeking an injunction on BSNL. Justice Vikramjit Sen, who heard the petition, ruled that "in order to be entitled to discretionary relief, Reliance should not be seen to have approached this court with unclean hands. It must establish that it has a prima facie case." He also observed that this would have been the case if it had "conducted its business in consonance with the interconnect agreement" (with BSNL). Referring to Reliance tampering with the CLI, he noted that Infocomm's liability to BSNL had been "drastically reduced" by disguising the CLI.

Reliance preferred an appeal before a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court, which directed the company to pay Rs.40 crores to BSNL as an interim measure. BSNL moved a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court challenging this interim order. The Supreme Court directed Reliance to clear the claims amounting to Rs.182.70 crores. It asked the High Court to dispose of the matter by January 31, 2005.

G.L. Jogi, general secretary of SNEA, has criticised the role of DoT. He told Frontline that legal opinion the SNEA had gathered was that the DoT had the power to initiate criminal proceedings against the company.

He alleged that although Reliance Infocomm gave an assurance to the Delhi High Court, it was continuing the illegal routing in several Circles.

TRAI's silence in the matter, even as it is preparing a review of the ADC, has exposed itself to more criticism. Prabir Purkayastha, secretary of the Delhi Science Forum, which has actively intervened on behalf of consumer interests in the past, said the regulator ought to have intervened by taking note of what Reliance had done and determine whether what Reliance claimed to be an HCD service was permissible under the TRAI regulations. "The regulator and the DoT," he observed, "have a major responsibility of correcting the situation, which they have both abdicated."

Dayanadhi Maran took the position that the cancellation of Infocomm's licence would "cause huge suffering" to the about eight lakh Reliance subscribers. But it has been pointed out that cancelling Reliance's ILD licence, which is where the alleged violations have occurred, would hardly affect its operations or its subscribers. After all, many operators, among them BPL and Hutch, for instance, are able to offer services without an ILD licence.

Purkayastha estimated the total loss on account of the illegal call routing to be about Rs.1,300 crores.

`Telecom is the most scam-ridden sector'

the-nation

Interview with Nilotpal Basu.

Nilotpal Basu, CPI(M) member of Parliament, was first elected to the Rajya Sabha in April 1994. He has been on a number of committees, including the Consultative Committee for the Ministry of Communications in January 2000. He was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha in April 2000 and was soon nominated to the panel of Vice-Chairmen of the Rajya Sabha. From August 2003, he has been Chairman of the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture. One of the areas he has taken a keen interest in is the telecom sector. Excerpts from an interview he gave Siddharth Narrain:

What is the extent of the loss suffered by BSNL and MTNL and how have you arrived at this figure?

It is very difficult to calculate the exact quantum of loss to BSNL and MTNL because the extent of loss has not been investigated by the empowered body. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act specifically assigns to the regulatory body (TRAI) the right to investigate these issues. It is very clear that in a criminal dereliction of duty TRAI has not exercised the powers and the rights with which it is empowered by Parliament. Therefore the exact quantum will be difficult to find. But generally private companies say that the grey market in the ADC [Access Deficit Charge] regime could be anywhere upwards of Rs.2000 crores. Unless a proper authorised investigation takes place, the exact quantum of loss cannot be ascertained. In a reply to a couple of Lok Sabha questions on December 1, 2004, the government says it is only around Rs.350 crores over a period of five years, which is a gross underestimate.

Has the DoT done the right thing in this matter? Is Rs.150 crores a fair penalty?

Unfortunately, the DoT has messed it up. The DoT has served a showcause notice to a private company quoting violations of the licence agreement. The exact provisions of the licence agreement that the DoT has quoted in its notice are in fact non-existent provisions. They have even failed to provide in the showcause the exact provisions of the licence agreement.

Secondly, the DoT has completely failed in its responsibility to prevent underpayment or underinvoicing of the differential between International Long Distance and National Long Distance (NLD). The idea of the Access Deficit Charge is that those who do not have access will be provided access through this money. Avoiding this charge takes away money meant to go to companies that provide this service and to that extent also adversely affects the financial bottom lines of those companies. Perhaps most importantly, as a result of tampering with the switches when the calls come from international gateways to the national network, on the handset of the subscribers either local numbers appear or no number appears, which leads to a security issue also.

Within the TRAI Act there are provisions which say that when public interest and national security are threatened the DoT can direct TRAI to conduct investigations which could have brought out the magnitude of the scam. This is not just a grey market operation. This is a wilful manipulation of the system to underpay and at the same time undercut its competitors by subsidising its own tariff rates. Investigation under the appropriate provisions of the statute has become absolutely imperative to establish the involvement of all concerned - in private companies and the government.

Why has the TRAI not acted and what should be done now that it has not acted?

It was the TRAI chairman's contention when they passed the order on October 29, 2003, that the new ADC regime they are bringing in would reduce the grey market. The ADC for one minute of an international call was brought down from Rs.5 to Rs.4.25 and the NLD rate was brought down from Rs.4 to 80 paise, completely trying to fool the whole country.

While the ADC charge was brought down, the actual ADC differential went up. Whereas it was only Re.1 earlier, it went up to Rs.3.50, which is almost a 350 per cent increase. So, with that kind of a regime, to assume it will bring down the grey market cannot be accidental. Therefore we have asked for the sacking of the TRAI chairman for wilfully trying to mislead the people.

Do you think the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Dayanidhi Maran, has done enough?

Clearly, he has not done enough because he has given a reply to Parliament that over five to six years the leakage is to the tune of Rs.350 crores, whereas two companies owned by this government have filed claims in court to the tune of Rs.550 crores. So Rs.350 crores is not a figure which he has arrived at on the basis of any investigation that the government has ordered. The scope of the investigations has to be much wider

Do you think the penalty for grey market traffic operators needs to be changed?

That is exactly what has been recommended by the TRAI subcommittee on this issue. The subcommittee says that since the question of caller line identities being removed has very serious security implications, appropriate provisions of the security laws in the country should be applicable in this case as well. This is what I pointed out in the House to the honourable Finance Minister as well, who was arguing with the Left, in a different context, that there were no security implications in FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] in telecom.

What about other private players like Bharti, which reportedly have done the same thing?

I have gone on record on the floor of the House that I have no case against any particular private corporate because I do not know. Only a comprehensive investigation can bring out the facts. It is true that Bharti has been referred to in the complaint filed by the telecom regulator in Nepal.

How did you develop such a keen interest in the telecom sector?

The extra interest I have taken in the sector is because it is the most scam-ridden sector in the country.

A tribute to a master

SAHMAT brings out a calendar of paintings by eminent artists based on Munshi Premchand's works to celebrate the great writer's 125th birth anniversary.

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Paintings in the calendar by Nand Katyal (left) and Veer Munshi.

COME 2005 and the nation will observe the 125th birth anniversary of Munshi Premchand, one of the subcontinent's best-loved writers of the past one century. Born Dhanpat Rai in Lamhai near Benaras (Varanasi) in 1880, Premchand is widely regarded as the father of the modern Urdu/Hindi novel.

Unfortunately, much of his work lies obscured and ignored. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) plans to bring out a calendar of paintings by eminent artists based on Premchand's works, to celebrate the anniversary and also to mark the 16th Safdar Memorial, on January 1, 2005. Formed in 1989, after the murder of the actor-playwright-poet Safdar Hashmi, the collective of artists, writers, theatre persons and film-makers, has worked tirelessly towards keeping alive the secular, pro-people artistic traditions of the country. Safdar Hashmi founded Jan Natya Manch, also known as Janam, in 1973. The group focusses on street plays, delving into the theatre of protest to address issues of people's concern through satire, song and dance. In fact, Safdar Hashmi was enacting a street play called "Halla Bol", based on workers' rights, when he was fatally attacked.

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Every year, SAHMAT also organises conventions on economic and other issues of concern to the people on April 12, which is Safdar Hashmi's birthday and observed as National Street Theatre day. In previous years, homage was paid to Safdar Hashmi in various ways. Rajendra Prasad of SAHMAT says: "The Indian creative endeavour has mostly held up the values of secularism and pluralism. To highlight this, we organised a Sufi-Bhakti programme in 1993."

Rajendra Prasad says: "Artists have been getting into text, which is a rare thing in art. Some are portraits and a few are graphic designs. The calendar will be out by the end of this year and an exhibition of all these works, by at least 20 different artists, will be displayed on January 1. As part of the events, we are also inviting artists, theatre persons, academicians and film-makers to read from Premchand's work. Jan Natya Manch will perform a play based on one of his short stories."

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SAHMAT chose to focus on Premchand since he is one of the few writers in India whose work shows great empathy for the poor and the oppressed. Premchand, who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu, was also a great secular icon. In fact, he mostly wrote in Urdu and condemned any attempt to divide people in the name of religion. He wrote on subjects such as widowhood (the short story titled "Bewaa"), exploitation of peasants ("Godan") and the freedom movement ("Shatranj Ke Khiladi").

The SAHMAT calendar will have works by eminent artists from across the country such as Ghulam Sheikh, Veer Munshi, Arpana Caur, Shamshad Husain, Gopi Gajwani, Haku Shah, Ram Rahman, Parthiv Shah, Eleena Banik, Nand Katyal, Rajinder Arora, Jahangir Jani, Hem Jyotika and Saba Hasan.

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Artist Gopi Gajwani, a veteran with more than four decades' work, and a graduate from the Delhi School of Art, describes himself as an abstract painter. But he has done away with abstractions in his representation of Premchand. "I have done a charcoal drawing, a life-sized portrait. I haven't tried to illustrate the text as such, or dramatise any particular story. With a light touch of green in the background, I have emphasised the landscape of his work - the rural-pastoral," he said. He added that he had read a lot of Premchand's works but was disappointed by the fact that most youngsters were not familiar with them. Gajwani said: "I once asked a convent-educated young man what he thought of Premchand and he asked me, `Who is Premchand?' Premchand is India. He is evergreen. If you haven't read Premchand, you've missed out on a lot. His role is immense, especially in depicting the life of the common man."

Ghulam Sheikh, an artist and art historian based in Vadodara, has also contributed to the cause. "I have made two posters. One is borrowed from a street scene in one of his [Premchand's] stories. And the other is a digital collage, made with material and images drawn from different sources. I put it in two mirrors, one side is Premchand in Hindi and the other side is Premchand in Urdu. This is a recognition of the fact that Premchand wrote in both Hindi and Urdu. But the deeper interpretation is his secularism."

A sad fact is that this great writer does not even have an archive or a library dedicated to him. Rajendra Prasad points out: "There is no archive of Premchand's work so far, which is so surprising. Thousands of dissertations have been written about Premchand - as the father of the modern Hindi short story and novel. But there is no one place where they have been housed, or even indexed. Mushir-ul Hasan, the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia (Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi), is setting up an archive now. The university represents the same composite culture that Premchand came from. In fact, he wrote one of his best-known short stories, "Kafan", while living at Jamia. Land has been earmarked for the archive and we are waiting for the Ministry of Culture to respond and lend support to the project. We hope that this exhibition will be the inaugural activity of the proposed archive."

Meanwhile, other relics associated with Premchand are fading away. The house he was born in has already been demolished. The house he lived in is in a bad shape. Premchand's grandson, Anil Rai, told Frontline: "The roof is practically falling down. The government needs to do something. Some things have been done but not enough. There are lots of translations (of his work) in English and other foreign languages as well as in Indian languages. Some films have been made. But we need a national archive for his work. We would like a memorial library, ideally."

AMERICA'S DECLINE

AIJAZ AHMAD the-nation

The war in Iraq is costing the Americans dearly in every respect. A demonstration of the invincibility of American power has come together with the overwhelming evidence of the limits of American power on the ground.

THE first four years of the presidency of George W. Bush, which forced upon the world not only the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but also a structure of globalised militarism to supplement corporate globalisation, coincided almost exactly with the four years of the second Palestinian Intifada and Israel's all-out war against the Palestinian population. Prospects for the world during the next four years of this presidency are, if anything, more grim. And, West Asia shall remain, as it has been, at the very epicentre of this imperial storm.

Any extended discussion of the current crises in West Asia should in any case be prefaced with a brief summation of the situation in which the United States, the instigator and chief actor in these crises, finds itself. The re-election of Bush to a second term on November 4 was immediately followed, starting on November 7, with a massive assault on Falluja, as was expected, and was supplemented with equally murderous attacks on a number of cities and towns across the so-called "Sunni triangle" in Iraq. On that same day, November 7, the puppet government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared that all Iraq except the Kurdish-run areas in the country's north was under martial law, banning all protest rallies and street demonstrations. He also announced that a 24-hour curfew applied in Falluja, to be observed by everyone in the city except the invading U.S. and puppet Iraqi troops, thus making any Fallujan who is not in a residential building a free-fire target.

Anticipating this assault, some 200,000 residents of Falluja had fled the city even before the bombings began, along with all the seasoned fighters of the resistance who left behind only a relatively small number of relatively inexperienced guerillas to put up a symbolic fight. The Americans flattened the city nevertheless, raining down munitions of all kinds and sizes, including 2,000-pound and 5,000-pound bombs, on the remaining residents of the city. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society, the national equivalent of the Red Cross, estimated that 6,000 people died during that assault; by December 5 the Americans had ordered the Red Crescent to leave the city altogether. The city hospital was the first building to be destroyed in the bombing, and there are highly credible accounts reporting that napalm was used on the civilian population even though the use of napalm was banned by the United Nations in 1980 and every country in the world, with the single exception of the U.S., has complied with that ban. Other cities were soon to be subjected to similar atrocities.

Everyone knew that all this was going to happen, and no one was able to stop it. In a letter sent on October 14 to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Falluja Shura Council, which administers the city, had pleaded: "In Falluja, [the Americans] have created a new vague target: al-Zarqawi. Almost a year has elapsed since they created this new pretext and whenever they destroy houses, mosques, restaurants, and kill children and women, they say, `we have launched a successful operation against al-Zarqawi'. The people of Falluja assure you that this person, if he exists, is not in Falluja... and we have no links to any groups supporting such inhuman behaviour. We appeal to you to urge the U.N. [to prevent] the new massacre which the Americans and the puppet government are planning to start soon in Falluja, as well as many parts of the country." Annan himself took the extraordinary step of writing to Bush and United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair not to undertake these attacks, as did the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organisation of the Iraqi ulema representing 3,000 of the country's mosques. Even Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim President of the puppet regime in Iraq, had opposed the impending action: "I completely disagree with people who see a need to settle the Falluja question through military action .. . . It is like someone firing bullets at his horse's head because a fly lands on it; the horse dies and the fly flies away."

None of it helped, and the planned abomination went ahead anyway, barely 10 days after a scholarly study from Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health had sent waves of shock and anger throughout the Arab world when it publicly stated that some 100,000 Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, had died since the American invasion began in March 2003. The mentality that the Americans brought into their attack on the people of Falluja was well indicated by the marine commanders who said on record that Falluja was a "house of Satan" and those other commanders who told their soldiers to "shoot everything that moves and everything that does not move"; to fire "two bullets in every body"; and to spray every home with machine-gun and tank fire before entering them.

Meanwhile, the insurgency itself shows no signs of abating. Even as Falluja was being terrorised and sand flattened, insurgents were mounting attack in other cities such as Mosul, withdrawing their forces from wherever the Americas attacked, and attacking wherever the presence of the Americans and their local mercenaries was weak. Large parts of Baghdad remained ungovernable, as did most of the so-called "Sunni triangle", and attacks on pipelines and supply lines were so persistent that the U.S. command sometimes found it difficult to keep up the gasoline supplies required for the military operations. It was at the height of the offensive that the U.S. announced that its military force in Iraq was to be augmented by another 15,000 troops. Most analysts now believe that there shall be more incremental increases throughout the coming year, until the number of U.S. troops reaches 200,000 or more. This seems all the more likely for two reasons. One is that, according to knowledgeable sources, the number of active combatants on the side of the insurgency has increased constantly and has perhaps quadrupled in a year, which partly explains the quantum increase in the number and variety of attacks that the U.S. forces face each day. Secondly, the U.S. is failing to build an even remotely reliable fighting force comprised of Iraqis that could take over the burden of the fighting; thousands of them deserted during the recent offensives, and hundreds are said to have directly joined the insurgents.

U.S. forces in Iraq are using overwhelming firepower so as to minimise their own casualties. Even so, close to 1,500 U.S. military personnel have died in combat, and according to statistics released by the U.S. authorities, as of November 16, a total of 10,726 service members had suffered war injuries. Most observers believe that the U.S. authorities are greatly understating the number of the wounded and the real figure may be twice as high. Nor is there an infinite supply of soldiers available for massive escalation. Some 80 per cent of the U.S. Army is already involved in operations in and around Iraq, if we count not only the troops that are directly deployed at any given time but also the cycle of rotations. This problem is leading to increasing use of mercenaries through private contractors; the number of such mercenaries is said to be already topping the 40,000 mark, and as recruitments decline within continental U.S., these private contractors are recruiting from among the destitute populations of a variety of countries, all the way from South Africa to El Salvador.

In the process, the Iraqi population is being subjected to unspeakable levels of suffering. When 200,000 residents fled Falluja, neither the Americans, nor their Iraqi puppets, nor the U.N. agencies, nor any group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were there to provide them with relief and shelter; that story is also being repeated in town after town, village after village. Acute malnutrition among young children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the U.S. led an invasion of the country 20 months ago. After the rate of acute malnutrition among children younger than five steadily declined to 4 per cent two years ago, it shot up to 7.7 per cent this year, according to a study conducted by Iraq's Health Ministry in cooperation with Norway's Institute for Applied International Studies and the U.N. Development Programme. The great majority of the estimated 100,000 civilians who have died as a result of the U.S. invasion have died as a result of U.S. bombings and other kinds of indiscriminate killings of the U.S. ground forces, but many others have died owing to the erosion of health facilities, scarcity of clean drinking water, diseases spreading owing to the collapse of hygienic conditions of life, collapse of incomes and employment opportunities, and other such consequences of the invasion.

The U.S. government and media ignore all such facts and concentrate instead on the bogus "elections" that are to be held as an exercise in "democracy". It is very doubtful that an occupied country, with war raging across vast swaths of its territory, can actually have what we normally mean by elections. At present, Iraqis are living in a situation where their sovereign rights are held in something of a limbo, which began on June 28, when administrative responsibilities were transferred from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council to the un-elected Iraqi Interim Government backed by the U.S., which currently serves as a puppet regime. This is the regime that is to organise the much-publicised "elections" in which Iraqis shall be voting to elect the core of a transitional legislature - the 237-member National Assembly. It is the National Assembly that will determine who serves in the executive branch, electing a President and two Deputies of State. Collectively, these three officials would form the state's Presidential Council, and must unanimously select a Prime Minister to replace the present appointee. The task of writing a durable Constitution may then begin.

All this charade has been possible because Iraq's senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah al-Sistani, decided to cooperate with the Americans and calculated that in the new communalised calculus of electoral politics which the U.S. has devised for the previously secular Iraq, the Shia groupings can collectively command a legislative majority and hence capture power without fighting for it. The main Kurdish parties have of course had an understanding with the U.S. since the early 1990s, and many of the conservative elements among the Sunni clergy had also given their grudging assent to these arrangements. However, once the destruction of Falluja got going, the Islamic party, the largest Sunni grouping, resigned from Allawi's interim government and the Association of Muslim Scholars called for a boycott of the elections scheduled for January 2005. So, the charade of the January elections is likely to witness very minimal participation from at least the Sunni segment of the Iraqi population and, at the time of writing, it is very far from clear how some of the radical Shia groupings, such as Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers, will eventually act in relation to these "elections".

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Four things about this conjuncture can be said with some degree of certainty. First, it is currently impossible to conduct normal, free and fair elections in considerable parts of Iraq, and the legitimacy of the results shall therefore be highly questionable. Secondly, regardless of the results, these "elections" shall make little difference to the conduct of the insurgency in the foreseeable future. Thirdly, the processes through which the U.S., substantially aided by the U.N., has erected the new structures of power among its clients will serve to communalise further what was until very recently a very vibrant secular culture of Iraq, and shall in the long run pave the way for the balkanisation of the country which the U.S.-Israeli axis desires for not only Iraq but also the whole of the region. Fourthly, the U.S. can certainly assemble a configuration of clients comprised of the new political elite and the newly rich who are making money out of this occupation, but the resistance shall continue to fight not only for the eviction of the Americans but also for decimating the personnel of the new state apparatus - the new Army, police and bureaucracy - which the U.S. is assembling for itself and its clients. Americans may continue to occupy but the resistance shall continue to deny them the ability to administer or to exploit the country's resources; hence the attacks not only on the Americans but also on their hirelings and the oil-related installations.

The war in Iraq is costing the Americans dearly: in terms of the cumulative financial costs of occupation; in having so much of its military personnel pinned down in one little corner of the globe while the ambition was to make multiple wars across West Asia and across the globe; in terms of the loss of any kind of moral authority in consequence of the sheer savagery and criminality of its mode of invasion and occupation; and even in terms of the slow but unmistakable attrition of its personnel in Iraq, where death and injury for its citizens has become a daily occurrence and is bound to invoke a widespread rejection of this war at home, sooner or later. By contrast, none of the gains the U.S. had sought in Iraq and in the region as a whole has been realised, almost two years after Baghdad fell, seemingly so easily: not the capturing of the Iraqi oil, not the ability to use Iraq as the main military base in the region so as to begin an orderly withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, not the dream of using Iraq as a base for launching attacks against Syria, Iran, Lebanon or whatever. A demonstration of the invincibility of American power has come together with the overwhelming evidence of the limits of American power of the ground. We can now witness an imperial overreach even before they have reached very far.

AFGHANISTAN is in this context almost not worth mentioning. That was the first and indeed a very swift occupation, but one that was grandiosely envisioned as the first of very many. The quagmire in Iraq put an equally swift end to the dream of the `very many'. In the meanwhile, a client regime of Hamid Karzai was put in place and then handed over to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to keep him in place. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Mulla Omar nor any other of the luminaries of the Taliban regime has been captured. Any number of Americans are running around in northern Pakistan, pretending to be catching bin Laden. My sense is that the Americans are much more interested in securing bases close to the Iranian border in Baluchistan, just in case the U.S. and/or Israel ever feels free to strike at the Islamic Republic. The pseudo-elections in Afghanistan are represented in the U.S.-inspired media as major gains for democracy - non-theocratic democracy at that - but what we mainly have is a narco-democracy, considering that opium production there, stopped by the Taliban, has reached such proportions that the crop in 2004 was the most abundant and most lucrative in the country's history. The U.S. Office on Drugs and Crime released its Afghanistan Opium Survey in late November, finding that opium cultivation had risen by 64 per cent this year alone, with a total value of $2.8 billion, and thus accounting for more than half of the country's domestic product and spreading to all the provinces in Afghanistan. No wonder that drug lords are the very backbone of the Karzai regime, notwithstanding all the pious anti-narcotics pronouncements of the client and his overlords.

The evidence from Iraq and Afghanistan seems to suggest that the military conquest of the globe is not going too well. What about the imperium itself? Well, the long and short of it is that since the invasion of Iraq began, the dollar has lost some 35 per cent of its value in relation to the European Union's recently floated currency, the euro, not to speak of the yen and the yuan and sundry lesser currencies of the world. In the short run, the depreciated dollar boosts American exports, which become cheaper, and discourages foreign producers to sell their goods in the U.S., for which they would not get less, in terms of their own currency. This can help the U.S. produce more, export more, and import less, which then redresses a part of the problem with the current balance of payments. The problem, however, is that since the dollar serves not only as the national currency of the U.S. but also as the reserve currency of the world, and as the principal currency for world trade, notably oil trade, everyone wants to hold U.S. dollars and, consequently, roughly 50 per cent of the U.S. dollars are held abroad. The spectre haunting the dollar today is that those foreigners who hold it - as reserve currency, as medium of trade, as a share in the U.S. economy and state debt - would get fed up with its decline and start exchanging it for some other, better valued currency, such as the euro at present.

Had Saudi Arabia or Iran or Venezuela - or other oil-producing countries - traded oil in euros over the past year, their earnings would have been roughly 30 per cent higher. The East Asian banks, which prop up the dollar by buying such things as the U.S. Treasury bonds, have been losing the value of their assets, as are governments such as the Chinese government, which holds hundreds of billions of its reserves in dollars. Why should they not shift to the euro, or at least substantially diversify. At the very least, they could stop adding dollar-denominated assets to their portfolios. The nightmare in the American Federal Reserve is that any one of these major players may decide that the dollar is just not worth it, and shift, prompting other players to shift, so that the entire financial architecture that was built when the U.S. unilaterally abandoned the gold/sterling standard and effectively replaced it with the dollar would collapse. For, the unique privilege of America, derived from the fact that its national currency serves as the world currency, is that it can keep on printing dollars to finance its own huge budgetary deficits and the national debt, because the rest of the world has gone on taking over the surplus dollars for their own accumulation. What happens if the demand for the dollar collapses?

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Now, obviously, no government or bank would want the American economy to go into a major, irreversible crisis because that would spell deep crisis for the global capitalist system as a whole; everyone would prefer a soft, negotiated landing for the dollar. There are two problems, however. First, the Bush administration seems unwilling to see that the depreciation of the dollar, which helps American exports, is costing others a very great deal, and the problem has to be settled through multilateral negotiations; in economic policy, as in the policy of imperialist expansion. The Bush administration prefers to act in a myopic, unilateralist fashion. Secondly, the unpredictability of markets and governments. A major Japanese bank, a major trading partner such as China, can act to simply safeguard its own interests, and thus set a trend, inadvertently, for others to follow - until it becomes a stampede. One cannot safely predict anything in so volatile a situation. It is possible to say, however, that the era of a straightforward dollar domination may be drawing to a close and the era of currency wars may be at hand. It may be in some respects a unipolar world but the lone superpower, which is facing the complexities of a war of national liberation in Iraq, may also be facing currency competitions in the financial arena.

These pressures on the imperial centre should also be seen in the context of certain specific features of the current power dispensation in the U.S. I wrote about two years ago that the Bush administration may be the most right-wing administration that the U.S. has had since at least the Second World War - as something of a culmination of trends set in the days of Ronald Reagan. Well, the second Bush administration, as it is taking shape after last month's elections, has moved even further to the Right. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a professional soldier, has been fired because he questioned the degree of U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's extremists policies and replaced with Condoleezza Rice, with her membership in the petroleum industry and loyalty to the master's policies, and the dispute between the right-wing Powell and the ultra-Right Donald Rumsfeld has been settled in favour of Rumsfeld. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is being restructured so purposefully to make it an instrument of Bush and his neo-conservative inner circle, at the expense of the professionalism of its senior officials, that a number of those professionals have resigned in protest. Bush has chosen as his Attorney-General a man who had served as a senior White House lawyer over the last four years and had justified the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners, thus implicitly upholding the systematic torture practised by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib prison. He thinks of himself as a born-again Christian and, as such, has always had an affinity with Evangelical Christianity; his re-election is owed so much to that organised tendency in his political party that he is likely to draw even closer to it. He has inherited from previous U.S. administrations the settled policy of unconditional support for all that Israel is and does; he has already endorsed the most belligerent aspects of Sharon's policy; the Zionist neo-conservatives and the Evangelical-Zionist alliance have such a hold on his administration; and Sharon has become so much a mentor and guide to him over the past three years that he is likely to go along with whatever Israel now proposes, whether in relation to the Palestinians or other elements in the region, notably Iran.

In his victory speech after re-election, Bush said that he would now go ahead and proceed to finish the task he had undertaken during his first term. What was that task? As regards West Asia, that envisioned task was not limited to the eradication of the Taliban regime or Saddam Hussein's rule but the re-making of the region as a whole. Remarkably enough, the only country in the region that needed no re-making was Israel. In his very first State of the Union address, in January 2002, Bush came forward with the resonant phrase, `Axis of Evil', in which any number of unnamed forces could be included but three names - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - did stand out. They were `Evil' because they were promoting `terrorism' and nuclear proliferation. Of these, North Korea was of course not in the region but, unlike the other two, it did possess some nuclear weapons, and could, therefore, be approached only very cautiously, all the bluster notwithstanding. By the time Bush spoke of the Axis of Evil, Afghanistan had been occupied and the international ideological campaign to prepare the ground for the invasion of Iraq was just getting under way. As the campaign unfolded, the issues of `terrorism' and nuclear proliferation were supplemented with the objectives of eradicating Islamic fundamentalism and totalitarianism, while promoting `democracy' and human rights. On these grounds, then, any or all countries of West Asia could be objects of U.S. intervention - humanitarian intervention in the sense that it was designed to eradicate evil and promote virtue.

It was during this process, while an interventionist new policy was being fashioned for West Asia as a whole that a qualitatively new relationship between the U.S. and Israel was forged. Since at least 1967, if not before, Israel had come to be seen by various administrations in Washington as the one indispensable ally in West Asia upon which the U.S. could rely as a bulwark against the turbulence that was sweeping other countries in the region, where some regimes were already hostile towards the U.S. (Gamal Abdul Nasser's Egypt, for example) and others could arise in countries which were allies at the time but were prone to unpredictable shifts (as happened in Iran with the sudden fall of the Shah and rise of the Islamic Republic). Implicit in that alignment was the idea that Israel, as a surrogate and regional sub-imperialist power, could always intervene against regimes that the U.S. disliked but could not punish directly, as Israel did unilaterally invade Egypt and Syria in 1967. It was in view of this very special kind of alignment that Israel was given immense amount of U.S. funds and weaponry but was never held accountable for its cruelties against the Palestinians, its development of nuclear weapons or its routine defiance of Security Council resolutions. But the years of the Bush presidency witnessed something more.

The key element here was that a group of neo-conservative and Zionist ideologues - Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Robert Feith, and so on - who had occupied middle-rung positions in the Reagan administration and had subsequently grown very close to some of the key leaders of the Likud party in Israel, notably Benjamin Netanyahu, came to occupy key positions in the Bush administration, especially in the Pentagon, and began fashioning policies for the U.S. that were remarkably similar to the ones that Sharon had been advocating for some two decades. Vice-President Dick Cheney was a senior member of this group and in some ways the protector and promoter of their ideas. Sharon himself had by then risen to become Prime Minister in Israel, and in a flurry of visits to Washington he now became Bush's mentor in delineating an over-all policy for the region. Something of a sea change now occurred in the relationship between the interlocutors. Israel had until then been a supplicant for U.S. weapons and finances, and had wielded influence on U.S. policy mainly through the pro-Zionist lobby in Washington and the Zionist organisations, which kept a tab on U.S. Congressmen. Now, with the ascendancy of Zionist neo-conservatives right up to the office of the Vice-President, it was the U.S. policy that came to be shaped increasingly in the shadow of Israeli policy. The events of September 11 proved crucial in this turn of events.

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The vilification of all things Arab and/or Islamic had gone through three phases in the U.S. The first was the period of Nasserist anti-imperialist, Arab nationalism, when secular nationalism itself was seen as a threat to Western interests and to the very regimes, such as the Saudi regime, which were protecting those interests. The second was the phase when the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) suddenly raised the price of petroleum in the wake of 1973, and the Western media were studded with daily images of the Arab, bearded and dressed in Bedouin clothes, turning off the tap at the American petrol pump. The third was the phase that began with the Islamic Revolution in Iran that overthrew the monarchy which had been, next to Israel itself, America's main ally in the region. After September 11, all these images got rolled into one, that of a transnational Muslim terrorist out to destroy the American way of life in a gigantic class of civilisation, with no regard to the fact that the particular kind of terrorist who had rammed those hijacked planes into the World Trade Centre had been bred by the Americans themselves for purposes of their own jehad against the communist infidel in Afghanistan.

Two things now happened. One is that since this new `terrorist' was a transnational Muslim, war against him was also to be waged in country after country, across West Asia and even in pockets as far away as Bali or the Philippines. Hence the neo-conservative dream of capturing Baghdad, then Damascus, Riyadh, and finally Teheran. Second, and crucially, Sharon was able to convince his Anglo-Saxon interlocutors, and Bush in particular, that the Palestinian was the paradigmatic terrorist, and no amount of repression of the Palestinian could ever be considered excessive.

The four years of the Intifada, which began on September 28, 2000, coincided almost exactly with the first four years of the Bush presidency. The most reliable figures that I have seen conclude that 1,008 Israelis and 3,334 Palestinians have been killed during these four years. Eighty-two per cent of the Palestinians killed have been civilians, of whom 621 were children below the age of 17, and 10,000 Palestinian children have been injured. The majority of the civilians killed were shot in the head or the upper body. During the same period, Israel has followed the policy of targeted killing, that is, pre-meditated assassination unrelated to any kind of combat, which has taken 424 lives. Economic blockades and dislocations caused by the Israelis have resulted in the fact that 30 per cent of all Palestinian children now suffer from malnutrition, more than one billion worth of Palestinian infrastructure has been destroyed, Palestinian gross domestic product (GDP) has been cut in half, the price of water has tripled, and an average Palestinian consumes one-fifth of the water consumed by an average Israeli. Occupied Palestinian roads are criss-crossed with roads on which only Jews are allowed to travel, and the wall that the Israelis have built in the name of their own security zigzags through Palestinian territory, is three times as long and twice as high as the Berlin Wall, separates people from their own communities, their work place, hospitals and schools. The settled policy of demolishing Palestinian houses in the service of Israeli interests has meant that in Rafah alone, for example, an average of six homes are demolished each day.

One could go on reciting details of such atrocities. But the single slogan of "terrorism" is used in Israeli as well as American and British media to excuse the Israelis and blame the Palestinians en masse. Successive U.S. administrations have condoned all kinds of Israeli atrocities and shielded Israel from any accounting in international fora. The Bush administration has gone much further, however. Unlike any previous U.S. administration, and in direct violation of numerous Security Council resolutions, Bush has declared that the Palestinian refugees have no right to return to their homes in Israel but will have to be accommodated in the Palestinian territories, and that in any final settlement Palestinians cannot expect to gain the territories that were given to them by the U.N. Partition Plan of 1949 or even all the territories they lost in 1967. He has gone further and endorsed Sharon's plan to annex large parts of the West Bank, and has barely stopped short of endorsing Sharon's overall plan which gives to the Palestinians merely 11 per cent of the land of historic Palestine, exactly half of what they had as late as 1967. In short, Israel has an absolute right to do as it wishes, in violation of every clause of the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous U.N. resolutions.

Yasser Arafat died just as George W. Bush was getting re-elected for a second term in office. As the Palestinian people lost the one man who had symbolised their nationhood for 35 years, the Western media were filled with virtual glee that there now was a chance for a new leadership that would be acceptable to Israel as a negotiating partner. And, indeed, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), who has been in close touch with the Israelis for over a decade and is known to be a notoriously corrupt man, soon emerged as the Fatah's candidate for the presidency. The only man who could fight an election against Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, is in an Israeli prison serving a sentence amounting to five life-times. When Barghouti's wife filed papers of his candidacy on his behalf, Israeli authorities immediately said that he would not be acceptable as a Palestinian President. As of now, it is unclear whether the contest shall be allowed to take place. Israel may yet get a successor of Arafat with whom it can make peace - on its own terms. Will such a peace endure? Most unlikely. There shall then be yet another Intifada, just as the resistance in Iraq shall continue regardless of any puppet regime that might arise there.

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Coordination between the U.S. and Israel is so close that it now becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. Israelis have trained the Kurdish peshmargas under U.S. tutelage, and their forces are said to be active on Turkish territory adjoining Iran. Israelis have even trained U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, teaching them the techniques of urban warfare they have deployed in such operations as in Jenin and Ramallah, and which the U.S. has followed in Falluja. If the U.S. itself deployed modified Israeli tanks and bulldozers in Iraqi towns, it has also given to Israel state-of-the-art deep-penetration bombs, known as "bunker busters" for a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Indeed, both the U.S. and Israel have threatened strikes against Iran, and a large number of newspapers, from The Jerusalem Post to The Los Angeles Times, have reported that both countries have carried out simulation exercises in preparation for precisely such strikes.

Will there be such a strike, by one or both of them? It would be foolish to predict one way or the other. Everyone knows that the U.S. did not invade North Korea because it had nuclear weapons but invaded Iraq because it did not. In context, one can believe that Iran actually is trying to develop such a weapon. The U.S. is determined to overthrow the current dispensation in Teheran, and the possibility that Iran may succeed in breaking Israeli monopoly of nuclear power in West Asia gives those designs a special urgency. But is it doable? A full-scale invasion or prolonged war against Iran is impossible because the U.S. is already over-committed next door, in Iraq, while Iran has real armed forces and fairly advanced missiles with a formidable range. Moreover, it seems to have made something of a devil's pact with the U.S.: so long as Iran is left alone in peace it will restrain its friends among the Shia clergy in Iraq. By the same token, any strike against Iran shall bring forth an immediate mass Shia uprising in Iraq, in addition to the Sunni one.

A prudent leader in Washington would keep the peace with Iran and would also restrain Israel. Bush, however, did invade Iraq against the advice of his own Chief of the Army Staff and without taking into account the consequences. The same imprudence, combined with the Israeli fear of a nuclear-armed Iran, may yet lead to targeted strikes. News reports seem to suggest also that the U.S. is willing to take another leaf out of the Israeli book, namely that of targeted assassinations. In this scenario, strikes against selected targets would be combined with operations to kill the key leaders and thus create deliberate chaos in Teheran. That would amount to real madness, since the war shall then spread not only to Iran but also, inevitably, to Syria and Lebanon. But that too is part of the neo-conservatives' prescription: a prolonged period of chaos, warfare and dismembering of the present state structures in West Asia's Muslim countries, followed by the break-up of every state into small, ethnically defined enclaves, with Greater Israel dominating the whole.

The stalemate in Sri Lanka

While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insists on interim self-rule as the basis for a resumption of talks, the Sri Lankan government maintains that it is willing to discuss the proposal but along with the contours of a final settlement.

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"We must have at least a federal government. If even this is not offered, even God cannot save this country."

- Suresh Premachandran, Tamil National Alliance MP, in the Sri Lankan Parliament on December 6, 2004.

IN many respects the main players in Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process have painted themselves into a corner during 2004. Apart from the deep chasm that developed within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the consequent internecine bloodbath, the major participants in the separatist conflict have largely maintained the status quo vis--vis their positions though at the start of the year achieving a break with the past seemed a possibility.

For the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), its initial condemnation of the LTTE's proposal and subsequent alliance with the Left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are turning out to be hurdles on the way to peace and devolution. The Opposition United National Party (UNP) is yet to recover from its defeat in the parliamentary elections. After formally announcing the candidature of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe for the next presidential poll, the UNP is gearing its party machinery for a string of protests on various political issues. The LTTE would perhaps best like to forget 2004, when its raison d'etre, formation of a separate, independent state in the traditional homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils, and its claim to be the sole representative of this section of people were seriously challenged.

Paradoxically, the LTTE was dared not by its decades-long battlefield foe - the `Sinhala army' - but by one of its most-efficient military commanders, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna).

The LTTE was not just dismissive of the contradictions that stared it in the face following Karuna's revolt, but exploited it politically and to a certain extent militarily. Politically, it sidestepped the basic issue that Karuna raised - discrimination by the LTTE leadership against the Tamils of eastern Sri Lanka - and instead used the rebellion to avoid the negotiating table. Militarily, however, the LTTE lost 72 cadre, the highest number since it signed the ceasefire in 2002. It is estimated that around 150 cadre from both sides of the LTTE divide have been killed in the internecine clashes since April.

As the politico-military stalemate continued, the Tigers consolidated themselves against their rivals - both the rebels and anti-LTTE parties such as the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) - by going on a killing spree and blaming it on the internal rebellion.

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Thirty months after the ceasefire agreement, there is a clear hardening of stance by an increasingly impatient and frustrated LTTE. In the build-up to the annual Heroes' Day speech by its leader V. Prabakaran in November (Frontline, December 17) and immediately after it, there were direct pointers that the Tigers would push up the stakes on the political and military fronts. The stated sticking point in the resumption of talks - the government's acceptance of the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) as "the basis" - continues to dominate public debate.

In an apparent change of tactic, the LTTE, which seldom misses an opportunity to demonstrate that it is a `politico-military organisation', upped the political ante. Be it in Sri Lanka's 225-member Parliament, which is in its annual budget session, in the media or on the streets of key towns in northern Sri Lanka, the LTTE's hardening political position was obvious.

On November 25 - two days before the Heroes' Day speech - R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) group in Parliament, made a significant speech on the current stage of the stalemate. "The vast majority of the people in the north-east, particularly the Tamil people, want autonomous self-rule in the north-east region," he said. The Tamil political parties, he said, "remain committed to a negotiated resolution of the Tamil question in keeping with the will of the Tamil nation".

The concept of an interim body for the north-east "is not new" and an attempt was made to achieve it immediately after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, when the UNP was in power, he said. It was also discussed during 1994-95 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE. Moreover, the President's "constitutional proposals of August 2000 contained proposals for the setting up of an interim council for the north-east for a period of 10 years", he said.

Referring to the JVP's opposition to an interim arrangement, Sampanthan said: "The two major parties - the SLFP and the UNP - have accepted the concept of an interim body. The JVP, I would urge, should follow, in the interests of the country." On the charge that the LTTE's proposals were "maximalist", he said "most of the LTTE's proposals are what obtains in federal arrangements in other countries".

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One key issue in the resumption of talks is the government's view that the Tigers should reiterate a commitment made two years ago in Oslo that they would explore a federal solution. The government was hoping that the commitment would be made in the Heroes' Day speech, but that was not to be. However, Tamil MPs made it a point to call for federalism as a solution. "Any arrangement, interim or final, has to be within the framework of an undivided country," Sampanthan said. During a debate on the annual budgetary allocations for the Defence Ministry, Suresh Premachandran of the TNA said the Sri Lankan leaders should give "at least a federal government", failing which, he added, "not even God can save this country".

The ceasefire agreement, Premachandran said, was signed "to prepare for peace, not separation". Citing a recent publication, he said the Sri Lankan armed forces had stepped up their strength in terms of weaponry and manpower and was emphatic that "the government's agenda is for war".

According to Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the government's "clear policy" is that it is willing to discuss the LTTE's proposal for interim self-rule, but along with the contours of a final settlement. Its main objection, according to government sources, is the LTTE's insistence that the ISGA should be "the basis" for negotiations.

"We are not ready to discuss just the ISGA. Talks must be on a final settlement as well. That is our policy and it is very clear," Wickremanayake said on December 6, winding up a five-hour budget debate on the Defence Ministry. The government was "ready to talk about peace", but "as a sovereign nation"; it was also "ready to face any contingency". Wickremanayake told Parliament: "We will strengthen the armed forces in terms of men, material, ideas and weapons."

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For the LTTE, which has officially lost 17,780 of its cadre in the fight for a separate state since November 1982, a withdrawal from the separatist option is not on the cards. And, given the current international positions, the Eelamist option is a non-starter. Herein lies the paradox for the LTTE. According to the LTTE's supporters, the Tigers "will not change their position now. How can they give up separation when they have not got anything politically from the negotiations?"

Against this political deadlock, the Tigers may well be running out of options. What has now started as "public protests" could reach a point where the militarist option is exercised. However, the current reading in southern Sri Lanka is that the Tigers will not return to war for two broad reasons. Southern hardliners, who have shown no signs of weakening, say that after Karuna's revolt the LTTE is "militarily weak" and cannot risk a resumption of violence. Liberals in the south are of the view that the LTTE will shift its approach from military offensives to political movements.

History shows that both assumptions are tenuous. The LTTE could carry out a limited operation just to make the point, if not for anything else, that its strike capacity is intact and it is capable of inflicting serious damage. "They could strike just to resume negotiations," a defence analyst said. However, once the first shot is fired, matters may go out of control, and a free fall into war is bound to be costly for both the rebels and the government.

According to all indications, the Tigers are likely to open both political and military fronts. Whether the initial phase of public protests veers towards a resumption of hostilities would depend on the government's reaction. The current stalemate also reflects, to a large extent, the restraint that all the major players have exercised. With the possibilities of an emotional revival strong, the immediate imperative for peace is the resumption of negotiations based on the agreement reached in Oslo, in which Colombo and the LTTE decided to explore a solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

Such a direct federalist commitment, pronounced and demonstrated by both the belligerent Tigers and an unsure Sri Lankan government, is the only way out of a downhill slide into possible violence.

The peace motif

In the context of the United Nations' reform efforts, Japan makes strategic moves to strengthen its claims to permanent membership of the Security Council.

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POWER politics in the Asia-Pacific region is likely to intensify, as Japan and India stake their claims to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council in the context of the report by the U.N. High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The report was presented to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on December 2.

While the final position of each of the existing five permanent members with the veto right - the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China - will matter the most in the end, China's support is of utmost concern to both Tokyo and New Delhi, all major players from the Asian region. Beijing has lost no time in expressing itself in favour of a "democratic consensus" among the U.N. members on all issues of the organisation's reforms so that it could then confidently face the challenges of the 21st century.

Given this general but emphatic position of China, both Japan and India will seek, behind the scenes, to gain its backing for their independent claims. While the positions of the United States and Russia are important, in the Asia-Pacific context, Tokyo's case is of far more interest to Washington, Moscow and Beijing, in view of the manner in which the U.N. Security Council was built nearly 60 years ago, on the ashes of the Second World War. In today's international situation, neither imperial Japan's defeat in the Second World War nor the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, is an issue on the table of the reformers of the U.N. The sub-text of a subtle Japan-China political ping-pong on Tokyo's credentials has not yet been fully played out.

Two days before the High Level Panel formally submitted its report, Hatsuhisa Takashima, the Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, spelt out Tokyo's credentials in response to a question from the media. He asserted: "Japan, as a peace-loving non-nuclear nation, can have a special role to play in order to promote peace and stability in the world". This statement is portrayed as the prime aspect of the "legitimacy" of Japan's bid for permanent membership of the Security Council.

All the permanent members are nuclear powers and the legitimacy of their atomic weapons is also acknowledged under the multilateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). More specifically, in the Asia Pacific region, both China and India possess nuclear weapons, while Japan does not. India is not a signatory to the NPT.

The superiority of Japan's peace credentials over those of both India and China is obviously the strategic message of this argument, although Japan and India have agreed to campaign for each other's candidature for permanent membership. Relevant to this presentation by Japan is the fact that both China and India have independently enunciated the doctrine of "no first-use" of nuclear weapons. In Japan's reckoning, this aspect does not obviously mitigate the status of either China or India as a nuclear weapons State.

The `peace' motif of post-imperial Japan is matched, in its perception, by its stature as "the second largest economy in the world". Takashima said: "Japan would be able to play a larger role in promoting prosperity and the eradication of poverty from the face of the earth". Moreover, a permanent seat would mean that "Japanese views can be reflected in the decision-making process of the U.N.", he said.

If these two factors turn the spotlight on Japan's self-perception as an international player, its sense of enlightened self-interest is reflected in the third factor.

Takashima said Japan was "the second largest contributor to the U.N.'s regular budget and other financial arrangements"; the contention being that "Japan should have more of a say on every decision being taken at the U.N."

Japan has also argued that it is promoting not only its candidature for permanent membership but also for "the reform of structural and various other aspects of the U.N. as a whole, including Economic and Social Council reforms".

NOW, while overall reforms remain a goal of the U.N., in the context of its security functions, the High Level Panel has recommended that "under any reform proposal, there should be no expansion of the veto". In unfolding two alternative models of Security Council reform, the panel said: "as a whole, the institution of the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for [the U.N.] institution in an increasingly democratic age". However, the panel also saw "no practical way of changing the existing members' veto powers".

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The origin of the veto itself is often explained in different ways, either as a privilege that would help underwrite the commitment of the big powers to collective security, or as a matter of bargain for a certain level of equilibrium among themselves.

Depicting the Security Council, which now consists of five permanent members and ten elected and non-permanent members as "fifteen men on a powder keg", writer Andrew Boyd said "the foundation on which the U.N. was built - by the great powers - was the great-power veto". Kishore Mahbubani, who has represented Singapore at the U.N. Security Council, believes that "the absence of a widely shared understanding of the responsibilities of both permanent and non-permanent members of the Council has developed into a serious weakness for the organisation".

While the larger international community is aware of the absence of a level-playing field in the Security Council, the High Level Panel has found itself faced with the challenge of `democratising' the Council. At another level, each of the permanent-member-aspirants is keen to be given veto powers with the same or comparable privileges.

IF Japan has not so far made an explicit pitch for permanent membership with the veto privilege, the reason has much to do with the fact that the debate on Security Council reforms is just beginning. China, whose support is essential for Japan, has said: "With many differences in existence, the enlargement of the Security Council bears on the interests of all parties concerned." Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in Beijing on December 2: "China has all along supported the U.N. reform and a broader representation at the Security Council, in particular the representation of developing countries." This statement is obviously not welcome to Japan, which has now begun to regard China as a rapidly growing economy that could well graduate from the status of a developing country. While pledging to continue the Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China, Japan has hinted at the possibility of treating Beijing as a candidate that could emerge out of the ODA bracket.

While the ODA debate is relevant to the Japan-China diplomacy over Tokyo's Security Council-related ambitions, history, too, still plays a significant part in their overall engagement. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is still seen by China and several other East Asian countries as a grim reminder of Japan's imperial-era militancy and of its [the shrine's] appeal to sections of the Japanese people. Koizumi disputes this view, but this aspect, and the overall question of sustainable mutual trust have impinged on his recent and separate meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Another Heroes' Day speech

V.S. SAMBANDAN world-affairs

ON November 27, the former special commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna) did some plain-speaking in his maiden Heroes' Day speech.

Be it in attacking LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran or in setting conditions to the Sri Lankan government, `Col.' Karuna sounded firm and direct. He described Prabakaran as "unfit to lead the Tamils" and "claim the status of sole representative" as he was "responsible for large-scale killing of Tamils". He wanted the Sri Lankan government to discuss the basic issues of the conflict in order to find a solution. Suggesting a two-year time-frame to solve the crisis, Karuna said: "If we cannot resolve our problems, we should agree to separate."

Describing India as better suited to resolve the Sri Lankan crisis, compared to the Scandinavian countries, Karuna said it was India's responsibility to help in finding a solution to the conflict and that his party was of the view that India should accord prime importance to peace in Sri Lanka, while ensuring that "Tamil-speaking people live in peace, dignity and security". The years of armed struggle and the deaths of LTTE cadres in battle, he said, were "to live, not to be destroyed".

The address, which was also Karuna's first since launching the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal this October, set out a six-point plan of action for the fledgling party. As Prabakaran, "the mass killer, who has killed so many Tamils, cannot assume to be the sole representative," Karuna said, "attempts would be made" to tell the world that "the arch enemy of the Tamils is none other than Prabakaran". Secondly, concerted action would be taken to "safeguard, unite and preserve Tamils who are on the verge of being gradually decimated" internally and on foreign soil.

The third plank of the party would be to "negotiate with the government regarding primary and basic issues of the Tamils that have led us to the launching of the liberation war - issues such as land, language, employment, education, administration and more importantly, the security issue".

Equal socio-economic and educational status for Tamils and Sinhalese and the eradication of "all anti-human and anti-social activities now practised by Prabakaran", such as "tax collection, seizure of property, abduction, holding people hostage, denying education to the youth" will be another plank of the party. On India, Karuna said: "We are of the candid opinion that India is the only country that will be able to help us find a reasonable solution to the problems confronting the Tamil-speaking people and we believe that India is in a position to undertake and provide necessary security arrangements."

Describing Prabakaran as a person "who has the habit of killing those who helped him as well as those who have saved him," Karuna said he was "the reincarnation of Godse, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Nero, all put together into one".

On the path ahead, Karuna said his party's policy was to "prepare plans and schemes and negotiate for all the ethnic communities in Sri Lanka to live together peacefully, enjoying equal status. If we fail to find solutions to all the issues, then we should separate".

Karuna's speech has not yet generated the expectation that has come to surround Prabakaran's annual speeches, but in making his maiden speech, the former military commander of the LTTE has taken one more step towards occupying an important role in Sri Lanka's politics of separatist conflict.

`Progressive change is possible'

world-affairs

Interview with Howard Zinn, historian and political activist.

To remain united in times of war is to surrender to the strategies and policies of the state. Falling in line, not thinking for oneself and obeying the state's commands are, according to famous journalist I.F. Stone, ways to avoid conveniently coming face to face with truth.

Howard Zinn's writings make a case for "transcendence", a need "to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought, and dare to say things that no one else will say". This statement is substantiated by Zinn in book after book, from A People's History of the United States to You cannot be Neutral on a Running Train, from Terror on War to Artists in Times of War and Rule by Force. The United States' governments, according to him, have economically and politically exploited its own people and people of the world.

This is largely kept out of the histories taught to school-going students. War, which has always accompanied economic exploitation, needs to be rejected at all costs. Zinn feels that the role of artists, activists and publishers is vital to resistance movements aimed at peace and protection of human rights as well as to offering a "a significant corrective to the triumphalism" of U.S. military power.

Zinn asks: "Are you going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country?" At the outset, he makes a case against the professionals who deride any one who dares to comment on an important question concerning the nation. Zinn asserts: "All of us, no matter what we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world. We must be undeterred by the cries of the people who say, `You don't know. You are not an expert. These people up there they know'."

The White House or the Congress are not the only bodies that have to take decisions and which "know"; the involvement of citizens, as emphasised by Rousseau, is crucial to the running of the country. "When the government becomes destructive... then it is patriotic to dissent and to criticise." And, finally, Zinn sends out a clear admonishment of his country's rulers: "Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back." He is of the view that the average citizen can shape history through social involvement.

In 1980, Zinn lay down his account of the American history in the best-selling A People's History of the United States. More than a million copies of the book have already been sold. It's a classic as well as an amazingly far-reaching and radical view of the world.

In his famous play, "Marx in Soho", Zinn resurrects Marx so that he can speak to the contemporary audience in Soho, urging them "to get off their asses" and remember that to be radical is to "simply grasp the root of the problem and the problem is us". His suggestion at the end of the play is: "Pretend you have boils (remember Marx had boils from which he suffered till the end). Pretend that sitting on your ass gives you enormous pain, so you must stand up. You must move, you must act."

Going beyond socialism or capitalism, he wants people to have food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, and "some hours of work, more hours of leisure". As far as wars go, workers of all countries must unite against the criminal foreign policies, which squander people's blood and wealth and vindicate the laws of morals and justice in international affairs.

Complimenting Howard Zinn as a teacher, writer Alice Walker notes: "What can I say that will in any way convey the love, respect, and admiration I feel for this unassuming hero who was my teacher and mentor, this radical historian and people-loving trouble-maker, this man who stood with us and suffered with us? Howard Zinn was the best teacher I ever had, and the funniest." This was corroborated by Chomsky. Recently asked who he thought was one of the great dissidents of our time, he remarked "Howard Zinn" without thinking twice.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier during the Second World War, Howard Zinn went to Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. in history. He taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and later at Boston University. A history Fellow at Harvard University and a visiting Professor at the University of Paris and the University of Bolgnahis, his career spanning 40 years have put him at the forefront of contemporary intellectuals as a major radical historian and a progressive political theorist. His social activism has brought a new and sympathetic approach to the study and teaching of history.

Shelley Walia, Professor of English Studies at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh, interviewed Professor Howard Zinn recently. Excerpts:

Could you throw light on important influences on you in the early stages of your life?

I grew up in a working class family, reading Marx, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Jack London, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. And most important of all, I became class conscious.

Could you elaborate on your becoming class conscious?

I grew up in a working class family, saw how hard my father worked, how hard my mother worked, without becoming prosperous. On the other hand, I saw in newspapers and magazines the photos of the rich, and I could not tell whether they did any work or not, and when I found out what kind of work some of them did it seemed to me dangerous for society. When I went to work in the shipyard - long hours, hard work, little pay - I realised that most of the people on the planet work hard, with very little compensation.

Would you say that the American society is deeply class conscious?

Americans are class conscious, though they don't use that expression. Americans know that the country is controlled by a small number of rich people. But they feel they can't do anything about that, so there is a sense of resignation in the face of something inevitable. But the history of the United States is a history of labour struggles, always involving class consciousness. Some of the most bitter labour struggles in the world have taken place in the United States, between the 1870s and the 1930s.

Should I say that your writings have been interventionist because you believe in `libertarian anarchism'?

I don't like to label my views that way. I'm a certain kind of socialist, a certain kind of anarchist. Maybe `democratic socialism' comes closest. I like Dalton Trumbo's vision which advocates `socialism without jails'.

Could you comment on your brand of `democratic socialism'?

A socialism that uses resources for human needs of production based on need rather than on profit, a roughly equal distribution of the country's wealth; there should be no person without adequate healthcare, housing and employment. And there should be no control of thought or speech.

How far is anarchism useful for social transformation?

A useful concept with which to be suspicious of centralised authority, to insist on individual freedom, to be sceptical of all governments, and to insist on grassroots democracy.

As a teacher, do you take your classroom as a place for provocative teaching methods to move students towards activism? You say students "need the right circumstances, the right openings". How do you provide these to enable them to begin new student movements? And how do you "mobilise class anger" to bring about social transformation?

Yes, the classroom should not be removed from the real world of social conflict. That would be depriving students of the most important kind of education as well as their preparation to become active citizens. I have always liked to bring my students out into the community, have them join organisations, become active, and then come back to the classroom to report on their experiences. You "mobilise class anger" any time you organise people around the problems of workers or of poor people.

In today's world of television and fast food culture, can "art as politics" or the role of the political theatre influence public opinion? Only a miniscule of the population is aware of such art forms. How do we make theatre reach out to larger audiences?

It's true that theatre has a limited audience, especially for the young who watch movies and television. But it is still a force, and can become more of a force if plays that are both entertaining and socially conscious are written and produced.

Could you comment on the plays that you have written and their social relevance?

My play "Emma" is about the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman, who spoke against war, capitalism, the state, and in favour of women's rights, free love. My play "Daughter of Venus" is about the arms race, reflected in a family's internal conflicts of the 1980s Cold War period. My play "Marx in Soho" is a fantasy about Karl Marx returning today and commenting not only about the distortion of his ideas by the Soviet Union, but about the relevance of his critique of capitalism in today's world.

Could you say something on your support for the activists and students in the 1960s? I believe you were actively involved then in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations? You have opposed the very idea of war emphasising that "no war is ever justified". Tell us something about your experience of flying into Hanoi in 1968 to receive the first U.S. prisoners of war released by the North Vietnamese government?

Yes, I was active in the movement against the Vietnam war. I marched and protested with my students. I came out of the Second World War with the conviction that war solves no fundamental problems and, instead, corrupts everyone who engages in it. As far as my experience of going into Hanoi you could read about that in my memoir You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train. I can only say that it was the first time that I, a bombardier, experienced being bombed, as was true every day and night Daniel Berrigan and I were in Hanoi. It was a sobering experience. Bombing is terrorism. It terrorises people, and it kills the innocent, on an even larger scale than any brand of terrorist can achieve.

You have been a tireless political campaigner, standing up for peace, freedom from war and from political persecution and oppression. Do you think that your role as a dissident writer has in any way intensified movements that help to bring about a civil society?

We never know our effect. Of course there is a kind of feedback, in person, in letters, which makes me think my writings have had an effect on people and have moved them into political activism.

Would you not say that in the wake of the recent U.S. elections, the President's control of Congress will also allow him to put his stamp on the third arm of the federal government, the Supreme Court, the most powerful weapon in the country's continuing cultural war?

Yes, of course, all three branches of government will be controlled by the Bush administration. This puts a greater burden on social movements to act outside of the political structure by means of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, refusals, civil disobedience, and resistance of all kinds. The opportunity to fill three or four vacancies in the court over the next four years could create a solid conservative majority, which could lead to a ban on abortion, among other potentially dramatic changes.

No violence can put an end to human passion for dignity and justice. Then how can the people of the U.S. allow the implementation of the Patriot Act?

Only by refusing to comply. Some librarians shredded their records rather than turn them over to the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]. We must defend every person who is apprehended, publicise all acts that diminish our liberties and inform people that we are in a pre-fascist stage, which is destroying democracy.

Free market economy and the victory of capitalism has brought with it not happiness, but increase in poverty, disparities and violence. In this context how would you react to globalisation and its impact on the developing nations?

We must react to that with a globalisation of resistance, reaching out beyond national boundaries to create an international movement of solidarity.

Your comments on outsourcing. It has been a hot topic recently in the U.S. and India.

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Outsourcing results in terrible working conditions abroad, and loss of jobs in the U.S. The remedies lie in organising working people in other countries and, in the U.S., demanding that workers who lose their jobs are guaranteed new jobs or are compensated with unemployment insurance adequate to take care of their families.

Do you think it would make a difference to corporate power if the Third World boycotts the products of the multinationals?

Boycotts are a very effective way for consumers without power to create a power that frightens the multinationals.

How would you describe the corporate control of the media which has left a majority of the population in a state of ignorance of trade proposals, international arms trade and the real reasons of going to war in Iraq? Where does the socialist politics of the non-mainstream media lie in the present world of multinational conglomerate control?

We need to develop alternative media. We have begun. We have several hundred community radio stations. We have the Pacific Network. We have cable stations like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now". And we must use the Internet, which is a powerful tool for information and organisation.

Would you say many journalists still lose their jobs in the media for reporting against the policies of the government?

Much more frequent than losing their jobs is stifling their independence and forcing them into the orthodox consensus.

Is it possible to break the nexus between the media and the elites?

The only answer to that nexus is the nurturing of an independent media, alternative radio and cable TV, alternative newspapers, and especially the Internet, which has revolutionary possibilities in defying the orthodoxy of the media.

Would you agree that there is a definite conspiracy behind the nexus between the corporate media and the political elite?

There is no need for a `conspiracy' or for planning. They simply have the same common interest and so behave in a way that looks like a conspiracy.

Then, is democracy in crisis these days?

Democracy has always been in crisis. In the U.S. today it is more in crisis than ever before, with the centralisation of power, with an imperial foreign policy defying public opinion, with the media centralised and with corporate control of the economy tighter than ever.

Is the threat to democracy not from the intellectual scientific community and the increasing flow of corporate funds into universities, foundations, managements and major law firms that represent the interests of corporate capitalism?

Certainly. Science and knowledge are ruled by money as is everything else in the society. The real workings of power have to be revealed to the public, especially the students in the classroom. This is mostly concealed from students, but a truly democratic education would teach them the realities.

For instance, no mention was made of atrocities at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib in the recent presidential debates. International law applicable to Prisoners of War (POWs) is thrown to the wind. What are your reactions to this conscious evasion of reality?

Of course, it is shameful that the Democratic Party is not an Opposition party at all, and that its candidate John Kerry paid no attention to Abu Ghraib. It is our responsibility to publicise these atrocities as much as we can because the political leaders won't do it.

Could you comment on the position of the Left in the U.S. today? Would you not agree that both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed all progressive principles won over the years in a society that calls itself liberal and free? Is progressive change possible in America where the role of the Left has almost disappeared and the Democrats deep down are no different from the Republicans?

I would say that progressive change is possible. The Left exists in America. You can't find it in the Democratic Party, but you can find it all over the country, in thousands of local organisations that struggle against the war, against militarism, and for the rights of women and the poor and the working people.

Do you think enough pressure can be brought to bear upon the U.S. government to stop its obsession with waging wars against countries and disguising them as `pre-emptive acts'? Is the popular vote that went to Bush not an endorsement of his very muscular militaristic approach to international politics?

The pressure on the government already exists, but it needs to grow. Remember Bush only got 51 per cent of the popular vote. Forty nine per cent opposed him. And 40 per cent of the eligible voters did not vote at all. This is hardly an endorsement! More than half the country opposed the war, as shown in public opinion poll after poll.

Do you agree that as long as the Zionist lobby remains strong in the U.S., a solution to the West Asian problem is not possible?

Well the lobby may remain strong but the realities of the Middle East [West Asia] may dictate a solution, in spite of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation].

Could you comment on the post-Arafat political situation in West Asia?

Arafat's demise is certainly a watershed in the history of West Asia. A blood-spattered retribution or a peaceful solution still remain the alternatives before Israel and the leadership that will now take over the PLO.

Where does the solution lie?

At a certain time in the future, we can't say when, the Jews in Israel will get tired of the unending violence and will demand that their government get out of the Occupied Territories.

Protest is vital to the notion of social transformation. But war-mongering, religious opposition to homosexuality, elitism and racism all have increased. To counter these anti-social or conservative trends, a new international Left is urgently needed. But how would you suggest we should go about it?

There is no magic formula. We must keep connecting across oceans and continents. Arundhati Roy is an example of someone who crosses all these lines and makes connections between the movements in India and in the U.S. We must do more of that.

Which other writers would you say are making all the difference through their writings that have the potential to intensify resistance movements around the world?

Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Frances Fox Piven, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Tariq Ali.

What according to you is the role of the intellectual?

The proper role of the intellectual is to tell the truth that is not given in the media, in the textbooks, in the educational system; to be gadflies, whistleblowers, independent investigators, to give people a historical perspective, a philosophical basis, an understanding of the economic underpinnings of politics, and to inspire people with stories of those who have resisted oppression and injustice throughout history.

Have you ever felt over the years and especially in the post-9/11 period of being restricted by state pressure on airing your views on social and economic justice?

The only state pressure I have felt is knowing that the FBI was keeping a record on my activities. That never succeeded in restricting my activities.

The real meaning of the visit

ANURADHA M. CHENOY world-affairs

India-Russia relations have focussed excessively on defence. Putin's visit seeks to correct this tilt. Political as well as economic collaboration would benefit both countries immensely.

THREE things stand out in President Vladimir Putin's three-day visit to India from December 3. First, the President's increasing critique of the United States' unilateralist policies and his alternative projection of a multi-polar world and multilateral approach in international relations. Second, the recognition by both regimes of the necessity of sharing a common vision of the international system. Third, the practical steps that were taken to raise Russia-India relations to a higher plane. Putin's visit gained importance since it was his first since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) assumed power.

Putin chose his visit here to warn of the dangers of an international system where a "dictatorship coated in beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology" attempted to transform a pluralist civilisation "according to the principles of a unipolar world". In a speech to the Nehru Foundation on December 4, Putin took exception to the U.S.' use of the current war against terrorism led by it to occupy Iraq. He complained that there were "two weights and two measures" that were being employed in international relations and stated that "terrorism must not be used as an instrument for any geopolitical games".

This critique was earlier spelled out by the Russian President in an interview to The Hindu (December 3), where he argued that the illegal occupation of Iraq had in fact turned Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism and an "incubator" for militants. Putin levelled specific charges at the U.S. and the European countries that have given safe haven and support to Chechen leaders like I. Akhmadov, Zakaev and A. Maskhadov, who the Russians consider guilty of terrorist actions. This accusation is not dissimilar to Indian concerns about the threat of terrorism earlier in Punjab and now in Kashmir not being taken seriously by the Western countries in this international coalition.

Clearly, this current criticism has deep roots. Russia had been deeply unhappy with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) eastward expansion and its bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1995. Russian concerns about U.S. intentions deepened after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and the manner in which the U.S. put together the international coalition against terrorism.

Russia had hoped that this move would help resolve its problem with the Chechen secessionist movement. The U.S., however, used the terrorist threat as a rationale to establish a string of military bases throughout Central Asia, which remained even after the regime change in Afghanistan and have become permanent. As a consequence, Russia's special relations and treaty arrangements with the Central Asian Republics have been jeopardised as the region becomes victim to militarisation and great-power rivalry, and conflicts increase.

Similarly, in the Caucasian Republics, a region in which Russia has a strategic and historical interest, the U.S. has entered into military ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan as multinational and U.S. oil conglomerates build pipelines designed to bypass Russia. The U.S. has assisted a regime change in Georgia, installing Mikhail Sakashvalli, a leader known to sympathise and rely on the U.S. A similar reversal is in process in Ukraine, which threatens the stability and territorial integrity of that country. The West has viewed the Chechen movement as a freedom struggle and blamed Russia for rights violations.

With this experience of the increasing partisan power politics of the U.S. and its allies, Russia is attempting to build coalitions outside bloc politics. As Putin has stressed, these coalitions are not militarist in nature, nor are they specifically directed against any power. They would, however, favour a greater and consistent use of international law, use a multilateral approach and support plural systems and methods of development. Russia believes that India and China are natural partners in such an engagement, and Putin's speech was made in this context.

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India, too, has realised that its interests lie in a multipolar world and has been searching for a greater role in the international political system. This common approach was evident in the agreements signed between these two countries, which spoke of such a shared vision of international affairs. They specifically touched on West Asia and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The shared vision is based on historic and time-tested relations, where neither has ever felt any clash of interest. Russia's unwavering empathy with the Indian position on Kashmir has added to this.

The Russian reiteration that the Kashmir issue be resolved in the framework of the Simla Agreement and in continuation with the Lahore Summit has featured in every statement between India and Russia and in all Russian documents dealing with this issue, including those after the Soviet disintegration when it was felt that the foreign policy of the new Russian Federation could see substantial shifts. This has endeared Russia to all parties in India across the political spectrum. The Russian-Indian joint working group on international terrorism has operated to the advantage of both as information on terrorism, drugs, trafficking and cross-border threats is shared.

Putin's visit has been used to mould further the strategic partnership that was signed with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000, when a Russian head of state visited India after a gap of nearly eight years, in an atmosphere where both these countries were trying their best to engage with the U.S. The Indian and Russian leaders met on a yearly basis, with Putin visiting India again in 2002, while Vajpayee visited Russia in 2001 and 2003. Russia-India relations have thus become a continuous process marked by these special events. Given the fact that Putin had met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi on earlier occasions, this visit was used to establish relations with the UPA regime and its allies.

Defence forms a base for Russia-India ties and Russia still supplies 70 per cent of India's military hardware. In recent times, Russia has insisted that India sign an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement that would ensure that Russian export of military technology to India was not transferred to any third country. India had stalled signing a blanket agreement, arguing that this was covered under specific clauses in each defence agreement. However, given the fact that both countries seek to shift from the client-patron relationship to one of joint research and production in the defence sector and scientific cooperation in several areas including outer space, the two sides agreed to finalise and sign an agreement on IPR within the next four months.

This makes Russia-India collaboration in space and rocket technology easier. In addition to upgrading the defence agreements, Russia signed an accord on the joint development and use of the Russian Global Navigational Satellite system for peaceful purposes. While India has signed a similar agreement with the European Union, the access given by the Russians is at a qualitatively higher level. Russia started building the nuclear energy plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu in 2002 and it is to be operational in 2007. This plant is being supplied equipment by 300 Russian enterprises.

A matter of concern to both countries has been the small share of Indian capital in investments in the Russian economy and bilateral trade between the two, which reached only $3 billion in the current year. Bilateral trade, which was at an all-time high during the Soviet period, saw a decline after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The privatisation of both economies, problems with the rupee-rouble exchange rates and the large Indian debt became roadblocks. These glitches have been overcome over the last decade and the Indian rupee debt has been used for investment projects in India and Russia. In this context, both sides have agreed to facilitate an increase in trade to $5 billion. India's interest in investing in Russia lies in the fact that the planned $3 billion worth investments by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation-Videsh in the gas projects of Sakhalin I and III are the largest external investments made by India.

The Russia that was marked by political instability, economic and financial crisis, high inflation and a lack of economic laws and regulations is a thing of the past. Russia has shown a consistent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) by 7 per cent per annum and industrial growth of 3 per cent per annum, and has a favourable trade balance and substantial foreign exchange reserves. Laws regulating the economic and financial system have been put in place and have worked well during the last five years.

The high prices for Russian raw material exports, especially oil, have played a big role in the Russian economic success. The political system has seen regular elections for the seats in Parliament and the presidency. The federal system has been working and an attempt to stop the autarchy of some regions has been made by centralising the appointment of governors. Several Russian business tycoons, who were seen to have made large profits by illegal means, have been indicted for tax evasion, and the assets of the giant Yukos oil company owned by one such imprisoned oligarch, Mikhael Khodorkovsky, are to be partly sold.

In such changed circumstances, the agreements signed during Putin's visit between the State Bank of India, Canara Bank and several Russian banks, which are to open operations in both countries, will assist Russia-India business deals. This is important since trade and economic cooperation depends on the financial mechanisms of implementing deals and projects, and the recognition of bank guarantees. This agreement brings the banks of both countries into each other's markets, conforming to international trade practices.

Russia had requested that it be given `market economy' status, which is necessary while it negotiates entry into the World Trade Organisation. This status has been given to it by the U.S., China and the European Union. India has agreed to grant it this status. India has been negotiating for a permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council along with the veto power, a position that Putin clarified during this visit. Recently a high-level panel of the U.N. submitted a report on the reforms in the organisation, where it has argued that the Security Council be expanded but without veto power for the new members. Both Russia and the U.S. have been represented in this panel by trusted officials. To make a demand that contradicts this panel is thus a bold step. India will, however, have to seek international consensus for this goal.

AN increasingly strategic area of India-Russia relations is now linked to the energy sector. As a country dependent on oil imports, India is seeking to increase its energy imports from Russia and the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A North South International Transport corridor based on a combination of land and sea routes is on the anvil with Iran and is under continuous discussion.

The Russian government's intention to diversify trade, joint ventures and economic partnerships was evident with Putin's visit to Bangalore with a group of 16 business tycoons, for the specific purpose of collaborations with the Information Technology sector. India and Russia have in the recent past collaborated on the supercomputer, Padma Ru, and clear proposals are being worked on for new projects. The cities of Mumbai and St. Petersburg featured in the talks as they signed an agreement for collaboration.

While the mechanics of all these bilateral ties are regulated by the Russian-Indian Inter-Governmental Commission for Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation, which has held 10 sessions so far, it is clear that the two countries need to diversify their trade, commercial and cultural relations. Several sectors of the two countries are complementary and yet unexplored. For example, the services, small-scale and education sectors. These sectors had a history of collaboration during the Soviet period. The intermediate period of transition saw a setback in these sectors and now both governments need to provide information and set standards for them. Indian students had a great interest in going to medical and engineering schools in Russia. Russian students would gain from coming to Indian management schools and technological and liberal social science institutions. Despite the current drawbacks that range from substandard facilities and the problem of recognition of degrees, thousands of Indian students still attend Russian medical colleges. The Education and Human Resource Ministries of both countries need to look urgently into this aspect, since it remains a sector with unexplored potential.

Clearly, Russia-India relations are based on mutual benefit to both countries. In the past decade, these relations have focussed excessively on defence. This visit seeks to correct the tilt. The increase in trade, commercial, financial and cultural ties, which has been attempted, will depend greatly on individual entrepreneurs and the governments that can influence market relations and their national economies when they desire to do so. Russia-India relations need to move from the established bilateral arrangements to multilateral ones.

In this kind of cooperation, China and some of the Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan need to play a crucial role. This is understood by both Russia and India. Putin gave clear indications on this, and given Manmohan Singh's recent talks with the Chinese Premier on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), this process should see an early start. Further, Russia is likely to support India's inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is designed especially for the security issues of Russia, China and Central Asia.

The most important outcome of this visit, however, is the political one. Not only is this the first with the UPA government in power, but the political message given by Putin is a challenge that India needs to take up. The current international system is one where the only superpower has been trying to impose an unconditional hegemony, shape international relations to suit its own narrow interests, privilege its own ideology, unilaterally change political systems, marginalise international systems and bypass international law. Many regimes have accepted this hegemony to safeguard their regime interests. Yet others like Germany, France, China and Iran have articulated their differences. Putin has joined the ranks of those who would like to shape a multipolar world without the use of force or Cold War tactics. It is this alternative world and international vision that suits India's national interest. India, too, has voiced this on occasion. Collaborating with Russia politically as well as economically would go far for the interest of both countries.

Anuradha M. Chenoy is Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Firming up a friendship

AMIT BARUAH world-affairs

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Indian leadership reiterate the two countries' resolve to cooperate in areas of common concern. And it becomes clear that energy and defence are the two pillars on which the strategic partnership will rest.

THE India-Russia strategic concord is no cliche. At a time when the post-Cold War world is facing new threats to the ideas of sovereignty and nationhood, India and Russia have been able to renew and re-invigorate their post-Soviet era relationship. They have demonstrated enough political maturity to carry forward the cooperation in key areas of agreement in the battle against international terrorism and emphasise the need to have a genuine multilateral approach in world affairs while pushing ahead with bilateral cooperation.

President Vladimir Putin, who arrived in New Delhi for the fifth annual India-Russia summit on December 3, found an Indian leadership that was receptive to his concerns on a range of issues - support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), recognising it as a market economy in anti-dumping negotiations or agreeing to clinch an umbrella agreement in the sphere of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) in relation to defence technology.

In a written response to questions posed by The Hindu-Frontline (excerpts of which appeared in The Hindu on December 3), Putin, when asked about the importance of annual summits between the two countries, said:

"Russia and India have established especially friendly and warm relations long ago, and our strategic cooperation is genuinely a historic choice. It is based not only on common international approaches and geopolitical interests, but also on the spiritual affinity of the two great cultures... .

"We attach particular significance to a regular high-level dialogue. Our annual summits strengthen mutual understanding between the two countries, including on the key issues of world politics. We have no `forbidden' themes between us. We discuss, inter alia, strategic stability, aspects of disarmament, U.N. activities, establishment of a global system to suppress terrorism and other threats of today's world, and, certainly, the issues of economic, humanitarian, cultural and scientific cooperation.

"Our technological partnership in such spheres as information and biological technologies, aircraft industry and outer space exploration also is of key importance... . I should note that regular contacts are conducive to efficient accomplishment of practical tasks. They make it possible to speed up finding joint solutions to operational, including deadlocked, issues."

Indeed, several "deadlocked" issues were raised during his summit meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Just before the President's arrival, the Russian agenda was set out. For a change, Moscow was blunt in stating its concerns. The Hindu's correspondent in Moscow, Vladimir Radyuhin, reported on December 3: "The Kremlin is fed up with the endless assurances from Indian officials to look into Moscow's grievances and is ready to take punitive steps... ."

The report added: "While India has pushed for greater access to high-end defence and space technologies, it has been dragging its feet over signing an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement that will protect sensitive defence and high-tech information. After waiting in vain for two years for a response to the defence secrecy draft, Russia's patience is about to snap. In case of further delays, it would shut the doors of its defence factories to Indian military and technicians."

A senior External Affairs Ministry official, briefing presspersons on the eve of Putin's visit, said India did not see the need for an umbrella IPR agreement and stressed that there were clauses in individual defence agreements signed with the Russians. However, Manmohan Singh, speaking at a joint press interaction with President Putin in Hyderabad House on December 3, addressed all the concerns raised by the Russian side. It was clear that detailed negotiations had taken place at the summit level on areas of concern to the Russian side.

The Manmohan-Putin talks, which stretched into a long, restricted meeting, saw the Prime Minister stating in no uncertain terms that India and Russia would negotiate an umbrella IPR agreement in four months beginning January 1, 2005; India would recognise Russia as a market economy for purposes of anti-dumping negotiations and the two countries would conclude a bilateral pact speedily to facilitate Russia's early entry into the WTO.

Manmohan Singh said at the joint press interaction: "In the course of our discussion, the issue of Russia being described as a market economy came up. I have conveyed to President Putin that we stand by the commitment already given by Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee in this regard. Russia will be treated as a market economy under our own anti-dumping rules in any future anti-dumping investigations. The matter relating to Russia's membership of the WTO also came up. I have assured President Putin that we will fully support Russia's earlier entry into the WTO and we will work towards an early conclusion of our ongoing bilateral negotiations in this regard."

He added: "Altogether, we are fully satisfied with the outcome of these discussions and we are very grateful to President Putin for his deep personal involvement and interest in cementing the close and friendly relations between our two countries. In particular, we are very appreciative of Russia's sustained support for India's permanent membership of the Security Council."

Putin said the one "remaining" technical issue, which pertained to the Russia's WTO accession, had been "coordinated through the negotiations today". "And the process is about formulating and agreeing upon everything on the expert level... our understanding at the moment is that this issue does no more make a problem. Speaking about the intellectual property agreement, this is an agreement in the interests of both the Indian and the Russian sides. I agree with what has been said here by Mr. Prime Minister... within three or four months we can and should resolve this problem," he said.

It was clear that Putin was satisfied with the results of his first-ever discussions with Manmohan Singh, who has displayed in the past six months that on foreign policy issues he is willing to engage and deal directly with his interlocutors. On December 4, Interfax, the Russian news agency, quoted Putin as telling Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee: "Very detailed two-day negotiations have resulted in settling virtually all problems in our military-technical cooperation. There are no problems that could obstruct our movement forward in this sphere now."

On December 6, Putin told Russian journalists:

"First, I think it is important that we have reaffirmed the strategic nature of our relations with India. This was particularly important after the change of government there. We had to get an idea of the new Indian leadership's views on pursuing cooperation with us and to what extent they are ready to keep working together with us. We are very pleased to note that there has been no drop in the level of our relations.

"Indeed, in the time the new government has been in power, we have made progress and concluded a number of major deals that will enable us not only to maintain but also to increase our level of cooperation. This concerns military-technical, political and economic cooperation.

"It is no secret that there was a certain imbalance between our cooperation in the military-technical area and in the civilian economy... we are beginning now to work more in the machine-building sector, in high technology, transport and energy. This is all the result of this visit.

"Of course, it is also significant that we reaffirmed our high level of cooperation in the military-technical area, because India, after all, accounts for more than a third of Russia's military-technical cooperation with foreign countries. Last year, India's share was 39 per cent and this cooperation represents an average $1.5 billion a year. Contracts that have already been signed but have yet to be fulfilled alone come to $5 billion. This is a substantial figure and it signifies not only the continued competitiveness of our defence industry but will also contribute considerably to its development."

Whether it is the sale of sophisticated Sukhoi aircraft, the purchase and refitting of the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier or the use of a Russian platform for the Israeli air-borne warning and control system (AWACS), New Delhi and Moscow are umbilically linked in their defence relationship. India seemed to have been able to address some issues on the defence front. The Russians, for instance, agreed to maintain supply depots for spares required for equipment purchased from Moscow.

For both countries, the defence relationship is too important to have gaping areas of disagreement. In February, India and the United States signed an agreement ensuring the secrecy of defence technology - a fact that the Russians would have surely noted. Given the extent of high-technology cooperation between India and Russia, Moscow could legitimately argue that New Delhi was stalling an IPR accord on defence technology while it had concluded an accord with the U.S., a country with which India's defence purchase relationship is still to take off. Indian officials also singled out an agreement on the "joint development and use" of Glonass, the Russian global navigational system, as another example of expanding technology cooperation between the two nations.

Apart from Glonass and the joint declaration, nine other agreements were signed between the two countries - ranging from a strategic cooperation accord between Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and Gazprom of Russia to the establishment of direct bank-to-bank relations.

The energy sector is a focus area of the strategic partnership. With ONGC Videsh investing $1.7 billion in Sakhalin-I, it is clear that sky is the limit as far as energy cooperation is concerned. Putin himself stressed that Russia was prepared to contribute to energy stability in India at a time when New Delhi imports some 73 per cent of its oil requirements. Discussions between India and Russian firms are continuing on a number of investments in both countries.

The joint declaration signed by Putin and Manmohan Singh said on the issue: "The sides reaffirm their desire to cooperate in the development of new oil and gas fields and the means of their transportation in Russia, India and other countries. Both sides agree to encourage and assist investments in the energy sector by Indian companies in Russia and by Russian companies in this sector in India. The sides view cooperation in energy as an area of priority attention in bilateral cooperation."

While the trade relationship between the two countries leaves much to be desired, it is clear that energy is the new frontier for cooperation. Already, ONGC Videsh has signed a confidentiality agreement to evaluate the data of Sakhalin-III (Kirinsky block). This investment alone is expected to be in the range of $1.5 billion.

In his conversation with Russian journalists, Putin said on the issue of energy cooperation with India: "Like China, India is one of the world's fast-growing economies and so the Indians are showing interest in all our energy projects. There is no energy project in which they do not show an interest. There are a number of specific projects such as Sakhalin-III, for example. There is also Sakhalin-I, in which they want to continue their participation."

He continued: "There are plans to establish contacts with Gazprom and to carry out a number of projects to liquefy gas and deliver it to India and also to have our gas specialists continue their work on the shelf in the Bay of Bengal. A number of Russian oil company representatives were present in India. There is a wide range of cooperation possibilities open to us and the energy sector is a very promising area for our work together."

Clearly, energy and defence are the two strategic poles on which the bilateral strategic partnership is poised. Indian officials feel that these will be the "core elements" of the ties with Russia in the future. During a visit to Moscow in November, Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar spoke of a "strategic alliance" with Russia in energy security.

THE much-discussed and debated issue of terrorism finds India and Russia in complete agreement. Both victims of domestic terrorism, the two countries find themselves cooperating in mechanisms such as the United Nations to further the campaign against terror, while drawing attention to the double standards visible in the approach of some Western nations to the problem.

In his written response to this correspondent, Putin said on the issue: "India and Russia share similar political principles of participation in the anti-terrorist coalition. We have already made [taken] a number of important joint steps. Thus, India spoke in favour of adopting a comprehensive convention against terrorism, while Russia, on its part, put forward a draft convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism. By the way, the latest resolution of the U.N. Security Council on terrorism encourages all countries to eliminate the existing obstacles on the way of adopting the Indian and Russian draft conventions."

The joint declaration reflected how close the viewpoint of the two countries was on the issue. It said: "India and the Russian Federation reiterate their common resolve to fight terrorism. They reaffirm that global terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and condemned in the strongest terms all acts of terrorism irrespective of their motivation, whenever and by whomsoever committed.

"They underscore that there can be no justification for terrorism on any grounds, including ideological, religious, racial, ethnic or any other. They believe that the fight against terrorism has to be long-term, sustained and comprehensive. In this regard they emphasise the need for giving substance and credibility to the global fight against terrorism and avoid selective approaches and political expediency. With the recent targeting of open societies around the world, India and the Russian Federation as two large and influential democracies have reasons to be concerned about the vulnerability of democracies to terrorist attacks, because terrorism exploits the strengths of democracies such as the protection of human rights, freedom of expression and movement," it added.

Though there was no direct reference to the massacres by Chechen terrorists or the attacks by "jehadi" elements in Kashmir, the joint declaration reflected an unprecedented degree of accord between the two countries on this key global issue.

The path to addressing bilateral irritants has been clearly charted out, while traditional areas of agreement on a range of issues have been reinforced during Putin's visit.

In 12 months' time, it will be Manmohan Singh's turn to travel to Moscow for what will be the sixth annual summit between the two countries. India's relationship with the Soviet Union, and now with Russia, remains without precedent as far as areas of agreement and cooperation are concerned. It is up to the political leadership and the bureaucracies of the two countries to keep it that way.

Faith seeking freedom

My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs by Hans kng; Continuum; pages 544, 25.

"AN exciting book, this Structures of the Church. It can deprive one of sleep. But if you always choose the hot potatoes in theology, one day you'll get your fingers burned," Julius Cardinal Dpfner told the young Swiss theologian Hans kng on the eve of the Second Vatican Council in Rome in October 1962. kng's reply, true to form, was tart: "How do you imagine theology? Do you see a whole series of potatoes lying there, hot, lukewarm and cold, and me audaciously looking for the hot ones? After all, I've only taken up topics which are formally important for a theologian in view of the Council and the Church."

History proved the German Cardinal right - kng did get his "fingers burned". In December 1979, the Vatican, with Pope John Paul II at the helm of affairs, withdrew kng's licence to teach Catholic theology. However, kng's reflections on the "hot potatoes" - papal infallibility, priestly celibacy, ecclesiastical democracy, ecumenism, the doctrine of justification, and so on - paved the way for a "radical rethinking" of Catholic faith in the 20th century.

The book under review, the first of a projected two-volume autobiography, delves into the historical and personal contexts of kng's engagements with the "hot potatoes". It covers his life up to the late 1960s - as a child in Switzerland, a seminarian in Rome's elite Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum, a doctoral student in the Instut Catholique in Paris, a promising young professor of theology at the University of Tbingen in Germany and a peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the process, the volume offers valuable insights into two momentous decades of 20th century Church history, the 1950s and 1960s. The book bears testimony to kng's numerous struggles with the Roman ecclesiastical order, his commitment to ecumenism, his brilliance as a theologian and, above all, a remarkable human being committed to the values of freedom and justice.

By far the most important and substantial parts of the book deal with the run-up to and the goings on at the Second Vatican Council. Adopting the stance of what anthropologists call a "participant observer", kng narrates and analyses the most important religious event of the 20th century, which also happened to be the venue of a battle royal between the conservatives (mainly the Roman Curia, that is, the Vatican bureaucracy) and liberals (the majority in the Council, led largely by the German- and French-speaking prelates) in the Catholic Church.

Despite not being part of any of its preparatory commissions, kng played a leading role in setting the agenda of the Council from without. Hence, even as he was in his early 30s kng was in the company of theological stalwarts and Council pioneers such as the Jesuits Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac and John Courtney Murray and the Dominicans Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu. As early as January 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced the decision to convene the Council, kng was lecturing at the University of Basle in Switzerland on Ecclesia semper reformanda ("The Church always in need of reform"). The lecture, delivered at the invitation of the eminent Protestant theologian Karl Barth, was later developed into a widely acclaimed book, The Council and Reunion.

The distinguished Notre Dame University theologian Richard McBrein notes: "[It] was undoubtedly the single most influential book in the Council's preparatory phase because it alerted so many people in the Catholic world to the possibilities for renewal and reform through the medium of Vatican II" (Catholicism; Geoffrey Chapman, London, 2000; page 663). kng put forward several suggestions in the book - reform and simplification of liturgy (the various forms of public worship in the Church, primarily the Mass or Eucharist), abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books, reform of the Roman Curia, and so on. Several of them found their way, though in a modified form, into conciliar or post-conciliar documents.

The Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council in a 2000-year-old Church, differed from the previous ones in an important respect: It was not convened to combat a heresy or define a new doctrine. It was the opening speech of John XXIII on October 11, 1962 that gave it a sense of direction. kng quotes the Pope: "[The Council is] a leap forward towards a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithfulness and conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and the literary forms of modern thought." It was, in other words, a Council to reform, renew and modernise the Church, the sense conveyed by the Italian word that John XXIII used: aggiornamento (bring up to date). It was the Catholic Church's first paranoia-free tryst with the modern world.

The struggle for reform was waged against heavy odds. The third day of the first session of the Council itself gave an idea of what lay in store. On October 13, without any discussion, Council general secretary Pericle Cardinal Felici asked the assembly to elect 16 members for each of the 10 all-important Council commissions. The Bishops were expected to re-nominate the 16 members of the preparatory commissions, mostly members of the Curia. At this point, Achille Cardinal Lienart of the presiding council rose to demand the postponement of the elections in order to give the Bishops more time to decide. His demand was seconded by Josef Cardinal Frings.

The proposal was accepted by the presiding council and was greeted with applause by the assembly. kng says that with this development the Council acquired "a personality of its own". Another peritus, Yves Congar, called the unexpected event "the first conciliar act" in his Council dairy, Mon journal du concile (quoted in The Tablet, October 26, 2002). But the Curia had its way. In addition to the 16 members elected by the Council fathers, the 10 commissions were to have eight more nominees of the Pope. Invariably, the "nominees" were either part of the Curia or fellow travellers.

The ensuing days witnessed more curial tactics to maintain control over the Council: the imposition of Latin as the official language of the Council and the manipulation of voting on the schema (draft decree). The mastery of Latin, though the official language of the Church, varied vastly among the Bishops. Repeated requests, made primarily by Franz Cardinal Knig and the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch Maximos IV, for authorisation to use other languages fell on deaf ears. Even the proposal to install a system for simultaneous translation from Latin was vetoed by the Curia. (It was set up only towards the end of the Council.)

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The Popes of the Second Vatican Council: John XXIII and Paul VI.

Voting on the schema on "the sources of revelation" exemplified the Curia's tactics. The schema sought to reassert the Catholic position on a contentious theological issue: From where does one know about the Christian revelation (a historical event)? The Protestants affirm that it is from the Bible and it alone (sola scriptura). The Catholic Church, while accepting that the Bible is the norma normans non normata (the highest norm which is not subject to any another norm), points out the equal importance of tradition. (In a broad sense, tradition is the process of handing on the faith from generation to generation through preaching, doctrines, catechesis, and so on. Specifically, it means the content of the post-apostolic teaching.) kng observes that even the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545-63) referred to the scripture as the one "source of all saving truth and moral order". Moreover, historical research had proved that the partim-partim approach (revelation is based partly on scripture and partly on tradition) was a post-Tridentine distortion.

The schema was put to vote on November 20, 1962. The Curia was alarmed because several leading and respected Cardinals had earlier spoken in favour of rejection. It worked a way out: instead of asking the Bishops to vote for or against the schema, they were asked to vote for or against the continuation of the discussion on it. It was a false dichotomy and foreclosed the real way in which the votes would have split - a majority against the schema but for continuing the discussion and a minority for the schema and for continuing the discussion. The Curia carried the day by this "perverse way of putting the question". However, following protests by the liberal majority, John XXIII intervened. The vote was annulled and the Pope returned the schema for revision by a new commission.

kng's primary contention is clear: the Council was hijacked by the Curia not when the Bishops went home during the long breaks between its four sessions; the battle for the Council was won by the Curia when it was in session. In fact, he traces the curial domination back to the failure of John XXIII and his successor Paul VI to reform it. According to Church law, when a Pope dies all the curial posts automatically fall vacant. It is for a new Pope to make the appointments. Both John XXIII and Paul VI, despite being committed to the renewal of the Church, failed to appoint liberal prelates to key curial bodies such as the Secretariat of State and the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

For instance, Paul VI summoned the whole of the Curia before the beginning of the second session of the Council in September 1963 and lectured them on the need for curial reform. But he entrusted the Curia with the responsibility of formulating the details of its own reform! The much-awaited curial reform did come - in December 1965, after the conclusion of the Council.

Moreover, Paul VI played, in the words of kng, a "highly personal" role in the infamous "black week" of the Council, the last days of the third session when the voting on the schema on religious freedom and ecumenism was delayed and postponed.

kng also blames the "disastrous compromises" made by the liberal conciliar majority, especially with regard to the schema on the Church. The original schema had met with widespread criticism when it was presented for discussion towards the end of the first session in December 1962. In fact, the Curia ensured that the schema would not be rejected by postponing the voting on it to the second session. According to kng, the primary defect of the original schema was its focus on the medieval hierarchical model of the Church, rather than the biblical and patristic understanding of it as a "community of believers" (communio fidelium). The medieval model was implemented as part of the 11th century Gregorian Reform (named after Pope Gregory VII who initiated it).

In between the sessions, the schema was revised. But the revised schema was a "tremendous disappointment". The new schema began with two new chapters on "The Mystery of the Church" and "The People of God"; but the portion on "The Church is Hierarchical" was retained as the third chapter. kng alleges that much of the post-conciliar confusion and conflict in the Church can be attributed to these contradictory ecclesiologies.

Is kng's account of the Council, generally acknowledged as a path-breaking event in Church history, too bleak? Does he not see, to quote from John XXIII's opening speech, it rising "in the Church like day-break, a forerunner of most splendid light"? Here it ought to be remembered that kng's aim is not merely to retell the story of the Council.

It is, in his words, an "`alternative' history of the Council `depicted from within'"; and it is a personal account. Hence at various places in the narrative, he criticises official and semi-official histories of the Council, especially the five-volume History of Vatican II edited by the Italian layman Giuseppe Alberigo, which gloss over or suppress uncomfortable facts.

Nevertheless, the Catholic in kng identifies with the conciliar spirit: "A new, more hopeful, age has begun for it [the Church]: an age of constructive renewal in all spheres of Church life, of an understanding encounter and collaboration with the rest of Christianity, the Jews and other religions, with the modern world generally."

NEWSWORTHY are kng's views on some important personalities of the Church. A slice of unknown history from the late 1940s when kng was a student in Rome: a Polish priest, Karol Wojtyla, was denied admission to the prestigious Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome because "he has not completed his studies in Poland satisfactorily"; he joins the Dominican-run Pontifical Angelicum University instead. Wojtyla was elected Pope in October 1978 and took the name John Paul II. kng comments: "[I]t is more important for the Church that while this Polish student learned some philosophy, he evidently has a very thin theological foundation - not to mention a lack of knowledge of modern exegesis, the history of dogmas and the Church."

Interestingly, Yves Congar recorded in his Council diary on October 11, 1963: "Bishop Wojtyla submitted some of his texts to me. They are rather confused, full of imprecisions and even errors" (quoted in The Tablet, October 26, 2002).

Trying to explain the transformation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, from a peritus at the Council allied with the liberal majority to the chief heresy-hunter and doctrinal czar of John Paul II, has been a difficult task for many an observer of the contemporary Catholic Church. John L. Allen Jr., the Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, made a commendable attempt in the well-researched biography Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum, 2000). But Allen's work was criticised for failing to do justice to Ratzinger the gifted theologian and prolific writer.

kng, a former colleague of the Cardinal at the University of Tbingen, offers his view: "Certainly, even in Tbingen my colleague, who for all his friendliness always seems somewhat distanced and cool, had kept something like an unenlightened `devotional corner' in his Bavarian heart and shown himself to be all too stamped by Augustine's pessimistic view of the world and Bonaventura's Platonising neglect of the visible and empirical (in contrast to Thomas Aquinas)."

Ratzinger's suspicion of all liberal, not to say Left-leaning, trends in the Church may be traced back to his experience of the 1968 student revolts at the University of Tbingen. kng says that it had a "permanent shock effect" on the arch-conservative Cardinal, who is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981 and the Dean of the College of Cardinals since 2002. "To the present day Ratzinger has shown phobias about all movements `from below', whether these are student chaplaincies, groups of priests, movements of Church people, the Iglesia popular or liberation theology."

Lest it be misconstrued, kng does not claim the mantle of a prophet. Neither is he anti-Catholic. His relations with the Church, 50 years after his ordination and 25 years after the Vatican banned him from teaching Catholic theology, are strained, but not broken. In 2002, back at his alma mater Germanicum after several decades, he still felt "at home". In the not very distant future, one may hope, that the Holy See too might not hesitate to welcome back into the flock of believers its most famous enfant terrible of the past half a century.

Nature's film-maker

Documentary film-maker Mike Pandey wins the prestigious `Green Oscar' award for his movie The Vanishing Giants.

"IF Sachin Tendulkar or Shah Rukh Khan loses his cell phone, the news will reach every nook and corner of the country, but the fact that iodine is essential for the human body is still not known widely," says documentary film-maker Mike Pandey. This situation is what he is striving to change. Mike Pandey won the Panda Award at Wildscreen 2004, the world's biggest festival for wildlife and environmental films, in Bristol, United Kingdom, in October, in the news category, for his six-minute-long news feature The Vanishing Giants. And he is the only Indian to have won the award - also known as the `Green Oscar' - thrice. He is now busy planning his future projects at Riverbank Studios, his film production company in Delhi, so that he can go on telling the `truth' - his mission.

The award-winning film showed how Chhattisgarh government officials captured a "problem" elephant, and how it succumbed to torture 18 days later. He had released the footage to a news channel when the incident happened, following which the Government of India suspended all capture operations in the country.

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Scenes from The Vanishing Giants, which won the award.

This is not the first time that Pandey has rattled the authorities with his blunt visuals of atrocities committed on animals - some out of ignorance and some out of callousness. As he gets phone calls congratulating him on his recent achievement, he is busy with scripts, ongoing productions, and plans for a feature film. He also finds time to prescribe homoeopathy treatment to his overworked assistant.

Pandey says the award surprised him. Wildscreen had also nominated him for the Filmmakers for Conservation Award along with eminent film-makers such as Alan Root, Richard Brock, Maria Falcon and Hardy Jones (Alan Root won that award). "There were very established and prominent producers as competitors. I did not expect to win this one. But we do not make films for awards. I want to tell the truth and expose what is going on," Pandey said.

Mike Pandey tells the truth forcefully, in his films. After panning the scenic beaches and waves on the Gujarat coast, the camera eventually settles on a huge but helpless dying whale shark. Majestic elephants march ahead only to find that one of them has been chained and is being starved and beaten and its tusks cut off. There are very few "talking heads" - as Mike puts it - in his documentaries. The issue that he is addressing is there - shot in real.

Pandey spent his childhood in East Africa and was educated in the United Kingdom and the United States. His love for the environment is as strong as his passion for the making of technically fine films. His concern about the flawed systems, processes and attitudes in India has driven him to work on shoestring budgets, deal with widespread ignorance about wildlife and the environment, and work with uninspiring bureaucrats. After spending some time in the Mumbai film industry, he decided to do what he believed in and started making "not just environmental but socially relevant" documentaries.

He is a believer in the ways of nature and its far superior ways of working. The arrogance of human beings upsets him. "Man thinks he is the supreme commander of this planet and that's his biggest mistake. He is only in his infancy. He has been around for only 180,000 years. Other species have existed and evolved for much much longer - 60 or 70 million years. What a little leaf can do in photosynthesis, we may try doing using a lab of 1 sq km and spend millions, and still not perfect it," he says.

His conversations are sprinkled with references to the wonders of nature. As these analogies flow, he also mentions how stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagawad Gita have influenced him. "When the bee pollinates, it does not come back to check. It goes ahead and continues doing this incredible job." So while he has partly inculcated this principle, of continuing with his work against any odds, he would definitely appreciate some returns in the form of changes in policies and attitudes. Education and awareness will do the trick, he feels. "There is no magic key other than education. Education sensitises you and then you will not be self-consumed or selfish. There should be public information. Only education and information will improve life," he says.

For this, he wants the government to blend information and entertainment and take the task more seriously. "The Ministry of Education is not using the best vehicle it could have taken to spread information. Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan and All India Radio will reach millions and can do a good job, teaching children in villages and remote areas. But we do not have any good education programmes," he says.

There are many youngsters in his studios, learning much more than techniques: they work with him, and some have gone on to make documentaries or start their own set-ups. Shalini Ghosh, who makes films for the Internet, remembers the times spent at Riverbank Studios: "It's a good place to learn. He likes to share his experiences with young people. He lets people do whatever they want. He lets them use the equipment and learn."

When it comes to learning, it is on-field work that teaches the most. "You have to be patient and you have to work very hard. For days nothing may work out. You have to spend time with the local people, live their life. Talk like them, feel like them, smell like them. Only then you will understand real issues. You are not on a picnic when you go to the forests," he says.

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SHORES of Silence, a film on whale sharks, took over three years to make. The big fish that he had seen as a child from a ship were nowhere to be seen along the coast when he went to shoot the film. Nobody even knew that they existed. "One day I was thinking of different words in different languages (he knows Swahili, French, English, Gujarati, Hindi and Bhojpuri). And then it occurred to me that I might be asking the wrong question. So then I asked how big was the biggest fish they had caught." In an impeccable Gujarati accent he narrates the incident, "`Very very big', the fisherman said. `Thousands of tonnes in weight. It is bari machli or barrel machli,' The next day at 4 a.m. we were at a shore where we saw half-dead whale sharks being dragged to shore. The fish was called barrel fish. The authorities there refused to acknowledge that the fish existed. And there was no law to protect our marine life," he says.

This documentary did bring about a change in the wildlife protection law, which for the first time included marine species. Though critical of the bureaucracy, Mike emphasises that in the long term, change can be effected through good governance and good use of public broadcasters.

For someone who did a programme like "Earth Matters" on Doordarshan for two years, he has many questions to ask the authorities. "There is no political will. My documentaries are screened in film festivals. International agencies screen them. They have won awards but the Ministry of Environment is yet to buy them. Why is it so? Why don't they start programmes on the environment again? If you show such programmes at 10.30 p.m., who will watch them? Rural India goes to bed by 8.30 p.m. All this information and knowledge is garbage if it does not reach the people," he says.

Kiran Pandey, coordinator of the Environment Resources Unit at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, speaks about how film festivals and awards help in taking the message to the people. Their film on rainwater harvesting was also a finalist in the Campaign Category for the Wildscreen award. "When film festivals screen such environmental documentaries, people see them, talk about them. Then one can loan these films to different institutions for their screenings. An award is a value addition. But they should be made more popular, maybe a dedicated channel. Few people want to watch DD (Doordarshan). We should tempt the corporates to sponsor these projects, and that would improve their image also. A few festivals like `Vatavaran' have started in India, but it needs more."

Namrata Chowdhary, from Greenpeace, explains how these films are effective. "Films speak so much more eloquently because you are providing visual evidence. They are much more powerful than fact sheets. They play a very important role in bringing the catastrophe into drawing rooms. But there are few people working and even fewer quality productions," she says.

MIKE PANDEY's films are part of those few productions that have touched people's hearts and minds, and now he wants to go beyond documentaries and children's education programmes. Unlike purists, he wants all the media, including Bollywood, to come together and join the mission. "Bollywood has a major role to play. All of us carry a social responsibility. Even if the hero gives only one or two minutes in a three-hour-long film for a cause, it will have a major influence," he says.

So, is he thinking of coming back to commercial cinema? "My heart has always been in features. I am working on a children's film, titled `Hakuna matata'. The intention is to motivate children and ignite their minds. Once the seed is sown, the children will make the changes," he says animatedly.

However, it will take time, as such projects need money and producers for them are hard to find.

While the work on documentaries goes on, Riverside sustains itself by taking overseas assignments for short films, making films for Ministries, corporates and Doordarshan.

In his basement studio done up with recycled wood, work goes on. Fish in a large fish tank keep young professionals company during long days and nights. While one feels inspired and positive about all the achievements and future projects of a dedicated film-maker, the image of a boy sitting on a dead whale shark, with waves gently playing along, cannot be wiped from one's consciousness.

Derailing decentralisation

The ruling alliance's indifference and declining participation in gram sabhas contribute to the worries about the future of the much-lauded democratic decentralisation programme in Kerala.

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THE fears about the future of the decentralisation experiment in Kerala are coming true. People are staying away from the gram and ward sabhas in the invigorated panchayats, municipalities and corporations in the State and, as a result, the most exciting programme to empower citizens is seemingly running into trouble. In the majority of local bodies, attendance registers are being fudged regularly to fake the quorum at gram/ward sabha meetings. Genuine local governance by the people, thought to be a dream come true in Kerala under democratic decentralisation experiment, is thus being tampered with, knowingly or unknowingly.

As people's interest in local governance wanes, slowly, but surely, the tendency towards centralisation of powers is engulfing the panchayati raj system in the State. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government is increasingly becoming stingy in disbursing the promised, wholesome share of Plan funds to the local bodies. Government departments are trying to impose parallel programmes over development plans drawn up by the panchayats. State officials are trying to reclaim their lost notions of power over the people. Politicians, including Ministers, Members of Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies, and even members of the majority of local self-government institutions, have once again started believing themselves as the all-powerful dispensers of "favours" to the people.

A number of the newly empowered local self-government institutions (LSGIs) are swaying under the onslaught. If the unhealthy trends are not stemmed, India's most effective experiment as yet of giving `power to the people' may soon come to naught.

THE ideal cherished by the Gandhian tradition - of assemblies of people in every village discussing and deciding development projects, the sharing of public goods and services and keeping a watch on their elected representatives and officials - was believed to have been implemented in its true sense finally in Kerala during the past eight years, through the now-famous democratic decentralisation experiment launched by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government as a `People's Plan Campaign' in 1996 (Frontline, June 23, 2000).

Within a short time, it harnessed people's interest in the way they were being governed and in the policies and programmes that were being decided on their behalf, and effectively sought to remedy a hitherto unhappy system of local governance tilted in favour of the ruling class and the politician-official-contractor nexus. The campaign proved that real empowerment of the people could become a reality by creating pressure from below for greater devolution of powers and funds. It soon provided the maximum decentralisation of powers, enabling the local bodies to function as autonomous units with adequate authority and resources to discharge the basic responsibility of bringing about "economic development and social justice" as envisaged in the Constitution.

Decentralisation, as it then happened in Kerala, did not stop with merely transferring powers and responsibilities to the local self-governing institutions. By encouraging a system of vibrant gram sabhas, it facilitated the exercise of legitimate and legal authority by the people. It sought to put an end to the various extra-constitutional power centres influencing development at the grassroots level. It transferred the power of the State to bring about development and social justice vertically down to the local bodies. The role of government departments and officials were dramatically redefined as of facilitators, helping the people in taking decisions and then carrying them out, as they wanted it.

In real terms, it meant that the State government transferred various institutions and staff to the control of the three-tier LSGIs; it set apart 35 to 40 per cent of the annual Plan funds for the exclusive use of the local bodies and gave it legislative approval and protection against the vagaries of executive decision-making; the State comprehensively amended its panchayat and municipal laws, with the focus on substantial devolution of powers, functions and funds; it amended 35 other Acts to bring them in line with the new functions devolved to the local bodies; the presidents of the panchayati raj institutions were declared the chief executive authority and local bodies were given full administrative control, including powers of disciplinary action over their staff; including staff newly transferred to them from government departments; and the functional areas of the different tiers of local bodies were demarcated clearly, unlike in any other State. The gram sabhas, meant to be convened four times a year with a specified quorum of citizens of a panchayat/municipality/corporation ward, were crucial elements to the success of the new decentralisation experiment.

But eight years down the line, it is a different story. A joint study undertaken by the New Delhi-based Participatory Research in Area (PRIA) and a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Sahayi, as part of efforts meant to strengthen LSGIs in the country, has confirmed the worst doubts. According to J. Placid, director of Sahayi, a survey conducted in 67 gram panchayats in eight selected districts and based on discussions and observations by Sahayi volunteers in 45 gram panchayats in four other districts have shown that gram sabha meetings in the majority of panchayats have become a ritual. The quorum of the meeting was almost always a "contrived one". Very few people attended such meetings, leaving the doors open for manipulation by elected representatives, officials and contractors. Only a few respondents were aware of the objectives and responsibilities of the gram and ward sabhas. There was general ignorance about the constitutional status of the gram sabhas. Most respondents did not know how often gram sabhas were meant to be convened or about the requirement of a quorum for the panchayats to take decisions. Most of those who attended the gram sabhas claimed they did so expecting "benefits".

"The survey results reflect the reality in Kerala. People have lost interest in the gram sabhas. The few who attend go away disappointed that it is not a forum for obtaining `benefits'. The elected representatives like us cannot deliver on our promises to the gram sabha, given the inordinate delay that we experience in getting the allotted funds, the frequent changes in norms for implementing projects and lack of cooperation from the officials who are supposed to be under the control of the panchayats," said B. Jayakumar, a ward member and the chairman of the standing committee on development of the Vattiyoorkavu gram panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Several panchayat members admitted that they forged signatures to "ensure" that the quorum in the gram sabhas was maintained. Ambili Surendran, president of a woman's neighbourhood group sponsored by the `Kudumbashree' State Poverty Eradication Mission, said that the members of her group were often asked to attend gram sabhas by the Mission officials and ward members. But, she added, "it was of no use, there are no benefits for us in the gram sabhas". Jayakumar said that most of the people who used to attend gram sabhas, such as resource persons , expert committee members and political party cadre, are reluctant to participate in them today. Conveners have to coerce women self-help group (SHG) members under the Kudumbashree project to attend to manage the quorum.

A senior government official involved in the decentralisation programme told Frontline: "It is true that participatory structures have been terribly weakened in the past few years in the local bodies. A skewed phenomenon is witnessed vis--vis participation in the gram sabhas. Participation is solely based on the aim of obtaining benefits. People no longer take part in the decision-making process. We are at a loss to understand how to change this. The local bodies, as a rule, and the elected representatives are not interested in building up a participatory culture. This is undermining the whole philosophy of decentralisation."

One of the key architects of the "People's Plan Campaign" , T.M. Thomas Isaac, now a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA, said that if attendance in gram sabhas was declining it was a comment on the ruling UDF's attitude towards them and local self-government institutions. "Because of arbitrary cuts in fund allocation, many local bodies are unable to implement the plans approved by the gram sabhas. Many elected representatives complain that they cannot face the gram sabha members because of this. The government is giving more importance to its officials over the elected representatives. Thus the government itself is dismantling the credibility of the local bodies before the people."

Thomas Isaac said that given the UDF record of undoing the District Councils in 1991, it was feared that its new government would undo the achievements of the decentralisation experiment and dismantle it. "But, fortunately, the new UDF government did not do this. Instead it tinkered with the programme. There is an explicit attempt to give a new direction to the decentralisation programme, to make it complimentary to the globalisation process, and model it on the World Bank's prescriptions," he said.

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For example, the urban development policy of the UDF states that the local bodies are no longer providers but facilitators, services have to be privatised and that in order to ensure that privatisation is successful, local bodies must hike user charges so that projects are made commercially viable.

Thomas Isaac criticised the UDF's attempt to introduce parallel structures that obviate the need for local bodies to plan and implement programmes. He said that the government was also going back on its commitment to provide the promised funds to the local bodies. Funds given are taken back on some pretext; cuts are made in the resources provided. The actual money made available to the local bodies by the UDF in its first three years in office was only half of the total resources devolved by the LDF, he said.

According to a Planning Board official, the most visible weakness is the failure of the panchayats in service delivery. "The local body representatives have failed to realise the importance of service delivery for the success of decentralisation and even for their own personal electoral fortunes. There has been a complacent response regarding the quality of services provided too. The government departments and the officials are also to be blamed for this," he said.

Most critics believe that there is no conscious attempt on the part of the UDF government to facilitate the process of democratic decentralisation. The training programmes and the effective capacity building efforts launched during the initial years of decentralisation have become a trickle. By dismantling the structures painstakingly built up to provide resource persons to the local bodies, the government has put the panchayats once again at the mercy of government officials. The enabling environment has been given up. "The government rolled up the `campaign' for decentralisation even before the initial achievements could be stabilised and went on to institutionalise the half-baked achievements," Placid said.

Several elected representatives complained about the "new rules announced every other day" that hindered the functioning of the local bodies. For example, one of them said, the new government announced that funds would be allotted to the local bodies on a monthly basis and that they would lapse if the local bodies failed to spend them by the end of each month. When they found it was not a practical rule, they changed it to mean that funds not spent before March 31 every year would lapse.

According to N. Rajendran, a gram panchayat member, such thoughtless measures have created a lot of practical hassles in the smooth functioning of the local bodies and have eventually led to power being usurped by government officials. There is a move to take back some of the responsibilities entrusted to the local bodies, a recent example being the State government decision to take over the responsibility of constructing minor irrigation projects. The concept of a constituency development fund for MLAs have been reintroduced, he said, "a clear negation of democratic decentralisation".

According to Thomas Isaac, government departments have started functioning independent of the local bodies and the departmental schemes are no longer subjected to the control of gram sabhas. Every department has started sponsored schemes, for each of which the local governments have to set apart funds. In the end, the panchayats are left with no role in selecting beneficiaries and little resources for their own projects. "The whole thing is being implemented against the spirit of decentralisation," Thomas Isaac said.

Criticism is widespread that by imposing a new rule that the local bodies will lose the unutilised Plan funds allotted to them if they fail to spend the entire amount by March 31 every year, the State government has initiated a rat race merely to spend. In the process, the norms of decentralised decision-making and need-based fund utilisation is given the go by. It is a curious case of unseen hands working to accelerate the dismantling of a much-lauded experiment.

KERALA marked a fundamental shift from the longstanding method of executing public works through private contractors and served a blow to the ubiquitous nexus of politicians, officials and contractors, when it decided that they should be executed through panchayati raj institutions. The decentralisation laws provided for community contracting of public works through committees of beneficiaries and made stringent provisions to guard against benami contractors pretending to be conveners or nominees of beneficiary committees. The rules insist that all records relating to public works right from preliminary estimates are "public documents" that any one should be allowed to peruse and take copies.

They also require that a summary of the estimates should be displayed at the work site. The process of technical sanction of projects was also demystified, with the laws approving the utilisation of well-known institutions and committees of government and non-government professionals for technical sanction of public works. Voluntary expert committees were introduced at the block and district panchayat levels to provide technical advice to the local bodies, technically to vet the people's projects before they are sent for approval and to function as technical advisory groups to the district planning committees.

But with people losing interest in the gram sabhas, their place along with the new powers have been taken over by the notoriously corrupt politician-official-contractor nexus. In most places the decision-making has strayed back to politicians and officials. They decide the beneficiaries and the priority of project implementation and undertake the scrutiny of their own projects. Public display of estimates has become an exception.

"The majority of local bodies have failed to do much for local economic development. They have shown an inclination, once again, to implement asset-oriented schemes. Employment and income generating schemes are on the wane. The participatory process has been terribly weakened. Local experts have been effectively sidelined. Local bodies now display a tendency to find convenient experts to scrutinise and sanction projects," a senior official in the Local Administration Department said.

He said that several support institutions created to reduce government control over local bodies and to foster the concept of self-government - the State Finance Commission, the Ombudsman for local governments and the audit commissions - left much to be desired. He said: "For example, the Ombudsman, originally a seven-member body, was made a single member institution by the UDF, thereby making it totally ineffective in checking malfeasance in local governments. Local body representatives and officials now have no fear about indulging in corruption. If the Ombudsman had caught hold of a few cases at least and recommended exemplary punishment, it would have done a big service to the entire system."

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According to Thomas Isaac, the recent criticism of the democratic decentralisation programme and the controversy that followed have weakened the opposition against such negatives trends and made it easy for the State government to be complacent about its dismantling. Jose Chattukkulam, director of the Centre for Rural Management, said: There is a clear attempt to take away the powers and privileges of the LSGIs in the State, though not in an obvious way. With the death of E.M. S. Namboodiripad, who had played a leadership role in the decentralisation efforts in Kerala since Independence, and the People's Campaign itself becoming a controversial topic within the LDF, there is nobody to champion the cause of decentralisation any longer in the State. The UDF government has shown appalling complacency in furthering the cause of decentralisation and has let the achievements of a remarkable programme go astray. The only positive response from the UDF so far has come from the new Local Administration Minister, Kutty Ahmed Kutty, when he insisted that gram sabhas should be convened regularly by the panchayats and that citizen's charter, explaining the people's rights under the decentralised system, be displayed prominently in all local bodies."

Senior officials, however, continue to maintain that one-third of the local bodies are still doing well, though in general the UDF government has shown a "wooden response" to the decentralisation process. An official said: "The positive aspect is that though the UDF government in the State is close to completing its term, it has not disturbed the bare features of the decentralisation experiment. Local bodies still retain the freedom to plan for local development. The quantum of funds disbursed to the local bodies has more or less remained the same, though there are complaints about them being taken back or diverted elsewhere. The temptation to interfere is still muted. There are positive signs too. The government has taken a decision not to entertain appeals against local bodies on its own through its officials, but to appoint an appellate tribunal, with a district judge as its head."

Political parties have shown little interest in sustaining the vibrancy of the decentralisation process. A State government official who was involved in the People's Plan Campaign said that, surprisingly, though there were changes in the ruling dispensations in nearly 400 of the over 1,000 local bodies in Kerala, none of these changes was the result of initiatives to curb corruption or anti-development or anti-decentralisation initiatives by the ruling groups. The premise that antagonistic politics in the State between the two rival fronts would be an effective antidote against corruption and other wrong tendencies in the local bodies has been proved wrong. Instead, it is the `politics of collusion' that has emerged in the panchayats and the municipalities. "We expected antagonistic politics to become an effective instrument against corruption. We expected civil society to be very active. But our expectations have been belied," he said.

However, T. Rufus Daniel, president of the Venganoor gram panchayat in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, which has become a model for other local bodies in its remarkable efforts to eradicate poverty, told Frontline that gram sabhas in his panchayat wards were almost always well attended and members did not find it difficult to ensure a quorum. Unlike in some other local bodies, which this writer visited, the panchayat president is a popular man in Venganoor. He had achieved a remarkable unity of purpose among elected representatives belonging to various political parties in undertaking developmental activities "that the people really wanted".

Venganoor is among the few panchayats in Kerala that are functioning well. Panchayat vice-president V. Anil Kumar said: "Individuals and their attitudes do matter. In Kerala, a lot of powers, funds and opportunities have legally been transferred to the local bodies. Nobody can take them away. A whole new constituency of panchayats representatives has evolved in Kerala and that will ensure that the powers and resources are not tampered with much. Whether a particular panchayat does well or not depends on the members that the people elect. This is what makes Venganoor a model panchayat, with ruling and Opposition party members working together for development, even in these difficult times."

A battle for information

The Second National Right to Information Convention, held in Delhi recently, sends out the message that the right to information movement in India can no longer be ignored by the lawmakers.

ON October 20, London-based Transparency International released the Global Corruption Perception Index 2004. India is ranked 90 alongside six other countries out of a total of 146 surveyed. At around the same time, the country's capital witnessed an unusual, spontaneous and lively demonstration. A congregation of over 1,000 people from 20 States and 250 organisations from around the country gave a rallying call in 17 different languages: "Hamara Paisa Hamara Hisaab", Nam Panam Nam Kanakku", "Aamcha Paisa Aamcha Hisaab... " which mean "Our money, our accounts".

The slogan signifies a tremendous shift in how citizens react to the dubious distinction of being in "one of the 60 most corrupt countries in the world". No longer the tortured, silenced, cynical `victims of the system', but a vocal, aware public demanding transparency and accountability - an outcry growing louder by the day. This transformation has taken on a new idiom. It is language that is steadily cutting across all barriers and divisive structures, understood by all those who have realised how something as `abstract' as information or the lack of it directly impinges on their daily lives - on how much food they have, on what jobs they get, on which schools their children do not get. Crystallised into one sharp belief that binds them together are people old and young, illiterate and educated, rural and urban. Among them are peasants, labourers, middle class people, women, Dalits and the marginalised sections - Janne ka hak, jine ka hak (the right to know, the right to live).

If this united call for accountability and the right to live set the mood and pace of the Second National Right to Information Convention (October 8-10) organised by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) in Delhi, the energy and optimism resounded throughout the three full days that it lasted. The reasons for this are not far to seek.

India is on the threshold of putting into place a law to counter corruption. The draft national Right to Information Act, 2004, with 36 proposed amendments to the inadequate Freedom of Information Act, 2002, is to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament.

The origins of the draft date back to the struggles of the rural poor in arid Rajasthan who started questioning the doctored accounts in their panchayat: fake bills and muster rolls, non-existent buildings, and missing bags of cement meant for public works. For the first time, the demand for the right to information acquired a new meaning and form; shifting out of its dusty textbook, seminar-room existence, it focussed on real issues - drought, employment, health, education, electoral politics and so on. The right to information movement in India, unlike in many other countries, is a truly grassroots movement.

The First National Convention on the Right to Information, which was held in Beawar in Rajasthan in 2001, according to Nikhil Dey, a founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) "had a two-pronged objective - one, to increase the pressure for legislation, which was showing some positive signs in some States as well as at the Central level, and, second, to send out strongly the message that the right to information comes alive when connected to other rights of life; it is a very powerful tool that every campaign must use".

In a span of three years, between Beawar and Delhi, the geographical spread and variety in the application of the right to information has simply burgeoned. Even as the idea of national legislation on the right to information was being mulled over, State governments started to take initiatives, with mounting public pressure. Nine States have passed right to information laws, in addition to which there are several executive orders at the State and national levels, which give citizens access to information from specific departments. The right to information is being demanded from many quarters and for many ends. It is really this integration taking place with a wide-ranging set of issues, from food security to displacement to communal violence, that is relatively new and continues to give it life and sustenance.

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INDIA'S pioneering `role model' status in the international discourse on the right to information is unique. In a debate hitherto dominated by freedom of individual expression (as in Eastern Europe), the freedom of press or freedom of expression as talked of in the West and led by lobbying groups, the ability of ordinary people in India to link it to basic rights to life and indeed survival marks a major transformation in public discourse. Many countries like South Africa, Bolivia, Columbia, the Philippines and Japan have begun to draw lessons from the Indian examples, that is, by organising the demand for the right to information around local community groups.

A SYMBOLIC and fitting start to the Delhi convention was a jan sunwai (public hearing). The jan sunwai, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a mode of participation popularised by the MKSS, a public forum where people speak up and are heard. The subject of the public hearing was the public distribution system (PDS), the issue of food security being a basic right for the poor, kept blatantly out of their reach.

Specific testimonies were presented by residents of Ekta Vihar in the R.K. Puram area of Delhi where the hearing was held. Experiences of those from other parts of Delhi as well as representatives from Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the country were also shared. The presentations were divided broadly along four issues: accountability, Dalits and access to the PDS, urban migrants and homeless and alternative approaches (to distribution). Many complaints pertained to the irregular timings of PDS shops, non-availability or sporadic availability of rations, extremely poor quality of rations, overcharging by the ration shop dealer, rations doled out below entitled quantities, apathy of officials, difficulty in getting new cards and so on.

So how exactly does the use of right to information bring concrete solutions to these problems? The systematic expos of rampant corruption in three specific ration shops in R.K. Puram area through the tool of public hearing was in itself a new learning for many present.

Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan, an organisation that works intensively on PDS-related issues in the capital, which brought to light the malfunctioning of these shops, said: "A jan sunwai is part of a larger, systematic process. First, we obtain the records through the right to information and do a physical verification. Figures in the daily sales register of the ration shops, once accessible, are compared with entries made in the ration cards of the cardholders and the actual rations received. This `social audit' is followed up with a jan sunwai, where the discrepancies are presented and people testify in public. The findings are then presented to the government, which is expected to take action as per the law."

For instance, according to the daily sales register of one of the shops, Amir Hassan had been sold 75 kg of wheat and 50 kg of rice during April 2004. According to the ration card, however, he had been sold only 25 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice. Actually, Amir Hassan said he did not receive anything during the month. Collecting evidence thus, it was found that the ration dealer had siphoned off 440 kg of wheat, which amounted to nearly the entire monthly quota to be distributed to the eight below the poverty line (BPL) families that are covered by the shop.

Following the public hearing, the licences of all three ration shops were suspended. But this does not suffice, feels Arvind Kejriwal. Being a cognizable, non-bailable offence, cases should be registered and action taken according to the law, he points out. "Unless the findings of a jan sunwai are taken to their logical end, people will start losing faith in this potentially powerful tool," he cautions.

The public hearing worked in many ways. As organisations such as Parivartan, the experience helped them to define sharper questions. Those for whom linking the right to information and the PDS in the way demonstrated by Ekta Vihar residents revealed new ground, it led to a burst of enthusiasm, an eagerness to put this new learning to test.

"The fact that people themselves spoke and presented their problems (at the public hearing) in Delhi was very positive, something we would like to imbibe here," says Ramesh Kadam, coordinator of the Mumbai-based Rationing Kruti Samiti, an organisation that has done extensive work in obtaining ration cards for the urban homeless through advocacy and through educating people of their entitlements. In Madhya Pradesh, plans are afoot to conduct two public hearings. "We have collected information on 25 villages from the district administration for this," says Sachin Jain of the Right to Food Campaign in Madhya Pradesh.

THE events spanning the next two days were as expansive as the public hearing, intensive. Music, theatre and art interspersed the plenaries and workshops held at the Delhi University Arts Faculty (North Campus).

The reverberating spirit of `Hela' (an art form), in the music of farmers from Sawai Madhopur, a poor district in Rajasthan, the cry for accountability in different languages, and Shankar Singh's (of the MKSS) ever-popular rendition of "mein nahin manga" set in an exuberance that lasted right through the convention. The inaugural session, chaired by veteran journalist and former Member of Parliament Kuldeep Nayyar, was followed by the first plenary which saw people share their real experiences in using the right to information. The session gave a glimpse of the range of struggles people have faced, in places where the law exists, where it is poorly implemented, and where it is simply absent. The narrations by Susheela (MKSS, Rajasthan) and Santosh (Parivartan, Delhi) gave out one strong message: asking for information is like asking for the soul of this corrupt system. There will be resistance but unwavering public pressure can bring about visible changes.

The second plenary was significant as it encapsulated the living form of the right to information today. The coming together of leaders from so many different campaigns on the common platform of right to information indicated the explicit adoption of this tool in their respective movements. The session was chaired by Dunu Roy and speakers included Jean Dreze (Right to Food), Medha Patkar (Dams and Displacement), Suman Sahai (Agriculture and Globalisation), Harsh Mander (Communalism and Marginalised Communities), Pradip Prabhu (Forests) and M.P. Parameswaran (Education) and senior right to information activists in the media like Prakash Kardaley (Indian Express, Pune) and Harivansh (Prabhat Kabhar, Jharkhand).

The sheer variety of the parallel workshops organised was mind-boggling. But this, it seems, was precisely the idea behind holding 36 workshops on an equal number of topics. So, across the two days, one could stroll into any of the rooms at the Arts Faculty and hear discussions ranging from the role of the right to information on Land, Water, Biodiversity and Environment and Industrial Pollution to the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, Globalisation or the Media, Elections, Budgets, Social Audit to Health, Disability Rights, Education and Communal Violence.

"In Beawar, the approach was more cautious. This time the convention ventured into areas considered sacrosanct so far... . These areas would have been much more difficult to take on three or four years ago," said Nikhil Dey.

An interesting aspect of the workshops was how it brought together people at different ends of the information spectrum. This was perhaps well exemplified by the workshop on `Knowing Power - the Politics and Political Economy of Information' organised by SARAI, a Delhi-based organisation on contemporary media research. Among the participants was Naurti Bai from Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), Tilonia. An outspoken woman from a small village in Ajmer district, Naurti has been involved in the right to information movement from the outset. In an engaging debate, Naurti spoke of the grassroots experiences she brought with her, seeking answers to the practical problems she had faced while seeking information. The researchers at SARAI, on the other hand, visualised `right to information' as closely linked to the `right to broadcast'; to put out information freely and creatively, without bounds on the form and content. This, in their opinion, would create automatic pressure on those who manipulated information itself so far. To Naurti, this was obvious in an intuitive sense, although the speakers at SARAI somehow placed it in the foreground, over the right of simply seeking or getting information. Thus, as Naurti focussed on the `here and now' of the use of this right, grounded in rural realities, the SARAI speakers dwelled on expanding and redefining the entire conceptualisation of the right to information in the future.

The fact that the workshops took place simultaneously meant it was impossible to be everywhere at the same time. Some saw this as a drawback. Sachin Jain said: "I was content with focussing on topics which were of interest to me."

Paul Diwakar, of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in Andhra Pradesh, said: "We have realised that human rights violation of Dalits crucially links up to the right to information. It hold the key to many other rights, like accessing justice by filing FIRs, getting pensions, land rights or food security. The convention gave us good access to strategies, on the other hand it also helped us to convey Dalits' perspective, which needs greater understanding."

Sampat Kale of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune, said: "Maharasthra is a State where there is awareness about the right to information from both sides - the people and the government. The District Collector of Raigarh fined an official up to Rs.27,000 for not providing information as per the law. Cases of penalties have been recounted across Sangli, Satara, Thane, Pune and Akola districts. But most of these have been regarding applications of the Right to Information Act in urban areas. Rural awareness is still lacking in the State."

It was really this reciprocity that was the hallmark of all these workshops and indeed the entire convention. Cross-applications between States, rural and urban areas, and across campaigns meant everyone had something to learn. Only the degrees varied, depending on who sat where.

Two more plenaries were held on the concluding day. One was on "Right to Information and Law and Implementation," chaired by Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. At the concluding plenary, plans and visions for future action were discussed by some of the activists who have come to symbolise right to information movements in their respective areas, like Arvind Kejriwal, Aruna Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Lal Singh and Praveena Imroza. The valedictory was chaired by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who spoke strongly in favour of the campaign.

THE Delhi convention was not all about prose, debates and discussions. Various forms of cultural expression, sometimes spontaneous outbursts, characterised and lent the convention its true meaning. The poignant images of Godhra and Manipur in the films screened on day one, the touching lyrics and melody of a song specially composed by singers Vinay and Charul for the occasion, the outstanding performance of the Manganiyar singers and Kalbeliya dancers from Barmer (Rajasthan), and the songs of celebration and protests by farmers and peasants are memories that one carries long after the adieus were said. The power of the words "mere jindagi ko janne ka haq re, ab haq ke bina kya jina, ye jine ka saman nahin (my life has the right to know; living without rights is not equal to living)," in the song of Vinay and Charul went right out to the audience; today it is being sung at every forum, gathering or demonstration on right to information across the country.

"Kuch bhi diary tak seemit nahin honi chahiye"(nothing should remain limited, in a diary), sums up Susheela from Jawaja in Ajmer district. For someone who has been closely associated with the MKSS from its early days, the convention brought her the happiness of seeing an idea one has worked hard for take wing and spread far and wide. For Ramkaran, of SWRC, Tilonia, "it was an opportunity to learn from the experiences of 15-20 States in two days, something unthinkable otherwise." For many, the convention has served to energise and reinforce with even greater strength the potency of the right to information as a powerful tool in strengthening accountability and participative democracy. And for those who came with doubts, the convention helped to clarify at least in part the `whats' and `hows' of the right to information in reality.

The convention has had some instantaneous effect. In Andhra Pradesh, where no right to information law exist, and issues have been raised so far only at the district level, a series of meetings were held in villages and panchayats after the convention. "We have realised the importance of taking up issues even at the village level. A case of swindling by the sarpanch in a village in Mehboobnagar with the connivance of revenue officials in the construction of latrines were brought to light and the District Collector has taken action," said G. Sudhakar, district secretary, Dalit Bahujan Shramik Union. Posters on the right to food and information have been printed and pasted in a number of panchayats; villagers have been urged to send postcards with their complaints directly to the administration. In Madhya Pradesh, organisations involved in the right to food campaign have now started giving applications in different departments about various schemes. Issues seen hitherto in isolation are now being redefined in terms of the right to information. In Maharashtra, an entire documentation of cases is being planned for its widespread dissemination.

The writing is on the wall. The right to information movement in India has reached a critical stage. While the struggles continue at different levels, the campaign continues to grow and get enriched by these individual experiences. It is this show of strength that the Members of Parliament may want to remember when they take up the Right to Information Bill this winter.

Sowmya Kerbart Sivakumar, a freelance writer, is a member of Research for People, Jaipur.

A policy of promise

B.S. PADMANABHAN advertorial

The draft National Environment Policy prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests is comprehensive and evokes a positive response from a cross-section of stakeholders.

CONSIDERING that environmental issues impinge upon the economy and all sections of society in one way or the other, formulating a national environment policy that would satisfy everyone is no easy task. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is currently engaged in this exercise. It is confident of striking a balance between the conflicting interests of the stakeholders as the draft National Environment Policy (NEP) it released in August has evoked a positive response.

The Ministry has held wide consultations on the draft with State governments as well as various voluntary organisations. It has also encouraged the State governments to hold consultations with stakeholders within their respective States. Initially a three-month period was given to receive their comments, but the deadline has now been extended to December 31.

The draft NEP seeks to provide a comprehensive strategy for environmental conservation, in keeping with the national commitment to ensure a clean environment, as mandated in the Constitution. At present, there are separate policies for different classes of natural resources and various aspects of environmental concern - the National Forest Policy, the National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development, the Policy Statement on Abatement of Pollution, the National Water Policy and so on. But the experience in implementing these policies over the years has brought out the need for a comprehensive policy statement to evolve a common approach to management of environment. Moreover, in recent years, the concept of sustainable development has gained ground and this requires harmonisation of the economic, social and environmental needs of the country. It is in this context that the Government has come out with the draft NEP.

WHAT are the key environmental challenges that the policy seeks to overcome? According to the draft NEP, the major causes of environmental degradation are population growth, technology and consumption choices and poverty - which lead to changes in the relationship between people and eco-systems - and activities like intensive agriculture, industrial production that results in the discharge of pollutants and unplanned urbanisation. Other causes include: institutional failures resulting in a lack of clarity on the enforcement of rights of access and use of environmental resources; policies that discourage environmental conservation; market failures owing to shortcomings in the regulatory regimes; and governance constraints.

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While listing poverty among the "drivers" of environmental degradation, the draft NEP points out that environmental degradation itself aggravates and perpetuates poverty, particularly in rural and tribal areas, because it affects soil fertility, the quantity and quality of fresh water, forests, the air and fisheries. Any loss of resilience in eco-systems, on which livelihoods are based, can lead to destitution among certain groups even if the overall economic growth is strong. In urban areas, environmental degradation affects the health of the poor. Thus poverty is both the cause and effect of environmental degradation.

Economic growth may result in excessive environmental degradation. But at the same time it may help to enhance the quality of the environment by making available resources for environmental investments, generating societal pressure to improve the environment and bring about institutional and policy changes. Thus economic growth is found to have a dichotomous impact on the environment.

The institutional failures mentioned in the document include insufficiently enforced rights of access to, and use of, environmental resources. Traditionally, local communities have protected village commons such as water sources, grazing grounds, local forests and fisheries from over-exploitation. But over the years the development process, including urbanisation and population growth, has resulted in strengthening individual rights over community rights, leading to market forces pressing for changes that often have adverse environmental implications. If this trend continues, the resources would be degraded and the livelihoods of the community would suffer. The policy failures leading to environmental degradation include explicit and implicit subsidies for the use of natural resources. These subsidies act as incentives for the excessive use of resources.

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Yet another set of challenges relates to global environmental concerns - climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and biodiversity loss, and multilateral regimes with a possible adverse impact on the development process in developing countries.

In this context, the draft NEP lists seven objectives: the conservation of critical environmental resources; intra-generational equity and livelihood security for the poor; inter-generational equity; integration of environmental concerns in economic and social development; improved efficiency in environmental resource use; good environmental governance; and enhancement of resources for environmental conservation. The policy seeks to achieve these objectives through strategic interventions by government at different levels and through partnerships among public agencies, local communities and various economic stakeholders.

THE document has laid down 15 guiding principles to implement the policy. The salient features are as follows: Human beings are at the centre of efforts at sustainable development and that they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. The right to development must be fulfilled in such a way as to meet equitably the developmental and environmental needs of the present and future generations. Environmental protection should be an integral part of the development process. The lack of scientific certainty should not be cited as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. In various public actions for environmental conservation, economic efficiency should be realised. To ensure this, the services of environmental resources should be given economic values that are equal to the economic values of other goods and services. This principle implies that the perpetrator of degradation should bear its cost and that the economic costs of realising environmental benefits should be minimised in any event. But a conventional economic cost-benefit calculus would not be applied in the case of entities with incomparable values. The entities in this category include historical monuments such as the Taj Mahal, charismatic species such as the tiger or unique landscapes such as the Valley of Flowers in Uttaranchal. Conservation of such entities would be given priority and societal resources allocated without considering the direct or immediate economic benefit.

The other principles include equity, legal liability with alternative approaches like "fault-based liability" and "strict liability", the public trust doctrine of the State being merely a trustee of all natural resources meant for public use and enjoyment - subject to reasonable restrictions - decentralisation, integration of social and natural sciences in environment-related policy research, inclusion of environmental considerations in sectoral policy making, setting environmental standards, preventive action and environmental offsetting. The last principle implies that threatened or endangered species and natural systems cannot be provided protection owing to exceptional reasons of overriding public interest. Cost-effective measures should be undertaken by the proponents of the activity to restore as nearly as may be feasible the lost environmental services.

THE draft NEP envisages the strategies to achieve these objectives. These include reforms in the present regulatory regimes comprising the legislative framework, and a set of institutions to achieve synergy among relevant statutes and regulations, ensure a holistic approach to the management of the environment and natural resources and identify emerging areas for fresh legislation. Process-related reforms are also envisaged to reduce delays in decision-making at all levels, promote decentralisation, ensure greater transparency and accountability and ensure a judicious mix of civil and criminal processes in the legal regime for enforcement. The substantive reforms proposed in the document cover a wide gamut of activities.

It is proposed to institutionalise regional and cumulative environment impact assessments, make environmental clearance mandatory for all projects involving large-scale diversion of prime agricultural land, encourage the clustering of development activities to facilitate the creation of an environment-management infrastructure, and prohibit diversion of dense natural forests to non-forest use except in site-specific cases of vital national interest. The Coastal Regulation Zone notifications would be reviewed to make the regulation more holistic and ensure that the integrated coastal zone management plans are comprehensive and prepared on a scientific basis. The decentralisation of clearance of specific projects is also proposed to enable State environmental authorities to decide.

A number of actions have been proposed to ensure that the development of biotechnology does not lead to unforeseen adverse impacts. The regulatory processes for living modified organisms (LMOs) and the National Bio-Safety Guidelines would be reviewed for this purpose. Conservation of bio-diversity and human health would be ensured while dealing with LMOs in trans-boundary movement in a manner consistent with the Multilateral Bio-Safety Protocol. Environmentally sensitive zones that have entities of incomparable value and require special conservation efforts would be identified and given legal status. Area development plans would be formulated and local institutions created to manage such areas. In order to strengthen monitoring and enforcement, it is proposed to give greater legal standing to local community-based organisations and develop feasible models of public-private partnerships so that the resources of the private sector are used to set up and operate the infrastructure to monitor compliance.

The use of economic principles in environmental decision-making is also envisaged. The idea is to reverse the present tendency to treat natural resources as "free goods" while passing on the costs of degradation to other sections of society and future generations. In this connection, it is proposed to strengthen the initiatives taken by the Central Statistical Organisation for natural resources accounting and for including it in the system of national income accounts. This is expected to help assess whether, in the course of economic growth, the nation is depleting, or enhancing its natural resource base of production. The use of standardised environmental accounting practices would be promoted to encourage greater environmental responsibility in investment decision-making, management practices and public security. Integration of environmental values into a cost-benefit analysis would be facilitated to ensure a more efficient allocation of resources while making public investment and policy decisions.

THE document outlines specific initiatives to address the proximate and deeper causes of degradation of different natural resources. To check land degradation, it proposes to encourage the adoption of science-based and traditional land use practices, promote the reclamation of wasteland and degraded forest land through multi-stakeholder partnerships, and implement thematic action plans to arrest and reverse the process of desertification. It is proposed to give legal recognition to the traditional rights of the tribal population dwelling in forests, as this would provide them long-term incentives to conserve forests. An innovative strategy would be formulated to increase forest and tree cover from the present level of 23 per cent of the total land area to 33 per cent in 2012 through the afforestation of degraded forest land and wastelands and the increase of tree cover on private or revenue land. The strategy aims to rationalise the restrictions on cultivation of forest species outside the notified forests so that farmers can undertake social and farm forestry. It also envisages universalisation of the Joint Forestry Management system. Public investments would be directed to enhance the density of natural forests and conserve mangroves. In addition, an appropriate methodology would be formulated to restore the environmental values of forests, which are unavoidably diverted to other use.

In respect of wildlife conservation, the document envisages expansion of the Protected Area network to give a fair representation to all bio-geographical zones and the harmonisation of economic and physical features with the needs of socio-economic development. Multi-stakeholder partnerships would be promoted to improve wildlife habitats and derive both environmental and eco-tourism benefits. Site-specific eco-development programmes would be developed in the fringes of Protected Areas to help restore the sources of livelihoods of local communities and their access to forest produce.

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To check the loss of biodiversity owing to environmental degradation, it is proposed to strengthen the protection of "biodiversity hotspots", while providing local communities with alternative sources of livelihood and access to resources. Explicit attention would be paid to the potential impact of development projects on biodiversity and natural heritage. Ancient sacred groves and biodiversity hotspots would be treated as entities that possess "incomparable values". Among other measures planned are the enhancement of ex-situ conservation of genetic resources in designated gene banks, adoption of an internationally recognised system of legally enforceable sui generis system of intellectual property rights for ethno-biology knowledge and setting up of an online database of the inventory of such ethno-biology knowledge.

Freshwater resources, comprising river systems, groundwater and wetlands are among the more important natural resources. A series of measures for efficient use of water resources have been proposed in the draft NEP to protect them from depletion and pollution. The action plan envisages the mitigation of the impact of multi-purpose river valley projects on river flora and fauna, the compulsory installation of water saving closets and taps, enhancement of groundwater recharge, and creation of legally enforceable regulatory mechanisms for identified wetlands. The document also lists action plans for preserving mountain ecosystems and coastal resources and abating water, air, soil and noise pollution, besides the conservation of heritage sites.

ON the face of it, the policy prescriptions in the draft would appear unexceptionable. But environmental activists and close observers of the environment have critically examined it and pinpointed what they consider to be flaws. People's Democracy, the official organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has described it as "basically skewed" and that the poor and the underprivileged have been ignored. But official sources point out that the objective of the policy is to ensure environmental protection, which directly contributes to poverty alleviation.

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"We have had consultations with State governments, including the States where Left parties are in power, and these States in particular have given overwhelming support to the draft", says Dr. Pradipto Ghosh, Secretary to the MoEF. According to him, the West Bengal government had extensive consultations within the State before conveying its views on the draft policy. "The Ministry posed to the West Bengal government the specific question whether it considers the policy anti-poor and the reply was that it was not anti-poor but is supportive of poverty alleviation", says Dr. Ghosh.

Some critics have found a pronounced slant towards economic parameters in the draft. Official sources say that one of the main reasons for environmental degradation is that values have not been placed on natural resources and environmental resources are treated as free goods. To put an end to this notion, an economic valuation has to be made and people should be made to realise that those who want to use such resources have to pay for them. This would provide the people with appropriate incentives to modify their behaviour to conserve environmental resources. The "pollutor pays" principle comes from the notion of economic efficiency, which in turn implies that one should give proper valuation to all entities. The term "economic efficiency" has nothing to do with corporate profit, but refers to the maximisation of welfare across all members of society. It is made clear in the draft that there are limits to the application of this principle of economic efficiency, and that it would not be applied to entities with incomparable values, which would be conserved without cost considerations.

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Yet another point of criticism is that the draft does not cater to the Indian ethos and follows the dictates of the World Bank. But the MoEF has categorically denied this. It has also pointed out that the draft takes into account the issues contained in the Common Minimum Programme of the present government.

To move with the times

advertorial
Dr. A.A. Ghatol, Principal, PIET:

I want to make the institution a deemed university and a centre of excellence.

In the post-Independence era, the institute became a State government-owned college and in the last 50 years, it was a regional leader. It consolidated its nine undergraduate programmes and has extended its postgraduate education with 18 specialisations. This quantitative expansion has not been adequately supported in terms of strengthening of resources in the past few decades, which has hampered the progress of research and developmental activities on the campus. The institute, in the last 50 years, became a conventional engineering college with a low profile on research, consultancy and professional output. Now the college has taken up many programmes through the various facilities provided by the All India Council of Technical Education and recently it was adjudged a "lead institution" by the National Project Implementation Unit. It has received the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme from the Central government and the World Bank, through which new activities will be starting.

We are heading for a paradigm shift from a state-owned to a fully autonomous institute. Global competition is at our doorstep and Information Technology-enabled domain-free education is the need of the hour. We are aiming to provide a value-based, learner-centric, life-long-learning system of education.

F.C. Kohli, ex-chairman of Tata Consultancy Services, founder of the Alumni Association, and chairman of the Board of Governors of the institute:

PIET was one of three oldest engineering colleges in the country. It produced India's first engineers. Its alumni have gone places and have excelled in their careers.

The institute is now autonomous. We want to make the undergraduate programme equivalent to that of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in the next two or three years. After that, we would like to build a world-class graduate school. Students who are selected for PIET are of the same calibre as those who enter an IIT. We owe it to our students to give them the same quality of education. We need to restore PIET to its old glory.

Arvind M. Uplenchwar, Director (Pipelines), Indian Oil Corporation Ltd., alumnus:

When we were in college, the College of Engineering, Pune, was rated the best. All top students went to the institute.

The building and facilities were top rate, even better then than today's private colleges. The staff were dedicated and the Professors were authorities in their respective subjects and even wrote reference books.

We were technologically ahead and had the best labs and equipment. Although many colleges have sprung up today and have more funds, PIET is still considered the best.

Even in sports, PIET excelled. It was the only college to have a boat club and we used to take part in national regattas. We won cricket championships.

We were all proud that Sir M. Visvesvaraya studied here. I started the concept of having an alumni association 25 years ago. Many alumni have reached high positions, both in India and abroad. Its students are rated at the top of the job market even today.

The college trained us rigorously in the fundamentals, which is lacking in many students today. This education stands me in good stead even today. PIET has done a great service in the last 150 years. Now that it is an autonomous body, it will have more flexibility to progress. I am proud of being a student of this college.

Naushad Forbes, director, Forbes Marshall:

We have been recruiting students from PIET for many years and I have also given talks there. Our company instituted an award for the best project in the college and we are also involved in curriculum development.

PIET was the best engineering college in Pune for many years. It was far ahead of every other engineering college, there was no alternative. It is still extremely good, but now new institutions have also come up.

The institution needs to rejuvenate itself - right from maintenance of the beautiful, old buildings to updating training methods.

It has to outdo the competition and refocus, to get itself back to its premier position.

A legacy of excellence

The Pune Institute of Engineering and Technology, one of the oldest engineering colleges in the country, is 150 years old and is gearing to meet the challenges of the post-globalisation world.

ONE of the oldest engineering colleges in the country, the Pune Institute of Engineering and Technology or PIET (formerly Government College of Engineering, Pune), was established in 1854 to train officers of the British Raj to construct public works such as buildings dams, canals, railway tracks and bridges. Initially the college was part of the University of Mumbai. In 1949, it got affiliated to the University of Pune.

Since then, PIET has produced more than 25,000 graduate engineers, 1,500 postgraduate engineers and 22 doctoral degree holders in various branches of engineering. Apart from its illustrious background, the college is renowned for producing outstanding engineers such as Sir M. Visvesvaraya (architect of the Krishnarajasagar dam in Karnataka).

PIET is the first government institute in Maharashtra to get accreditation for all its undergraduate courses from the National Board of Accreditation (NBA), New Delhi - in July 2002. In 2003, the institute was honoured with permanent affiliation and academic autonomy by the University of Pune. As the first step towards autonomy, it started full-fledged autonomous B.Tech. and M.Tech. programmes from 2003-04.

With this momentous upgrading, there will be a paradigm shift from a State-owned, university-affiliated institute to a fully autonomous institute. It has also registered a Board of Governors with the Charity Commissioner's Office, Pune. F.C. Kohli, ex-Vice Chairman of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), is the Chairperson of the Board of Governors. The Principal has been designated as the `Director' of the autonomous institute and three Deans have been appointed.

Grants of more than Rs.75 lakhs have been given to the institute from the All-India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and the government. The Government of Maharashtra has sanctioned a token grant of Rs.25 lakhs for the construction of a classroom complex. There is also an increase in continuing education programmes for industry as well as academic institutes. The institute has signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with eight reputed industries/organisations to conduct training programmes in specialised areas.

In order to keep up with competition, the institute has come up with a perspective academic plan for the next five years, under the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme (TEQIP) instituted by the Central government and funded by the World Bank. The first instalment of Rs.15 crores has been sanctioned for the enhancement of academic excellence, modernisation of the institute, human resource development, a digital library and a tribal development plan.

The infrastructure proposed under the TEQIP includes high-performance computers, simulation and modelling facilities, scalable storage, high-speed connectivity (internal and external), connectivity infrastructure at network institutes, thin computing and edge computing devices, web farms and the latest software.

Some of the academic developments at PIET include a curriculum revision for all courses, modernisation of 42 laboratories, a new interdisciplinary postgraduate programme, strengthening of the doctoral programme with fellowships, improvement in research, consultancy and industry interaction and institutional reform for effective management.

PIET boasts of having the best student input from the State, a faculty with high professional qualifications, and excellent libraries, computing facilities and research. With the new education system, there has been an improvement in the performance of students since they are subjected to continuous evaluation. The education model is updated every year, keeping the staff motivated. The institute has also developed an independent examination cell.

The students enthusiastically participate in cultural activities and have won prizes and medals at various inter-university and inter-collegiate competitions. Almost all departments publish their reports and achievements and also articles in the departmental and college magazines. The college magazine has won awards for the best magazine of the year for several years from the University and the State government. Many students have performed brilliantly in various entrance examinations such as Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE). Every year, about 110 PIET students pursue higher studies abroad.

Students of different disciplines have formed associations, which are guided by faculty members of the respective departments. The associations conduct numerous programmes throughout the year for the students. These include improvements to department libraries, technical quizzes, debates, national-level technical paper presentation contest, lectures by eminent personalities, and career guidance and talks on higher education opportunities.

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Under the tribal development plan, the institute proposes to implement the reservation policies of the State and Central governments. The institute helps students to derive benefits from all available sources such as social welfare schemes, non-governmental organisations and government hostels. It organises coaching classes for students taking up GATE, IES, GRE and other competitive examinations The institute also arranges special courses for career development and communication skills.

PIET has also set up a training and placement cell, which organises campus recruitment programmes by inviting various companies to the college. The cell also arranges training programmes for the students to help them develop their personality, communication skills, aptitude tests solving ability and so on. The cell also assists students in getting sponsored projects and in in-plant training in various industries. It attempts to improve industry-institute interaction.

PIET is known all over India and abroad as a provider of dynamic and skilled engineers to industries. To its credit, the training and placement cell has got the ISO 9002 certification in the year 2000-01. Around 150 companies visit the campus every year for recruitment programmes. These include companies from the manufacturing, software, Information Technology, and automobile, sectors and from the military.

Major corporations such as Microsoft, IBM, Wipro, Infosys, Satyam, Texas, Veritas, Newgen, Tata Motors, Bajaj, L&T, Siemens, ABB, IPCL, BPCL, HPCL, MICO, Thermax, Cognizant, Kanbay, Ashok Leyland, Eicher Motors, Kirloskar Group, TVS, Mahindra, Godrej, Zensar, Essar, Sterlite and Crompton recruit students from all disciplines every year. About 75 per cent of the undergraduate and postgraduate students find placements every year. Around 20 per cent opt for higher studies in India or abroad.

Many companies such as Tata Motors, KOEL, PSPL, Nevis Network, L&T Infotech, Kalyani Brakes, Thermax and many software companies have come forward to offer projects for final year undergraduate and postgraduate students. Several courses have been started in collaboration with companies. Also, MoUs have been signed with some companies such as Infosys, TCS and L&T, who have offered training programmes for the students and the teaching staff. Some have donated books and infrastructure and have sponsored student programmes.

The Industry-Institute Interaction Cell strives to promote closer interaction with industry. The cell works to develop linkages with industries and research organisations, promote the culture of research and development, patent products developed in the institute, promote sponsored programmes, enhance testing and consultancy activity, conduct continuing education programmes and training for the staff of institutes and business organisations, arrange industrial visits for students and staff, exchange expert lectures with industry and institutes, increase participation of industrial experts in the preparation of academic syllabus, and so on.

After the formation of the cell, interaction with industries in and around Pune has increased considerably. MoUs have been signed with different industries. Companies like Infosys, Tata Motors, L&T, Kirloskar, Emerson, TCS, Thermax, are taking an active part in various activities in the institute such as conferences, competitions, training programmes, industrial visits, and lectures. They have instituted scholarships for students and made donations.

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Recently, L&T donated a boiler and many heat exchangers to the Mechanical Engineering Department. Many industry-sponsored projects are in progress. A sandwich training programme is supported by many major industries from Pune, Mumbai, Nasik and other cities.

This year, being the sesqui-centenary year, many programmes have been launched, including national and international conferences, seminars, workshops and symposiums, by each department. The new extension building for Electronics, Telecommunication and Instrumentation was inaugurated.

The construction of a subway in the campus commenced in April. In fact, the institute has initiated a process of reforms to be better prepared to face the challenges ahead. They include managerial reforms with identification of senior faculty members for key posts such as Director, Registrar, Deans and Co-ordinators. The institute has initiated a drive to generate a corpus fund through the alumni association.

The modernisation of laboratories, the establishment of new laboratories and a digital library, the improving of the infrastructure, the striking of partnerships with other institutes and industry and the setting up of an ultra-modern computational platform for all possible ways of professional sharing will make PIET reach new heights. This progress is reflected in the qualitative as well as quantitative growth of postgraduate education, and the impetus to research and development, consultancy and other professional performance indices.

With technological challenges and globalisation, it is essential for PIET to take a quantum leap towards the achievement of academic excellence by re-engineering its education process with a focus on quality assurance.

The many milestones

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* 1854: The Poona Engineering Class and Mechanical School was opened in July to provide instruction to subordinate officers in the Public Works Department. The school was in Bhawani Peth, Poona (now Pune), and the accommodation consisted of three small, detached houses for teaching purposes and a separate house for the Principal.

* 1865: The foundation stone of the new college was laid by the Governor of Bombay Presidency, Sir Bartle Frere, on August 5. In June, Theodore Cooke was appointed Principal. He continued for 28 years in that capacity.

* 1866: The college was affiliated to the University of Bombay for the Degree of Licentiate of Civil Engineering (LCE).

* 1868: The campus was moved to new buildings. The college was divided into three departments: a) matriculated students studying for the Degree of Licentiate of Civil Engineering, b) unmatriculated students intending to qualify as overseers, and c) unmatriculated students desiring to qualify as maistries.

* 1879: Two new classes, an agricultural class and a forest class, were added and the name of the college was changed from The Poona Civil Engineering College to The College of Science.

* 1909: The LCE course closed and the degree of Bachelor of Engineering was instituted.

* 1911: All non-engineering courses were closed and the college renamed College of Engineering, Poona (COEP).

* 1912: The first B.E.(Civil) graduate came out this year.

* 1913: The B.E. (Mechanical) course was sanctioned. The government appointed an advisory committee.

* 1914: The B.E (Mechanical) course was started.

* 1925: Awarding of diplomas in Civil, Mechanical, and Electrical Engineering commenced, in place of certificates granted up to this time.

* 1928: The boat club of the degree classes opened.

* 1931: The diploma courses in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering combined into a single four-year course.

* 1932: The college was affiliated to the University of Bombay for the Degree of Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical).

* 1937: The new revised course in Civil Engineering was approved by the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, for exemption from Sections A and B of the Institution Examination for Associate Membership. This was the only college in India to receive this recognition.

* 1939: The first woman student admitted.

* 1948: Degree courses in B.E. (Metallurgy) and B.E. (Telecommunication) commenced.

* 1949: The college becomes a constituent college of the newly established University of Poona. The boat club of diploma classes started.

* 1952: Degree courses revised with a duration of three years, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering being made separate courses.

* 1965: Degree courses in B.E. (Instrumentation & Control) commenced.

* 1992: Degree courses in B.E. (Computer Engineering) commenced.

* 1995: Degree courses in B.E. (Production Sandwich) commenced.

* 2001: Degree courses in B.E. (Information Technology) commenced.

* 2002: Eight undergraduate programmes got accreditation from NBA, All-India Council for Technical Education, Delhi.

LETTERS

other
Reaching out

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern regions are laudable ("A promising start", December 17). It is beyond doubt that he has taken some credible steps that could mitigate the woes of the common man and the downtrodden. He has kept politics out of development, which is a ray of hope for all.

Siddhartha Raj Guha Jabalpur * * *

India needs a good and intelligent person to lead it to prosperity. The Prime Minister should be capable of understanding the problems of the people. It is not necessary that only a "politician" can lead the nation. Such narrow definitions will discourage the emergence of intellectuals from various walks of life to lead parties and governments. What has India gained from the "traditional politician", whose words and deeds do not match? India needs politicians who will remember the common man even after the election campaign.

Arun B. Ashok Trichur, Kerala India and Israel

The United Progressive Alliance's decision to maintain good relations with Israel is not a breach of trust ("A breach of trust", December 17). This is a continuation of the policy of the National Democratic Alliance government, which offered the hand of friendship to Israel. This approach was then criticised by the Congress, which claimed that the Bharatiya Janata Party was obsessed with Israel.

Tal Merom Haifa, Israel Sankaracharya's arrest

I was shocked to read about the arrest of the Kanchi Sankaracharya ("The course of law", December 17 and "Behind the arrest", December 3). Jayendra Saraswathi should step down from the leadership of the mutt until he is proved innocent of the charges against him, to uphold its dignity and honour. If he is proven guilty in a court of law, then the seer must face the verdict as per the laws of the land, which says that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, irrespective of their social status.

Vasudev R. Khalgatgi Hubli, Karnataka * * *

Considering his religious status and the sentiments of millions of Hindus, Jayendra Saraswathi should be released unconditionally and, if found guilty, be given a presidential pardon.

S. Raghunatha Prabhu Alappuzha, Kerala * * *

The articles on the Sankaracharya's arrest are brilliant expositions of the whole event. But I cannot help feeling that the concept of secularism projected is that the government, political parties and Hindu institutions should function in favour of religions other than Hinduism. This brand of secularism can only encourage communalism.

V.V. Prabhu Kollam, Kerala * * *

It is hard to imagine that the seer could have been involved in such a crime. It would be honourable for him to abdicate his position and face the charges as an ordinary citizen.

Bidyut Kumar Chatterjee Faridabad * * *

The late-night arrest of the Sankaracharya reminded me of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M. Karunanidhi's arrest a few years ago. Considering that Jayalalithaa and her party had been seemingly close to the Acharya, the turn of events is quite startling.

J.S. Acharya Hyderabad Kerala sex scandal

Recent developments in Kerala relating to a sex scandal have affected the dignity and pride of the State ("A dented image", December 3). When the Kiliroor sex scandal came to light, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry, but in the Kozhikode ice-cream sex scandal, in which a Minister is accused, he has not taken any action.

P. Sreedharan Kannur, Kerala The rural gloom

The story of Jayalakshmi is heart-rending. ("The rural gloom", December 3). It is the moral duty of a welfare state to protect its citizens by providing them quality education, health services and employment opportunities. But, our state has failed to discharge its constitutional duties. There is a deep crisis in the agricultural sector. The rural economy in certain States is on the verge of collapse. Farmers and landless labourers are the worst sufferers. The rate of suicides among them is alarming.

Sudesh Kumar Sharma Kapurthala, Punjab Yasser Arafat

Arafat's dream of an independent Palestine did not materialise in his lifetime and his death is a setback for millions of Palestinians ("After Arafat", December 3).

Vinod Tuli New Delhi Ranga Shankara

Theatre is fast losing space to the hype and gloss of the multiplexes ("A theatre of one's own", December 3). One hopes that the construction of the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore and the revival of the Star theatre in Kolkata revive this art form. Arundhati Nag deserves compliments for her initiative.

Suchetana Haldar Kolkata Savarkar

This is with reference to the article "A National Hero?" (November 5). Savarkar is no doubt a freedom fighter like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who organised the freedom struggle on a religious basis in Maharashtra. But now the Sangh Parivar is trying to glorify the ideology of Savarkar, which is threatening the very basis of secularism.

According to Savarkar, Muslims have two faiths - one for Saudi Arabia and one for India. He also held the view that the problems of the minority in India is not the problem of all minorities but only of the Muslim minority. These views are not acceptable. History has evidence of Muslims in the freedom struggle.

M.A. Ghouse Mohiddin Bangalore Thought-provoking

Thank you very much for the following three articles in the October 22 issue: the brilliant and highly patriotic essay by Arundhati Roy, "Public power in the age of empire", K. Satchidanandan's "A creator with social concern" and S. Viswanathan's "Land of inequalities". They were thought-provoking. They are worth translating into Tamil.

T.K. Sivasankaran Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

Hastening slowly

There is forward movement, however slow, in setting direction for clearing away the blocks in the India-China relationship. But, India has still to come to terms with the past and the demands of the present.

SOMETIMES it becomes imperative to undertake a return to the past, to identify a block that needs to be overcome and/or to identify a starting point or fount for a new or different future. This is never easy to do. Fortunately, however, the climate change in politics throughout the world and even in India-China relations today encourages if not demands such an effort. In the highly complex matter of rectifying or normalising India-China relations or, as at present, desiring to go beyond the usual to national and multilateral cooperation, it is of pressing importance to do so with determination. In this fast-paced world, time is of the essence and, as comparison with China at any level reveals, India has lost just too much time in recovering from its 1962 syndrome and in the process has risked being bypassed by the world.

This state of affairs has been changing of late. It is visible in a steady high rate of economic growth (at 7 per cent) that has attracted the attention of the world, its Information Technology (IT) successes, an opening up to partnerships of all kinds with major countries, a leap to $12 billion trade with China, a discovery of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia, its newly acquired nuclear status, and so on.

Much of this has been made possible because of a forward movement, however slow, in setting direction for clearing away the blocks in the India-China relationship, in particular on the territorial front. To complete this project, an honest return to the past becomes of special importance.

This past offers two distinct paradigms of the bilateral relationship. Both revolve around the sensitive question of territory and the territorial limits of these two big and new neighbouring states, and both establish an umbilical relationship between a territorial settlement and the nature of the political relationship. Neither of these paradigms can or should be replicated, as I have argued for the past many years, while at the same time their more positive aspects need to be cherished. Fortunately, there is today an evolving national consensus that wants this umbilical cord to be finally cut.

There appears to be a rising impatience with the persistence of this problem, and a growing feeling that despite the improvement in the India-China relationship, it is the unresolved territorial issue that constrains India from developing its full potential, political and economic, and from taking its rightful place in world forums. An unshadowed cooperative relationship with China is coming to be regarded as being advantageous if not the key to this project. Accordingly, in the public mind, the settlement of the territorial issue continues to be seen as being central to the unfolding of a different future.

This is reflected in the treatment by the Indian media of the 40-minute Manmohan Singh-Wen Jiabao meeting of November 30 that took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN +3 summit in Vientiane. It witnessed the signing of several important documents, including the far-reaching agreement on Peace Progress and Common Prosperity between India and ASEAN, the progress towards a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA), the third largest of its kind in the world with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $2 trillion, scheduled now to be in place one year ahead of time, and the stirring (but impractical?) Indian vision of an Asian Economic Community to rival that of the Europeon Union (E.U.).

Nevertheless, the Indian media did focus more on the India-China prime ministerial meeting, in particular on nuggets related to the territorial issues, than it did on the regional and economic developments mentioned above that promise to open up valuable options for India. This coverage and interest, though limited, is greater than in the past and reflects another important change that is under way in India, namely, the recovery of a strategic horizon not limited by the `given' of Chinese hostility to India. That was Indira Gandhi's legacy. It faced the ASEAN countries with having to choose between India and China: its other aspect was her determination to see India become a strong military power with a reliable superpower as ally. This combination was expected to counter the China-United States-Pakistan axis that she feared had come into being after 1972.

India's decade-old Look East policy that had somehow leapfrogged over South-East Asia and ASEAN (which we could have joined in the early 1980s but missed out on the opportunity) to reach out to Japan and South Korea, again had undertones of an Indian need to countervail China. With Mikhail Gorbachev at the helm in the Soviet Union, this policy, like so many other positions on world affairs just sort of meandered into the desert. This is not the place for a dissertation on this subject but clearly the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new geo-strategic and geo-political landscape in a resultant unipolar distribution of global power, demanded review and rethinking by all states, urged on by the swamping tides of economic globalisation and the information revolution, of Cold War policies and alliances.

India, like the ponderous elephant it has been compared to, was slow to move to meet these challenges as China had done almost 15 years earlier. The world image of India today as a rising power almost, but not quite on a par with China, emerges from its recent economic reforms, its nuclear tests and its search for a new equation with China. As long as this relationship was still shadowed by fears of the rise of China as a threat, as long as the territorial issue remained unresolved, and as long as the Indian leadership perceived the U.S. and India as `natural allies', the U.S. could afford not to alter its India policy regarding Pakistan, fundamentally.

However, should India and China be successful in removing the irritants and obstacles such as Pakistan, Tibet, Sikkim and, above all, territory that stand in the way of refashioning the bilateral relationship, the U.S. and the world will take notice, for the magic of numbers would be irresistible. The possibilities that would then open up for the country, the region, the world, and above all for people, which could transform systems, values and norms that govern the play of domestic and inter-state politics, are truly extraordinary. Between them these two countries could, quite literally, change the world. Together, they account for almost one-third of the world's population, are among the top fastest-growing economies, and have a combined GDP of over $1.7 trillions, and the skills and competence of their people are almost legendary. Both countries had sensed the magic of combined numbers, of size, and of course of culture and civilisation, from a time even before they emerged as independent modern states. This last is especially important in an age when all norms and values, personal, social and political, are changing or are under attack, when fresh ideas and values that would contribute to a new global culture are called for.

For a very brief period in the mid-1950s, India and China together did seem to heal the world a little by providing hope and creating new options under the Panchsheel norms. The failure to pursue this course attests to the grave difficulties they faced in breaking with traditional patterns of state behaviour. The other side of the numbers coin, is the sheer horror of an all-out war with modern weapons between these two enormous political entities, that would willy-nilly suck in both near and distant neighbours and perhaps bring the world to the brink of another holocast. I would venture to say that an awareness of both possibilities contributed, among other lesser reasons, to the limitation and containment of the 1962 conflict. It is in this context that Premier Wen's hope that his coming visit to India "will send a positive signal throughout the world" should be read, as also the expectation he shared with his Indian counterpart that "the handshake between you and me will catch the attention of the whole world". It evokes memories of the wide interest and the strategic responses that the India-China friendship of 1954+Panchsheel+Bandung, aroused in the West.

The Vientiane meeting of the two Prime Ministers was consequently given the coverage normally reserved for a summit meeting, by the English language national dailies. Much play, as might have been expected, was given to what the two Prime Ministers said to each other on bilateral and relational issues, and even more was made of what was said on the territorial issue and the bilateral relationship. Nevertheless this time these relations were placed within a larger context to the mere reporting of the bilateral, which was, however, more economic than it was political.

Inevitably, echoes of old thinking did creep in, for instance, in the suggestion that the ASEAN countries welcomed India and even Japan as a counterbalance to China's enormous economic clout and footprint in the region, or in dismissing the words of the Chinese Prime Minister as flattering platitudes. Still, negative comments like these were fewer than could have been expected, testifying to the great change that is under way in the public perception of China - under way, for it is still fragile but can, at present, perhaps suffice to encourage the government to proceed with finding solutions to the territorial issue, and Indian business to trade and invest in China with confidence. The prospect of India-China trade touching $100 billion within the next few years, held out by the two leaders, not only fires the Indian imagination but no longer seems an impossible goal.

Despite all this there was a marked asymmetry of perspective and priority on the bilateral, which came through in the statements made by the two Prime Ministers. For instance, on the fundamental requirement of returning to the past to identify an agreed and shared entry point to a possible territorial agreement, the differences could become critical. In his return to the past, the Indian Prime Minister appeared to take the Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping summit meeting of 1988 as the entry point for a territorial solution. He made no mention of the unusual Joint Declaration that was signed at the end of the visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to China in April 2003, even though he has followed through with, and perhaps helped to routinise, the meetings of Special Representatives charged with the limited task of agreeing on a `framework for a boundary settlement' from a political perspective on the overall relationship. The language was carefully refined and needs to be as carefully read.

This Joint Declaration, it may be recalled, took the bold and brave step of clarifying the ambiguous political status of Sikkim and of Tibet, albeit only elliptically, perhaps because both states have to answer to their domestic constituencies and critics. According to information available, Vajpayee took this step only after consultation with other political parties and as part of the evolving national consensus on this issue. In doing so, the two sides arrived, in effect, at an agreement on where the India-China boundary could be drawn, thus reducing the dimensions of the post-1958 problem to manageable/negotiable proportions. It also put in place the institution of the Special Representatives (SR), to provide the necessary political direction under a formula first devised during the Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1988, that is, to seek a `fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable' solution to the territorial issue.

The four meetings of the SRs held since April 2003 have been commended by Manmohan Singh for having made considerable progress, but without acknowledgement of their parentage. The reluctance of the Congress as well as the other political parties to acknowledge overtly and gracefully the contributions of their predecessors to the advance of national issues does not do them much credit, for the problem is the nation's problem, a solution to the problem is in the country's interest, and the territorial state, like God is one, though it may have many governments and many political parties.

Manmohan Singh's reluctance to acknowledge the Vajpayee contribution of 2003 may cause the Chinese some anxieties, for they are familiar by now with the untidiness of a democratic system and its inability to ensure continuity of policies when a new party comes to power. During the meeting, Wen is reported to have said that India-China relations are `now in the best shape in history', that they have `tens of thousands of reasons' for enhancing cooperation, that peaceful coexistence conforms to the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples. He went on to say that the signing of the Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation by him and Vajpayee last year `signals that the relations between the two countries have entered a new stage of comprehensive development.' He repeated what Chinese leaders have said often, that relations should be addressed from a strategic and overall perspective - a more straightforward version of Jiang Zemin's oft-quoted plea to `stand tall and look far'. There was a clear message in this for India, namely that that document must be the basis both for the future relationship and for ending the territorial problem.

It may be mentioned here, that soon after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took office, the Prime Minister in a press conference made a reference to China policy and promised continuity. The official Chinese spokesman took prompt note of this at an official briefing and seized the opportunity to reiterate China's policy towards India as `an important neighbour' with whom it would like to `continuously deepen' a constructive and cooperative partnership. In doing so, China was in effect asking for a reassurance from the UPA government that the political breakthrough of 2003, which Rajiv Gandhi had been unprepared or unable to make would continue to be the basis for the unfolding of a multi-level multi-directional or `comprehensive' relationship.

On his part, the Indian Prime Minister is reported to have assured Wen that India attaches great importance to the development of bilateral relations with China, to enhancing cooperation and developing economic and trade ties with it, and that his government has a `strong political will' to resolve the territorial issue. It is in this context and of the Indian desire to come to a settlement soon that Wen pointed out realistically that it would not be `an easy task' and would require both `confidence and patience'.

While Manmohan Singh's statements show some improvement over past statements of the Congress, they nevertheless reveal a political horizon that is still limited and narrow, and not even sufficiently regional or Asian. The reported non-mention of Pakistan is undoubtedly an improvement but one that pertains only to South Asia. This is also true of what can be seen as attendant moves to support and consolidate a refashioning of India-China relations. These include the India-Pakistan peace process, the recent statements of the Dalai Lama on the possible advantages for Tibet from remaining within China and the reopening of talks with Chinese leaders, the increasing people to people contacts with China and Pakistan at all levels including the local, and so on.

There are also other developments such as the Kunming Initiative and the proposed transnational road and other communication links across Myanmar and Tibet to facilitate trade and travel, including a possible oil pipeline from Central Asia via the Karakoram Highway or from Xinjiang via the Hump, that go beyond the bilateral or regional. They have yet, however, to be integrated into a holistic framework of policy and an appreciation of multilateralism. The Indian strategic horizon needs to be stretched further to accommodate all this, to bring home a newly acquired regional and economic dimension and to extend beyond to the level of world politics. It needs to go beyond a China policy framed within bilateral or South Asian parameters to embed it in a larger global perspective on anticipated trends and challenges in the new century. In brief, India needs to step firmly out of the bilateral/South Asia box. China, even in its darkest days, did not lose a world perspective or reduce relations with India only to the bilateral. It is not surprising therefore that Premier Wen is reported to have expressed the view that relations between the two countries have both regional and global significance. It is, however, surprising that on his return to India, his statement did not choose to educate the people about the progress in India-China reltions.

It is clear that India has still to come to terms with the past and the demands of the present, to realise how much the world has changed, that it needs to sit up and think about past problems and their solutions and how to go beyond them to maximise its opportunities and advantages. The particular case in point is the India-China territorial issue. To hasten slowly is good, provided one knows what this different future is and how it is to be arrived at.

Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea is Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

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Oct 9,2020