'Reconciliation should start from the top'

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Interview with former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

The expiry of agricultural leases is of deep concern to the Indian farmers. How do you think the land issue can be resolved?

There is unlikely to be a lasting solution to the issue. The Indians have to move off the land gradually and find livelihood elsewhere because of a number of things there. One is the sheer economics of growing sugarcane, and the second, of course, is the problem besetting the industry. Sugar prices are not rising. We are surviving on the back of European subsidised prices. If we remove those, the industry will not be able to sustain itself. That preferential arrangement runs up to 2008, and after that we don't know whether it will be withdrawn or phased out. So we have to start preparing now.

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP

As a declining industry, we have got a lot of problems. Land is one. Our mills and rolling stock are ancient and to upgrade them requires huge investment. One must weigh the options with the land situation and the economics of the industry itself, whether such a huge investment is prudent or whether that money should be put into something more sustainable, which will last in the future.

What is the alternative before the farmers?

We will have to look for other opportunities in the economy. We can't build a future on an asset we don't own or control. It makes sense to move into other areas. Of course, the transition will be painful. There will be hardships, and this could take between 5 to 10 years as people gradually resettle and look for new avenues. But in the long term that is the best solution.

That is why we are advising people to invest heavily in the education of their children, to give them skills which would enable them to be self-employed, or at least be trained in skills that are highly marketable. So, they will be able to obtain employment here or abroad.

How is that possible in a declining economy?

The economy was doing very well until May 19, 2000. As a result of the coup and all the lawlessness that followed, it is in tatters now. It will take a long time to rebuild, there is no doubt about that. Our tourism, which was doing very well, is now down to a trickle. Sugarcane output also has declined. It is unbelievable that last year we had a crop of 4 million tonnes. This year we are looking at just 2.5 million tonnes. It's been such a steep decline in a period of 12 months. And it is mostly associated with the event of May 19, 2000. Because of the insecurity over the land leases the picture in the (sugar) industry also looks grim. That is why it is important to have political stability as soon as we can.

To get all the races working together, to get the politicians to understand that unless we work together we cannot move forward as a nation.

It's a grim picture, yes. But things can turn around if there is cooperation, if the Constitution is respected and obeyed.

What are the forms in which reconciliation can take place?

The reconciliation should start from the top. The leaders must first of all reconcile and then it can trickle down to the people. There is genuine goodwill at the grassroots level. I think they've all had enough of the lawlessness, the disorder, the mayhem that we have experienced over the last 17 months, and they would like to put all this behind them and move forward, because they are the ones who are suffering. It is for the leaders to see this and then to put aside their own agenda, their own ambitions, if you like.

How should the process begin?

The initiative must be taken by the leadership. That is important because we are still a leader-driven society. Without this initiative coming from the leadership, the people on the ground would be confused. They really wouldn't know what to do, how to go about it, although they may have the will to do it.

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